Archive for the ‘Faith’ Category

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Unconditional love

July 1, 2014

hug-88440689334_xlargeMy son came up with this saying that he likes to pull out every once in a while that goes like, “I love you when [something] and I love you when [not something].”

For instance:

  • “I love you when you’re sick and I love you when you’re not sick!”
  • “I love you when you’re mad and I love you when you’re happy!”
  • “I love you when you’re here and I love you when you’re not here!”

You kind of have to imagine this 5-year-old saying it with a beaming face and a soft voice.  It’s pretty charming, I have to admit.

But it’s also a surprisingly deep statement from a little kid.  What he’s trying to articulate is the enduring presence of his affection — the outpouring of unconditional love.  He both craves and gives a love that is not subject to the whims of change and circumstance.  He wants consistancy.  He wants others to know that they won’t lose his love just because they leave the house or deliver a punishment.  And he says that in the hopes of hearing it in return.

I think that we are often afraid that God is as fickle with how he hands out love as we often are.  It’s really difficult to believe that God loves us wholly, unconditionally, and eternally, especially when we look deep within the well of our own sins and shortcomings.  We don’t deserve love, we think.  We don’t even love ourselves most of the time.  Others’ love toward us is often imperfect and capricious.  Why would God be any different?

Because our God loved us not when we became perfect, but while we were still self-centered sinners (Romans 5:8).  He put his life on the line for us to save us because of that great love (John 3:16).  When God looks at his creation, as rebellious and ugly as it can be, he cannot help but tenderly love each and every one.  And best of all, God’s love cannot be taken away from us (Romans 8:35).

Today I just needed to remember God’s love for me.  His love that is patient, kind, refuses to keep track of my wrongs, is faithful, and abounds in truth.  God is complex beyond comprehension, but his love is as simple as that of a five-year-old.  He always loves, no matter what.  It’s hard to hate someone who loves you that fully; the best thing to do is to surrender to it and reciprocate.

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God’s former home: The Holy of Holies

June 11, 2014

Tabernacle1

I’ve been reading the saga of King Solomon’s construction of the temple in 2 Chronicles, including all of the decoration details that most folks probably gloss over.  Today I got to 2 Chron. 3, where he built the Holy of Holies, which reminded me of how fascinating this one room was in all of Israel.

He said to me, “This is the Most Holy Place.” (Ezekiel 41:4)

To understand the Holy of Holies, you have to trace the path of God’s relationship with his people.  In the beginning, that relationship was intimate and familiar; Adam and Eve walked with God, talked with him, and had no reason to hide from him.  Sin changed that by severing the relationship, causing God to expel the people from his sight because he could not bear to be in the presence of sin.  But God still loved us and strived to reunite with his people, but that process would be long and somewhat complicated.

Some of the first steps back to reestablishing that relationship was God descending to be among his people in a safe, acceptable way that would not incur the proper penalty for his wrath among sinful folk.  God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses as a sign of his perfect law to be delivered to the people.  The Commandments were put in the Ark of the Covenant, which became the physical vessel and symbol of God being among his people.

Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place,which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. (Hebrews 9:3-4)

However, when the people stopped to make camp, they had to sequester the Ark in the tabernacle, in an inner room that was designated for the “Holy of Holies.”  It was in this 15x15x15 cubed room that the Ark rested, in the midst of the people but still cut off from them — again, both physically and symbolically.  Solomon’s temple (and the subsequent second temple) had a more permanent Holy of Holies, still separate from the people by a three-foot thick curtain and inaccessable except by the high priest once a year.  God was still among and with his people, but he was not united with them.

But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance [...] They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings—external regulations applying until the time of the new order.  (Hebrews 9:7-10)

The author of Hebrews does a great recap in chapter 9 as to the purpose of the Holy of Holies and how it connects to the lives of believers.  In these verses he illustrates how the high priest would arrive in that room with a sacrifice that wasn’t fully able to absolve sins, but were commanded to keep the people mindful of the need for forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of the innocent.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:50-51)

The detail of the temple curtain tearing often goes unnoticed in the death narrative — there’s a lot going on, of course.  But notice that here in Matthew, it happens the second Jesus dies on the cross.  He dies, and the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the people is torn in two.  Jesus’ death accomplishes God’s plan to reunite with his people by delivering a perfect sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  The barrier between God and man is lowered, and God no longer needs to be hidden from his people.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. (Hebrews 9:11-12)

Hebrews pontificates on the theological implications of Jesus’ sacrifice.  Jesus is the ultimate high priest who does what every high priest before him cannot.  He enters the Holy of Holies, he absolves sin with the blood offering, and the people are made righteous before God.  The Holy Spirit then moved out of the temple for good and into the new temples — the lives of believers.

For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God,and they will be my people.” (1 Corinthians 6:16)

We are the temple of God.  What the people of Israel could only imagine seeing in their lives in the Holy of Holies now exists inside of each of the elect.  This verse in 1 Corinthians is a joyous proclaimation that God has finally reestablished that long-broken relationship — he lives with us, walks with us, and belongs with us.

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What does God require of me?

June 5, 2014

micah6-8Continuing my exploration of Micah, I reached the sixth chapter today and came upon a famous verse — with some added context that I never noticed before.

Basically, God is challenging the wicked people to appear before him and plead their case in a court of law.   God is the plaintiff who accuses his people of doing him and his loved ones wrong.  He reminds them of the good that he’s done for them in the past, using the word “remember” over and over.

For the repentant people, the defendants, they know they are guilty and that resitution must be made.  So the question is asked, “With what shall I come before the Lordand bow myself before God on high?” (Micah 6:6).  In other words, what does God want from me?

God begins by telling the people what he does not want.  He doesn’t want what the people assume, what other nations and their gods practice.  He does not want nor need their gifts of cattle, or precious oil, or even their children.  He does not want what they own, but as he soon makes known, he desires what they are to be better.  In verse 8, God says that what he requires of us is not a secret: “He has told you, O man, what is good;and what does the Lord require of you…”

Then he outlines three of his most desired aspects for his followers:

1. “To do justice”

The prophetic books of the Old Testament are rife with complaints about the wickedness of the people against each other.  The abuse of violence, of lying, of false testimonies, of cheating, and particularly of abuse from those in power and with wealth against those weaker and poorer.  God is the ultimate judge and final arbiter, but he charges us to promote and seek justice in the world.  We are not meant to be insular, caring only of ourselves and blind to the pain around us, but to stand up for what is right and to do what is right.

2. “To love kindness”

This is also translated as to have “steadfast love” or “love mercy.”  It’s a developed quality that follows God’s heart — to love others completely and fully, without condition or prejudice.  The heart full of love has no room for hate, and the life lived in love is one that pleases God greatly and makes this world a better place.  We do not exalt “kind” people as much as we should in our hero worship, but we should.  We should emulate those who have grasped the kindness of God and extend that to everyone.

3. “To walk humbly with your God

Not just to walk with God, but to walk humbly.  The theme of arrogance vs. humility is one that is repeated so often throughout the Bible that a reader really has to be blind not to pick up on how important it is to God.

It is possible to walk arrogantly with God, assuming that one is above the law and looking down on everyone else.  It is very possible to expect God to capitulate to one’s personal whims and be at one’s beck and call, but not to do the same in reverse.

A humble walk with God paints a picture of a soul that knows the true need for God’s saving grace and continuing forgiveness.  A humble person does not demand of God, but requests.  A humble person remembers God’s kept promises and praises him for them.  A humble person knows that he or she does not know everything, and that it is always important to keep a reign on ego and extend grace as much as possible.  The humble person puts God first, others second, and themselves third.

It’s very difficult to do, and I’m ashamed to say that I often lack the humility needed for this walk.  Reading this is a good reminder that these three qualities are goals to strive for as I grow spiritually.

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The Church of the Willfully Ignorant

May 14, 2014

BraveSirRobinI’m starting to dig into the prophet Micah’s words in my devotions and have come to an interesting little passage in chapter two.  Micah is pronouncing upcoming judgment for Israel and Samaria for their sins (namely idol worship and gross abuse of power), and the false prophets of these nations bristle at these statements.

So they said to Micah, “Do not preach!  One should not preach of such things; disgrace will not overtake us.” (2:6)

In other words, they’re incensed that Micah is pointing out their sins and that these sins will have dire consequences.  They are content to wallow in active ignorance of the upcoming doom instead of facing the truth head-on.

It’s what I like to call “The Church of the Willfully Ignorant,” and this passage is a terrific microcosm example of a serious problem among both believers and non-believers.

The thing is, we like to be told affirming statements about our life.  That we’re not that bad.  That we’re doing OK.  That we are loved.  Pour on the encouragement from the pulpit and people eat it up.  And it’s certainly not wrong to be rightfully told that God loves us and that we should encourage each other, but when we abruptly stop at the hard stuff, the stuff that makes us take a long, hard look at our lives, we put a quick end to the path of salvation.

Talking about hell and destruction from the pulpit makes no friends.  Nor does being blunt about our nature as sinners who are wholly incapable of redeeming ourselves from the rightful wrath of God.  Mention these, and people bristle.  They claim offense and fear-mongering, but what is really going on is a rebellion against the truth.  We know it’s the truth, and we have a choice when faced with it: willfully ignoring it to the point of self-delusion and denial, or embracing it even though it is profoundly uncomfortable.

Micah isn’t just being the heavy telling people how they’re going to burn in hell; he’s warning them of the very consequences that their choices have caused.  He knows he’s making no friends here, but that’s the thing about love: When you care about people, you tell them the hard truth instead of the easy-to-swallow lie, especially if there’s a chance that it might save them from further pain and possible death.  You get past the worry that you might offend them because awkward feelings are of little importance when lives and souls are at stake.

This reaction by the false prophets of Micah’s time are echoed throughout the Bible.  Jesus and the apostles experience it several times.  We see crowds happily following Jesus for the miracles, excitement, and uplifting teaching.  But when he calls for repentance, when he tells them that following him means bearing their cross, some get offended and leave.

Micah has a great response to the false prophets in verse 7: “Should this be said, O house of Jacob?   Has the Lord grown impatient?  Are these his deeds?  Do not my words do good to him who walks uprightly?”

He’s throwing his arms wide and asking them if he’s lying.  Deep down, they know he’s not.  They just don’t like hearing it said out loud.  But Micah goes on to point out that these uncomfortable words will “do good” to those who follow God.

Listen, I hate having my sin pointed out to me as much as anyone else.  I have a thin skin and I’m quite aware of my failings.  But when it’s done out of love and not spitefulness, it can be a good thing.  The Spirit can and does convict me, loving fellow believers have rebuked me, and the Bible serves as a hard reality check for my life.  And each time I have that choice of rejecting or accepting the truth.

But here’s the thing: Even though embracing that truth is initially painful, it does “do good,” as Micah says, in the end.  It puts me on a path to repenting.  It helps me identify what parts of my life I need God’s help adjusting.  It hopefully uproots the little sins before they can blossom into big ones.

Or, we could flock to the liers.  Micah gets a good dig into the crowd in 2:11: “If a man should go about and utter wind and lies, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ he would be the preacher for this people!”

I’d rather have a real minister in my life than a party-loving fraud who’s trying to coddle my oh-so-delicate feelings.  My prayer is that the church would too.

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The sins of Israel, the justice of God

March 27, 2014

gavelIn my devotions I’ve been reading through the not-at-all-happy book of Amos. Can’t say that I’ve ever really delved into Amos before — the prophets are easy to skip over, especially if you think that you’ve covered the “essentials” like Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. But Amos has really made me think about the depth of how God detests sins that we perform against him and against each other.

Amos is delivering God’s news of impending judgment on Israel for its sins, and there is just about nothing good in store for these people.  At first it appears that God is being unduly harsh (which is an arrogant position — we like to judge the Judge from a sinful viewpoint), perhaps overreacting in that Old Testament style.  But the more that Amos talks about Israel, the more their actions boil my blood too.

Their sins include:

  • Selling out the innocent for money (2:6)
  • Stepping all over poor people in a desire to get ahead (2:7)
  • Denying justice to the oppressed (2:7)
  • Sexual sins among family members (2:7)
  • Getting drunk and worshiping other gods (2:8)
  • Ignoring those in need while reveling in luxury (4:1)
  • An unrepentant lifestyle that’s punctuated by sacrifices that are done to brag about (4:4-5)
  • Hating those who uphold justice and tell the truth (5:10)
  • Taking bribes (5:12)
  • Being prideful (6:8)

In youth group this month, we’re tackling the serious topic of God’s judgment.  I’ve subtitled the series, “Setting all things right,” because that is what a perfect judge does.  A perfect judge does not let evil run amok, does not let injustice stand, and does not overlook crimes.  God is a perfect judge, the only one who is without guilt and has the authority to set all things right.

This is great news when it comes to the world, because like Israel, the world is broken.  It is corrupt and it is full of these sins that Amos declares and so much more.  We still trample on the poor, we still overlook justice, and we still put our comfort in front of those in need.  All of the sins here have a common root, the common root of sin, which is “I want to do what I want, what makes me happy, me me me.”  And God is over here saying, “Look at the pain you are causing others!  Look at the disrespect and hate you are giving to me!  I cannot abide it.  I must judge.”

So it’s bad news when it comes to me, because I am subject to God’s judgment and as a sinner I am not without guilt.  Amos has made me think a lot this week about how my nature is to “turtle” inside my life, to put my head down and try to get through my life without making waves or getting into trouble.  Staying out of trouble is good, but isolationism and materialism is harmful to the soul.  We’re meant to “go and make disciples,” to go and seek justice, not to sit around and hope that someone else does it.

Seeing my sins, I am relieved that God does not end with justice, but incorporates mercy into his rulings as well.  It’s a common refrain in Amos that God is and has been calling his people back to him.  He’s been holding off on punishing Israel for these sins because he wants them to “seek me and live” (5:4), to repent and return to him (4:6).

The book of Amos is a warning and a judgment in one.  God speaks through his prophet to remind the people of his faithfulness and how he has chosen Israel to be his people.  He points out their sins and indicates that if they were to but repent, the perfect judge would show mercy.  He warns of the death, exile, and devastation to come as a consequence for their sins.

It is, really, the core message of the Bible.  The Bible tells of God’s continuing faithfulness to us.  The Bible informs us to the depth and depravity of our sins and our guilt.  The Bible spells out the nature of our coming destruction.  And the Bible offers us a chance at grasping the mercy of God’s grace, given as Jesus took the punishment in our place.

God has a heart for us that is abounding in love, and Amos gives me just a small insight into his perspective as a patient, loving father who goes far above and beyond in withholding judgment in order to give his people a chance to come back home.  But the truth is that this judgment must come, sooner or later.  All must be set right.  And we can take Israel’s path of willfully ignoring the call home or we can take the mercy offered.

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Angels: A biblical perspective

March 17, 2014

halo5Here are my notes from a Sunday School powerpoint series I’m doing on angels:

How important are angels?

  • There’s a WORLD of difference between the pop culture view of angels and what the Bible says about angelic beings!
  • The word for angels occurs more in the New Testament than the words for sin or love.
  • The Bible has 250 references to angels.
  • The Bible says that angels travel among us hidden in plain sight: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels without knowing.” (Heb. 13:2)

So what is an angel?

  • Angels are the “other” created personal beings.  God created angels and God created humans.
  • Angels are sometimes called “sons of God.”
  • There are lots of angels: “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand.” (Rev. 5:11)
  • Angels are glorious, radiant strong, and powerful.
  • Angels don’t have gender but are referenced in the masculine (“he”).
  • Angels are intelligent, moral, wise, without physical bodies (spirit beings), and are normally invisible to us but can make themselves seen.
  • Angels do not marry and do not physically die: “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” (Matt. 22:30)
  • Angels live in heaven: “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 18:10)

What do angels look like?

  • Isaiah 6:2: “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.”
  • Daniel 10:5-6: “I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold around his waist.  His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.”
  • Matt. 28:3: “[The angel’s] appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.”
  • Rev. 4:6-8: “In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back.  The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle.  Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’”

Do angels have names?

  • There are only two named angels in the Bible.
  • Michael is an archangel and “chief prince” of angels (Jude 9) who delivers a message to Daniel, argues with Satan, and leads the angelic army against the dragon in Revelation 12:7.
  • Gabriel is a messenger of God who speaks to Daniel, Zacharias, and Mary.
  • Angels are also referred to as “thrones or powers or rulers or authorities” in Colossians 1:16.

Can angels sin?

  • Yes, angels can sin, although that places them among the fallen angels (demons).
  • “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment…” (2 Peter 2:4)

What are angels to us?

  • We were originally made to be a little less than the angels: “You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.” (Psalms 8:5)
  • But one day we will be placed above them and will judge them: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:3)
  • Matthew 18:10 suggests that some people have angels assigned to them (“their angels”).

What do angels do?

  • Angels spend much time praising and worshiping God in heaven: “Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts.” (Ps. 148:2)
  • God does send angels out on missions to help us: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Heb. 1:14)
  • Like us, angels continually learn more about God: “Even angels long to look into these things.” (1 Peter 1:12)
  • Angelic choruses often sing about God’s greatness: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
  • Angels guard believers: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.” (Psalms 34:7)
  • Angels deliver punishment: “And God sent an angel to destroy Jerusalem.” (1 Chr. 21:15)
  • Angels deliver messages from God (angelos means “messenger” in Greek).
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Sermon: The Kinsman-Redeemer (Ruth part 2)

March 10, 2014

ruth-and-boazSermon: The Kinsman-Redeemer

Text: Ruth 3:7-13

Just as Boaz becomes the family redeemer for Ruth, so Jesus does for us.

Let me tell you that as residents of this great state of Michigan, we are the most fortunate and blessed citizens of this country.  Sure, we may have car-destroying potholes, cities that are a national punchline, and the Detroit Lions, but we do have one point of pride that causes us to lift our heads high: We get ten cents for every bottle or can recycled.

There is no other state in the country gives ten cents per bottle.  In 1978, Michigan enacted this high refund to encourage recycling, and at least from my perspective, it works.  I’m not alone when I lug in bags of cans to the supermarket to get a good chunk of change back.  Some states don’t even give you money back for cans, but ours does.  So for Michiganders, the discarded pop can isn’t a piece of garbage, it’s a treasure waiting to be redeemed.

Today as we look at the second part of the book of Ruth, the thought of redemption should be on our minds.  In fact, I’m going to teach you a strange phrase that you might have never heard before but is key to us understanding our relationship with Jesus.  The phrase is “Kinsman-Redeemer.”

The Kinsman-Redeemer came out of the laws in Leviticus where God told the Israelites that they had a duty to act on behalf of a relative in danger or in need.  The Kinsman-Redeemer was usually the closest male relative of age who would help to buy back property, purchase family members sold into slavery, or provide for a relative in need.  Leviticus 25:25 began this movement: “If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold.”

For the people who were in a bad situation that they couldn’t get out of themselves, it was the Kinsman-Redeemer’s job to come in and save the day.   The story of Ruth and Boaz isn’t just about blossoming emotional love, but that of a Kinsman-Redeemer who God guides to care for and redeem one of his loved ones.   It foreshadowed what Jesus would end up doing for all of us on a much larger scale as our Kinsman-Redeemer, which is why this isn’t just a cute romance, but a story of your life and your relationship with God.  Let’s open up to Ruth 2 and see how a Kinsman-Redeemer acts.

The Kinsman-Redeemer notices

Last week we talked about the dire situation that Naomi found herself in: Her husband and two sons had died, she had no income, and she was in a foreign country.  Naomi returns to Bethlehem to find food, but an interesting twist happens: Her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth refuses to leave her side and accompanies her back to Israel.  Now that both women have arrived, there looks to be no bright future.

Instead of moping around, Ruth goes out into the fields to begin gleaning.  Another law in Leviticus – see, Leviticus isn’t just a speed bump on the way to more interesting stories in the Old Testament – told the Israelites to deliberately leave the corners of their fields untouched during a harvest and not to go back for grain they dropped.  Instead, these were left for the poor and destitute, who could walk behind the workers and pick up the leftovers for food.  Ruth was doing this in one of the fields of Naomi’s late husband’s relative when she is noticed by a guy named Boaz.

We should state here that this will not be a conventional Hollywood romance.  For starters, there is a significant age gap as Boaz is an older gentleman, not to mention that Ruth is from a country that is largely despised by Israel.  But as we read in chapter 2 verses 5-12, Boaz learns a lot about her character and is incredibly impressed: He discovers that Ruth is a very hard worker, that she is humble, she had a faith in the Lord, she is noble, and she’s loyal to Naomi.  At first, Boaz is more paternal toward her than anything, but over the course of the book you can see hints of attraction and love blossom from that.

It made me think of the story of Beauty and the Beast a little.  Once you get past the weird Stockholm Syndrome subtext of that film, there’s a fascinating study of two characters who notice who each other is on the inside instead of fixating on mere looks.  In fact, the song “Something There” examines the moment when Beauty and the Beast have truly noticed the worthiness of each other.  “I wonder why I didn’t see it there before,” Beauty sings.

The Kinsman-Redeemer, when he saw Ruth, noticed her.  He did whatever the ancient equivalent of Googling her was and found out about her past and who she was.  Boaz didn’t turn a blind eye to her need, but engaged it head-on.  Luke 12:6-7 tells us that our Kinsman-Redeemer notices us fully: “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

The Kinsman-Redeemer protects

Nobody likes to think of themselves as helpless and vulnerable.  It’s an awful feeling, and we’ll do just about anything to either get out of that state or to ignore it.  But no matter what your station is in life, your sin has made you helpless and vulnerable.  You will be judged, you will be found guilty, and you will be punished.  And because you cannot make yourself righteous, there is no way to escape this – unless you have a Kinsman-Redeemer who comes along to do what you cannot.

I’ve gone on about Ruth’s character a bit, but I’d like to give some recognition to Boaz right now.  We know enough about him to find him a very admirable person: He leads a God-fearing household, he’s generous with the poor, and he has integrity.  In fact, throughout this story you can’t find a hint of Boaz looking out for himself or trying to figure out how this situation might benefit him.  He’s an example of selfless love that protects, as a Kinsman-Redeemer should.

Boaz orders his workers to drop extra grain for Ruth and he keeps sending her home to Naomi with spare food.  He shares a meal with her and doesn’t treat her as a servant or a filthy foreigner.  Even when Ruth proposes to him in the middle of the night, his first thought is to see if there’s a closer Kinsman-Redeemer in age for her and to keep the semblance of her reputation intact.  He protects her out of his faith, love, and duty.

In 3:11-13, Boaz gives this declaration: “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.  Although it is true that I am a kinsman-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I.   Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your kinsman-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it.”

The early Native Americans had a unique practice of training young braves. On the night of a boy’s thirteenth birthday, after learning hunting, scouting, and fishing skills, he was put to one final test. He was placed in a dense forest to spend the entire night alone. On this night, he was blindfolded and taken several miles away. When he took off the blindfold, he was in the middle of a thick woods and he was terrified! Every time a twig snapped, he visualized a wild animal ready to pounce. After what seemed like an eternity, dawn broke and the first rays of sunlight entered the interior of the forest. Looking around, the boy saw the figure of a man standing just a few feet away, armed with a bow and arrow. It was his father. He had been there all night long, protecting him.

Ruth was not so proud to deny the need for a protector in her life.  We need that protector too, because without Jesus we are lost forever.   But as Boaz said of Ruth, we can shelter in the refuge of the Lord’s wings, knowing that God will be there through the fretful days and the long, long nights.

The Kinsman-Redeemer pays

One day, a pastor saw a young boy walking by the church with a cage in his hands.  He stopped the boy to ask him what was up.  “I caught these little birds and thought I’d play with them before feeding them to my cat,” the boy said.  The pastor offered to buy them but the boy refused, saying that they were worthless birds that couldn’t even sing.  But the pastor insisted, offering $20 for the cage and the birds.  The boy accepted and the pastor then set the birds free.  He held the empty cage and watched the birds soar to freedom, chirping in delight for they had been redeemed from captivity and death.

Ruth’s redemption wasn’t free, because her Kinsman-Redeemer was legally obligated to provide for her family, including Naomi.  In chapter 4 verse 5, Boaz finds the younger Kinsman-Redeemer – we never find out his name – and informs him that he needs to buy Naomi’s land to keep it with the family.  While the new guy was willing to get married, he balks at the cost and walks away in verse 6: “Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.”

Boaz, being true to the promise of redeeming Ruth, steps into that vacancy, and pays the price.

I wonder how much Jesus thought of the price he would pay during his life on earth.  I wonder how he imagined the physical pain of his death, the emotional pain of the crowd cursing him, and the spiritual pain of being separated from God due to the sins of the world being placed on him.  I wonder if most of his ministry he kept looking into the eyes of those he taught, those he ate with, those he healed, and reminded himself over and over again, “These people are worth the price to me.  I will redeem them.  I will not abandon them.”

In Ephesians 1:7 it says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”  Every month when we drink communion, we are reminding ourselves of that price, of that sacrifice.  God has paid the price for your soul, and the only greater sin than any we have done in our life is to reject his grace and turn our back on that payment.

The Kinsman-Redeemer provides

The wonderful story of Ruth and Boaz culminates in 4:13: “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.”  Despite the age and racial differences, the two are married, are blessed with a child right away, and the future of Ruth and Naomi is made secure.  In a final stunning twist, we learn that Boaz and Ruth’s great-grandson would be King David, and eventually through David’s line, Jesus would be born.  It’s a blessing on top of a blessing on top of a blessing.

As Boaz brings Ruth into his family by marriage, the kinsman-redeemer pledges with his life to provide for her.  This relationship glorifies God for many reasons, not the least of which is that it demonstrates to the people what God does for us when we come under his care.

The thing about marriage is that God didn’t just make it up to keep us together and having lots of drooling, babbling babies.  The greatest purpose for marriage, as we see repeatedly in the Bible, is to provide a visible example of the actual relationship that Jesus has with his people.

Ephesians 5:25-27 details our wedding to Jesus: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her  to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,  and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

As Ruth was given a future filled with hope and joy with Boaz, we are given an even greater future as we come into this marital relationship with Jesus.  Even though we have been unfaithful, he cleans us and makes us a radiant bride, fit to be by his side for eternity.  He is able to provide for our every need and true desires in the best way possible.

During President Ulysses S. Grant’s courtship with a young woman named Julia Dent, he once took her out for a buggy ride. When they came to a flooded creek spanned by a flimsy bridge, Grant assured Julia that it was safe to cross. “Don’t be frightened,” he said. “I’ll look after you.”

“Well,” replied Julia, “I shall cling to you whatever happens.” True to her word, she clung tightly to Grant’s arm as they drove safely across. Grant drove on in thoughtful silence for a few minutes, then cleared his throat and said, “Julia, you said back there that you would cling to me whatever happened. Would you like to cling to me for the rest of our lives?” She said yes, and they got married.

The book of Ruth isn’t just a story about two people who lived long ago.  It’s your story as well, a story of how your kinsman-redeemer noticed you, how he protected you, how he paid for you, and how he will provide for you always under the shelter of his wing.  Cling to him always.

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Sermon: The Bitter Heart and Blessed Soul (Ruth pt. 1)

March 4, 2014

Text: Ruth 1:1-22, 4:13-22
Sermon: “The bitter heart and blessed soul”

lg_RuthNaomiThere was a day late last year that I came back into my living room to find both of my toddlers scribbling madly all over our couch with ink pens.  I think I froze in place for a couple of minutes while I was thinking that, shoot, I’m going to have to throw this entire couch out.  Then I did a little research and found out that hairspray and scrubbing indeed removes pen ink, and I spent ten minutes painstakingly restoring my couch to normal.  (You came for a sermon, you’re going to leave with an important cleaning tip.)  When my wife came home, I regaled her with what a hero I was until she asked me how the kids got a hold of the pens to begin with.  Then I became the villain.

In 1975, an angry man rushed through the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam until he reached Rembrandt’s famous large painting “The Night Watch.” Then he took out a bread knife and slashed it repeatedly before he could be stopped, causing many large zig-zag slashes on it. It was severely damaged.  But what did officials do? Throw it out and forget about them? Absolutely not! Using the best experts, who worked with the utmost care and precision, they made every effort to restore it over four years.  While some signs of the attack are still evident, the Night Watch was healed and put back in place.

Couches and paintings are one thing, but what about when tragedy happens to our lives?  Have you ever noticed that bad events are almost never spaced out so that you can handle them with a breather in between, but are usually bunched up so that it feels as though you’re getting pummeled from all directions?  It’s one thing after another until you’re reeling and don’t know what to do or how you’re going to go forward.

When tragedy happens, when you’ve been suffering for a while, the way forward may seem impossible or at least without hope.  Yet we have a God who is a healer that desires to restore us with utmost care and precision if we put our trust in him.

Today we’re going to begin a two-week series on the book of Ruth, starting with the story of Naomi and her journey to restoration.  Ruth is a short, memorable book of the Bible that is structured much like a sandwich, with Naomi’s story beginning and closing the tale and Ruth’s story making up the middle.  So let’s open our Bibles to Ruth chapter 1 and see why Naomi was in such need of a divine healer.

The path to restoration begins in pain

The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the Judges, which if you’re unfamiliar with that book the only things that you need to know is that it was before Israel was ruled by kings when the people would go back and forth from being faithful to God and turning away from him, inviting disaster upon them until God sent a judge to rescue them.  During one of these periods of the people’s faithlessness, God sent a famine to the land and it was then that Naomi’s husband decided that it was better to move elsewhere than to stick it out and encourage others to restore their faith in God.  So they moved from Bethlehem to Moab, which was a country to the east of the Dead Sea.

Despite commands to the contrary, Naomi’s sons intermarried with the locals, opening the door to the influence of foreign gods in their household.  However, Ruth 1 shows us that Naomi’s faith was strong as she mentored her daughters-in-law.  There they lived for a decade until tragedy struck.

First Naomi’s husband dies, followed by the deaths of her two sons.  The three men closest to her heart were ripped away so quickly.  But the pain doesn’t stop there – Naomi is left without support in a foreign land.  She has no way of bringing in money, and as an older lady, her prospects of remarrying are dim at best.  Her life, which was so full a couple of years ago, is now drained down to the dregs.  She feels alone, far from home, and grieves for those she loved.

In verse 20 she renames herself “bitter” and in verse 21, she calls herself “empty.”  Have you ever felt empty?  Has life taken so much out of you, either in huge chunks at once or in a hundred smaller ways, so that you don’t feel that you have anything left to give, any motivation left to continue going?  If so, you understand where Naomi was.

In this first chapter we see that in her hurt, she is looking for a reason and assumes that God is punishing her: “The hand of the LORD has gone out against me,” she says in verse 13.  “The LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me,” she goes on in verse 21.  In pain, we lash out, even at those who love us.  Even at those who are working to restore us.

For Naomi, her path to restoration began in suffering.  She did not have the luxury as we do of reading ahead in her story to see what would happen a few pages later.  She takes the only actions that seem possible: She tells her daughters-in-law to return back to their parents and Naomi prepares to return to her hometown in the hopes of finding enough sustenance there to survive.  But even in her pain, we see that God is present and that his vision of her future is unimpeded.  He knows the path she will take and he will work carefully, painstakingly to restore her.

As anyone who has gone through physical therapy or rehabilitation knows, it’s a process that takes time and occasionally even more pain and setbacks, but it’s a necessary process to healing.  We have the choice to either stay still and be in pain forever, or to take a cue from Naomi and start that journey even if we don’t know where we will end up.

The path to restoration goes through faith

In her conversation with Ruth in chapter 1, we discover a few important traits about Naomi.  The first is that even in the midst of her pain, she is still looking out for the well-being of those she loves.  I’ve seen this phenomenon so many times here at Mt. Hope, when someone loses a loved one they often feel compelled to reach out and help others and give.  I see it as an indication of their faith, a testimony that we have hope and should always broadcast that hope to others.

Another important trait about Naomi that we see is how incredibly strong her faith is.  Even though she’s blaming God for her situation, Ruth’s response to Naomi telling her to go back home shows that Naomi has really made a huge impact on the younger woman’s faith.  Ruth desires to worship the God of Naomi: “Your God my God” in verse 16.  By Naomi’s faith, Ruth – a foreigner – has come to know and love the Lord.  The gospel isn’t limited to just the right sort of people, but to all people, everywhere.

And even though Naomi feels punished by God, she still acknowledges him as a sovereign Lord who has ordained all things and is his servant.  She blesses her daughters-in-law in verses 8 and 9: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!”  Naomi may be bitter, but she is not bitter against God.

The road to her restoration went through Naomi’s faith.  As 1 Timothy 5:5 says, “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.”  Naomi’s move back home is an act of faith.  The Lord visiting his people in verse 6 is a sign to encourage faith.

One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”

Jesus never promised us that following him would be a ticket to wealth, prosperity, and an easy life.  Instead, he assures us that our faith in him would involve suffering but also restoration.  We walk Naomi’s path when we follow Jesus.  We may not feel strong for the journey, sure of where it will head, or even certain that God isn’t smiting us for some sin that we’ve already forgotten.  But we walk by faith and it takes us somewhere important and life-changing.

The path to restoration is aided by family

I think it’s important note in this story that Ruth and Naomi aren’t even blood relatives or relatives by marriage any longer.  The legal tie of Naomi’s son and Ruth’s husband is dead, leaving them to part ways.  Yet something incredible happens in chapter one, because against all odds, they’re still family.  There’s love there as the women weep in verse 9 and vow to stay together in verse 10.  And while one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Orpah, does choose to return to her family and her foreign gods, Ruth gives one of the most memorable declarations in all of scripture:

“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

I don’t think there’s anything I can add to that to increase its potency.  You can just imagine this young woman standing resolute in front of the older, returning the faith and loyalty that Naomi had shown to Ruth for the past decade.  Naomi may feel bitter and empty, but this passage makes it very clear that she is not alone.  God is still with her and so is Ruth.  In fact, by the end of the book, Ruth is called “more to you than seven sons,” showing just how important this relationship was in Naomi’s journey.

Family is so important to us, especially when we are on this path to restoration.  I love that here and in other places in the Bible it’s shown that blood and marriage aren’t the only things that bind people together as a family.  Ultimately it’s Christ who forms the nucleus of our most important family and who brings us together to support each other, lift each other up, and encourage each other down the difficult paths we tread.

I’ve lost count of how many times my family has helped me.  One of my less shining moments in my life was when I was 21, I flew out to Boston to visit my girlfriend at Harvard – and she dumped me.  With nowhere to go, I ended up back at the airport with over a day before my flight would leave.  I was heartbroken, I was abandoned, and I seriously only had three dollars to my name.  So I did what kids do and I called home.  My parents wired me money, but more importantly, they talked and listened and prayed with me.  They called friends they knew in Boston to go to the airport to be with me.  Even as I felt down and out, I was already walking that path to restoration guided by God’s love through God’s people.

If you are sitting here today, you are part of our family, even if you lack blood relatives or close friends.  God is gracious to give us the people who will be his representatives of love, aid, and grace, and we should not only swallow our pride to lean on them, but also to praise God for their faithfulness.

The path to restoration is guided by God

We’re going to cheat here and bypass chapters two and three to go straight to Ruth 4:13.  Yes, I’m going to spoil the end of the story here, but the Bible’s been out for a few years now and I think a statue of limitations for spoilers have passed.  Oh, here’s another one: Jesus comes back to life on Easter morning.

So in Ruth 4:13, events have transpired so that Naomi’s foreign daughter-in-law has found a new husband and God had given them a bouncing baby boy.  The community in Bethlehem that saw a bitter, empty Naomi stagger in months before now embraces her and delivers this joyous proclamation in verses 14 and 15:  “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!   He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”

Did you catch that?  God is the restorer of Naomi’s life.  She had not been forgotten, not been abandoned, and not been cursed.  This baby may be Ruth’s, but the blessing is attributed to Naomi.  The wounds of the past have started to heal and the promise of a future – of a continuation of Naomi’s family and an assurance of God’s love – is given.  The boy becomes adopted by Naomi, who starts her task of mentoring all over again.

Naomi’s journey to restoration has a similar parallel in Luke 7 that shows us the perspective of the restorer in these situations.  Let’s turn to Luke 7:11-16 now and read together:

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him.

As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her.   When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”

Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”   The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.”

It’s not an exact parallel but there are striking similarities.  A widow has just lost her only son and is grieving hard.  The community has gathered around her for support.  Jesus comes to redeem the situation and glory is given to God.

But here we get a glimpse into what God is thinking and feeling in these situations.  Jesus’ heart goes out to the widow and his desire is to wipe away her tears.  The people acknowledge that Jesus is there to help his people, to restore them.  He turns a hopeless and terrible situation into one of hope, of joy, and of awe.

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” the Psalms tells us.  There will be a day that you too will be shouting with joy, because while the path to restoration begins in pain, goes through faith, and is aided by family, ultimately it is guided by a God who has a heart that goes out to us.  You have hope.  You have a future.  You have a God who cares.

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The Ten Commandments for toddlers

February 10, 2014

In our nighttime devotions/storytime, I’ve been teaching my 4- and 3-year-olds the Ten Commandments.  I’ve been modifying them to use language and concepts that they’d understand, as such:

1. God is number one.

2. There are no gods before God.

3. Don’t use God’s name as a bad word.

4. Sunday is God’s day.

5. Obey mommy and daddy.

6. Don’t hurt people in anger.

7. Be faithful to your marriage.

8. Don’t take other people’s things.

9. Don’t lie; tell the truth!

10. Be happy with what you have.

After we get these memorized, we’ll move on to Jesus’ summation of the laws into the two and how those play out in our lives.  I try to talk about the purpose behind these laws beyond just “do” and “do not” — that God’s plan for us is a life filled with love for him and others, and not one filled with selfishness, hate, and greed.

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Thou shalt not covet

February 4, 2014

Gollum-RingThis morning I was listening to one of the Bible verse music CDs that I play for the kids on the way to school when I was convicted of a sin that I have not really thought about in some time.  I covet.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”  (Exodus 20:17)

“Covet” simply means “yearn to possess” — a step beyond merely wanting something or taking a fancy to something and actively lusting after it.  It’s something you crave that you do not have but want to have desperately.  The sin here isn’t just what coveting can lead to, but the fact that it’s already led to discontentment with the blessings and gifts that God’s given to you.

It makes me think of the story of Gollum in Lord of the Rings.  Gollum used to be Smeagol, a generally nice, typical Hobbit.  But when his friend found the One Ring in the river, the corruption of the Ring preyed upon Smeagol’s heart, leading him quickly to covet what his friend had.  Even though it was Smeagol’s birthday and he had received presents, he wanted that one thing his friend had and he did not have.  He coveted, discontent in his current possessions, and murdered his friend for the Ring.  This corruption followed Smeagol, now Gollum, for the remainder of the series.  Gandalf pities the creature he’s become, obsessed by this possession (his “precious”) and tormented by its loss that he follows Frodo across the world to get it back.  He is miserable, he is angry, and he is never seen as truly content, even with the Ring.

When King David coveted what he saw in his neighbor’s wife, it led to adultery and murder.  When Gideon created an ephod out of the spoils of war, his family about tore itself apart desiring it.  Judas coveted wealth, stealing from the disciples and eventually betraying Jesus for money.  Joseph’s brothers coveted his coat and his father’s attention, leading them to sell Joseph into slavery.

Ambition, drive, and having goals aren’t necessarily breaching the boundaries of coveting.  What God is establishing in this commandment is a healthy way to live with a healthy relationship between us and God and us and others.  We may desire things that we do not have, and we may pursue some of those things if they are not sinful.  But throughout this, we should be filled with contentment and happiness with our current station, our current possessions, and our current blessings.

To covet breaks down that relationship between us and God, because how are we to praise God and thank him for what he gives us if our heart is unsatisfied?  The Hebrews in the desert had daily bread and yet they were malcontent, complaining about the same food day in and out until God gave them meat as well (and even then, that wasn’t enough to stop them from coveting their old life in Egypt).  It’s so hard not to covet in today’s world because marketing bombards us with goods and services that are promoted as things to fill us with happiness and make our lives better and easier.  The message of these commercials and ads is, “If you don’t have this, then you’re missing out.  You need this.  You should want this.  You should be unhappy until you obtain this.”

God, on the other hand, fills our lives with the abundance of his grace, mercy, and blessings, and then has to listen to our hearts yearning for even more.  Have you ever done something nice for someone only to hear them gripe that you didn’t do or give them more?  I know how that makes me feel, and I can only imagine how frustrated God gets when we’re like that too.

Coveting also breaks the bonds of harmony and love with other people.  When they have something we desperately want, then we grow to resent them.  We wonder why they get it and we don’t.  We blame them, if silently.  How can you love and be friends with someone in those circumstances?  All too often we see people using each other, pretending to be friends, just to get access to things we covet.  I know that as a kid, I sucked up to other kids who had video game systems I didn’t in hopes that I would get invited over to play on them.

So I was convicted today because, sure, I break this commandment.  I think we all do.  The only counter to it is to develop contentment in one’s life, and that comes through the daily exercise of praise and thanksgiving in our prayers.  When all that we have comes from our Father and all belongs to him, we do not have the right to demand it anyway, but to be happy for what we are given.  I may not be the richest, the best-looking, the smartest, or the most geographically blessed person in the world, but what I have is immeasurable.  A wife who shows me sacrificial love every day.  Children who abruptly come up to me for hugs and to say that they love me.  A home that’s warm in the middle of a brutally cold winter.  Food on the table.  A Bible in my hand.  The freedom to worship without fear of persecution.  And a personal relationship with my Redeemer which will extend into eternity.  There should be no room to covet in all of that.

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