Saturday, 18 October 2014

Living for God in an idol obsessed world

Over the next few weeks we will be spending time with the letter that Paul wrote to the new church in Thessalonica.

This letter is almost certainly Paul’s first letter and the earliest Christian document that we have. It was written about 15 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. That is very close. It is a bit like someone writing today about the impact of something that happened in 2000.

It is a letter which does four things.  First, and this is what we look at today, Paul gives thanks for the Thessalonian church. Second (chapters 2 and 3), he reaffirms the authenticity of his ministry and his love for the Thessalonian believers. Third, he urges them on to sanctification – to live a holy live (that is chapter 4.1-12); and finally he reassures them about those who have already died (chapter 4.13-5.11)

So in chapter 1, Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonian church.

He had been worried. We are told about the founding of the church in Acts 17.1-8. He had gone to Thessalonica and preached in the synagogue for 3 weeks. His message is all about Jesus. He teaches that Jesus is the Messiah, that he died and rose from the dead. Some of the Jews believed but the majority rejected the message. So he starts to preach to the Gentiles. They hear and they respond: 'they turn to God from idols to serve the living and true God' (v9).

So Paul remains. And a small congregation is established.

But then trouble comes. It usually does when God is at work. Several of the believers are arrested and accused of treason, of saying that there is another king to Caesar, namely Jesus. They are released on bail, but it is felt that it would be better for the church if Paul moves on.

Paul fears that this new church will be crushed. So after a few months he sends Timothy back to find out what is happening. Timothy returns with bad news and good news. The bad news is that the persecution continues. The good news is that the church has not been crushed. On the contrary, it is flourishing.

Paul writes immediately and he gives thanks to God for them. V2: ‘We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers’ – and he particularly gives thanks for their faith-inspired works, their love-inspired grit, and their hope-inspired perseverence. 

So what relevance does this letter have to us?

We live in very different times. We are not a new church. We are not persecuted for our faith. We are not in a community which worships idols.

Or are we? We do not live in a world which worships stone gods, but we do worship other gods, gods we have made.

It is easy to identify what those current gods are. Look at our biggest and most impressive buildings. Look at Canary wharf, at our shopping centre cathedrals, at the amazing science and research facilities of the pharmaceutical and technological companies. They are the cathedrals of our current gods. Today we worship the gods of money and material prosperity and possessions and power.

What saddened me in the debate about Scottish independence was that at the end it all seemed to come down to whether people would be better off in an independent Scotland or one that remained part of the union. It was finance, big business, markets and personal wealth that decided the result: not vision or ideals, not principals of history, or of shared cultural values, or of the relative values of autonomy or interdependence. And elections we are told are always won or lost on the economy, on how well off people feel.

We have forgotten God and so we live for the only thing we can live for: the here and now. So it is obvious that our gods will be the things of the here and now: the economy and capital, science and technology, education, military might, health and fitness, possessions and entertainment.

It is not wrong. Of course we want to live in a prosperous safe society, have the highest standard of health care possible, and do the absolute best for our children in our education system. When the people of Israel were in exile in Babylonia, Jeremiah urges them ‘to pray for the welfare of the city in which you live’.

The problem comes when we forget God and put those things in his place.

We’re like the beloved who has been given a ring by the lover. Our lover has made it for us, because they love us. It cost them a great deal. It is a most beautiful ring, with intricate detail and design. It is priceless and it has been shaped for us. But as we gaze at the ring, we fall in love with the ring, we live for the ring and we forget the one who has given us the ring.

And when we forget God and fall in love with the things he has given us, we allow those things to control our lives and to become our gods.

And the tragedy is that we become like our gods. So if you make science your god, cold clinical analysis that is supposedly value free, you do end up with Dawkins saying that if science tells you that your baby is going to be disabled, you abort it and try again. If you make racial superiority your god, you do end up exterminating those you think inferior. If you make the economy your god, then it really doesn’t matter how you make money – whether gambling, selling drugs or sex, charging excessive interest rates on pay day loans: you become like your god - cold and hard and calculating. If you make yourself, and your freedom to do what you want your god, then it is all about you and in the end what happens to others does not matter. If they die of ebola in Liberia it is tragic, but it does not really matter - until, of course, it might come here.

And when we worship the ring rather than the giver of the ring; and when we make things that are not god into god, into our idols, then as night follows day, disaster will happen. Paul speaks of it here as the wrath of God.

So what can we learn from this small church to whom Paul wrote 2000 years ago?

How did the Christians of this small church live for God in a world of idols? How do we live for God in a world of idols?

1. This was a church which welcomed the Word of God.

Paul writes, ‘You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit’  (1.6)

And in 2.13, he writes, ‘When you received the word of God .. you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God’

These were people who heard the message not only with their ears, but with their hearts.

As Paul spoke to them of Jesus something happened. They didn’t just hear it here. They heard it here – in their heart.

The message came to them with power, with the Holy Spirit – and I’m not sure that here that is talking about signs and wonders, although it might be – but the evidence that it came with power and the Holy Spirit is that it came to them ‘with full conviction’ (v4).

They realised that they had been serving idols: they had made things that are not god into God. And they ‘turn from their idols to serve the living and true God’ (v9)

What we are talking about here is triple listening. There is the listening of the ear. I’m good at this. I can listen to Alison telling me something, but if she then asks me what she has said, I don’t know, because I have been thinking about something else! That is the kind of non-listening that gets you into trouble. The second listening is when you listen and you listen. So this is when Alison says, ‘Have you listened to what I have said’, and I’m able to repeat back to her what she has said! But there is a third kind of listening. It is when we listen with our ears, with our mind and with our heart. It is when we listen to the bible and know that this is for me. It is when we realise that what is being said is not what the preacher is saying, but what God is saying.

And that kind of listening is not something you can choose to do. We can put ourselves in the right place, but in the end it is gift and it happens to you. The fact that you are here today – if you are here for God - probably means that it has begun to happen to you.

And I pray, and I ask you to pray, that God would speak to the hearts of men and women in our town. That we would have the courage to speak of Jesus, of his death and resurrection, of the forgiveness of sins, of the fact that he is Lord – and that God would take those words and apply them to the hearts of those who listen.

On the day of Pentecost as Peter preaches and tells them that they have rejected Jesus – and they hear with their heart. They are, we are told, ‘cut to the heart’.

We can argue, we can persuade, we can plead - and we need to do that, but in the end it is only God who converts the human heart. It is only God who shows us our sin, our idolatry. It is only God who begins to show us our need for him and for his mercy and for his strength and for his hope.

So pray. Pray for your friends, your colleagues, your neighbours. Pray that God will open the ears of their hearts to hear him. Pray that they may see through the idolatry of the ring which tells them that now they have the ring, they do not need the lover. The idolatry of science or knowledge which says, 'I'm all you need if you want to live in paradise'. The idolatry of money which says, 'Get me and everything will be OK'. I heard the story Friday morning of the couple who were about to go on holiday, forgot to buy their ticket with their usual lottery numbers and missed out on £2m. Please don't make winning the lottery your hope. The idolatry of the individual which says, 'It's all about me being who I choose to be'.

God has made us unique individuals; he has given us amazing stuff; and he has given us minds to think and reason and to imagine. But don't forget him. He has also given us his word to shape how we use those gifts, how we hold them together. And we need to bring them under his Lordship.

This was a church which had heard the word of God and received it.

2. This was a church which looked to the men and women of God of the past.

I don't know whether you noticed how important the word ‘imitate’ is in this passage. The Christians in Thessalonica became imitators of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy. In turn they were imitators of Jesus Christ (v6).

And in turn, they become an example to others: 'so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia'.

And in particular Paul is thinking about their faithfulness to God in the face of suffering. Just as Jesus was faithful to God in the face of the cross, so they are faithful to God in the face of persecution. In 2.14, Paul writes, 'For you became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews'.

And so Paul says, v8, 'The Word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and in Achaia, [and] your faith in God has gone forth everywhere'.

I wonder who are your Christian role models?

Other traditions in the Church speak of saints. In one sense each person who has turned to Jesus is a saint. But in another sense, some people are so much further on that journey, and we can look to them as examples of godliness, of courage, of perseverance. And we can seek to imitate them.

So I think of a man called Ken Hooker, who was a retired minister in his 80's in a village near Cambridge where I was on placement when I was at Ridley. 60 years earlier he had been president of the Cambridge CU - and his love for the Lord and his desire to serve him was as live at 80 as I suspect it had been at 20.

Or I think of another 80 year old in Russia, Fr Kyrill. I saw him regularly but didn't really know him. But I knew his story. Sentenced on three occasions to 10 years in labour camps for being a priest, he was now the father confessor of the Orthodox seminary where we were living. He could have been so hard, but he was one of those people whose face shone.

And in turn, would it not be wonderful if people spoke of the Christians in Bury St Edmunds, as Paul speaks of the Christians in Thessalonica. 'Look at them, at their faith-inspired works, their love-inspired grit, and their hope-inspired perseverence. Look at how they faithfully speak the Word of God. Look at how they love one another. Look at how they are prepared to go on listening to the Word of God even when they suffer because of it. Look at how they live different lives, with a different perspective. They don't live their lives centred on themselves; they don't put their ultimate trust in science or education or possessions. Instead they seek to serve God, and they long for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.'

How do we live for God in an idol obsessed world?

It is very simple.

1. We listen to the Word of God. We allow the Word of God to penetrate through our ears, through our minds into our hearts.

One of the desert fathers asked: 'What is harder - this water or this rock?' 'Obviously the rock'. But the father said, 'Imagine water dripping from this jar on this rock, day after day, month after month, year after year. Eventually the rock will be broken.' And he said, 'In the same way the human heart is hard. And the Word of God is soft. But allow it, day after day, month after month, year after year, to drip away at your hard heart. And it will break it'.

2. We imitate the example of Jesus, of Paul, of the Thessalonian Christians, of the men and women who have suffered for their faith – and who are today suffering for their faith - as we consciously choose to turn from our idols to serve the living and true God.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Being ambitious for God - a talk for harvest

The parable of the talents

I'd like to speak about being ambitious  - about being ambitious for God.

This is the story of three people. They were each given a share of the masters property. Two worked hard. They used what they had been given in order to make more. One did nothing. He buried the gift. And when the master returns he is condemned.

Margaret Thatcher famously used the parable of the talents. She spoke of how it was a story of taking what you have, working hard and making something for yourself from it. 

But the parable of the talents is not a theological justification for unbridled capitalism. It is not about the person who made good, who says ‘God I came from a council estate, I had limited education, I never knew my dad, and mum was messed up and I had nothing – but now I have £56 million. I’ve used the nothing that I had but now look at me’.
That is great - depending on how you have made your £56m! It is good to take what we have, whether much or little, and make more for yourself. 

But this parable is not about that. 
And it is not simply about using our talents, and developing them. It is about using them for him.
It is not about being ambitious for yourself.  

[The fact that there are three parables together in Matthew 25 makes that clear. 
They are part of the private speech that Jesus has with his followers, which begins in Matthew 24.3. 'As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately ...' And chapter 24 and 25 are spoken to Jesus' followers, to those who profess that Jesus is Lord, who profess to be Christians. 

The first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. Jesus is challenging us to keep our faith alive, even when it seems that God is a long way away and taking his time to intervene. And he warns us of the consequences of not keeping our faith alive. 
The third parable is the story of the sheep and the goats. We are warned that when judgement comes, and remember he is speaking to those who profess to be believers, it will be based on how much we have loved: not those closest to us - but those who were in need. The hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, stranger and prisoner. And in particular it is about how we have loved our Christian brothers and sisters who were in need. 

So the parable of the talents, which is the second of these, is not about taking what you have and doing better for yourself. 
It is about taking what God has given you and using it to do much for Him.]

It is about being ambitious for God, and for the things of God: the message of the gospel, reconciliation, justice, mercy, right-ness and love. 

Jesus is the master who is about to go away. He is the master who entrusts his property to his servants. 

Some seem to have abundantly; others less so. 
At times we have abundantly; at other times less so.
But all that we have is gift. We have done nothing to deserve it. 

I was speaking to someone who farms 1700 acres on Wednesday. He was saying that this has been an exceptional harvest for arable farmers: the sort of year that they will speak about for many years to come. It is not so much a 5 talent harvest as a 50 talent harvest. 

What did we do to deserve that? What did we do to have a mild winter, a rainy spring, a warm and dry summer? It is all gift. 

And the point of the passage is not to ask 'what does a person have?' The point of the story is to ask, 'How does a person use what they have?'  We are accountable for what we have. Not for what we do not have. 

Some of you are 5 talent people. Some of you are 2 talent people. Some of you are 1 talent people. It doesn't matter because, if you notice, the faithful ones double what they have - and if you go on doubling what you have, you soon end up with phenomenal amounts, and it becomes irrelevant what you first began with.

What matters is what we do with that which we have been given. And that includes our understanding of the gospel, our physical strength, our material wealth and possession and our gifts, opportunities, time and abilities.

And although Jesus is going away, and the story makes clear that it will be for some time (‘now after a long time’ v19), he will one day come back. And when he returns he will settle accounts with us. 

So how are we to be ambitious for God?

1. We are to use what he has entrusted to us. 

Most of us, living in the West, when it comes to material prosperity and the opportunities we have, we are, in comparison to so many others, 5 talent people. 

So how are we using it?
Not for ourselves, but for God. 

If you have capital, how are you using it? Is it invested wisely in ways that give other people worthwhile jobs, affordable homes or in ways that empower other people to serve? Is it being used in ways that strip other people of human dignity – whether here or far away – or is it being used to clothe people in garments of honour.

If you have a business, what is the bottom line for you? Is it profit - or is it the welfare of your employees, of your customers or clients? Who are you there to serve: yourself or others? Part of the big problem of big business is that the bottom line is profit, because they are answerable to an amorphous blob of shareholders.

There are big issues. I have a friend who has set up a Christians in Business group in Ipswich and hopes for that to be extended here to the Western part of the county. If you are interested in thinking 'How can I use my business to be ambitious for God?', that might be something you could get involved in. Have a word with me. 

And of course there is our financial giving. How much does it really cost us? There is the great story of the little boy who wanted to give his Sunday dinner to the dog. Mum would not let him, but told him that he could collect any left overs and give them to the dog at the end of the meal. The little boy took the plate and put it down sadly in front of the dog: 'Dog', he said, 'I wanted to give you an offering, but all I was allowed to do was bring you a collection!' Is our giving a collection from our left overs, or a genuine offering?

And how are we using our gifts? It is not just a matter of developing them - going to evening classes or sports clubs - although that is a great way of honouring God with them. But how are we using them for our master?  

How is our home being used for the gospel? I'm not talking about anything big. It might simply be a matter of inviting people round for a cup of tea, befriending them, supporting them in trouble, and when it is the right time, and they are ready to receive, to share the good news of the fact that Jesus has died for them and has risen, that sins are forgiven, that by faith we know that he is with us now, and that we will see him then.

How do we use the gift of our time? In my previous parish there was Betty Walton. She visited the old people; she did their shopping for them and gave them lifts and went to hospital with them. She was 85. I’m really touched when people come to me and say, ‘I am willing to visit people for the church’. I am conscious that I have not taken you up on that. It is not that I am turning down your offer, but my mind just doesn’t work like that. I guess we need a pastoral supremo like Hazel at St Peter’s. But even if I haven’t taken you up on that, please just do it. You are using your gifts for Him.

And what about your spiritual gifts? 
If you are one of our preachers, develop your gift, work hard at it. We must never presume that we have made it. We need to continue to read, to think and to study. It is very rare that a sermon for me on a Sunday takes less than 6 hours to prepare.
Or maybe you are someone who finds it easy to talk to others - use your gift for your master. There are many opportunities. Being a steward here in church, Open the Book, services in residential homes, family gatherings, small group events. 

If you have the gift of hospitality use it - invite Christians and non-Christians. Use your gift to build up friendships. If you are a party person (and we need more party people in our churches - I’m a party pooper. I’m quite happy sitting in the corner reading a book), put on parties – good parties – but do it for Him.

If you have the gift of speaking in tongues - don't neglect it; use it in your personal prayers. Jackie Pullinger speaks of how her work for God was radically transformed when she began to pray in tongues for 15 minutes every day by the clock. 

Whatever your gift or ability. Recognise that it is gift, that it comes from your master, and be ambitious for him: use it for the glory of your master. 

2. We are to take risks for God

Harvest thanksgiving is safe. I'm not talking about the people who put so much effort into making it work - the decorators, musicians etc. I'm speaking about those of us who come along each year. The giving, the decorations, the hymns are one massive comfort zone. Woe betides the vicar or organist who does not choose ‘We plough the fields and scatter’. And I guess that is OK, provided we go out of here prepared to take risks for God. 

When we live safe, we are 5 talent people who behave like the 1 talent person. 

The one talent person is like the employee who has been asked to cash a cheque for her employer. But the office is warm, it is raining outside, and they can't be bothered to walk to the bank. So it gets buried under a pile of papers. And then the employer asks, 'What happened to that cheque. Why didn't you cash it?' And they reply, 'Well I know you strict, so I was scared I might make a mistake. But I’ve found the cheque and here it is!’ It doesn't wash.

The real reason we do not use our gifts for Him is that we can't be bothered with God. It is a bit of a pain. I'll get on living my comfortable life, with my pleasant friends, doing what I want when I want, adding a few feathers to the nest now and then, occasionally doing something that makes me feel good like giving to some appeal, coming along to church - so long as it suits me and it is the service I like – and I will turn to God when life gets awkward.

God made you and me for so much more.
He really does want us to step out of our comfort zone and become bigger people. But for that to happen we need to get off our spiritual backsides and take risks with the gifts that God has given us. 

It might be simple. 
Crossing the street and knocking on the door of that person who has just moved in, or who has been there for ages but we have never got round to saying hello or even inviting them round for a cup of tea or Christmas drinks. 
It might be asking someone to come to the Advent carol or Christmas carol service with you. 
It might be joining a small group, joining the cleaning team, missing Sunday lunch and staying behind for a shared lunch, so that you can spend time with people in the church you don’t really know.

Or it might be something big.
I stand in awe of those with medical experience who have chosen to go out to, or to stay in Western Africa to help with the fight against Ebola: many of whom have been inspired by their Christian conviction. 
I was speaking yesterday with a pastor from North West Nigeria. He was saying that they are looking for Christians with skills – medical, teaching or farming - to go out and spend a week or two teaching people there, passing on knowledge and experience.
One thinks of Alan Henning or others like him, inspired to go out and use what gifts they had. Perhaps you might say he was foolish, he took unnecessary risks, and should have stayed safe at home. But I don’t. I have deep respect for those foolish risk takers, who step out because they are motivated by a desire to serve those in need. 

Some of you will be aware that a couple of weeks ago I went on a conference for clergy in their early 50's who have been in the ordained ministry for a significant number of years. I called it the conference for clergy facing mid life crises. Maybe this is a sermon of a vicar facing a mid life crisis. 

I am conscious of how safe I have become in Bury

When I was in London we set up and ran a centre for asylum seekers. They were people who were legally here but who were not allowed to work or have any entitlement to benefits – until their cases had been heard. They had nothing. One family lived for several months in our church crypt. It was possibly illegal, probably broke all regulations and it was pretty grim for them. But there was nothing else, and it was better than living on the street.

I wonder whether I would do that again if the opportunity or need presented itself. It was incredibly stressful, but it was also right and God was in it. And the older son and daughter, both in their 20's became committed Christians. 

But I need to challenge myself, and I would ask you to challenge yourself, and ask if you are becoming like the one talent person who, for the sake of a quiet, comfortable and safe life, buries his or her talent.

The parable of the talents reminds us that all that we have is gift from God. It tells us that we are to use those gifts for him, to take risks with them for him, and to be ambitious for Him.  

Father God, thank you for the gifts you have given us. Please, in your mercy, take us out of our comfort zones. Help us to use our gifts for you, to take risks for you and to be ambitious for you. Amen.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The story of Samson

This is the story of two peoples: Philistines, Israelites 
The Israelites had been chosen by God to be his special people. God was going to do something in and through them that would bring blessing to the whole world. But they mess up, disobey God, and run into trouble
And trouble came in the shape of the Philistines.

The Israelites are occupied and crushed by the Philistines. So they cry out to God. And God sends them a deliverer ... Samson.

There was an elderly couple: Manoah and his wife. We are not told her name but she is the most important person at the beginning of the story. She is told by an angel that she would have a son and that he would be a Nazirite - someone who would be dedicated to God, who would begin to bring God's deliverance for the people from the Philistines. And as a sign, he would not drink alcohol and his hair would never be cut. 

So Samson is born. From the very beginning, the Spirit of the Lord begins to stir him (13.24).
He falls in love with a Philistine girl. On one occasion Samson goes to see her, but is attacked by the lion. We are told 'The Spirit of the Lord came on him in power' (14.6), and he rips the lion apart.
He goes down for the wedding. The feast lasts 7 days. He tells a riddle to 30 of the Philistines and says that if they can answer his riddle he will give them 30 special suits, and if they can't, they give him 30 suits. They blackmail the girl to get Samson to tell her the answer. He tells her, she tells them, and they tell Samson. He is furious because they have cheated. Again ‘the Spirit of the Lord comes on him in power’ (14.19); he goes to another Philistine town and kills 30 of their men, and gives their suits to the 30. He then goes off in a rage back to the Israelites.
He cools down and comes back to see his wife, only to be told she has been given to someone else. Now he is really mad. He gets 300 foxes, ties their tails together and then ties burning brands to their tails. You have got 150 pairs of pretty desperate foxes, and he then releases them in the Philistine fields. The Philistines discover that Samson has done this because his wife was given to someone else. They go to the girl and her father, and burn them. Samson gets even madder and he attacks and slaughters many Philistines, and then goes back to Judah.

The Philistines send a force to get Samson, and the Israelites are terrified. They say to him, what have you done? We are ruled by the Philistines, and if we don’t hand you over they will destroy us. Samson says, I'll let you bind me and hand me over to them, if you promise not to kill me yourselves. So they bind him.  

However as the Philistines approach, 'The Spirit of the Lord came on him in power' (15.14), he snaps the ropes, picks up a jawbone and kills 1000 of the Philistines. There then seems to be a gap of 20 years when Samson we are told 'led' Israel. Probably the Philistines had decided that they would not mess with Samson.  

But Samson won't leave the Philistines, or more to the point, their women, alone. There is the story of incident when he spends the night in Gaza. They lie in wait, but he gets up in the middle of night and walks up to front gate, picks up the gates and the two gate post and walks out. He carries them several miles up a mountain, so that they can be seen in the nearest Israelite city.

But then he falls in love again with another Philistine woman. Her name is Delilah. The Philistines bribe her, big time, to discover the secret of his strength. Eventually he tells her the secret of his strength - the story we have had read – and she shaves his head. What is significant is that Samson thinks he can defend himself from the Philistines. He does not realise that 'the Lord had left him'. He is captured, his eyes are gouged out, and he is put to forced labour - grinding grain.

The Philistines are exultant. The man who laid waste their land has been captured. They say, 'Our god has delivered our enemy into our hands'. They have a festival in the temple of their god, Dagon, and they bring out Samson. The crowds come in their thousands. They thought it was very funny to see the man who had burnt their grain threshing out grain; the man who had walked off with their city gates shackled; They now want him to entertain them like a wild chained bear. But he hadn't quite finished. He asks the servant to put his hands on the central columns of the temple and he pushes. But this time he prays, 'Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get my revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes'. They would have laughed at him, stumbling against the pillars .. until masonry starts to fall and then the roof fell in. He was killed but so were 4000 others with him. 

It is a gripping but pretty brutal story.

Samson is astonishingly gifted but also deeply flawed. He is not really a role model for us. But there are two things that I would like to draw from these chapters.

1. God is in control.

When Samson falls in love with the Philistine girl, and there have been clear commands that the people of Israel are not to intermarry with their neighbours - so it was clear disobedience – we’re told, 'This was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines'. On three occasions we are told that it is not Samson's physical strength that gives him the edge, but the fact that the Spirit of God came on him. And at the end of the story, the Philistines think that Dagon has enabled them to capture Samson. They don't realise that God has walked away from Samson and handed them into their hands. And it is significant that Samson's final prayer begins with the words, 'Sovereign Lord' (16:28)

God is in control - even when his people are disobedient, or even when it seems that other gods are doing better than him! 

There is nothing that can frustrate the final purposes of God. Sin, wars, ISIL, militant atheism, materialism, the weakness of the church, or the persecution of the church. His Kingdom will come; the gospel will be preached; the people he calls will be saved; his rule of peace, justice, healing, compassion, abundance and joy will be established. Jesus has died and has risen.

2. When you mess up, it is not the end.

Israel discovered that time after time. They sin and rebel against God. God hands them over to their enemies. At times it must have seemed as if it was the end. But the people repent and God sends them a deliverer. 

Samson discovered this. With all his flaws, his wilfulness, his rejection of authority, his controlling rages and lusts, he still cherished the fact that he had been dedicated to God. That becomes clear in what he says to Delilah, ‘So he told her everything. ‘No razor has ever been used on my head because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb’. It was clearly very special to him. He wanted to belong to God, to be used by him. But then he discloses his secret to Delilah, and in so doing allows someone else to shave his head. In the end it wasn't his lusts or his rage that destroyed him - God could use even them. But he was destroyed when his love for, his infatuation with Delilah, or his desire to have a quiet life with her, overcame his willingness to be an instrument who God could use. 
But it wasn't the end of the road for Samson. In his darkness, imprisonment and humiliation, he comes back to God. He cries for God. He realises his strength comes from God, and at the very end he prays (16.28) - and God uses him to deliver his people.

Samson is, in this aspect, no different from so many people of God. We think of Abraham, Moses, David and Peter. They all had their flaws. Abraham lied about his wife, Moses lost his temper and thought he could do the work of God in his own strength, David committed adultery and then murder, Peter denied Jesus. They all had to face the consequence of their decisions, and yet in each case they listened to the rebuke of God, turned back to him and were used in new ways.

And I do hope that we will discover it.
You may be flawed; No. You are very flawed! We look at our lives - at the chaos, the broken relationships, the failures, the inner rages and resentments - and it is easy to despair. But if God has called you to be his and if you have said that you wish to be His, and trust in Him, and your hair has remained metaphorically uncut, then God can and will use you. He will use you despite your flaws. He may even use your flaws.  
The danger comes when we allow the razor to touch our heads: Spurgeon speaks of the razor of pride (of thinking that I have done it myself), of self-sufficiency (of thinking that I can do it myself), of living for self - for promotion, popularity, experience, ease of life, wealth. The scary thing is that like Samson, we might presume that it is all there, we may even use the God-language, but our head has been shaved and He has gone. 

But that does not need to be the end. Like Moses, like David, like Peter, like Samson, we can always turn back to him. 

It is a great story, and there is much more that could be drawn from this. But at the very least may I remind you that God is control, and may I speak to those who once made great pledges of commitment to God, but who feel that they have really let God down. Your hair is beginning to regrow – our God is the God who delights in giving people second, third, fourth, seventy-seventh chances.