The Upside Down Kingdom
*The following is my manuscript that I used for a message delivered to the opening worship of Family Camp at Bayshore Camp. Based on [Judges 13-16 and Matthew 5.*
Good evening - well I am just so excited to be here to share God’s word with you tonight. So here’s what we’re going to do - we’re going to start with Jesus, we’re going to head back to the Old Testament for a crazy story, and then we’ll circle back to Jesus once more. I’m going to be in Judges chapters 13-16, and Matthew 5, if you want to keep your finger in one spot to flip back and forth - if you’re following along in your bible or on your phone. I’m going to be using the New Living Translation - it’s just one of many fantastic translations, and their priority when they were translating was reader comprehension. They wanted to make it easy to understand - so if you’re translation is a bit different, that’s okay - hopefully it will still be easy to follow along. Tonight we are going to take a few minutes and examine God’s upside-down kingdom.
See one of my favorite things about the teachings of Jesus was that he had a habit of taking the world that was in front of him and turning it upside down on its head. In Matthew 5, it’s the sermon on the mount - the most famous sermon Jesus ever preached he would use this phrase over and over, it would go like this. Jesus would say, “you have heard it said…”, “but I say to you…” “You have heard it said…. But I say to you…” Now he wasn’t changing the law, but he was taking old familiar concepts and trying to show people what they were missing, the heart of the issue. Most of the time he was closing legalism loopholes. Verse 21 he does it with anger, “You have heard it said, “don’t murder each other” - you’ve heard that, right? “But I say to you… “if you are angry with them, and you call them an idiot and you curse them - you’re in danger.” Verse 23, check this out, [read v.23-24]. Maybe you didn’t technically kill anybody - “you have heard it said”, but Jesus wants more than that. “But I say to you…if you’re angry, leave your sacrifice, go and seek reconciliation.” Verse 27 he does it with adultery, verse 31 he does it with divorce, verse 33 he does it with vows. Verse 38 he does it with Revenge. Verse 43 he does it with love of enemies. “You have heard it said… But I say to you.” You know what, let’s turn that into a call and response. I’ll say, “you have heard it said..” And you say, “But I say to you.” “You have heard it said…” (But I say to you..) You have heard it said… (But I say to you) Good, you’re getting it. This is the way Jesus takes what the world is used to and flips it on it’s head. Okay, so keep that upside down kingdom in your mind, and now we’re ready for the book of Judges.
Back when I was in college, I lived my first two years in the dormitories. I went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids. It was a fantastic school, I met my wife there - got a great education. And the way the dorms are set up, they have a boys wing and a girls wing, with a common area in the middle. I lived in a dorm called Bolt-Heinz-Timmer, BHT, and the boys side was called Bolt. And during hat time I got into a little bit of a prank war. I’m going to date myself a little bit here, but when I was in college there was a TV show called The Office that was coming out, and one of the best parts of that TV show was the prank war between two characters named Jim and Dwight. Dwight was really obnoxious, and Jim would pull this fantastic pranks on Dwight. In the very first episode, Jim puts Dwight’s stapler in a giant mold of Jello. And so.. inspired by this TV show, I got into a bit of a prank war with some girls on the other side of the Dormitory. I wanted to be very clear - they started it. My sophomore year I got a job in the coffee shop on campus, it was called the Fish House. College campus, you’d think it was called the Fish House because of the Jesus Fish - but NO. They called it the Fish House, because it was a nasty basement that smelled like Fish before they renovated it. I was a barista at the Fish House. And one day, during my shift - I was standing there, innocent as a dove, the very picture of hardworking holiness - and my friends delivered to me a MASSIVE plate of jello. And inside the jello were my flip flops. They put my flip flops in Jello.
So to get back at them, I did a prank called cupping. If you’ve never heard of this, “Cupping” is where you take dozens of plastic cups and you staple them together in the shape of a picture or a word. You take the cups that have all been stapled together and put them somewhere inconvenient, like in the middle of a dorm room, and then you fill all the cups with water. It’s hard to clean up, because once the water is inside - they’re too heavy and you can’t pick up the cups. But if you try to separate the cups, the staples tear the plastic and you get water everywhere. So I took the cups and made two giant letter J’s stapled together and put it in their dorm room. The prank war had begun. The pranks continued all semester. At one point they toilet-papered my bed. I’m sure many of you have heard of toilet papering - which is a prank where you take toilet paper and cover the trees in someone’s yard. (Parents/Counselors - do me a favor and make sure your kiddos are NOT taking notes). You normally toilet paper someone’s yard, I didn’t have a yard - so they toilet papered my bed. And it was terrible because I had just gotten back really late that night, only to find my bed mummified by toilet paper.
Some pranks were simple - like leaning a trash can filled with water up against the door to their room. Or sometimes we would toothpick one another. If you’ve never heard of that, which I’m sure you haven’t because you’re all good Christian people who would never pull pranks. Toothpicking is where you scatter toothpicks all over someone’s room - because toothpicks have to be picked up by hand, you can’t vacuum up toothpicks. One time we filled up someone’s room with balloons for their birthday, and then stretched sedan wrap over the door so they would walk into it. Other pranks were more complex, more elaborate. For example, at the peak of the prank war, I went all out. My friends were going to be out all night at the movies - and so I and a few helpers disassembled their beds and their desks and we put them back together on the roof. They come home to an empty room - with their beds and desks set up (and wired) on the roof. In February.And then, probably my favorite part - we filled their shower with snow. We just packed the shower, floor to ceiling with snow.
Now, I love a good prank, but there was always a set of rules. We want pranks to be annoying, but not destructive. We never wanted to actually hurt anyone or break anything. It was all meant to be good natured fun. Someone pranks you, and you would respond with an equal or greater prank. Cause and effect. But here’s the thing - prank wars are exhausting. It’s fun to pull off a great prank, but then you live in fear of when revenge is coming for you. And after months of the back and forth, back and forth - you’re burned out. It stops being fun and you just want it to stop but you can’t figure out how because it's this vicious cycle. Eventually you realize, the only way to stop a prank war, is to just stop. The only way to stop is to stop. In the church we call that forgiveness, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive into the book of Judges.
We all know that old phrase, “an eye for an eye, makes the whole world blind” - well I’m pretty sure they were talking bout Samson. If you’ve never heard the story, Samson was a judge in Israel. Now, I know I know - when we think of judges in the modern world, we usually think about an old guy in a robe with a gavel, but in Ancient Israel that word “judge” was more of a “warrior-hero-temporary ruler.” After Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt, you remember that story - right? After Egypt, but BEFORE they had Kings - they had judges. There are twelve judges of Israel. We might remember Moses and Joshua - but after those guys, Israel didn’t have a leader. It was a really confusing time for the people, with a lot of fighting, and there were times when they needed a hero, a judge to step forward and save them. Samson was to be the twelfth and final judge for Israel. Because after Samson - Israel realized they needed a king.
Now a lot of people know pieces of the story of Samson, and it is always told with Samson being the hero. But tonight I want to tell you a very different story. Our story starts with an action scene. A lion jumps out of a vineyard where Samson is walking, and Samson tears the lion apart with his bare hands. I should back up a little bit. Samson is blessed with super human strength, as long as he follows this set of rules that his parents were given. There were certain foods that were forbidden to the mom, and they could never cut his hair. If you cut his hair, he loses his stretch. It’s like Hercules and Rapunzel had a baby, but a lot cooler. So that’s how Samson tears a lion apart with his bare hands. He continues on his way, as if that’s not the craziest thing that’s ever happened to him. Then a little bit later, he sees the dead body of the lion that he killed, and inside the lion is a swarm of bees. The bees are using the lion carcass to build a hive. So Samson scrapes out some honey to eat, because - you know - yum and he continues on his way.
Fast forward a little bit, and Samson is at his wedding feast, he’s getting married. And he makes a wager with some of the people there. If you can solve the riddle, I’ll give you thirty sets of clothes, but if you CAN’T answer the riddle - you give me thirty sets of clothes. Apparently Samson needed some new threads, and buying a new wardrobe is expensive! And so he tells them this riddle about the lion. Chapter 14, verse 14, [read it]. Now, of course they hd no idea what the answer to the riddle was. So they go to Samson’s wife, and get her to find out the answer. Samson tells her, and she tells them, and they win the wager. So in response to this, Samson was furious. It’s not fair for them to cheat at the riddle, and so to get back at them, he goes down into a nearby village and kills thirty men from the town, and uses their clothes to settle the wager. And he was still really angry, so he went back to his father’s house and ignored his new wife. I think it’s fair to pause for a moment and recognize that that was an over-reaction. Yikes on bikes, that’s horrible.
Now, Samson’s bride - her father thought that Samson had abandoned her, because he didn’t come home. So he gave her to another man - he gave her to Samson’s best man. Samson comes back later, and finds out that his wife has been given to his best man - he’s furious all over again. So he goes out and catches three hundred foxes. Ties their tails to torches and then lights all the torches. The foxes go running through the fields and burn down all the grain and all the vineyards and all the olive groves. I imagine the devastation was huge. So the Philistines are furious, and when they find out why Samson burned down their fields - that the other had given the daughter to someone else - they burn the father and the daughter. We’re up to chapter 15, verse 7 [read 7]. So Samson kills a whole bunch of Philistines to get his revenge.
To recap real quick. Lion and some honey, little wager, kills thirty men, gives his wife away, burns down all their fields, burns his wife and father in law, kills thousands of people. And then in response to THAT killing, the Philistines make a raid on a place called Lehi. Samson wasn’t even IN Lehi! So the men of Lehi go up and tie Samson up, but Samson breaks the bonds and kills a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey. Does all this seem insane to anybody else? This isn’t just an “eye for an eye” or a “tooth for a tooth” this is revenge on top of revenge on top of revenge. It has escalated until there are thousands dying and it all started with one riddle. Quick, show of hands - how many of you knew THIS part of the story? I’m not going to lie, I knew some of the pieces - but WOW.
So time goes on and Samson falls in love with a woman named Delilah. This part of the story will probably seem a little more familiar, were up to chapter 16 now. Three times she asks him the secret to his power - and eventually he tells her about his hair. That night she cuts his hair and he Lowes his strength. The Philistines capture Samson and gouge out his yes. And then they throw a party! They chain Samson up between two pillars during the party and mock him. If you know Samson at all, you probably know this part. Samson calls out to God one final time, and God restores his strength for one final push. Samson pushes the pillars out and collapses the entire building - killing thousands AND himself. And THAT is the story of Samson. And what’s crazy to me is that sometimes people insist on painting Samson as the hero! Did you read the same story I just read? Samson is the “good guy”?!? I’m not trying to ruin the story for anybody, but I’m pretty sure they’re not going to let me come back and speak again because this story is so violent and horrible and why on earth did I pick this to talk about for my very first visit to Bayshore camp!
Now, let’s be honest - there are parts of the story that are understandable. Cause and Effect - it’s very natural for humans to want revenge. It’s literally written into the foundational laws of our country - let the punishment be equal to the crime. You poke my eye out, I should get to poke your eye out. It’s only fair. It’s logical. Revenge makes sense to our hearts. One of the guiding principles of the universe is that for every action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction. It all makes sense. Logically, revenge is about getting even. Being fair. And yet.. I see this story. Where people are burned at the stake in revenge for the fact that Samson burned down their crops - and all I see is a pile of ashes. He killed them, so they killed some other people, so he killed more - and where does it end? An eye for an eye truly does make the whole world blind. And then I hear a small echo in the back of my mind. Words of Jesus that echo backwards through history into the story of Samson and forward into our daily lives here and now. “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” You have heard it said…look, I’m not here tonight to shock you with graphic details of the old testament. We all know the Old Testament is graphic. I was sitting in a bible lesson couple days ago at a different camp with my five year old. And the teacher was doing a great job teaching the story of Daniel and the lion’s den. And she gets to the end, and she says, “God protected Daniel, and he was saved from the lions.” And my innocent, beautiful little five year old boy turns around and whispers to me, “yeah, and then the king throws his advisors in there and the lion’s EAT them.” Oops, looks like the pastor’s kid was not reading the kid friendly version. The Old Testament is full of brutal stories from brutal times in history, we know this - “you have heard it said…” But I’m here to remind you the second half of that phrase is when Jesus says, “But I say to you.” I’m here to remind you that Jesus, the son of God and savior of the world gives us a better way. The upside-down Kingdom of God has something better to offer than the endless cycle of revenge, something better than the way of the world.
One of my favorite questions any time I spend time in the word of God is to ask the question - well actually, I have two questions. First, what does this passage teach me about the character of God. And second, how does that change my life, as someone who follows that God. If you read your bible and you ask those two questions over and over, you will grow in your faith. And Samson shows us a lot about who God is. First, we see that God can use broken things for his purposes. God worked through Samson - who was terrible - to eventually bring Israel to the promised land. God triumphed over the Philistines, and he started with Samson. God specializes in turning sin into glory, taking the broken and making it stronger than it ever was. This works in our lives too - God can take the broken, mess of your life and do something amazing with it. If God can use Samson, that hot mess of a terrible person - he can use you too. One of the greatest and most reassuring things I’ve ever heard in my life was when someone told me as a pastor, “When God put a calling on your life, he already factored in your stupidity.” God knows all your limitations, and yet he still calls us. You, as people of God, you are God’s primary method of transforming the world! If you are in this room tonight, God has placed a calling on your life. You might be thinking to yourself, “well, I’m just waiting for a sign. I’m just waiting for some sort of signal that God wants to use me in the world.” I’ve got good news for you - it’s right here, it’s coming out of my mouth right now. If God can work with Samson, just imagine what he can do with your life. I’ve heard some messed up stories in my years as a pastor. Church is full of all kinds of broken people. But unless you’re killing thousands with donkey jawbones or burning down fields with foxes - your story is not crazier than Samsons. God uses broken things for his purpose, and that includes you.
The second thing I see in this story about the character of the God that is out there is that no matter how much we screw up - God will always forgive you when you come home. When you repent, God is waiting with open arms. Samson broke every single vow - he drank the stuff he wasn’t supposed to drink, he ate the stuff he wasn’t supposed to eat, he had no regard for the Nazarene code of ethics and he even cut his hair. Every promise he ever made to God he broke. He did not deserve forgiveness, but when he repented - God was there. In your life, maybe you’re not ripping lions apart or killing people to settle wedding wagers - but we all have sin in our life. Romans tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Just like Samson, we do not deserve forgiveness. But if you repent. If you give your life to Jesus, he offers you a new life. You have heard it said that the wages of sin is death, and the problems in your life are too much - but I say to you, but Jesus says to you - “You are forgiven. You are washed clean. Because I have paid the price.”
Repentance leads to forgiveness. And forgiveness is from God. Let me say that again, “forgiveness is from God.” The very idea, the concept of forgiveness is unnatural. The “eye for an eye” mentality is designed to be a cycle of pain and misery. He killed them, because they killed those guys, because he burned this field because they stole that because she said that because… and on and on it goes! The cycle of revenge that this world offers turns into a chain of blame going back all the way to something silly that nobody even remembers. And that chain of blame turns into shackles worse than any prison. But the forgiveness of God offered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is designed to break the chains. God has given us a way out. A way to stop the cycle of pain and misery that revenge forces on us. Repentance, and forgiveness is that moment when we can see a glimpse of freedom. Earlier I said that revenge is a natural desire. It makes sense for us to want revenge. Cause and Effect, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But just because something is natural - does not mean that it is good. Just because something is “understandable” does not mean that it is holy. God shows us a better way. Hear these words from Matthew 5. These are Jesus’ words, [read v.38-44]
A couple years ago, I had a group of 8th graders in a confirmation class, and I asked them, “Why should we forgive our enemies?” They were completely baffled by the question. Why should we forgive our enemies? I dunno, cuz the Bible says to do it. No, that’s not good enough. If you don’t know WHY we are supposed to do something, then you’re not going to do it. The reason we love our enemies, the reason we forgive people who hurt us - is to STOP the cycle of pain. Jesus came to teach us that one fact. Love, forgiveness - these are not logical things. They don’t make any sense. They defy reason. And they are God’s secret to a holy life.
I have two challenges for you tonight. First, if you don’t know Jesus.. if you’re still living in the endless cycle of cause and effect, action and reaction, revenge on revenge - the cycle that turns into a chain of events that become shackles - if you are living as a slave to that cycle tonight I want you to break free. There’s nothing you can do to earn salvation. There’s nothing you can do to fix it. But through repentance you can have forgiveness from Jesus, and break free from the shackles. With Jesus you can stop the cycle of revenge, walk away from the methods of the world, walk away from the “you have heard it said,” and enter into something better. That’s my first challenge for you tonight. Break free of the cycle, through forgiveness, step into something better. My second challenge - I want you to take a moment, right now. I want you to think of someone in your life who has hurt you. Someone who needs your forgiveness. They didn’t ask for it, they don’t deserve it - but they need your forgiveness. You can’t go through life without being hurt - it’s not possible. The world is full of people who can hurt you. Maybe they lied, maybe they cheated. You have that pain inside. That pain, that desire to get even, that urge for revenge - that’s poison in your system. That’s what ruled Samson’s life. But God, through the example of Jesus Christ, shows us a better way. So I want you to let it go. I want you to forgive. I want you to break open those chains, and let that toxic go. I want you to forgive right now. And if you can’t forgive right now, then I want you to start praying for help. Sometimes forgiveness is a long process - and we need all the help we can get.
I remember, I was leading a camp one time. And it was the very first day, and I gave a lesson about forgiveness. And I had a student - a high school girl - get up and walk out in the middle of the devotion. I was baffled, but a counselor went with her - and so I stayed and I finished up the lesson with the kids. She came to me, later that week, it was the last night - and she asked if she could talk to me. Turns out she had been abused by her uncle. He’s in prison now, it’s wasn’t a shocking revelation or anything - but it was a horrible thing she went through. She had gone through hell and it broke her. And the idea of forgiveness was too much for her to handle. She was so incredibly broken. She got into drugs, gained a bunch of weight, dropped out of school, she was suicidal and she said she hadn’t slept in days. During the conversation, I was so heartbroken for her - I asked if I could put my hand on her shoulder, and she said no. She couldn’t physically be touched by a man, she was so broken. I asked if I could look her in the eyes, just to connect, just to show her I cared - but that was too intense. She stared at the floor for our entire conversation. And I didn’t know what to say. I’m just going to be honest with you guys, Pastors don’t know what to say either. So I just started talking bout the cross - and how, because of what Jesus did, we can leave our broken past at the foot of the cross. She was so mad that her uncle’s prison sentence wasn’t longer. He was going to get out someday, and the sentence wasn’t enough, it didn’t satisfy her desire for revenge. And I told her, no earthly punishment would be enough for you. Only God’s justice can satisfy, and I started talking bout how God hates evil, and how he’s going to wipe away every tear (that’s Revelation 21). About how he’s going to fix this broken world. I was just grabbing for pieces that I could remember in the moment. I started talking about repentance, about how Jesus used strong language - he said we have to die to ourselves, and our pain and our past has to die, and we need to receive a new life from Jesus. And as I talked, finally it started to connect. She finally started to understand what God could do for her and her broken life. Forgiveness was freedom from the shackles in her life. It shows how God can draw out the toxin of revenge from her heart, suck it out like poison from a snake bite. So she can actually start to heal. And the end of that conversation. She gave me a hug. She was petrified, shaking like a leaf trying to get her arms around me. I will never forget that moment. I gave her a very gentle hug, and she said, “I haven’t even been able to hug my Father, but now I think I can try.” And she went back to her cabin and she slept.
Samson is a story of mistakes. It’s not quite the same as my little college level prank wars. It’s an example of a miserable life ruled by revenge, unable to forgive. God offers us a better way. And I want to leave you with this image. Remember the upside-down kingdom, and Jesus’ favorite phrase, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” There is the world’s way, Samson’s way - and then there is God’s way. But Samson’s death was about suicide and murder. He was there, stretched between those pillars, after being beaten and mocked and scorned. And with Samson’s last words, he wanted revenge on those who hurt him. He cried out to God for revenge. But there was another man who was stretched out. After being beaten and mocked and scorned, his arms stretched wide, and with Jesus’ last words he forgave the men who hurt him. You have heard it said… But I say to you. That’s the difference. We all make mistakes. Forgiveness makes all the difference. Amen.