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Recycling in God’s economy – Judges 13 – Facing the past

Testwood Baptist Church, Sunday December 10th 2006

 

Readings
Acts 8:26-40
Judges 13:1-5, 19-25

 

 

I wonder how many people here have seen the film Ben Hur? It used to be shown pretty much every Easter, and by an odd coincidence the best-known version was released the same year I was born. It’s probably the best-loved of all the Biblical epic films that producers used to make, and in its 4 hour length has a whole array of vivid, iconic moments that people remember. There is the sea battle with Macedonian pirates, there are the occasional but deeply moving moments where Judah Ben Hur’s life intersects that of Jesus. Indeed the original subtitle was “A Tale of the Christ” –even though the number of screen minutes our Lord gets is small, the brightness of His life shapes the whole plot and casts shadows over the lives of the other participants. And of course there’s the chariot race. The storyline of that film is a careful interweave of several people’s lives – Judah Ben Hur himself, his mother and sister, his childhood friend and subsequent enemy Messala, and of course Jesus. These different people keep being parted and then meeting again, they keep having to face up to the consequences of their own actions, or to suffer the consequences of others. They keep expecting meetings to be one thing, and they turn out to be something different. Judah meets Jesus – without knowing his identity – as a slave on the way to the galley, and then years later as a free man still locked in a prison of bitterness. Messala thinks he has condemned Judah to death but has to face him in the race. When Judah finally meets again with Messala – in the chariot race – he thinks that his revenge is the last word. But then in another re-visit he returns to his own home to discover it is abandoned and derelict, with his mother and sister now lepers, and he has to go on a different kind of journey to find healing for them.

Our main title for tonight is “Recycling in God’s economy” but I have subtitled it “Facing the Past”, since the two are deeply connected. Even in the everyday world of recycling paper or glass, what we are doing is facing up to the things we did, or others have done, in the past to our world, reconsidering choices we made previously. To recycle is to confess and own up to the past, and to use this change of heart to shape the future. So it is when God recycles things in our lives. Those of us who have taken part in Get Real this term have been looking at issues like this.

In fact tonight we’re going to look at three areas where recycling happens in our lives. We’re going to look at recycling geography, recycling history, and recycling our encounters with personalities. In the film of Ben Hur we see each of these three – a return to a place, a replay of old events, and a series of re-encounters. Now, each one of these areas can be used by God, and each one of them can be triggered by our own actions and those of other people. Sometimes this recycling is a thing God designs for us, to bring us face-to-face with some truth He wants us to grasp at a deeper level. And sometimes it is brought about by our own, unconscious choices, as we replay choices that have shaped us earlier in life. Let’s turn to the Bible.

Earlier, we heard a passage from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. It’s a well-known passage, and I suspect the most common themes that preachers pull out from it are those of Philip being obedient to God, the Ethiopian faithfully following what he did know into a whole new world he did not, or some practical pointers about how to – and how not to – set about the process of evangelisation. I’m not going to talk about any of those tonight, they are all things I am not going to recycle. Let’s hear another passage of scripture, this time from the Book of Judges… [Judges 13:1-5, 19-25]

Before we join these two passages up, let’s put in a bit of geography. The overview map [not included here] shows where Beth Shemesh is in relation to Jerusalem and Gaza. The red line shows the rough course of the Gaza road, the one which Philip was taking, and the red square shows more or less where Philistine territory ended in the days of the Judges. Beth Shemesh is in a part of Israel called the Shephelah, the lower foothills between the central hill country first occupied by the Israelites when they came into the land, and the coastal plain dominated by the Philistine cities. The larger picture is looking north from the outskirts of the modern town across the valley down which the Gaza road passes. Tsor‘ah, Manoach’s home, is ahead of us where the modern farming kibbutz is, ’Eshta‘ol is a little to the right, out of the picture. Machaneh Dan, the “Encampment of Dan” was somewhere in this valley, we don’t exactly know where. Timnah, where Samson found a Philistine woman he desired, told a riddle, and set light to the fields, is some way off down the valley to the left. The small inset picture is an aerial view of the ancient city, not exactly at the time of Samson but much the same size. Earlier this year, when we were in Israel with friends, we stood at this very place, seeing this same view, breathing the air of this valley.

Now, the announcement of Samson’s conception and birth shares a number of features with several other Biblical birth prophecies – not only had the parents not had children, but we learn from the angel’s words that they could not have children. This is quite a common Old Testament difficulty – we can think of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah for example. But typically with these birth announcements we are also told that the situation had become painful or shameful for the couple, especially – given the culture of the time – for the wife. Usually the couple seek some kind of resolution via a priest or prophet, or directly from the God who gives life. But here we have no suggestion that either Manoach or his wife were grieved by it. The words that Elisabeth read for us come out of the blue to Manoach’s wife – we are told of no prayers to God, no consultation with a priest, nothing, no action to try to redress the situation. I think we can see this state of affairs as a mirror for the situation in Israel as a nation. With most of the earlier crises we read in the book of Judges, we find not only that the people had done evil and been handed over in judgement to a foreign nation, but also that they realised the error of their ways and cried out for mercy to Yahweh. But in this case we don’t read that: it is as though they had become so demoralised they were no longer able to call for help. The people were not calling for help: Manoach and his wife were not calling for help. Of course this can happen to any of us – sometimes our situations become so crushing that we lose the ability to look for an escape route. This, perhaps, is the state that Israel was in as a nation: this perhaps is the state the couple were in personally. The situation of this couple was a mirror for the situation of the nation as a whole. This, by the way, opens up some good ways to enrich Bible reading – why has the author, why has God chosen to tell this story in this place? How do the actions of the characters reflect the wider picture of the nation? And a little more on the scary side… what part of me is like each of these people? The diverse players who populate the stage of Biblical narrative are very much like different facets of our own personality, the strong and the weak, the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad.

It is Manoach’s wife – left nameless by our narrator – who names the child Samson – in Hebrew, Shimshon, which nicely recalls his parent town, Beth Shemesh. Amongst other things, the Messenger of Yahweh indicated what kind of lifestyle the promised child should lead, quite an abstemious one in fact. Looking ahead a few chapters, we know that Samson was to break every single one of the required abstinences. There’s a rather comical air to his life in fact – he just keeps on repeating his mistakes over and over with no apparent learning process at work in him. Later on, his own clan, the Danites, would rather hand him over to their enemies than work out how to deal effectively with him themselves. His very occasional appeals for divine help – with the single exception of his final climactic prayer in the temple of Dagon – are very self-centred. All in all, he makes a very odd contrast with Saul, who was to become king at about this time, and would also spend much of his life fighting Philistines. Samson keeps ignoring God and lives a wild, reckless life – but is repeatedly helped and restored – while Saul keeps trying to do the right thing by God – and is repeatedly rejected. That’s a different sermon though: the statement I want to draw out from this account tonight is that with Samson, Yahweh was going to begin the process of liberating Israel from the hand of the Philistines. It would not be finished by him or indeed in his life, but it would begin. This man, this place, marks a starting-point. It is where something begins. It is a fresh start, which Gordon spoke of in connection with baptism three weeks ago.

What of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch? As I said before, I don’t want to focus on Philip, though he certainly makes a fine study. I want instead to concentrate on the Ethiopian – another person, funnily enough, whose name we are never told. The decision-making focuses on him. Philip has given a good message faithfully… but what was this man going to do with it? Now, this nameless Ethiopian man was a Jew, or at least a convert to Judaism. He had been in Jerusalem to worship, and was now on his way home. So, what happens here does not mark the beginning of the evangelisation of the Gentiles – that was to start a little later with Peter’s visit to Cornelius – but it does mark the beginning of the spread of the gospel outside the land of Israel. Indeed, the Christian church in Ethiopia lays claim to a very long history going back to this man as their spiritual father (and also the apostle Matthew): it traces its lineage back to these very early days after the ascension of our Lord.

You could liken this Ethiopian to Manoach’s wife. Like her, he is nameless, drawing attention to God’s promise rather than any personal details. Like her, he responded to the message of God. Like her, he had been unable to have children, though in his case because of the work of other men rather than the seeming chance of nature. Like her, he was to have children emerging from God’s word who would make a great and lasting name, though in his case spiritual rather than literal children. Like her, he was a starting-point. More than that, the place it happened was a starting-point. And where was this place – we read it earlier in Acts 8:26 – it was on the road from Jerusalem towards Gaza… the same road, the same valley where Samson lived and began the process of liberating Israel from the Philistines.

There was another thing that happened in this same place, a few years after Samson. This episode can be found in 1 Samuel chapter 6 – we’re not going to read it tonight but it is worth looking up sometime. As you may know, the war against the Philistines went quite badly at first, with military defeats and setbacks, and at one stage the Ark of the Covenant was captured and taken to the Philistine temples. The Israelite shrine at Shiloh, the main religious centre of those early days, was destroyed at the same time – although we don’t learn about this in Judges, we do read about it later in the Old Testament prophets, and archaeology confirms that it was ruined at around this point in history. Back in Judges, we learn that things went badly for the Philistines while the Ark was in their possession, with plagues and such like being recognised by their own priesthood as a punishment. So far this was starting to look like Egypt, but they proved to be wiser than Pharaoh and dispatched the Ark promptly back to Israel with gift offerings as compensation. From that time on, the central shrine would no longer be at Shiloh. The Ark rested for some twenty years in Qiryath Ye‘arim, one of the Gibe‘onite towns, and after that made its way to its more permanent home in Jerusalem. Where did the ark arrive in Israel, marking another new beginning in the life of the nation – where did that happen but along this same valley? The first reception by Israelites and the accompanying sacrifices took place in the fields in the valley below Beth Shemesh, as near as could be to the very same place where the spirit of Yahweh had begun to stir Samson.

I’m sure you see what I’m getting at here – this self-same place was reused by God over and over again, and on each occasion (whether in the Old or New Testament) was used to signal, to trigger, a fresh start, a new beginning. Something new was happening for Israel – or for the Church – and to help the lesson go home God caused it to happen in the same place. Geography is a vital part of reading the Bible, and I’d recommend to anyone as they read a passage, to look it up on a map and find out where it took place, and what else happened there. This happens so often in Scripture once you look for it – it happens in both Old and New Testaments, and in a few places – as here – is used as a link to tie together the Old with the New.

This is recycled geography – God’s reuse of the land as part of His message to people. Where something happens, and what happened at that place earlier, is a profound and important part of His overall message. When people first start reading the Bible, one of the things that often strikes them is how very many names there are in it – place names, people’s names, and so on. There’s a Simpsons’ episode where Homer for some obscure reason starts reading the Bible, and gets disillusioned on getting to all the genealogy names… about 6 or 7 pages from the start out of over a thousand! Why so many names? Why bother to tell us? Well, Biblical names have meanings, and the name captures part of the story of what happened there. Crucial events are linked with a change of name. Jacob had a vision of heaven once while he slept near a Canaanite city called Luz… and on waking renamed the place “House of El”, Beth-el. His name changed from Jacob to Israel, “a person who snatches” to “let God do the striving”. A Biblical name tells part of the story: names are important. The spirit of Yahweh stirred Samson between “The Place of Wounding” and “The Place of Pleading”, and the first Philistine place he turned attention to was “He will make a reckoning”. It’s part of the story.

Now in the Bible there are some deeply disturbing episodes alongside the uplifting ones – defeat, massacre, murder, rape – and the Bible writers did not shrink from recording these dark chapters, they are named and confessed alongside the brighter places. So it is with us. It is said by counsellors and professional therapists that human beings can bear to face almost any kind of past terror, walk through almost any dark valley of death-shadow, so long as they are able to talk about it to others. Oftentimes it is the inability to tell one’s story that is the worst load to carry. As the Israelites found and named both their valleys and mountains, their high places and fertile plains, so must we learn to do the same with the geography of our soul. In the inner landscape of your heart and mind, there are bright places and dark, there are triumphs and disasters, there are places of appalling loneliness and deep companionship; there are places of shame and places of honour. Part of our Christian walk is to identify and to name those places for what they are, to acknowledge and confess them as ingredients of who we are. Giving names to things is one of the most deeply human things we can do. Adam’s first recorded task – before he got heavily involved with tending the Garden, before he started to relate to his spouse – was to give names to the domestic animals, the birds of the sky and the animals of the wild. Speaking out the true name of something, someone, some life event, asserts our humanity and proclaims the fact that we are made in the image of God himself. Part of our developing Christian walk is to name the hidden places of our soul, to bring them into the light, however painful that task may be.

But God’s economy does not just recycle geography – we move on to history. You may well have noticed in other people how sometimes they just seem to keep on running into the same issues. Maybe they’re always getting into trouble at work, or always falling out with their neighbours, or always falling prey to the same temptations. We talked about this very thing with Samson earlier, didn’t we, how he just kept on falling for the same old things, he never seemed to recognise the same old traps being set for him. Of course, it’s always harder to admit to such failings in ourselves, isn’t it? It’s one of those things where it is so much easier to see everyone else’s specks of dust than our own great clods of clay! This is the kind of thing that people will be making New Year resolutions about in a few weeks. All of a sudden, from January 1st I won’t be doing such and such, I won’t give in to this or that. But of course, unless something more has happened than just a mental resolve, I do find myself doing so and so, I do find myself giving in. All of us have these areas of prevailing weakness, areas where if we look back over our lives we can start to see a pattern of where we get things wrong on a regular basis.

We see something of this happening in the Bible when we encounter those various occasions when people found themselves repeating some course of action. The most striking New Testament example is the apostle Peter. John’s Gospel tells us in chapter 18 how Peter denied knowing Jesus three times, gathered with others round a charcoal fire in the early morning in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house. The picture on the left [not included here] shows what is thought to be this house, with a statue set up in the courtyard to tell the story. In the background you see the Mount of Olives; to our left is the Temple area. Then in chapter 21 we see Jesus meeting Peter after his resurrection, calling out from him three affirmations of love to undo the earlier denials – and where did Jesus enact this – he called to Peter so they were gathered round a charcoal fire in the early morning. The picture on the right [not included here] shows the traditional site by the Sea of Galilee for this event. How could Peter fail to see the healing opportunity, when our Lord had gone to such trouble to recreate the setting?

But again, once you start to look out for this sort of thing it happens all over the Bible, especially in the Old Testament where we find a record of much longer spans of time. That first line we read from Judges 13… “Again the Israelites went about doing evil in the eyes of the LORD”… is a phrase that keeps recurring through the whole book, tracing each stage of a downward spiral. The patriarchal heroes Abraham and Isaac, apparently without qualm or reservation, kept handing over their wives to other men to secure self-protection. I wonder how Genesis might have read if larger parts had been written by those women? This collection of three episodes has been greatly studied, and you may come across the name “The Endangered Ancestress” – the women concerned had been prophetically called out to be mothers of the future nation, and yet their husbands, responsible for protecting them, were quite willing to place them in the path of danger when a crisis came along.

It’s easy to stand here and criticise those people – I wasn’t waiting in a threatening courtyard to see how my rabbi would fare in this crisis, I wasn’t surrounded by hostile pagan nations, I wasn’t single-handedly trying to forge an Iron Age Kingdom challenged by a better equipped and larger army, I wasn’t facing the most powerful ruler in the world and feeling exposed and vulnerable. But let’s look again at the Bible from the point of view of exposing uncomfortable facets of our own soul. There is part of me that wants to take an easy way out. Part of me wants to lie to make things convenient, part of me wants to go my own way, part of me wants to yield to despair at situations facing me, part of me wants to use other people as a human shield. I very much suspect that part of you would do that too. Part of you would lie, part of you would go your own way, part of you would yield to despair, part of you would use others. The question, the big question, is not what we might do, not what we are all too capable of doing, but what will we choose to do when the time comes? What have you and I done when these situations have arisen before? As a Christian, I have thought things, said things, done things that were wrong – not just wrong looking back with hindsight, so I can excuse myself and say I was just misinformed, but things I knew were wrong even as I chose them. I very much suspect the same is true of each of you here: “if we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The Bible speaks of itself as a mirror: sometimes we look at these weak, frail people in its pages and say, “I look just like that, God have mercy on me”.

This is recycling history: when we confront a situation and have this sense of déjà vu: I have stood here before, I have faced this before. I would suggest that quite often we find ourselves facing it again because we did not manage it well the first time round. How often does God’s plan for our lives require us to face again something that we would not, or were not able to, face adequately before? At the same time, the hidden depths of our own soul sometimes bring us full circle, back face to face with something we thought we had put behind us. So when you find yourself suddenly aware “oh no, I’m here again, I know this situation”, consider carefully – is this my own doing, or the Lord’s doing? It’s all too easy to slip into thinking something along the lines of “if this situation is nice it must be God making it happen, if it’s nasty it must be me or the enemy”. This is not how God works. In the book of the prophet Hosea we find a sudden passionate declaration from God, slipped in between all kinds of challenges and warnings.

See! Surely I will entice Israel
and lead her into the wilderness,
and I will speak into her heart.
 
I will give her her vineyards out there
and the Valley of Discord as a doorway to hope,
and she will sing there like the days of her youth,
like the day she came up out of the land of Egypt.

To fully enter into the anguish of that declaration you have to get familiar with the pain of Hosea’s own life, but that is not tonight’s story. For Israel, the wilderness, the desert, midbar in Hebrew, was a place where they had received God’s Torah, His merciful guidance for life, but they had also experienced His displeasure. A whole generation had died out there: midbar was a profoundly disturbing thing, a vast and dreadful place that evoked very mixed national and personal feelings. We still talk today about desert experiences, dry places in our lives. Yet here is their loving God, our loving God, calling them out into the wilderness again – not commanding or demanding her attendance, but enticing Israel out there, alluring her, wooing her so that He could speak into her heart, so that He could give her vineyards and a doorway to hope instead of a valley of discord, so that she could sing again like the days of her youth. Written deep into the Hebrew language is this profound paradox – the word for wilderness, midbar, brings up pictures of emptiness and loneliness, but the word itself comes from dabar – to speak, to communicate, to make words. In Hebrew, quite literally, the Word of God is hidden – and is found – in the desert.

God became man in Jesus Christ not so He could face childish tasks but challenging ones. God dignifies humanity not by tossing us toys and trivia, but by trusting us with tools and truth. So the hard things that you find yourself facing, the uncomfortable situations, the disappointment of re-facing the reality of your own abilities and character – they may well be being recycled in your life by God, the Holy One of Israel, stirring the hidden things up to the surface so you can recognise them, confess them and – perhaps this time – leave them at the cross of Christ.

Let’s go back to “The Endangered Ancestress” to see something of this in action. By the way, you may well come across critics of the Bible who will tell you that this kind of doubling-up shows weakness and confusion in the text, shows some kind of sloppy design work or compilation. Not so! These repetitions are there not because the Bible was poorly or carelessly put together, but because this is exactly how people work, this is exactly what happens to us. Look here at the progression. The first time around, in Egypt, we find Abram just giving orders to Sarai – no attempt to soften the situation, and later in the account when Pharaoh challenges him, Abram is silent and offers no apology or explanation. I imagine him at this point standing with fists clenched, sullen and defiant in refusal to answer. The second time around, in the Canaanite kingdom of Gerar, when Abraham is challenged by Abimelekh then he does offer some sort of explanation… but it’s one that pushes all the blame onto other people – this place is wicked, you people aren’t honourable – downright insulting to the king who had in fact treated him very well – and to finish with he tries very feebly to justify himself. The final time, again in Gerar, his son Isaac is at last able to recognise blame, to admit to weakness. This time we read that Isaac was afraid to admit to the true relationship, and this time when challenged he does not offer feeble excuses like Abraham – and indeed Adam – before him, but simply owns up to the king of his own fears and faults, his own sin and responsibility. So what we have here is not a bizarre story repeated three times for no good reason, but a sensitive human portrayal of how, little by little, weakness of character can be redeemed. The episodes were no doubt uncomfortable for the men concerned – deeply humiliating for their women – but God chose to let them face their discomfort several times until they learned how to repent, to change their patterns of behaviour.

I want us tonight to see the different characters that fill the pages of the Bible in three different ways. First, they were real people moving around real places a number of years ago. Secondly, they also stand for different facets of your own personality, the diverse thoughts, feelings and impulses that combine and collide in your soul, which struggle for or against the work of the Holy Spirit within you. At times you may be an inspired leader or filled with worship, someone who rescues their family or loyally supports others, someone who courageously upholds the truth or walks towards faith… but at other times you are a stubborn ruler, an envious sibling, a weak relative, a spoiled child, a parent who plays favourites, a leader who is deaf to the voices of others, a follower who betrays. Sometimes you are the Samaritan bringing help, but sometimes you are the priest or the Levite passing by on the other side. That is the second way to look at these people. But the third way I want us to look at Bible characters tonight is that they stand for people around you, who you meet on life’s journey. This is our last recycling area – recycling personalities.

Consider the Israelites as they left Egypt. They had escaped from Pharaoh, and they had come to a real sense of personal and national identity. They were no longer a mixed rabble of slaves; they were a people of purpose. They were going somewhere. And then they get to the Plains of Moab, to Mount Nebo and the outcrop at Pisgah. Here they meet another ruler, Balaq, king of Moab. I want you to put yourself in their position for a moment. Yes, they had known liberation and the ongoing work of God in their lives. Yes, they were a different group of people than when the border of Egypt had been crossed. But here they were facing another ruler, another Pharaoh if you like, and even though he was a petty ruler, a minor king, a pale shadow of the original then my guess is that it was all too easy to let the old slave mentality rise up in them. So often in these chapters on the fringes of the Promised Land we see them halting and hesitant, only half-believing what they had heard.

I expect many of you have read the Narnia books by CS Lewis, and I want particularly to think of The Silver Chair. There’s a time when the two children, Jill and Eustace, and their splendid, froggy companion Puddleglum, have been taken captive by the wicked queen, the chief architect of the problems of the age – the Pharaoh of this book, so to speak. She tries to recruit them to her side not by clever arguments, not by threats or torture, but by belittling them, by making them feel like silly ill-behaved children. It’s a brilliant picture that Lewis paints of how personalities are recycled. Jill and Eustace have tackled the harshness of the natural world, the fear of the unknown, the disappointment of seeing their own personal weakness – they have done things that most adults strive for in their own lives… but they are nearly undone by being made to feel small again. The witch tries to make them feel like naughty children standing in front of their mother, who would forgive them if only, if only they would just admit they were wrong. For those few minutes, they forget who they really are, who they have become through faith and perseverance, and they slip back into seeing themselves as little children. They lose sight of who they are: they lose sight of who she is. It’s a profoundly manipulative strategy that very nearly works.

This is the kind of thing I mean by recycling personalities. The queen in that story was not the mother of either child, but for those few terrible minutes they were seeing her in that guise. So it is for us in life often. We meet someone at work, or at church, or in life in general, and we cannot really see them for who they are – we see them as though they were some figure, some personality from earlier in our own lives. It may put them in a better light than they should be – Jill and Eustace confused a wicked witch for their mother – but more often we paint the person in front of us in a worse light than we should. We see our boss at work as though they were a demanding teacher, or a church leader as though they were a remote and uncaring parent. We see a spouse as though she or he were a toy, a child as though he or she were a rival. We replay old encounters, old conflicts, old romantic attachments with people in the here and now, often unconscious of the destruction this can cause. Ultimately this kind of recycling affects our relationship with God. As we strive to look at Him, other figures from our past stand in between, obscuring the view. In some cases they are people who have exerted positive influences over our lives – they have helped us, built us up, imparted dignity into our lives. But, life in a fallen world being what it is, more often these shadowy figures that obscure the sight of God are ones who have blighted our life through abuse or neglect, through overbearing presence or stark absence. God is not this person, He is immeasurably more exalted and unexpectedly potent than they are: He is not a tame lion. But it can be hard to see the Living God behind these shadowy figures from our past, to see the Fountain of Life behind the images we put in His place.

I hope it is clear by now that recycling is very much part of God’s self-revelation in the Bible, part of the way He likes to do things. This is also true of the story He tells us through our lives daily. Two weeks ago here we thought about recycling and the environment, about the folly of trying to ignore the discarded items of the past. So it is with the spiritual life. God reuses places, situations, people that we encounter as a means of imparting grace. He uses these things as a means of grace sometimes in order to comfort and reassure us, to bring back to mind those ways in which He has helped us, provided for us, and nurtured us in times past, and sometimes in order to confront us face-to face with issues, parts of ourselves that He wants us to change. This needs to be more than an interesting curiosity of life, more than a hobby; it needs to be something that shapes our Christian walk. God has chosen recycling – of geography, of history, of personality – as a means of imparting grace to each of us: how are we going to receive that grace as individuals, and as a community? This is part of His glory, the glory we have been exploring through these autumn months.

Let’s look at the individual response first. If God allows, or deliberately brings things back into our lives when we thought we had done with them, we need to take notice. He does not do such things for entertainment but for a purpose. If the things He brings back are peaceful and pleasing, then let us appreciate the generosity of His actions and the unparalleled mercy of His dealings with us. But if the things He brings back are disturbing or disappointing, then let us learn from them. Every one of us has shadowy places left in our souls, places where the life of Christ has barely begun to shed the light of heaven. Your recycled events may well be God’s way of offering you light in a dark place, the wind of passion in a waste of dry bones, a doorway to hope in the Valley of Discord – the Word hidden and found in the wilderness.

Each of us here in this room has these shadowy places – pride, or gossip, or impatience, or lack of faith, anger, lack of self control, disinterest in the plight of others, fear, habitual sin, and so on. Whatever your habitual point of weakness, vulnerability, it will not be sorted out by your own unaided effort. It needs the work of God, and that will normally be ministered through the body of the church. One of the great mysteries of God’s work here on earth – at least, it’s a mystery to me – is that He regularly chooses to help people not by His own perfect, sovereign action, but by the loving care of frail, imperfect sisters and brothers around us. This is the pattern we see in His son, our Lord Jesus, who on the night He was betrayed washed the feet of his disciples, saying, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet”. This is foot-washing: to lovingly work in each other’s lives so that we learn to recognise our areas of weakness, of uncleanness, and help each other to become clean. You are all servants of each other in this ministry. If we are recycling something, let us allow others to wash our feet: if our brothers and sisters are in this situation let’s be willing to wash their feet.

But this is not just a matter of personal change, which if we’re not careful can be just another form of self-centredness. No, what this is about is being better able to carry out the calling of God in our lives, being better witnesses for Him, being more fruitful. Let’s cast our minds for a few minutes back to Samson, where we began a while ago on the Gaza Road. Samson did some great things – along with some pretty stupid ones – but the stature of his life was diminished by his inability to find acceptance from his own people. Just imagine how much more fruitful Samson might have been, had his own people worked harder with him, had persevered in loving communication with him even in the wildness of his exploits. They would not wash his feet: instead they washed their hands of him and let the Philistines do the job! The Philistines were better at communicating with him than Israelites! How shameful is that? The prophecy given by the Messenger of Yahweh took into account not just Samson’s own character, not just the condition of his parents, but the state of mind of a whole community that was not at that time ready to follow a godly course of life. I wonder how different that prophecy might have been if Samson’s wider family, his people, had had a different attitude to the life of faith they had been called out of Egypt to live? It’s easy to have a bit of a laugh at Samson, at his bumbling through life in a disorganised manner, wrestling with lions, going through scrape after scrape, never really living up to all his potential – except maybe in his death. But how much of that is due to the failure of his community to seriously get to grips with their God-given duty to nurture him in his spiritual life? I said at the start that the demoralisation of Manoach and his wife was a mirror for the demoralisation of Israel – in the same way, I believe, Samson’s chaotic, charismatic and rather contrary life reflects a failure of his community to get to grips with the true calling of God’s covenant. Let’s try to do things differently here in our community.

I want to finish by recycling something I said earlier, how God reuses situations to restore us after calamity. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, his disciple and close friend Peter denied him three times, circling round a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the house of Caiaphas. After his resurrection, Jesus recycled this situation in a way that was aimed at healing Peter. On the beach, in the early Galilee morning, He brought Peter to a charcoal fire and had him three times commit himself once again to his Lord and his work. Put yourself into Peter’s heart a moment – there you are, walking up the stony beach towards that charcoal fire, aching in every part of your soul at what you have done, how you have failed. Can any of us in this room imagine that Peter liked being taken back to that charcoal fire? But the infinite grace of our Lord and Christ saw it as needful. Without that deeply painful walk, every charcoal fire that Peter saw would remind him of failure: with it, every charcoal fire would remind him of rededication. I believe God often recycles charcoal fires like this in our own paths, in my path and yours, calling us not just to set aside past hurts and sins, but also to recognise them, to confess them with His help in order to move on in His service. He calls us not to a place of denial but one of acceptance, of reconciliation. It’s not an easy road, but it is one, I believe, He calls us to travel.

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