Ruth 2 — THE Most Important Question of Life


[This sermon is from a series on Ruth taught at Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth MA where I currently have the privilege of serving as the Intentional Interim Pastor.]

The title for this sermon is THE Most Important Question of Life (this side of heaven) and we’ll be looking at Ruth 2. Why Ruth? The primary reason we are studying Ruth is that transition and change has become so common in our contemporary culture that we can become numb to it. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The only thing you can really count on is change.” In addition to the transitions and changes each one of us, and our families are going through, we’re also experiencing transition and change as a church. And my challenge to us is to ask the question, “God, what do You want to teach me, to teach us, through the significant transitions of life?” Ruth is a narrative account of some pretty severe and significant transitions and we get to see how the main characters handle them. Here are 3-takeaway lessons from chapter 1:

  1. Even in the midst of dark, difficult, and chaotic times God still works on our behalf for His glory and our joy.
  2. Even when we’re disobedient it does not thwart the sovereignty and the ultimate purpose of God.
  3. There is a great benefit in being in community in the same way that Naomi and Ruth needed one another.

Today we will be introduced to the third main character: Boaz. So, we’ll be reading all of Ruth 2.  You might be asking are we going to be reading whole chapters every week?  This month, yes.  I would remind you of Paul’s exhortation to young Timothy in 1 Tim 4:13: “Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them.”:

“Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech.  One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.’  Naomi replied, ‘All right, my daughter, go ahead.’ So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech.  While she was there, Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. ‘The Lord be with you!’ he said.  ‘The Lord bless you!’ the harvesters replied.  Then Boaz asked his foreman, ‘Who is that young woman over there? Who does she belong to?’ [a poor translation, “who is” is better] And the foreman replied, ‘She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes’ rest in the shelter.’  Boaz went over and said to Ruth, ‘Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields. Stay right behind the young women working in my field. See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.’  10 Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. ‘What have I done to deserve such kindness?’ she asked. ‘I am only a foreigner.’  11 ‘Yes, I know,’ Boaz replied. ‘But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. 12 May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.’  13 ‘I hope I continue to please you, sir,’ she replied. ‘You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not one of your workers.’  14 At mealtime Boaz called to her, ‘Come over here and help yourself to some food. You can dip your bread in the sour wine.’ So she sat with his harvesters, and Boaz gave her some roasted grain to eat. She ate all she wanted and still had some leftover.  15 When Ruth went back to work again, Boaz ordered his young men, ‘Let her gather grain right among the sheaves without stopping her. 16 And pull out some heads of barley from the bundles and drop them on purpose for her. Let her pick them up, and don’t give her a hard time!’  17 So Ruth gathered barley there all day, and when she beat out the grain that evening, it filled an entire basket.  18 She carried it back into town and showed it to her mother-in-law. Ruth also gave her the roasted grain that was leftover from her meal.  19 ‘Where did you gather all this grain today?’ Naomi asked. ‘Where did you work? May the Lord bless the one who helped you!’  So, Ruth told her mother-in-law about the man in whose field she had worked. She said, ‘The man I worked with today is named Boaz.’  20 ‘May the Lord bless him!’ Naomi told her daughter-in-law. ‘He is showing his kindness to us as well as to your dead husband.  That man is one of our closest relatives, one of our family redeemers.’  21 Then Ruth said, ‘What’s more, Boaz even told me to come back and stay with his harvesters until the entire harvest is completed.’  22 ‘Good!’ Naomi exclaimed. ‘Do as he said, my daughter. Stay with his young women right through the whole harvest. You might be harassed in other fields, but you’ll be safe with him.’  23 So Ruth worked alongside the women in Boaz’s fields and gathered grain with them until the end of the barley harvest. Then she continued working with them through the wheat harvest in early summer. And all the while she lived with her mother-in-law.”–Ruth 2:1-23

My wife, Linda, and I enjoy watching a few television shows together…We’ve enjoyed many of the British detective dramas because they are not nearly as violent or eerie as their American counterparts. One of the American crime shows that we have enjoyed is Bluebloods. When I was a kid watching a television drama there was generally only one plotline. As I got older, I began to notice TV dramas had two simultaneous plotlines that intersected at the end. A while back it occurred to me that Bluebloods usually has three simultaneous plotlines…And that’s is what we find here in the 2nd chapter of Ruth—3 overlapping plotlines. In this chapter we find:

  1. Boaz is introduced as the third main character (after Ruth and Naomi)
  2. The interaction of God’s grace and human responsibility
  3. The “Christ Connection” in Chapter 2

So, let’s look at them one at a time…Boaz is introduced as the third main character. Three things about Boaz…The first thing we learn about Boaz is that he is wealthy and influential (v.1). The second thing we learn is that he is a relative of both Naomi’s and Ruth’s deceased husbands.  This is where we really begin to see the clouds part and a ray of hope emerge—for two reasons…It turns out that Boaz is one of Naomi’s and Ruth’s kinsman-redeemers. A kinsman-redeemer is a male relative who had both the privilege and the responsibility to act on behalf of a relative who was in trouble, in danger, or in need of vindication. Naomi identifies Boaz, at the end of v. 20 as, one of our family redeemers.” And it’s interesting that Naomi hadn’t told Ruth about Boaz being a relative. It’s another indication of Naomi’s good theology and that she was trusting in the covenant God of Israel as her and Ruth’s ultimate provider. What we find, by God’s merciful providence, is that Boaz can buy back the family farm that Elimelech and Naomi gave-up to move to Moab. There’s a catch though. If there was a widow (like Ruth), the kinsman-redeemer would marry her in the hope that the family name could live on.

Another reason for a ray of hope to shine through is that in addition to being wealthy and influential, Boaz is a godly man. In v. 4 Boaz arrives at the field where Ruth is gleaning and greets his crew with God-focused greeting. If we wanted to know something about a businessman or woman’s relationship with God, we would not necessarily look at how they act on a Sunday but how they greet and treat their staff (or colleagues) on Mon morning. How far down has God penetrated into the details of their everyday life? I think that’s the reason the author adds that seeming bit of trivia. Another thing we need to know about Boaz is just a tiny bit controversial. There is some subtle flirting going on between Boaz and Ruth right from the get-go. As we consider this, it’s important to clarify that nowhere in the text does it state that Ruth was beautiful, or that Boaz was handsome. And furthermore, the text indicates that Boaz was older than Ruth. We know this because he addresses her as “daughter” in v.8. Ruth’s age is probably 25-30 and some theologians think Boaz was in his 40’s, or even his 50s.  (I have daughters so; I’m going to go with 40s :). Notice in v. 5 that as soon as Boaz arrives, he sees Ruth and asks about her. And then they almost instantly get into this intense and politely intimate conversation. And the reason I brought up that the text doesn’t say they were Ken and Barbie lookalikes is because what seems to be at the heart of Boaz’s attraction to Ruth is her kindness and generosity toward Naomi—and then, even more importantly, in v.12 Boaz acknowledges her conversion to the covenant God of Israel when he says, May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.’ In v. 13 Ruth responds to Boaz saying, ‘You have comforted me by speaking so kindly to me, even though I am not one of your workers.’ The literal translation of the word “kindly” is “heart.”  So, what Ruth is saying is: “You have consoled me by speaking directly to my heart.”  Boom, love is in the air.

In v.17, other translations say that Ruth gleaned about an ephah of barley that day. Do you know how much that is? It’s about 40-pounds of barley or enough to make about 70 loaves of bread. As we read in the text, Boaz made sure Ruth and Naomi would have plenty of barley to eat and to trade for the additional necessities of life.

God’s grace and human responsibility work hand in hand; they are not contradictory. We see this dynamic tension at play here in chapter 2 as we encounter the further unfolding of Ruth’s godliness and character. Last week I introduced the Hebrew word hesed, which has no English equivalent but describes the longsuffering, pursuant, extravagant, unrestrained, covenant love of God. Here in chapter 2, we see Ruth pursuing God’s grace, or favor.  The Hebrew word is chên and it’s used 3-times in this chapter.  I find it a bit more clear in the NASB:

  1. V 2: Let me go and find favor
  2. V 10: Why have I found favor?
  3. V 13: May I continue to find favor

From the beginning of her life with God, we see Ruth demonstrating a consistent life of humility and surrender, which are the markers of true conversion. Yet, at the same time, Ruth demonstrates a proactive resourcefulness. I see in Ruth both humility and assertiveness.  She is both realistic and hopeful. It’s amazing maturity—whether we’re talking about a new convert or a twentysomething. I would see Ruth as one of those people who starts out as the receptionist and eventually becomes CEO of the company. You may find it interesting that in the Hebrew Scripture the book of Ruth comes directly after Proverbs, where many of us will remember that the last 21 verses are a description of the virtuous woman. It’s assumed that Solomon had Ruth in mind when he wrote Pro 31. We saw this humble assertiveness and realistic hopefulness in chapter 1 and we see it even more profoundly here in chapter 2—and we will see it blossom fully next week in chapter 3.

The “Christ Connection” in Chapter 2…This is where we ask of the text, how does this chapter point us to the person and the work of Jesus Christ? (Lk 24: 27) This is a pretty easy call now that Boaz is on the scene. I hope you can see that Jesus Christ is the better Boaz who leaves the comfort, majesty, and perfection of heaven to become our Kinsman-Redeemer that He might redeem us from our sin.

As we begin to land the plane—and having established that Jesus is our Kinsman-Redeemer and Boaz “may be” Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer, I want to take you into the conversation between Boaz and Ruth in vs. 10-12:

Ruth fell at his feet and thanked him warmly. ‘What have I done to deserve such kindness?’ she asked. ‘I am only a foreigner.’ 11 ‘Yes, I know,’ Boaz replied. ‘But I also know about everything you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband. I have heard how you left your father and mother and your own land to live here among complete strangers. 12 May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.’

What we see here is Ruth absolutely humbled by the kindness and generosity of Boaz. And we see Boaz complementing Ruth on the kindness and generosity she has shown to Naomi.  But what is also happening, at a deeper level, is that Boaz is acknowledging Ruth’s conversion to the covenant God of Israel. Look at v. 12 again:

May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.’

The OT is full of references to God’s people taking refuge under the wings of God. Here’s one:

“For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.” –Psalm 63:7

With that in mind here is the big idea for today:

We are awakened to the unfathomable riches God’s grace as we take refuge under His wings.

I would like to suggest to you that Ruth’s question to her kinsman-redeemer, Boaz, ‘What have I done to deserve such kindness?’ is THE most important question of our lives. Have you ever been so enraptured with the beauty, the grace, the majesty, the wonder of God that you, maybe tearfully or joyfully, or both, asked God, “Why me, what have I done to deserve the kindness of Your salvation?” And the answer, of course, is nothing. We have done nothing to deserve the kindness of God’s salvation. When you were at your very worst Jesus Christ died for you.  When you were shaking your fist and cursing God, He pursued you with hesed and loved you with kindness, mercy, and saving grace.

If you haven’t asked the question, “Why me?” you might not be a Christian…

Ruth 1 – Dark Times with a Ray of Hope

[This sermon is from a series on Ruth taught at Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth MA where I currently have the privilege of serving as the Intentional Interim Pastor.]

It’s been said that we are all either IN a significant transition, just COMING OUT of a significant transition, or just GOING INTO a significant transition. It is easy to become numb to significant transitions when they happen so often. So, in the midst of (what seems like) never-ending transition and change, HOW do we find and connect with God in the midst?

As we endeavor to study and consider the book of Ruth over the next 4-weeks, I’m hoping (and prayerful) that we will discover how paying attention to (all) of life’s transitions can help us to see the hand of God more clearly and, therefore, know God more intimately.

Why Ruth?

  • The book is about several significant transitions. A major theme is transitioning from emptiness to fullness.
  • We tend to see the Ruth narrative as a traditional fairy tale type of story—much like Sleeping Beauty awaiting her Prince Charming, yet when we dig a little deeper it’s anything but traditional—as we’ll see…
  • Also, we’ll notice is that there is nothing overtly miraculous in Ruth. No miracles, no visions, and no direct words from God.  What we will see is God working in the lives of His people—even in the difficult (and mundane) seasons of life.

Before we make our way to the first chapter of Ruth, I’d like to stop for a moment at Luke 24:27 (Road to Emmaus):

Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” –Luke 24:27 (emphasis added)

What we see in this verse is THE most important Bible study of all time. What Jesus is doing on the Road to Emmaus is opening their hearts and minds to how they are to view the Old Testament Scripture. What we learn from this verse is, the WHOLE Old Testament is actually about Jesus.

When we add the New Testament we begin to see that the WHOLE Bible only tells one story. It’s the story of redemption and reconciliation through Jesus. So, in every passage we are to ask, how does this point us to Jesus Christ?

Illus – The Sixth Sense[1], a 1999 movie with Bruce Willis. You can only see that movie twice.  The first time the ending is quite shocking.  The second time you see it you will become very aware of all the indicators that point to the ending.  In the same way, once our hearts are awakened to the implications that the whole Bible points to Jesus, we will begin to look at every passage in the Bible differently.

We will begin to consistently ask of every passage: How does this passage point to the person and work Jesus Christ? With that said let’s read Ruth, chapter 1: 1In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So, a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites ([2]) from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.  Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons.  The two sons married Moabite women.  One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth.  But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.  Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again.  So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland.  With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.  But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me.  May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.’ Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.  10 ‘No,’ they said. ‘We want to go with you to your people.’  11 But Naomi replied, ‘Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands?  12 No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again.  And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what?  13 Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else?  No, of course not, my daughters!  Things are far more bitter for me than for you because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.’  14 And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye.  But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 1 5 ‘Look,’ Naomi said to her, ‘your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.’  16 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live.  Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!’  18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.  19 So the two of them continued on their journey.  When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. ‘Is it really Naomi?’ the women asked.  20 ‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she responded. ‘Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me.  21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty.  Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?’  22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman.  They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest.” –Ruth 1:1-22 [The last verse is the “ray of hope,” from the sermon title]

Today we’ll take some time to wrap our heads and hearts around what we just read. I have four lessons from the first chapter to humbly consider. And then we’ll conclude by asking, how does this first chapter point us to Jesus?  (Please check out the blog on the CCC website where I have posted an overview of our study.

The first lesson involves the first 9 words of chapter 1, which tell us that the time and setting of the Ruth narrative occurred during the time of the judges: “In the days when the judges ruled in Israel…” For those of us who have read the book of Judges, we know that it was a deeply dark and degrading time for the nation of Israel. Consider the last verse of the book of Judges (21:25):

“In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” –Judges 21:25

One commentator wrote: “The book of Judges was teeming with violent invasions, apostate religion, unchecked lawlessness, and tribal civil war.”[3] And if you’ve read Judges, you’ll know that’s putting it mildly! A proper understanding of what’s going on here, as we begin our study of Ruth, leads us to our first lesson, which is also the BIG IDEA for this sermon:

Even in the midst of dark, difficult, and chaotic times God still works on our behalf for His glory and our joy.

As you may have heard, Greenland has been in the news lately. When it came up in the news it, for some reason, reminded me of a science lesson I learned a long time ago…In the sea around Greenland there are lots of icebergs floating and through time-lapsed photography, scientists discovered that the icebergs were moving in different directions. As they sought to determine why that was happening, what they found is that the smaller icebergs were being moved by the trade winds pushing them along and the larger icebergs were being moved by the deeper ocean currents. An important part of this first lesson is that often times imposed transitions or difficult times in our lives are the result of God wanting to capture our attention in order to connect us with the deeper ocean currents of His will instead of being continually tossed about by the surface winds and waves of circumstance.

For the last several years Job’s testimony at the end of the book has been seared into my soul. Look at Job’s declaration:

“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You” –Job 42:5

The second lesson from this first chapter is a bit more consoling. God very clearly told the Jewish people not to associate with the Moabites, let alone go and live there.  (As we’ll see as the Ruth narrative unfolds it wasn’t a racial thing, it was for doctrinal purposes.) Whether it was Elimelech who pressured Naomi to move to Moab or Naomi pressured Elimelech, or it was a mutual decision, we just don’t know. What we DO know is it was NOT God’s will. The second lesson from this chapter is this:

Even when we’re disobedient it does not thwart the sovereignty and the ultimate purpose of God.

“God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” –Romans 8:28 (emphasis added). When we sin there are certainly consequences, yet within the sovereignty of God, He uses those consequences as a means to draw us closer to Himself. What we will see in our study of this book is the unfolding of God’s redemptive grace, even in the midst of sin.

Now is a good time to bring up a word that drives the storyline in Ruth. It’s a Hebrew word that has no English equivalent.  The word is hesed. It’s only used three times in Ruth but as I said, it drives the storyline. Hesed is translated in v. 8 as kindness.  Other translations will use lovingkindness, yet it means so much more…

  • Hesed is the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, energetic love of God. Several commentators refer to it as “covenant love.”
  • God consistently practices hesed with a people who are continuously disloyal. That is really what the whole OT is all about.
  • One of the beautiful aspects of the book of Ruth is that we will see the 3-main characters are practicing hesed.

For the third lesson I’d like to provide short character sketches of both Naomi and Ruth. This will help us as the plotline unfolds. As we read, Naomi endured some horrific transitions. Some commentators actually refer to her as the female Job. We will be tempted to see Naomi as a bitter and manipulative woman as the narrative unfolds—and, in fact, she does identify herself as bitter when she returns to Bethlehem (v. 20). She employs a play on words to describe her condition.  Naomi means “pleasant” in Heb, so she’s saying, “Don’t call me pleasant anymore call me Mara,” which means “bitter.”

I find Naomi compelling. I like her.  She’s real and she’s honest.  I like being in a church where it’s okay to not be okay.  Where we can be honest and real about our struggles and our doubts. And I find that her theology is pretty good too, especially when we consider what she’s been through. The last thing I’ll say about Naomi, for now, is found in vs. 8-15. Naomi thanks Orpah and Ruth for their hesed toward her and then Naomi demonstrates hesed toward them…I would say that of course Naomi wants Orpah and Ruth to go back to Bethlehem with her. She’s alone and she’s destitute.  The three of them have obviously had a good and strong relationship, but Naomi knows what they will face as young women alien emigrants in a foreign land, where the Moabites are dispised. So, Naomi is willing to go it alone—and this act of selfless hesed catches Ruth’s attention. Most credible theologians agree that Ruth underwent a conversion to the covenant God of Israel in vs. 16-17 as she recognizes Naomi’s unselfish hesed toward her and Orpah.

Ruth may have heard about the covenant God of Israel from her husband and from Naomi, but, all of a sudden, the dots get connected and she understood what Naomi was doing at this moment—seeking to save them from a degrading and difficult life in Bethlehem—and Ruth undergoes a conversion. The dots apparently don’t get connected for Orpah as she does the “sensible” thing and returns to her family and the Moabite gods. But not Ruth, her declaration of commitment to the covenant God of Israel and to Naomi in vs. 16-17 is one of the most powerful statements in the whole OT.

I have officiated at a lot of weddings over the years and none of the vows have been as powerful as Ruth’s commitment to Naomi. Most wedding vows use some variation of “until death do us part.” Not Ruth, she goes several steps further declaring “where you die, I will die.”

Now, let’s talk about emigration for a moment…That’s a big deal right now isn’t it? What is the primary reason for the vast majority of people seeking to emigrate? They’re hoping for a better life, right? Not Ruth though. She knows her life will be MUCH harder if she returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. She will become the caregiver for Naomi. She will become the breadwinner. And there will be repeated racial degradation and regular threats of violence, with the distinct possibility of repeated violence—or worse. And yet Ruth goes. When God awakens our hearts to His hesed love we are changed from the inside out—and then we begin to love others with God’s covenant love.

The fourth lesson is short and sweet: We need to be in community in the same way that Naomi and Ruth needed one another. Naomi and Ruth were beset with significant transitions.  Naomi was feeling empty and bitter, but Ruth was hopeful like many new believers are.  Sometimes we need a Ruth in our lives and sometimes God will want to use us as a Ruth in someone else’s life. I would strongly encourage you to get into a Community Group this Fall.

As we draw to a close, let’s think back to Luke 24, where we began with Jesus telling the two disciples that the whole Old Testament was about Him. So, how does this passage point to Jesus?

Ruth, the emigrant, reciprocates covenant lovingkindness (hesed) to Naomi. Jesus, however, is the better Ruth as the ultimate Emigrant, who left the comfort, perfection, and majesty of Heaven to emigrate into our brokenness with covenant lovingkindness and He also promises to never leave or forsake His called-out ones (Heb 13:15).

So, here are some questions for you:

  1. Are you a “called out one”?
  2. Have the dots been connected for you?
  3. Are you beginning to see that the covenant love of God has been pursuing you and that even in the dark and disturbing seasons of your life, God has been drawing you with lovingkindness?

Here’s a caveat if you’re here today and considering the claims of Christ: The Christian life is not the easier life many hope it will be. In the classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis provides us with an illustration of the Christian life. He writes,

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing…But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts…and does not seem to make any sense [to you].  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of…You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”[4]

 

[1] An 8-year-old boy is visited by ghosts and he is too afraid to tell anyone about his anguish, except for Willis who plays a child psychologist. (M. Night Shyamalan)

[2] The word Ephrath in Hebrew means “fruitful,” and Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Most scholars believe that Ephrath and Bethlehem are actually two names for the same place.

[3] Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT), Eerdmans 1989: 84.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan 1960: 160.

Criticism

This comes up in my world again and again (sometimes I deserve it and sometimes I don’t :)…

“No leader is exempt from criticism, and one’s humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which one accepts and reacts to it. Samuel Brengle, who was noted for his sense of genuine holiness, had been subjected to caustic criticism. Instead of replying in kind or resorting to self-justification, he replied: ‘From my heart, I thank you for your rebuke. I think I deserved it. Will you, my comrade, remember me in prayer?’ On another occasion, a biting, censorious attack was made on his spiritual life. His answer was: ‘I thank you for your criticism of my life. It set me to self-examination and heart-searching and prayer, which always leads me into a deeper sense of my utter dependence on Jesus for holiness of heart, and into sweeter fellowship with Him.’”

Sanders J. Oswald. Spiritual Leadership, Moody Press, p. 120.

The Joy of True Repentance

As the Diagnostic Division Leader for VitalChurch Ministry, I write a lot of reports for churches. While we see similar issues in many churches throughout North America and the U.K. I seek to address each church individually and prophetically. One consistent observation is that every church has the need for ongoing repentance. At VitalChurch we would adamantly assert that every church (and every person) has a collection of sins and sinful patterns that require an ongoing lifestyle of repentance.

Repentance (with accompanying humility) is always the best way forward to begin a season of transition that moves toward revitalization and renewal.  Martin Luther launched the Reformation by nailing the “95 Theses” to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The first of the theses stated that “our Lord and Master Jesus Christ…willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”  At first glance, this seems dreary and depressing. Luther seems to be saying Christians may never make much real progress in transformation. But, actually, Luther’s point was just the opposite. Luther was saying that repentance is the BEST way to make progress in transformation. Indeed, pervasive, all-of-life-repentance is the best indicator that we are growing humbly and deeply in the character of Jesus Christ. And when others encounter this, they often want it too. This is also how the Sermon on the Mount begins—by acknowledging our spiritual poverty and mourning over it is the beginning point of becoming citizens of the Kingdom of God.

Here’s how the late, great Eugene Peterson said it in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:  “Repentance, the first word in Christian immigration, sets us on the way to traveling in the light. It is a rejection that is also an acceptance, a leaving that develops into an arriving, a no to the world that is a yes to God” (p. 33).

Consider how the gospel affects and transforms the act of repentance. In “religion,” the purpose of repentance is basically to keep God happy and placated so He will continue to bless us and answer our prayers. Religious people continue to ask, “What must we DO to please and placate God? What this question means is that for the religious, repentance is actually selfish and self-righteous because the ultimate goal is to benefit self. The gospel is actually more about what Jesus Christ has already DONE. A gospel view and practice of repentance is to repeatedly surrender afresh to the wonder, beauty, joy, and majesty of what Christ has accomplished on our behalf, which will weaken our impulse to do anything contrary to God’s heart. This happens best through (listening) prayer and through worship.

True repentance is not simply a one-time act that occurs at the time of our regeneration, rather an intentional ongoing daily submission to the God of mercy and grace for our sins of both omission and commission. True repentance then, is the unlikely route to joy.

Practical Equipping Strategies (Moving From ‘Minister’ to ‘Equipper’)

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  –Ephesians 4:11-13 (emphasis added)

The Greek word translated “equip” (or “perfecting” in the KJV), is KATARTISMOS (καταρτισμός), which means to completely furnish or to fully prepare.  This equipping is an internal work manifesting its fruit in external ministry service.  The verb form of the word is KATARTIZO and means to render fit or complete; to repair, to make an adjustment, or to mend.  As we trace the usage and application through the NT (see Mat 4:21, Gal 6:1, Heb 11:3, 1 Thess 3:10) we will find that the most effective equipping includes both “repairing” and “preparing” the people of God.

The “Why” of Core Equipping Competencies

In order to move permanently past 1,200+ people, the ministry has to be increasingly accomplished by teams of volunteers.  When churches are smaller, relationships carry things; in very large churches competencies carry things.  There is a need to create multiple reproducible structures and systems that are suitable for volunteers to do the majority of the ministry.  While volunteers often do not have the same proficiencies as professionals (teaching skills, Bible knowledge, etc.), real ministry increasingly needs to be accomplished in smaller groups through lay leaders who are growing in their conversational, facilitational, and emotional health skills.  (We cannot be spiritually mature without becoming emotionally healthy!)  People will stay connected while their lay-leaders are searching out answers for them; whereas, if a professional doesn’t have an answer for them—they will be less likely to stay.  People begin coming to a church for many reasons, but they (ultimately) stay for just one—it’s the social/community factor that keeps people, works with them, and supports them over time.  Ultimately, people are bonded by their relationships, which is certainly consistent with biblical teaching.

The “How” of Core Equipping Competencies

There are mandatory disciplines for serving momentum in a church.  Surges will continue if they are serviced.  Growth catapults churches into a new dilemma.  In smaller congregations, most problems are solved informally by the way people behave.  In a very large you can’t ignore problems and think (hope?) they’ll go away.

The following are general descriptions of the core staff competencies essential for pastoral/program staff at very large churches—and apply broadly to all staff.  These may not cover every competency required; yet they are essential skills that will move staff members from a “minister” (or, chaplain) role to an “equipper” (or, team builder) role.

Intro

Management guru Peter Drucker[1] asked the following (now famous) questions:

  1. What business are you in?
  2. How’s business?

Very large church staffs are in the people development business—seeking to Recruit, Train, Deploy, Monitor, and Nurture (RTDMN) as many as possible into fruitful and effective ministry.

Core Staff Competencies

Recruiting Skills:

  • Intentional about prayer and individually seeking out volunteers to staff, develop, and lead ministries (Mat 9:38)
  • While almost anyone can be trained to facilitate a group, approximately 20% of people have some form of leadership capacity. Look for the 1 in 5 that have leadership potential and develop them to their leadership capacity (see Ex 18:17-26)
  • Uses an invitation of positive language and our intention of offer life development skills (not just “church skills”) to “sell” the vision (Eph 4:12)
  • Start with the “why,” then move to the “how” and the “what”
  • Be clear about specific roles and opportunities
  • Be clear about the commitment required (time, preparation, responsibility, how long?).  Generally speaking, ask for a 3-month commitment

Training Skills:[2]

  • Help leaders plan effectively (ministry and training events)
  • Ability to create an environment that is safe for people to grow, disagree agreeably, and to make mistakes—which increases innovation
  • Able to resist the temptation to interrupt/take over (seek to become a non-anxious presence)
  • Ability to give clear and constructive feedback on a regular basis (Eph 4:15)
  • Ability to emphasize the positive over the negative (“sandwich” negative between two positives)
  • Willingness to regularly invite feedback

Deployment Skills:

  • Willingness to release people into meaningful ministry
  • Clearly stated short- and long-term goals and objectives
  • Realistically and proactively communicative about parameters, expectations, timelines

Monitoring Skills:

  • Establish consistent check-in times
  • Set-up consistent, effective, and agreed upon monitoring and feedback loops
  • Establish appropriate metrics to track progress

Nurturing Skills:

  • Follow-up with developmental care and input, not just ministry goals
  • Facilitate the personal growth of leaders (life skills not just church skills)
  • Ability to listen—reflectively
  • Schedule ongoing care, support, and training
  • Ability to build relationships that last
  • Provide special care and attention at crisis points, looking for opportunities to pastorally “equip the saints” – i.e., repair/prepare (Eph 4:12)

Developmental Coaching Skills Evaluation

Estimate your skill level in each of these areas using the following scale:

1 = Serious concern / 2 = Needs improvement / 3 = Good / 4 = Very good / 5 = Excellent

  1. Recruiting skills                      1    2    3    4    5
  2. Training skills                          1    2    3    4    5
  3. Deployment skills                   1    2    3    4    5
  4. Monitoring skills                      1    2    3    4    5
  5. Nurturing skills                        1    2    3    4    5

Additional skills:

  1. Regular prayer for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done—in and through the ministry  1    2    3    4    5
  1. Gospel-centered preaching and teaching 1    2    3    4    5

Action Steps:

  1. What are my strengths?
  2. What new skills do I need to learn?
  3. Who can coach/mentor me in this area?

 

[1] Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author, (and Christian) whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation (1909-2005).

[2] Discipleship Loop:

  1. Jesus modeled kingdom life & ministry in public
  2. Jesus taught his disciples in private.
  3. He let them do it – and debriefed them afterward.
  4. He let them do it alone & they reported back.

The Grace of Surrender

I want to start looking for words or phrases in my daily Bible reading that move me or capture my attention and ponder them for a few moments. Today it was Psalm 142. David finds himself in a cave and at the end of his own resources. His soul is exhausted and imprisoned. For you and me a prison could be any interior battle or situation that holds us captive.

Bring my soul out of prison,
So that I may give thanks to Your name.  –Psalm 142:7

Although David was a strong and able warrior, he realized that his only hope of living and fulfilling what God had called him to be and to do was God intervening and bringing about his deliverance. This is the same realization of saving grace that ultimately must be embraced and surrendered to by believers in every age.

What sets a soul free?

The controversial author and poet, D.H. Lawrence, longed for liberation in his poem Healing

I am ill because of wounds to the soul,
to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,
only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, the realization of life’s mistake,
and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

We find surrender in the opening words of the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v.3). If Jesus is the most revolutionary person who ever lived and the Sermon on the Mount is His manifesto, then these opening words are His invitation to become citizens of this revolutionary kingdom through acknowledging our spiritual poverty and surrendering to God. One of my mentors said, “The way in is the way on” meaning that surrender is not a one-time event but an on-going, life-long, multilevel process of letting go of the things that hinder us from experiencing the wonder, beauty, and majesty of God. This is the essence of the gospel. When our heart is awakened to the gospel we see that it is not about what we have done–or, haven’t done, it’s about what God has done in sending His Son to lead the perfectly obedient life that was (eternally) beyond our grasp–and die a criminal’s death. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice and atones for our sins as we surrender, repent, and believe. Then there is the daily surrender to what Christ has done on our behalf and trust in what He has done, our deliverance from prison cannot fail. In Christ, we know that His righteousness surrounds us, and our response is gratitude and worship.

My friend, Gordon Dalbey in his book Fight Like a Man, says it well…

  • “Tragically, most [of us] cling to our own strength and scoff at snakes until we are bitten – perhaps by divorce, addiction, or serious illness – and must, at last, confess the truth: We are creatures of surrender.  The question for our lives is not whether we will surrender, but rather to what or whom?”  (p. 8).
  • “[Surrender] takes your pain out of the Enemy’s reach and places it in God’s hands, to use for his purposes”  (p. 19).

What About Revenge?

A sermon preached at Christ Community Church in Rochester MN on April 6 and 7, 2019. If you’d like to watch or listen to the sermon click here.

Jesus Christ was the most revolutionary person who ever lived. Jesus came to start a revolution–and the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) is His Manifesto (like the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence). The following passage has been debated for two millennia. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who many think wrote one of the best commentaries on the SOTM, said, “There is possibly no passage in Scripture which has produced as much heat and [contention as these verses].”[1]

Let’s take a look…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘AN eye for an eye, and A tooth for A tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” –Matthew 5:38-42

Today, we can compare the SOTM to a grand symphony with four movements that build upon each other. The first movement covers the Beatitudes and crescendos with the promise that those who surrender to the shaping of the Beatitudes will become salt and light in the surrounding culture (Matthew 5:13-16). In the second movement of this SOTM symphony, we find six reinterpretations of the LAW. Jesus makes six, “You have heard it said, but I say…” statements. With these statements, Jesus is diving into our innermost being probing the heart and raising the question of motive.

Today we will be looking at the 5th of the six reinterpretations and we will be asking the question, “What About Revenge?” I find it fascinating that this passage contains four very well-known sayings that are still common to our North American vernacular 2,019 years later…

  • An eye for an eye
  • Turn the other cheek
  • Go the extra mile
  • Give ‘em the shirt off your back

There are 6 phrases in these 5 verses that deserve our attention and understanding to grasp what Jesus is saying here. I have divided the 6-phrases into three points.  I’ll state them, so you’ll know where we’re headed and then we’ll go back and consider them one at a time…

  1. Godly Justice: “An eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” (v. 38)
  2. Godly Resistance: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39a) (This is the most theologically controversial—and it sounds contradictory the way I’ve stated it…we’ll see)
  3. Godly Defiance (vs. 39b-42)

We’ll look at them one at a time…

  1. Godly Justice: “An eye for an eye, and A tooth for A tooth” (v. 38)  Jesus could have said more; He’s quoting from Exodus 21:24-25 (and Lev 24:20; Dt 19:21), which reads “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” What these OT passages are communicating is that the penalty must fit the crime. This is sometimes referred to as the principle of proportional justice and it has become the foundational principle for all human justice in a free society. This law was given by God to restrain our human tendency to reactively pursue revenge. There is a quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, which states, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” On the surface, independent of anything else, this is a true statement. However, this quote fails to recognize the context and the purpose of this law in the Old Testament. The Old Testament books of Exedous, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were written as the nation of Israel was rebuilding its social infrastructure after 400 years of captivity in Egypt. There were civil, moral, and ceremonial laws. Again, the point is that justice must be proportional. So, in v. 38 Jesus is reminding His listeners what God’s Law says, then in vs. 39-42 Jesus is telling us how to do that by emphasizing the spirit of the Law, not just the letter of the Law–something the Pharisees had not emphasized. Let’s take a look…
  2. Godly Resistance: “Do not resist an evil person” (v. 39a) On the surface that’s a pretty startling statement! This phrase has caused much debate over the last two thousand years. First, let’s consider what this verse is NOT saying… It’s not saying that we are not to defend ourselves against evil people. Some well-meaning followers of Jesus sincerely believe that Christianity rejects ALL violence at ALL times. These groups include (but are not limited to) the Brethren, Amish, Mennonite, and Quakers. Lloyd-Jones, in his commentary, points out that Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian author, and novelist insisted that this verse meant that to be a truly Christian nation meant that there was to be no police, or soldiers, or even a judicial system.  There are plenty of examples throughout both the Old and New Testaments where a defensive posture is warranted. So, what IS this verse saying? In our attempt to discern and understand what Jesus is saying here, it’s quite helpful to look at the Greek word translated in most of our English Bibles as “resist.” The Greek word for “resist” is anthistēmi. It’s the same word we use for antihistamine and it means, “to stand against.” (anti = against and histēmi = to stand). The most literal meaning of the Greek word means, “do not forcefully set yourself against an evil person.” Pastor, author, Bible teacher and Seminary President, John MacArthur describes the meaning of the word as: “Don’t start a feud.” [Don’t go all Hatfield and McCoy…] Lloyd-Jones is a bit more sublime: “It’s an ‘eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth’ until the Spirit of Christ enters in to us. Then something higher is expected of us…”[2] So, it’s not that we resist the person so much as it means that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we resist the gravitational pull to lower ourselves to their level. In any conflicted or confrontational situation (actually, with an “evil” person or not) seek to become a responder, not a reactor. (don’t get sucked into the other person’s drama!). I am a reactor on a lifetime journey to become a responder… So, how does this happen? We need to go back and review the Beatitudes keeping in mind that each movement of this grand symphony builds upon the previous movement.  When the gospel is awakened in our heart and we enter and become citizens of the Kingdom of God there is an emptying (or surrendering) and a filling (or empowering)…

A quick review of the Beatitudes…

The Emptying/Surrendering

    • Blessed are the poor in spirit… To enter into God’s kingdom, we are invited to admit that we have come to the end of ourselves and are in need of God’s help and care.
    • Blessed are those who mourn… As we are honest about our own sinful tendencies there will be a transforming grief or repentance, that surfaces – not only for our own lives, but also for the injustice, greed, and suffering that grips our world.
    • Blessed are the meek…Grieving over sin and suffering places us in a humble learning posture (disciple means learner).
    • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…Spiritual hunger and thirst is the desire to be empty of those things that don’t reflect God and initiates a deep longing for wholeness in our lives (see Psalm 42:1).

The Filling/Empowering

    • Blessed are the merciful…As we receive God’s mercy we begin to give mercy – to ourselves and to others.
    • Blessed are the pure in heart… Mercy cleanses our heart and restores purity to our lives.
    • Blessed are the peacemakers… Purity gives way to a personal serenity and peacefulness. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the absence of anxiety in the midst of inevitable conflict – and when others encounter it, they want it too.
    • Blessed are the persecuted… Living life from a kingdom of God perspective will place us in conflict with those that oppose it (often times it’s “religious” people!).

So, the goal in any conflicted situation is to respond with the mercy we’ve received, motives that are being purified, and promoting the peace of God. And then we get persecuted. Persecution is inevitable, this is how Jesus lived—and they killed Him.

3. Godly Defiance (vs. 39b-42) We can’t dive into these four principles as much as they probably deserve but I’ll try and provide an overview of each. (And just so you know, there’s some theological diversity regarding how these verses are interpreted…) The best way to grasp these four principles is to picture them being spoken to a 1st century occupied people. And in many ways, it was a triple occupation…

    • Roman forces had occupied Israel for about 40 years.
    • The ruthless King Herod was a Roman “client” King of Israel and then his wicked son Herod Antipas replaced him.
    • The legalistic Pharisees and scribes who placed heavy religious burdens upon the people.

So, the common person who Jesus was speaking to was living under the weight of foreign occupation, political corruption, and suffocating legalism. With that said, we’ll take a brief look at the remaining four principles of godly defiance. Notice how nonviolent resistance could startle reactive people and deescalate an altercation…

    • Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (v. 39b) The Jews said that the most demeaning, contemptuous, arrogant act of a person is to slap you with the back of the hand. Most people were right-handed, and the left hand was considered unclean because it was used to manage bodily functions. In conflicted situations people of superior societal classes would backhand those of lesser societal classes—a Roman could slap a Jew, a master could slap a slave, etc. However, peers in conflicted situations would tend to fight with their fists. (The backhanded slap was much more demeaning.) What Jesus seems to be saying is if someone treats you as an inferior don’t retaliate physically but position yourself to cause them to treat you as a peer. In this case, if the person who was slapped turned their left cheek, the perpetrator would have to treat them as a peer and hit them with a fist to continue the altercation. Here is how MLK addressed this: “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to [hit] his opponent but also refuses to hate him.” –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. [3]
    • “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also” (v. 40) A working-class person often owned only one shirt and one coat. The vibe of this verse indicates that if a person is being sued unjustly, give them your shirt AND your coat, which in the 1st century, means you’re standing there naked. In Jewish culture, nakedness was not only shaming to the one who was naked but also to the one (or ones) who viewed the nakedness. This cultural perspective goes back to the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve experienced shame when they saw their own and one another’s nakedness after the Fall. This action by the one being sued—giving up both their shirt and their coat, could startle the other party and cause them to settle the case quickly.
    • “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two” (v. 41) A Roman soldier could conscript a Jewish person to carry his pack, which weighed about 70lbs. but the soldier was limited to only make the conscripted person carry his pack for 1-mile. So, to go the extra mile would cause the soldier to fear the consequences of his superior if it appeared he was asking more than was allowed by Roman law. This would cause the soldier to deal with the conscripted Jewish person more humanely. It would also cause the soldier to wonder about the kindness that was offered to him.
    • “Give to him [or her] who asks of you, and do not turn away from him [or her] who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42) We don’t need to know anything about 1st century culture to know that this principle is about being generous with our resources, which includes our time, energy, and money. The protection contained in this principle is that we don’t always need to give people what they’re asking for. We need to be wise and discerning in this area. What Jesus is saying here is don’t be hardhearted, callous, and dismissive—be fully present with people. Here’s an example: I live in Santa Barbara where we have a significant homeless population. When I pastored in SB we encouraged our church to buy and distribute MacDonald’s coupons (or other stores where alcohol was not sold) so that we were ready to give when asked. We are to look for ways to generously serve others without becoming codependent

As we bring this to a close, here’s another quote by MLK that summarizes what Jesus is teaching in our passage for today…  “Clearly the kingdom of heaven does not operate like the kingdoms of this world. How will we know when we see God’s kingdom?  When anger results in reconciliation rather than retaliation God must be at work.  When enemies are overcome by love rather than violence God’s reign is present.”  –Martin Luther King Jr. [4]

How do we get there from here? Two quick practical applications:

  1. Stay in the Beatitudes. They are a spiritual formation process that will continue to challenge, cleanse, heal, and fill us.
  2. As much as we are able, leave “revenge” to God. God’s “revenge” is much different than ours. Leave the person to the care of God.

The revolutionary teachings of Jesus in the SOTM are beyond our human capacity to “will-power” them into existence.  Many have tried and all have failed.  Jesus teaches that anger = murder; to refer to someone as a fool condemns us to hell; lust = adultery!

The SOTM is not about exchanging one set of rules for another (thank goodness!), rather it’s about trusting in what Jesus accomplishes on the cross to re-orient our values, our vision, and our habits from mere external righteousness to grace empowered change from the inside out. This is what we call the gospel. It’s not about what we do to please or appease God, it’s about celebrating what Jesus Christ has done.

Here’s how Paul says it in his letter to the Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Ephesians 2:8-9

Theologians would say that salvation is granted by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Have you received “the gift of God”? Have you rested from thinking (or believing) that salvation is the result of works?

 

[1] Lloyd-Jones: 273.

[2] Lloyd-Jones: 277.

[3] MLK. Stride Toward Freedom: 92.

[4] From a speech MLK delivered to the YMCA/YWCA at the University of California on June 4, 1957.