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The struggle to believe in Jesus

December 22nd, 2015
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Everything in the OT is preparing for something totally unexpected. Last week we had seen how remarkably God had worked with Ruth and Esther.The purpose of God would now be focused on the womb of a young Jewish woman called Mary.

 In the midst of the realities of an occupied people, directly ruled by a erratic genius tyrant Herod, with great discrepancies between rich and poor, a young woman is chosen for the greatest assignment ever given to any woman.

 Mary is the first one in the church who hears the good news and through whom the Word becomes flesh.

 How does she respond?

 She struggles. She has doubts and fear.

 What can we learn from her response?

 We will see that it is a very human response.

Luke 1:26-38

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.

 Here she is a young woman going to her prayers, as a devout, young Jewish maiden and what she got in her prayers that day was not what she was looking forward to, and it wasn’t expected, and the text is quite clear that she was deeply troubled by what happened and she was also afraid.

There is a struggle going on here. Her first response isn’t just an immediate thankfulness and of course whatever you say I understand and accept.

 We have to allow this in our human responses. We like Jacob sometimes have to wrestle with God about our life and what he is doing with us.

 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

That is a very real and practical question.

We hear these questions throughout Jesus ministry: We have only five loaves and two fishes.

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

There is a patient explanation: a redirecting away from her own resources to the one who is saying this. “For no word from God will ever fail.”

But with God all things are possible.

The how question is replaced with the Who.The Holy Spirit will do this.

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

The scriptures want us to know how she responded and it’s part of her journey. She has to know the Who not the how.

But it’s all part of the process. An important thing for us to remember that – there is no perfect way to respond to God except to be genuine and to be honest before God. And if there’s fear, if there’s trouble – things going on in my life – that’s part of what I openly and honestly bring it to the table. And God accepts that.

I have always found the following parable insightful about human responses.

Matthew 21:28-32

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

It reminds us, I think, of how important our response is meant to be not just a verbal one but with our whole hearts and so, again, the second sentence is a great example of somebody who took him a while. At first he let his father know “I’m not doing this.” But it percolated, he thought about it, and he was honest and genuine in his initial, “No” but as he thought about it, and he thought, “You know, I think I’m going do what I was asked.” And so that had integrity.

Now Jesus had a specific application for this parable.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

It is so easy to appear enthusiastically religious without really wrestling with the cost of obedience and the challenge to our comfort zone.

Too often we can focus on the outward appearance – saying the right things, fitting in to please those we want to think well of us, but true faith is a difficult struggle within. It has to confront our own fear, even doubt – or even rottenness.

We all have had such confrontations with our self. We have all had our John pointing out the way. It is not easy.

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Message for the Day

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin December

December 17th, 2015
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Ruth and Esther

December 17th, 2015
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Ruth

Today I would like to look at two women who are critical for God’s purpose to be worked out in Israel.

We will find that the Bible is a surprising book. It doesn’t neatly fit into our assumptions. A good example is the Book of Ruth which is directly connected to the birth of Jesus.

The Book of Ruth is set in the days of the Judges; that’s the opening line of the book.

In the story you have a famine in Judah and that causes a Bethlehemite man, Elimelech and his wife Naomi, and their two children to leave Judah.

They’re going to reside in the country of Moab, where the Moabites live, and their two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth.

You have to consider the effect that these opening verses would have had on an ancient Israelite listener or reader. Moab was a hostile neighbour on Israel’s southeastern border.

And the Moabites were hated for their ill-treatment of the Israelites when they were travelling to the Promised Land. Their lack of hospitality had already led to a prohibition of intermarriage in the Torah itself.

Also the Moabites and Ammonites are two foreign groups that are explicitly prohibited from entering the assemblies of the congregation in Deuteronomy 23.

The Israelites’ low opinion of the Moabites is also expressed in Genesis in the very degrading story of Moab’s descent from the incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters, after the fall of Sodom.

And yet here we read, in the opening lines of this story of a man from Bethlehem, who travels to Moab, and his two sons marry Moabite women!

Perhaps an example of people doing what was right in their own eyes.

The Bible in it s own pages can cause us to be careful about pigeon holing how God works! He doesn’t follow what we may think is the script. And he seems very able to allow for and work within the messiness of human freedom.

Then in short order Elimelech and his two sons (who are appropriately named Sickness and Death, by the way, in Hebrew) they die. And the Israelite widow, Naomi, is left now with no blood relation only her two Moabite daughters-in-law.

And Naomi weepy tells the girls that they should return to their father’s home. She’s poor, she’ll never be able to support them as a poor widow, she has no further sons to give to them, and clearly they have no legal or moral obligation or tie to Naomi. And we’ll pick up the story then in

Ruth 1:11-19

11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands?

12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 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.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem.

It appears that Ruth who lived in a pagan world of Chemosh, to whom they would sacrifice children, had become a believer in the God of Israel.

All of the names in this story are wonderfully symbolic. Sickness and Death – it’s like they walk on the stage with a big sign saying “I’m in a bit part and I’m ready to die.” Orpah’s name means the back of the neck because she turns her back on her mother-in-law as well.

But by the force of sheer conviction, Ruth (some believe it means friend or companion, others beauty, but is obscure in its origins) joins herself to the people of her mother-in-law. Back in Judah, Ruth supports her mother-in-law and herself by gleaning the fallen sheaves behind the reapers in the field.

Because according to the Law, the sheaves that fall behind the reapers must be left for the poor to collect; you don’t go back and collect them. So Ruth gleans, and she gleans in the field of a kinsman named Boaz, and he’s described as a man of substance and she’s very diligent and she soon comes to his attention.

He’s very kind to her, he looks out for her safety among the rough field workers. He provides water for her. He’s heard of what Ruth has done for Naomi; how she left her home and left her family to come to a people that she really didn’t know, and he blesses her.

Ruth 2:12

May the Lord reward your deeds. May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!

He increases his generosity; he shares his meal with Ruth and gives her from the heaps of grain in addition to the gleanings that she’s collecting. So Naomi is very delighted with Ruth’s gleanings, they more than suffice for their needs.

But she’s even more pleased to learn that Ruth seems to have found favour in the eyes of Boaz. He’s been very kind and generous, and she points out: you know he is among our redeeming kinsmen.

Now the term here, the Hebrew term is goel. Goel means redeemer. The goel is a person who as the nearest relative or as a close relative, has certain legal obligations to another person.

Those obligations — the primary obligations are three:

(1)To redeem the person or their property if they’ve been sold to a stranger due to poverty. So to redeem them from debt servitude essentially. So your goel should do that for you.

(2)To marry a childless widow. So if a man dies and his wife is childless the goel is supposed to marry her, provide seed, and the firstborn son will be named after the name who is dead. So he’s supposed to marry a childless widow and produce offspring for the deceased; usually, that falls first to the brother;

And then (3) in the case of the blood redeemer, also the redeemer is supposed to avenge the blood of a kinsman. So if you are killed your redeemer is supposed to seek vengeance for you.

One can see how this redeemer concept would have application to Jesus.

We have earned death and he sets us free from that. He brings life to those who have no future. He is the one who judges and overcomes our enemies. And he is not ashamed to call us brothers – members of his family.

Boaz is a somewhat distant relative, but Naomi believes he’s the answer to their dual problem of poverty on the one hand, and Ruth’s widowhood on the other hand.

So in chapter 3 she urges Ruth to make a visit to Boaz. He’s winnowing barley on the threshing floor and Ruth is supposed to bathe herself, anoint herself, dress up and go out at night to the threshing floor.

It is all very ordinary: a need to be supported.

In these times, threshing floors tended to be places of revelry at the end of the harvest time and they are often frequented by prostitutes.

Some Jewish scholars think Naomi seems to be planning Ruth’s seduction of Boaz. But again it may be a way of just introducing herself when he is relaxed. She instructs Ruth not to reveal herself until Boaz has finished eating and drinking, and when he lies down, Ruth is to approach him and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell her what she is to do.

So Ruth follows these instructions exactly.

Ruth 3:7-11

7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned – and there was a woman lying at his feet!

9 ‘Who are you?’ he asked.

‘I am your servant Ruth,’ she said. ‘Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.’

10 ‘The Lord bless you, my daughter,’ he replied. ‘This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: you have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor.

11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.

So Ruth’s request is that Boaz act as her redeemer and spread his robe over her, which is a formal act of protection and espousal. And Boaz assures her that he will redeem her.

He then goes on to point out, however, that there is another kinsman who is actually a closer relation, and therefore has the first right of refusal, and Boaz will settle the matter legally in the morning.

In chapter 4 we read the legal proceeding by which the other kinsman is freed of his obligation and his claim to Ruth and this then clears the way, enables Boaz to marry her. But the punchline to the whole story is yet to come and that occurs in

Ruth 4: 13-17

13 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi: ‘Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!

15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.’

16 Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. 17 The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son!’ And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

So David, God’s anointed king over Israel; David, with whom God covenanted that his house should reign forever; David, from whose line would come the messianic king to rule in the final age — this David is said to be the direct descendant, the great grandson of a foreign woman from a country of idol worshippers, and a Moabitess no less.

Not only is Ruth, the Moabitess, not guilty of abominable practices, she is the ancestress of Yahweh’s chosen monarch.

And she’s praised in the story by all who know her as a paragon of hesed, this quality of steadfast love and covenant loyalty that binds the members of the covenant community to one another and to God.

Ruth, the Moabitess, stood by an elderly widow to whom she had no real legal obligation and she was accepted into the covenant community.

Extreme views were popular among sectarian groups, exclusivity was championed, for example, in writings that are found at Qumran.

However, post-exilic and later rabbinic Judaism, never adopted the purely genealogical definition of Jewish identity. They allowed for the phenomenon of conversion and marriage into the covenant by persons of foreign birth who accepted the God of Israel.

It is very interesting that while we can describe Jesus as the true Israelite, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, he is also a descendant of a Moabite women Ruth.

Ruth points to a wider membership of the covenant community, something that turns out to be greater than ever contemplated by any Jewish teacher:

Ephesians 3:1-6

1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles—

2 Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly.

4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets.

6 This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

It is in Christ all people are reconciled to God and to one another. He has create this peace – we don’t make this, but respond by living in the reality of it.

For example how do we overcome racism? We don’t. Jesus has already done so in his body. To hate others because they are not the same as you is denial of his saving work.

The book of Ruth is one of the curve balls we find in scripture. It is as if God allows for the unexpected to prevent us falling into rigid viewpoints claiming God is contained in our worldview or even our selective use of scripture.

 He wants us to remain open to him and responsive to how he works unexpectedly in this world, trusting in his wisdom not ours.

Esther

We now have another remarkable story involving a women which actually involves the salvation of the ethnic Jewish people from those who hated them so that Jesus could come to his own.

 Jesus did say to the Samaritan women that salvation is from the Jews. An encounter that is remarkable in itself in that Jesus offers salvation to an enemy of Israel.

 The Book of Esther is set in fifth-century Persia during the reign of Xerxes (and there’s no x in the Hebrew alphabet — this is Ahasuerus, which is Xerxes), and he was a fifth-century Persian emperor from about 486 to 465 BC.

The Jews of Persia are threatened with genocide.

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Message for the Day