I wonder how you like your fried eggs? I like mine sunny side up – a nice, colourful, unbroken yolk bang in the middle of an expanse of white. And one of the great disappointments in life, if I'm doing fried eggs, is to break the yolk. Whereas my Dad will break it deliberately – it pains me to say this – he'll actually take a fork and stab it and mix it all in. Which in my book is not a fried egg, but an omelette. And with the image of those two very different fried eggs in mind, you have the key to understanding the book of Judges, which we're looking at these Sunday nights.
God had called a group of people – Israel – into relationship with himself, and then promised them the land of Canaan to live in. And he'd told them to drive out all its present occupants – which sounds brutal; but which was for two reasons. One was to bring judgement on the present occupants for their immorality – including the kind of child sacrifice we've been hearing about in the news. But the other reason was so that God's people didn't mix in with them. Because the Lord knew that if they did, they'd accommodate to the beliefs of the Canaanites, turn away from him and end up indistinguishable from the world around.
Which brings us back to the fried eggs. Because God's plan was for Israel to be like the yolk of a sunny side up egg – living in the middle of an expanse of godlessness and standing out through being coloured by obedience to God, so that through them others would come to know him, too. Which is still the purpose for us, his people today. But the book of Judges is the story of how the yolk broke – of how Israel failed to drive out the occupants of the land and mixed in with them, accommodated to them, turned away from the Lord and ended up, omelette-like, indistinguishable from the world around. Which is still the danger for us today, isn't it?
Now for Israel things ultimately went from bad to worse: fast forward 500 years through the Bible and you find God's people in exile because God had allowed them, this time, to be driven out as a judgement on their sin (he doesn't show partiality). And God inspired the Bible books from Joshua through to 2 Kings (including Judges) for two main reasons: to help those exiles learn from the past mistakes of God's people; and also to help them keep trusting God for the future rather than giving up in despair at the state of his church. And we need the book of Judges for the same two reasons today.
So would you turn in the Bible to Judges 13. God's people here are in the promised land but have failed to drive out its present occupants. That's why, since the beginning of the book, they've been under repeated attack. But God has raised up a string of leaders, called judges (hence the name of the book), to help his people against their enemies. Last week, we met Jephthah; this week we meet the twelfth and final judge, Samson. My title is 'A Saviour is Born', and my first heading is this:
Firstly, THE ALL TOO OBVIOUS JUDGEMENT OF GOD ON HIS PEOPLE (v1)
Look at Judges 13.1:
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.
So Israel accommodated to the beliefs and culture of the people around her, and as a judgement, God left her increasingly leaderless and allowed the people around her to squeeze away the freedom and privileges she'd had. Which is pretty much the situation of the church in this country today. It's all too obvious that the church in this nation is under God's judgement for accommodating to the world and losing the gospel. We're under the judgement of numerical decline: eg, JPC is one of just ten Anglican churches in the country with a congregation of over 1,000. Well, thank God for that. And yet when our church was founded, 149 years back, every one of the twelve Anglican churches in Newcastle city centre was over 1,000; one had a Sunday school of 1,800. We're also under the judgement of the Christian faith being squeezed out of public life – out of schools and the media and political debate –and of having our freedom to be Christian threatened. And we're also under the judgement of a failure of leadership in the churches – nationally among denominational leaders (bishops and so on), and also, often, in local churches.
And that's because for certainly the last 100 years, much of the church has accommodated to the world and lost the gospel. The yolk of the fried egg has broken and the church has ended up as a largely indistinguishable omelette. That's happened in various ways, but let me mention two in particular. One is through the theological training of ministers. Over the past 100 years, ministers have increasingly been 'trained' (in inverted commas) by doing basically secular theology, where the inspiration and authority and timeless applicability of the Bible has been denied. Well, what better way to get the fork into the yolk, than to undermine the gospel convictions of the church's teachers, right from the start? We need different training than that, in future. But then another way the fork has been put in is through the church's accommodation to the sexual culture around us. Much of the church has followed much of the world in confusing love with tolerance of anything – and has consequently tolerated and even blessed what the Bible says is sinful in God's sight.
And when the yolk breaks, there follows the all too obvious judgement of God, to teach us the dire seriousness of being unfaithful to him; and to teach us that he will not bless his church regardless of how his church behaves – because if it behaves to dishonour him, the only thing he can do for his honour is to judge it: to cut out the dead wood, like a gardener doing some drastic pruning on a tree. Just look at v1 again: he
delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.
Which is pretty much a lifetime. And v1 may largely be the story of the church in our lifetime. It may get very tough indeed for Christians in the rest of our lifetime in this country. But while that is our story, we need to take heart from the fact that God is with us, even when he's judging his church, and that he's acting for his honour and a better future.
So, that's the all too obvious judgement of God on his people.
Second, THE NOT SO OBVIOUS PROMISE OF GOD TO HIS PEOPLE (vv2-5)
The judgement of God on his people back then should have been obvious to anyone not in total denial. But it would have been fatal for Israel's morale to think that was the whole story – just as it would be fatal for us today to think that God was only acting in judgement towards his church in this nation. Which is where Judges 13 moves us on to: the not so obvious promise of God to his people. Look down to vv2-5:
2A certain man of Zorah, named Manoah, from the clan of the Danites, had a wife who was sterile and remained childless. [And her condition pictures the spiritual condition of Israel – incapable of creating her own future revival. V3:]3The angel of the LORD [ie, the LORD himself in some form] appeared to her and said, "You are sterile and childless, but you are going to conceive and have a son. [Which pictures how only the Lord can revive his church – creating faith and restoring faith. V4:] 4Now see to it that you drink no wine or other fermented drink and that you do not eat anything unclean, 5because 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 [which was an Old Testament (OT) way of being highly, voluntarily committed to the Lord – see Numbers 6], set apart to God from birth, and he will begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines."
And there's the promise: 'He will begin the deliverance of Israel.' Which calls for faith. You see, the eyes of physical sight can see the all too obvious judgement of God on his people. But at the same time, the eyes of are needed to see God's promise – and believe it, despite appearances to the contrary. And that's harder. It would have been easy for Mrs Manoah to think, 'But the Philistines have ruled us for 40 years. We're weak, they're strong, how's anything ever going to change?' That's not so obvious is it?
Across England, 100 years ago, 55% of children were regularly in church; today, it's 5%. 30 years ago 1.4 million teenagers were regularly in church; today it's half that. And in the same 30 years, total church attendance fell from 5.4 million to 3.7 million. That's what the physical eye sees – the graph heading rapidly down towards zero. And how anything's going to change is not so obvious, is it? We're in the same boat as Mrs Manoah.
But God gives her this promise to believe: her son, Samson, will begin the deliverance of Israel. And he did. Judges 14-16 tells the story of his extraordinary, and sometimes bizarre, one-man campaign against the Philistines. It was only a beginning – but it was the beginning of a story that culminated in David being made King, three Bible books down the tracks, and finally overcoming the Philistines.
And the lesson for us, when God is obviously judging his church, is that we need to trust his promise that he's also in the process of delivering it, as he saves people through the spread of the gospel. As the Lord Jesus himself promised:
'I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.' (Matthew 16.18)
So the physical eye looks around and sees God apparently demolishing parts of his church in this nation. But the eyes of faith see that he's promised to build it – and that demolition is often part of the process of building; certainly of re-building. Or think of the Lord Jesus' parables about how the kingdom of God will grow – ie, how more people will accept him as King and be part of that final multitude in heaven.
30...he said, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like...? 31It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. [ie, apparently utterly weak and insignificant] 32Yet [Jesus went on] when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade." (Mark 4.30-32)
And through the spread of the gospel, the kingdom of God has been growing these past 2,000 years; it is growing world-wide today; and it will continue to grow. And all the spiritual and human forces ranged against it will not stop it. That's a promise. So, let's believe it and act on it. Eg, with the Christianity Explored Tasters coming up, we will all be tempted to think that our invitations are as weak and insignificant as a mustard seed – that no-one's going to be interested, that no-one's going to come. But God has promised to build his church. So let's believe him and keep inviting and praying for him to move people to come. And then as we sit there on one of the Taster session nights, we will all be tempted to think that the gospel itself is as weak and insignificant as a mustard seed – that no-one's going to come back; that no-one's going to believe it; that no-one's going to turn to Christ. But God has promised to build his church. So let's believe him and trust in the power of the gospel and pray for him to call people to himself through it.
So, the all too obvious judgement of God on his people, the not so obvious promise of God to his people. Finally,
Third, THE MODEL LIVES OF TWO OF GOD'S PEOPLE (vv6-24)
The rest of the chapter is about Manoah and Mrs Manoah. Which begs the question, 'Why are we told so much about this obscure couple?' And I think the answer must be: they're being held up as a model of how to be faithful in times of spiritual decline. Time means we can only skim this, but in vv6-7, Mrs Manoah tells her husband what the Lord has said, and they both believe it. So decline around them hasn't left them doubtful or cynical about God's Word. Then, v8:
Manoah prayed to the LORD : "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."
So the angel reappears and vv12-14:
12Manoah asked him, "When your words are fulfilled, what is to be the rule for the boy's life and work?"
13The angel of the LORD answered, "Your wife must do all that I have told her. 14She must not eat anything that comes from the grapevine, nor drink any wine or other fermented drink nor eat anything unclean [those signs of high, voluntary commitment to the Lord]. She must do everything I have commanded her."
Now that's the third time in the chapter that those instructions are repeated. And repetition in the Bible usually makes a point – the point here being: what can you do in times of spiritual decline – eg, about numbers dropping, or hopeless church leaders, or the marginalisation of Christians? You can feel pretty powerless and bleak about what it seems you can't do. But Judges 13 says: here's what you can do, whatever else you can't. You can do like Manoah and Mrs Manoah. You can keep believing God's Word, regardless of whether anyone else is. You can keep living a life of the highest possible commitment to the Lord, regardless of whether anyone else is. And if you have a family, you can teach and exemplify the faith to your children – which may be the most significant and powerful thing you ever do on this earth. One of the Puritans wrote this: 'keep up the government of God in your families, for holy families must be the chief preservers of the interest of Christ in the world.'
Two other things to learn from Manoah and Mrs Manoah. The first is that in times like Judges 13, even if we understand something of what God is doing, we'll never understand everything. So, in v15, Manoah invites the angel of the Lord to stay around for some food, as if he wants to talk and find out more from him. The angel declines but suggests the goat be offered to the Lord instead. Look on to v17:
17Then Manoah enquired of the angel of the LORD, "What is your name, so that we may honour you when your word comes true?" 18He replied, "Why do you ask my name? It is beyond understanding." [literally 'wonderful' – the Bible word for things we can't get our minds around.] (vv17-18)
It's as if the LORD is saying, 'Back off Manoah. I've told you all you need to know to trust and obey me a day at a time. And there's a whole lot else you're not going to know.' Eg, v1, why did the LORD hand them over for 40 years? Wouldn't 5 have taught them the lesson? Only the Lord knows the reasons for his timetable for events in our lives. And, v1, why the Philistines? Why not a drought or something else to chasten them? Only the LORD knows. And when I talk to brothers and sisters in perplexing times and they ask out loud, 'Why is God letting this happen?' I've learned that one of the most helpful things to say is, 'I don't know.' Because we often don't.
The last thing for believers to learn from Mrs Manoah is that: we need to trust that God is always for us. Look on to vv19-20:
19Then Manoah took a young goat, together with the grain offering, and sacrificed it on a rock to the LORD. And the LORD did an amazing thing while Manoah and his wife watched: 20As the flame blazed up from the altar toward heaven, the angel of the LORD ascended in the flame. Seeing this, Manoah and his wife fell with their faces to the ground. 21When the angel of the LORD did not show himself again to Manoah and his wife, Manoah realized that it was the angel of the LORD.
22"We are doomed to die!" he said to his wife. "We have seen God!"
23But his wife answered, "If the LORD had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and grain offering from our hands, nor shown us all these things or now told us this." 24The woman gave birth to a boy and named him Samson. He grew and the LORD blessed him, 25and the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him while he was in Mahaneh Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.
Like Manoah, we do so easily misinterpret circumstances as if the Lord were against us. But with the eyes of faith, Mrs Manoah sees the evidence, despite the judgements they're caught up in, of God's goodness and commitment to them. And in our own perplexing times, we may not understand much, or even anything, of what God is doing. But we can hold on to every evidence of his goodness to us – and supremely the evidence of how he gave up his Son to die for our forgiveness, as we'll remember tonight with bread and wine.
We bow under the judgement of your Word. We confess the state of your church in this country, and the turning away from you and your Word. And we confess our own sin – that although your grace has kept this church faithful, we have not been as faithful or as fruitful as we could have been.
So have mercy upon us. Make us more faithful and fruitful in this place. And please turn the fortunes of your church in this nation, for its sake and for your glory.
In Jesus' name we ask it. Amen.