Visualize an Olympic weight-lifter. His muscles bulge and strain with effort as he lifts hundreds of pounds above his head. Strength.
Now, picture a locomotive pulling train cars full of grain and oil across the prairie. Its diesel electric locomotive engine hums with power and speed. Strength.
Consider the Rocky Mountains. They loom above the North American landscape, stretching from Canada to New Mexico, covering a massive 3,000 miles and towering more than 14,000 feet above sea level. Strength.
Form a mental image of a lion. He stands on a rock and roars, claiming his status as king of the beasts. Strength.
And then, there is the Old Testament judge Samson who was legendary for his strength. Today’s lectionary passage from Judges says, “…he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat.” Who tears goats apart with their bare hands, let alone lions? As Samson’s story continues, he kills a thousand men without remorse and with only a jawbone for a weapon. No ropes of any sort can bind him. He breaks them repeatedly, and effortlessly. Even in death, Samson pushes down massive pillars in a large pagan temple by sheer brute force. Strength.
Contrast Samson with Paul. Paul is in prison, most likely in Rome, when he writes this letter to the Philippians. A prisoner in chains would not have been my first choice for an inspirational poster on strength. Yet, Paul writes:
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14.)
Paul’s imprisonment has inspired other Christians to remain strong as they share the gospel story. Because of Paul’s captivity, the Christian community is strengthened: confident, daring, and without fear. How is this possible? Paul makes it clear that Christ is completing the good work he has begun (Phil 1:6). Paul’s deep affection for those around is rooted in Jesus Christ (Phil 1:8). Paul asks for love and discernment and righteousness to come from Christ (Phil 1:9-10). Clearly, Christ is the source of Paul’s strength.
God’s Spirit was the source of Samson’s strength, too. Samson killed the lion with his bare hands because “the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him” (Judges 14:6). We see that his questionable engagement to a Philistine woman who raised the eyebrows of his parents was “from the Lord” (Judges 14:4). God used this less-than-ideal relationship to avenge his people. When Samson killed a thousand enemies of Israel, it was because “The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him” (Judges 15:14). And when, as a blind man, he pushed down the pillars of the pagan temple in his dying moments, the required strength was an answer to prayer. “Then Samson prayed to the Lord, ‘Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more’” (Judges 16:28).
Today’s lectionary Psalm is also a prayer for God’s help. After God’s answer, the psalmist writes:
The Lord is my strength and my shield;
My heart trusted in Him, and I am helped;
Therefore my heart greatly rejoices,
And with my song I will praise Him. (Psalm 28:7 NKJV)
I like the way that the New King James translates the line “I am helped.” The passive grammar reminds me that I do not initiate the help. It is being given to me through absolutely no power of my own. God alone is the source of my strength. So, with Samson, Paul, and the Philippian Christians, I remember that my strength comes only from the Lord. He is my inspiration, my song, and my strength.