Sunday, November 11, 2012

November 11, 2012 - Trust Even When You are Vulnerable

Ruth 3:1-13
            The Bible’s teaching on living is relevant for us -- even though the situations addressed by the Bible may be out of date. We do not live, for example, in the Iron Age of the Old Testament. Ours is not a subsistence economy. We even live in the Western Hemisphere, a part of the world that the people of the Bible never even considered. Still, the teachings of the Bible on living must not be discounted simply because they reflect a different cultural situation. They still have much to teach us.
            So, how do we learn from the scriptures when the situations have changed over time? I reject the idea that the cultural changes over the years have silenced the Bible. I reject the idea that we in the modern era are somehow *above* or more *sophisticated* than the ancient situations. Such rejection or discounting of the scriptures has been a far too common response.
[ILLUS: About 10-years ago, Dr. Laura Schlessinger was a radio personality who gave advice to people who called in to her radio show. She took some pretty conservative stands on cultural issues, basing her claims on the scriptures. In response, Kent Ashcraft wrote a letter to her in May, 2000, which he posted on the internet. His letter went viral, and even found its way into an episode of *The West Wing* television drama.
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how best to follow them.
a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord [Lev 1:9]. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in [Exodus 21:7]. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanness [Lev 15:19-24]. The problem is: How do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
d) [Lev. 25:44] states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
e) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. [Exodus 35:2] clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an Abomination [Lev 11:10], it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
g) [Lev 21:20] states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by [Lev 19:27]. How should they die?
i) I know from [Lev 11:6-8] that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
j) My uncle has a farm. He violates [Lev 19:19] by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? [Lev 24:10-16] Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? [Lev. 20:14]
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help.
Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.
Your devoted disciple and adoring fan (1).

The letter, written by Kent Ashcraft, demonstrates how ancient Biblical laws sound foolish when rigidly applied to our current circumstances. I agree. But, these ancient laws and circumstances still have something to teach us about God’s will for human life.
+Perhaps we only have to update the situation to make the scriptures’ teaching relevant.
+Other times, we must look to *God’s intent* behind a law to see that God’s intentions for human life are just as life-enhancing now as they were back then.
+Or, we must allow the different voices in the Bible to enter into a conversation among themselves. Which are the greater teachings; which are less? Which were important for that time only; which are timeless? We must take the Bible seriously, even though we do not take it literally.
Anytime you find a situation in the Bible that is far out of date by our standards, resist the impulse to discount or pass over that passage as irrelevant. We must look deeper than the surface to find the life-affirming teaching of God in scripture.

            The story of Ruth and Boaz reflects one of those situations that made sense in Biblical times but appears to be out of date to us. I would like to outline the larger story, and then look below the surface to see the message of God’s teaching for us. The Book of Ruth is only four chapters long; you can read it in a few minutes.
            The story begins with a famine which sends an Israelite family, Elimelech and his wife Naomi, along with their two sons, to Moab to find a better life. While living in Moab, the sons grow up and marry Moabite wives. Israelites are usually not very accepting of foreign marriages like these. Well, as it turned out, Naomi’s husband, and then her two sons died, leaving the three women widows with little way to make a living. Naomi invited her young daughters-in-law to return to their parents’ homes; one did; the other, Ruth, committed herself to Naomi as a daughter.
            As Naomi and Ruth return to the family home in Bethlehem, Ruth meets a good man named Boaz. He was kind to her, and perhaps he even noticed her. At the end of the workday he offered her a blessing which captures the best that our faith teaches about being neighbor. Boaz said:
Ruth 2.11 “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

The only way Naomi sees to provide a living for herself and Ruth is to find a suitable husband for Ruth. The O.T. contains a provision in ancient Israel called Levirate Marriage. It provided that when a husband died, his brother should marry his widow and have children in the first husband’s name. In a land with no social security and little way for women to take jobs, it provided a living for such widows and it kept any property in the family. It stands as a modern reminder to be careful when you marry because you are getting your spouse’s family in the bargain. While Levirate marriage did not apply to Ruth and Boaz, it informed the context of their meeting.
            Not being able to count on the Levirate Marriage tradition, Naomi decides that her daughter-in-law Ruth should make herself available to Boaz.
+Since Ruth is a foreign woman, the traditions of Israel probably do not apply to her anyway.
+Since there is no man in the family to make arrangements between Ruth and Boaz, Naomi has to take matters into her own hands. Again, this is a stretching of the traditions that guided ancient life.
+Since Boaz is not taking the first step in the relationship, Ruth takes some pretty risky actions to place herself in his way. If caught, she could have been stoned for promiscuity or prostitution.
Well, it works out. The Law of Levirate Marriage does not apply to this situation; he has no direct obligation. But, deeper than the practical need to provide husbands and a living for women in that society, he remembers the blessing he offered to Ruth:
12 May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

And he realizes that those words are not empty; they speak of the conviction that a community formed under the watch care of God must be a society of grace which welcomes the foreigner, the outsider. Because God is God, we are obligated to be avenues of grace; grace should not find a dead-end in us.
            Boaz is interested. He conducts his part of the marriage negotiation in an honorable manner; she continues in an honorable manner. And one day, a now-married Ruth bears a son, Obed. As a result of committing herself to Israel and Israel’s God:
+Ruth has a home with her husband Boaz.
+Naomi has a home with her daughter and son-in-law.
+Ruth has a son and thus provides her family and Israel with a future.
+Best of all, this son became the father of Jesse who became the father of David the King. And David, as you know, was the ancestor of Jesus of Nazareth.

II. What does this quaint story of commitment and risk have for us today?
A. It is a reminder that marriage is one of the contexts where God’s grace is worked out. The commitments of marriage are not just for the bride and the groom; they work for a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law. This story stands as a  reminder that some of our most personal decisions have a far-reaching impact – not just for ourselves, but for our families and beyond to our communities.

B. The story is based on the conviction that God is concerned with every detail of human life. In the days of the ancients, they saw God’s concern and direction in the great O.T. Law, the Torah. In the New Testament, God’s care was shown first in the gift of Jesus Christ – the Word of God taken flesh, the Word which dwelt among us. After the resurrection of Christ, we find God’s concern and direction through the presence and comfort of the Holy Spirit. All of these form the foundation of our conviction that we are not alone. And we are convinced that God, who has the power to create the universe with a word, also attends to the smallest of God’s creatures.
            A grandfather was out walking with his young grandson. “How far are we from home?” he asked his grandson.
            The boy answered, “Grandpa, I don’t know.”
            The grandfather asked, “Well, where are we?”
            Again, the boy answered, “I don’t know.”
            Then the grandfather said good-naturedly, “Sounds to me as if you are lost.”
            The young boy looked up at his grandfather and said, “Nope, I can’t be lost. I’m with you.”
Ultimately, that is the answer to our lost-ness, too. We can’t be lost because God is walking with us.

C. When Ruth acted on the conviction that Israel’s God would make a place for her, she was trusting God and God’s commandments to guide her life. This is a story about trusting God with our lives when we are most vulnerable.
            A commercial begins with a young girl standing alone in a picturesque meadow.  The camera then pans to another part of the field where it shows a gigantic African rhinoceros.  The ominous beast begins a lethal charge toward the girl, whose serene and happy face remains unmoved.  As the rhinoceros gets closer, the words appear on the screen, “Trust is not being afraid.”  A split second before the rhino tramples the helpless child, it stops, and the girl, her smile never wavering, reaches up and pets the animal on its massive horn.  The final words then appear, “even when you are vulnerable.” (2)

Now, this commercial was designed to tell us about the abilities of a certain insurance company to protect its clients from the uncertainties of life. For us, it reminds us of God’s call to live with trust in the face of the uncertainties and vulnerabilities of this life. POINT: Trusting God means not being afraid even when you are vulnerable.
            Even when you are vulnerable: Life is filled with uncertainties and vulnerabilities.  Things don’t always happen as we plan or expect.  The evidence is all around us. 
+Storms, both literal and figurative, happen all the time. 
+Bodies fail. 
+Illness comes without warning. 
+Disappointments, both great and small, are common. 
+Jobs aren’t secure. 
Life is complex…and we are vulnerable and face uncertainty on a daily basis. Ruth was faithful to Israel and Israel’s God, and the outcome was good. She and Naomi, who depended on her, were blessed. That is the lesson for us in our time and our situations as well.

            What Ruth’s story teaches us is this:
1. That life is the place where God meets us: marriage, jobs, relationships, even our Saturday morning chores. God meets us there.
2. That God is intimately interested in every aspect of our lives.
3. That we should live trusting God even when we are vulnerable. God can be trusted with our lives.

1. The West Wing: The Letter.
2. “Unwavering Trust.” An illustration from, 2004.

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