Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Ruth and Jonah (Midweek Lenten Worship, Part 2)

[Here's video from the live stream of this evening's midweek Lenten worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Also, you'll find the text of tonight's message.]

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus creates a word picture of the final judgment of humanity. In this parabolic rendering, the goats are those condemned to eternal separation from God. The sheep are those invited to claim their inheritance in God’s Kingdom.

Jesus commends the sheep for all the wonderful things they’ve done. But the sheep spend three verses saying, “We don’t remember doing any of that stuff!” Had the sheep in Jesus’ account of the judgment thought their good works had something to do with their eternal salvation, they wouldn’t say that. They would have been keeping score. In essence though, they ask Jesus,“Good works? What good works?”

Good works are not the ticket to life with God. Jesus says, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29) But something happens in the lives of those who believe in God. When we receive the gift of faith in the God now revealed to everyone in Jesus, faith being a gift that comes to us not by our works but by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, we become, in a new way, “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) Even our good works are things God has set up and we just walk in them.

All of which brings us to our Bible lesson for tonight, Ruth 3-4. We ended the message last week with two widows: Ruth and Naomi. Ruth is a Moabite who insists on going with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem, in Israel. Ruth does this both out of devotion to the God of Israel in Whom she has come to believe and to care for her mother-in-law.

In chapter two of Ruth, which we’re skipping tonight, Ruth finds work helping with the barley harvest on the farm of a man named Boaz. Boaz is  a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband, Elimelech. Boaz notices Ruth is a hard-worker and knowing that she’s devoted to God and devoted to Naomi, her mother-in-law, takes care to ensure that Ruth has food she can share with Naomi and that she isn’t harmed while working for him. (More on that in a moment.)

The harvesting of barley involved taking the grain to a threshing floor. A threshing floor sat on top of a hill, composed of an area about thirty-feet wide, the floor made up of soil ground down flat. West winds, the prevailing winds, were strong during the day. But at sunset, the winds, still going, would die down enough to allow for the threshing to begin. The first step was to lead animal-drawn wagons over the grain set on the threshing floor. This would burst the grain open and allow for the second step. In this step, men used shovels to scoop up grain and toss it in the air. The unwanted chaff was blown away, while the usable grain remained. This work went on late into the night. It involved only men, the women being sent away for their safety. And there was a reason for that. Threshing floors were notorious settings of men who took advantage of women. When the crop has been picked, Ruth tells Naomi how well she’s been treated. Naomi is delighted because she knows and respects the older Boaz, an honorable man.

That brings us to chapter three. “My daughter,” Naomi tells her daughter-in-law, Ruth, “I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for.” (Ruth 3:1)

Under God’s Law, Ruth was under no obligation to play the matchmaker for Ruth or to concern herself with Ruth’s future. No more than Ruth was obligated under God’s Law to commit herself to following the God of Israel, Yahweh, or caring for Naomi. But when God has gifted you with faith and, by grace, made you one of his saints, the question is no longer, “What do I have to do to please God?” but “What do I get to do as I interact each day with my neighbors, including the neighbors under my own roof? According to Saint Paul, we can have the same mind in us that Christ Jesus had. Although He was God, Jesus didn’t exploit His deity, but became a servant for our good. When, through faith, we know we belong to God forever, we can make the business of others–their needs and interests–our business. I love what Martin Luther says: “God doesn’t need your good works. But your neighbor does.”

So, Naomi concocts a plan, drawing on two interrelated civil laws of the Jews.

One is that of the guardian-redeemer. When a man died without heirs, the nearest male relative could act as guardian-redeemer, ensuring that the deceased man’s birthright will remain with the extended family and tribe as originally assigned by God.

The other law was levirate marriage. This required that the next available bachelor son marry his brother’s widow and that the first son born to that union would become heir to the dead man’s property.

Naomi has Ruth bathe, perfume, and clothe herself like a woman no longer in mourning, like one, in fact, dressed as a bride. Ruth is to go silently to the threshing floor, waiting for Boaz to complete the harvesting and have his dinner and then, entering after all the men have gone to sleep, uncover his feet so that the by-now gentle breeze of the night would soon wake him. In the meantime, Ruth is to lie down at his feet, dressed as a bride.

If this all sounds a little racy, you should know that, in the original Hebrew, this chapter of Ruth is filled with innuendo and double-entendres. That’s because threshing floors, where men spent the night working, many got drunk, and all fell asleep to guard the crops from theft, were notorious for seduction and rape. But here, we’re to compare and contrast because Ruth and Boaz, despite all of the opportunities, behave honorably.

So Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions and when the startled Boaz awakens, she says, “I am your servant Ruth. Spread the corner of your garment over me [a phrase that means, ‘Be my husband.’], since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” (Ruth 3:9) Ruth is asking Boaz both to be her husband (which is pretty forward in that culture) and to act as guardian-deemer to care for Naomi. Like Ruth and Naomi, Boaz didn’t have to do what he does next; but he too, is a person of faith, for whom the love of others isn’t odious.

Boaz goes to the village gate, where judicial and civil proceedings are hammered out by the men of the community, establishing that the next-in-line male who had first-dibs on redeeming Elimelech’s property isn’t interested in buying the property if it means he also has to marry Ruth. He’s, afraid that his property would go to Elimelech’s heir if he marries Ruth. You know how the story ends. Boaz marries Ruth and takes care of Naomi. Later, Ruth and Boaz have their first child, Obed, the father of Jesse, and the grandfather of David, Israel’s greatest king. It’s into David’s family line that eleven centuries later, according to the plan and the promise of God, the Savior of the world, Jesus is born in Bethlehem.

From the beginning, God has had a plan and He uses grief-stricken people, imperfect people, people just looking ahead to the next step, to do His work in the world.

There are three main things to mention about what we see in this remarkable book.

First, of course, is that Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz do way more than God or anyone would require of them. They act with what the Hebrew of the Old Testament calls hesed, a word is often translated as mercy or covenantal steadfastness. But it might better be rendered as merciful fidelity. God is the initiator of His merciful covenants with Israel and the Church and believers and that same attitude of merciful fidelity is played out in the lives of those who trust in Him. Faithful to God, living in His grace, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz are set free to love God as they know God has loved them. They knew that by God’s grace through faith, they were part of God’s people and were free to live lives of unstinting love. “​​This is love,” the New Testament teaches, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

The second thing to mention is that God welcomes outsiders into His kingdom. He even uses outsiders to accomplish His purposes. Boaz was the son of Salmon and Rahab. Rahab, you’ll remember, was the Canaanite prostitute from Jericho, who, like Ruth, came to believe in the God of the ancient Israelites and helped them take that city when God gave them the land. Ruth was a descendant of Lot and his daughters who got their father drunk and tricked him into getting them pregnant. It was into the family descending from these two imperfect “foreigners” that the King of the Jews and the Savior of the world was born. If Jesus could be entrusted to such an unpromising lineage, He can also give us the gift of saving faith in God the Son, Jesus. No matter how far we have wandered from God. No matter how imperfect we are. No matter how much we may feel like an outsider.

The third thing to notice is that Boaz, the guardian-redeemer, foreshadows the guardian-redeemer God provides to all of us born with no claim on life with God. Like Boaz, who took Ruth as His bride, Jesus has come into this world to take His Church, the fellowship of repentant believers in Him, as His bride. Jesus died and rose to make us heirs of His grace. Infinitely and eternally more than Boaz, Jesus redeems us, not with money, but with His own sinless life offered on a cross. The faith and lives of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz, empowered to love by the God of love, help us see what kind of God we worship. But, if we want to know where their love came from, we look to Jesus, God the Son, the God Who empowers us to live, confident in His grace and forgiveness, and to love others as God loved us when He went to the cross. Amen

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Shelter for the Vulnerable

[Below is the live stream video of today's modern worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, and the text of today's message.]

Luke 13:31-35
Our Gospel lesson for this morning, Luke 13:31-35, begins strangely. A group of Pharisees approach Jesus and tell Him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” (Luke 13:31)

Scholars have argued for centuries over what’s going on here.

First of all, they wonder, what are the Pharisees doing here? This scene takes place far to the north of Judea, in the region of Galilee and Peraea, a province over which the Herod referred to here, the son of Herod the Great, sat as the Roman-installed tetrach. But the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism, mostly lived and hung out in Jerusalem, many miles to the south.

Secondly, if Herod really was threatening to kill Jesus at this time, why would Pharisees, who largely opposed Jesus, warn Jesus to leave Herod’s dominions?

Thirdly, how did the Pharisees, who had no respect for Herod, a “king” imposed on the Jews by the Romans, become privy to Herod’s thoughts on Jesus?

We don’t know the answers to those questions. But we don’t need to know the answers. The big take-away from this incident is that the Pharisees, along with the Sadducees, the other major sect of Judaism in those days, not to mention the Romans and the Jewish people at large, may have been intrigued by Jesus, but He also made them feel vulnerable, threatened.

In Jesus, they saw a sinless rabbi who healed people of diseases, cast out demons, raised the dead, conferred forgiveness on the repentant, proclaimed good news to the poor, fed the hungry, said that God stood against the haughty and the arrogant, and stood down stormy seas.

Everything about Jesus suggested that He was the Messiah God promised in Old Testament times, as well as God in the flesh.

Jesus made everyone feel vulnerable because, despite His humility and servant’s heart, He was telling His fellow Jews that neither their genealogy or their religious good works commended them to eternal life with God. They needed to repent–just as the Gentiles they regarded as heathens needed to repent–and they needed to believe in Him. They needed to take up their crosses, that is, acknowledge their sin and their need of a Savior, and then follow Jesus. (Luke 9:23)

Imagine how the Pharisees felt about Jesus’ message, “...unless you repent, you…will all perish…” (Luke 13:3)

The Pharisees felt no need to repent. They were certain that they perfectly obeyed God’s Law and would be with God always.

Many of their countrymen thought it was enough to be related to Abraham, just like some people today figure they’re good with God because they sometimes go to church, make an offering, or happen to be citizens of a particular country.

If people started believing in Jesus, the Pharisees saw, it would undermine their authority over them. Herod may have felt the same way.

When bullies feel threatened, they threaten others.

The words of the Pharisees tell us that either they, or Herod, or both Herod and the Pharisees were threatened by Jesus. They were frightened that, as His miracles and exorcisms and authoritative teaching all seemed to indicate, Jesus really was God, the Lord of heaven and earth, that they might have to acknowledge this, and set out on a life of repentance and faith in Him.

But, like all of us, born wanting to be in charge of their own lives, Herod, the Pharisees, or both decided to push back. “If you hang around here, Jesus,” the Pharisees say, “you’re going to get killed.”

By this threat, they showed they didn’t understand Jesus at all. Jesus was born into this world to die. He came to offer up His sinless life, to receive the punishment we deserve for our sinful nature and the sins we commit that violate God’s holiness. Jesus came to bear the cross and so gain new life for us. “The Son of Man [Jesus says of Himself in Luke 9:22must 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.”

Jesus knows that neither Herod or Pilate, neither the Pharisees or Sadducees or the Jewish nation or the Gentile nations of the world would kill Him. “No one takes [My life] from me,” Jesus says in John 10:18, “but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”

And so, Jesus replies to the threat of death the Pharisees attribute to Herod: “Go tell that fox [Herod], ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (John 13:32-33)

Jerusalem, the name of which means city of peace, had often been a place of death for those who spoke God’s Word. Uriah, Zechariah, and many prophets during the reign of King Manasseh had all been killed there. Jesus is telling the Pharisees, “Herod can want to kill me up here in Galilee and Perea. But I will die when God decides, in the place that God decides, in Jerusalem. Until then, I will keep showing myself to be God the Son, the Savior of the world.”

From a place of human vulnerability, Herod or the Pharisees try to frighten Jesus away from the mission given to Jesus by God the Father: to be our crucified Savior. But Jesus could not be thrown off His pins.

He would endure every temptation, every instance of intimidation and distraction, every nail, every thorn, every crack of the whip, every insult, every bit of suffering, and death itself, for you.

For your salvation.

For your forgiveness.

For the restoration of your dignity as a redeemed child of God.

The preacher in the book of Hebrews exhorted his fellow Jewish Christians and us, living in a world that reminds us daily of our imperfections, our sin, and our vulnerability, to fix our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him [the joy of an eternity with you and with all who daily turn from sin and turn in faith and trust in Him]...endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)

I can assure you, based on Jesus’ words to us today, that when He went to the cross, His eyes were fixed on you.

He was thinking of you.

He was dying out of His love for you.

Fix your eyes on Jesus. It’s through Him and only Him that the peace, presence, forgiveness, joy, and eternal life from God is yours.

Jesus’ words at the end of today’s lesson are no less about you and me and the whole vulnerable, fallen human race than they are about Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [World, World, we could say] you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

We are all vulnerable, friends. When we’re honest, we all know that’s true.

But we can take refuge in Jesus.

When we do that, we have a life with God that can never be taken from us.

Because Jesus never flinched in the face of this world’s threats, we can say with David, who anticipated Jesus’ lordship hundreds of years before Jesus’ birth “... my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior….” (2 Samuel 22:2-3)

Turn to Jesus and He will be the One Who overcomes all your vulnerability with His invincible love and grace. Amen