Part of the problems encountered with our lectionary at times is that sometimes, unbeknownst to you, the listener, a portion of the story gets left out. This may be because of the need for brevity or just because whoever picks the readings decides for all of us that what he believes to be the important part of the story should be the most important to all of us.
Today we have just such an occurrence in our reading from the Book of Ruth. You may remember that in the story of Ruth, Ruth becomes a widow, along with her mother-in-law Naomi, and the two widows set off for the hometown of Naomi’s relatives. The story recounts the raw emotion of a struggle as Ruth commits herself to the unknown with her mother-in-law as they begin their journey to a foreign land. Ruth pledges her life to her friend in one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible as she begs Naomi to let her come with her and face the unknown together . . .
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die–
there will I be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
The reading this morning insinuates to us that Ruth basically gives herself to Boaz one night and then they have a child. But it is much more complicated than that, For Boaz is a very righteous man who knows that he is not the first in line for the hand of Ruth – that there is another who is involved with the deal. What the readings miss is a crucial point between the lines where Naomi helps to arrange the marriage between Ruth and Boaz so that a land deal might be worked out with Naomi’s relatives. Once the deal is made and Boaz redeems the land he is then obligated to marry the widow of his cousin – who is Ruth. And that is when they have a child together.
And for those of you who don’t know the rest of the story . . . it is to the little town of Bethlehem that Ruth and Naomi travel . . . where Ruth marries Boaz and eventually becomes the great grandmother of Israel’s greatest King . . . David . . . and later of David’s heir Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Son of God.
What makes the the Story of Ruth and Boaz so important to the Biblical narrative is that within their story is another story, not just of love, but a story of the redemption of property that mirrors yet another story in the Book of Revelation at the end of all things. For in the Revelation Story there is yet another property that must be redeemed by a kinsman, a relative of Adam . . . and there is only one who is found in all of heaven and earth who is worthy to open the scroll – which is the deed to the planet earth and it is this person – Jesus the Christ – who reclaims the world and then redeems his people and marries his bride, which is his church.
As Paul writes to day in his letter to the Hebrews “Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” And that is why we call him Lord, for he came to redeem our world and to set us free from sin by way of his own life . . . and his own precious blood.
And so that very shortly now “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
As the Church Year winds down to the end of the year, we are increasingly being drawn in by the readings to a discussion of what our religion really should mean to us. The Gospel of Christ continually begs the question . . . can your faith survive persecution? How strong is your religion in the face of evil and imminent death? Are you ready to die in your convictions to the faith? These are the questions that haunt us at the end of our church year and as well as at the end of our lives.
It has been said, there are no atheists in foxholes on the battlefield. When the bombs are dropping and bullets are flying . . . that is the time when every man finds true religion. It is when life is sweet and safe, and the outlook of the future is secure that one finds people who say “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping the God’s commandments or by going about as mourners before the Lord of Hosts?” That is . . . Why should we try to remain honest and pure when, indeed, the only ones having any success at all seem to be wicked, evil people?
I can’t think of a time when the words of the scriptures today were more appropriate to our times than now. Within this past year, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Christians throughout the world have been murdered, tortured, raped or brutalized in some way or another for their belief in thr risen Christ. We hear about this news now almost daily in the newspapers or on television.
Paul wrote to us in Colossians . . . “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
The world cannot understand this because the world is lost in error and a slave to the god of this world. It is through the cross of Christ that Christians have already conquered the worse that the world can offer and so whether we live or whether we die it does not matter, for we are, in fact, the Lord’s possession.
But many who are not quite so sure in this belief may ask how do we develop within ourselves and our friends and families this certainty of faith?
John Stott, one of the foremost evangelicals of our day explains that you must learn that. . . Belief doesn’t come first. One begins with entering in to the experience–going to church, saying the prayers, singing the hymns, meeting other believers in fellowship. If you do this, then eventually, worship will shape your believing. We go to church first and foremost to find a relationship with God. And out of that comes the shaping of belief. If indeed the preaching we hear is centered on the gospel and the worship is faithful and reverent you will begin to cultivate an abiding relationship with God and with each other and true religion will grow. . . . And as it grows you will not be able to contain it within yourself. Others will see in you a change that can only be described as joyful expectation and an inner peace that passes all understanding.
But there is another side to the story that the prophet Jeremiah decries in the prevalence of false religion promoted by false teachers . . . “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.” Jeremiah speaks of a religion spread by false teachers that is devoid of belief and lacking in faith . . . it is indeed an empty religion.
This of course is amplified by Jesus himself in the gospel today as we read . . . “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
No book is more scathing of empty religion than the Bible. Jesus and the prophets were outspoken in their denunciation of the formalism and hypocrisy of false worship. Jesus applied their critique to the Pharisees of his day: ‘These people [he said] … honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Is. 29:13; Mk. 7:6). And this indictment of religion by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus is uncomfortably applicable to many churches in our world today. In many churches today worship has become ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear . . . and a religion without God.
And you know what? Many people sense this and leave . . . sometimes never to return again. They are scattered as Jeremiah describes, sometimes never to have a relationship with God again. And because of this, their shepherds and leaders are damned.
So where does that leave the true church in its quest to promote true religion and abiding faith in Christ – the King of Glory? We must always be aware that in fact . . . we do not convert people . . . God does. In fact you would not be here today if God had not instilled in you the desire to be faithful. The Church is merely a participant in God’s mission of salvation. It is our primary task, as believers, to reflect Jesus in our individual and corporate lives . . . to worship and to proclaim Christ in word and deed.
Christianity is a social religion done best in community with other believers. One cannot be a virtual Christian in a virtual world . . . you need to find others and worship and pray with them – for where there is two or three, there is Christ in their midst.
All of us need to realize that Christianity is in its very essence a rescue religion. It does not seek to restrain you . . . or to subject you . . . or to enhance you in any way . . . Christ seeks only to save you and to enrich your life with true joy and a blessing that the world cannot give.
Some believe that they can worship God without including Jesus Christ in the mix. They don’t trust the gospel and believe the New Testament to be a fable made up by the early church to gain followers of the new religion. But you must know that Jesus Christ is at the center of both the Old and the New Testaments. Without the power of the cross and the blood of the Messiah sacrificed for us, there is no help for anyone . . . for without the cross we are all lost in our sins. Christianity without Christ then is a frame without a picture, a door without a handle, a body without breath. In effect Christianity without Christ is completely worthless in every respect . . . in fact Paul describes Christianity as “foolishness” in the eyes of a world that denies Christ. And so the true Church must continue to endure the hardship, insults and hatred that so many inflict on it.
Endurance is the key word for us in the reading from the Book of Ruth. Endurance to persevere under all circumstances. Endurance to run the great race and win the victory and the crown at the end of our lives. Endurance to succeed where others have fallen. Endurance to be tested to the point of breaking. You might think that love, kindness, patience and understanding are the key words in the description of a true believer, and they are important qualities. But, it is endurance against all odds that is the metal from which we are to be forged.