Sermons

‘God’s Promises Have Been Fulfilled In Jesus Christ’ – Gal. 2:1-10 – August 11th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 2, verse 1 through 10:

Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. I went up according to a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles—but privately to those recognized as leaders—so that I might not be running, or have run the race, in vain. But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. This issue arose because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you.

Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism)—they added nothing to me. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised, since the One at work in Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in me for the Gentiles. When James, Cephas, and John, recognized as pillars, acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. 10 They asked only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do.

Let’s pray.

*

Well, today’s sermon is about why you don’t need to get circumcised and it’s perfectly fine to eat bacon. That’s the upside (or downside) of walking straight through each book of the Bible: You end up hitting on everything. No stone goes unturned.

This is the book of Galatians, which means that some of these sermons are going to be revivalistic and, kind of, “in your face” because Paul’s in “aggressive 1850s revivalist”-mode, and some of these sermons are going to be bizarrely technical, because Paul is diving deep into some of the “technical things” that come along with understanding how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ fundamentally changes not only who we are, but what we are.

Today is one of those sermons. We’re going to get weirdly technical on a few points in today’s sermon and I pray that you’ll bear with me and don’t “space out.” We’ll get back to sermons where I talk a whole lot about being in a terrible metal band and make self-deprecating jokes about how I’m secretly robot programmed to imitate human behavior and that’s why I always seem confused soon enough, but for today we’ve gotta dig in a little bit and get a handle on why Paul is telling us any of the things that he’s telling us in today’s passage.

Today’s passage begins in “crisis mode,” because Paul tells us that “false brothers” were “smuggled in at Jerusalem in order to enslave us.” Those are pretty harsh words. Paul doesn’t say that there was a “misunderstanding” that took place between himself and some other Christians over some minor doctrinal issues, Paul tells us that “false brothers” were “smuggled in” at Jerusalem who attempted to “enslave them.” False brothers. That’s hardcore.

We’ve talked about this before, but there is a universe of difference between a Christian who is wrong about some stuff and a false brother, right? Like, we are not Presbyterian. There’s a reason that we are not Presbyterian. Presbyterians have a considerably different understanding of what baptism is and what baptism does than we have, and they have a very different understanding of who should be baptized than we do, but that doesn’t mean that they’re “false brothers.”

We believe very firmly that they are wrong about baptism, and they believe very firmly that we are wrong about baptism, but only the farthest, fringe-type extreme Baptists or extreme Presbyterians would ever say that the other is composed of “false brothers.” We would say that they are Christians Who Are Wrong About Some Stuff, and they would say the same about us.

But that is not what’s going on here in Paul’s situation. Paul says that these folks are “false brothers,” and he’s so convinced of it that he doesn’t even give them the benefit of the doubt that you would normally give to someone by assuming the best about their intentions. According to Paul, the folks he’s going head-to-head with here in Galatia showed up in Jerusalem a few years back and when they showed up in Jerusalem they were up to no good – they “wanted to enslave us.”

They didn’t want to correct our theology, they wanted to confuse it. It’s very unlikely that they’re up to anything different now.

We don’t know all the details of the situation, but what we do know is that they were showing up at churches throughout Jerusalem, finding newly converted believers, and presenting arguments that seemed persuasive to them while they were still green enough to be fooled. Ever seen something like that play out?  

Specifically, verse 3 suggests that the issue that came up had to do with whether or not Gentiles who repented of their sin and threw themselves on the mercy of Jesus needed to be circumcised. So, exciting theme for today’s passage.

That seems kind of silly today. Right? Today, if someone came up to you at a restaurant, handed you a tract that said, “Are You Right With God,” and you opened up the tract and it said, “Many people think they’re right with God, but haven’t been circumcised. Have you been circumcised? If not, you should rethink that.” Like, if someone was trying to proselytize you, and they told you that you needed to be circumcised in order to be saved, you’d probably laugh them off.

But in Paul’s day, not very many decades after the death and resurrection of Jesus, they didn’t have two thousand years’ worth of church history to lean back on, so it would have seemed very much like a legitimate question to most converts. Like,  imagine that you’re a Jewish Christian living in Jerusalem back in the day: When Jesus died on the cross and rose up from the grave, you were four years old, your parents converted when you were 14 years old, now you’re 64 years old, or something like that, and never in your life has it occurred to you that someone wouldn’t get circumsized. Right? There’s a disconnect between the way Paul’s audience would’ve heard these things and the way we hear them today.

Like, one time, when I teaching out of Romans, or something, back when I was doing neighborhood ministry, a dude stopped me in mid-sentence and was, “Wait, did you say, ‘circumcised?’” and I was like, “Yes,” and he was, like, “What does, uh . . . ahhhh . . . uhhh . . .” and he couldn’t bring himself to get the sentence out, until finally he was like, “. . . uhhh . . . removing the foreskin from your genitals . . .” and he just kind of froze, and let it hang there, which made things more awkward than if he’d just said it, finally he snapped back out of it, and finished, and he was like, “What does that have to do with the Bible?” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, I should clarify that.”

So if you’re in the pews and you’re wondering, “What on earth does removing your foreskin have to do with the Bible,” lets rewind and get a handle on why this was an issue in the first place.

So, in Genesis chapter 12, we see God calling a man named Abram to leave his native land and go out to a place he’s never been to. God promises to “give him all the land that his eyes can see,” and he says that God will create a people for himself through the bloodline of Abram. He tells Abram that he will bless his people so that we may be a blessing to all the peoples of the Earth. So God creates his people through the bloodline of Abram, and the people that he creates are meant to be, kind of, the tool that God uses to bless all the peoples of the Earth.

That is God creating his Church. That is God creating what, at one time, was the “nation of Israel.”

In Genesis chapter 15, God formalizes his covenant with us through Abram. He reaffirms the promise that he made in Genesis chapter 12, and then tells Abraham to sacrifice some animals to seal their covenant with each other. Now, that sounds kind of strange, but back in that day, when you made a covenant with your neighbor over something, you’d sacrifice the animals and then each person in the covenant would walk between the sacrificed animals, and as you were walking through the sacrificed animals, you would call on everybody present to hold you accountable to your end of the covenant. You would say, “If I don’t keep my covenant with this person, I want you to make me like I made these animals. I want you to slaughter me like I’ve slaughtered these animals if I break my covenant with my neighbor here.”

God and Abraham make a covenant like that. God promises to be faithful to his people, and Abram promises to be obedient to God’s commands. But when the time comes to walk through the slaughtered animals to seal the covenant, Genesis 15 starts to get real weird.

Normally, Abraham would have walked between the sacrificed animals and then God would have walked between them after him, but instead, God puts Abram to sleep so he can’t do anything, and God walks between the sacrificed animals instead of Abram.

That means that God takes on all of Abraham’s obligations. God walks through the sacrificed animals and he vows not only to be faithful to his people, but he also vows to obey the commands that he’ll give them in their place. God walks through the sacrificed animals instead of Abram, which means that he takes on the curse that comes with breaking his commands.

And so as strange is Genesis 15 is, what we’re seeing is God pointing us towards the redemption that he brings us in Jesus Christ. We see God promising to take on our sin in his own flesh to be crucified for our disobedience. We see God vowing to save us by his own good mercy because we cannot save ourselves.

So when you fast forward to Genesis chapter 17, two chapters later, that same God comes to Abram and says, “Abraham, you must be circumcised. Your children must be circumcised. All of the members of your household, no matter how distant and disconnected, must be circumcised as a sign of the covenant that I’ve made with you.”

So that was probably a fun day for Abram, right? Never say the Bible is not exciting. He’s a grown adult man, and he’s gotta make a flint knife and circumcise himself, and then divide up the labor to circumcise everybody else in his household. Because the way God puts it in Genesis 17, he’s not asking. He doesn’t say, “Abraham what do you think about circumcising yourself as a sign of the covenant we’ve made with each other?” What he says is, “Abraham, you must circumcise yourself as a sign of the promises I made to you.”

And so circumcision was a sign of the promise that God has made to us, to save us from our sin and disobedience. Circumcising ourselves might have been unpleasant, but it was a physical symbol of the most pleasant reality imaginable: It was a physical symbol that we were spiritually saved by the mercy of God. And so, in the book of Romans, Paul says that it was a “visible sign” of our promised redemption until the promised redemption could come.

So fast-forward back to Galatians. Paul and Barnabas head toward Jerusalem, and they bring along a Gentile named Titus, he’s one of the men that Paul has been “training up for leadership” in the church – towards the end of the New Testament, there’s a book called Titus, which is a letter that Paul wrote to that same guy.

When they arrive in Jerusalem, the fact that Titus is with them creates a serious problem. Because Titus is a gentile, and as a gentile, he is not circumsized. Now, how they discovered that he isn’t circumcised, I don’t know. I don’t want to know. But let’s just say that over dinner, one of the false brothers who have been smuggled into Jerusalem asked Titus publicly, “So how did your circumcision go, Titus?” Titus might’ve said, “Uh, what, now?”

And they would’ve said, “Since you put your faith in Jesus, you want to be included in the covenant that he made with Abraham, and according to Genesis chapter 17, if you or anyone wants to be included in the Covenant God made with Abraham, you must be circumcised.” So they started a “CIRCUMCISE TITUS” campaign all over social media, or something.

But Paul says that he and Barnabas “refused to give up and submit” to the “false brothers” so that “the truth of the Gospel would be preserved.” They weren’t just trying to save Titus the profound discomfort of getting circumcised as an adult man – although that’s probably also there. The way they see it, the gospel was at stake. If Titus is compelled to be circumcised at the behest of these false teachers, then the gospel has been trampled on. As far as Paul is concerned, this is one of the issues where there is a genuine “dividing line.”

And so, according to verse 6, he claps back against the false brothers by reiterating the gospel that he’s been spreading among the Gentiles.

So Paul would’ve shared something like Ephesians chapter 2 verses 1 through 10, where Paul says that “we were dead in our trespasses and sins,” that we were “children under wrath,” but that “because of his great love for us,” God who is “rich in mercy” made us “alive with Christ,” that we’ve been “saved by grace” through a faith that is “not from ourselves” but a “gift from God” – “not by works,” so that “none of us can boast” about our goodness, but that we were “newly created” in Christ Jesus.

And verse 6 says that the recognized leaders in the churches in Jerusalem had nothing to add when Paul shared this gospel with them.

Paul walked them through something like what we call the “Roman Road”: That Romans chapter 1, verses 20 and 21, God created everything, that we are bound to his purposes for us, but that each of us has rebelled against that created purpose, that all of us have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23, but that God takes zero pleasure in punishing us for our sin, that God has zero interest in discarding us and banishing us from his presence; but instead, Romans 5:8, that God demonstrates his love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us;

That Christ didn’t just die to send us some kind of message – he didn’t just die to “show us what his love looks like” – but that he died because “death was our inheritance” – Romans 6:23, that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our lord. Jesus pays the debt of death that we’d earned through our rebellion; and that, Romans 10:9, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Paul presented something like that to the recognized leaders of the churches in Jerusalem, and they had nothing to add. Because in Christ Jesus, we have the redemption that circumcision was a sign of. We have the redemption that God promised to Abraham in Genesis 15 when he walked through the sacrificed animals instead of him. We have the redemption that Genesis 12 looks forward to when God says that he is creating his people in us, and that we will be a people through whom God blesses the entire world around us.

And if circumcision was a visible sign of the redemption God promised to us back in the days of Abraham, we have no reason to keep branding ourselves with that sign now that the promise has been fulfilled. And so Titus has been “made clean” by Jesus, and when you’ve been “made clean” through the “death and resurrection” of God’s son, you don’t need to be circumcised. When you have received what God promised in the covenant through Jesus Christ there is no reason to become circumcised. It’s unnecessary. But Paul goes further than that and says not only that it’s unnecessary to require people to be circumcised now that Jesus has redeemed us, it’s blasphemous.

Because if Jesus has redeemed us from the Fall, if Jesus has “made us clean again” in a way that the rituals that God gave us in the old Covenant couldn’t and weren’t supposed to, then lapsing back into those rituals and compelling ourselves and others to submit to them isn’t just redundant, it’s heretical. Trying to “clean ourselves up” by “carrying out the works of the law,” like circumcision, like the dietary restrictions in Leviticus – anything – amounts to “rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and trying to work our way into God’s good graces. But that was never what the Law was meant to do, and since it’s not what it was meant to do, it’s not something the Law can do. You will not justify yourself by carrying out the works of the Law that are listed in the Old Testament. That’s like trying to put a band-aid on cancer.

So listen to me: You will not get into God’s good graces by your works. You can’t “circumcise yourself into God’s good graces,” although I doubt you were trying to. You can follow the rituals in those first five books of the Bible down to the letter, and it will not make you holy, it’ll just make you weird.

It would not un-defile you. It would not make you “fit for the Garden” again. What you need is for the God who rightly banished you from the garden to banish himself in your place on the cross.

What you need is to be “put to death with Jesus” and then “raised up out of the grave” again, as a “new creation,” to quote Ephesians chapter 2, no longer “dead in your trespasses” but instead “made alive with Christ.” That will un-defile you.

That will make you a “citizen of God’s kingdom” again. That will “make you clean,” absolutely nothing else will. What you need is the redemption that was promised to us in Genesis chapter 12, in Genesis chapter 15, in Genesis chapter 17. What you need is to submit to the redemption that God has already poured out onto us in Jesus Christ. You need to submit to the redemption that God promised to us in the Law and has given to us in the Cross.

Let’s pray.

‘Set Apart From Birth’ – Gal. 1:13-24 – August 4th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Galatians chapter 1, verses 13 through 24. Paul says:

For you have heard about my former way of life in Judaism: I persecuted God’s church to an extreme degree and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many contemporaries among my people, because I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.15 But when God, who from my birth set me apart and called me by His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me, so that I could preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to those who had become apostles before me; instead I went to Arabia and came back to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas, and I stayed with him 15 days. 19 But I didn’t see any of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 Now I am not lying in what I write to you. God is my witness.

21 Afterward, I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia.22 I remained personally unknown to the Judean churches in Christ; 23 they simply kept hearing: “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.

*

When I was about 6 years old, National Public Radio did a series where listeners would write in to Paul Auster at the studio and tell him meaningful stories from their lives, about childhood pets, near-death experiences, recollections from the war, and so on and so forth.

I would like to read you one of those stories. It’s called, “The Chicken,” and it’s from a woman named Linda Elegant from Portland, Oregon:

“As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.”

That’s all. That’s the end.

On a completely unrelated note . . . Paul says in verse 15 that he was “set apart from birth” to reveal God’s mercy in a lost world. A lot of people take that to mean that God passed over the masses of people and grabbed Paul and said, “This one has a special purpose. I’m going to invest in this one. I’m going to stake my plan for the world on this one, because he’s special.”

You ever heard someone say that “way back at the dawn of man,” God “looked down the corridors of time” and saw some really exceptional people, so he plucked them up, “set them apart,” and then used them to Do Big Things In The World? Usually when you hear something like that, it’s from a motivational speaker who is chastising you (in a really happy-sounding tone of voice) that You’d Better Make Sure That You’re One Of The Exceptional People rather than one of the Unexceptional People, because God does big things in the world with exceptional people and God just, kind of, tolerates unexceptional people. You know what I mean? They’ll say “Be a St. Paul,” “Be a Henry Ford.” “Be a John Rockefeller.” They’ll say, “God set some people apart to change the world, and it might just be you.”

And there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that some people are genuinely exceptional. Ted Jones makes killer bluegrass music – that’s exceptional. Our church is filled with exceptional cooks and exceptional artists and those things are good, but that’s not quite what Paul’s getting at here when he says that he was “set apart from birth” because God was “pleased to reveal his Son in him.”

Because if you think that God “passed over the masses,” “looked down the corridors of time” and “saw something exceptional in Paul,” you have to rather nonsensically assume that God was on “autopilot” with the rest of us. You have to, kind of, nonsensically assume that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe is “spaced out” most of the time but he “snaps out of it” every once in a while, presses some buttons on his control board and makes some cool stuff happen before putting his feet back up on his desk and taking a nap the next couple hundred years. And it sounds silly when you put it that way, but if we’re honest with ourselves I think a lot of us really do think that, right?

But what Paul actually says is that he was “set apart from birth” because God was “pleased to reveal his Son in him.” And when he says that, he’s not really claiming anything unique for himself. Of course God was “pleased to reveal his son in him.” Right? Why wouldn’t he be? What’s the alternative? There is no one on planet Earth that God is not “pleased to reveal his son” through. There is no one on planet Earth that God is not pleased to reveal his mercy in. There is nobody in this room that God isn’t eager to glorify himself by revealing his mercy through you. God created you in order to turn you into a walking image of his mercy. God created you to be a human gospel tract.

And because that’s the case, weird stuff is gonna happen. God is going to co-opt you in such a way that you will fulfill the purpose for which he created you. He will glorify himself in you by revealing his mercy through your witness. That can happen the easy way or it can happen the hard way, but it’s gonna happen some way no matter how much you put up a fight on the front end because this is the purpose that you were created for.

And we see that in the way Paul narrates his life in today’s passage: Verse 14 says the Paul grew up “zealous for the traditions of his ancestors,” and he tells us that he proceeded to “advance in the Hebrew faith beyond many contemporaries.” That sounds like a good thing, but the devil is industrious, and so Paul managed to turn “zeal for the traditions of his ancestors” into a curse rather than a blessing.

Because he grew up zealous for the traditions of his ancestors, but like a lot of people he failed to recognize the way that Jesus is what the traditions of his ancestors were pointing us towards. So when Jesus arrived on the scene and began fulfilling the promises that God had made to us throughout the Old Testament, people like Paul perceived him as a threat rather than as what he was: As God himself, come to redeem his world and his people. And from there it’s not a stretch to see how, before his conversion, Paul saw a potential threat in the early church and wanted to snuff it out before it became a real threat,  so in verse 13 Paul tells us that he began to “persecute the church to an extreme degree” and “try to destroy it.”

So we see in the book of Acts that Paul became, kind of, a “Dog the Bounty Hunter” typed figure, so he went from town to town, digging up any information he could find on which church was meeting at whose house, lure all the leaders out into the town square, and stir up a lynching. So he plays an instrumental role in criminalizing Christianity at the local levels, and then incites the public into violence toward their leaders. So if you’d never heard of Christianity and didn’t know anything about the New Testament but somebody handed you a copy of Acts and you were reading through it, your primary question at this point would be “Who is this guy, and when is God gonna kill him?” Right?

But rather than “turning the tables” on Paul, God stops Paul in his tracks, he meets him on the Damascus Road and says “Why are you persecuting me?” Which is a strange question to ask. He doesn’t just confront him and say, “Paul, you picked the wrong side on this and now you’re gonna get your comeuppance.” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” That throws a spoke in the wheel of the mission Paul thought he was on. It forced Paul to rethink everything.

So much so that, before long, Paul had left behind his crusade and the word started to spread – verse 23 – that “the one who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith he once tried to destroy.” That is not the norm. That is well outside of what we’ve come to expect, but – verse 16 – God was “pleased to reveal his son” in Paul, “so that he could preach him among the Gentiles.”

God was pleased to reveal himself in somebody I would have strangled to death if I’d been given the chance. But when God got a hold of him, instead of “putting him out of our misery,” God was “pleased to reveal himself,” not by making a big show out of his power and crumpling him up as a warning to those who would do the same, but by pouring out his mercy onto him. God is “pleased to reveal his son” through folks who make our blood boil. That’s how relentless his mercy is.

God’s mercy is so relentless that he would set even somebody like Paul “apart from birth and call him by his grace.” That’s what’s noteworthy about Paul, here. Not that God set him apart and therefore he’s “exceptional,” like this is all some kind of game that God plays. What’s noteworthy about Paul is that God’s mercy is so relentless that he would set even somebody as horrifyingly vile as Paul apart by his grace to reveal his mercy through him.

Paul had this plan for where his life was going, and God had a very different plan. Paul wanted to destroy the church because it posed a threat to everything he held dear, but God co-opted Paul and used him as the fuel that would catapult the church into every corner of the known world at the time, because “God is pleased to reveal himself” in us, to the point that if you are a believer in Christ, you have been “set apart from birth and called by the grace of God” to join in to his mission. Without knowing anything else about you, I can tell you with all confidence that that is the purpose of your life. You have been “set apart from birth and called by the grace of God” to join in to his mission.

Which is very different than the message that we’re used to hearing, right? Like, there’s not a movie from the last 30 years or so that’s not at least halfway about “finding yourself,” right? Like “figuring out your destiny” – or maybe better put, “determining your destiny.”

Almost nobody wakes up in the morning and says “I’m going to fulfill my created purpose today!” – I assume. Maybe a handful of you. Almost nobody goes into a job search saying, “I want this job because it’s ideal for embodying the purpose that God created me for.” Almost nobody chooses their spouse with the reality that God created you for a specific purpose in mind. It’s okay, you can be honest. I’m not your parents, you don’t have to lie to me. Most of us have absorbed our culture’s assumption that you are responsible for determining your life’s purpose.

And yet, in Ephesians chapter 1 verses 3 & 4, Paul says “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he set us apart in him before the foundation of the world.” God is pleased to reveal himself in us, and it pleases him so very much to reveal himself in us that he “set us apart” before he created the world. God “set us apart before the foundation of the world” to “bless us in Christ” with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”

I don’t know what job you’re supposed to have, I do not know who you are supposed to marry, I do not know what you’re supposed to have for dinner tonight. I can’t tell you what you’re supposed to do in those categories, but what I can tell you is that your life is about revealing the mercy of God. Your life – your whole life – is about “enjoying every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” because God glorifies himself by pouring “every blessing in the heavenly places” out onto you through Jesus Christ. And so whatever you do for work, wherever you live, whoever you marry – if you get married – all of those things are extensions of this one purpose.

The purpose of your life is to “glorify God,” as he “reveals his Son in you,” as you enjoy “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” through Christ, grabbing people and pointing them towards the source. That’s the whole thing.

Now, I can’t tell you what that’s going to look like in your life. Only you know how that’s going to play out in your own day-to-day, right?

Like, one of my friends is working his way up to be a lawyer for the Innocence Project. That’s a group that tries to re-litigate bogus trials that landed people in prison or on death row illegitimately. If you ever look into the numbers on how many people get life sentences and then turn out 20 years later to have been falsely accused, get ready to have your day ruined. If you look into the same numbers involving death row, you’ll have your week ruined. And after having his day ruined and then his week ruined, my friend devoted his life to advocating on behalf of the wrongly imprisoned.

So he’s at law school with a bunch of folks who would “sell their mothers for a beach house,” or something – his words, not mine – and when they ask him what he wants to do once he passes the bar, he tells them exactly that. So the conversation usually goes something along the lines of, “You know there’s not really any money in that, right?” And he says, “Yeah, I know.” And they say, “Why would you put all this time and energy and debt into a job this punishing if you won’t even turn a profit for it,” then he says something along the lines of, “I got rescued from a death penalty I did deserve, so I spend my life pulling people from the brink of a death sentence they didn’t deserve. I was guilty and God forgave me through Jesus Christ, so I’ve devoted my life to advocating for people who aren’t guilty.” When that’s the image that people have of the mercy God shows us in Jesus Christ it rattles you, right?

But not everybody is called to litigate on behalf of the falsely accused. Most of us couldn’t do that anytime soon even if we had the energy to, right? You’d have to go back to school, pass the bar, work your way up the system. But every single one of us is called to enjoy the mercy that God has poured out onto us in such a way that it illustrates the gospel of Jesus Christ to a watching world.

I was a server at an IHOP – way less consequential than my lawyer friend – I was working 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. shifts, which was not a great situation, living in a rental house with my friend in a, kind of, sketchy part of town, and I was interning at the church I was a member of, but next to nothing fruitful happened as a result of that internship. It’s on my resume, you can look at it, on paper it makes me look more qualified than I am, but next to nothing happened growth-wise due to that internship. While things were stagnant at my church job, God was drawing people to himself at an IHOP in Oklahoma because as I went about my day-to-day life, conversations would steer their way towards my faith in ways I didn’t even really engineer or aim for.

Like, you don’t have to do the bait-and-switch thing. You know what I’m talking about? Where you’re like, “Hey Susan have you read any good books lately?” And she’s like “Yeah, I’m reading this romance novel called–” and you cut her off, and you’re like, “Cuz I’m reading the Goodest Book Ever!” and you throw your Bible at her and you’re like “Would you like to accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior today???” You know I’m talking about? You don’t have to do the bait-and-switch thing.

When you are enjoying the mercy that God has poured out onto us in Jesus Christ, something “radiates” from you. I don’t know what it is, I can’t explain it to you, but something radiates from you and it makes people curious in ways they won’t understand either as God prepares them to meet him by meeting you. That’s the whole thing.

Books that are “this thick” about complex evangelism methods are probably a good financial investment for publishing companies – they probably sell pretty well – but I’ve never read one that was very true-to-life, right? Because the actual process is very simple. God has “set you apart from birth” to “reveal his son” in you and he is preparing your neighbors as we speak to meet him by knowing you.

So at IHOP a handful of my coworkers decided for the first time in their lives that God might actually be real and that it was something they had a good reason to look into. Conversations gradually made their way from “Do-you-want-to-go-smoke-by-the-dumpster-I’ve-got-a-break-coming-up?” to “Do-you-know-where-the-next-vacation-bible-school’s-gonna-be,-I-want-to-take-my-kids-next-time-one-rolls-around.”

The grimiest dude there came clean and said he’s “known his whole life” that something was wildly wrong and that he “needed to get right with God” but that he’d been in denial since he was a kid. A couple of regular customers ended up asking me to counsel them through their marital difficulties, and I was like, “I’m 20 years old and not married, what am I going to tell you?” and they were like, “We trust you to help us see God’s will for our marriage.”

And all those things just happened. I acted there the way I act here. I wasn’t slapping gospel tracks in everybody’s hand that I met, I wasn’t hijacking conversations about last week sports game and trying to turn them into conversations about How Jesus Won The Real Super Bowl 2000 Years Ago On The Cross, right?

All I was doing was devoting myself to enjoying the mercy that God has “set us apart” for and poured out onto us in Jesus Christ, and it caused me to become someone that people were drawn to. Enjoying the mercy that God has shown you in Jesus Christ on a day-to-day basis will mold you into somebody that people are drawn to their father in heaven through. That’s the whole thing.

That is everything I know about evangelism. That is everything I know about “growing in grace.” I have no complicated formula for you about how to “mature in your Christian life” outside of that, because that is quite literally the purpose we were created for. And we are never more joyous, we are never more at peace, we are never better off than when we are throwing ourselves into submitting to the purpose that God set us apart for.

Let’s pray.

‘There Is No Other Gospel’ – Gal. 1:6-12 – July 28th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Galatians chapter 1, verses 6 through 12:

 I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him!

10 For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ.

11 Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not based on human thought. 12 For I did not receive it from a human source and I was not taught it, but it came by a revelation from Jesus Christ.

Let’s pray.

*

There is an interesting story in second Kings chapter 2 that, uh, I would like to read to you. It says “The Prophet Elisha went up to Bethel.” That was a “high place,” and it was where a lot of the folks in the rural parts of Israel went to worship after King Jeroboam took over and reinstituted pagan worship throughout the kingdom. The story says, “As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him, saying ‘Get out of here, baldy!’ He turned around, looked at them, and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord.”

When Elisha “calls down a curse” on the crowd, he’s not just yelling the F-word at them – which is what we mean when we say “cursing.” He might have said some pretty harsh words as well, I don’t know, but he was imploring God to curse them. And in the last line of the story in Second Kings, we see that God does exactly what Elisha asks: It says, “Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled the boys,” so the story sounds like something that would come out of a 1970s horror movie that you’d sneak out past curfew to go see at the drive-in, right?

If you’ve ever had an argument with a fourteen-year-old atheist, you’ve probably heard about this story. I don’t have enough fingers to count the times that someone has thrown out some variation of “How Could You Worship A God Who Would Send Bears To Kill A Bunch Of Children For Making Fun Of A Guy For Being Bald.” That’s fair. I’m not gonna argue with that sentiment.

But the problem is that the language used in this passage doesn’t actually say anything about “a bunch of kids.” The Hebrew scholars tell me that the term used for “boys” here is na’ar. (spell)

Sometimes, the term na’ar refers to a “young man,” anywhere from, like, four to twenty-four. So, very helpful as far as narrowing down the age. Depending on which a linguist you ask, the age range can be a little wider or a little narrower, but it never straightforwardly means “kid.” Often, the term refers to an “Official” – like, a temple official, an official at the palace, a religious official, and so forth. So if there are any kids present during “The Bear Incident,” we don’t know about it. The pagan kings have converted Bethel into a place where God’s people can come and make sacrifices to the pagan god Ba’al. So the altars at Bethel would have been stocked with “officials” who would oversee the sacrifices.

And as Elisha makes his way to the altars at Bethel, suddenly a bunch of na’ars, a bunch of “officials,” come out and start mocking him, saying “Get out of here, Baldy.” The officials overseeing the pagan altars at Bethel immediately recognize that they are looking at one of Yahweh’s servants, so they try to chase him away. These aren’t “little kids” making fun of an “insecure bald guy.” These are priests of Ba’al trying to drive God’s servant Elisha away from the premises so he can’t challenge the position of power that they’ve carved out for themselves.

It does not go well for them: Elisha calls down a curse on them, and we see exactly what Hosea chapter 13 talks about when Yahweh says, and I quote, “As a bear robbed of her cubs I will pounce on my enemies and tear the flesh around their hearts, / the dogs shall eat their flesh, and wild beasts tear them to pieces.” God says, “I will tear apart” the false prophets “who devour my people.” I will treat these false prophets like poachers out to “kidnap my cubs.” Elisha calls down a curse, and God quite literally “pounces on them like a mother bear defending her cubs.”

That’s all very shocking, but something like this lays underneath what Paul is telling us in today’s passage. We don’t know exactly what the situation is because Paul never describes it in detail and Acts doesn’t cover it like it does with some of the other letters that Paul writes. But we see in verse 10 is that Paul has been accused of “trying to please people by compromising the gospel.”

So Paul defends himself by pointing out in verse 11 that the gospel that he preached to the Galatians “did not come from human thought” – instead, he says in verse 12 that his gospel “came by a revelation from Jesus Christ.” Now, if the gospel that the Galatians have heard from Paul came “by a revelation from Jesus Christ,” that means, like he points out in verse 7, that there is no other gospel.

Like, if you hear two gospels, and one of them came from me and the other one came from Jesus, then you’ve only heard one gospel. Whatever the thing you heard from me was, if it’s not consistent with the thing you heard from Jesus, it’s either “false teaching” or it’s “mistaken.” In either case, you should go with the thing that Jesus said.

And since there is no other gospel, Paul points out in verse 6 that “turning away” from the gospel Paul preached amounts to “turning away from the one who called us by the grace of Christ.” Abandoning the gospel that Paul preached to us isn’t just “changing from one ideology to another ideology,” it’s turning away from Jesus himself. It’s “turning away from the one who called us by the grace of Christ.”

That means a few things: It means that we should be extremely suspicious of anyone who preaches a gospel to us that is radically different than what Paul preaches. Now, that does not mean that we should expect everyone who preaches to us to literally just “parrot” Paul. That’s basically what I do, and that gets boring after a while, right? But there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. There is nothing wrong with communicating the Gospel of Jesus in a way that “preaches” to a certain group more effectively than it preaches to a different group. You will preach differently in Dallas, Texas, because that entire part of the country is just one giant Chick-fil-A – it’s just one giant Hobby Lobby. Everyone there thinks and acts and talks a certain way and so you’ve gotta preach a certain way to really communicate effectively there.

But that’s going to be significantly different than the way that you might preach in, like, Togo, West Africa. You’re preaching in a different language, obviously, but the people there think, talk, reason differently than people in Dallas, Texas. Not worse, just differently. So naturally you’ll have to preach differently. Faithful preaching might be different in Dallas and Togo, but they will be complementary to each other. They’ll go hand-in-hand. You might use very different imagery, very different metaphors, but you will preach the same message, you’ll preach the same gospel. And that’s what Paul has in mind here.

I preach very differently than my friend Tyler, but we are preaching the same gospel. In all likelihood, each of the pastors that you have had and will have in the future of Mount Zion have preached with a different style, but hopefully each of these pastors have preached the same gospel – and part of my job, and part of every Pastor you’ll ever have here’s job is to build you up in such a way that if a future pastor turns out to be a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” you’ll have the necessary foundation to be able to recognize and deal with that problem. That’s what Paul has in mind here.

So he says in verse 9, none of us should believe anyone who presents a gospel that is fundamentally opposed to the gospel that Paul preached to us. And in the situation of the Galatians, that is urgently important. Because the same people who have accused Paul of “trying to please people by compromising the gospel” are now trying to convince the Galatians to believe a different gospel entirely.

*

But Paul says in verse 8 that “anyone who preaches a contrary gospel is cursed.” Now, that’ll rattle you. Paul has a reputation for being really quick-tempered and really abrasive, but if you spent the month reading through each of his letters once a week or so, and you read through the book of Acts during that month as well, you come out the other side with a very different idea about Paul than you would get otherwise.

Throughout Paul’s letters, and throughout the Book of Acts, we see Paul compromising constantly. Paul gives the lie to the idea that “compromise” is a bad thing. His letters are filled with exhortations not to “compromise the gospel,” but every word on planet Earth means a handful of things, so the word “compromise” can mean “Find a good solution when two people have fundamentally differing goals,” – right? – or it can mean “Changing your message to something that sits easier with your audience as a way of benefiting yourself.” You know what I’m talking about?

That first kind of “compromise” is good. We see Paul doing that all the time. We see Paul going to whatever lengths he can reasonably go to to meet other people where they are and minister to them effectively. We see Paul going to whatever lengths he can reasonably go to in order to make others comfortable, to serve them, to “outdo them in showing honor,” as Romans chapter 12 says.

What we don’t see is Paul changing the gospel in order to please his audience. So much so that by the end of his life, by all indications, Paul was physically deformed from getting beaten to a bloody pulp so often. In the book of Acts, we see Paul getting lashed by the authorities, we see him beat down by neanderthal priests; at one point he gets taken outside of the city and stoned to death – that means that all the kids got sent to go find the heaviest rocks they could and bring them to their parents, all the men gather around and lob them at you until you no longer had the strength to get back up onto your feet, and then one of the most respected members of the village would come, pick up the heaviest rock, and smash your skull with it. Literally, that happened to Paul.

For some reason, a couple hours later, he gets back up, goes back into the city, preaches exactly the same obnoxious gospel, to exactly the same people – and when the guy you just stoned shows back up and preaches the same message, you hear it differently, you take it more seriously. You know what I’m talking about?

So Paul was all about good, healthy, godly compromise, but he gave absolutely no room to the kind of compromise that whitewashes the gospel in order to make it more appealing to your audience. So much so that he tells us that anyone who preaches a gospel that is fundamentally contrary to the gospel that he has preached to us is “cursed” like the priests of Baal at the altars in Bethel were “cursed.” Whoever preaches a different gospel is “Get Torn Apart By She-Bears At God’s Command”-level “cursed.”

Because there is exactly one gospel, and it’s been preached to us by Paul, it’s been preached to us by John, it’s been preached to us by James, it’s been preached to us by Peter, it’s been preached to us by Jude, it’s been preached to us by Mark, and Luke, and Matthew, and whoever wrote Hebrews. There is one gospel, and it’s been handed down to us for 2000 years.

It’s not a denominational thing. The gospel is not “Baptist,” it’s not even “Protestant,” Paul wasn’t throwing down with “the Methodists,” here, right? Paul is defending a gospel that every orthodox Christian throughout all of time and across all of the world has confessed since the death and resurrection of Jesus – that Jesus is Lord, and because Jesus is Lord, we can be reconciled to God.

And because we can be reconciled to God, we can be confident that, like John tells us in the Book of Revelation, everything – the whole universe, or multiverse, whatever, I’m not up to date on quantum physics – the whole creation will be reconciled to the God that we abandoned in the garden and restored to exactly what we were created to be.

Not only can we be reconciled to God through the Lord Jesus Christ, but – verse 6 – we are “called by the grace of Christ” to do exactly that. We are “called by the grace of Christ” to throw ourselves on his mercy, to be forgiven for our sin, to be made new, to be healed of every bit of crookedness that still haunts us.

We’ve been “called by the grace of Christ” to surrender to the God of the universe, to lay down our guns, to abandon our idols; Elisha would’ve said “Stop visiting the altars at Bethel,” Paul would say “Stay away from the temples to such-and-such Galatian idol, it could be any number of things today. We are “called by the grace of Christ” to abandon the idols that have taken hold over us and rest in the mercy of Jesus Christ.

That’s the whole thing. That is the gospel that Paul preached to us. That’s the gospel that his friend Peter preached to us in Acts chapter 2, when he told the crowd who had gathered for Pentecost, and I quote, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

It’s the same thing that Paul says 40 years later in 2nd Timothy, when he says in Chapter 2, and I quote, “God has saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Jesus Christ before the ages began.”

This is the gospel that’s been handed down to us. And it means we can rest.

There’s a very over-used quote by St. Augustine, and you’ve probably seen it on a coffee cup or a welcome mat: He says, “You have created us for yourself, O God, and my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” And it’s overused, like I said, but it’s overused for a reason. It’s overused because it’s true. We exist to find our rest in the God who created us, and the restlessness that we feel 90% of the time is meant to shepherd us on towards that. So you can rest. You were created to.

If you’re like me and most of the folks I’ve ever met, that’s probably the most difficult thing I can tell you. There is something in me that refuses to allow me to rest. I tell people that they are “saved by the mercy of Jesus Christ” for a living and I spend nearly every moment of every day trying to justify myself before God by being hard-working enough or self-sufficient enough or morally upright enough or generous enough or smart enough or cool enough because there is something in us that absolutely refuses to rest.

There’s something in us that refuses to believe the gospel that Paul has preached to us, because believing the gospel that Paul has preached to us would mean resting in the mercy that God has shown us in Jesus Christ. It would mean resting in the reality that we are known by God. That God knows the worst of you, and he still wants to know you. That God is fully aware of how jacked up you are. He knows the most repulsive corners of your psyche. You know that stuff that you’ve thought and then immediately recoiled and picked up the phone and Googled “Therapists Near Me,” right? God knows the absolute worst things about you. He knows all of it. He knows you more intimately than you know you, and not one of those things has made him love you any less.

I have a tendency to turn everything into a call to “get over yourself.” When I read back through the sermons that I’ve preached here, they read more like “Calls To Action” than announcements of good news. So you might have the wrong idea, because I might have given you the wrong idea. Nothing I’ve told you has been false or misleading, but I’m not sure that I’ve been clear enough or loud enough or repetitive enough about the reality that you exist for one thing, and that is to rest in the mercy of God. You exist to know God, not as the “harsh taskmaster” who hangs over you with impossible demands, but as the one who enables you to rest.

So much so that in Hosea chapter 6, verse 6, God tells his people, “I desire the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” I don’t want what you can give me. I want you.

You are intimately loved by God with a love that your most passionate and tender care for other people can’t even come close to measuring up to. God loves you deeply, period. And because of the great love that God has for you in Jesus Christ, you can rest.

So as we’re worshipping the Lord through song, I’ll be at the front. There is nothing magic about the altar, but I’d love to pray with you, or talk you through what it would mean to “rest in the mercy of God.” Or, if you don’t want to come down the aisle, you can flag me down after church, or email me at the email that’s listed in the bulletin, and we can set a date and time, meet up, and talk about whatever’s on your heart.

Let’s pray.

‘This Present, Evil Age’ – Galatians 1:1-5 – July 21st, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to the book of Galatians – chapter 1, verses 1 through 5:

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the members of God’s family who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

We live on “Hell’s front porch,” which is a horrifying sentiment. But it’s true. I’m going to have to explain that, because you can’t just say something along those lines and then leave it.

Here is what I do not mean: I do not mean that “the earth” is Hell’s front porch, although you might’ve heard something like that, and I certainly have. You can look at Rev. 21, which talks about a whole lot of this stuff. And what Revelation chapter 21 doesn’t say is that God is “taking us out of the earth and then nuking this place.” It says that there will be a “new Heaven and a new earth.” We’re not ditching earth for heaven. We are ditching what Paul calls, “this present evil age,” in verse 4.

The grammar in Revelation 21 is a little bit obscure, but the Greek scholars tell me that the term “new,” here, doesn’t mean “new” in the way that you would say you got a “new car.” It means “new” in the way that you would say that you’re a “new man” after you finish the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program. It’s “new” in the way that you would say you have a “new marriage” after God transforms both you and your spouse in such a way that your old, destructive patterns are no more and instead you embody the vision the Paul gives us in Ephesians 5, of husbands and wives mutually supporting each other, honoring one another in Christ, and serving one another rather than trying to control each other.

God will make “the heavens and the Earth” new like he has made us “new” in Jesus Christ. He will “destroy” the old heaven and the old earth like he has “destroyed” our old natures. He will “rescue us from this evil age,” he will liberate us from “Hell’s front porch,” by transforming this earth and this heaven into a “new earth” and a “new heaven.”

So when we say that “this present evil age” is “Hell’s front porch,” we mean that we live in a world that’s been so shattered by the Fall that’s described in Genesis chapter 3 that the horrors Jesus describes in the story of “Lazarus and the rich man,” or the “Lake of Fire” described in Revelation chapter 20, or the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in Luke chapter 13, read almost like extensions of what we already live.

It seems like we nearly always end up heading back to Genesis chapter 3, but that’s inevitable since so much of the story that the Bible tells is rooted in what happens there: Humanity rebels against God in the garden, and we are cast out from God’s presence. But that’s not the beginning and end of what happens in that passage.

God recites a very strange poem as he is banishing us from the garden, and you probably remember it because it’s weird. He turns to Eve and says “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe. / with painful labor you will give birth to children.  / your desire will be for your husband / and he will rule over you.”

And he turns to Adam and he says, “Cursed is the ground because of you / through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. / It will produce thorns and thistles for you, / and you will eat by the sweat of your brow / until you return to the ground that you were taken from. / Because from dust you were created and now to dust you will return.”

That passage is written in poetic verse, and so it strikes us as really odd the way that it’s worded, but if you step back, you see that what’s happened is that by rebelling against God, we have created a situation in which our relationship with the rest of the created world has been shattered, so “the ground produces thorns and thistles” rather than “bearing good fruit” in cooperation with us;

And we see that our relationship with other humans has been shattered – when Genesis 3:16 comes up and God laments that “the woman’s desire would be for her man but that he would dominate her,” I probably don’t have to try to convince you that that’s the way things tend to work, because most of the women I’ve ever met in my life have a handful of “Genesis 3:16 stories.”

But that doesn’t even just apply to men and women: We see in the Garden of Eden that the relationship between Adam and Eve and God and the animals is harmonious and cooperative, but in the days since our Fall in the garden everything has skewed towards domination.

The folks who “ascend to the top of the ladder” are rarely folks who have “merited” ascending to the top, they’re just the folks who were cruel enough to do the things they had to do to get there. It is not a secret that quite a few politicians made it to where they are today less because they out-worked their opponents than because they were ruthless enough to edge out the folks who weren’t;

Or that philanthropic CEO of such-and-such company made his way to raking in 40 billion dollars every year by finding ways to produce his product in such a way the keeps his profit margin wide and his expenses slim by seeing to it that the folks at the bottom of his work force are exploited rather than cultivated. “Human society” since the fall has skewed towards “domination,” not “community.”

But more than anything, our relationship with ourselves has been fractured, God says that “we will return to the ground from which we came,” “from dust we were taken / into dust we will return.” You are going to die, and so am I. We aren’t supposed to. But we will.

Rebelling against God, we became temporary. We became “mortal.” And we would. These are the things that we should expect to happen. Because God’s world is characterized by permanence. God’s world is characterized by “eternity.” God’s creations are meant to be “everlasting.” They’re meant to be whole. They are not meant to decompose, or wither, or cease to be.

But we rebelled against God: We rebelled against his kingship, we rebelled against his order, we rebelled against his will – and that means rebelling against permanence, rebelling against wholeness, rebelling against “eternity.” Rebelling against God is demanding death. It never isn’t.

And the rest of what God spells out is to be expected as well. God’s kingdom is characterized by “cooperation,” not “competition.” In God’s creative design, “survival of the fittest” is not the rule. We are created to cooperate with one another, to care for each other’s needs, to prop each other up rather than tear each other down, to “outdo one another in showing honor” like Romans 12 says, but by rebelling against God we are rebelling against cooperation.

By rebelling against God we are “embracing domination”, we are embracing the kinds of oppression that we see everyday and that we complain about on the news. Rebelling against God in the garden is rejecting the kind of gentleness we were created for. Rebelling against God in the garden breaks the world. So we live in bits of broken glass, so to speak. We’ve declared independence from God’s good design and planted our flag on Hell’s front porch.

And I probably don’t have to convince you of that, because you’ve probably been trampled on by the folks who clawed their way to the top. Or maybe you’ve been the one who’s done the trampling. Maybe you have worked “this present, evil age” to your own advantage, found ways to benefit or gratify yourself by dominating others just like God talks about here in Genesis 3.

It may very well be that the last thing that you want is a world that operates the way that God designed it to. And if that’s the case, I have very bad news for you: Paul says in verse 4 that Jesus has “given himself to set us free from this present, evil age.”

*

A few months back we celebrated Easter – that’s when we formally celebrate the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – and what’s remarkable about the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just the resurrection part, although generally speaking people don’t get back up after being crucified, it’s the fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ remade the world.

By dying on a Roman cross, and then rising again on the third day Jesus “put to death” the old world that we created in our image when we rebelled against God in the garden and he “created a new world.”

To use the language that a bunch of old, dead Baptists would have used, he “inaugurated the new heavens and the new Earth,” he planted the seed that will one day grow into a plentiful garden, he raised us up out of the grave with him, and he raised his world up along with us. All of this has been really abstract and kind of airy, so we’re going to get more concrete in just a second, don’t worry, but track with me.

If we look back at Genesis chapter 3, we see that before God recites that terrifying poem to Adam & Eve, he turns to the snake who stirred up their rebellion, and he says, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals. / You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. / I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. / He will crush your head and you will strike his heel.”

Just like before, God is speaking in “poetic verse” here, so it all sounds a little strange, but for about two thousand years, theologians have been referring to verse 15 as the “Proto-Evangelium.” That’s a weird word, but it means the “First Gospel,” or the “Proto-Gospel”; it’s the first stirring that we get of what God is going to do in response to our rebellion in our Fall.

Later on in the book of Galatians, Paul starts to trace the concept of “the seed” that God mentions here in the Book of Genesis. He goes through a whole, long argument about Genesis chapter 12, and he ends up arguing that “the seed” that God refers to, here, is Jesus Christ. Paul had a better grasp on Hebrew grammar than I do, so I’ll take his word for it, but he argues that the promises that God makes to us throughout the Old Testament are ultimately fulfilled through Jesus, and so God says that the “enmity” between the serpent that stirred up our rebellion in the Garden and the seed that he’s describing here will come to a point where the serpent “strikes his heel” and he “crushes the serpent’s head.” One day, Jesus is going to destroy the serpent.

In Revelation chapter 20, John suggests that the “serpent in the garden” is the devil, or something like him, and that “destroying the devil” is wrapped up in “undoing the Fall,” un-breaking the world, making right everything that we have made wrong. Jesus rescues us from “this present evil age” by dying on the cross and then raising us up with him.

That means that when Jesus died on the cross, he began the process of bringing all the brokenness of the world, all of the horrors God describes in Genesis 3, to an end, and healing us under his wings. A day will come when the world that we live in isn’t “Hell’s Front Porch” any longer.

*

But all of that will only be good news if we shut down the rebellion, right? When the American Revolution came through town, it did not go well for “British Loyalists.” When the French Revolution came through town, it did not go well for Marie Antoinette. When God purges the world of the darkness we’ve created, when God pries the world he’s made from the clutches of hell, it will not go well for us if we are still leading the charge against his good rule. When God comes around to liberate the creation from its brokenness, it is very important that we are no longer “enemy combatants,” or else the good news of the Gospel will be very bad news for us.

We don’t just need God to purge the world of its brokenness. We need to be forgiven for our sins. We need somebody to “go to the guillotine instead of us.” But there is nobody who can go to the guillotine instead of us. There is nobody on planet Earth who can bear our guilt in our place. Nobody else can be justly punished for our rebellion against God.

Even if I’ve wronged you, and you forgive me, by wronging you I haven’t just wronged you. Everything we do to other people we have also done to God, every wrong we have committed to anyone else we have also committed against God, so we need more forgiveness than the person we’ve wronged has any capacity to give out. We need God’s forgiveness. The person we need to go to the guillotine in our place is God himself.

We need the God that we rebelled against in the garden to step up to the chopping block and take our execution, or else the good news that God is destroying all the evil in the world will be very bad news for you and me because we will be part of the evil that God is purging from the world.

But the good news is that God did take the guillotine instead of us. The God that we have rebelled against by fashioning our world into Hell’s Front Porch came to Earth, lived as a human, and then turned himself over to us to murder him in our place. And so Paul says it pretty succinctly, he says “the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to set us free from this present evil age.” There is no “rescuing us from this present evil age” without “giving himself for our sins.” But he does. He does exactly that. This is the God that we worship. This is the God that exists.

This is the story that we tell every week at Mount Zion – from a different angle, obviously, but we always land in the same place. I have one sermon. Literally one sermon. Every text in the Bible is going to make its way to the death and resurrection of Jesus because the death and resurrection of Jesus is the truest thing about you. The death and resurrection of Jesus is “the true story of the world.”

I’ve learned over the years that I need to say more about that: The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the truest thing about you, which tells us that you are bad enough that God needed to give himself to be murdered in your place and that you are precious enough that God didn’t think twice about doing so. That’s true about you whether you believe it or not.

That will continue to be true about you when you leave the church in a few minutes, head to a restaurant, open up a 24-hour news app and get mad at your congressman about something before forgetting what we talked about today. This is the true story of your life, and there’s a sense in which it’s the only true story of your life. Which means that you can submit yourself to the God who “gave himself” to “rescue you from this present, evil age” or you can rebel. Those are your choices. If you have not surrendered yourself to the God who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, you are still in rebellion. You can stay that way, or you can submit to him. But those are your choices.

Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to beg you for five minutes to give “let God into your life.” Somebody jumps on the organ, starts playing “Just As I AM,” I’m supposed to get increasingly desperate and convincing, plead with you to “give God a chance.”

But the reality is that you do not “give God a chance.” You do not “let God into your life.” God let himself into your life by creating you. Every one of us has been running from God in one form or fashion since we were born, since the day we woke up in the garden and decided to rebel. And that same rebellion that was at work in the garden will be at work in you now, telling you that it’s fine – that you do not need to surrender to the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Groveling from a pulpit while the organ plays isn’t gonna change that.

So instead I’m gonna level with you: You have no bargaining chips. You have no leverage on God. I’ve met people who’ve told me that they’re gonna hold off giving themselves to the Lord because they wanna cash that in the next time they’ve got a sick family member or a late mortgage payment. That might be you. And if that is you, you deserve to know that you’re fooling yourself. You’re lying to yourself if you think that’s a bargaining chip that you have.

You are going to throw yourself on the mercy of the God who “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present, evil age” or you aren’t, and there’s nothing I can say that’s clever enough or touching enough that it’ll change your heart. So I’m praying that the Holy Spirit does that for you. I am praying that you wake up this week recognizing the reality of your sin in a way you haven’t before. I’m praying that you’ll develop a desire to know-and-be-known-by the God we read about in the Bible. I’m praying that you will want-to-want to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.

And when that happens, you can email me. We can set up a time, talk through what it looks like to throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, and pray together. But if you’re ready to abandon your illusions today, I’ll be standing at the altar while we worship the Lord through song, and you can come talk to me.

You can also come talk to me about literally anything else. Anyone coming down to pray or speak with me could be coming down for any number of reasons, so the folks in the pews aren’t gonna assume anything about you. For all they know, you’re asking me about the sports game I didn’t watch last week. But I will be available for you to talk through what’s on your heart, because whatever’s on your heart, it matters.

‘God Works Everything Together For Our Good’ – Ruth 4:16-22 – July 14th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Ruth chapter 4, verses 16 through 22.

Naomi took Ruth’s child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him. 17 The neighbor women said, “A son has been born to Naomi,” and they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

18 Now this is the genealogy of Perez:

Perez fathered Hezron.
19 Hezron fathered Ram,
who fathered Amminadab.
20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon,
who fathered Salmon.
21 Salmon fathered Boaz,
who fathered Obed.
22 And Obed fathered Jesse,
who fathered David.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

After today, we will be done with the book of Ruth. This is our final sermon, and we’ve been in this book since Mother’s Day. The norm is to take Ruth a chapter or so at a time, but we have gone very slowly through the Ruth story – one “story beat” at a time, wringing everything we can out of the story so that, if you have been here for every single sermon in our series, you are more or less an expert in the book of Ruth. Each of our sermons is about 3000 words long, there’s been about 15 sermons, and that comes out to not quite 50,000 words. So that’s about a book’s worth of information that you have processed surrounding the Book of Ruth. So you are well-versed in this particular book of the Bible.

In our passage today, the author says that “Naomi took Ruth’s child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him.” After everything Naomi’s been through – being dragged out of the Promised Land by her faithless husband Elimelech, then losing Elimelech when he dies unexpectedly, and then losing both of her sons soon afterwards as they die unexpectedly, returning back to the Promised Land once she hears that the famine is over – God has provided her with a grandson named Obed.

Being provided with a grandson is a lot weightier than it sounds, and if you’ve been here for the previous sermons, you already know why: The story of Ruth takes place during a time in human history in which – over against the will of God – more or less all cultures everywhere treated women as property rather than people. And property can’t own property.

If you were a woman, you were the property of your father or you were the property of your husband, and if you lost both of those things, you were the property of no one in particular and you were just kind of free-falling. You were shoved out to the margins. And your only hope was to become somebody’s property before you became an obituary.

As you’ll remember from our previous sermons, the law that God gave to Israel through Moses essentially ran “damage control” on that unfortunate fact of life, and so although it didn’t solve the problem of how women were viewed and treated throughout the Bronze Age, it did provide the kind of “safety nets” that allowed women in Israel to keep their heads above water in ways that women in the surrounding nations did not have an opportunity to.

As a result, by all indications, Israel became a place that the surrounding pagan nations kept losing their women to. Which makes sense: Pagan women would abandon their home countries and integrate into Israel because the God of Israel saw them, cared for them, and gave them a new life “under his wings” in Israel.

But the fact that things were better for women in Israel does not mean that things were good for women in Israel. During the time period in which the Ruth story takes place, things weren’t good for women anywhere, period. And so, no matter what, there was still the issue that women could not own property. Which means that Naomi could not own the plot of land that used to belong to her husband.  

The only way for Naomi to lay claim to that land was for her male child to inherit it from her dead husband. But both of Naomi’s sons were dead, too. So the only way for Naomi the take claim to that land in the absence of her two sons was for one of her grandsons to inherit that land from her dead husband. But neither of her two sons had fathered any children before they kicked the bucket, so Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth have a serious problem on their hands.

They have an “if we don’t find a food source quickly we’ll die” problem on their hands. They have a “we can’t own our own land” problem. Which means they have a “we’ve got nowhere to live” problem, compounded by a “we’ve got nowhere to grow food or keep cattle” problem. That’s a life-or-death problem.

But in the law that God gave through Moses, the first born male child from any widow in Israel is considered to be the “heir” to her original husband. Which means that Obed, the child that Ruth has with Boaz, is legally considered the male heir of Ruth’s husband Mahlon.

Which sounds kinda strange, but there’s a logic behind it, because it means that Obed will inherit the land that used to belong to Elimelech. Which means that Naomi can live on the land that used to belong to them for the rest of her life. Which means she can tend to the fields, grow her own food, build up a household. The birth of Obed means that rather than dying homeless, she will be well taken care of till the end of her days.

So when God provides a grandson to Naomi, it means a lot. This is not just sentimentality. It’s a matter of life and death. This is not a “Hallmark ending.” Providing a grandson amounts to “pulling Naomi from the edge of the cliff” and on to stable ground. As always, God is a “refuge for the oppressed,” he is a “refuge for the abandoned,” he is a refuge for the “let-down,” and Naomi’s story is no different.

At the end of the day, the Book of Ruth is about how God works in every single detail of history, every single detail of our lives, every coincidence, every tragedy, every piece of good fortune, to rescue us from the darkness we’ve been captive in and reconcile us to himself forever.

*

And so we’ll keep that in mind as we look at the last few lines of this story, which might have seemed inconsequential the first time you ever read through the Book of Ruth. The last lines of the Ruth story list out a genealogy of Boaz’s distant relative, Perez. Since it’s a genealogy, most of us probably just glazed over and sped read through it the first time we read through this book. Right? Like, when you’re going through your “Read The Bible In A Year” plan, there are those days when almost everything is genealogy, and you’re just like, “So-and-so begat so-and-so . . . so-and-so begat so-and-so . . .” and you wake up an hour and a half later, and the sun’s down, and you don’t know where you are, you’re in a bathtub filled with ice and your kidney’s missing. This is one of those passages. And yet, it tells us so much about the things we’ve just read.

If you flip to Matthew chapter 1 – that’s, uh, the first book of the New Testament – you’ll see that Matthew copy/pastes this genealogy almost word-for-word at the very beginning of his book. Matthew says:

Abraham fathered Isaac,
Isaac fathered Jacob,
Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers,
Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
Perez fathered Hezron,
Hezron fathered Aram,
Aram fathered Amminadab,
Amminadab fathered Nahshon,
Nahshon fathered Salmon,
Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab,
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth,
Obed fathered Jesse,
and Jesse fathered King David.

Very exciting stuff, I know, but bear with me. Next up, Matthew continues on in his genealogy, all the way down to verse 16 when he arrives at “Joseph, the husband of Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.”

What we’ve been watching play out in the Book of Ruth isn’t just a self-contained love story, like something you read in a book you could buy at the airport. We’ve been reading the story of how God works behind the scenes, somehow orchestrating everything together for our good, bringing everything that happens to us, no matter how terrifying, no matter how inexplicable and seemingly meaningless, bending it towards his will.

What we see in the Book of Ruth is that even as the Israelites began to spin out once they got into the Promised Land, as they abandon God’s law, became every bit as wicked as the pagan nations that God had driven out before them, they became a place that was impossible for women, for foreigners, for the weak and oppressed, to be safe in; even as they became the sort of nation that positions itself as an enemy of God, even as they abandoned God with everything in them, as they ran away from his mercy, clutched their idols like you clutch your purse in an elevator, even as they brought a famine onto themselves because of their own fruitlessness, God was working to bend even their evil towards his will.

It’s like the story of Joseph – you know, the one with the flamboyant coat – where his brothers sell him into slavery because they’re sick of living in his shadow, but God bends everything that happens to Joseph in such a way that he works his way up the ladder, as he supernaturally attains the favor of all the people who are responsible for his fate, he ends up becoming Pharaoh’s favorite, he’s placed as a governor over all the people of Egypt, God uses his position as a way to preserve the people of Israel amidst a very different famine, and to bless the people of Egypt.

So when Joseph meets his brothers again as an adult, now in a position in which he could get revenge on them for what they’ve done to him, Joseph says “I’m not angry, because what you meant for evil, God used for good.” What we meant for evil, God meant for good. We see that in the story of Ruth: the people of Israel become a curse instead of a blessing to the other nations, but what they meant for evil, God jerry-rigged for good.

Paul alludes to this much in Romans chapter 8, when he says that nothing in the world, visible or invisible, can stand between the people of God and the love of God because God works everything, literally everything – every persecution, every trial, every fear, every difficulty, every threat, every nightmare – he works everything that happens together for our good.

If you’re looking at the passage, your translation might say it a little bit differently. It might say that he “makes all things work together for our good.” It might say that he “bends everything for our good.” It might say that he “brings everything about for our good.” I don’t know how that works, Paul doesn’t explain how that works – nobody in the Bible seems even remotely interested in how that works, but the New Testament is unanimous about that fact that it works.

To the point that, according to the 19th Century British Baptist Octavius Winslow, and I quote:

“So completely was Jesus bent upon saving sinners by the sacrifice of himself that he created the tree upon which he was to die, and nurtured from infancy the men who were to nail him to the accursed wood.”

When Paul says “everything,” he means everything. We have no idea how it works, but we can know for a fact that God works everything on planet Earth together “for the good of those who love him,” and we see that as vividly as it could possibly be in the story of Ruth, in which a battered woman is dragged out of the Promised Land by her good-for-nothing husband, then loses her entire family and is left with no one but her two foreign daughters-in-law that she is convinced she will be a burden on by sticking around, but God prepares the heart of her daughter-in-law Ruth to refuse to leave her, to follow her back to Israel against her wishes, to throw herself into working to support her with everything she has, and then marrying a man named Boaz, producing a grandchild named Obed for Naomi, and kicking off the events that lead directly to the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. God works everything together for our good.

*

Now, it’s very important that I talk about with that does not mean, right? You ever seen somebody on Facebook, or something like that, who posts, like, 90% juvenile nonsense – like, grown adults whose Facebook wall looks like a bunch of Middle School gossip, or something – but who also posts a thousand “Like & Share If You Love Jesus”-typed things?

Or, they’ll say something like, “You Might Think I’m A Jerk, But Jesus Thinks I’m To Die For.” “I’ve Got My Haters, But I‘ve Got God On My Side.” You know what I’m talking about?

We probably all know somebody who’ll spend the who weekend getting too drunk to walk, so you’ll be like, “Aren’t you worried about, like, alcohol poisoning, or dying in a ditch somewhere?” And they’ll say something like, “Hey, God Works Everything Together For My Good.”   

If that’s you, I’m not judging, I just don’t wanna preach your funeral next week.

But I get it. It takes me about 6 seconds to go from “Pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church” mode to “8th Grade Doofus In A Locker Room” mode, you know what I mean? That’s, like, item #1 in our faith declaration: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” right? Like Romans chapter 3, which we talked about last week: “No one is righteous, not even one, all have fallen away, no one seeks God, together we have become faithless.” Right? Your translation might put that a little differently, but the point is not that we’re all bad and we should feel bad.

The point is that there is something in us that drives us toward unrighteousness, and most of the time the unrighteousness that it drives us toward is not “going out and being a serial killer,” it’s very mundane stuff. Most of the time, our sin takes shape as childishness. Sometimes our sin takes shape as good old fashioned dumbness. None of us are not Woefully Lacking. None of us are not Radically In Need Of Healing, and one of the things we all need healing from is that overwhelming part of ourselves that thinks and acts and desires like a child with no control over their appetites, no control over their emotional life, no control over what they think they want.

I am wildly immature at my worst, and my worst comes out way more often than my best, and my worst comes out way more often than my okayest. Talk to my parents. They know me very well. They see me act like I’m still 12. I’m talking about, like, last week. Right? That is alive and well in all of us. And because that’s the case, we have a tendency to take things like Romans chapter 8, that “God works all things together for our good” and turn that into “God Is On My Side” and “God Co-signs Whatever I Do,” “God Affirms Whatever I Want,” “God Endorses Whatever I Already Think.”

You know what I mean? It is catastrophically easy to section ourselves off from the influence of the Holy Spirit, confine ourselves to those brief passages in the Bible that we can gerrymander into meaning whatever we want them to mean, effectively empty a roll of duct tape around God’s mouth and position him as a kind of Magic 8 Ball we’ve rigged to give the “go-ahead” to our every inclination.

So we’ll walk from one sinful pattern to another, whispering to ourselves that “It’s fine,” because “we’re good” with the good Lord, “God and I have an understanding” – you heard that one before? We will swan dive from one obviously unhealthy pattern to another, and in the background, we’ll pray these, kind of, limp prayers to some imaginary God that we named Jesus, who approves of whatever it is that we do, and disapproves of whatever it is we disapprove of, who just kind of echoes whatever it is that we say, who signs off on whatever unhealthy pattern we are enamored with this week.

The problem is that that God has absolutely nothing with the Jesus that actually exists. That Jesus is no Jesus at all. If your God never disagrees you, your God doesn’t exist. I don’t know what God you’re worshipping.

So when Saint Paul says that “God works everything together for our good,” he doesn’t mean that God is our groupie. It doesn’t mean that “God is on our payroll,” that “We’ve Got God On Our Side So We Can Do Anything.” It means that God is on God’s side, and God will change our hearts in such a way that we get on God’s side, too.

And we see exactly this play out in the Ruth story. We see God prepare an Israelite name Boaz, not just to fall in love with Ruth as though all of this was just a by-product of his love life, but that God prepares Boaz to throw himself into blessing this foreign widow who has shown up at his doorstep, that God prepares his heart to throw himself into seeing to it that because God is a refuge for the nations, his own household will be a refuge for the nations, too. God works everything that happens to Ruth, everything that happens to Naomi together, not just for the good of Ruth and Naomi but for the good of the whole world. Far beyond simply taking care of the needs of a couple of widows in Bethlehem, God was setting the events into motion that would lead directly to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.

God will work everything together for our good by working us into the image of Jesus, one way or another, the “easy way” or the “hard way.” God will cause everything to work together for our good, by causing us to abandon the things we think we want, and begin to want the things that God wants. God will shape us into tools for his good plan, because his good plan is good. God will co-opt us so that we abandon whatever plans we think we have that brush against his mission in the world and instead throw ourselves into whatever role we are meant for in God’s plan.

That means that we will be like Ruth, we will be like Boaz, we will be like Naomi no matter how reluctant we are at the outset. If you’ve been dragging your feet, resisting God’s call on your life, stop wasting your time. God is probably not going to move a fish to eat you and then vomit you out in the place you’re supposed to go, like he did with Jonah – although that would be awesome to read about – but he will “co-opt” you. God will co-opt you for his mission. God will hijack you to fulfill his will to bring everything together for good – the easy way, like he does with Boaz, with Ruth, or the hard way, like he does with Paul on the Damascus Road.

If you would prefer the easy way, come talk to me in a few minutes as we worship the Lord through song. As always, I will be standing awkwardly at attention, and I’ll be available to pray with, or talk through what it means to throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, or anything else you feel led to have a conversation about.

Let’s pray.

‘God Will Renew Your Life’ – Ruth 4:9-15 – July 7th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth chapter 4, verses 9 through 15.

Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses today that I am buying from Naomi everything that belonged to Elimelech, Chilion, and Mahlon. 10 I will also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, to perpetuate the deceased man’s name on his property, so that his name will not disappear among his relatives or from the gate of his home. You are witnesses today.”

11 The elders and all the people who were at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is entering your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built the house of Israel. May you be powerful in Ephrathah and famous in Bethlehem. 12 May your house become like the house of Perez, the son Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring the Lord will give you by this young woman.”

13 Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he was intimate with her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. Indeed, your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” 

Let’s pray.

*

If you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – it’s in the Bible, you knew we had to talk about it eventually, for any visitors, congrats on being here the one Sunday it comes up – Abraham had a nephew named Lot, and he was an idiot. As Abraham and Lot were spreading out over the land that God had promised to them, Lot realized that the land of Sodom was economically prosperous, so he brought his tribe to settle there.

Now, the problem is that Sodom was economically prosperous for a reason: Ezekiel chapter 16, verses 49 and 50 say, “Now this was the sin of your sister, Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. They neglected the poor and needy. Therefore, they were prideful and committed abominations before me.”

We see in Genesis chapter 18 that when God sends angels to scope out Sodom and see if the rumors about their cruelty were true, they stayed at Lot’s house. And it says that the men of Sodom gathered around Lot’s door demanding that he send his two guests out to them, because they want to “know” them. They are using a euphemism there, and you probably know the story.

Believe it or not, this was fairly common practice. If you were a newcomer, or an immigrant, and so on, you had to, kind of, earn your keep. If you wanted to be assimilated into the community, you had to come outside and let the men of the city do whatever they wanted with you. This was part of their “naturalization” process.

Like Ezekiel said, they were cruel and prideful, and therefore they committed abominations before the Lord. But the surprising thing about the Genesis passage is that Lot fits in remarkably well with the men of Sodom. He tries to save the two angels from the mob by offering them his two young, virgin daughters. We are just hittin’ everything today. But before he gets a chance to gift his daughters to the sex-mob, the angels strike the whole mob blind, and the whole family flees. God sends fire and brimstone to destroy Sodom, but Lot’s wife looks back while they’re running away and she turns into a pillar of salt. Which is strange.

The story gets even darker after that. Lot and his daughters end up stranded in a cave in the mountains nearby and have a nervous breakdown, as you would. As far as they know, the whole world’s been destroyed and it’s just them. Lot is basically comatose because he just watched every vestige of security vanish before his eyes.

And his daughters get it in their heads that they need to “repopulate the earth.” So it gets exactly as sketchy as that sounds. They get him so drunk he doesn’t know what’s going on and then they both impregnate themselves. So immediately after God destroys a whole city filed will sexually immoral people, the one family that he saves heads off to a cave to commit sexual immorality. Lot and his family belonged in Sodom. The fact that they escaped was pure mercy.

Lot’s two daughters give birth to his children and they settle on the land. Those children have children, and those children have children, and eventually they fill up the land and become a nation of their own called Moab./ The land of Moab, quite literally, is “Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0.”

Fast forward to the Book of Ruth, the Moabite: Over the past 10 years, Naomi has been dragged away from the land that God had promised to them, her husband, Elimelech, has died, her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, have married pagan women from Moab, and then her sons have died. All without producing any children, meaning that whatever property they had acquired, whatever degree of security they have been able to amass in Moab vanished in an instant. When Ruth, Orpah, and Naomi lost Mahon and Chilion, they lost everything else, too.

Right about that time, the famine in Israel came to an end, so Naomi decided to head back to Israel and see how she’d fare there. She tries to talk both of her daughters-in-law into abandoning her to go find husbands in Moab who can protect them, but her daughter-in-law Ruth absolutely refuses, to the point that she makes a binding and irreversible covenant to “follow Naomi wherever she goes,” and to do everything in her power to protect her.

This is Ruth, the Moabite – this is Ruth, citizen of “Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0,” but instead of abusing her foreign mother-in-law, like the old inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah did, she vows herself to her. Instead of being prideful and arrogant, like the old inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah 1.0, she is humble and faithful, more faithful to Naomi than Naomi is to herself.

Instead of being predatory like the “sex mob” in Sodom and Gomorrah 1.0, Ruth is the opposite of predatory. Ruth looks for ways that she can protect the ones around her, not ways she can use them. So she covenants herself to Naomi, and they head back to the promised land.

*

When they arrive in Bethlehem, Bethlehem has changed. According to the Book of Judges, Israel had a bad couple of centuries. During what the author calls “the time of the Judges,” Israel became like Moab. Israel became like the Egypt that God had rescued them from. Israel put away the good laws that God had given them and instead, according to Judges chapter 17, “Everyone began to do whatever was right in their own eyes.”

People like Elimelech, who abandoned the land that God had given them to settle on the moment that adversity hit; people like the Benjaminites in Judges chapter 19, in which the story of Sodom and Gomorrah literally replays, beat for beat, but in Israel rather than Sodom.

So in Judges chapter 19, there is a prominent Levite – that’s like a priest – and he goes on a trip with his concubine – which is its own problem – and when the Levite arrives in Benjaminite territory, an old man invites him into his house, they have dinner there, and while they’re eating dinner, a sex mob shows up, pounds on the door, and demands that they send out his guest so that they may “know” him.

“Sodom and Gomorrah,” beat for beat, but this time it’s not “out there,” it’s in here. It’s not in the backyard, it’s on the front porch. It’s not “those bad people over there,” it’s you. It’s me. It’s all of us.

So if you’re an Israelite gathered at the “City Gate,” listening to one of the elders in your tribe tell the “stories of Israel,” you hear this story, you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it would click, in a way that maybe it’s never clicked before, that the difference between the pagan nations and Israel is not that “Israel is good” so God rescued you, while “the pagan nations are bad” so God annihilates them.

The difference between Israel and the pagan nations surrounding you is that God has poured out an unmerited mercy onto you; that you are Sodom and that the mercy God has shown you has absolutely nothing to do with your goodness, or even your okayness, but has everything to do with God’s goodness in spite of your badness.

Remember the bizzarro slam poetry session that Paul dives into in Romans chapter 3? He says “There is no one righteous, not even one,” so on and so forth. Sodom and Gomorrah is everybody. I mean everybody. We are all Sodom and Gomorrah. Everyone you know is Sodom and Gomorrah.

The next time you get to Genesis Chapter 18, keep in mind that you’re not reading about some special group of people whose sin was unique and uniquely reprehensible, you’re reading about you. When Lot’s wife looked back and got turned into a pillar of salt, she wasn’t uniquely jacked up, she was you. When you see fire and brimstone raining from the sky, you see God purging the world of just a little bit more of the darkness that has overtaken it and broken everything to bits, you’re watching what God would rightly do to you if he hadn’t redeemed you.

Not everybody sins the same, but everybody’s sin is predatory. Everybody’s sin is stomach-churning. Everybody’s sin is wicked beyond capacity for words. We see ourselves in everything that’s crooked, everything that’s broken, everything that’s wicked. The folks that you are terrified of, the folks you hate, the things that scare and infuriate you about them, they are in you as well, and you know that, and it scares you even more, and it should.

But a few chapters after Paul goes on a tirade in Romans 3, he says in chapter 5, quote: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” unquote. Christ died for us while we were still Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis Chapter 18, He rains fire and brimstone because of our transgressions, but in Jesus Christ, he takes his own fire-and-brimstone onto himself. God punishes himself for our wickedness. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Colossians chapter 2 says he “nailed our sin to the cross” and Romans chapter 4 says he “credited us with his righteousness.” Take comfort in that.

Because that means that God is pleased with you. Right now. God is pleased with you now. I’m not talking about some undefined future period in which God likes you more than he likes right now because you’re holier than you are right now. I’m talking about today. He is every bit as pleased with you as he will be at the end of everything, when you are every bit as holy as Jesus is holy. God is already pleased with you. I can assure you that God is more pleased with you this instant than you have ever been pleased with yourself.

All of God’s pleasure is already on you. All of God’s approval is already on you. All of God’s love is already on you. God has withheld nothing from you. God is pleased with you with all of the pleasure that he will have towards you once you are perfectly holy, once every last vestige of sin has been purged from you. God is pleased with you with all of the pleasure that he has in his son Jesus Christ. God loves you like you’re Jesus.

And you can see that even in the, kind of, terrifying stories we’ve been sprinting through this morning: Because if you were an Israelite hearing these stories at the City Gate, it might dawn on you that the reason God hasn’t rained fire and brimstone on you is because God has decided to show mercy to you. This is the kind of thing that we see all throughout the Old and New Testaments. That God pulls us out of the pit, not because we are already awesome, but because we aren’t. That God calls us out of Egypt, not because we are already holy, but because God is Holy and it pleases God to make things that aren’t holy, holy.

God rescues us not because we’re already merciful, not because we already reflect his glory, but because God takes pleasure in turning crooked things straight, he takes pleasure in turning broken things into glorious things, God takes pleasure in healing every sickness in our souls – and, one day, our bodies. God takes profound pleasure in ironing out every wicked spot in you. God takes pleasure in renewing you.

So if you were an Israelite, hearing this story at the City Gate, you might allow the utterly unmerited mercy that God has poured out onto you by his own unnecessary kindness to mold you into someone who looks like Ruth, the inexplicably Christ-like citizen of Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0.

You might really resonate with the Israelite who hears the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then hears the story of how Israel becomes Sodom and Gomorrah, and recognizes that he is what he’s afraid of, that he is what he hates; you might resonate with that. That’s good.

But that’s also dangerous. Recognizing the depths of your sinfulness can be dangerous. So it’s very important to understand that this is not a call to hate yourself. It’s the opposite. That’s not a call to go insane, to get eaten alive by guilt. That’s a call to rejoice in the fact that God’s great pleasure is in turning you into something different than the Fall has warped you into – that God’s deep, abiding pleasure is to turn crooked mobs of sinner’s into Ruths.

Because every Ruth that you know used to be part of the mob in Sodom. Every Ruth you know used to be part of that mob of Benjaminites in Judges chapter 19. We are very much our own fire and brimstone, but it is God’s abiding pleasure to make us holy like he is holy. And so in our story today, we see God using a citizen of Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0 as an indispensable tool for carrying out his mission.

Because like every single one of us, Ruth starts out her journey as a citizen of Sodom, Ruth’s sin nailed Jesus to the cross just like our sin nailed Jesus to the cross, but the cross pulled Ruth out of the pit. The same Jesus that Ruth nailed to the cross by her sin redeemed Ruth and made her into a “new creation” just like he redeems us and makes us into new creations. God does not leave you in Sodom as he rains fire and brimstone, he redeems you by his blood and then transforms you. God will make you every bit as holy as he has declared you to be in Jesus Christ.

*

We don’t know much of anything about Ruth’s past, but we know about her present, and her present is that God has radically changed her from whatever she was and turned her into a vessel by which he intervenes on behalf of Naomi. When she marries Boaz, God “opens up her womb,” she conceives and gives birth to a son. As verse 11 says, she becomes “like Rachel and Leah,” who “together built the house of Israel.”

God “opens up the womb” of a woman who is either barren or past her childbearing years no matter which way you slice it. He does quite literally everything that is necessary to prepare her for her role in his mission, right down to overcoming her infertility. God takes a woman from the depths of Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0, sanctifies her into a worthy vessel for his mission, and then overcomes every handicap that she has to make her holy, fruitful, glorious. Ruth reflects God’s glory just by existing.

And God will make you “like Ruth,” but he won’t stop at making you like Ruth. He will make you like the Jesus that he made Ruth like. It’s like how Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” right? We imitate Christ as we imitate Ruth. God makes us like Christ as he makes us like Ruth.

I have exactly one sermon and I’ve preached it to you every single week since I got here, and the thesis of that sermon is that God will make you look like Jesus. God will make you holy like Jesus. He will make you obedient like Jesus. He will make you every bit as compassionate as Jesus, every bit as honest as Jesus, every bit as peaceable as Jesus, every bit as vigilant against the sin that plagues you as Jesus would have you be.

And we know that because we’ve seen what’s happened to the folks God’s gotten ahold of before us. What happens to Ruth will happen to you. The godliness we see in Ruth will be your godliness, because the same Jesus who imparted it onto Ruth will impart it onto us, because the same Jesus who redeemed Ruth by his blood has redeemed us, the same Jesus who purchased Ruth from the pit has purchased us.

So, the sin that plagues you will not plague you forever. The things that make you ashamed – as they should – will not make you ashamed forever, because you will kill your sin, because God will kill the sin that’s in you.

You will go home, you will refuse to give in to the sin that plagues you anymore, and you will fail. But instead of falling into despair at your inadequacy, you’ll grab hold of Christ, he’ll pull you up, and you’ll keep going. And you’ll fail again. But instead of falling into despair you will grab hold of Christ, he’ll come to pull you up, and you’ll keep going.

And you will live out the rest of your life wildly inadequate, wildly unqualified for your role in God’s mission, your struggle against sin’ll get harder, not easier, your life will get more difficult, not less difficult, you will continue to fail, Christ will continue to pull you up, and with each passing year you will wonder if you’re ever really going to be free from your sin, you’ll be tempted to fall into despair.

But 10 years from now, you’ll look back, and it will occur to you for the first time how significantly Christ has changed you. There are occasional moments where it hits you exactly how much Christ has changed you. How different Christ has made you even in the short time that you’ve known him. Today, our crookedness still haunts us – and it should – but day is coming when Jesus will straighten out every bit of crookedness left in us.

So as we begin to worship the Lord through song, I’ll be standing at the altar. I’d love to pray with you. The Bible teaches us that I am filled with crookedness and you are filled with crookedness, and I’d love to lift up our crookedness together and turn over the keys to the Jesus that we’ve been talking about this morning, to make us holy like he is holy – to change our hearts, to change our desires, to cause us to want what he wants, to love what he loves, to run towards the holiness that he offers us.

Or, if you’re someone who’s lived your whole life in rebellion against this God, if you are like Naomi’s husband Elimelech, if you are like Lot and his family, if you’ve kept God at arm’s-length from the time you were born to this very moment, I’d love to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus, to be redeemed from your sin, to be rescued – not only from the “fire and brimstone” you’ve brought onto yourself – but rescued into the family of God. At Mt. Zion we believe that our role in God’s mission is to “spread the gospel into every corner of the earth” by spreading the gospel into every corner of our city, and you may very well be one of the corners that we’ve been commissioned to spread the gospel into. So as I’m awkwardly standing at the altar, come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

‘Naomi’s Nameless Relative’ – Ruth 4:1-8 – June 30th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Ruth chapter 4, verses 1 through 8.

Boaz went to the gate of the town and sat down there. Soon the family redeemer Boaz had spoken about came by. Boaz called him by name and said, “Come over here and sit down.” So he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took 10 men of the town’s elders and said, “Sit here.” And they sat down. He said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has returned from the land of Moab, is selling a piece of land that belonged to our brother Elimelech. I thought I should inform you: Buy it back in the presence of those seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you want to redeem it, do so. But if you do not want to redeem it, tell me so that I will know, because there isn’t anyone other than you to redeem it, and I am next after you.”

“I want to redeem it,” he answered.

Then Boaz said, “On the day you acquire the land from Naomi, you must also marry Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased man, to perpetuate the man’s name on his property.”

The redeemer replied, “I can’t redeem it myself, or I will ruin my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption, because I can’t redeem it.”

At an earlier period in Israel, a man removed his sandal and gave it to the other party in order to make any matter legally binding concerning the right of redemption or the exchange of property. This was the method of legally binding a transaction in Israel.

So the redeemer removed his sandal and said to Boaz, “Buy back the property yourself.”

Let’s pray.

*

So, our passage this morning starts off with a nameless guy, a relative of Naomi that Boaz talks to, who thinks he’s going to get a good deal on a plot of land. Exciting stuff.

Depending on your translation, this passage can be a little bit confusing. The Hebrew Scholars tell me that the grammar is a bit ambiguous here, and so it could be translated in one of two ways.

In the translation we just read from, Boaz says “On the day you buy this land, you also have to marry Ruth,” but it can also be translated as Boaz saying, “On the day you acquire that land, I will acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased man, to perpetuate the man’s name.” Given what we know about the family-redeemer laws, and given what we’ve seen in the Ruth story up to this point, that’s probably the best way to read verse 5.

Boaz is giving the man fair warning that Boaz will be marrying Ruth around the same time that man takes advantage of the sweet deal he’s going to get on some defaulted-on land.

If you’ve been here the last several weeks, we’ve tried to gradually explain the laws at work that this story is built upon, and one of those laws is the family-redeemer law. I will not dive nearly as deeply into it as I did last week, but I’ll give a quick recap:

As an Israelite, if you were obedient to God’s law, you would see yourself as obligated to buy back any land that a family member of yours loses after going through hard times or going bankrupt, or whatever, and you’d be obligated to buy your family member out of debt-slavery if they lost everything and had to indenture themselves, and if your family member died and left a wife without any adult kids who could care for her, you were obligated to marry her, lodge her on your property, see to it that she’s well fed and taken care of, and – if she so desires – you are responsible for providing an heir for her.

In Ruth and Naomi’s situation, almost all of those would apply. Naomi’s husband dragged them out of the promised land during a famine and took them into a pagan land, and while they were in Moab, his title to the land in Israel lapsed and he didn’t do anything about it, so it’s someone else’s land now.

Now that Elimelech is dead, both of Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons are dead, only Ruth and Naomi are left, and they’ve returned to the promised land because the famine is over, but they’ve got a problem, because the land that used to belong to Naomi and her family belongs to someone else, so they’re homeless.

In a situation like this, some family member is responsible for buying back that land so that Naomi and Ruth can live on it. But there’s a catch, because our story takes place during what you would call the Bronze Age, or right afterwards,  and throughout essentially the whole world in the Bronze Age, women could not own property.

That means that Boaz, or the nameless family member in this passage, could buy back the land and allow Naomi and Ruth to live on it, but Naomi and Ruth couldn’t own it. It would be “charity.” But it would be temporary. Once Naomi passed away, the land would permanently belong to whichever family member redeemed it, since the whole family line of Elimelech would have died out.

That’s a sweet deal for that nameless family member. But as “family-redeemer,” either he or Boaz were responsible for providing Naomi or Ruth with a male heir who could inherit the land once Naomi passed away. That complicates things for this nameless family member.

Because what that means is that this family member can pour all of his blood, sweat, and tears into this plot of land, he can tend to it, he can fill it with hired workers, he can sacrifice his resources, and his time, and his energy making this land productive again, but as soon as the heir that he provides to Ruth becomes an adult man, that land will revert to Ruth’s heir.

Ruth’s heir would “inherit the land out from under him,” and all of his energy would be to the benefit of Ruth’s family, not his own. This man buckles when he recognizes that either he or Boaz is going to have to marry Ruth and provide her an heir to perpetuate the name of Elimelech on the property. The demands that go into being a family redeemer were simply too much for him.  

Which makes sense. It’s easy to want to do good when it benefits you. When doing good means “getting a good deal on a plot of land that will increase your family’s capital,” it’s not difficult to answer the call. But it’s very difficult to do good when it disadvantages you. When there is no tangible reward for doing good, most of us opt out. Right? Most of us have been programmed by our history and our culture to follow up any charge to do good with some variation of “What’s in it for me?”

It reminds me of an English class I had my senior year of high school, we were reading through some of the works of a philosopher named Ayn Rand, and she just, kind of, messed up half the folks in that class.

Because Rand’s whole philosophy is built around the idea that there is no such thing as genuine kindness. That there is no such thing as genuine empathy. There is no such thing as altruism. There is no loving your neighbor as yourself.

According to Rand, God is not love, because there is no God, and there is no love, and anytime someone asks you to “love your neighbor,” you should ask, “Who is my neighbor?” and whatever they answer, you should respond by insisting that you have no neighbors, that the folks who live on either side of you are related to you by proximity and nothing else, that there is no thread that binds us to each other, that there is no right or wrong outside of your individual rights to be left alone.

And so, by the end of that week in class when we were reading Ayn Rand, half the people in the class were parroting her, saying that “There’s really no such thing as doing good for its own sake.” That there’s really no such thing as “obeying the good Lord because he’s the good Lord,” that there’s no such thing as “loving your neighbor because they are your neighbor,” that there’s no such thing as “being faithful to God’s good commands because they are his commands,” and because they are good.

Ayn Rand convinced half the folks I went to English class with that everyone ultimately does what they do in order to benefit themselves. That if you help your neighbor, you’re only actually helping your neighbor because you know that’s going to pay off in the long run. That if you obey God’s commands, you can’t possibly be doing it because you love the Lord, you’re actually doing it because you want some kind of rewards in heaven and you want to avoid some kind of punishments in hell.

But listen, I don’t know how to tell you this, but if you obey God purely in order to avoid punishment, you’re not obeying God; if you obey God purely to stay out of trouble – if the reason you obey the commands of God is because you’re scared of fire, and you’re very scared of eternal fire – you’re not serving the Lord, you’re serving you. You’re not worshipping the Lord, you’re worshipping you. Your “devotion to God” is not devotion to God, it’s devotion to your desire not to get hurt, not to be punished.

If that’s your mindset, in all likelihood, the person who occupies “the throne of your heart” is not the Lord. You obey him because you’re not currently strong enough to dethrone him. But if you were, he’d be history. You know what I’m talking about?

But the only God who actually exists doesn’t call us to obey him simply because we’re afraid of being punished. He calls us to obey because obedience to God’s commands is good, because God’s commands are good, because they are the commands of a good God, because a good God is worthy of our worship. 

But this nameless family member passes along the opportunity to redeem the land, even at the deep discount it’s going for from the bank foreclosure sale, and transfers his privileges and responsibilities as family redeemer to Boaz in the sight of everybody at the gate because doing good will not benefit him; taking up the charge of imaging the God who is love by loving his neighbors practically and sacrificially is too much for him, because he won’t benefit from it in return, so he declines to do so. But that is not what God calls us to.

In Titus chapter 3, Paul tells us that “Those who have trusted in God” must “be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good,” not in some back-door attempt to corner God into rewarding us, but, quote, “in order to provide for urgent needs and not live fruitless lives.”

In Philippians chapter 2, he says that “God is at work in you,” molding us so that we “will” his “good pleasure” and “work” his “good pleasure.” The God who is love is at work in us so that we will what he wills, and then work what he wills.

Passages like this are why Baptists believe something my grandma and your grandma refer to as “Once Saved Always Saved.” We believe that when God saves you, you’re saved – it’s finished. There’s not a return policy – you can’t opt out of your own redemption, and God won’t opt out of redeeming you. You are eternally secure in the graciousness of Jesus Christ.

But that means something very different than what Americans tend to make it mean. The term “Once saved always saved” does not mean that if you recite some magic prayer as a nine year old, you’re “bulletproof.” It doesn’t mean that you can “get off the hook” for the things you do if you’ll just memorize some “special prayer” and recite it every time you feel bad. But based on a few thousand conversations over the last eight years or so, that seems to be one of the two assumptions that Americans tend to gravitate towards.

And Naomi’s nameless relative who passes on his responsibility as family redeemer probably believed some version of that. He knows the stories about Abraham. He remembers Genesis 15, like we talked about at the very beginning of the series, when God makes a covenant with Moses, in which God walks through the sacrificed animals instead of Moses, bringing all of the curses that come with breaking his commands onto himself instead of us. He could’ve twisted passages like that and told himself that because he was “already redeemed,” that taking up his role as “family redeemer” would’ve been unnecessary, since he’s already got his eternity settled.

But if that’s your viewpoint – if you think the fact that you’re saved once-and-for-all by God’s gracious gift means that you are “off the hook” from obeying the God who saved you, that you can do whatever you want and God can’t touch you because you “beat the system,” you said the magic incantation and now God has to let you into heaven “whether he likes it or not,” then I can assure you that you are not saved.

If you think that the “sinner’s prayer” is something that saves you from obedience, that it saves you from obeying the Lord – if you subtly think that the salvation God offers you through Jesus Christ is a means of getting the once-over on God so that he has to let you into heaven even though you’ve lived your life in whatever way you’ve wanted and kept him at arms-length, you are going to hell. I promise.

I used the “Hell” word, so we’re getting hardcore, but don’t misunderstand me: God is not “watching from on high,” waiting for you to mess up so he’ll have an excuse to “cast you out of his presence.” God is not a “harsh taskmaster.” God is not a shopkeeper tallying up your “good deeds” and your “bad deeds,” weighing whether you’ve “measured up to his standards” and rewarding you based on whether “your good outweighs your bad.” That’s the other extremely common assumption that Americans tend to gravitate towards, but you’ll have a tough time finding in the Bible.

Because the reality is that the story that we read in the Bible is the story of a God who vows to rescue us from our brokenness, no matter the cost to himself. The story that we are “grafted into” is a story in which the God of the universe comes down from heaven, takes every bit of our inadequacy, and nails it to the cross in himself. And that’s good news.

Because if God were a shopkeeper “tallying up your deeds,” it would not go well for you. Like, the world is filled with decent folks whose good deeds vastly outnumber their bad deeds. But that is not how the “scales” work. Sin is not just a collection of “things you do” that “tip your scale” in one direction or another. Sin is a cancer. Sin is a disease that multiplies. Sin is a ghost that haunts every thought of our hearts – it eats everything.

Ephesians chapter 2 tells us that in our “sin nature,” we are “dead” in relationship to God. That we “follow the course of the world.” That we “follow the prince of the power of the air,” which is one of the ways that they would refer to what today we would call “the devil,” or something along those lines. It tells us that we are “bent to the will of the flesh,” and when they say “flesh” that has nothing to do with our “bodies” and everything to do with our crooked desires – that we are “naturally wicked,” in some sense.

To the point that Acts chapter 26 says that “our eyes are closed and covered,” we are “turned towards darkness,” we are “in the power of Satan,” we need “the forgiveness of our sins,” and we need to be “sanctified” – we need our very “natures” to be fundamentally transformed into something different than they are.

Because according to 2nd Timothy chapter 2, we don’t even have our own best interests at heart. We chase after things we think we want but when we “follow our sin nature” and oppose the will of God we are “throwing punches at ourselves,” so to speak. We are very much “our own worst enemies.”

Paul goes on to say that we are “in the captivity of the devil” in such a way that when we are on “autopilot” we naturally “carry out his will.” And so Paul says in that passage that we must be “given repentance” in order to “recover ourselves.”

That’s why in Colossians chapter 1, Paul says that God has “delivered us from the domain of darkness” and “transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” In our sin nature, we are “captive” in “the domain of darkness.” And that is not the sort of thing that we will escape just by seeing to it that our “good” outweighs our “bad.”

You can go your whole life, your good can outweigh your bad by a square mile, and you will still find yourself condemned, because you have condemned yourself. I just read from five or six passages describing our state in our sin nature, and if you still don’t think you have a problem after hearing that, then you are your problem. If you can still sleep well at night having heard what the New Testament has to say about your state outside of Christ, then what you need is to be grabbed by the collar and shaken awake.

Because that would mean that you have the same problem as Naomi’s nameless relative, here. It would mean you’ve grown so complacent, in yourself, that you have absolutely none of the terror that ought to occupy your soul in response to the gravity of your sinful nature.

We see that when Naomi’s nameless relative learns that Ruth and Naomi have returned, he flees from his responsibilities as kinsman-redeemer, however counterintuitive it may seem, because he does not recognize the depths and riches of the mercy that’s been poured out on us by the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

Naomi’s nameless relative knows fully well that salvation comes from God – and only God – but he doesn’t think that his salvation is a “salvation” at all. He thinks that his salvation consists in being “let off the hook” and “set loose to go do whatever he wants.”

So he hears that “there’s a good deal on a piece of land” that belonged to one of his relatives before her husband let it slip through his fingers after tragedy struck, and he says in his heart, “I’ll go buy up that land, because Naomi doesn’t have any heirs, so as soon as she’s dead, that land will be my family’s land instead of her family’s land.”

He saw a “low-risk, high-return” investment, as they would say, and all he needed to do was to wait for Naomi to die. And he had no issue doing exactly that, because he believed that he was saved from good works rather than saved for good works. You know what I’m talking about?

The Old and New Testaments are unanimous on the fact that you cannot be saved by your good works, but everyone who is saved is saved for good works. And if what you want is to be saved from good works, rather than saved for good works, then you just need to be honest with yourself and say You Don’t Want To Be Saved.

And you can do that. You can do what a whole lot of kids in my English class did: You can go home, you can bury yourself under a bunch of Ayn Rand books, talk yourself into believing that “you don’t owe anything to anybody,” not even the good Lord, that your life is none of God’s business – that your behavior is none of God’s business, that your relationships are none of God’s business – you can bury yourself in denial like “Naomi’s nameless relative.”

Or, you can throw yourself on the mercy of the God who “rescues us from the domain of darkness” and “transfers us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.” You can dig your heels in and demand that God “respect your privacy” and leave you alone, or you can submit yourself to the Jesus who “nails our sin to the cross” in himself. You can demand to be “left in Egypt,” or you can follow God’s “Pillar of Smoke and Fire” out into the wilderness in the Exodus.

As you would expect, we would like you to do the latter thing, not the former thing. We say it almost every week, but at Mount Zion, we believe that our purpose is to “spread the gospel into every corner of our particular patch of land,” every corner Louisburg, North Carolina, every corner of the Centerville area, every corner of the Gold Sands community. And if you’re like Naomi’s nameless relative, here, and you’ve been running from mercy of the good Lord, you may very well be one of the corners that we intend to spread the gospel into.

So as we worship the Lord through song in a moment, I’m going to stand awkwardly at the front, waiting for you. I’d love to talk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of this God we meet in Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.

‘God Sees You’ – Ruth 3:1-18 – June 23th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth, chapter 3, verses 1 through 18.

Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, shouldn’t I find security for you, so that you will be taken care of? Now isn’t Boaz our relative? Haven’t you been working with his female servants? This evening he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash, put on perfumed oil, and wear your best clothes. Go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let the man know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, notice the place where he’s lying, go in and uncover his feet, and lie down. Then he will explain to you what you should do.”

So Ruth said to her, “I will do everything you say.” She went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law had instructed her. After Boaz ate, drank, and was in good spirits, he went to lie down at the end of the pile of barley. Then she went in secretly, uncovered his feet, and lay down.

At midnight, Boaz was startled, turned over, and there lying at his feet was a woman! So he asked, “Who are you?”

“I am Ruth, your slave,” she replied. “Spread your cloakover me, for you are a family redeemer.”

10 Then he said, “May the Lord bless you, my daughter. You have shown more kindness now than before, because you have not pursued younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 Now don’t be afraid, my daughter. I will do for you whatever you say, since all the people in my town know that you are a woman of noble character. 12 Yes, it is true that I am a family redeemer, but there is a redeemer closer than I am. 13 Stay here tonight, and in the morning, if he wants to redeem you, that’s good. Let him redeem you. But if he doesn’t want to redeem you, as the Lord lives, I will. Now lie down until morning.”

14 So she lay down at his feet until morning but got up while it was still dark. Then Boaz said, “Don’t let it be known that a woman came to the threshing floor.” 15 And he told Ruth, “Bring the shawl you’re wearing and hold it out.” When she held it out, he shoveled six measures of barley into her shawl, and she went into the town.

16 She went to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who asked her, “How did it go, my daughter?”

Then Ruth told her everything the man had done for her. 17 She said, “He gave me these six measures of barley, because he said, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’”

18 Naomi said, “My daughter, wait until you find out how things go, for he won’t rest unless he resolves this today.”

This is the word of the Lord.

*

Naomi’s husband Elimelech never really saw her, so he made every decision about their lives for her, so he dragged her out of the promised land and off into a pagan nation where she’d be mistreated. Naomi’s sons never really saw her, so they ignored her when they went off and found pagan women and converted to their religion rather than converting them to hers. But God saw Naomi, like God saw the Israelites, like God saw Ruth.

To quote David Dark, a professor at Belmont, “God remembers everything the world around us forgets.” God sees the people that the world forgets. God sees you.

In last week’s passage, Naomi asks Ruth whose field she went gleaning in, and Ruth tells her that she was in Boaz’s field. Naomi tells her that this is good news, because Boaz is one of their “Kinsman Redeemers.”

We talked about how a ‘kinsman redeemer’ was something that God established in the law that he gave to the Israelites through Moses, and your role as a kinsman redeemer generally meant that you were going to marry a helpless widow in your family, or that you were going to buy back a piece of land that one of your family members had lost because they went bankrupt after a bad harvest, or you were going to buy back a family member of yours out of slavery.

Boaz is a kinsman redeemer in Naomi’s family, meaning that he has a responsibility, given to him by God, to see to it that neither Naomi, nor her close relatives, ever come to a point where they starve to death, or have to live with malnourishment, or don’t have a roof over their heads, and so on and so forth.

So it’s strange that after Naomi learns that Ruth has been gleaning in the field of Boaz, her Kinsman Redeemer, she never once approaches him and asks him for help.

Instead, Naomi says to Ruth, “Should I not try to find a home for you, where you will be well provided for?” She tells Ruth to go present herself to Boaz, in the hopes that he’ll “get the idea,” head down to Jared, get a ring, come back and put it on her finger.

So Ruth does everything Naomi says. She goes to the threshing floor, after “washing and perfuming herself” and “putting on her best clothes,” and after Boaz goes to sleep, she quietly pulls the blanket off from his feet so that the cold air will wake him up. And while she waits for him to wake up she lies down.

Now, this is not the ancient Hebrew version of one-night-stand, like you might have heard in some of the books you’ve read. This is a marriage proposal. Ruth is proposing to Boaz, exactly like Naomi asks her to. Ruth is placing herself at his feet, she is asking him to become the person who provides for her, who sees to it that her needs are met, and she’s pledging herself to him as his bride, if he’ll accept her proposal.

If Boaz says, “I do,” Ruth’ll be set for life. She’ll never go hungry again. But that does nothing for Naomi. In all of this, Naomi gives zero thought to her own needs.

Naomi never asks Boaz to redeem the land that used to belong to her husband. Naomi never tells Ruth to tell Boaz to fulfill his role as “kinsman redeemer,” because Naomi has been hardened by the way she’s been treated throughout her life. Naomi’s been turned callous by the darkness of the world – like most of us probably have – to the point that she no longer really expects people to embody the mercy that God requires from us. So she leaves the Kinsman-Redeemer law alone, and she sends Ruth to go lay herself at Boaz’s feet in the hopes that he will favor her and that it’ll work out well for Ruth.

If she can just see to it that her one comfort left in the world, her daughter-in-law Ruth, can be well taken care of, Naomi figures she can wither up and die for all she cares, because she’ll have done this one last thing.

I can understand that. I do not like asking for help. The first time I ever had a flat tire, I don’t know how long I sat outside in the rain trying to figure out how to change it myself – telling people to drive on, that I was fine, every time somebody would pull over and offer to help me out. When I finally got the tire on, I hadn’t actually screwed it on tightly enough, so it rode pretty rough all the way back to my house.

So I can see a little of myself in Naomi. Naomi is the same kind of hard-headed as me, and left to her own hard-headedness, left to her own pride, Naomi would probably just wither up and starve. Half the folks I know would do just about anything for just about anybody – they’d break themselves in half bending over backwards to make sure that the needs of others are met but refuse to give even the slightest bit of attention to their own needs.  

We talked about this already several weeks back, but I suspect there are a handful of Naomis in here. I suspect there are more than a few folks who need to be reminded nearly every day that you are not a burden because you have needs. You’re not a burden just because you aren’t always already okay. There’s very much a tendency among some of us to be horrified at the thought of putting anyone out, horrified at the thought of needing emotional support, of needing someone just to be patient with us, of needing people to respect our fragility. But that is a legitimate thing to need. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask.

Because you do not exist purely to satisfy other people. You do not exist purely to be able to help others and then stop making noise so nobody notices you when your down. You are not purely a tool in service of other people’s happiness. And if most of your personal relationships are characterized by you giving deeply of yourself and getting absolutely nothing in return, you’re probably exhausted. In all likelihood you’ve been “running on empty” since like 1996. Right?

Like, some people are still paying their ex-husband’s light bill, and they’ve been divorced since George Bush’s presidency. You know what I’m talking about? You might be like Naomi. And you may very well need to allow yourself to acknowledge your own needs and ask some of the people in your life to “meet you halfway” on them.

So Ruth sees that Naomi needs infinitely more than she’d ever ask for, because God sees that Naomi needs infinitely more than she’d ever ask for. And because God sees Naomi, God causes Ruth to see Naomi in a way that nobody else does.

So Ruth proposes to Boaz, like Naomi instructs her to, but Ruth goes further than proposing. She does more than Naomi instructed her to do. Naomi tells Ruth to go “lay down at Boaz’s feet” as a way of securing a good home for Ruth, but Ruth pushes further and tells Boaz to, “Spread the corner of [his] garment over [her], since [he is] a ‘kinsman redeemer’.”

She doesn’t just ask Boaz to marry her and provide for her, she asks Boaz to marry her and adopt her mother-in-law, and then buy back the land that should have belonged to her mother-in-law if her husband hadn’t defaulted on it and then abandoned it for Moab, and then provide her with a child that would one day inherit the land out from under him.

That was a lot of information in one sentence. So I’m going to go slowly through it. She tells Boaz that he is her kinsman redeemer, and like we talked about before, that means that his responsibility isn’t just to marry Ruth, which is a pretty good responsibility to have; as “kinsman redeemer” he has a God-given obligation to buy back the land that used to belong to Naomi at his own expense. So that’s responsibility number one.

Responsibility number two, he has a God-given obligation to financially support Naomi for the rest of her life. That’s responsibility two.

Responsibility three, he has a God-given obligation to provide Ruth with a child, but since Ruth was previously married to someone else, the child that Boaz provides Ruth with would not legally be considered “Boaz’s child”; legally, that child would be considered Ruth’s dead husband’s child.

Meaning that if the child Boaz provides to Ruth lives to adulthood, that child would inherit the land that used to belong to Naomi and Elimelech. Meaning that after Boaz has purchased that land with his own money, provided for Ruth and Naomi from his own pocket throughout the entirety of their lives, worked that piece of land and seen to it that it was fruitful, when that child reaches adulthood, that piece of land will belong to the child and not to Boaz. Ruth is asking Boaz to flush a vast sum of money down the toilet so that one of his distant relatives can get a piece of land back that her husband foolishly let slip away because of his own sinfulness. Ruth is asking a lot from Boaz.

But God sees Naomi, and he causes Ruth to see Naomi, so Ruth does not content herself with asking Boaz to marry her and take care of her, she throws herself at Boaz’s feet and asks him to do everything that is required of him in the law that God gave Moses. That’s bold – and if you ask most people, it’s foolish.

Because if Boaz were anyone else on planet Earth, he’d probably have laughed at Ruth, sent her away, and told her that he never wants to see her again. If he were anybody else, he probably would have told Ruth that she was presumptuous, and that it’s not very ladylike to be presumptuous, and that if she had any sense she would have asked him for a job as one of his female servants rather than asking him for charity by telling him to fulfill his obligation as their Kinsman Redeemer, but Boaz is exactly the person that God sent into the lives of Ruth and Naomi to bless them, and not to curse them.

Because God sees Naomi. God sees Ruth. And he causes Boaz to see Ruth and to see Naomi. So instead of spitting in her face for her presumptuousness, Boaz says, “The Lord bless you, my daughter.”

And he goes further, and instead of accusing her of being entitled, he says, “You’ve shown me a great kindness.” He says, “Instead of chasing after a younger man, you thought of me.” And he says, “I will do everything that you asked.”

Boaz isn’t just love-struck. He is eager to do everything that God has commanded of him. Boaz is eager to do everything God’s Law requires of him. Boaz wants to be good.

Don’t misunderstand me, there’s a deep crookedness in every single one of us. There’s something wildly wrong with all the best people that we know. And yet, there are people – you can see it, you can watch it play out in them – who are gripped by a desire for the goodness that God offers to us in a way that most of the people around them are not.

That is a solid 85% of what I noticed when I first fell in love with Elyse. When I met Elyse, and then we started dating, and started getting to know each other more, and more, and more, something was different about her. She genuinely wanted, from the deepest places in herself, to be good.

There are people who have been given a desire to be gentle, to “wash the feet” of others, to serve their neighbors and their friends and their family and their enemies alike.

There are people who earnestly desire to embody the goodness that God has called us to, so that the thing that brings you pleasure – like, the thing that excites you, the thing that makes your heart glad – becomes chasing “goodness,” living out the “supernatural kindness” of God by submitting to the Holy Spirit. God has prepared Boaz to be the tool that he uses to intervene on behalf of Ruth and Naomi by molding him into exactly that sort of person.

So I have zero doubt that Boaz is love-struck, like I was love-struck when Elyse and I became an item. I get that. But that’s not the whole story. Boaz is desperate to walk in the righteousness that God calls us to. So when he sees an opportunity to do exactly what God’s commands would call him to on behalf of two destitute widows, he jumps on it. He does everything that Ruth asks, and more.

Like I said before, the book of Ruth is filled with people who image God for us. And here Boaz images the God who sees us. He images the God who cares more deeply for us than we’re usually willing to care about ourselves. Boaz images the God who knows our needs more intimately than we know our needs, and who acts on our behalf in ways that we would rarely dare to act for ourselves. God sees you.

That’s not always an easy thing to believe. Over the last few weeks at Mount Zion we have watched so much suffering play out. There’ve been two funerals, and those were joyous occasions just as much as they were occasions for mourning, but there’s no papering over the devastation that comes with losing people, even temporarily.

Other folks have been ravaged by sickness, or you’re watching your loved ones fight through disease or debt; one of the reasons I have never committed tax fraud is that things like Medicaid exist and they’ve got to be funded somehow, but this past week one of our own people was denied the care she needed by Medicaid on a technicality; not one of us hasn’t been affected by some kind of grave injustice or tragedy – the kind of injustice and tragedy that come with the territory of living in a world that’s been broken apart by The Fall. Not one of us has come out unscathed.

In Romans chapter 8, Paul says that “the creation has been subjected to futility.” As a result of the Fall, everything has been disfigured – and even though God has promised and will fulfill his promise to “put everything right that we put wrong,” to turn everything – every tragedy, and every injustice that’s been inflicted on us – that he will “turn it for good,” that he will redeem the world that he’s made, that he will “wipe away every tear,” that does not change the fact that we suffer today.

And that our suffering is horrific. There is no sugarcoating that. I’m not going to stand up here and make a bunch of syrupy racket to try and drown out the reality that “in this world you will have trouble,” and that your trouble will often bring you to nothing – that the trials you get dragged through in this life will make you feel like less than nothing. But God sees you.

God sees you. If the world has made you invisible, God sees you. If your experience has been such that the world seems to have placed no value on your existence, the problem is not you, the problem is the world.

Because the value that God has placed on your existence is a bloody cross. That’s the value that God has placed on your existence. This is not a pep-talk. This is the truest thing about you. God values you to the point that God gave himself to be nailed to a cross, to be humiliated as the “least of these,” to wither up as the sun went dark, hung up between two criminals, drowning in his own body fluids as his lungs filled up with blood and God-knows-what-else as the strength left his body and the crowds mocked him.

The value God places on you is seen in the way that God gives himself to be crucified in your place, that he descends to a cross to redeem you, that God would curse himself to pull you out of the pit. We worship a “crucified God.” We worship a God who sees us. And God sees you even if Medicaid doesn’t. God sees you even if your family doesn’t. “God remembers everything world around us forgets.” God sees you.

As we stand and worship the Lord through song in a moment, I will be standing at the altar. I’d love to sit down with you, place your trials, your anxieties, your fears, before the God who sees us, like he saw Ruth and Naomi. To trust him with our sufferings.

Let’s pray.

‘God’s Law Is A Slave Revolt’ – Ruth 2:19-22 – June 16th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth, chapter 2, verses 19 through 22.

Then her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you gather barley today, and where did you work? May the Lord bless the man who noticed you.”

Ruth told her mother-in-law about the men she had worked with and said, “The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz.”

20 Then Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, who has not forsaken his kindness to the living or the dead.” Naomi continued, “The man is a close relative. He is one of our family redeemers.”

21 Ruth the Moabitess said, “He also told me, ‘Stay with my young men until they have finished all of my harvest.’”

22 So Naomi said to her daughter-in-law Ruth, “My daughter, it is good for you to work with his female servants, so that nothing will happen to you in another field.” 23 Ruth stayed close to Boaz’s female servants and gathered grain until the barley and the wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law.

This is the Word of the Lord.

*

“There is a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence.” That’s something Nicholas Cage says in the film National Treasure. It’s unrelated to the sermon, but I probably have your attention now.

There’s a common myth that says that “The Old Testament is about ‘God’s wrath’ – that it’s about God’s impossible demands – but that the New Testament is about ‘God’s grace’,” God’s kindness.

But right here, throughout the book of Ruth, dead in the middle of the Old Testament, we see Boaz imaging God’s kindness by obeying God’s commands.

So in today’s passage, Ruth gets back from harvesting in Boaz’s field, and she tells Naomi about the “supernatural kindness” that he’s shown her. Naomi’s eyes light up, and she says, “Boaz is a close relative. He is one of our family redeemers.” Depending on which translation you have, it might say “Boaz is one of our ‘kinsman redeemers’.” To understand what a “kinsman-redeemer” is, you have to understand a little bit about the way the world worked during the “Bronze Age,” when the Book of Ruth probably takes place.

If you’ve got your Bible handy, you can look at Leviticus chapter 25, if you want to. What we’ll see in Leviticus chapter 25 is that a kinsman redeemer was someone who was responsible for rescuing their family members from oppression. If you were a kinsman redeemer, you were openly rejecting the mindset that Cain took against his brother; you were saying “I am My Brother’s Keeper,” and “I want you to hold me to that.”

So you would become a kinsman redeemer if your family member went into extreme debt and lost their property. As kinsman redeemer, you were responsible for buying back the property that your family member defaulted on.

Or, sometimes, your family member didn’t just default on the land they lived on. Sometimes they defaulted on their own body. That means exactly what you think it means: If you went so deeply into debt that there was no version of this where you were going to pay your debts off by any traditional means, you could become a “debt slave.” This bears absolutely no resemblance to the kind of slavery practiced in the United States up until the Civil War; a debt slave was like an “indentured servant.” That’s still not a good thing. Indentured servitude is not a good thing.

But that was the point. You could pay off your debt if it loomed too large to ever pay off the old-fashioned way by becoming a debt slave to the person you were indebted to and working your way out of it. According to Leviticus chapter 25, it should never come to this, but if it does, you should be able to count on your family members to do whatever was necessary within the realm of decency and legality to buy you back out of debt slavery and restore you to the land that you defaulted on.

That’s the “shallow end” of the kinsman-redeemer law.

As we move into the deeper end, we see in Deuteronomy chapter 25 that as a kinsman redeemer, you were responsible for marrying the widow of your deceased family member if necessary. Like I said before, this is the Bronze Age culture, women were sub-human in the eyes of nearly every tribe and every government. The law that God gave to Moses very much transformed women from property into people, but there are limitations to how much you can change a person, how much you can change a culture, in a short time.

So just because God had given this law to the Israelites that transformed them even while it accommodated their weaknesses, that doesn’t mean that every Israelite’s going to do a 180 overnight and start to see people the way that God sees them, and so on and so forth.

And so there are “checks and balances” built into God’s law, one of which, in Deuteronomy chapter 25, is the fact that when your family member passed away, and his widow was without any resources to provide for herself, you were required to marry her and provide her with all of the benefits that your own wife would be entitled to.

That means that your dead brother’s wife is entitled to a portion of your land. Your dead brother’s wife is entitled to a room in your house. She’s entitled to however much of your food it’ll take to keep her reasonably sustained. And, if your dead brother never produced an heir who could eventually inherit his property, your brother’s wife was entitled to your services to provide an heir.

What we see in the situation of Boaz is that Boaz is the kinsman redeemer for Naomi’s family. When Elimelech decided to pack up his family and leave the promised land during the famine, somewhere during that period the land that used to be theirs stopped belonging to them. They defaulted on the land in their absence, so when Naomi and Ruth come back from Moab after the famine, Naomi’s home belongs to somebody else, they have no legal right to occupy it. So they’re homeless and in danger of starvation if they don’t find a food source quickly.

As kinsman redeemer, Boaz is required by God’s law to buy back their land, and to marry Ruth if she wants him to. But in a time like “the time of the Judges,” Ruth and Naomi had zero reason to assume that Boaz or any of the other family members in Bethlehem could be counted on to fulfill those obligations. God’s law was no longer enforced because the people had abandoned their faithfulness to him, so if Boaz or any other family member had refused to buy back the land or to marry Ruth, Ruth and Naomi would have had absolutely no recourse. They would have been out of luck, and out of options.

And yet, Boaz images the love of God by obeying the law of God, and the most visible element of that is the way that he obeys even the “family-redeemer” law that would have cost him a fortune and would’ve stuck him with two dependents. God’s law was a refuge for people like Ruth and Naomi, because God was a refuge.

*

Now, throughout our time in the book of Ruth, we’ve seen a very different picture of “God’s Law” than we’ve been “programmed” to imagine. The tendency in our culture is to drive a wedge between the commands of God and the kindness of God. We see love and obedience as two “opposite ends of a pole.” You love people or you obey them.

That’s probably inevitable in the time we’re living in. If you cringed at any point throughout this series as I’ve read out the commands of God from Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Exodus and so on, you’re probably not alone. Reading through the commands that God gives to us, it’s entirely natural to feel like they are invasive, or unjust, or repressive.

Today, because America is such an anti-authoritarian culture, we are indoctrinated – sometimes even in Sunday School – into seeing God’s commands as a “burden,” into seeing God’s law as a “curse” that we need to be “set free” from; and so we will read the New Testament at a strange slant, and we will tell each other that the story of the New Testament is that “God comes in Jesus Christ and gets rid of his commands,” that “He forgives us so we can do whatever we want,” that the goal of the Cross was to “Set us loose so we could have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But if you asked the Israelites coming out of Egypt, they’d have told you that there is no “life,” and there is no “liberty,” and there is no “happiness to pursue” outside of God’s good commands.

Because about 400 years before Ruth was born, something very strange happened. The God of the universe had approached a man named Moses while he was tending to his flocks, and told him to confront the leader of the “World Superpower,” the Pharaoh in Egypt, and tell him to set his slave force free.

After Pharaoh consistently refused, the God of the universe crushed Pharaoh ruthlessly, and then crushed the gods that Pharaoh served alongside, and then crushed the land of Egypt economically, brought the slave force in Egypt through the Red Sea, and then brought them into the land that he had promised to them centuries earlier. So the slave force of Egypt became a nation that God called “Israel.”

Once they arrived in the land that God had given to them, he gave them something else: Reading through those first five books of the Bible, we see God giving Israel a very short list of commands, then a slightly longer list of commands, then a considerably longer list of commands, and so on and so forth. By the end of the book of Deuteronomy, there’s a little over 600 commands that we know about.

Because we live in such an anti-authoritarian culture, the notion that the God of the universe would give us more than 600 commands might seem kind of extreme, or stifling, or overwhelming, but try to put yourself into the Israelites’ shoes.

Imagine that, before you were a nation, you were literally “the slave force” of a different nation. You, and your parents, and their parents were born into slave labor, and you existed purely as a means of keeping the economy productive so that other people could enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Imagine that every couple years, just as you’re getting used to the abject misery of your existence, they would raise their quota on how many bricks you’re responsible for building, and if you complained about it, they’d take away some of your tools and resources so it was twice as hard to make half as many.

Imagine every time your birth rate got out of control they’d send some guards to your houses, and when they left you’d have half as many kids as you used to have. Imagine that was your existence.

Now imagine that the God of the universe steps out of the shadows and declares his loyalty to you rather than Egypt. Imagine that the only God who actually exists shows up and tells you that he’s batting in your corner, that he’s going to spring you out of slavery, and that if Egypt resists his plan to set you free, he will grind them down to the bone just like they did to you and your children.

Imagine that he brings you out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land. Then he turns you into a nation. You’d have a different perspective than we’re inclined to have today.

613 laws, all of which require you to treat your fellow man with dignity, to take care of your countrymen and make sure they never fall into abject poverty, to prevent the powerful from taking advantage of the weak, to prevent husbands from taking advantage of their wives, to prevent the young from taking advantage of the elderly, to prevent the government from taking advantage of the people – you would see that as a good thing, not a bad thing. You would see all 613 of those laws as a blessing, not as a curse.

An unpleasant blessing, but a blessing. Cough syrup is rarely enjoyable, but neither is bronchitis, and if you have bronchitis, some unpleasant cough syrup may be a good remedy. From what I am told, chemotherapy is excruciating. So is cancer. And if you have aggressive cancer, an unpleasant round of chemotherapy might be a good remedy. It’s painful. Sometimes even torturous. It makes your life more difficult. But it is a gift, not a curse. Sin is slavery. But God’s commands are freedom.

That’s why all throughout the Old Testament, you read things that say, “Your law is a gift,” “Your commands are sweet,” “Your requirements are just and good and right” and “I take joy in them.”

There’s a vastly-overused quote by C.S. Lewis, and I’m gonna contribute to its overuse, here – that “God cannot give us a happiness or peace outside of himself, because it doesn’t exist, because there is no such thing.” That’s a paraphrase of what Moses says in Deuteronomy chapter 30. When God gives the law to Israel on Mount Sinai, that was an expression of God’s good grace towards his people.

The story of the Bible begins with God creating the universe, and then leading a slave revolt. And God’s good commands are part of the slave revolt. And there are very few better examples of how this plays out than the book of Ruth. Ruth is the story of how a pagan woman from a cruel and unjust pagan nation flees to Israel for refuge from her suffering and is swept up in the wings of the God who leads the slave revolt.

*

All of this ought to be very good news. The only God who actually exists is the God leading the slave revolt. That should be “good news of great joy” for every single one of us, but what we’re going to learn as we move into Galatians in a few weeks is that, historically, it hasn’t been.

Historically, the fact that God is the “ringleader” in a slave revolt – that his good commands are part and parcel of the slave revolt in itself, that obeying God is freedom, that rejecting his good laws means returning to slavery – that’s been bad news for us, not good news, to the point that in one of the most famously terrifying passages of scripture, Paul quotes a bunch of Psalms, and stitches them together into a big, long, terrifying poem in Romans chapter 3 that says, quote:

“There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God, all have turned away, all alike have become useless, there is no one who does what is good, not even one. Our throats are an open grave, we deceive with our tongues, Viper’s venom is under our lips. Our mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Our feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and wretchedness are in our paths, and the path of peace we have not known. There is no fear of God before our eyes.”

So Paul was fun at parties. But his point is pretty straightforward. Consistently, we’ve refused to image the love of God by obeying the law of God; consistently, we’ve devoted ourselves to maintaining the slavery brought about by our Fall in the Garden; consistently, we’ve aligned ourselves against God’s mission to “liberate us from our shackles,” to “reconcile us to himself,” to make right everything that we made wrong.

As we cross into the New Testament, what changes is not that Jesus “does away with the law, and then tells us to go do whatever we want” as long as we pray before our meals and pledge allegiance to the flag, or something-or-other. What changes is that as we cross from the Old Testament into the New Testament, we see that God has dealt with the fact that we are determined to stay slaves; God has dealt with the fact that we are determined to “go back to Egypt,” that we are determined to be exactly like the pagan nations that God rescued us from, that we are determined to become our own captors, to become our own “Pharaohs” – that we have never once submitted ourselves to the great freedom that God gives us.

We see that God has dealt with the fact that “No one is righteous, not even one,” that we have all fled from “the path of peace” instead of running towards it; that God has rescued us from our slavery fully, freely, and forever in Jesus Christ.

That’s why Jesus tells us in Matthew that he “did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” God never abandoned his good commands for us, he rescued us by punishing our disobedience in himself in the cross, and by raising us up with him in the resurrection.

God’s law is the slave revolt, and God doesn’t abandon his slave revolt – he finishes it, he completes it, he brings it all the way to the cross, purchasing our freedom from every slavery to which we’ve subjected ourselves, and a day is coming, when Jesus returns and “renews the heavens and the Earth,” like we read about at the end of Revelation, in which the freedom that God purchased for us in the cross will be the reality that we’re swimming in.

Because rather than simply crushing us like he crushed Egypt, like he crushed Pharaoh, rather than simply driving us out like he drove out the unjust nations spread throughout Canaan when he brought Israel to the Promised Land, God allowed us to crush him on the cross.

God allowed us to “drive him out” on the cross, he allowed us to “destroy” him with the destruction that belongs to anyone who stands in the way of the slave revolt he’s leading. Jesus takes our rebellion against God’s good law onto himself in the cross so that we can be forgiven, and he raises us up with him so that we can be healed. Jesus has purchased our freedom from slavery, and he will bring us across the Jordan into his Promised Land.

And we would like for you to come with us. If you are visiting, or if you’ve been here for quite some time, and you’ve never submitted yourself to Jesus Christ to be rescued from you sin and brought out of Egypt in the slave revolt he’s leading, I’ll be standing at the front while we worship the Lord through song, and you’re welcome to come to the front and meet with me. I’d love to walk you through the process of repenting of your sin, and throwing yourself on the mercy of the Jesus we’ve been talking about this morning.

Let’s pray.

‘God Is A Refuge’ – Ruth 2:8-19 – June 9th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth, chapter 2, verses 8 through 19.

Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Don’t go and gather grain in another field, and don’t leave this one, but stay here close to my female servants. See which field they are harvesting, and follow them. Haven’t I ordered the young men not to touch you? When you are thirsty, go and drink from the jars the young men have filled.”

10 She bowed with her face to the ground and said to him, “Why are you so kind to notice me, although I am a foreigner?”

11 Boaz answered her, “Everything you have done for your mother-in-law since your husband’s death has been fully reported to me: how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and how you came to a people you didn’t previously know. 12 May the Lord reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”

13 “My lord,” she said, “you have been so kind to me, for you have comforted and encouraged your slave, although I am not like one of your female servants.”

14 At mealtime Boaz told her, “Come over here and have some bread and dip it in the vinegar sauce.” So she sat beside the harvesters, and he offered her roasted grain. She ate and was satisfied and had some left over.

15 When she got up to gather grain, Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her even gather grain among the bundles, and don’t humiliate her. 16 Pull out some stalks from the bundles for her and leave them for her to gather. Don’t rebuke her.” 17 So Ruth gathered grain in the field until evening. She beat out what she had gathered, and it was about 26 quarts of barley. 18 She picked up the grain and went into the town, where her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. Then she brought out what she had left over from her meal and gave it to her.

19 Then her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you gather barley today, and where did you work? May the Lord bless the man who noticed you.”

This is the word of the Lord.

*

The book of Ruth is filled with people who image God for us. At the beginning of the book, Naomi tries to send Ruth away so that she wouldn’t burden Ruth with her own widowhood, and Ruth wouldn’t have any of it. She says, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” and the author of Ruth depicts her response as a poem, which is interesting, and her words remind you of Jesus’s high priestly prayer in John 17, or they remind you of God’s covenant with Abraham, or one of the more passionate Psalms where God makes sprawling promises to those who love him. Ruth images God for Naomi, and for us.

Now Boaz images God for Ruth.

But so far, Boaz isn’t doing anything he isn’t required to do. The Law required Israelites to be hospitable to the extreme, in a way that makes Israel a refuge for foreigners like Ruth. Yahweh is the God of the universe, and that means that he’s the only God, but Israel is the one place that you can go in the Ancient World where God’s moral requirements are also reflected, to some extent, the law of the land.

Ancient mythologies typically ran that Once Upon A Time, the gods lived in a “golden age” of leisure. There was nothing going on. The gods just spent their days getting high and eating potato chips – y’know. And the story varies from culture to culture, but the common denominator is always that something happened that brought the cosmic house party to an end so that they had to work to maintain the universe.

After so long, they get tired of doing menial labor, so they create humanity as a cosmic slave labor force. And that’s just what we were. We existed to do the blue collar work that the gods didn’t want to deal with. That was our purpose. The gods weren’t our parents, they weren’t our friends. They were the plantation owners. And we were the merchandise.

The Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish illustrates what I’m talking about pretty well. At one point, one of the gods says, “Let me put blood together, and make bones, too,” and “Man shall be his name.” So that “The work of the gods shall be imposed on him, and so they shall be at leisure.” From around the same time, there’s an Akkadian myth called the Epic of Atrahasis with essentially the same plotline – humanity is created, and I quote, to “bear the yoke” and “assume the drudgery of the god.”

So if you’re a pagan living in the surrounding nations, suffering under the cruel apathy of the old gods, whom the stories say created you so that you could do their hard labor while they kick back and watch, Israel is a refuge; Israel’s God is a refuge. And when Israel is working properly – when they’re observing God’s law faithfully and pursuing God’s will honestly, they become a place that pagans flee to.

They become a place that the surrounding nations keep losing their citizens to, not because of war or conquest but because of conversion. Because people see that there is a good God in Israel, and they gradually come to realize that this good God is the only God there is; that their own gods are no-gods. And they pack up their families and they emigrate to Israel, and become Israelites, and worship Yahweh instead of Ba’al, or Chemosh, or Moloch, or Ashtoreh.

And Israel’s hospitality is kind of like the “Front Porch” by which that happens. Foreigners have to travel through Israel to get to their destination, and if the folks in the village they travel through are faithful to God’s law, they make their sojourn a dream – their needs are provided for, they are welcome everywhere they go, they’re offered work on someone’s farm if they’ll be there long. God’s Law amounts to an invitation to stay forever, to become one of God’s people, to be set free from the slavery of the old gods in your old lands.

And Boaz is remarkable not because he goes above and beyond God’s requirements but because he doesn’t – Boaz is exemplary because he is precisely what it looks like when God’s people obey God’s commands; it’s contagious. Half the work of evangelism is simply to live faithfully to God’s good commands.

*

So Boaz invites Ruth to his table, literally. He says, “Come over here and have some bread and dip it in the vinegar sauce.”

Boaz understands that the end-goal that God’s Law has in mind regarding the poor, widowed, and foreign is to enable them to become full participants in the community. So the Laws surrounding the poor aren’t just welfare laws, the laws surrounding widows aren’t just “Replace Your Husband” guarantees, and the laws surrounding foreigners aren’t just “loose borders” – they’re all aimed at fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, that through his descendants, “all the peoples of the earth would be blessed.” So if Israel is faithful to the Law that God gave to them, Moabites like Ruth would be blessed, Canaanites like Rahab would be blessed, etc.

Boaz doesn’t just want to write off his obedience to God’s law on his taxes, he wants to obey them to the core – he wants to include Ruth fully in the community. Boaz doesn’t stop at leaving the edges of his field unreaped. He breaks out the stalks from his own grain supply. He doesn’t just feed her during a break in the work day, he invites her to sit with the harvesters and dip her bread in the vinegar sauce. He doesn’t treat her like a charity case. He treats her like a future Israelite. Boaz says to Ruth, “May you receive a full reward from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”

She has “come under the wings of God” for refuge, and Boaz has elected to be the tool that God uses to provide refuge for her. Boaz accepted the call to be the wings.”

Because, like we talked about when we were going through James chapter 5, this God rarely works like the old gods: the old gods promised to heal your diseases and protect your crops and lower your infant mortality rate, but Yahweh rarely did any of that. When Yahweh wanted to heal the diseased he told his people to take up an offering to pay for their healthcare. Literally. That’s how that went. Very un-glamorous.

When Yahweh wanted to feed the hungry, he told his people to share their own food with them and content themselves with an emptier stomach than they would have had otherwise. And when Yahweh wanted to protect foreigners and the poor, he didn’t speak a wad of cash into existence, he told his people to leave the edges of their field un-reaped so that the poor and the foreigners could reap the edges of the field and feed their families.

But all of those things require actual human persons to “opt into” them. They require you to decide to obey them. Part of the reason that “the time of the Judges,” when this story takes place, was so hellish was that next to nobody was obeying any of these laws. Nobody was opting into obeying God’s provisions for the poor and the foreign and the widowed and the suffering, and so Israel had become like the pagan nations that God had ruthlessly driven out before them.

But Boaz “opted in.” Boaz decided to surrender himself as a tool for God to use to provide refuge for Ruth and others under his wings.

And that’s bigger than it sounds. That would require Boaz to crucify his selfishness and his fear. It would require him to allow God to override his inherent drive to protect himself from strangers like Ruth and instead soften his heart towards her.

It required him to allow God to change the way that he sees his own property – no longer as tools that exist simply to gratify or protect him from harm, but instead as tools in God’s hands to provide for other people instead. Boaz has “turned over the keys” to his conscience and his pocketbook to the Holy Spirit, and as a result he has become the means that God uses to provide refuge for Ruth and Naomi under his wings.

*

And so, when Naomi sees the way that Boaz has treated Ruth, she says, quote, “May the Lord bless the man who noticed you.”

Today when we say “God bless you,” what we mean is, uh, nothing. You say it when somebody sneezes, or if you’re holier than I am, you say it when somebody cuts you off on the road, or something. So it’s easy to miss the gravity when somebody in the Bible says, “May the Lord bless you,” and other things along those lines.

But when Naomi says, “May the Lord bless the man who noticed you,” it’s not an empty phrase.

She’s thinking back to the story in Genesis 12, when God calls Abram out of his homeland and says, quote, “Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

A lot of folks quote this passage today but they leave out all the key parts. God says, “I will make you into a great nation – I will bless you” so that “you will be a blessing,” and “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” God doesn’t bless the descendants of Abraham out of favoritism. It’s the opposite: God blesses Abraham so that he will be a blessing to the surrounding nations, so that his descendants will be a blessing to all of the peoples of the earth.

And Boaz is blessed by God, and we see that because he is a blessing to others.

Naomi blesses him, and we see that its come to fruition because the blessings that God pours out on us are never meant to terminate on ourselves. God’s blessings always refract out into the people around us. So you know that a person is blessed when they are a blessing to others. You know that a church is blessed when it is a blessing to others – when it’s a force for its city, when it’s a refuge for its community. You know that a family is blessed rather than cursed when they are blessing to the people in their orbit.

So if you want to know whether you’ve been “blessed by God,” the answer to the question has everything to do with the extent to which your neighbors are blessed by you: If you have never missed a meal in your life, but the folks on both sides of you issue a sigh of relief when they see that your car isn’t in your driveway, you are the opposite of blessed; if you were born pretty good-looking, and you gotten a pass on nearly everything, by nearly everyone throughout your life, but you’ve done absolutely nothing to wield that good fortune in service of the people around you, “blessed” is the wrong word to describe you. Your good fortune hasn’t been a blessing. It’s been a curse.

If your comfort has made you complacent, it’s become a curse. If it’s made you self-absorbed, it’s become a curse – it’s turned you into something worse than a wicked person: It’s turned you into somebody who could do good for your neighbors but doesn’t.

Our culture sees “blessing” as good luck and absolutely nothing else – folks who’re born into a fortunate family and manage not to move down the socioeconomic ladder, and so on and so forth, paint their “good luck” as some kind of “divine blessing” and then tell themselves and each other that God has favored them, and then take that as an excuse to assume that they are Right With The Good Lord, regardless of whether they’ve ever actually thrown themselves on his mercy to be forgiven of their sins and then transformed by the Holy Spirit into obedient followers of Jesus. You know what I’m talking about?

Countries do the same thing. Great Britain spent centuries telling itself that it was uniquely “blessed by God” because it was rich in material goods and natural resources. But they weren’t blessed. They were cursed, because they were a curse: They had more gold in their treasury than they had anything to do with, but that’s not because God had given it to them, it’s because they had marched into undeveloped territory after undeveloped territory, slaughtered the inhabitants, and then stolen their natural resources – and we’re still seeing the consequences of that today, with regions throughout Africa, South America, and so on, still recovering from having been pillaged by a kingdom that believed it had the right to take whatever it wanted, to kidnap and enslave whoever it wanted, to smash up anything it wanted, because it told itself that it was “blessed by God,” and that it had unique privileges to take whatever it desired.

But that’s not what “blessing” looks like in the Bible. God blesses us in order to be a blessing to the people around us. And we can know that we are “blessed” when the folks around us are blessed because of us. We can know that we are blessed when we have given ourselves over as tools in the hands of God to pull other people out of the pit, to set them free from the cycles of brokenness that they’ve been subjected to, or that they dive headlong into.

We can know that we are “blessed” when we allow God to make us into “useful vessels” for his good mission, to pour out his good grace onto people, tell them the good news of his good gospel, even in spite of our radical limitations.

And we have those, right? Don’t misunderstand me. To quote a bunch of old dead Baptists, each of us are “unworthy ministers of a liberating gospel.” We are “unworthy priests of a liberating covenant.” We are “unworthy regents of a liberating kingdom,” “unworthy images of a very good God” – a God so good that he comes to Earth as a human like us, goes to the cross to bury our sins far away from us, and then declares us “worthy” just like he is worthy.

He credits the worthiness of Jesus onto us just like he credits our unworthiness to Jesus in the cross. We are unworthy of the good mission that God has given us, of the good blessing that God has given to us in order to bless those around us with the gospel and to bless them with our friendship and to bless them with our material goods, but God makes us worthy.

He declares us worthy by the cross and resurrection and then he spends every waking moment of our lives from that point forward “hammering us into shape” like a soft piece of metal on an anvil, until one day, in the “New Heavens and the New Earth,” after “every crooked thing has been made straight,” after every broken thing has been “made new,” after everything “Fallen” has been “raised up with Jesus,” we will be every bit as worthy as we have been declared to be in Jesus Christ.

When God promised to “come and get us” in Genesis 3:15, when he promised to “bless us so that all of the peoples of the earth could be blessed” in Genesis 12, when he vowed to “take the curse that we have brought about onto himself” in Genesis 15, when he promised to “make us righteous like he is righteous” in Exodus 20 at Mount Sinai, to “make us holy like he is holy” in Leviticus, to put everything right that we made wrong when we abandoned him in the Garden, God’s not making an empty promise. He has-fulfilled-and-will-fulfill every promise that he’s made to us in Jesus Christ.

And every “good work” we carry out in submission God’s good commands presses forward toward God’s good fulfillment of his good promises. God fulfills his promises to us, most of the time, by fulfilling his good promises through us. So in Boaz’s obedience to God’s law in helping Ruth and Naomi, we see what Paul talks about in Ephesians chapter 2, verse 10, working itself out in real time: That, quote, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works that he has set aside for us ahead of time to walk in.”

So like Boaz, we don’t bless other people in order to “catch God’s attention” so that he will bless us; we bless other people because God has already caught our attention, because God has already blessed us, because God has already rescued us, because God is already our refuge – he’s already made us into “his workmanship” through Christ Jesus, he’s already “set aside” our “good works” for us “ahead of time” so that we can “walk in them.” We obey God because he has “rescued us from the darkness” we were chained up in and “recreated us” to do exactly that.

Let’s pray.