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Sermon: Ruth Part 1, Together In Suffering (A Covenant Service Sermon)

This Sunday, my two churches begin a five-part series on the Book of Ruth. At the one where I’m preaching this weekend, it also coincides with the annual Covenant Service, where we Methodists renew our commitment to Christ. Hence there is a lot of reference to that in the sermon below.
I should add that before you read it, I owe a huge debt for background issues on this sermon to Daniel I Block’s magnificent commentary on Judges and Ruth in the New American Commentary series.

Ruth 1:1-22

There was no monarch or President. Transport was primitive and you couldn’t go to the shops for retail therapy. There was no Social Security system and women were entirely dependent upon men.

It sounds a world away from our lives, and you could say it is. Yet human nature being what it is, and God’s nature being what it is, the story of Ruth is one that can have a surprising number of connections with our call to be Christian disciples today. Today, as we begin a new year, it can even frame the renewal of our covenant promises to God as we ponder the dedication shown in this opening episode.

Firstly, there is a context to set, and it begins with a famine (verse 1). That might seem a long way from our experience, situated in the middle of fast food outlets and just down the road from a Tesco Extra. But we of course are putting our weight behind the establishment of a food bank, and the economic prospects for Western society remain poor. People are struggling.

Indeed, in that fact there is another potential similarity. The famine in Israel happens ‘when the judges ruled’ (verse 1), and you may recall from reading the Book of Judges that when disaster hits Israel it is usually the displeasure of God at his people’s sins, following on from the warnings in Deuteronomy. This famine, therefore, could well be one of God’s judgments against his people.

Now without wishing to be too dramatic, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible to me to construe some of our current economic woes as a divine judgment on our society. We can blame the banks for selling credit too easily, but in our desire to munch up everything a consumer culture threw at us, we accepted it. As a result, we face stark measures to try and tame our colossal national debts. Could it be that God is letting us reap the whirlwind of our choices to seek pleasure instead of him? I do not think, therefore, that it is too remote an idea to consider that we too face the challenges of discipleship as part of a society which makes God weep, and where his severity is part of his call to return to him.

There are hints, too, right at the beginning, that this story is going to turn from pain to tragedy. We see this in the names of the two sons. Mahlon probably derives from the Hebrew verb ‘to be sick’, and Chilion from the verb ‘to be finished, to come to an end’ (verse 2).

Not only that, if I am right that there is a background of God’s judgment, Elimelech makes a bad move. Instead of sharing in some corporate repentance for the sins of his people, he takes what he thinks will be the quick and easy way out, which is to move to Moab. But this is to embrace one of Israel’s ancient enemies. In doing so, he leaves Bethlehem (verses 1 & 2) – at this time a small and insignificant community, but one destined to be central in the purposes of God. Elimelech misses this, because he wants his instant solution.

Having set the scene of despondency and desperation, the second thing we find is that it all gets worse. Elimelech isn’t saved: he dies (verse 3). And then the two sons marry pagan women, outside their clan (verse 4). In fact, it doesn’t even sound like a normal form of marriage: when our English translations say they ‘took’ Moabite wives (verse 4), ‘took’ is quite a forceful word. It implies they abducted Ruth and Orpah. These were far from pleasant young men. The women are effectively the victims of domestic violence. You wonder what the resulting relationships were like. Certainly, within the understanding of the time the fact that in ten years of marriage no children are born to either couple and then the husbands die (verses 4-5) indicates more displeasure on God’s part.
For many of us, that will all seem rather remote. But the awful truth is that many Christians today are victims of domestic violence (I can certainly think of some people I know), and that means in some cases the violence is perpetrated by Christians. It is not a wild suggestion to make that today in Methodist churches around the world, there will be people renewing their covenant promises who do so against a background of consistent suffering at home.

Yet it is desperate in a new way when these thuggish young men die. This is a society where no men means no hope. Men were the providers. What on earth are these three widows – Naomi, Orpah and Ruth – going to do? Yet into this horrendous situation comes the third element of our story: God’s grace. Naomi hears good news in the midst of her grief:

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. (Verse 6)

God has visited his people in mercy. ‘His people’: the language of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Judgment is not the last word in God’s vocabulary, grace is. And he has not simply ‘given them food’, the word is ‘bread’, which is significant for Naomi, as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. The house of bread is being restocked. This is grace: not only forgiveness, but provision for needs.

It is grace like this and far more that brings us to a covenant service. The grace of God in which he gives up his only begotten Son for the salvation of the world brings us here. The grace that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself brings us here. The God who not only mercifully withholds judgment in favour of justifying us but who also in grace blesses us with many things we do not deserve – all this brings us to a covenant service. If it were only about the solemn promises we make, this would be a severe and sombre occasion. But we are here because God’s grace is extravagant and healing.

Therefore the fourth movement in this episode is Naomi’s response. Grace has shown her where she belongs – not in Moab but among the people of God, and so she heads home, accompanied by Ruth and Orpah (verse 7). Having heard of God’s mercy to her own people, she offers mercy to her daughters-in-law. She urges them to go home, so that they might have the chance to remarry and thus find their own security in having a husband provide for them – and this time, hopefully treat them better (verses 8-9). Naomi, the one who has come to know grace, must first of all respond in kind to others. In today’s parlance, she ‘pays it forward’ to others. The very essence of our own response today to God’s grace is that we seek to offer grace to others.
Now in the fifth stage of the story, Ruth and Orpah react. Have they been affected by Naomi’s graciousness? Had they all been bound together in their common suffering? They promise to come with her (verse 10). However, Naomi assumes they will be doing so in order to find husbands – not an unreasonable assumption. She moves quickly to show them that gaining new husbands through her is a ludicrous idea (verses 11-13a). But in doing so, it exposes an unhealed, unredeemed side of her. At heart she is angry with God for her circumstances. There is no self-examination, just a lashing out at God. She says:

No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me. (Verse 13b)

It may well be that today we need to reflect on this. We are at our covenant service because we know that God has shown grace to us and we are making a gut response to that of wanting to show our gratitude by demonstrating that grace to others. However, we have those areas of our lives that may be forgiven but which are not yet transformed. Someone has said that the Gospel is about salvation from sin in at least three different senses: we are saved from the penalty of sin (that is, forgiveness), one day we shall all be saved from the presence of sin (when God brings in his new heavens and new earth), but in the meantime God wants to save us from the practice of sin (that is, enable us to grow in holiness).

And if the covenant service is anything, it is a commitment to holiness. I believe that one reason why we sometimes feel uncomfortable about the promises we make today is that they highlight those areas of our lives we have not yet been willing to hand over to Christ for purification. I don’t want to promise to follow Christ with no strings attached: I want to retain a veto over what he asks of me. For Naomi, it was an issue of anger, bitterness and, I would suggest, trying to justify herself. In the final part of today’s reading, we shall see that she still has not resolved it: she says God has dealt bitterly and harshly with her, taking everything away from her (verses 19-21). What is it for us? Can we at least say to Christ today, I do not feel that willing to be changed, but I am willing to be made willing? May we not let it fester, as Naomi appeared to do.

Orpah, then, takes the natural human course and returns home (verse 14a). She is not to be blamed for this. But Ruth clung to Naomi (verse 14b) and from this springs the most remarkable and beautiful sixth phase of this story, where her commitment is worked out in the way she devotes herself to Naomi. It’s really quite astonishing, because we have yet more evidence of Naomi’s rather fragile faith here. She implores Ruth to follow Orpah back to Moab ‘to her people and to her gods’ (verse 15, italics mine). Naomi, a follower of Yahweh, the one and only God, speaks as if the Moabite claim to other deities is true. Sheer heresy! Yet Ruth is attracted to her mother-in-law and her feeble faith. Ruth will travel and live wherever Naomi goes; Ruth will transfer her allegiance from her people and gods to Naomi’s people and Yahweh; Ruth considers herself part of Naomi’s family now, because she wants to be buried in the same family grave (verses 16-17).

Do not let the weakness of your faith prevent you from speaking out for Christ. God does not wait until you have it all together for him to use you. God uses a woman like Naomi, with her unresolved feelings and her theological errors, to draw out a true sense of covenant from Ruth. Come, with whatever weaknesses you know you have, to renew your commitment to Christ in our service today.

But of course, as it is often said, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. For that reason, aspire less to be like Naomi and more like Ruth. For Ruth becomes a wonderful example of what it means to make a covenant commitment. She is committed to God and to God’s people. This is what covenant means. We bind ourselves to our Lord, because in grace he has bound himself to us. But we do not do so in isolation. God’s covenant is not merely with individuals, but with a community, with his people. The purpose of his covenant is make us more truly into the community of his kingdom, a living, breathing witness to his love. Like Ruth said to Naomi, so we say to each other today, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ And as Ruth also said to Naomi, so we also say to one another today, ‘Where you go, I will go.’

Today, in a context of suffering and judgment, even from the pain of our own lives, let us acknowledge with joy the grace of God in Christ and respond by seeking redemption for our brokenness, and by binding ourselves to our Lord and to each other.

Let it be so.

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Sermon: Conflict

Here is my sermon on tomorrow’s Lectionary Gospel reading.

Matthew 21:33-46

In the University Library in Cambridge there is an old, leather-bound book containing illustrations copied from medieval manuscripts. There are no captions to the pictures, making them like early cartoon strips, but it isn’t hard to work out what’s going on. At the beginning of one story a woman is standing holding a club, with her skirt for some reason sewn together between her legs. Next to her, a man is standing in a barrel, with one hand behind his back. Battle then commences. The woman clouts the man, while the man tries to grab the woman. In the end she ends up head down in the barrel, her legs (still chastely covered by her skirt) waving in the air. It all becomes clear: this was the way in which they settled marital disputes in the Middle Ages. If the husband got the wife in the barrel, he’d won the argument. If she clouted him into submission – or unconsciousness – she’d proved her point. [Source]

This is not a sermon about marriage! But it is a sermon about conflict. Some people run from conflict. Some try to pacify the situation. Others – like Jesus, in this reading – seem to say, ‘Bring it on.’

The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders is escalating quickly. In particular, his overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple has proved particularly – and unsurprisingly – provocative. They have questioned his authority. He has confounded their questions, and then begun to tell parables that are pointedly critical of them.

Today’s reading is the second of three consecutive parables in Matthew where Jesus isn’t exactly subtle in exposing the shortcomings of Israel’s shepherds. What’s more, he says, this has been a pattern down the centuries.

And of course, he sees where this is going for him. The son of the vineyard owner will be killed by the tenants.

So how does Jesus chart the tragic story of conflict between God and the People of God in this parable? And where might there be both challenge and grace for us today?

1. Patience
The first theme of the parable is just how extraordinarily patient God is with his people. The landowner sends slave after slave after slave to the miscreant tenants. Eventually he even sends his own son. He gives them chance after chance.

And of course Jesus is telling Israel’s story here – how he formed them through the patriarchs, and sent Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt. Then, once they were in the Promised Land, God sent judges and prophets to them over many centuries. Even when they went into Babylonian exile, God sent more prophets to woo them back to him. But now the Father has sent his only Son. We’re talking about a feat of patience that endured around two thousand years. Some of us have trouble being patient for two weeks!

But this is the incredible patience of God our Father. How often have God’s people given him reason for despair or grief? From the golden calf in the wilderness to the golden cow of Christian materialism, he could have ripped it all up and started again with others. Yet by his grace he persists with his people.

We know, I hope, that as the Christian Church we can’t look down on the sins of Israel from superior vantage point. Whatever they did in stoning the prophets or even rejecting the Messiah, we have conducted Inquisitions and Crusades, and devised ways of flatly contradicting the Gospel while claiming still to believe. Time after time, the Church has trashed the Gospel, and yet God keeps using her.

And what about us as individual Christians? How many of us are aware of being failures in faith? Was it the going along with the crowd at work? Being as consumerist or materialistic as anyone else? Looking after number one, instead of caring for others first? Staying silent when God needed us to speak up? Gave into temptation instead of remaining self-controlled?

I imagine we’ve all been there. Some of us have assumed that at our time of failure, God would have given up on us. Surely he has rejected us? Or, if we are still in the family of God, we can never be of any use to God’s kingdom.

Meet the God of patience. He is the patient God, because he is the God of grace. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.

You may well have heard the saying that the only true failure is not the error, but when we don’t pick ourselves up off the floor and start again after a mistake. That is true in Christian terms. The Cross of Christ facilitates the possibility that in the mercy of God, we may get up from the ground, be dusted down by him and start anew.

Do not stay crawling in the dirt because you feel so bad about yourself. God knows the worst about you and still loves you. Let the crucified and risen Christ lift you to your feet and set you back on the road of discipleship again.

2. Judgment
You may have been surprised about that first point when I said that the parable had arisen from a context of conflict. And the parable’s tone is shocking to some. Am I guilty of misrepresenting the holy God as an indulgent grandfather who looks down upon misdeeds and says, ‘Ah, they’re just little rascals’?

There is a time when patience passes to judgment. Israel already knew that with her history of exile in Babylon. There comes a time when individuals, groups, institutions or nations have so set their faces against the purposes of God that he says, that’s enough. In the parable, it’s the outright rejection of the landowner’s son. It symbolises, of course, the rejection of Jesus himself.

I would hate to dwell on that point in the way parts of the Church have over the years, and turned it into persecution of the Jewish people. And not least because I once worked with a Jewish woman who told me vividly how she was called a ‘Christ-killer’ when she was a little girl.

But the religious leaders of Jesus’ day have had no monopoly on rejecting him as the Christ. Do I mean atheist creeds and nations, as per communism? Yes. Do I mean other totalitarian systems? Yes, I do. Do I mean our society? In a certain way, yes. After all, as John White says in his book The Golden Cow, the difference between communism and capitalism is this: communism says only the material exists, and capitalism says only the material matters.

But this is more: judgment is not merely about ‘them’. It is about us, the church. In his first Epistle, Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. And when he says that, you could be forgiven for thinking, ‘Wait a minute! I thought we in the church were the forgiven ones. How are we judged? How are we the first to be judged?’

I think it’s something like this: God’s purposes revolve around his people – which, today, is what the Church is meant to be. However, just because that is his overall plan doesn’t mean that certain churches deserve to stay open forever, and that it’s automatically a crime if they close. The Church may be Jesus’ prime agent in the world, but no individual church has a divine right to existence. The gates of Hell may not be able to withstand the Church, but some churches will fail.

Now they will fail for many reasons, but one of them will be that they stopped taking Jesus seriously, and were judged. Oh, they mentioned Jesus. He was still in their hymns and liturgies. But he wasn’t central to the affections of their hearts any more. The church was being maintained for its own members, rather than to give glory to Jesus. Because glorifying Jesus means more than singing hymns about him. It means mission. It means holiness. And within that, the worship is an expression of the spiritual life that is going on the rest of the time.

Wesley said that Methodism was raised up to spread scriptural holiness. If we were to abrogate such a fundamental Christ-centred duty as that, then would the Methodist Church have any right to exist? No.

3. Purpose
God has mostly fulfilled his purposes through people. So what happens if the people are put aside in judgment? In the case of Israel’s leaders, Jesus prophesied that God would raise up new leadership. That new leadership proved, I think, to be a bunch of mostly uneducated, unqualified, ignorant types. The apostles.

And if God can judge his Church an her leaders just as much as he can judge the leaders of Israel, then what will he do to fulfil his purposes? He will raise up new leaders and new churches. 

A non-Christian recently asked me the old question about why there are so many Christian denominations. I’m afraid I slipped into the ‘nice’ answer, namely that we agree on all the basics of the faith, but there are some things on which it’s OK to disagree: church leadership, sacraments, blah blah blah.

I think there are other, uglier reasons. They are to do with human pride, and also to do with God judging those who are refusing to take their Christ-centred mission sufficiently seriously. The Reformers were the sign of judgment on corrupt Catholicism. But the Baptists and Congregationalists were a similar sign on those Reformers who liked to stay close to state power. Wesley was God’s judgment on a moribund Church of England. The Salvation Army was on nineteenth century Methodism. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians were judgment on powerless, lifeless twentieth century mainline Christianity. Today, emerging churches, fresh expressions, missional groups and new monastic communities are judgment on a wider church that won’t make a missionary engagement with today’s generations.

God will not simply judge, he will always find new ways of continuing his purposes.

What does that mean for us? I believe we need to lay hold of God’s patient mercy before judgment falls, and be serious about our Christ-focussed mission. All that we do and share needs to breathe the Spirit of Jesus.

That doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be overtly religious, because to the Christian everything is spiritual. It does mean, though, that we do everything to the glory of God, from eating toast at Sunday breakfast to bread at communion. Whether our gatherings have a religious topic or not, we are seeking to form community based on our life in Christ, rather than simply run a social club where the common interest is religion.

And most fundamentally of all, it is a missionary calling to make Christ known in word and deed. Our agenda is the mission of God. Not just mission as a task to be accomplished – those Jesus criticised in this parable had great missionary fervour, and would travel to all sorts of places in the cause. It is Christ-centred mission that shares his message of love in a spirit of love. We are those who are sent in the love of God to the world.

Now when we are consumed with things like that – rather than maintaining the club, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – and when our business and property priorities are directed towards the mission of God’s love in Christ, too – then we know we are in the ongoing purposes of God.