Monday, April 25, 2016

The Story 12. The Trials of a King


Readings: Psalm 51, 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-18, Galatians 5:7-15, Matthew 5:13-16.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 24th, 2016

Last Sunday we were thinking about the early life of King David, a life defined by trusting and patience and worship. Time moves on. David is hugely successful. So successful that he starts to no longer take his responsibilities seriously.

In 2 Samuel 11:1 (also the first words of chapter 12 of The Story) we read, “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David …. remained in Jerusalem.” There was a saying I often heard when I was growing up; “The Devil makes work for idle hands.”

David lets his guard down. He falls into a trap that many people of power have succumbed to. He thinks that because he is all powerful, then it means he is free to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes, however he likes, and with whoever he likes.

Centuries later, Paul, writing to the Galatian church, is aware that the message, that Jesus Christ came to set people free, was a powerful one that could easily be misinterpreted. That some would believe that the freedom they had discovered in Christ meant that they could do whatever they liked and God would be understanding and forgiving.

In Galatians 5:13 he writes to them, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don't use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that's how freedom grows.

The latter part of David's life is all about grace. Grace has been defined as “The unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved favor of God.” Grace is always amazing, but it can be taken for granted and the privilege grace grants to us can be abused.

That seems to be what happens with David. He's hanging around places he shouldn't be hanging around. He's entertaining thoughts he shouldn't be welcoming. He is thinking of himself far more highly than his station deserved. Pride always comes before a fall.

Over the rooftops he sees beautiful Bathsheba and decides to have her. She becomes pregnant and he tries to cover it up by allowing Uriah to think that the child is Uriah's. When that fails, a cover up becomes impossible and he stoops so low as to have Uriah terminated. It is amazing how quickly one ill-conceived thought spirals out of control and becomes a series of reprehensible actions.

No wonder Jesus in the sermon on the mount would teach that wrong behavior begins with intentions of the heart, with a glance, with an unkind thought, with an unforgiving attitude. If we lose control of our inner life, the results can be far worse than we ever intended.

Until he is confronted about his actions by the prophet Nathan, David believes he has got away with it. He seems to be following a popular philosophy that teaches that breaking the 10 commandments is fine, as long as you don't get caught.

But caught he is. Here the first little ray of grace appears. When David is confronted by his sin, he does not deny it, he does not excuse it, he does not rationalize it, he does not justify it, he confesses it. He admits it. He is prepared to take the consequences, whatever they may be.

The grand theological word for this is 'repentance'. He is ready to turn around and rebuild what has been shattered. He recognizes the gravity of the situation. No more denial. No more pretending. This was going to cost him dearly. Psalm 51 is David's heartfelt confession.

He hasn't just let himself down. He's let his family down. He's let his nation down. Most significantly of all, he had let God down. Only the grace of God could fix that. Only God can forgive him. He's gone beyond any actions he can do to put things right. As we read in Psalm 51 verses 16 and 17, God, You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart You, God, will not despise.

Other people would despise him. Other people would not forgive him. His actions would have dreadful consequences. The one ray of grace is here; “A broken and contrite heart, You, God, will not despise.” David hits rock bottom. Yet by the grace of God, and only by the grace of God, the possibility of redemption is laid before him.

We all mess up. And when we mess up often our first reactions are denial and cover up. The more we persist, the more entangled we become. There is only one way out. Confession and repentance. Confession is admitting that we are wrong. Repentance is turning around, being prepared to face the consequences and allowing God's Holy Spirit to reconstruct what has been broken.

Repentance releases the grace of God to become active in our hopeless situation. God is prepared, in Christ, to absorb our sin through the sacrificial love of the Cross. God offers forgiveness. God offers freedom. God will send the Holy Spirit to comfort and reconstruct what nobody can fix except God. “A broken and contrite heart, You, God, will not despise.” But there will be consequences.

One of the consequences experienced by David is that his ability to act justly is compromised. This creates a sequence of events that lead to further heartbreak. When we are aware that we are living in a way that is not what God wants for us, we often fail to speak out against others who are doing the same. If we condemn them, we are condemning ourselves. We forget that sin is not something that just touches on our personal lives, it reverberates throughout all of our relationships and has a profound effect on everything we do.

What happens in the narrative is that one of David daughters, and a sister to his son Absalom, is raped by her half-brother, Amnon. David does nothing about it. It as though, after his taking of Bathsheba, he feels too guilty to act. Tamar, his daughter, the innocent victim of this crime, finds no justice in the King's court. She flees to the protection of her brother Absalom.

Absalom is incensed. His anger grows, as over a period of two years, David continues to take no action against Amnon. When he can stand it no more, Absalom strikes and kills Amnon, setting in action a chain of events in which Absalom loses all confidence in David's leadership and seeks to take control of Israel.

So David, because of his inability to act justly when his integrity was compromised, now finds himself at war with his own son. It is a desperate situation. He knows he cannot let Absalom take control but the last thing he wants to do is bring yet more suffering upon his family. As battle commences he pleads with his generals, Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.

But this is war. The generals strike hard and Absalom is brutally killed. David's army rejoice at their victory. One of them runs to David in delight to tell him his enemies are defeated. David's first question is “But what about Absalom?” As he finds out what has happened to his son, his heart is broken. We read in 2 Samuel 18:33; “O my son Absalom, O my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, O my son Absalom.

An account like this should make us think before we embark on any action of unfaithfulness. In the heat of the moment, it may seem like what we intend is insignificant. The fall of David reminds us that our actions, be they for good or evil, always have a ripple effect which we have absolutely no control over.

The final part of David's story is also all about grace. Though he loses much, David does not lose his relationship with God. Despite his fall, David's passion remains to worship and serve the God who had kept covenant with him, even when he had not kept covenant with God.

It is in honor of that covenant that David chooses Bathsheba's son, Solomon, as the one to occupy the throne once he has departed. Some suggest the name Solomon is derived from the Hebrew word for peace. David has a particular task in mind for Solomon to achieve... building a temple suitable to honor the God whom had so blessed the nations life.

David is told, in 1 Chronicles 22:8 that he cannot build the temple. Why? “You have shed much blood and fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name.” This temple will become a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant. It will be a place of beauty and wonder. As he unfolds his plans before the people, they willingly respond to his vision.

The right response to make to the forgiveness that God offers to us is worship. The right response to grace is to come before God with thanksgiving in our hearts. The right response to the One who has first loved us is to respond with love towards others.

Worship and service are not actions that we perform to win God's favor. We don't need to do that. God loves us unconditionally. Jesus died upon the Cross while we still sinners. He offers us forgiveness and love, not because we are deserving, but because it is only by grace that we are saved. Worship and service are always a response to grace. And as we worship and as we serve that grace just seems to blossom and grow and we are changed people.

It matters not what station in life we may achieve. There are going to be times when we mess up, times when we fail. The challenge is how do we get through the trials that assail our lives. The trials of King David offer us a glimpse into grace filled living.
  • We see how when we neglect our duties, we open ourselves up to temptation. David hung around the palace when he should have been out on the field. He presumed upon the grace and blessing of God. Maybe he could have been helped by Paul's words to the Galatian church; “You were called to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature.
  • We see how when we do fall into unfaithfulness we have an inbuilt tendency to slip into denial and cover-up. Healing only starts to come when we acknowledge our wrongdoing and cast ourselves upon the mercy of God. Only when we are prepared to stop pretending, can we begin to rebuild our broken lives. Repentance is all about turning around.
  • We see how our wrong actions always have consequences. For David his unfaithfulness wrecked his family. It caused him to turn a blind eye to injustice. It resulted in him not noticing the resentment that was building up in his son Absalom, till it was all to late.
  • Most important in this story is the fact that grace wins. “Lower Story” shenanigans do not prevent God's “Upper Story” from moving on. The temple will be built. David's struggle and devotion shall be rewarded. David will be remembered as Israel's greatest King. From David's line shall come a savior for the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.
There are indeed many lessons we can learn from the trials of a King!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Story 11. From Shephered to King

Readings: Psalm 23, Luke 1:28-33, 1 Samuel 17:37-50, 1 Timothy 4:9-16
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 17th, 2016

This week, The Story, Chapter 11, we look at the first of two chapters featuring one of my favorite biblical characters, David, the shepherd boy who became King.

We have seen throughout the previous chapters, in the lives of characters such as Abraham and Joseph, Rahab and Ruth, that God often chooses the most unlikely characters to accomplish God's purposes. God chooses people who from a “Lower Story”perspective, that is through our eyes, don't have a whole lot going for them, but from an “Upper Story” perspective, that is, in God's eyes, they are exactly the people for the task of kingdom building.

We have also learned about the characteristics that God looks for in the lives of those who would be faithful. In the last chapter, Saul is rejected as King over Israel because God desired a leader who followed God's heart. Such a leader is found in young David. If we desire to live faithful lives before God, we would do well to emulate David. We see him;
  • Trusting
  • Waiting
  • Worshiping.
Trusting

David trusted God in his youth. He knew that when it came to serving God, age didn't matter. Paul, in the New Testament, wrote to his young friend Timothy, “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity. (1Timothy 4:12.) David is an example for all.

David knew that his status as a family member could not affect his ability to serve God. He never said, “Oh, I'm the least important one in my family, I don't have a chance of doing great things.” He did not allow the situation he had been born into define the person he would become. He knew that over and above all the other family designations that may be given him, he was a child of the most High God.

David knew that God was able to defeat God's enemies and protect those who trusted in God's provision. He discovered God's protection whilst out looking after sheep and fighting off wild animals; “lions, tigers and bears - Oh my!” When he hears about the Philistine giant Goliath his first comment is, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:29)

David knew that the way to fight God's battles was never conventional. Remember when we talked about Gideon winning the battle with a tiny army, some lighted torches and a lot of shouting? Goliath is not only huge, he is in possession of the finest military hardware of his day. Saul attempts to equip David with the best armor he could offer. David says “No thank you.” He uses the skills God had already given him.

We can learn from that. Often we face a situation and think, “Oh, if only I was better equipped to handle this!” We forget that throughout our lives, young or old, God has been equipping us every step of the way to do Kingdom work. We don't have to wait for more training, for another qualification, for another seminar or course. God has given us the necessary life skills for us to accomplish whatever it is that God is calling us to do next.

David knew that God could use his talents to serve the kingdom. He's a musician, a poet, and a composer. Those gifts are used in God's service. We read of how, when he plays his music, it has a calming effect upon Saul. We read in this chapter and the next, some of his lyrics. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer, in whom I take refuge.” “Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit within me”. Amazing images.

Consider how those words still speak across the centuries. What a wonderful gift God has blessed us with. What a powerful medium music can be to inspire us or rouse us or calm us.

The bottom line? David trusted God. That is the secret of his faith. Nothing more, nothing less. In every stage of life, in every circumstance of life, in every battle of life, with everything he had, time, talents, influence and treasures, David trusted God. He was a man after God's own heart. Alongside trusting, we also see him...

Waiting.

David was anointed to be King when he was just a boy. Saul would reign for many years to come. While David knew that he himself could never be king until Saul was no longer in that position, he never forces the issue. He patiently waits for God to act.

Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than in an incident where David has an opportunity to take Saul's life in a cave near a place called the 'Crags of Wild Goats.' Instead of stabbing him, David sneaks up to Saul and cuts off a corner of the robe Saul is wearing, then sneaks away. David feels guilty about even doing this much! We read, 1 Samuel 24:6,He said to his men, 'The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the LORD.'

The effect on Saul is that he temporarily ceases from his -considerable - hostility towards David. Saul does not easily let go of his position. He pursues David. He despises his son Jonathan's friendship with David. He makes no secret of the fact that he wants David destroyed. But in the end it is Saul... and Johnathan... who are destroyed, and not by the hand of David, but by the Philistines. Even after Saul has gone, a seven year struggle takes place between supporters of Saul and those loyal to David, before he ascends to the throne and is anointed King over all Israel.

Proverbs 19:11 teaches us; “A person's wisdom yields patience; it is to one's glory to overlook an offense.” The New Testament letter to the Hebrews urges it's readers “... to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6:12)

In our society instant gratification rules the day. We don't believe in waiting. We want it and we want it now. That philosophy even spreads into our prayer life. We ask for something and expect it to happen tomorrow. When it doesn't, we start questioning if God exists.

An overcoming faith is also a patient faith. It is a faith that dares to believe that God's chronology is good theology. David trusted that God's promises would come to pass in God's time and patiently waited for them to happen. There was a third strand to this chapter as it relates to David. David believed in...

Worshiping

One of David's first actions is to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Abinadab. God needed to be, once more, at the center of... everything. Less they forgot how awesome and powerful God was, there is an incident where, because of his irreverence, one of the men called Uzzah, who is transporting the Ark, is struck down dead simply for reaching out and touching it.

This does not please David. But it was a lesson that the nation needed to learn. There is a wonderful section in the C.S. Lewis's Narnia chronicles, where one of the children is learning about Aslan, the lion who in Lewis's children books is a representation of God.

Mr Beaver explains; “Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”

That's God. Who said anything about safe? Of course God isn't safe. But God is good. God is the true King. David knew that.

When the Ark is finally brought to the city, David worships God, exuberantly. There's not a lot of 'decency and in order' about the dance party that proceeds the Ark's arrival. It really offends one of his wives called Michal. But God is not with Michal. God is with David.

I've been around churches long enough to realize that there is no one way to worship God. That the real test of worship is where it is coming from. If it is from the heart, God smiles. If it is less than that, it doesn't cut it, no matter how well dressed up or cultured it may be.

If that may be seen as allowing for self-indulgence, recall that it is David who sits down and starts to make plans for the first ever temple in Jerusalem. And there was nothing more formal and grand and intricate and ceremonial and magnificent as that temple when it finally came into being.

Worship is at the center of David's life as it should be for all people of faith. As to the how, where and when of worship, well that's always shifting and changing. It has always been that way. But where there is reverence, where there is wholeheartedness, where there is a desire to encounter God in life changing ways, God has a habit of showing up. And if we don't show up, we can miss that.

David. The shepherd boy who becomes King. The one who knocks down giants and unites the people of God into becoming the nation that had been promised. The one who made plans for the greatest temple the world had ever seen. The one to whom God promises that of his lineage God will raise up a son like no other, a messiah, an eternal ruler, whom we will learn all about in the New Testament, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Let us recall those aspects of faith revealed through David's early life.
  • Trusting. Whatever David faced, he trusted God to get him through. That, in a nutshell, is faith.
  • Waiting. David trusted in God's timing. Such is a message we need to embrace in our “I want it all and I want it now” society.
  • Worshiping. David saw that worship was at the heart of everything that God required of him. His worship empowered him to serve. Through worship, together, we grow into the people God calls us to be.
We are reminded that it is not all about us and that there is a Kingdom of justice and peace and love God is seeking to establish in our world today, a Kingdom that lifts up the name of Jesus Christ and brings His healing love to bear upon the most desperate of situations.

Next time, “The Story” chapter 12 reveals that even the greatest of earthly Kings were not immune to trials and tribulations. To God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Story 10. Standing Tall, Falling Hard

Readings: Psalm 34:1-10, John 18:33-38,1 Peter 2:1-12, 1 Samuel 13:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 10th, 2016

If you want to play heavy rock guitar, then you need an amplifier and a distortion pedal. A distortion pedal takes the clean signal from the guitar pick up and mangles it, to produce that heavy metal sound much loved by rock guitarists ever since somebody first turned it up to number 11 on the amplifier.

Distortion on a guitar signal can be a fun thing. But distortion in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ? NEVER a good thing. Chapter 10 of “The Story” introduces us to a priest called Eli, to a prophet called Samuel, (the promised son of a godly woman called Hannah) and to King Saul, who stands tall, but falls hard.

At this stage in their journey God's people were finding it hard to discern God's direction. We see a lot of distortion that will have far reaching consequences.

  • The distortion of Complicity.
  • The distortion of Conformity.
  • The distortion of Compromise.

Complicity

One of the first people we meet in chapter 10 of “The Story” is the priest Eli. Though Eli appears to be doing his expected duties, the skeleton in his closet is that he has two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who were taking advantage of the positions they had inherited from him. Scripture states it plainly. 1 Samuel 2:12 “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; for they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.

In his old age, Eli does eventually try to intervene and call them to task, but by then it's too late to redeem the situation. Statesman Edmund Burke is quoted as saying “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Not speaking out against things we know are wrong is a form of complicity that causes distortion.

The particular application of this passage is that it is directed at the religious community. There were things going on in the temple that should not have been happening. Misappropriation of offerings. Sexual immorality. As we think about some of the scandals that have rocked the church in recent history, we are reminded that there is nothing new under the sun.

The effect is always demoralizing and distorting. Peoples suspicions that religious folk are nothing but hypocrites are confirmed. Trust in religious communities as agents of positive change are wiped out by the indiscretions of a few influential leaders. The earliest church were well aware of this. We read in 1 Peter 4:17 “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household.”

The New Testament remedy is that we should hold each other to the highest standards. That we should be accountable to each other. That we should speak the truth with love; not in a spirit of criticism, but of encouragement and hope and positive reinforcement.

To be the people of God is high calling. A calling to hold your head up high and stand tall. Of course, when you stand tall, the danger is that you can fall hard. We need to help each other to be disciples, in word and deed. Speaking out is never a recipe for popularity. Yet keeping quiet can be a form of complicity that can create huge problems further down the line.

By waiting too long to challenge his sons, Hophni and Phineas, Eli not only lost both of them in battle, but the whole nation ends up being defeated by the Philistines and Israels most sacred possession, the Ark of the Covenant ends up in enemy hands. That is the distortion of complicity. Then there is another kind of distortion in this chapter...

Conformity

Because of the failure of the religious institution, because of the lawlessness that was evident all around them, the people want reform. They look at other nations and think “If we had a King like they all have Kings then we could be as great as they are.”

They didn't need an earthly King. They needed a heavenly one. In time, God would provide that through the coming of Jesus into our world. But they were about to receive a lesson called “Be careful what you ask for.”

Samuel, a little boy who grows up in the temple, becomes the nations spiritual leader. Samuel warns the people that Kings could be absolute tyrants. They could enslave their sons, take their daughters, steal their land, burden them with taxes and use all that they had for their own selfish purposes.

The people don't hear him. “La-la-la, we want a King.” They are more focused on being just like the nations around them than they are on being God's unique and special people. That desire, the desire to conform to be just like everybody else, distorts their ability to be God's people.

Let us not pretend we are immune to such thinking. We don't want to stick out like a sore thumb. We don't want to be Mrs “Well she would say that.” We don't want be “That guy!' We want to be one of the crowd. The problem is, when we make that our goal, we get lost in the crowd.

What is there about our lives that defines us as disciples of Jesus Christ? Are our aspirations any different from those of anybody else? Are we just chasing after the same things as everybody else in our increasingly secular society? That's a challenging question. You may have seen the poster, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

In studying “THE STORY” we've been talking about there being an “Upper Story,” which we have defined as being what God wants for our lives, and a “Lower Story,” how we experience life with all it's step ups and set backs.

The challenge here is to get off the “Lower Story” treadmill of keeping up with other peoples expectations and ask ourselves, “What is God's plan for my life, for my family, for my church, for my community?”

That's partly what our New Beginnings process is all about. This church has reached a particular point in its journey. It is time to sit down and pray together and discern together where God is leading us next.

Some of the conclusions we reach may require us to make major adjustments. Some may require us to keep doing what we are now doing and realizing that's what God had planned all along. Discernment is never a straightforward process. But know this. We are not called to be just like everybody else. We are not called to conformity. One of the historical terms used to describe Protestant churches like ours is actually “Non-Conformist.”

1 Peter 2:9 explains “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” Attempts at conformity can seriously distort our ability to grow into the things God would love to see us embracing in our lives.

There is a third kind of distortion in this chapter. There is complicity, conformity and...

Compromise

In this chapter we meet Saul. Saul looks like he might be the man who could really make a difference. He stands tall. He is anointed for service. He is filled with the Spirit of God. He rallies the army. They win some significant battles.

Despite Samuel repeatedly telling the people that there desire for a King was not a good thing, Saul, and his son Jonathan, are doing great things in establishing the nation as a force to be reckoned with. Then it starts to unravel. The book of Proverbs teaches us “Pride comes before disaster, and arrogance before a fall.”(Proverbs 16:18.) This King who stands tall, falls hard.

The first unraveling comes at Gilgal. Saul and his troops are told to wait for Samuel to arrive to make an offering before they go into battle. Saul, decides to take things into his own hands... to cut a corner... to compromise and offer the sacrifice himself. Bad move. Just as he finishes, Samuel arrives and tells him that because of his foolish act, the royal task would pass to another.

The final blow to Saul's reign is in a battle with the Amalekites. Saul has strict instructions. The Amalekites were to be wiped out. Instead Saul spares the life of their King and takes the best of the spoils they acquired for himself. He claims that it was so he could make a sacrifice to God. But the sacrifice God was looking for was obedience.

Because of his unfaithfulness, his impatience and his willingness to play god and take things into his own hands, the office of King will be taken from Saul and given to another. For a while he stood tall. But he fell hard.

So … beware of distortions. The distortion of complicity can cause us not to speak up when we should be speaking out. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

The distortion of conformity can cause us to listen far more to the expectations of those who know nothing of God's ways, than focus on the requirements of God's Word. We are not called to be like everybody else. We are God's people.

The distortion of compromise can cause us to lose our identity as a person of God. Pride always comes before a fall. 'Playing God' is a subtle form of idolatry that never ends well.

Now, if you play electric guitar you will know that there is a subtle difference between 'Distortion' and 'Sustain'. Distortion can mean that you are playing beyond the capability of your equipment... and it can sound awful. When we disobey God we distort God to the world. Like Hophni and Phineas and even Saul.

But 'Sustain' can be sweet. Sustain can be where a guitarist hits that awesome spot and makes the instrument sing. There's a wonderful rock track by the late great guitarist Gary Moore, called “Pariesienne Walkways” (https://youtu.be/l2NpOngUqIQ) where, near the end, he holds a note that just goes on and on.

And even if that's not your kind of music, then I still hope you get the picture that God calls us to to be like Samuel, who through sustaining his life with prayer and service produced sweet music for God's glory.

Let us turn it up loud and rock this world with the love of Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, April 4, 2016

The Story 9. The Faith of a Foreign Woman

Readings: Deuteronomy 25:5-10, Psalm 61:1-5, Luke 7:1-10, Ruth 1:1-5
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 6th, 2016

Chapter Nine of "THE STORY" covers just one biblical book, the Old Testament Book of Ruth. In the midst of all the smiting and fighting and terratorial disputing, Ruth is a breath of fresh air. It's a shame that this chapter didn't come on Valentines Day because, at it's heart, it is a romance that declares "Love will find a way."

It doesn't start out well. Naomi and her husband Elimelek live in Bethlehem with their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. A famine comes to the land and for the sake of survival they are forced to move to Moabite territory. Moabites and Israelites were not friends and we'll see their continuing conflict in future chapters.

Whilst in Moab, the two sons fall in love with a couple of Moabite ladies, Orpah and Ruth. After a few years, Naomi's husband dies. Then her two sons die and Naomi, Orpah and Ruth are left widowed. Naomi's reaction is to say to her daughters-in-law, “Look there's nothing here for me now. I'm a hindrance to you, you need to find two good Moabite men to look after you. I'm going back to Bethlehem.”

Orpah reluctantly takes Naomi"s advice, but Ruth is having none of it. Ruth has a deep love for her mother-in-law and we are given one of the tenderest statements of solidarity in all scripture. Ruth 1:16-17 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.”

Do not underestimate the depth of love in that statement. Ruth is saying that the country of her heritage was less important than their relationship; that she would rather leave the religion that she was raised in than be separated from Naomi, and that even in death, she wanted to be identified with Naomi and with Naomi's heritage.

Naomi and Ruth head to Bethlehem. Naomi is under no illusions about their situation. She tells people, don't call me Naomi (a name meaning “pleasant”) call me Mara (which means “bitter.”)

Every culture has their unique customs and at that time Bethlehem had a few that are unfamiliar to us. One of them was the practice of gleaning. Gleaning was a way to provide for the poorest in the land. When ever a field was harvested, around the edges, grain and produce was left unharvested so that those who had no other way of making a living could gather enough to survive on.

Ruth goes gleaning in a nearby field. What she and Naomi did not know was that this particular field is owned by a local farmer called Boaz. Boaz is the son of guy called Samon and his wife Rahab, (the same Rahab, whose family was saved from the destruction of Jericho because of her faithfulness to Israels God). Furthermore Boaz is a relative of Naomi's, which as the plot unfolds, becomes very significant.

One fateful day Boaz comes riding into the field to check on how the harvest is progressing and there is a "Zing" moment. What's a "Zing" moment? When somebody sees somebody across the room and they think "Who's that lady?" Zing. Boaz quizzes his servants and finds out as much as about her as he can.

He rides over. "Look I just heard about everything amazing you have done for your mother-in-law. You can come here any time you like." He orders his servants to make sure she was taken care of. He even invites her to share lunch with him and sends her home with a sack full of goodies. This was not normal behavior.

Ruth is suitably impressed (and seems to be having a bit of a "Zing" moment of her own.) When she gets home and shares the days events with mother-in-law Naomi, Naomi's mind starts working overtime. Not least, because Boaz is a relative, and close kin.

Here's another law of the culture that is essential to understand in the story of Ruth. The role of a Kinsman-Redeemer. There was an ancient tradition, going back to the days of Moses, instituted to help family members take care of each other. One of the provisions was that a male member of kin could pay off any debts incurred by a relative in order that their property could be returned to them.

The other part of the deal was, that as women at this point in history were considered a husbands property, the closest kinsman had a duty to marry the widow of their nearest kin; in order that children may be born and the family name continued (along with the inheritance that went with that families name.)

Complicated? Well, yes it was! Just to make things more complicated any deal that was outside those restrictions had to be approved of by the city elders and sealed with a ceremony that involved taking off a shoe. Naomi has a plan. And it's here that the story gets really juicy and even has the potential for scandal.

At the end of the harvest season there was always a big party, where the wine flowed freely and people ate and danced the night away to celebrate a successful year. Naomi tells Ruth to put on her best clothes and when the party ends, and Boaz lays himself down to sleep, go and snuggle up near to him.

In the original Hebrew there are all sorts of linguistic double meanings and possibilities to these events. When Boaz does go to sleep, it is on the threshing floor. The threshing floor had a reputation as being a place .. well... where couples could be very intimate with each other. Even couples who weren't married.

Ruth is told to "uncover Boaz's feet." Well, this too, in Hebrew literature had different connotations than just being about feet. You can picture the original hearers of this story thinking, “Wooh! How's this going to turn out!"

I've used this passage at youth retreats about relationships, because there are numerous ways this could have played out. This was a dangerous act on Ruth's part and could have backfired. Boaz, especially as he had been drinking and this was a party, could have taken advantage of the situation.

Yet the despite the electric charge in the atmosphere, despite the chemistry of developing attraction and love between them, they both behave in a respectful and exemplary way. Ruth is quite clear to Boaz that she is indeed in a position of attraction to him and would love to have his help. There is something sacrificial, yet guarded, in her approach to the situation. She exposes her vulnerability.

Boaz turns out to be the perfect gentleman. Far from taking advantage of the situation, he tells Ruth, that, for sure, he found her attractive, but that if they were going to be together, than it was going to happen in the right way and everything would be above board. He gives her another bag of grain (in our culture that would probably be an engagement ring), tells her to go home, rest easy, because he will say nothing about her even being there with him, lest it could damage her reputation.

There is a problem if they are going to be together. He was not the nearest kinsman entitled to marry her. And there was property owned by Naomi that was a part of the deal. So, he sets up a meeting with the guy who was the next in line.

At first it seems things are not going to work out. When the nearest kinsman discovers that he has a chance to inherit some land from Naomi, he's like "Yes! Of course I'm up for that!" Then Boaz tells him "On the day you buy the land from Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the dead man's widow, in order to maintain the name of the dead with his property." (Ruth 4:5)

Well, he is not up for that. Maybe he couldn't face telling his wife "Hey good news, we've inherited some land. And by the way, there's also this girl I've got to have some babies with to keep the family line going. That O.K. with you?" You can see how that might not work out. So, Boaz and the other guy do the shoe thing and Boaz gets to be the Kinsman-Redeemer.

Love has found a way. Boaz and Ruth are married and it is not long before there's the patter of tiny feet and their first son, little Obed, a name meaning "Worshiping Servant" is born. Ahh! See? I told you. Ruth is one of the greatest love stories in all the bible!

What is fascinating in this story is that the means in which God"s "Upper Story" purposes are revealed is through the very "Lower Story" natural process of human attraction, romance and love.

Sometimes we put God into compartments. "Yes" I'll trust God in this area of my life, but not that in area. Yes, when it comes to my eternal destiny, I'm glad that You have that covered, but, God, trust You in the matters of relationships and human love? I think I'll handle that myself!"

Relationships are a minefield and if ever we needed help with an area of life on earth, then surely it is right there. The Good news is that God is able, even in the midst of all that human interaction involves, to be a living and active presence, if only we'll allow God to guide us in those areas of our lives. It's all a part of "The Story".

The conclusion of the chapter is remarkable. Ruth is after all, a foreign woman, part of a people called the Moabites who were bitter enemies of Israel. Read the closing genealogy. Little Obed becomes the ancestor of Jesse, who becomes the father of a boy called David, who becomes not only Israel's greatest King, but also part of the family line of Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Who knows what blessings our faithfulness can bring, not only to our present life, but even to the lives of those yet to be born? Who can fathom the possibilities of what God can do, even in the arena of human love and relationships?

The Story of Ruth. Chapter Nine in our journey. So now we come to the table of communion. Jesus is sometimes pictured in the New Testament as being our spiritual brother. We also speak of Him as the one who gave His life to save us. Truly, He is our Kinsman-Redeemer.

There are many tender aspects to the story of Ruth that connect us to His ministry. The risks He took. Both the responsibility and the vulnerability we see in His life. The healing power of love that He exemplified through all that He did.

Next week, we'll begin the story of one of Ruth's descendants called David. But today, let us nurture ourselves with bread and wine for the days that lie ahead of us, whatever they may bring. And to God's name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.