Faithful (Ruth)

Ruth

Ruth said, “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.” – Ruth 1:16

It happens often enough, I’m sitting with a bride planning a wedding and we’re talking about which scripture she’d like read during the service. “Ruth 1:16” she says. “Well” I respond “contextually Ruth 1:16 is about a daughter-in-law pledging her unfailing faithfulness to her mother-in-law…not her husband.” I usually then offer that if she’d like to use this text then when could have her groom sit down for a bit and her mother-in-law stand next to her for this part. That usually ends the discussion right there.

I don’t know what it is about the concept of love that makes us always think romance. Just about every “love” movie you see is about the concept of romantic love. This is foolish, love is a far greater concept than just the idea of romance. Now don’t get me wrong…romantic love is important and I’m not trying to minimize it…it’s just not the only form of love there is. The greeks had concepts for many different types of love. In particular they had agape or love of God; philia or love of one another…we get the name Philadelphia from this, the city of brotherly love; and there’s eros or romantic love. We focus an inordinate amount of our attention on romantic love. “I’ve gotta find love,” “I want to fall in love,” “I need you to love me” (Ok, now I’m getting into songs).

Now sure enough there are plenty of Biblical examples of romantic love…Ruth and Boaz for example. But the Bible is chock full of examples of brotherly love or, love of one another. David and Jonathan; Paul and Timothy; and of course Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. We need to lift up, to nurture, and to demonstrate this idea of loving one another.

It seems that our world is intent on tearing itself apart at times. It doesn’t take long to see example after example of people taking their sticks and beating each other up with them. I’m reading this book called Jesus: A Theography right now by Len Sweet and Frank Viola. They were just talking about how Christians can be guilty of beating one another up and others. They used the cross as an illustration. The cross has two bars, a vertical one and a horizontal one. The vertical bar can represent our relationship with God…lots of folks focus all their attention on being in right relationship with God. In turn they can have a tendency to take that vertical bar and beat up those who don’t agree with them. Vice versa, the horizontal bar represents our relationship with others. Some focus a lot of their attention on being in right relationship with one another and can, in turn, take that bar and beat up those who don’t agree with them. The point, the authors make is that we are called to keep both bars, the vertical and the horizontal; the whole cross. We can’t have one without the other. When you keep both then you find yourself carrying the whole cross…and when you do that then you have an awfully hard time beating people over the head. Jesus did call us to take up our cross and follow him.

We are called by God to love one another, and 1st John’s words ring true…we love because he first loved us. We are able to love one another because of God’s love for us. The love of one another that flows out of God’s love for us might be called faithfulness. It’s a love that says “through thick and thin I will be with you.” It’s a love that says “I will forgive you when you’re wrong and pick you up when you’re down.” It’s a love that says “I will always think kindly over you and wish only the best for you.” It’s a love that is demonstrated throughout the story of Ruth and Naomi; they were faithful to one another in the worst of times. In our world today, as Christians, our call is to learn from Ruth and Naomi and to be to one another faithful.

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Right (Judges)

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In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 17:6

In the time of the judges, still the early days for Israel, everyone did what was right in his own eyes. We’re tempted to believe that this was an affliction particular to Israel, or to the ancient days. After all, they were still newly in the land…they had a lot to learn. But we would be sadly mistaken to think that. We are just as susceptible, if not more so, today. Now, I’m sure that as you read these words you’ve already got people in your mind for whom this fits the bill…but that would be wrong too.

The tricky thing about everyone doing what is right in their own eyes is this…we have our way thats right…those people over there have theirs…and so forth and so on. In fact, it would seem that these days we’ve all gone off into our own little groups and sub-groups. We spend time with people who think like this, we share articles on facebook and send e-mails of things that speak exactly the message we want to say and never a word about anything that does agree with our own personal perspective. And oh heaven help those poor souls who are called to leadership or public service if we don’t agree with them! In our eyes they’re bent on nothing more than the destruction of all the I hold dear and, of course, they are all that is wrong with the world! One is left to wonder, where is charity? Where is understanding? Where is basic decency?

I would seem that when we look at the context in which we live today in the light of holy scripture we are people that this verse speaks very loudly too. All of us do what is right in our own eyes…and there seems to be a lack of leadership…or if I might be so bold to say…their is a lack of recognizing and submitting to the leadership that God has provided us with. During the time of the judges we hear that there were no leaders…and chaos was the result. God’s solution was to send prophets…but the people didn’t like God’s solution…oh how often that happens! So then he sent them kings (we’ll see more about this in the next few devotions)…in all reality though the kings were more of a disaster then we might like to admit. In the fullness of time God sent his son Jesus…and we didn’t submit to him…we crucified him. After Jesus had ascended to heaven he sent the apostles and…well…all you have to do is read Paul’s letters to see that people didn’t much care for those leaders either.

We don’t like leaders…we prefer to do what is right in our own eyes. We don’t much care for the practice of submitting to something larger than ourselves…this is our human condition that we are called upon to accept if we take seriously God’s holy word. But, to submit yourself to a disciple that is larger than yourself…to submit yourself to teaching, and guidance, and correction in the community and under the leadership God has called and set apart is to make a profound confession of faith. It is to confess that we are sinful…that we want things to be our own way…but that way is not always best for us. It is to also confess that God is really at working in this world. You see, God doesn’t just work in magical ways…God works in ways that we can see…he works in places, like the church…he works in people too, like those who have been called and set apart for his service…and, perhaps most importantly, God works in specific means…means like his Word and his Sacraments. Any church, any leader, any person who is in conflict with these is in conflict with God…they are guilty of doing in their own eyes what is right…instead of what God says is right.

Conquest (Joshua)

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And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. – Joshua 24:15

Many people have these words, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, displayed somewhere in or on their homes. My family did growing up…it was on a little gold colored plaque on our door. It’s one small way of identifying this as a Christian home, a home that follows the values of the Lord as opposed to the values of the world. We will serve the Lord…It’s always wonderful to see this commitment made by a family; but it helps to know the back story.

The Israelites had been freed from their bondage of slavery to the Egyptians. They had wandered through the wilderness for 40 years. They had been attacked by others and, quite frankly, they had done a perfectly wonderful job of attacking themselves. They had stood at the threshold of the promised land and heard the command of God to take the land and to root out any and all things that were opposed to the Lord…those things that would draw them from the one who had redeemed them…we call this task in the book of Joshua the conquest. From there to this verse we read about their crossing the Jordan river, and it’s parting for them to pass…this is intentionally reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea at the beginning of the Exodus. We hear about the fall of Jericho and the rest of the conquest…and we read about the division of the land and who will live where.

Then we come to these verses. This is the end of Joshua and he has gathered the people together to renew again that covenant that the Lord had made with them. What a recurring theme we see in scripture…at key moments, sometimes before and sometimes after, God gathers his people so that they might hear again the story, that they might be fed on the words of eternal life, and that they might be given the vision of whose they are and of where they are going. There’s a challenge. For well over 40 years the Israelites have been slaves, they’ve been wandering in the wilderness, they’ve been conquering the land. Now they are home in the land of promise, now they are to get down to the blessed business of living each and every day in the land flowing with milk and honey as God’s own people…they are, through their perfectly ordinary life, called to be that city on a hill for all the world to see. But with that glorious blessing comes a problem…the problem of being too comfortable. It’s one thing to follow God when it’s difficult…when the cards are down and the chips are in. It’s another thing entirely when all is going along fine and dandy…when things are going the best, that’s when you can fall the hardest! So God calls Joshua to gather the people, to renew the covenant and to ask them this question…choose this day!

These are words that we need. We are, by and large, the comfortable. We have cars and houses, 401K’s and savings accounts, families and jobs and all the rest. Most of us don’t worry about where our next meal will come from or if we’ll have another check to put into the bank. It never fails to amaze me how little people seem to know of the spiritual dangers that lurk all around them. We want to fixate on the present physical dangers…oh how insignificant those are! It’s the unseen spiritual dangers that we must be concerned about. Most don’t even believe that they exist! In his classic Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis observes that the devil doesn’t normally assault us with dark nights of the soul but rather with mundane business. In another place he observes that if you actually start thinking of spiritual matters the devil will just remind you that you’re hungry so that you’ll think about your stomach. Still in another place he says that the devil does his work best when you believe that he doesn’t exist at all! These spiritual assaults of the devil are the true ones we are called to worry about, to strive against, and to work to conquer.

I’ve often said that Lutherans aren’t big of decision theology…we don’t have this one big moment where we decide for Christ. Instead…we are called to decided for Christ each and every day…this is the daily calling of a Baptized Christian. Luther said in his Catechism that we are to daily die and rise with Christ. So, here’s the deal…right now you find yourself standing in the wilderness on the threshold of the promised land…your call is to strive against and to root out all that is in your life that draws you from God. This is your daily work. Like a gardener weeds their beds so we pull up the weeds in our own soul…Oh and the good news…you’re going to win the battle because Jesus has already declared it to be so! So pull up those weeds with joy and choose this day and all days to join in the Lord’s great conquest!

Believe (Deuteronomy)

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Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. – Deuteronomy 6:4

What do you believe? We all must believe in something. For some it’s a sports team. For others it a political party or a particular form of government. Still some believe in the almighty dollar; many believe in themselves. We all must believe in something; it’s likely that we believe in a variety of things…a special cocktail of belief that’s unique to each one of us.

The Lord instructed the Israelites on the importance of believing is something…specifically in believing in him. In fact, one of the defining hallmarks of Israel was their radical belief in and dependence upon the Lord God Almighty. This is what the book of Deuteronomy is all about.

Deuteronomy is a sermon…well really it’s three sermons. Picture this if you will. The Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for the past 40 years. Now they stand at the threshold of the promised land…their feet poised on the brink of walking into the land flowing with milk and honey. Their leader, Moses, is about to die and new leadership is about to step in. This is a moment, an occasion, of profound significance. It’s here in this moment that Moses gathers all the people together and preaches to them.

In the first of these sermons Moses recalls all that God has done for them throughout the 40 years of wilderness wandering. In the second they’re called to radical belief and dependence upon the Lord their God in this new wilderness of promise. And in the third Moses reminds them that despite their unfaithfulness…in fact they will be unfaithful…the Lord will remain faithful to them; he’s always just a repentant turn away!

Deuteronomy then is a collection of sermons expressing the three interrelated elements of belief. There is a past component: who are you; where have you been; whose are you; how have you gotten here; who has gotten you here? There is a calling component: because of all of this so what; what are you supposed to do; what does this mean for your life? And finally there is a future component: what happens if we fail; life’s hard, is there a plan; what does the future hold? Past grace, present call, and future promise; these are the three elements of belief.

For the Israelites this verse is known as the Shema. It is their most basic confession of belief. We Christians share this with them…the Shema is ours as well. We just expand it a bit. Each week we stand and boldly state what we believe in. I believe in God, the Father almighty…I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…I believe in the Holy Spirit…Here again we have those same three elements: past grace, present call, and future promise. Who and whose are we? We are God’s…made by him, saved by him, and holy by him. Where where we? We were nothing, we were sinful. Where are we now? We are sons and daughters of God, heirs of the kingdom, standing just this side of the Jordan river on the brink of crossing the threshold of the eternal promised land. What now? We are to be the church…a communion of forgiveness and new life. What about the future? There is forgiveness…and resurrection…and everlasting life. Just think how awesomely bold this great confession of belief is that we say each and every week amid the noisy gongs and loud clanging cymbals of this world!

Belief, we must have it. For the people of God our belief is always in one…one God in three persons…Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That one belief in the one God is expressed in three ways: past grace, present call, and future promise. So, what do you believe?

Wilderness (Numbers)

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Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Arise, O Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.” – Numbers 10:35

When I was a boy of loved nothing more than to find some wooded lot, an intown wilderness, and get lost for hours exploring every part of it. Near my house was a place my friends and I used to call the dirt hills. It was probably a good 20 acres or so, just right for boys to play in. We’d ride our bikes over there and spend hours getting lost and then finding our way back out again. It probably looks foolish now, but back then it was something that was spectacularly wonderful. They’ve turned the dirt hills into a subdivision now…I really hate that.

The Hebrew name for the book of numbers is Bamidbar, “in the desert” or simply wilderness. The wilderness is a vastly important concept in the Bible. Adam and Eve are sent out from the garden into the wilderness. Noah finds the wilderness on the high seas. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph all find themselves in their own wildernesses. Moses receives his call to lead the Hebrews into freedom while out in the Wilderness. We’re only at the start of the second book of the Bible with this whole wilderness theme and haven’t even covered Elijah or Jesus or Paul; all who had profound wilderness experiences…and there’s more too, but you’ll just have to discover those another time.

In the wilderness things get real, they get real in a way that they simply cannot in places that aren’t wilderness. The book of Numbers, or perhaps we should just call it the book of Wilderness, is a great read. The first half of the book finds the Hebrews still camped out at the base of Mount Sinai. They are preparing to leave and make their final journey to the promised land. people are being counted…that’s why we call the book Numbers by the way, due to all the lists of counted and numbered people. That in itself should give us a bit of comfort, each counted person, each number that we read is a person…a living, breathing, real live person. Each one of those numbers matters to God! Even still today, amid the vast numbers of persons walking the globe…you matter to God. You, that singular, living, breathing real live person matters to God. In addition to all of this counting instructions are being given on how they are to live. Who does what; who camps where; who is responsible for which item. All have a part to play, all have a roll to live out. The first half of the book is the story of great blessing for people who live under the ever watchful and blessed care of the Lord God Almighty.

In the second half of the book we get a different story. The Hebrew people are on their way…but they aren’t doing such a good job of joyfully living in God’s blessing. There’s murmuring and infighting. Faithlessness and struggles. At times it can seem a bit like, dare I say, a church. The Hebrews could enter into the promised land quickly…but do to their shortfalls at living within God’s blessing and protection they are called to wander through this wilderness for far longer. Entering into the land of promise will be for those who come after them…not for them.

Still, there is this verse. The Hebrew’s have been given the ark of God. It doesn’t simply represent God for them…it doesn’t remind them of God. The ark is the very presence of God and his power in their midst. As they go, no matter if it is living joyfully in God’s blessings or in faithlessness, God goes with them. He goes with them to guide them and to protect them, to scatter all those who oppose them or who stand as obstacles in their way. God goes with them in this wilderness…and as they journey through it the wilderness mixed with God’s presence does what it does best…forms these people into God’s people. It’s in the wilderness, accompanied by God’s presence that these people come to know who they are…and more importantly whose they are.

We too find ourselves in the wilderness. It might be the urban jungle, or the country, or a bona fide wilderness. Never the less, wherever you are you are in the wilderness. Yet always there is God, present with us. He’s there in his word; there when we gather with other Christians; there in prayer; in sacrament; there in life together with us. As you go along this wilderness way that is laid out before you know that God is there with you scattering that which stands in your way and toppling that which opposes you. And its here, throughout this journey that you learn who you are…and whose you are. You are God’s and he’s with you…in the wilderness.

Holy (Leviticus)

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Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2

Please can we read some more from Leviticus? Please can you preach another sermon on Leviticus? I just love that book, it’s so edifying. As a pastor I never hear this. Most people would just as soon skip over the book of Leviticus entirely. For those who have tried to read through the whole Bible, cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation…more often than not Leviticus is the burial ground in which those good intentions were laid to rest. In fact, the only time I hear talk of Leviticus is when there’s a good old fashioned church fight going on and people need Bible verses to club one another over the head with…those fights never end well…and it really is rather unfortunate that Leviticus is treated that way.

We don’t talk much about Leviticus. We do however talk a great deal about being Holy. It’s not out of the norm to do a sermon or a Bible study on being Holy…it is out of the norm to chat about Leviticus. But why? Leviticus is all about being Holy. That’s the whole theme of the Book…”You shall be holy” says the Lord to his chosen people.

Often times we designate all kinds of things as holy…there are places like God’s Holy House the church. You don’t run in there or wear your hat or speak loudly. There are objects like the Holy Bible. One doesn’t treat this book carelessly. There are even particularly significant times of the service, like Holy Communion. You’re supposed to be reverent during this time, not careless. We’re comfortable and even familiar with holy places, objects, and times. But there’s more. There are holy people. Now to be holy simply means to be set apart for special service.

That’s who we are. In our Baptism, one of those holy events, we are set apart…made holy, for the purpose of being set apart for special service. The book of Leviticus may look different, it may even look odd…but that’s the point. God made his people holy by passing them through the Red Sea (hmm…they passed through water and so do we…seems there’s a theme developing here). God made them holy by giving them the 10 Commandments. God made them holy by giving them the Tabernacle. So it only follows that if they are holy…set apart for a special purpose, then shouldn’t they look different from all those around them? Of course they should! And Leviticus is that holiness guidebook!

A pastor I greatly admire once wrote a book called The truth shall make you odd. This of course is a play on Jesus’ words you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free. Well, when you know the truth…when you’ve been set apart as holy then your life will look different…it will look downright odd. We read the book of Leviticus and see it as strange because it’s foreign to us…its not our way. “Why would they do that?” we wonder. Well, the Israelites were holy, and that means that they were called to a different form of life…one that looks odd.

Well, you my friend are holy. You aren’t holy because of your effort or because you’re a really neat person (though I’m sure that you are). You are holy because God has made you holy. And as holy people we are different…we are odd. People will in all likelyhood look at our life just like we might look at the book of Leviticus. Now that’s downright odd. “What do you mean you get up on Sunday morning and go to something called worship? Huh, you believe a dead Jewish carpenter is actually still alive and he is God? You forgive others and help those in need and pray for people? You’re odd!” That’s what people will in all likelihood have to say about you and your oddball ways…oddball ways that we would call being holy. So you have been made odd…er I mean holy. And being holy means that you live differently. So if people ask you what’s going on with you…just say that you’re odd…or holy.

Create (Genesis)

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. – Genesis 1:1

In the beginning God created. In the beginning there was nothing at all…but there was God. There was nothing and there was God…and God created. He spoke and there was light…and it was good. He spoke and there was earth…and it was good. He spoke and there were animals…and they were good. Whatever he spoke it came to be…and it was good. The pièce de résistance of God’s creation was man and woman…spoken into being, created in the very image and likeness of God. At this creation God said that it was very good. In the beginning God created.

But almost from the beginning this men and women that God created seemed to be about undoing God’s very good creation. Man and woman were made for one another, yet Adam and Eve are at one another’s throat from nearly the beginning! Cain rises up and kills Abel, his brother. Abraham pretends his wife is his sister to save his own skin. Esau sells his birthright for a bowl of soup! Jacob steals Esau’s blessing. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery. This very good creation of God’s is at odds with itself. People are at odds with one another. People are at odds with creation. People are at odds with God. That’s the story here…God creates…and we tear down.

yet still there is God…creating! His work of creation doesn’t end with very good. he’s always about the business of creation. Adam and Eve rise up against God and tear down the very good order he has brought out of chaos and God creates. He creates clothes for them when they were ashamed of their nakedness. God creates. After Cain kills his brother Abel, as he’s being sent away fearful for his own safety, God creates. He creates a mark on the forehead of Cain so that he might be protected. God creates. With sin crouching so closely at the door of creation itself God creates a nation, a chosen people, headed by father Abraham; that despite their failures and shortcomings God would remain faithful to his promise. God creates. With Esau and Jacob at odds God creates reconciliation. God creates. With Joseph and his murderous, slave trading brothers God creates forgiveness. God creates. Despite our best efforts, even as we are bent of undoing God’s very good creation God creates. God is always about the business and work of creation!

We might call this work of creation that God is about grace. Over flowing, abundant, ordinarily extraordinary grace that comes to us anew each and every day. In his little catechism Martin Luther reflects on God’s work of creation. Of course God creates us and the heavens and the earth…but there’s more! “God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields,livestock, and all property – along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.” But there’s more that God creates! “God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil.” The creation seeks to tear itself apart…and we are a part of that. Yet still there is God…always there is God…creating! Bringing light out of darkness; life out of death; order out of chaos. All around us, each and every day, everywhere we look creation seems to be coming apart. Yet always there is God…and what does he do? Create!

The Bible in 66 Devotions Intro

worn-Bible

There it sits. On your shelf or in your bag. Under some magazines or over by the table. There it sits. It’s your Bible. It’s closed. Maybe the cover is worn and the pages have been thumbed through untold times; that little ribbon marker is fraying at the ends. Or perhaps its bright and shiny. The spine still cracks when you open it. The good intentions are there even if you haven’t familiarized yourself with its contents. There it sits…the Bible.

It’s an interesting moment when you go to pick up your Bible…that moment right before you open it. It’s a moment pregnant with possibility. When you open this book on this occasion something might happen. That forgiveness you’ve been aching for might just be received. That hope that you’re looking for might just be found. That light that you’ve felt around in the darkness for might come shining through. When you open this book everything might change. You might be called to follow God in a new and surprising way. It’s happened before, to countless women and men from countless places across the centuries. Your understanding of God, or the world, or yourself might change forever…that’s happened too! All this is possible…in this moment…it is pregnant with possibility.

As you sit there clearing your mind and calming your heart what might happen? What storms in your life will the Word of the Lord speak peace too? What seas will the breath of God part? What walls will come crumbling down by the thunder of this book being opened? What indeed will happen when you turn back it’s cover and lay bare before your eyes the words of eternal life? There it sits before you…the Bible…the Good Book…the Greatest Story Ever Told. What might happen when you open that book before you? You’ll never know until you open it…there it sits…