Key verse: Judges 16:30
Big idea: There is no cycle so deep that God cannot reach us.
One of Jesus' best-loved parables is the story of the prodigal son. Who can hear it without being moved? A son tells his father, "I can't wait for you to die. I want my portion of the inheritance now!" And his father liquidates assets to send the son on his way. Jewish custom was to hold a funeral for such a child, who had dishonored his family and treated his parents as nothing more than a too-slow ATM. There was no taking back such a radical step, the relationship was forever severed. This son went and wasted a lifetime worth of earnings in a short period of time, and when he was forced to take up a job tending for pigs, he was so hungry that he stared longingly at their slop. It was in that state that he came to his senses, and decided to return home. He knew that he could never be a son again, but his father's servants were treated better than he was. When he got home, his father saw him from a long way off, and ran to him (an act considered extremely undignified in first-century Israel). This son was forgiven and restored. He had gone a long way from home and had done something incredible, but he had still not gone too far to be restored by God.
No wonder this story sticks out in our minds! How reassuring to know that we are never beyond the reach of God; while there is life, there is hope (Ecclesiastes 9:4). Samson is a great example of this truth. He had made a lot of mistakes (or rather, he had made the same couple of mistakes over and over again). But in his final hour, when his eyes had been gouged out and he was bound in Philistine chains, his hair began to grow back. It was cut because of his sin, glorying in the wrong things brought shame as it always does, but he was not finally rejected because of God's grace. His final act, bringing the building full of Philistine rulers down on them (even though he knew it would also end his life) killed more of Israel's enemies than he had killed in his life. He had gone far, but when he cried out to God one last time, God still heard him.
Since Samson is included as an example of godly faith in Hebrews 11, I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that when he left this life, the Father received him with as much gusto as the father of the prodigal. "For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:24). The same is true for you! While it is much more pleasant to stay in the father's house and enjoy the blessings of fellowship and peace all the time, you have never gone too far to turn back to him, if you just will.
Discussion idea: How is Samson's life both an encouraging and a cautionary tale? Do you tend to err on the extreme of writing yourself off because of your mistakes, or of being too tolerant of sin?
Prayer focus: Lord, teach me to obey You, but also to have the faith to know that I stand by grace alone, and that nothing I do can ever change your love for me. Thank you for the assurance that no sin is too great to be covered by the blood of Jesus, except rejecting his forgiveness.
Key Verse: Acts 11:22
Big Idea: The churches of Jesus must work together.
The events of Acts 10 are so monumental that Acts 11 largely recapitulates it. A group Luke called the "circumcision party" (although that was probably a name they did not go by until later) from the church at Jerusalem heard about the inclusion of the Gentiles and called Peter up to explain himself. When he did, their objections were silent and they glorified God. The conflict would return later, but for the present was quieted. Stephen's death and the broader persecution of which it had been a part had driven the saints out into the world, so many churches were formed. Each operated autonomously of the others, although all were under the authority of the apostles.
Trouble arose. A famine over the known world struck everyone, but especially the poor Christians at Jerusalem, who had been living off their pooled resources. Although these churches were autonomous, they were not entirely independent. They worked together, with the other churches providing resources to support the church at Jerusalem in their time of sorrow. Barnabas and Saul took the offerings back to Jerusalem, the church that had helped reach them with the gospel repaid in spiritual support.
It is one of the great encouragements of the Christian life that we do not have to do God's work alone. It is too big for any one church to handle, so God has set the institution of the church up to persist, where the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). But He intends for us to cooperate, to send out missionaries, to meet physical needs and to bring Him glory.
Discussion Idea: How much responsibility do we have when other churches are struggling? What about other individuals?
Prayer Focus: Pray for others who are hurting and for opportunities to serve them.