Sunday, June 04, 2006

Malachi, the Last Prophet

Few dogs get to fulfil the purpose for which they were bred. A golden retriever will excitedly and instinctively chase a stick in a park. But as it is bounding, surely it sometimes must think, “What is the point of all this retrieving? I get the stick, I bring it back - is the world a better place?”

Humans are created to know their Creator. Though we are but clusters of atoms, we are programmed to know the designer who threaded them together. A sense of the spiritual infuses our existence. Even if we never join a church we rile at the sight of injustice and shout prayers in emergencies. In every act of kindness and compassion in every culture, we see proof that we are more than selfish custodians of genes.

Simply being alive means you have the potential to do phenomenal good and appalling evil. In sport and art we see extraordinary achievements. In war and greed we witness overwhelming depravity. Who would ever create such a species, and why are we allowed the freedom to lead inconsistent lives of glory and outrage?


When we read the bible we start to discover our creator. In the Ten Commandments we receive a manifesto for justice and no longer have to rely on an innate hunch to distinguish right from wrong. In the person of Jesus Christ we see the perfect life, God sharing our fragile humanity yet revealing his celestial glory.

God does not want us to live like house dogs, pottering around bungalows and occasionally moulting before going doddery. In revealing himself, he calls us to live in the light of his revelation - a life which fulfils the purposes for which we were created.

As Paul told the Christians in Ephesus: “[We] are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

This means it is not an evolutionary quirk that we feel compelled to act when we learn that 6,500 Africans die every day of a preventable and treatable disease. It also means it was no accident we were born into the families in the lands we grew up in.

The apostle Peter wrote: “[You] are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

Rembrandt's Peter Kneeling

But when we squeeze the toothpaste in the mornings it’s often hard to feel like a priest in a holy nation. And when we grunt greetings at spouses, children, neighbours and colleagues, it is difficult to imagine us ever declaring the praises of our creator in such a way their lives could be enriched and transformed.

Even when Christians come together to take communion, sing choruses and hear teaching, everything can seem numb. How, we ask, is any of this relevant to the world in which we flounder? We look at the pictures in children’s storybooks about the bible. If only we could have some of the excitement of Noah and his family as they boarded the Ark, or Moses and the Israelites when they abandoned a plague-ridden Egypt for the promised land. It would be so much easier to be a “believer” if we lived at a time when God smote evildoers and spoke in a loud voice. Why is he so quiet today?

These moans aren’t unique to 21st century Christians living in the West. In fact, they echoed in the ears of the prophets who wrote books like Malachi.

There are strong hints that the book of Malachi was written after the Jews had been allowed to return to Jerusalem, their holy city, following many years spent in exile in the Persian empire. The longing to come “home” pulses in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
When we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps
For there our captors asked us for songs...

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
While in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
My my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
If I do not remember you...

The return to Jerusalem seemed a miracle, but disappointment quickly seeped through the euphoria. The geographical exile was over, but a spiritual one seemed to continue. God appeared distant, dissatisfied with their sacrifices. When families trekked to the home of their fathers they believed they would enter a world where righteousness reigned. Instead, the selfish continued to be selfish, the meek still got stepped on, and the thirst to know their creator burned on.

It is into this world, one as spiritually barren as our own, that God sent the message of Malachi. The name Malachi means “My Messenger”. In this book God addresses the groanings of a discontented heart with a frankness which remains startling. God reveals the glory for which we were created, and shows us how to live in the relationship with him we profess to desire.

Positioned at the very end of the Old Testament, in every sense in anticipates the coming of Jesus and the example he would give. Its thundering admonitions can still be heard in the epistles. Its rhythms beat from Genesis to Revelation.

It served as a rebuke to the corrupt priests in Jerusalem at the time of writing, and it is a searing exhortation for today’s priests - the men and women who constitute the church - to grasp and live up to the wonder of their calling.

The royal priesthood of Israel were the descendants of Levi. They were the only people allowed to draw close into the presence of God.

God declares in verses five and six of chapter two: “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and righteousness and turned many from sin.”

There are echoes here of walking with God in Eden. The Fall of Adam tore the Creator and his creation apart, but in the priesthood a handful of humans began to lead lives which hinted at the intimacy the world might once have known.

Priests are at the vanguard of a revolution. Paul told the Romans: “[He] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

As estrangement from God ends, so does estrangement with each other. Peace and righteousness break out. As people turn from sin, they turn to the needs of one another. But just as the serpent sowed chaos in Eden, even the most religious people are capable of giving into temptation, of chasing opportunities for personal wealth and exploiting the most vulnerable in their care. If a priest is now someone who leads people into the presence of God, there is the real danger we can also become anti-priests.

God declares in 2:7-9: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction - because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble, you have violated the covenant with Levi.”

He tells the priests to “set your heart to honour my name”. In today’s language we talk about setting a video to record a television, or setting a radio to pick up a station - it may be a helpful analogy.

We come to church on Sunday mornings and remember Christ’s death and resurrection when we take bread and wine. We affirm that this is the central moment in history, when God changed the rules of the game. Instead of us trying to win his pleasure with good deeds and sacrifices, his son paid the ultimate sacrifice by dying for our sins.

When we are in the company of Christians, this defines us. But during the rest of the week, what is our default position? Do we concentrate every ounce of our energies on getting the cash to pay bills, educate kids, fix the car and stop the leak in the roof?

It takes faith and work to set our hearts to honouring God in the midst of this mayhem. Paul wrote in Philippians 3: “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”

Every baptism is the raising of a flag which testifies to the existence of the kingdom of Christ which is breaking into this world. It is the announcement that a new person is pressing on to take hold of that for which Jesus took hold of him or her.

It is easier to run a marathon in the company of others, helping one another keep pace. It is important that anyone who wants to play a role in building this kingdom does not try to do so alone, but pushes on towards this goal in the company of other Christians. But just as each individual athlete needs to train religiously to run a marathon, so we need to ultimately keep our eyes fixed on a living Christ if we are not to stumble.

If our measure of the reality of God’s work in the world is simply the lives of the Christians who surround us we are bound to be disappointed. Well-intentioned men and women end up doing monstrous things in the name of religion.

When God looked down at the corruption in the temple he declared: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you... and I will accept no offerings from your hands!”

Instead of sacrificing the best of what they had, the priests were slaying only crippled and diseased animals. Religion had become tokenistic. Did the families who brought such sacrifices really believe they were approaching the creator of the universe?

God observes: “Try offering them to your governor [a Persian term]! Would he be pleased with you?”

Somehow, daily eating and drinking had become more real to the returned exiles than the creator whom they believed lived in Zion. Secular life seemed to matter more than the invisible world of the supposedly eternal.

This provokes God to fury. He and his message are intimately concerned with the everyday experiences of his creations. The Levitical laws with their precise details on diet and morality demonstrate how important it is to God his people’s lives lead to peace and righteousness.

And this is why God is so determined that his people acknowledge his lordship. People who do not fear him - who do not live their lives in a constant acknowledgement of his existence - will become destroyers of peace.

In 3:5 we read: “I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me...”

One way of disciplining oneself to think and live in the light of God is to give real money and real goods and real time to him. If we truly want God to be a bigger priority to us than the selfish ambitions which hum during waking hours, we can consciously give him a bigger share of our resources.

It was probably worries about putting food on the table which prompted people to give such lousy sacrifices. Fear of failing crops sent the Israelites running to give offerings to idols.

God’s response is this (3:10): “‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land...’”

At this moment in history, many of the richest countries in the world are democracies filled with Christians. A constant lament is that the church in the West has gone stale, that apathy reigns, and evangelism seems futile.

When we drive past shutdown churches, do we feel like we live in a time of exile? As it says in 2:13: “You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them pleasure from your hands.”

We live at a time when the lion’s share of the world’s new Christians are found in the developing world, in societies broken with war and disease. The rich nations sell the weapons which bring death, haggle over the drugs and aid which could bring healing and life, and close our markets to their trade that could translate into livelihood.

Do we “defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice”? If we lived sacrificially, and called on our elected representatives to give a tithe out of our national wealth, might we be surprised at the blessings we could see?

The apostle James declares: “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”

If we, as priests, are charged with preserving knowledge, it is vital we proclaim the message of Malachi, God’s messenger, at this time.

Eugene Peterson “Malachi creates a crisis at a time when we are unaware of crisis. He wakes us up to the crisis of God during the times when the only thing we are concerned with is us. He keeps us on our toes, listening to God, waiting in anticipation for God, ready to respond to God, who is always coming to us.”

At the end of chapter two, there is the following exchange:

“You have wearied the Lord with your words.
‘How have we wearied him?’ you ask.
By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them,’ or, ‘Where is the God of justice?’”

And in chapter three:

“’You have said harsh things against me,’ says the Lord.
‘Yet you ask, What have we said against you?
‘You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.’”

Just as a scurrying under the floorboards is a sign that a house has a rodent infestation, such comments are a danger sign in the church. They suggest that believer’s faith in a personal God who acts in time and space on behalf of his loved ones is being replaced by an idea of a vague deity who embodies abstract concepts of justice but cannot enforce his principles.

God responds to these sighs by reaching down and grabbing the narrator, lifting him up into the realms of the real and eternal - a hive of celestial activity.

We read: “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name. ‘They will be mine,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’”

We are God’s treasured possessions! We, as created beings, are already of more value to our Creator than anything we can make or sell. When we were lost he considered us worth redeeming at a price of immeasurable pain. Let us now strive to set our hearts to honour his name.

Just as James told his readers, “Come near to God and he will come near to you,” Malachi 3:7 has the fantastic promise “Return to me and I will return to you”. A turning, a decision to change trajectory - a repentance - is needed in every generation. But in every era, the promise of an end to exile remains.

Meeting Samson Again for the First Time

If the story of the fighting Nazarite were a piece of architecture, it would be the Tower of London: a place to take the kids and wow with them with the gore-creating weaponry on a school holiday. Not somewhere to pop into before going to work, and definitely no sanctuary to retire to in the evening.

It's our loss. Samson is the Beowulf of Judeo-Christianity. Not simply because both narratives concern the adventures of a warrior who is finally beaten by a force greater than any man, but because so much of the language of the Bible and the archetypes found in its holy stories spring from these three short chapters.

If we don't regularly return to the story of Samson we can't spot the allusions to it in the rest of the Bible, or even claim to have an accurate understanding of the tale's key events and messages. In fact, the version of the story that most well-churched Christians remember is as likely to come from Jeremy Hypezeigger's Colourful Tales for Growing Kids than from a translation of the original text.

If you do return to Samson, prepare to be shocked when some of your most fondly remembered moments are found to be absent. Samson doesn't tell the boy who leads him up to the pillars to run for his life. No, the evidence suggests that he's flattened in the destruction which follows.

(An aside: Why is Samson known as the most successful newspaper humourist in the Bible? They gave him two columns and he brought the house down.)

But there's fascinating detail in the story, too, that we’ve probably missed. The text displays an awareness of the dangers of foetal alcohol syndrome when the angel warns Samson's mother to eschew liquor during his gestation period. Also, how many people were aware that Samson ruled the Israelites as a Judge for 20 years? The character we encounter in the Bible is not a slightly less hairy cousin of King Kong, but a man of considerable intelligence with a tragically insatiable ego.

The world of the Judges is a place of uncertain borders, shifting alliances, prophets, freaks, despots and dreamers. Samson lives in a terrain that shimmers with the same God-haunted shadows and sense of dread as Flannery O'Connor American South - a land of loyalties and passions that can both inspire holiness and murder.

Samson is the Elvis of the Old Testament; the icon who loves his God and his country, shocks and enthrals both his friends and enemies, and yet slides into the jump-suit and drugs phase of decrepitude while living in a mansion called "Graceland".

The Hebrews of Samson's time could identify well with the blacks of the segregated South. In Samson’s time the Philistines people ruled the Hebrews with not so much an iron hand as one arrayed with jewels. The idea of being able to fight against a people of comparatively stratospheric technology and taste seems absurd. One would have to be crazy to try and match them in repartee, never mind combat.

At such a time, perhaps, a crazy person is who’s needed.

When the angel of the Lord appears to Samson’s mother, he doesn't make any promises that her son with establish a fair and just society, or even that he will one day have a comfortable pension fund. No, he gives her a prophecy that is ominous in its brevity.

He "shall begin to" rout the Philistines from the land. Those three words sum up the raison d'être of her son's existence in space and time. And so the shadows already begin to edge across the page.

Christian readers may be remembering John the Baptist - another man with a glorious assignment, who fulfilled his mission with honours yet ended his life in the company of a drunken king and a girl called Salome. The story of Samson doesn't shy away from this messy struggle between the earthy profane and the terrifying brilliance of the sacred. The angel who visits Samson's mother doesn't easily fit into either category.

Samson’s father immediately seeks to find a name for this mysterious figure. He wants to "get a handle" on the uncanny. The relationship between Manoah and his wife is perhaps the most neglected element of the narrative. It is tender, sometimes funny, and sad. The way they deal with the perplexities of an encounter with the spiritual contrasts with other stories of extraordinary births (Joseph & Mary, Samuel's parents....). The most beautiful comparison the author draws, though, is with a deeper, more ancient record: Adam & Eve.

When the angel reappears, Samson's mother is alone in a field. Here we have an inversion of Eve's encounter with the Serpent. This time, the angel, the voice of God speaks truth and not lies. The angel is doing his job, acting as a servant of God and 4 not, as the Serpent did, as a rival. The results of the Fall are evident in the locale that the message is delivered. She is standing in a field. Fields were invented with the advent of agriculture, the taming of nature. Rather than evil coming into a verdant garden, the beauty of truth steps into a harsh and oppressed universe.

The duty falls upon the mother to convince her husband that the angel is in the field. Her trusting husband doesn't assume that his wife is delusional but drops whatever he's doing and runs, as Peter did to the tomb, to where the mysterious messenger is standing. There is something of the divine about him. He uses the phrase "I am" in response to a question, and Manoah grows more curious, and more desperate to identify him. Perhaps smiling at their bewilderment, the angel replies with a sensational flair for the enigmatic, "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is

The obsession with finding a name - a signifier - for the incredible parallels Adam's naming of the animals. But Manoah's actions also mirror those that Peter will take a thousand-odd years later. He suggests that they take advantage of the meeting, settle down and barbecue a lamb. The angel applauds the gesture but suggests they offer a sacrifice to God instead. Manoah agrees, and his obedience leads to a spectacular encounter with the bona fide no-other-way-to-explain-it supernatural.

Boom! The angel soars to heaven in the flames. With the visceral judgement of a skilled film director, the writer lingers in the scene to show the beautiful response of the two human beings. Manoah is in a panic as his synapses crackle with unearthly information.

”We're going to die,” he assumes, probably waving both hands in the air. His wife is the balm on his furrowed brow, displaying the quality of their relationship and her intellect. Using logic, she eliminates that possibility and takes him home. Normal life returns.

Samson's infatuation with the non-Hebrew girl is a puzzle. The event distresses his parents (who have undoubtedly looked up at the sky every day for the past couple of decade for any sign of their angelic acquaintance). We are told, though, that they "did not know that it was from the Lord". Did God inspire an unrighteous relationship? Are we to disregard any moral choices, bad or otherwise that Samson appears to take? Did he have any free will in the execution of his outrages? This is a problem that recurs through Scripture, from the hardening of the Pharoah's heart to the giving over of Judas to darkness. If there is an easy answer to this paradox, I haven't found it.

Samson’s subsequent encounter with "the young lion" is the stuff of Sunday School Crayola fests. The roaring prince of the beasts could also serve as a mirror of Samson himself. Interestingly, it is the Holy Spirit that empowers Samson to slay his pponent, and not his agility or physique. In fact, although Samson wanders through Amalekite land (the race of giants spawned by the mysterious Nephlimn) there is no mention of him having a gargantuan frame. For all we know, which isn't very much, regular everyday Samson may have been Clark Kent to warrior Samson's Superman.

In this early display of strength, there are already seeds of trouble planted in the prose. Why is Samson wandering around alien-occupied vineyards? As a Nazarite forbidden to sip alcohol, this is akin to Trappist monk hanging out at a karaoke contest?

Perhaps the lion's attack was a warning? Something sent to make him jump? Alas, all it seems to give our hero (and he is a hero, a perfect example of an Aristotelian flawed warrior; complete with crucial weakness, Achilles-style) a powerful taste for danger. Samson enjoys returning to this place of all good things. Though he can't taste the wine of this promised land, surely he can enjoy the honey? The Edenic imagery returns when Samson brings back a motherlode of honey to his parents. This is a decidedly non-Kosher variety, seized from a hive found in the decayed carcass of the long-since-slain lion. Eve's giving Adam forbidden fruit has been used to justify male chauvinism for aeons; here, Samson, the apotheosis of the macho-aesthetic, repeats the act.

Samson's flirtation with the forbidden betrays an arrogance and a lack of respect for anyone's life. His wedding-day becomes an opportunity to humiliate his in-laws with a riddle that, if solved, would also reveal to his parents precisely where that honey came from. Faced with bankruptcy due to exorbitant nature of the wager that Samson has raised, his new-relations coax the solution to the riddle out of Samson's new-wife. Outraged when he discovers she has saved her family from financial ruin, Samson publicly compares her to a heifer and storms off. His best man is left in one of the most awkward situations since records began and accepts Mrs Samson as his wife. To pay off the bet and restore his hammered ego, Samson kills 30 men and plunders their possessions. His pride is further assaulted at the discovery of his companion's marriage to his wife.

The subsequent orgy of violence features the lynching of both the young girl and her father by their peers. It's an awful hurricane of destruction that shatters the lives of everyone in its path. During its terrible reign over the vicinity, an exhausted Samson does mutter something about a desire "to quit" (v.9) but his pride propels him deeper into his killing spree.

His personal vendettas drag him into the realm of the political. His own countrymen bind him and hand him over to the Philistines. Very few people in history truly appreciate violent revolutionaries who claim to represent their interests. That's why it was such a surprise when the Jews chose Barabbas over Jesus when Pilate offered them either prisoner. Though Samson is guilty of a multitude of transgressions, it is at this point in the narrative that his miserable, wanton, life gains a new significance.

That the ropes binding Samson are broken and that he kills the recently jeering Philistines is no surprise. Note, though, that it is not Samson's innate strength that is credited with breaking the bonds that held him. Rather, the text implies that they disintegrated. His release is thus a supernatural event; as miraculous as the splitting of the earth and the revealing of a spring that quenches the thirst of the battle-weary Samson.

God's blessing is evidently on Samson. The warrior now rules the land for 20 years. There is no mention of violence. Peace, it appears, has arrived. Such are the perfect conditions for legends to form.

The hill where the Philistines were butchered is named after the jaw- bone of the ass that Samson used as his weapon. In this era of prosperity and fame, Samson discovers political power. At such glorious heights, the oxygen seems to thin, and Samson begins to buy into his own mythology. The fall comes swift. A prostitute is scarcely a rare sight on the streets of Gaza, nor does such a woman represent a personal conquest for a man of Samson's prestige. But he sees her and lust takes its rapid course.

The people of Gaza have not grown as lackadaisical as Samson. They know the legends that have circulated for two decades, and are only too aware of his presence in their town. The fact that he is with one of their woman presents them with an opportunity to neutralise a human weapon of mass destruction.

Samson shrugs off the shame of fornication by tearing off the giant city gates and carrying them off. The town is humiliated but alert. Samson is unhurt but his ego – like the gates – is now unhinged.

The final act of Samson's life is as great a part of popular mythology as his reputation was in his own day. It's also just as confused. The story of Samson and Delilah is a reproduction of his parent's relationship, except all that was golden in the older couple's lives is replaced with the desperate and the decayed. To portray Samson as a lustful hedonist is to reduce him to a caricature and to do an injustice to the story. The writer wants to return to the idea of trust.

All that follows is an exploration of this most fragile aspect of love, carried out in one of the most violent of the Bible's stories. Samson loved Delilah. Delilah is not the prostitute he seizes in the heat of a Palestine afternoon, nor the trophy wife he throws aside in the name of pride. Yes, she is a Philistine, but, no, she is not a pathological temptress.

Eden's imagery blows back into the text as she, herself, is tempted. The Philistine grandees ply her with offers of cash for the man she is wedded to. The passage echoes, of course, the twisting of Judas from a disciple to traitor. It is a record of the corrupting power of greed, but the subsequent sequence of events documents the complexities of human relationships. Samson awakes bound in bow-strings and ropes. Surely he realises his wife must have been involved in these attempts on his life?

Had he abandoned his Nazarite vows and got drunk when she asked him to identify his sole weakness while he is rolling in a merry stupor? Perhaps not. More probably, Samson is so possessed with love for Delilah that he practices negative hallucination and refuses to acknowledge the nefarious mechanics at work in the world around him.

For Delilah, the text suggests that money is no longer the impetus for her quest for her husband's weakness. His lies are humiliating her in the eyes of her peers, and also proving that he does not trust her. She has the affection of the Bible's most famous warrior - a man whom, we are told, will fall asleep in her lap - but she does not have his trust.

The pain that this brings to her stems from the fact that it proves he will not surrender his pride, his ego, his identity to her. In such relationships, a partner can urge the other to humiliate themselves as proof of their love: To say, "I will make myself nothing" for you.

Martin Scorsese's film "Life Lessons" features an ageing but esteemed artist whose young Muse threatens to abandon him and his self-importance unless he kisses a policeman. Delilah has captured the heart of Samson. Will he surrender his very life to her?

Samson's "soul was vexed to death" by her tear-soaked demands that she tell him the secret of his strength. Perhaps with his head between his mighty hands, he tells her that he is powerless if his seven great locks are shorn from his head.

Seven locks. The traditional picture of Samson is of a wild-haired man whose mane is as tangled as his personality. But here the writer gives us a new picture. A figure emerges who has the regal dignity of Bob Marley.

We look back at Samson as Delilah strokes these locks, the most famous hair in the world. At a Sikh Temple I once visited a beautifully engaging woman told us human strength is found in the hair. She stroked her own as a gesture and said, "Remember

But maybe we've got it all wrong. There's no explicit evidence in the text that Samson’s power as found in what grew out of his skull. Throughout his life, it was the Holy Spirit that flared through his body and God surrounded his days on Earth with the miraculous. Why did he never cut his hair? Because he was a Nazarite.

Samson didn't choose this ascetic lifestyle. It may have been a hunger for self-determination that led him to commit his excesses. But, as a ruler of the Hebrews for 20 years, he kept his long hair as a sign of his calling. In letting his wife arrange for a man to come and shave his head, he was finally letting go of God and naming her as the sovereign of his life.

The text describes Samson's strength leaving him as she tormented him, not when the razor cut across his scalp. Previously, Samson was a sinner who had been given the privilege of a relationship with a God of justice and mercy. But now, "the LORD had left him". Once Samson had enjoyed fame for destroying Philistine food by tying foxes together and setting their tails on fire in a field of corn. Now Samson is forced to do an animal's chore. He performs an ox's job of working a mill; transforming corn he would have once destroyed into bread for the glitterati of a civilisation once again dominant in the land.

The situation is as ludicrous as Saddam Hussein working as a Kuwaiti pipe-line polisher. Here, though, Samson is blind. His eyes are gouged out; all is darkness except his memories. What does he think as the images of his great and terrible life splinter through his mind? The women. The murders. The thefts. Does he pray for forgiveness?

Traditionally, the Samson who stands with his arms outstretched between two pillars is a repentant one. When he pushes at these supports, a rooftop on which 3,000 Philistines are revelling comes crashing down on the banqueters beneath. Has a noble and repentant hero made the ultimate sacrifice? The Bible suggests that Samson was driven primarily driven by revenge. He prays that at least one of his eyes may be avenged, and in the following act of destruction Philistine cultural and political domination is shattered. The angel's prophecy has been proved correct. Samson's life has led to the beginning of the ending of their age. Hope is found in these final verses, despite the death of each and every actor. Samson's hair may have grown back, but he doesn't trust in this physical feature for any strength. Instead, he asks God for a miracle.

It is this faith that enables him to answer the calling to which he was born. Like Job, his sufferings have led him to call on the name of the LORD. But more beautiful than this final submission is the hope that the Christian reader finds in this most visceral of episodes. Samson stands in the same pose as we picture a man nailed to a tree. The death of Jesus also heralded the end to one kingdom. But now, in the midst of rubble and rainbows, we can rejoice in the one which is here and yet also to come.

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Tangled Up in Cults

The church is a many splendoured thing. Its diversity is as colourful and surprising as the human beings whom the Holy Spirit has brought together.

The name of Jesus can be praised in any language, with any instrument to any rhythm in any time zone. God has given this throng of redeemed sinners the task of going out into every nation and making disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey the teachings of Jesus.

This is an incredible commission. In this process we immediately come into contact with people of different religions. We shouldn’t be surprised that people who have never held a bible still feel amazed at the sacred, appalled by sin and in need of salvation.

Paul tells us at the start of his letter to the Romans: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

The message of Christ is one of liberation - that the God we instinctively fear in fact loves us and sent his own son to die to break down the barriers that kept us from him. But one of the tragic quirks of the church is we periodically bind ourselves in chains once again.

We complicate this simple proclamation of freedom with new rules and bizarre mythology. Instead of building a church that strives to be united in love, we plant competing cults.

There are two key characteristics of a cult. One is that they promise closer access to God - a secret truth about which the rest of the world and the church is woefully ignorant. The second is instead of being a blessing to the world they turn inwards, shunning contact with outsiders as they follow their own rules and regulations.

We should not be surprised that this happens. One of the most spectacular moments in the Old Testament - and history - is when God meets Moses on Mount Sinai and gives him the tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments. In the time it takes Moses to climb the mountain, the Israelites decide to abandon his leadership and worship a golden cow instead.

To celebrate their new deity they stage a mass orgy. Bad theology and bad lifestyles often go together. But it’s also possible to score great marks in one category and be disastrous in the other. The reformers talked about the importance of matching orthodoxy with orthopraxy - literally, right practice.

In Revelation chapter 2, John has a vision of the resurrected Jesus in which he dictates a message to the Christians in Ephesus. He praises them for identifying false preachers and persevering, but then gives the stern warning: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.”

When we think and talk about cults its easy to get distracted by tales of wild beliefs about space battles and vanished empires, but at heart what is happening is that people are being led away from an adventure of true cosmic significance. Cults may promise to bring people hidden knowledge, but God reveals himself when we follow him as he redeems the world he loves.

Jesus himself declared in Luke 8: “No-one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”

A church filled with the Holy Spirit is filled with a deep joy. It is the rejoicing that happens when humans begin to know fellowship with their Creator. When take place, a fear of accidentally sinning and displeasing a vengeful God is replaced with a new delight in the wonders of his creation.

Jesus said in John 10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

And Paul, writing in his first letter to Timothy, a young Christian leaders, said, “The spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come though hypocritical liars whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

We associate sinfulness with hedonism and self-indulgence, but the church is constant danger of having its joy snuffed out. The adversaries of God would like nothing more than for congregations to consist of fearful men and women, wracked with guilt, sitting in cold buildings doubting that their sins are forgiven.

A paramount task of a church leader is to help his flock “grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge”.

Fulfilling this calling requires vigilance. We read in Acts 20 that when Paul said goodbye to the elders of Ephesus he told them: “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number, men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard.”

Leaders have the task of protecting the individuals who make up the body of Christ on earth. But unlike so many religions, they do not have special access to God and his revelation which sets them apart from the rest of the congregation. Rather, everyone who accepts the message of Jesus is united by the indwelling Holy Spirit. In short, a roomful of Christians is a roomful of priests.

The apostle Peter wrote: “[You] are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” God created the concept of a priest when he chose Levi and his descendents as the Israelites who could draw close into his presence.

He explains in verses five and six of Malachi chapter two: “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and righteousness and turned many from sin.”

There are echoes here of walking with God in Eden. The Fall of Adam tore the Creator and his creation apart, but in the priesthood a handful of humans began to lead lives which hinted at the intimacy the world might once have known.

Today the invitation to join this priesthood has been thrown open to the world. This is a message more exciting than any offered by any cult. No neo-guru could dream up so fantastic a proclamation.

When Christians gather together an event takes place as amazing as the one which happened on the summit of Sinai. Where just two or three gather in the name of Jesus, he comes to join them.

Just as Levi and his descendents witnessed to God’s revelation in times of plenty and days of famine, in eras of war and ages of peace, so, too, we are entrusted with a mission of honour and urgency.

Paul told the Romans: “[He] has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

What are the duties that God requires of his new priesthood? What rites and ritual does he ask us to perform? How does he want his dress and where does he wish us to worship? What type of building should we put up?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The simplicity of this instruction is devastating and beautiful. We’re not asked to wear a special talisman, smoke a mystic herb or travel to a destination. Instead, we are told to do something much more difficult: love.

Enlightenment and a place in the next life do not come through entering a trance or living the life of a hermit. Quite the opposite.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats... Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me... I tell you the truth whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

If we want to see God’s power up close, we should go to where he is working. Priests are not pious folk hidden from the world behind heavy doors. They are at the vanguard of a revolution.

As estrangement from God ends, so does estrangement with each other. Peace and righteousness break out. As people turn from sin, they turn to the needs of one another. But just as the serpent sowed chaos in Eden, even the most religious people are capable of giving into temptation, of chasing opportunities for personal wealth and exploiting the most vulnerable in their care. If a priest is now someone who leads people into the presence of God, there is the real danger that through our selfish stupidity we can become anti-priests.

A third mark of most cults is a founder whose is idealised and glorified. Even congregations which have splendid statements of faith can be shipwrecked by autocratic bullies who start to legislate about the minute details of their followers lives. How can we avoid such pitfalls?

As ever, Jesus has brilliant advice. In Matthew 20 he tells the disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus fastidiously avoided the trappings of religious office. He had no time for grand titles of outlandish costumes. When a rich young man addressed him as “good teacher” in Mark 10 he retorted: “Why do you call me good? No-one is good except God alone.”

In one of his last acts before the crucifixion he washed the feet of his disciples - the same feet with which they would run away from him that same night.

He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now if you know these things you will be blessed if you do them.”

The wisdom of Jesus is greater than the most complex management theory. He understands our weaknesses in every nuance, and knows that no acid can corrupt or corrode like power and pride.

CS Lewis writes: “Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.”

In Malachi, God tells the priests: ”[Set] your heart to honour my name”. How can we do this? Prayer and meditation play a huge part, but so do practical steps to avoiding the temptations of wealth and adulation that can distract our attention from the true author of our lives.

Jesus’ advice to the rich young man was to sell everything he had and give it to the poor. James would later write: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

If a congregation commits with passion to following such a faith it is unlikely to mutate into a cult. Instead, the dreams buried deep in the hearts of humans - the God-planted longing for true liberty and fraternity - might just begin to bear fruit.

As the writer of Hebrews said, “[Let] us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus...”

If we have the chance to see Jesus, where else would we want to look?