This sermon is part of the sermon series "Miraculous Births". See series.
This sermon is part of the “Miraculous Births” sermon series. See the whole series here.
We are officially in the Christmas season. I love this time of year. But 38 years in, there’s not much that’s surprising about it anymore. It’s fun with small kids; you get to live out the newness of it through them. But for myself, Christmas is pretty familiar. There’s not much that’s unexpected. I’m probably going to get some clothes from my mom. I usually tell my wife basically what I want.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. But people say familiarity breeds contempt. And I guess as I’ve grown familiar with Christmas, I understand why some people have a hard time with Christmas. The traditions are getting stale. There’s not much to look forward to. And all the festivities and decorations do little to hide the pain of real life. Even while the dancing and festivities of the Macy’s parade is going on in one channel, the next channel shows all the scandal, abuse, and horrors of the world. And so all the trappings, lights, and events of Christmas end up seeming like a thin coat of paint over a broken rundown world. And before long, that paint will be washed away.
Is that all Christmas is? Are there any surprises left for cynical, hurting people like us?
God has always acted in surprising ways to save his people, and one of the ways he does that is through miraculous births. When all is dark, when hope is gone, a baby is born. Christmas is all about God accomplishing the unexpected, the astonishing, the unthinkable in order to save his people. If this is how God has always acted, then maybe even in a broken and messed up world as ours, God still has something surprising to show us in his Word today.
Before I read Judges 13, let me give a bit of context. Up to this point, the people of Israel have been rescued from slavery in Egypt, they have been constituted as a nation belonging to God, and now, according to God’s promises, he has settled them into the land of Canaan, the Promised Land.
But when we come to the Book of Judges, we hear the story of what happened after that first generation of leaders died. Though they had led the people in settling in the land, Israel did not yet have full possession of it. They had not fully driven out the Canaanites. And so, their final command was that Israel was to continue in obedience to God in conquering the land. Each tribe had been assigned their territory and they were to possess it.
And the rest of the Book of Judges is basically about Israel’s failure to carry out that command. Instead of going to war, the Israelites got comfortable. They began mingling with the surrounding nations, adopting their horrific customs of child sacrifice and worshiping their pagan gods. As a result, God would hand the people of Israel over to their enemies and they would be oppressed. But then the people would realize their sin and cry out in repentance, and God in his mercy would raise up a deliverer, a Judge, who would defeat their enemies, bringing in a time of peace … until the next time the people rebelled. This pattern of sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance, and peace is repeated at least six times throughout the Book of Judges. And yet as we move along the Book, the cycle seems to be spiraling downward, Israel becomes more and more like the nations around them, and their judges are shown to be deeply flawed.
Which brings us to Judges 13, the last of the judges highlighted for us in the story.
(Read Judges 13)
Let’s consider this passage by looking at the main characters involved. Here’s my outline: God saves an undeserving people using an unlikely couple through his Spirit-filled warrior.
God saves an undeserving people
So first, let’s consider how God saves an undeserving people. Because by chapter 13 of Judges, we are at the bottom of the spiral. Once again, verse 1 opens with the Israelites doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, and so the Lord delivers them over to the Philistines. The Philistines had come from the sea and settled along the coast of the Mediterranean around the time Israel entered the land; they established themselves firmly in the land.
The Philistines were so successful that the Israelite tribe next to them, the tribe of Dan, basically abdicated their task. You can read in Joshua 19 and Judges 18, how Dan had such a hard time driving out the Canaanites in their territory that a large group of them basically left their allotted territory and resettled themselves way to the north, leaving a much smaller group to fend for themselves. By the time we get to Judges 13, the Philistines are in control, and Israel is living under Philistine oppression for 40 years, which is far longer than any of the oppressions in the previous stories.
And notice something else. Whereas in all the previous stories, the people of Israel cried out to God for help, here the Israelites don’t even cry out anymore. No, the picture that we get of Israel is that they have grown quite accustomed to the oppression of the Philistines.
This was part of the judgment of God. Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord, “so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines.” The worst part of that oppression was that Israel no longer cared that they were being oppressed. The most severe judgment that God can bring is when he gives us over to our sin, when we actually kind of like it.
And as a result, Israel is in danger of losing their identity as the people of God, and eventually being totally consumed. As they intermarried, as they adopted their worship, their gods, their customs, all of God’s promises to bring salvation to the nations through the descendants of Abraham were in danger of being lost.
As one commentator writes,
Here then is Israel—In the power of Baal, and Philistia; an Israel who does not even cry out for relief from misery. They have, apparently, grown accustomed to servitude; in fact, … they are content with it, are surprised should anyone suggest otherwise.
This is the condition of Israel. They are a people who have repeatedly sinned against God, who in God’s judgment have become hardened and content in their sinfulness, and who are utterly undeserving of God’s mercy.
Is this the condition that we live in today?
In our society these days, there are many who are beginning to speak out against injustice, against structural evil. It’s astonishing to hear about how people have tolerated sexual harassment and even abuse for so long, and insofar as justice is being accomplished, I’m thankful for the ways people are speaking up and refusing to tolerate that injustice any more. And yet, for all the passion and posting and reporting, do we have the full extent of evil covered?
Here’s the problem: You don’t know what you don’t know. Yes, it’s clear to us that there are really evil things out there. And perhaps you’re passionate about other injustices that aren’t getting enough attention, and all that might be right. But what if all of the evil that you see, all of the evil that you’re so indignant about, is actually just the tip of the iceberg? What does it say about us that we were only passionate and indignant at only 75 percent or even 99 percent of the evil out there? Is that good enough? What if it turns out, we only really care about one percent of the evil out there? And what about the evil in here?
Is there any evil in this world that you are content with or at least willing to tolerate? What sins in your own life have you made peace with? And if human reckoning against evil can be so severe, then what must God’s reckoning be like?
The truth is, all of us are like the Israelites; we have been hardened toward sin; we have grown accustomed to it. Because your relationship with God is never static. Your relationship with God never stands still. You are always either moving toward God or moving away from him. Every time, you hear God’s Word, every time you hear your conscience, you either respond in faith and obedience or you harden your heart. And every time you harden your heart, there is a cumulative effect. Over time, it becomes more and more difficult to move back toward him.
Do you know what that’s like? Have you ever nursed a secret sin, a lust, an inappropriate relationship, an addiction? As long as you keep it a secret, you may “know” it’s wrong, but you can get over it pretty quickly. It’s amazing how hard our consciences can get. We have an amazing ability to compartmentalize our lives: The man who nurses a secret, dark addiction and at the same time dares teach his friends about how to fight that addiction. The woman who complains about her neighbor’s slander, even while gossiping about her to all her friends. The church harbors prejudice and unforgiveness, even while we praise God and take the Lord’s Supper. Perhaps at one point our consciences were struck by this. But in our secrecy, in our hypocrisy, our hearts harden, and we move on.
But if you’ve ever been so blessed, remember how it felt that time you got caught? When you were found out and all your sin was exposed? How your heart felt like it was going to beat out of your chest? And you felt like it was all over? And for the first time with everyone else looking in, you saw just how ugly, awful, and wicked your sin was? Friends, as painful as that was, in God’s mercy, that was a moment of clarity. You had awakened to the devastation of your sin. And I pray that in that moment, someone spoke the hope of the gospel to you and that you cried out to God for mercy.
Here’s the point: No matter who you are this morning, we are those who need to cry out to God for help. This is the discipline of confession. This is what Israel failed to do. Whether you’ve been caught or not, we are those in bondage to sin. And confession is how we fight against a hard heart. This is why we have a prayer of confession corporately as a church on a regular basis. But don’t limit yourself to that. Cry out to God for help. Ask him to show you your sin. Pray that he would give you a sensitive Spirit to sin. And confess your sins to God. The apostle John writes:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8–9)
And confess not only to God but also to one another. For sins which you are particularly prone to keep secret, do you have a trusted friend, a brother or sister, who you can confess your sins to and who will point you to the grace of the gospel and love you as you battle sin? If not, pray and ask God to help you find someone.
Friends, this is our condition this morning. We are those who have rebelled against God, who have been hardened by sin, who are being oppressed by evil from within and from without, and we don’t even know it. What is our hope?
Well, it’s right here: God brings about his judgment, and then he sets about saving his people from that judgment. Yes, we are utterly undeserving. But God’s grace is greater than our sin. God’s grace is greater than our stupidity. The God who delivered the Israelites over to the Philistines will now deliver them from the Philistines.
Aren’t you glad that God’s help is not limited merely to what you know to ask for? No, God brings to us a salvation that is beyond what we even know to ask. The God who judges is also the God who saves. So if you feel your undeservedness, then listen up! There is hope here for you.
God saves an undeserving people, using an unlikely couple
Manoah and his wife are an unlikely couple for God to use in delivering his people. We see in verse 2 that they are from the tribe of Dan, that tribe which basically had abdicated their responsibility. And clearly, this is not a family of warriors. Manoah seems to be a simple farmer.
And to his obscurity, we can also add an impossibility. They are barren and childless. Manoah’s wife was sterile, the text says. How long did Manoah and his wife live with that heartache? How often must they have prayed for a child? In that society, to be without children would have been shameful and produced great insecurity for the future.
But this is not the last time we’re going to encounter such a barren couple in this sermon series. It seems God has a special place for the barren. Why? Because it’s through them that he is going to show that salvation comes entirely from him. It’s this couple’s barrenness that makes them particularly useful to God!
And so, the angel of the Lord appears to this couple. Who is this angel of the Lord? Manoah’s wife describes him as a man of God in verse 6, but clearly there’s also something supernatural about him. There certainly are situations when the Old Testament speaks of messengers and angels sent from God for service. But here, it seems that this angel is himself divine. In verse 18, he doesn’t reveal his name because it is wonderful, beyond understanding. In verse 19, the narrator refers to the angel as the Lord. This isn’t the first time where God himself appears to speak to his people and to carry out his purposes. Despite Israel’s sinfulness, God’s presence remained with his people. And if this is the pre-incarnate Christ, did he think of the day when he himself would be born miraculously to an obscure couple?
But for now, the angel of the Lord has come to bring Manoah’s wife a message. Though she is barren, God is going to work a miracle in her womb, and she is going to have a son! And this son is going to be a Nazirite from birth. You can read about that in Numbers 6, but the Nazirite vow was basically a way for lay men and women (not priests) to devote a period of their lives to God. When they did so, they had to abstain from wine and other alcoholic drinks. They had to avoid contact with anything ceremonially unclean. Even if a family member died, they could not come in contact with the dead body. And the sign of their devotion was their hair. They could not cut their hair for as long as they were under the Nazirite vow. This was a way for any man or woman to enter into a period of consecrated service to God.
What does that mean to be consecrated? Well, it means that they are now set apart to be used by God, to be devoted for his service. It’s like your fine china. Your fine china has been set apart for special occasions. You don’t use your fine china as a water bowl for your dog or to hold your composting.
People under the Nazirite vow functioned the same way. They were devoting themselves to God, for a special service to God, and they were marked out from everybody else by those three characteristics.
And what would be the service that this boy would render to God? Verse 5—“He will begin the deliverance [literally, the salvation] of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” Though the rest of the tribe had fled up north, this boy would be a warrior and alone he would fight for his people.
Well, in the rest of the narrative, we see a number of interesting exchanges. Manoah’s wife tells her husband about what happened, but Manoah is not content with that. He’s got questions too. And so he prays asking for this “man of God” to come again. And God in his patience comes again, but he appears to Manoah’s wife again, so she has to go get him.
Notice how God appeared first to Manoah’s wife both times. God isn’t afraid to use women in significant ways throughout redemptive history, even against cultural expectations.
Well, Manoah comes at the angel of the Lord with his questions, but the angel basically repeats the same directions. Maybe Manoah was expecting more, like “Make sure your son signs up for tae kwon do classes or learns under this great warrior”—but there’s nothing like that. No, this boy will be great because of God. And therefore, the only instructions worth repeating are the same ones as before. This is the full extent of his instructions for their parenting! Manoah’s wife is to avoid alcoholic drink and eating anything unclean. He repeats, “She must do everything I have commanded her.” If Manoah has any part to play in this, it’s supporting his wife and helping her fulfill those commands during her pregnancy.
Well, Manoah invites the angel to have a meal with them, but the angel doesn’t accept his hospitality. He’s not here to receive Manoah’s favors but to accomplish his mission. So instead, he accepts a burnt offering from Manoah, and at that point, he reveals his identity as he ascends to heaven in the flame of the offering. This was the Lord himself. And once Manoah realizes this, he despairs, because no man can see God and live. But his wife is the voice of reason. If God has spoken to you, then this is a sign of his favor, not his judgment. Whenever you have a chance to hear God’s Word, know that God means to do you good, not evil.
It's hard to know exactly what was going on with Manoah. It might be that he was doubtful about what his wife told him and needed to see for himself. Or it could be that he was fretful and felt like he needed more assurance. Or it could be that he was just a simple farmer with lots of questions. Whatever it was, this is clear: God is patient. And he has no problem using someone as unlikely as Manoah.
Throughout the Book of Judges, God is using unlikely heroes. A left-handed man. A prophetess. A fearful warrior. An illegitimate son. And now, he will use a simple barren couple to bring about one of the greatest warriors Israel has ever known.
So I wonder: What is it that you think makes you stand out to God? What is it that you think makes you particularly useful to God? Your hardworking discipline? Your clean record? Your academic degrees? Your financial investments? Your good looks and cultural hipness? Okay, God can use those things. But you know what? When he does so, you’re going to be tempted to take credit for them. Not only that, but people are going to see that and say, “Of course God would use you. That makes sense.”
But, if this passage is any indication, God loves to use the unlikely, the weak, the limited. God loves to put to shame the wisdom and strength of the world. Because it is in our weaknesses that he shows himself to be so obviously great.
So where are the areas you feel lacking? Social skills? Communication? Maybe you’re limited by your sickness? Maybe the sins of your past continue to haunt you? Oh friends, these things, which you feel like limit your ability to serve God, are actually opportunities for God to demonstrate his great power through you. The idea is not that we would ever become proud or happy about our weaknesses, no, but that we would own up to them. That we would not hide them away before God but that we would entrust them to God, knowing that his grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in our weakness.
And realize that God using you may not be glamorous. Samson would go on to be a mighty warrior. But God’s role for Manoah and his wife was to bear a son and watch their diet. Not very glamorous but crucial in God’s redemptive plan.
So yes, Charles Spurgeon, the 19th-century preacher, preached to millions and thousands were converted under his ministry. But it was an unknown, untrained Primitive Methodist deacon who could barely get through his sermon who was used by God to convert Charles Spurgeon. Friends, you might not be a Charles Spurgeon. But you might be that unknown deacon. Or you might the one who disciples the deacon who then is used by God to convert Spurgeon. We just don’t know how God will use us. But don’t underestimate God’s power.
I know I’m speaking to a congregation full of those who have served God with the prime of their lives, and so many of you have done amazing things for the Lord. But brothers and sisters, could it be that God is not done with you yet? Could it be that as you face the trials and losses of old age, that you are even more useful to God than when you were healthy? Might God have saved the most important work for you to do in this season of your life?
For all of us who struggle with sickness, with pain, with loneliness, with monotony, with depression, and countless other hardships; even as you labor to get through the day, realize that this is not a wasted season of your life. God means to use you in the midst of all those difficulties to reveal the truth and power of the gospel. You’ve prayed for an open door to share the gospel with those around you. Well, here it is! People are going to be curious about your faith not as you prosper but as you struggle and persevere in faith.
And we have to remember this as a church. Sure, there was a day when we were packing out the civic auditorium and thousands were regularly showing up. But we live in a very different time, and in God’s providence, we are much smaller. Could it be that we are now just small and insignificant enough so that God might want to use us? Might God use even us to see a gospel-preaching church planted on distant islands for the first time in human history? Or might God have a smaller, but important, role for us to play in the Pacific Northwest? I’m not saying it will be glorious or easy. But if God uses us, it will be important.
Which means our job then is simply to be faithful. Manoah had all kinds of questions, but what he needed to know, God had already revealed. And what he needed to do is simply to trust and follow those commands. Faith doesn’t have to know everything about everything. Faith needs to know what it is that God has revealed and then faithfully carry out what is in front of you.
But be encouraged by how patient God was with Manoah! In verse 9, God hears Manoah’s prayers and he makes time to meet with him, even though there’s nothing new to say. Friends, in the midst of your weakness, God is patient with you. So don’t be afraid to go to God in prayer. Don’t be afraid to ask your questions, to come to him with your requests. If you want to be used by God, then you must pray.
Of course, God may answer your prayers in ways you did not expect. This was certainly true for Manoah. But prayer was never about getting God to do what we want him to do. Prayer was never about getting God to conform to our narrow purposes. No, prayer is how we go to God, how we entrust our hopes and dreams to him, and how we align ourselves to his plan and his purposes. This is how we pray in faith: by entrusting our career, our family, our church, our future into God’s hands, trusting that they are all a part of his grand narrative of redemption.
Certainly, this was what Manoah and wife were left with. Can you imagine them the next morning? The angel of the Lord is gone, but they can’t go back to business as usual. Nothing has changed, but given what the angel has told them, everything is now different! Their work and their lives have new meaning. Every meal matters. As the baby is conceived in her womb, Manoah and his wife understand that they are participating in something bigger than themselves. They need to be careful to follow the angel’s directions. God’s plan of redemption carries on, even through this unlikely couple.
So it is with all the unlikely people that God will ever use, even us.
God saves through his Spirit-filled warrior
Just as God promised, we see in verse 24, “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 in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.”
Here in the territory of Dan, Samson is born. While many of his kinsmen have fled, he remains and he grows up and God’s favor rests on him. And from an early age, he must have stood out. We know from the subsequent narrative Samson maintains his Nazirite vow. Some commentators see the Nazirite vow not as being a rejection of the settled, cultured lifestyle of the Canaanites but a picture of Israel living in the wilderness, as a nomadic people, fully dependent on God. Samson’s Nazirite vow set him apart from the Canaanite culture, marking him as distinct. And the Spirit of the Lord begins to stir in Samson during these years.
The author doesn’t give us any details as to what that meant. What exploits did Samson have as a teenager? Was he fighting lions and bears like David as a young shepherd?
Whatever it was, God was preparing him to be a deliverer, a savior for Israel. But notice in verse 5 what the angel says: “he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines.” Not that he will accomplish, but he will begin. If you know the story of Samson, you’ll know that actually Samson never delivered Israel from the Philistines. Though he single-handedly killed thousands of Philistines throughout his life, even sacrificing his life in the end, the Philistines still remained in power. But by his power, Samson would stir up Philistines to war against Israel, and Israel against the Philistines. God would preserve the identity of his people through Samson. And it would not be much longer before God would bring another Spirit-filled king who would finally defeat these Philistines.
Friends, in Samson, we see a picture of the salvation that we need. We don’t need more tips and steps for saving ourselves. We need a Savior. We need someone to come do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. God’s saving act here points to the ultimate salvation that he would one day bring through Jesus Christ.
If you are not a Christian, this is what we want you to walk away with. This is what this story and the entire Bible is about. We are those who live under a far greater enemy than any army or king. Our oppression is far worse than any physical bondage. Because we all live under the bondage of sin, death, and Satan. We are those who are blind and enslaved to our rebellion and sin, so that for all our self-righteousness, we actually are quite comfortable with sin. And for that, we are all deserving of God’s judgment.
But here’s the Good News: God sent us a Savior even greater than Samson, Jesus of Nazareth. Born miraculously of a virgin to two unlikely parents, filled with the Spirit of God, and yet, unlike Samson, Jesus was perfect: without sin, marked by perfect love, bringing healing to the sick and afflicted, and speaking words of truth. Alone amidst all humanity, here was one who did not rebel against God and did not give way to sin. And yet at the end of his life, this Savior was betrayed by those he loved, he was mocked and tortured by his enemies, and he was nailed to a cross. And there on the cross, Jesus sacrificed his life for sinners, bearing the judgment of their sins upon himself and dying in their place.
But the amazing news is that by that death, Jesus did not just begin our salvation, but he accomplished it. He finished it. We know this because three days later, Jesus rose from the dead triumphant over sin and death. Before his disciples, before hundreds of eyewitnesses, he revealed himself to be totally triumphant over sin, death, and Satan. And now he calls sinners like you and me to turn away from our sin, to trust in his victory and to follow him to eternal life.
Oh friend, aren’t you tired of the evil and brokenness of this world? Aren’t you tired of being robbed and lied to and condemned by your sin and by Satan? Aren’t you sick of the fear of death? Oh friend, there is a Savior for you. “But you don’t know the stuff I’ve done. You don’t know how messed up my life is now and how much junk I’m hiding.”
That’s true, but I’m not calling you to clean your life up. Notice, God didn’t send a savior only when Israel had finally gotten its act together and had an army all ready to fight. No, God sent them a savior while they were happily at peace with their enemies. And it’s that savior who delivers them. So it is with Jesus. He’s not waiting for you to clean yourself up. No, he went out alone and accomplished your salvation.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom. 5:8)
Now he calls you to stop living for sin and to place your hope in him.
Friend, this is what Christmas is all about. Why not take the time this Christmas season to know more about this Savior? We’ve got free books. We’ve got people who would love to have coffee with you. Talk to someone after the service.
This is the perspective we need to be reminded of during Christmas. It feels like we live in this broken, rundown world and Christmas is this veneer of festivities that we put over our lives for a season, which all gets washed away in January or whenever you take down your Christmas tree. And before we know it, we are back into the grind of our painful lives. But that’s not what Christmas is.
Christmas is that time of year when we are reminded of the truth that God has sent to his people the true Savior of the world. And with his coming, a new age has dawned. God is undoing all that is wrong and broken with this world and with us. Christmas is the reality which defines our world, even more than all the brokenness and suffering around us. Yes, there is injustice; yes, there is sin; yes, there is sickness and even death. But with the arrival of Jesus, those things are on the run. Their days are numbered. They will not have the final say. But Jesus, in all his infinite goodness and love, will reign.
And like Manoah and his wife, we bank on the promises of God, knowing that God has sent us a Savior and that God means to use us to proclaim his wonders. And though it seems that nothing has changed, we know better. We know that everything has changed. God’s promises are true. Our lives are now forever charged with meaning and purpose.
So brothers and sisters, take heart! Do not abandon your post. Do not give way to despair. Persevere in following the Savior. Because a new day has dawned. Let’s walk in the light of his salvation.
Geoff Chang is an associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR.