Most Likely to Succeed
February 11, 1990
Listen to this Sermon
How long has it been since you were in high school? It seems like a thousand years ago to me.
The point was driven home last Sunday when we ate lunch with two other families from the church. Around the table that day were two of the girls from our high school group—one a junior, the other a sophomore. They were talking to each other about boys.
I quickly learned how much things have changed when I asked if teenagers still “go steady.” They looked at me like I was from another planet. One of the girls patiently explained that you don’t “go steady” nowadays. Instead, there is different terminology. If you like each other but aren’t actually dating, you are “going together.” If you are actually dating, you are “going out.” If you are seriously dating, you are “flinging it.”
Then the two girls—amid much laughter—proceeded to offer their candid opinions on the boys they knew, including many of the young men in our high school group. This one is nice but nerdy. That one is cute but he’s only interested in basketball. Another one is a hunk. And so on. Eventually another name came up and one of the girls said, “He’s perfect.” I asked what she meant. “Well, he’s a Christian, he’s cute, he has a sense of humor and he’s got a motorcycle.” When I heard that last part, I knew some things were still the same.
That conversation got me to thinking about my own high school days. And as I did, it occurred to me that I graduated from high school exactly 20 years ago—May, 1970. So much has happened since then that it truly seems like a thousand years ago.
I decided to go back and look at my high school annual. I don’t recommend that for any except the strong of heart. If you want a shock, take a peek at what you used to look like. Is it possible that you really dressed like that? Did people really comb their hair that way? Who is that strange kid with your name under his picture? As I study the image, it’s hard to make the connection.
As I flipped through the annual, I came to the “Who’s Who” section. I found Billy Smith and Judy King—Wittiest, and just below them Tommy Watson and Debbie Jones—Laziest (an appropriate award) and on the page before that a category for Best Looking—Mike Massingill and Kathy Thornton. Then on the page before that I saw my old buddy Danny McCollum along with Ann Gunter—Most Talented.
Just below that I came to Most Likely to Succeed. Two names were listed—Connie Seal and Ray Pritchard. I hadn’t looked at the picture in at least ten years. In fact, I can’t even remember where it was taken. As I studied it I wondered what ever happened to Connie Seal. Somehow I lost track of her over the years. Then I looked at the other picture and a strange thought came to mind—I wonder what ever happened to me?
Then I remembered a conversation from the day they held the elections. I ran into Greg Wright in the hall and we talked about who we had voted for. I distinctly remember him saying, “When I came to ’Most Likely to Succeed,’ I said, ’Ray Pritchard, who else could it be?’” It’s funny how a simple statement like that sticks in your mind.
Finally, my mind drifted to a statement Don Meredith used to make on Monday Night Football whenever Howard Cosell would start pontificating about some young player who had great potential. Dandy Don would say, “Potential is the heaviest burden in life.”
He’s right, too. Potential is nothing more than unrealized possibility. It’s the difference between what you are and what you could be. It’s what you have when you are voted Most Likely to Succeed.
That’s a heavy burden to lay on a young person. After all, what if you never live up to your potential? What will you say at your 25-year class reunion? As the poet said, “Of all the sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, it might have been.”
The Man Who Might Have Been
Today we begin the study of one of the strangest characters in all the Bible. His name and his exploits are well-known, but the man himself remains a mystery. Of his life it could truly be said that he had unlimited potential. No man in all the Bible started out with as much going for him; no man ended with less. Without question, he would have been voted by his classmates Most Likely to Succeed. He had it all and he let it all get away from him.
His name is Samson. His story is found in the Old Testament book of Judges. In four chapters the writer tells us about his rise and fall. It is a story rich in human drama—full of love and sex and intrigue and violence and passion and strange twists of fate.
The four chapters break down this way:
Chapter 13—His miraculous birth
Chapter 14—His untimely wedding
Chapter 15—His battlefield heroics
Chapter 16—His tragic death
As I said, almost everyone knows this story. Samson’s feats are legendary—how he killed 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, how he set fire to the wheat fields by putting a torch in the tails of 150 pairs of foxes, how he killed 30 men to pay off a gambling debt. Surely all of us know the story of his tragic, heroic death when he destroyed the Philistine temple by pushing apart the pillars.
If his feats are legendary, so are his flaws. His greatest flaw was a weakness for women. He could never say no to a good-looking woman, a fact that repeatedly got him into trouble and eventually cost him his life. The woman who took him down—Delilah—has become a symbol for the seductive female.
What we see in Samson is a bristling bundle of contradictions:
—He was a man of faith with a weakness for women.
—He was a man of prayer given to uncontrollable fits of anger.
—He was a leader of Israel who lusted after Philistine women.
—He was a man of God who lacked common sense.
That’s Samson—”a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” He is listed in Hebrews 11 as a man of faith, yet he slept with a harlot. How do you figure it?
In The Beginning
Samson’s story actually begins before he was born. Judges 13:1 sets the scene:
Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.
The Philistines were a sea people who migrated from the Aegean area down to Egypt about 1200 B.C. Defeated by the Egyptians, they made their way up the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea—into the area we now call the Gaza Strip. They set up a Pentapolis—an association of five cities, three on the coast (Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod) and two inland (Ekron and Gath).
Over time they slowly moved into the southwestern flank of the tribes of Israel. They possessed one major material advantage over the Israelites—iron. They Israelites had bronze, but iron beats bronze any day. So the squeeze was on and the Philistines eventually came to a position of total dominance. In fact, they terrorized Israel for 40 years.
But God had a plan for delivering his people—a plan that involved a most unlikely man. But to make his plan work, God needed a special couple. He found one in the little village of Zorah, right on the frontier between Israel and the Philistines. Most of the other families had moved north to safety. But one family stayed put.
Better Paint The Nursery Blue
We pick up the story in verses 2-5:
A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. The angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, because you will conceive and give birth to a son. No razor may be used on his head, because the boy is to be a Nazirite, set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.
I wonder what this unnamed woman thought about it all. Here she is, washing clothes or preparing supper or just sitting by herself when suddenly an angel shows up to talk to her. He comes with some amazing news:
1. You are about to have a baby even though you are sterile.
2. Don’t drink any wine.
3. Don’t eat anything unclean.
4. When he’s born, don’t cut his hair.
5. He’s going to be a Nazirite.
6. He will begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines.
(The concept of being a Nazirite is one that, though foreign to our thinking, was very important in those days. A Nazirite was one who had taken a special vow before the Lord. Numbers 6 describes the commitments a Nazirite must keep during the period of his vow: 1. Not to drink wine or any intoxicating drink. 2. Not to touch a dead body. 3. Not to cut his hair. The whole purpose of the vow was to provide a way in which an ordinary (i.e. non-priestly) person could dedicate his life to God. The Nazirite vow was meant to be temporary and voluntary but in Samson’s case it was ordained by God to last for his whole life. The Nazirite’s long hair outwardly proclaimed his inner dedication to God, a fact that comes into play in the affair between Samson and the Delilah in Judges 16.)
Samson’s mother must have been a woman of great faith because verse 6 says she told her husband all about it. She even adds, “I didn’t ask him where he came from, and he didn’t tell me his name.” She’s convinced she’s seen an angel and since angels don’t lie, she’s about to have a baby. So far, so good.
A Few Questions From The Father
Now all eyes shift to Manoah. Clearly, the news is a shock to him. A baby! No wine! A Nazirite! And the biggest surprise of all—a deliverer of Israel! It was a little much to take in, so Manoah decides to talk it over with the Lord. In verse 8 he says, “O Lord, I beg you, let the man of God you sent to us come again to teach us how to bring up the boy who is to be born.” This is a crucial response because it tells us something about the home Samson grew up in. It is clearly a household of faith. There is no doubt in Manoah’s prayer—no doubt that he is about to be a father even though his wife has been sterile for years. No doubt about his mission, no quibbling over the details, no argument of any kind. It is a simple request: “Tell us how to raise this child you are giving us.”
So the angel comes back and has a conversation with Manoah. Actually if you read verses 9-14, the angel simply repeats to Manoah what he has already told his wife. She is not to drink any wine during the pregnancy and she is not to eat anything unclean. Furthermore, she is to do all that the angel has already commanded her.
Perhaps Manoah was disappointed by that response. I don’t know. But the angel is driving home that this baby is very, very special. After all, the angel of the Lord doesn’t announce every birth. In fact, it only happens two other times in the Bible—once to Sarah in Genesis 16 and once to Elizabeth in Luke 1. And think who was born in those cases—Isaac (to Sarah) and John the Baptist (to Elizabeth). That puts Samson in pretty good company.
Could You Stay For Supper?
Having gotten all he was going to get from the angel, Manoah asks him to eat with them. The angel replies that he can’t do that, but if they want, they should offer a burnt offering to God. Such a burnt offering would be a sign of their wholehearted devotion to God.
So Manoah offers a sacrifice on a rock to the Lord. That’s when the fun begins:
And the Lord did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame. (19-20)
He just disappeared. He was right there in front of them and then he was gone.
As you might expect, that made quite an impression on Manoah and his wife. First they fell on the ground, scared to death. Then they realized it was the angel of the Lord. Then there is a funny exchange between the two of them (22-23):
Manoah: We’re going to die.
Wife: Why do you say that?
Manoah: We’ve just seen God and no one can see God and live.
Wife: If God wanted to kill us, we’d be dead already. Why did he accept our offering if he wanted to kill us? And why did he say we’re going to have a baby if he was going to kill us? How could we have a baby if we’re both dead?
Manoah: Good point.
Well, that’s not exactly what they said, but it’s close. Manoah caught part of the truth and his wife caught the other part. The angel of the Lord was no normal angel. He was God manifesting himself in human form. That is, the angel of the Lord is the Lord himself. Manoah figured that much out. And his wife figured out that God had appeared to them—not to kill them—but to show how important this baby was going to be.
It’s A Boy
With all of that as background, it’s time for Samson to arrive. “The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him while he was at Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.” (24-25) Note two things about this: First, the blessing of God rests on Samson even as a young child. Second, the Spirit of God began to stir him as a teenager. Mahaneh Dan was the staging area for the soldiers of the tribe of Dan. No doubt Samson liked to watch the men get ready for battle. That the Spirit stirred him at a military staging area indicates what his life’s work would be—the deliverance of his people from the hands of the hated Philistines.
The Man Who Had It All
Now we can begin to see Samson in better perspective. All that we have learned in Judges 13 is meant to impress us with the fact that here is a man completely prepared to do great things for God. If ever a man should have succeeded, it was Samson. If ever a man had it all, it was Samson. If ever a man had all the advantages life can offer, it was Samson.
Consider what we know about him from this chapter:
1. His birth was announced by an angel of the Lord who turns out to be God himself.
2. He was set apart to God as a Nazirite from birth.
3. His mission in life was chosen by God—to begin to deliver his people.
4. He was raised in a godly home by godly parents who wanted to cooperate with God.
5. He was blessed by God as a young child.
6. He was empowered by the Spirit of God.
Samson had it all! You will never understand his life until you grasp that fact. Samson is not just one of the guys who got lucky. No, he was chosen by God before he was born and uniquely gifted for the work he was to do.
And that’s the tragedy of Samson’s life. He started with everything and lost it all. The man who was Most Likely to Succeed … didn’t. His story is told in such great detail in order that we might ponder it carefully and draw lessons from it.
A Word To Mom And Dad
Let me wrap things up by first saying a word to those who are parents, especially to those whose children have already left home. You are not responsible for how your children turn out, because godly parents do not always produce godly children. Samson is Exhibit A of that truth. We wish it were otherwise, that somehow we could guarantee that if you raise your children in the Christian faith, they will never drift away from God. We would like to say that, but we can’t.
If anything is clear from Judges 13, it is that Manoah and his wife were godly parents who more than anything else wanted to raise their son for God. They prayed for him, they taught him the Torah, they led him in the path of righteousness, and they lived a godly life before him. They did all the right things.
Yet Samson went his own way. It still happens today. There are many Christian parents who are heartbroken because their children have grown up, left home and drifted far away from God. They never go to church, they never read the Bible, they don’t pray, and they don’t raise their children for God.
To all parents who have grown children like that, I have two things to say: The first is, don’t despair. Even though your children aren’t serving the Lord right now, that doesn’t mean they can’t change later. All those prayers and all those Scriptures and all those Sunday School lessons are like seeds inside the soul of your child. Sometimes those seeds lie dormant for many years and then suddenly they begin to blossom into a harvest of godliness. It may yet happen for your children.
Second, don’t blame yourself for what your children freely choose to do. You aren’t responsible for their choices. No, you weren’t perfect. Yes, there are some things you would do differently. But that’s not the point. God doesn’t hold you accountable for the choices your children make. They have to answer to God for themselves and they won’t be able to use you for an excuse.
It’s Not How You Begin
There is one other great application from this chapter: It’s not how you begin but how you end that makes the difference. Samson had a great beginning, but look how he ended—enslaved, his eyes put out, his hair shorn, bound with shackles, grinding corn like an ox, and made to perform like a circus animal.
That’s a truth that cuts both ways. Some of you haven’t had a good beginning. In fact, you are the exact opposite of Samson. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s not how you begin but how you end that makes the difference. So take heart, my friend, God isn’t checking your I.D. at the door. If you want to be forgiven, you can be forgiven right now. If you have to be made new, it can happen right now. If you want a new life, you can have it. It doesn’t matter where you started or how you’ve been living. Just say, “Lord Jesus, I need a new start,” and he will give you brand-new life.
The other side of that truth is for the rest of us who had a good beginning. Samson’s story is in the Bible so we would take nothing for granted. Even though you’ve been going to church for 50 years, you can fall just like Samson did. Even though you think you’ve got it made, it can happen to you. Even though everyone else thinks you’re the hottest thing since Pop-Tarts, you may be the next Samson. It can happen to you. “Of all the sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, it might have been.”
The night I graduated from high school something happened that I have never forgotten. I remember very little about the ceremony itself except that it took place at the football stadium. There were a couple of speeches, some awards, and the presentation of the diplomas. I do remember that, after the benediction was pronounced, we all threw our caps up in the air. Then we looked at each other with that strange mixture of fear, elation and sadness that comes from knowing your childhood is gone forever.
As I walked off the field, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Charlie Britnell, a well-respected local minister who later served in the Alabama state legislature and now is a college president. He congratulated me and then he said, “Ray, remember what Jesus said, ’To whom much is given, much is required.’ We’re expecting great things from you.” The words burned into my soul and I have never forgotten them.
What Charlie Britnell said to me could have been said to Samson, “Congratulations on a great start. But remember, to whom much is given, much is required. We’re expecting great things from you.”
Some of you reading these words may wonder, are you talking about yourself or are you talking about Samson? The answer is, I’m talking about both of us. You see, I know Samson well. I’ve lived with him for years.
The truth is, there’s a little bit of Samson in all of us and a whole lot of Samson in most of us. He is the perfect man for the 90s—a man who had it all, an Old Testament Baby Boomer born with every advantage you could ask for. He had it all and he threw it all away. Yes, Samson would feel right at home with the Baby Boomers and the Yuppies. He’s just like us and we’re just like him.
In the weeks to come we’re going to discover a lot more about this baffling, fascinating character. But for the moment, keep this thought in mind: It’s not how you begin, but how you end that makes the difference.