Wednesday, March 09, 2022
During this Lenten season, with its call to repentance and renewal, we’re going to focus on two short Old Testament books, Ruth and Jonah.
Now, don’t be lulled into thinking that because these two books are short, they’re unimportant. Both books present important testaments to the activities of God in our world for our good. Listening to and learning from them, as is true of all of God’s Word in the Bible, can inspire and strengthen our faith in the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
As I began preparing and praying for this series I noted that Ruth and Jonah tackle at least five questions that are important for us today.
1. How far does the reign of God extend over our lives?
2. Who exactly does God care about?
3. How does God deal with believers who disobey or ignore Him?
4. How does God deal with unbelievers who turn to Him?
5. And most important of all, how do we see Jesus in these two books?
This last question may seem strange. After all, Ruth and Jonah are Old Testament books. Ruth recounts events that took place roughly one-thousand years before Jesus’ birth and Jonah talks about things that happened eight-hundred years before Jesus.
But what the apostles and generations of faithful Christian teachers and believers have realized is that “the entirety of the Old Testament [is] a witness to Christ.”* This is something that Jesus Himself teaches us. When the risen Jesus revealed Himself to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke tells us that, “...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets,...[Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
Both Jonah and Ruth are excellently crafted narratives. But these two books aren’t mere stories. They tell us about what the Bible claims and, in the case of Jonah, Jesus believed, to be actual historical events, actual interventions of God in the history of the universe.
Some people have argued, especially about Jonah, that these books couldn’t possibly record actual events because they report the occurrence of things that don’t normally happen.
This is a silly argument. It claims that the God Who created the entire universe out of nothing is incapable of doing things we wouldn’t expect Him to do.
Both the books of Ruth and Jonah testify that God sometimes does out-of-the-ordinary things in service to His great goal of saving you, me, and the fallen universe from sin, death, and darkness.
The story of Ruth, which we take up tonight, takes place in that period of Old Testament history in which God’s people, the Jews, occupied the land God promised them before their first king was enthroned. This was the period of the Judges. Israel at that time had no regular government. Instead, from time to time, judges would arise to mete out justice or wage war. Some of the judges were good. But the work of even the good ones bore little long-term impact on the spiritual renewal of the people; this period was marked by sin, corruption, and faithlessness toward God.
Near the end of the age of the judges, a famine hit the land. Ironically, it must have been particularly difficult on people who lived in a little town called Bethlehem, a name that literally means House of Bread, since its soil was usually good for growing barley and other crops from which bread could be made.
Elimelech, Naomi, and their sons end up in a place called Moab, whose people were descended from Abraham’s relative, Lot. While in Moab, the two boys married Moabite wives, one named Orpah, the other named Ruth. In the course of time, all three of the men die. Eventually, Naomi gets word that crops are growing back in Israel.
Under the complicated inheritance laws of those days, which only allowed the sons of a marriage to inherit their father’s property, Naomi was left with nothing.
Naomi makes a bold faith decision. She decides to go back to Bethlehem in the hope that a near relative will take up Elimelech’s property and make provision for her as Elimelech’s widow. She has no idea if this will work; she simply steps out in faith.
Our lesson tells us that as Naomi sets out, her two daughters-in-law start to go with her, instead of returning to their families’ homes. Naomi is able to convince Orpah that it would be better for her to opt for the security of her family home and stay in Moab. But Ruth famously tells Naomi: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
More than a thousand years later, Jesus, God the Son, would tell a Roman centurion, a Gentile like Ruth, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” (Luke 7:9) Naomi may have had similar thoughts when hearing Ruth.
Tuesday, March 08, 2022
Monday, March 07, 2022
Spiritually, you and I are born with a decided mistrust toward God and others. We want to be our own gods because we’re not sure we can trust God. All the sins we commit have their root in our inborn mistrust of God and our skepticism that His will is better than our will for our lives. We distrust God’s commitment to provide us with our daily bread and so we covet, hoard, and sometimes, take. We distrust God’s plan for us in our marriages and so, we seek sexual intimacy with those with whom we don’t have a marriage covenant. We distrust God’s affirmation of our eternal value in His eyes and so, we tear others down to build ourselves up. Many who claim to be Christians distrust God’s grace given in Christ and so, undertake all manner of supposedly good works to prove themselves worthy of heaven. Ultimately, sin is about our failure to trust in God. This failure to trust in God leaves us constantly open to the temptation to trust in our own desires and judgments rather than in God’s loving will for us as human beings.
And this failure to trust in God didn’t start with us, you know. In the garden of Eden, the serpent–the devil–planted doubts in the minds of Adam and Eve over whether God could be trusted. “‘Did God really say,’You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?’” (Genesis 3:1) The intimation, of course, was that God was holding back something from Adam and Eve. He presented “the knowledge of good and evil”--they had hitherto only known good–as some privilege that God was unfairly withholding from them. Adam and Eve caved into the temptation. By allowing themselves to be tempted to distrust God, they failed in their call as God’s people.
Many generations later, the people of Israel, God’s own people, wandered in the wilderness, repeatedly failing to trust in God. At a place called Meribah, even after God had miraculously delivered the people from slavery in Egypt and repeatedly provided for them, they still wanted God to prove Himself to them. They “put the Lord to the test” and asked, “Is the Lord among us?” (Exodus 17:2, 17)
God’s desire has always been to save the human race from the sin and death into which we all are born. God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) This is why immediately after the human fall into sin, God told the serpent that from human beings, made in the image of God, would come a Savior Who would bring an end to the sin, death, and sorrow the serpent–the devil–had tempted the human race into: “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) But, of course, if a human being was going to save the human race from sin, He would have to be different from the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve or the descendants of His people. Each generation of human beings descended from these lines have inherited the condition of sin, our inborn alienation from God, our inborn resistance to trusting in God. As God says of us: “...every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (Genesis 8:21)
And so, God decides to make an entirely new human race, one founded on a new Adam and a new Israel, the Person Saint Paul calls, “the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead.” (Colossians 1:18) Paul also says of Jesus, the New Adam, “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit…And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Corinthians 15:45, 49) We who have been baptized in and believe in Jesus are, by grace through faith, members of this new human race, empowered to trust in God even though the devil, the world, and our sinful selves, try to pull us away from God, from trust in God. Jesus is the beginning of a new race born of the Gospel Word and the sacraments to become children of God. Jesus battles to save us from our imprisonment to sin, death, and the devil by taking on human flesh. It’s this sinless Champion of the human race Who will defeat the devil who tempted Adam and Eve, the ancient Israelites, and the whole human race into sin and distrust for God. Jesus will succeed where everyone else has failed. Our call is not to struggle to make ourselves better, as the other religions of the world insist; our call is to trust in Jesus Who has lived the perfect life and died the perfect death to save imperfect people from the sin that would otherwise damn us for all eternity.
Jesus wins the war to save us from sin, death, and the devil before the devil even knows what hit him. That’s what today’s Gospel lesson tells us. You know the history of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness well. The Holy Spirit led Jesus to a showdown with the devil, diabolos in the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, diabolos being a word that literally means Slanderer, a perfect designation for one who routinely slanders God and the human race God created and loves.
As is true for each of us when we’re tempted by the devil, the devil’s temptations of Jesus were tailor-made for the Savior of the world. The devil wanted to keep Jesus from fulfilling His mission of dying and rising for us. He tried to convince Jesus to skip suffering for our sin and distrust of God and, instead, grab for the glory the devil claimed he could offer Jesus: acclamation, ease, power. But Jesus’ love–God’s love—for you is so great that He refused to take the easy way out. The only way He could save you from yourself and the hell you deserve–that I deserve–was to offer His sinless body up as the perfect sacrifice for us, absorbing the hell and condemnation that, without Him, would be our lot. And so, with each temptation and each challenge the devil throws at esus to prove Himself as the Son of God, Jesus takes refuge in God and in God’s Word. Even when, His body wracked by hunger and weakness, the devil twists the Word of God to intimate that Jesus should, like the ancient Israelites, put God to the test, in this case by taking the stupid and unnecessary risk of throwing Himself from the top of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus remains steadfast in His trust in God. The will of God for Jesus and sometimes for us will entail sacrifice and putting God’s will for us ahead of our own will for us. But just as Jesus embraced the cross to eternally save us, we can embrace the crosses God calls us to bear, the recognition that we are mortal sinners who are only saved for life with God as we follow Jesus! That is the way of victory and life with God! We see this when, resisted and repudiated by Jesus as He faced down the devil’s temptations in the power of God’s loving Word, the devil is reduced to departing from Jesus and like some pathetic scavenger, waiting for some more opportune time to tempt and test Jesus. But even now, three years before Jesus went to His cross, the devil must have known he’s been defeated. And we can see now on this side of Jesus’ cross and resurrection, that the devil and sin and death have been utterly and eternally defeated.
In another part of Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.” (Luke 11:21-22) For centuries, the devil had seemed to exercise control over the human race, tempting and testing the faithful, undermining the good, luring the human race with lies. He was a strong man who seemed to hold the universe bound in death and futility. No wonder he had the temerity to offer Jesus the world’s kingdoms if Jesus would worship Him. But the devil underestimated the depths of Jesus’ passionate love for you and me. Jesus proved, even before He offered up His sinless life for us on the cross, to be the stronger one. By His refusal to take a shortcut to glory, His refusal to enjoy ease while we died in our sins, Jesus overpowered the evil one. Instead, Jesus resolutely set His face toward Jerusalem and His cross (Luke 9:51), where He would save all born “in bondage to sin…[incapable of freeing] ourselves,” who receive saving faith in Jesus by the Gospel Word, by the waters of Holy Baptism, and by the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
In the wilderness, Jesus, the New Adam, gave notice that He was doing a new thing. His forty-day victory at the outset of His earthly ministry declares, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13) The King will not abandon those who He comes to save, you and me. His victory also declares, “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17) The New Adam makes new people of all who, despite the temptations and tests of this world, trust in Him. And on the cross and at the empty tomb, Jesus proves that He alone is worth every ounce of our trust in Him. May the Gospel Word about Jesus empower you to trust in Jesus always. Amen
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In our gospel lesson for tonight, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, Jesus warns believers: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
He goes on to say that when we give to the needy, we should seek to keep it quiet. If our aim is to impress others with our giving, the greatest reward we can expect is the applause of a dead world. If our aim is to honor God, our reward will be all the gifts an eternal God can give.
When we offer prayers only to be seen by others, we may impress a dying world. But that won’t help us in eternity, where God gives eternal rewards. We should pray to connect with, confess sin to, give praise to, and seek help from God.
When we fast, it should be done for the purpose of emptying ourselves of sin or to listen to God. If we fast to get spiritual brownie points from the people before whom we play out our religious shows, those brownie points, which have zero value in this world or the next, will have to suffice as our reward.
In other words, the question of motivation is important to Christians, even on Ash Wednesday. If we come to this service, receive the mark of the cross, sing the hymns, or partake of the body and blood of Jesus to impress other people or climb a religious ladder, we may receive some earthly rewards. People in the congregation may be impressed that you came to worship on a Wednesday night. People may see you at a grocery or convenience store you stop at on the way home and, noticing the cross on your forehead, think well of you or ill of themselves because of your piety.
But Jesus says that the only reward a Christian disciple should seek is the reward Jesus Himself won for us on the cross, the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life with God that belongs to all who believe in Him.
Jesus’ warning to watch our motives for things like giving to the poor, fasting, or praying raises another issue for some Christians, though. It subjects them to what has been called the paralysis of self-analysis.
There’s a story told of two actors, one a seasoned veteran with many credits, the other a celebrated up-and-comer. There was a brief scene in which these two were to appear together. The older one sat in a room. The younger was to enter the room through one door and exit through another. It would take all of five seconds. But rehearsal ground to a stop when the younger actor couldn’t figure out how to “play” the scene. “What’s my motivation for walking in and out of that room at that moment?” he asked. “Your motivation,” the veteran actor said, “is to walk through the room and get on with the scene!” The younger actor had been paralyzed from doing anything because he obsessed over whether he had the right motivation. Listen: Our motivations matter. But if we Christians wait to do anything before we’re certain that our motives are absolutely pure, we won’t do anything in Jesus’ name at all.
Remember how the apostle Paul wrestled with his own sinfulness? “...I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans 7:21-23) Despite knowing that his motivations were adulterated by his sinful human nature, Paul continued to do the thing he trusted God was calling him to do. Paul could do that because he recognized that every baptized Christian, even the most seasoned and exemplary, has several things in common. First, we are all sinners. Second, we are all saints. We are sinners made saints not by what we do or by the pure motives with which we do them, but solely by God’s grace given to us through faith in Jesus Christ.
As we trust Christ and live in daily relationship with Him and His Church, God is transforming us. We can trust in that. He works within us as we turn to Him in daily repentance and renewal so that the sinner in us is daily subjected to death and the new us--the new you and me--is raised.
This is an ongoing process in the lives of believers in Jesus. It's called sanctification. But our final sanctification will only happen after we have physically died and been raised by God and we see Jesus face to face. The apostle John tells us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
Ultimately, Jesus’ call to us in our gospel lesson tonight and in the season of Lent is simple: To get our minds off of ourselves and onto Him as the only one Who can give us life, forgiveness, purpose, and the desire to do things for His glory, not our own. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” Galatians 5:1 tells us. And Colossians 3:23-24 says: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”
When we know that we have been saved from sin, death, darkness, and worry over ourselves through Christ, we are set free! We’re free to stop taking ourselves so seriously while taking our Savior’s call to love God, love neighbor, and love fellow believers with the utmost seriousness.
Our freedom in Christ may be expressed in many ways, including, as Jesus discussed tonight, in giving to the poor, fasting, and praying. In fact, Jesus takes it as a matter of course that they will be expressed in these ways, since He says of them, “When you give, when you fast, when you pray.”
But through Jesus, we’re free from the have tos, the musts, and gotta do its of the world, the religious hoops we think we have to negotiate in order to please God (and impress others). In Jesus, we get to love. We get to be the people Christ sets us free to be. We get to live our lives in God’s charity, His grace, not by the world’s punishing standards. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Jesus says (Mark 16:16).
You may do a spiritual discipline for Lent, something you give up or add to your life. If that’s true, try not to tell anyone about it. Don’t do it for yourself--there are few things more boring or spiritually pointless than a discipline adopted to bring self-improvement. Do it for Christ. Do it for God’s glory. And if you do it imperfectly, talk it over with God and don’t stew about it. Christ didn’t die for perfect people. He died for you and me, mortals created by God from ashes and dust, but mortals who, as we trust in Christ, have the reward no mortal could ever earn or deserve, eternity with God. There’s freedom in that, freedom from playing to the crowd, freedom from worrying over whether we’re good enough or worthy enough, freedom from sin, freedom from self. Jesus gives freedom. Sisters and brothers in Christ, live in that freedom!
Years ago, Ann and I listened to a young person talk about an election campaign then happening. “It doesn’t matter who we vote for,” she told us. “Nothing will ever get better again.” I have to say that, at one level, I share that young person’s assessment of whether the election of any person significantly changes our world for the better.
Only a spiritual renewal, one in which people respond to the Word of the Gospel, turn from sin, and follow Jesus Christ each day will cause us, as individuals and societies, to act differently toward one another. The fact that we human beings still haven’t figured out to live together in love under the reign of God is discouraging. Even for people who claim no belief in God. We all are born with God’s Law on our hearts, meaning that we know that sin, selfishness, and death aren’t the way God intended us to live. Ultimately, it was discouragement over the gap between God’s goodness and our evil to which that young person gave expression.
And she isn’t alone, though some try, on their own, to make the best of it. Like people who say, “The world is going to hell. But I’m going to get what I can for me and my family.” Not, “The world is going to hell and I’m going to trust in Christ and share Him with whoever I can.” Not, “The world is bad, so I’m going to love my family and forgive those who sin against me.” Not, “I’m going to pray that God’s kingdom will come.” No, these people think, “Things are bad and I’m going to get as much good as I can, other people be hanged. Then I'll die." It’s statements and attitudes like these that can, if we’re honest, point us to the fact that it isn’t just the politicians preventing the world from getting better. It’s us too!
The first followers of Jesus Christ had observed many epiphanies--many manifestations of His deity--over the course of His ministry. We’ve seen many recounted by the gospel writers this Epiphany season. Because of Jesus’ epiphanies, the first disciples pinned their hopes for a better world on Jesus.
For five hundred years, God’s people--the Jews--had suffered from discouragement. It had been that long since God had spoken through the prophets, through whom God had promised a Messiah, a Christ, an anointed King. Through those centuries, they endured injustice, foreign domination, the enslavement of a grace-less religion, and punishement for their own sin, idolatry, and self-righteousnss. Many had given up hope that God would ever act. But now, with the advent of Jesus, the veil of despair began to lift. Was God’s kingdom close at hand, after all? Was Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king, come to make things right?
Eight days before the events recounted in this morning’s Gospel lesson, one disciple, the apostle Peter, was moved by the Holy Spirit to claim Jesus as “God’s Messiah.” [Luke 9:20] Jesus told Peter and the other apostles, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” [Luke 9:22] The disciples must have felt that the small embers of hope just being brought to flame by Jesus were being doused by His cold wet blanket.
Popular thought said that the Messiah--the Christ--would conquer foreign foes and ensure an era of financial prosperity. (The very things we expect of politicians, by the way.) The Christ, they thought, would govern justly and everyone would live happily ever after. But Jesus understood that the people of His homeland--the people of the world, including you and me--are oppressed by much more than foreign threats or economic challenges, more than poverty or terrorism. All of those ills and many more come from a deeper human problem, the problem that Jesus came to conquer. That problem is sin, our inborn alienation from God, and death, the common enemy of every human being, that springs from sin. “The wages of sin is death,” the Bible tells us.
Jesus was telling Peter: “You’re right. I am the Messiah. And this is what the Messiah does. He bears the weight of Your sin and death on the cross, taking the punishment you deserve, so that as you daily you repent and believe in Me, you have eternal life in the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God exists for all eternity, starting here in the hearts and wills of people who follow Jesus. Being a member of this kingdom today won’t erase the sins or tragedies of this fallen world. It’s still poisoned by sin and death. But being a member of this kingdom today will give us the faith and courage to live the Christian life: to love God, to love neighbor, to serve others with no expectation of return payment, to call others to follow Jesus with no expectation that they will say yes, to pray in Jesus’ name for both those we love and for those who hate us.
When the risen Jesus lives in us by faith, we can take a world going to hell in our arms and love it with the love of Christ. When you know that the story ends beyond the gates of death with eternal life with God, it changes how you do today! But when you’ve lived for five centuries with discouragement like Jesus’ people had and you’re told that your favorite myth about the Messiah is false, that He will conquer our enemies by death and not warfare before He rises from the dead, you need encouragement.
And so, our lesson tells us that God the Father supplied it! Our lesson tells us that Jesus’ entire visage was changed, transfigured, and that the blazing light of His deity was on full display! What a sight it must have been for the discouraged eyes of Peter, John, and James! The holiness, grandeur, and light of God emanating from every pore of Jesus’ earthly body. Throughout His life up to this point, Jesus had concealed the grandeur of His deity and now, for just a moment, let these three apostles see Him for Who He really is, God the Son, so that later, they could encourage others weighed down by discouragement or a sense of defeat in the face of our sin and death. God was assuring the three disciples (and us) that despite the cross that awaited Jesus--that awaits everyone of us who confesses our sin and follows Jesus, that He’s still God and that the Messiah, after claiming His throne, will reign eternally over all who, by His grace, endure the discouragements of this world, by believing in Him.
Later, Peter wanted to build three booths or tabernacles, one each for Jesus and Moses and Elijah, who were talking with Jesus. Peter wanted to capture this moment and live up on that mountain while the dying, discouraged world went on down below. But God, who Peter was looking at in Jesus, is bigger than all the boxes we try to put Him in. And so God the Father tells Peter, John, and James: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Luke 9:35) Here, God is telling us all: “Jesus is all you have been looking for. This is the one to whom Moses and Elijah were pointing in Old Testament times. This is your king, God in the flesh.” Jesus was and is the Messiah toward whom all of human history had been moving. And Jesus was and is the death of our discouragement and the Author of all lasting hope!
For people discouraged by life, the events of the first Transfiguration Sunday give hope. They must have helped Peter, John, and James and the disciples they led through the pain of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. “Yes,” they could have said, “Jesus has died, but we saw Him on the mountaintop. We know that He is God. But hold on. Hold on!”
Both Peter and John would speak of the Transfiguration years after it happened. “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty,” Peter would say in 1 Peter 1:16-18. “He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” And John says of Jesus at the beginning of his gospel, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
And when they saw the risen Jesus, the Holy Spirit would help them to put the pieces of the mystery together. They would understand that the sinless Messiah had to die so that when He rose, He could offer discouraged and otherwise hopeless sinners like you and me an everlasting kingdom filled with the righteousness and peace and presence and love of God.
Take courage in the midst of this world’s darkness, hold on tightly to Jesus, and listen to Him. It’s in Him that encouragement, forgiveness, life, and hope are found. In Jesus alone. Amen