Wilson-Hartgrove on the Challenge of Faith

The challenge of faith isn’t so much to trust God’s promises when we hear them as it is to continue trusting them when it does not appear to our best judgment that they are being fulfilled. Belief is not, in the end, an abstract consideration of whether I think God exists or whether the evidence suggests that Jesus did in fact get up from the grave. It is, instead, a man sitting with his wife, desperate to have a child, listening to the doctor say it is impossible. Faith is that man saying, ‘God can make a way,’ and continuing to live as if he will become the father of many.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
The Awakening of Hope: Why We Practice A Common Faith

Simple or Simplistic? Ecclesiastes 12:9-14


Morning yall. I’m Joe Davis and I’ve been serving as the pastoral intern here at 6:8 since September. So, as I begin, I’d like to start off with a confession. It’s just something I’ve noticed around 6:8 that has really bothered me. I don’t want to sound mean, but I think it’s my duty to say this. So, here goes: I’m sorry Jason and 6:8 but you just can’t call yourself a real church if you don’t have one of those customizable, changeable letter, marquee church signs! How are supposed to tell Ardmore about Jesus without a weird, corny, simplistic slogan that we change every week??? Just imagine how effective our church would be with a sign like this:

[“Hang out with Jesus. He hung for you”]

Or, how about this one?

[“Jesus will make you happy, happy, happy”]

Still not convinced? I saved the best for last.

[“Life scrambled? Jesus specializes in omelets”]

You know, we’ve been exploring the teaching of Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes for the past 11 weeks. Each week we’ve learned something new about what it means to be a wise person. IF we would have had an awesome church sign, we could have put up what we learned each week to remind ourselves, but since we don’t have one, I guess we can just review everything we’ve learned so far.

So, who is the wise person for Koheleth? It’s the one who…

  • surprises us in hopeless situations with the kind of strength that endures, yet is often forgotten
  • embraces all of life and lives in hope
  • has a good name formed in the crucible of life joys and pains
  • invests their resources in the kingdom of God
  • puts limits on desire to find healthy balance
  • lives by promise, not explanation
  • values, sacrifices for & invests in people
  • walks in reliance & faith through life’s seasons
  • understands wisdom as that which makes sense in light of eternity
  • chooses to be happy & does good
  • is not cynical, but hopeful
  • is boldly respectful, full of integrity & obedient to the voice of God

It all seems so simple. Don’t you think? It’s perfect material for a church sign! But, you know, now that I think about, putting this simple wisdom up on a church sign would probably make is seem simplistic, right? But, what’s the difference? What separates simple from simplistic? Good question.

We say something is “simple” when it’s plain, ordinary, easy to understand, clear, or profound. Truth is simple. We say something is “simplistic” when an idea is dumbed down, or an issue is trivialized, when the core of a problem is being avoided. A simplistic response gives the appearance of simplicity by ignoring the complex reality of the situation.

Church signs are almost always simplistic. Compare those signs we saw to the words of “Amazing Grace”: “twas Grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved… twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.” Simple, profound, beautiful, truth. I don’t think this needs much explanation. The difference between simple and simplistic seems pretty clear.

Leonardo da Vinci described simplicity as “the ultimate sophistication.” Walt Whitman called it “the glory of expression.” Jesus calls us to have the simple faith of a child (Luke 17:18). Simple; not simplistic. I think we’re pretty good at detecting the difference most of the time. But what about this wisdom from Ecclesiastes? Is it simplistic? Or simple? That’s our question this morning.

Our text today is found at the very end of Ecclesiastes. Listen and follow along as I read Ecclesiastes 12:9-14: “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

This passage is known as the epilogue to Ecclesiastes. It refers to Koheleth in the third person, while the rest of the book – except for the very first verse – refers to him in first person. That lets us know that these verses were not written by Koheleth, but by a later author – maybe even two different authors. We’re gonna look at this passage in two sections: verses 9-11 and then verses 12-14. To begin, we’ll take a brief look at the first section, v9-11, and then focus a little more on the second part, v12-14.

In verses 9-11, Koheleth is affirmed and endorsed as a trusted, wise sage. The author says that his wisdom is the real stuff; both pleasing and truthful, artistic and good for instruction. He uses images from animal husbandry to let the reader know that wisdom stings. It mentions a “goad,” which is like a cattle prod, and the reference to “nails” is probably talking about a stick with nails at the end for herding animals. Not exactly a fun image.

In verses 12-14, it gets really interesting. It’s basically saying, “Well, here’s all you need to know about Koheleth and his wisdom in a nice bite-sized, bumper sticker-church sign slogan!” We’ve spent 11 weeks talking on and on about this stuff and it all boils down to these 6 words: “Fear God and keep his commandments.” Really? If I were the Jewish student who just sat through weeks (months?) of learning all of Koheleth’s strange, grumpy teachings, I’m gonna be a little frustrated when I come to this verse. “This is Judaism 101! Of course we fear God and keep his commandments! What else is new! Why didn’t you tell me it was gonna to end this way!?!”

It’s so simple. Or, is it simplistic? Most commentators point out that this teaching does not sound like something that Koheleth would say. At no point in Ecclesiastes does Koheleth link the fear of God to the keeping of God’s commandments. You know, Koheleth was a unique guy. One commentator I read described him as one who had “pitched his tent at the far edges of the camp,” meaning that Koheleth’s message was “on the extreme edges of ordinary biblical teachings.” Koheleth says some weird stuff unlike anything else found in the Bible. In light of the radical nature of Koheleth’s teaching, the thinking goes that verses 12-14 were added to intentionally smooth off those uncomfortable, “unauthorized” edges of Koheleth’s hard-to-swallow wisdom. Not that these verses contradict or undermine his teaching; they just reign it in and anchor it in the stream of traditional Old Testament thought. It tightens the ropes on Koheleth’s tent pegs to make sure he stays within the mainstream camp, even if he’s still on the edge a bit. So, is this summary teaching – “Fear God and keep his commandments” – just a simplistic gloss, that tidies up all of Koheleth’s complex, uncomfortable, untraditional, sometimes jarring questions so we can ignore them and move on? Or is it a simple, clear-eyed, profound distillation of Koheleth’s wisdom that should guide us on our own journeys?

The answer? Well, I think it depends. Let’s go back to verses 9-10. They say, “Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly.” These verses are a ringing endorsement of Koheleth’s wisdom and teaching. But there is something implied here we must be careful not to miss, here it is: this wisdom did not fall from the sky, it was not written in a day, and it’s not a bunch of easy, shallow answers to life’s tough questions. Rather, it is wisdom forged in the fire of intellectual struggle, through repeated crises of faith. It is the end result of a quest for truth, for making sense of the world, a lifelong process of observing, wrestling, and questioning. This guy did the work, he put in the hours, and he found pleasing, truthful words.

What we need to know about Koheleth is that he is “the most real of the realist” of Biblical authors. He is the one “least comfortable with conventional wisdom, and the most willing to challenge its unexamined assumptions.”[1] Let that sink in. Koheleth is a sage; he writes wisdom. Wisdom literature in the Bible is not necessarily about God in the proper sense. It’s more about a human response to the words and acts of God and God’s creation. The books of Job and Proverbs and some Psalms fit into this category. Wisdom writers tried to make sense of life based on observation and practical experience in order to guide human beings into the path of successful living. Sages were about right being and doing – not just about right thinking.

Koheleth doesn’t pull any punches. He’s got real questions and he doesn’t pretend like he has all the answers. In Ecclesiastes 11:5, he admits to feeling a great deal of mystery concerning God: “Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.” Wow, what an image. Do you know how “the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb”? For Koheleth, knowing the works of God are even beyond that; God is mysterious, fearful for Koheleth. But, he keeps believing and keeps up his search for wisdom even with his uncertainty and his questions. He has a Hebrews 11 kind of faith; he was sure of what he hoped for and certain of things he did not see.

Koheleth doesn’t give up on God. Yes, what happens in this world may seem meaningless, but God holds us all responsible for following our hearts and eyes to find happiness. Throughout his teaching, we hear seven calls to enjoy life and rejoice in the good gifts God has given.[2] Yes, God is mysteriously sovereign, but God is also the giver of gifts that make life joyful. If Ecclesiastes were a song, Koheleth’s repeated cries of “Meaningless! Meaningless!” would be like the bass line, but the melody would be joy! And in any song, it’s the melody carries the theme – not the bass line. Verses 9-11 confirm that Koheleth perseveres through his trials and all his deep, vexing questions about life and God. He not only perseveres, he “counts it all joy” as James would say in the New Testament.[3]

So, back to our question on this teaching: “fear God and keep his commandments.” Is it a clear, profound, and simple teaching or a misleading, shallow, and simplistic slogan? Well, when we consider Koheleth’s life, we see that this teaching is not simplistic at all. He goes through the fire and his faith is refined. He didn’t back down on the hard questions. He wasn’t satisfied with any simplistic answers he was given. He didn’t gloss over the complexities of life. He faced them head on. He stayed the course. At the end of his journey, this is the simple wisdom that has sustained him: he feared God and kept his commandments and found that this path led to a fulfilled, joyful life. “Fear God and keep his commandments” is simply true and not simplistic because Koheleth lives it.

But that’s Koheleth. What about us? We’re obviously in a different situation; our journey is ongoing. We’re still in the thick of it. The ball is in our court. The jury is still out. Will “fear God and keep his commandments” be a bumper sticker for our lives? Just another simplistic slogan we memorize to make ourselves feel better? That’s one choice. I hope we don’t choose it.

Koheleth’s lifelong journey towards wisdom in Ecclesiastes shows us another way. When we live our faith like Koheleth, “Fear God and keep his commandments” can become the foundational, profound, simple truth of our lives as well. Will it be hard? Of course. We’ll be searching for deeper understanding and doing lots of practice, which means that we’ll probably get it wrong on a regular basis. Remember that image of the goad, the cattle prod? Wisdom is about guiding us, prodding us, out into the world where we experience all that it means to be human: joy, pain, sadness, grief, grace, love, forgiveness, and peace. In these experiences with God and each other, we inevitably run into some tough questions; some that may shake us to the core.

Have we really examined ourselves – as both good and sinful? What is the ground of our faith? Do we know why we’re here worshiping this morning? Who is this God we sing and pray to? Has our faith become simplistic? Are our eyes open to the reality of suffering and injustice or do we cover our ears and close our eyes to escape the pain? These are hard questions. I don’t mean to belittle anyone by asking them. These are questions I’m trying to ask myself, too. If these questions are new for you, that’s ok. If you’ve been ignoring them, that’s ok too. It is a scary process. We may come to different answers, we may get hurt a little along the way, but these are the kinds of questions we need to engage if we’re to follow Koheleth’s wise path.

Many of you probably know that today is Palm Sunday, which means Easter is next week, and we’d well to remember the story. This is the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The city is full of excitement for the Passover feast. Then, Jesus arrives – on a donkey! People say he’s the Messiah! The crowds gather and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people of Jerusalem – the disciples even! – thought they knew Jesus. They thought they knew what the Messiah would do. Everyone had their expectations; many felt sure that he would overthrow the Roman rule and liberate them. But, they were all very, very wrong. By the end of the week, their shouts of “Hosanna!” had turned into “Crucify!” How does this happen? What allows a person to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday? I think at least one major component is an unexamined faith built on simplistic slogans that we “know” in our heads but do not live out, and test, and refine in the everyday experiences of our life together.

Fear God and keep his commandments. Is it simple? Or simplistic? That depends on our response. As we submit ourselves to the guidance and empowering of the Holy Spirit, here’s a few things we should keep in mind about this teaching.

First, the word “and” doesn’t quite capture the depth of the connection between what it means “fear God” and “keep his commandments.” It makes it seem like you could have one without the other. However, the fear of God is evidenced by the doing of God’s commandments. But, can you really do God’s commandments without fearing God? Maybe you could for a while, but it probably wouldn’t last. The only person who can really do God’s commandments in a meaningful, sustained way is the person who fears God. You can’t separate the “doing” from the “being.” You can’t be a person who fears God without doing God’s commands and you can’t really do God’s commands without being a person who fears God. The “whole duty of everyone” is both “being” people who fear God and “doing” God’s commandments – all at the same time. We have to remember that our being and our doing are intimately connected; one necessarily affects the other.

As Westerners, we naturally focus on the “doing” part. We like “action steps.” So, we should probably begin with the “being” part. How do we begin to be people who “fear God”? Well, I mentioned earlier that this teaching was added in order to integrate Ecclesiastes into a more traditional, mainstream understanding of Old Testament faith. As it turns out, this teaching is almost literally straight out of Deuteronomy. When God rescued Israel from Egypt, God made a covenant, a deeply binding promise, with them. This covenant had laws attached to it that Israel agreed to abide by. They would be God-fearing people by “doing” the commandments contained in the covenant. In the context of a covenant relationship, “fear of God” is about loyalty to the covenant; it is the same as “love” and “service” and ultimately, it’s about worship. This is not the fear that creates distance, but the love that keeps us together in covenanted community. Of course, Israel didn’t live within the covenant. They failed again and again, but God remained faithful. Then, in Jesus Christ, God showed his great faithfulness once and for all. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God invites all people into a new covenant life through the power of the Holy Spirit. We have been included in a new promise.

Now, it’s important to remember that God’s promises were with a people – not with individuals. We are called to live today as the body of Christ; many members, but one body. So how do we become people who fear God? We start by living in covenant, in promise, with each other. We call this community. It happens as we look each other eye to eye and confess our need for one another, that we’re in this together, that God has chosen us to be his people, “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we might proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”[4]. We can’t become people who fear God on our own because loving, serving, and worshiping God is impossible outside of a covenanted promise with God and with other people. God has called us to be a people who make and keep promises to each other. Praise God! Our promises are not dependent on our own faithfulness, but on the power of our God who is always faithful. Will we break our promises? Sure, but God is ready to forgive us. We must be ready to forgive each other as well as we do God’s commands with “fear and trembling”[5] together in community. Is it simple? Yes. Is it easy? Nope.

I think the “doing” part is actually a little easier to wrap our heads around. When this teaching about doing God’s commandments was written, it would have referred to the Mosaic law found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Since we unfortunately don’t have time to look through all those wonderful books of the Bible, we’ll just use one of Jesus’ statements. When someone asked him what the greatest commandment was, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”[6] Only a person who fears God would do this command. Is it simple? Yes. Easy? No, not at all.

As we come to close, we need to recognize that we’re all at different places in our journey with God and with each other. If you come out to the Ignite class after church on April 8th, Lindley will be teaching you a very helpful model for how to understand the spiritual journey. According to this model, some of us are just in awe of God right now and soaking it all in, others are wanting to learn all they can, still others are leaders and teachers. Then there are some who have left leadership behind for a more inward journey, a few may feel like they’ve hit a wall – I think Koheleth hit lots of walls – but there could be some, who, like Koheleth, have made it through the wall and have been made new, who feel God’s love like never before and only want to serve God and others with all that they are.

Wherever we are on this journey, Koheleth’s life gives us a sure sign to guide us: fear God and keep his commandments. Our personal responses will not be the same, but they should all be pointing in this same direction. Will this be the simple truth that under girds our life of active faith lived out as a community in Ardmore, Havertown, and beyond? This is our whole duty. In the power of Holy Spirit, let’s be it; let’s do it – together.

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible Old Testament Survey, “Ecclesiastes,” 249.

[2] Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:8-12:1.

[3] James Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes: A Book for Our Time, 132-136.

[4] 1 Peter 2:9-10, NRSV.

[5] Philippians 2:12.

[6] Matthew 22:37-40.

Marriage: A Gift of Grace

[Just to clear up any confusion: I wrote this sermon for a preaching class I’m in this week. I wrote it with my sister-in-law Hannah and her fiance Nate in mind. While I won’t have the honor of delivering this at their wedding (however, I do have the honor of being a groomsmen!), I hope it encourages them and all of us who are striving to faithfully love each other in all our various relationships.]

Weddings are big occasions. While they can be wonderful celebrations of love, friendship, and family, they can also be a lot of work. Of course, I’m a man, so I actually have little idea of all that has to happen, except for one thing: gift registries. I don’t know who invented this tradition, but we’re officially NOT friends. Of course I enjoy receiving gifts – who doesn’t – but going to all those stores and signing up for plates, and silverware, and bed sheets is just not my thing. But, as couples often do, my wife Cassie and I made a compromise when it came to making our gift registries: I would come along and help but only if I got to be in charge of the little barcode-scanner gun. I had a great time at Sears – you know those little scanners kind of sound like lasers?! I was actually a little excited when we left Sears and went to Bed, Bath, Beyond, but then it all fell apart. What happened? Apparently, BBY thinks that couples need an employee to follow them around the store so they can ask us a 1000 times if we’ve thought about nice it would be to have our own pasta maker, or sweet tea kettle, or some other vaguely useful kitchen appliance.  Oh, and this employee got to hold the barcode scanner – not me; that was a deal breaker. (Nate, I hear you had a similar experience?) After it was all said and done, we ended up with a lot of very nice gifts that we really needed and appreciated very much. Weddings are full of gifts aren’t they? Registries, parties, showers. Amidst all the shreds of torn wrapping paper, the sparkling ribbons, and the big pretty bows, we should be careful not to forget that one, essential gift that we can’t put on our registry: marriage. Hannah and Nate, your marriage is the best gift you’ll receive today.

In his novel Hannah Coulter, one of my favorite authors Wendell Berry speaks of marriage beautifully through the words of the main character who is most appropriately named Hannah. She describes her marriage with a metaphor – a “room of love”; a place “where giving and taking are the same, and you live a little while entirely in a gift.” Now, since there are kids around, I don’t think we need to go into all the details of what happens in the “room of love.” At any rate, I think Hannah helps us understand how marriage works as a gift: it’s a place “where giving and taking are the same,” where what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, where we’re simply together and free to offer ourselves and receive the other in love. Sounds like grace to me. Marriage is a gift because, in marriage, we open ourselves to grace.

What makes this possible? Our lives are opened to grace in marriage because marriage is a covenant – a solemn promise which requires the commitment of all we are for another. But marriage is a covenant that points beyond itself to another, greater covenant – God’s promise of love and justice towards us and all creation through a particular people, which was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here today, Nate and Hannah, to consecrate your lives in covenant with one another. A covenant founded on the promise of our God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The marriage covenant you make today is a gift of grace because it binds you together with the God who exists as communion of perfect love, who is supremely good and eternally faithful – a God whose promises never fail.

Of course, this promise is simply too big for you to keep on your own. You’re not standing here today because you’ve sat down with each other and come to some understanding about how each day of your lives will unfold in order to maximize each other’s happiness. Let’s face it: you have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into up here! Thankfully, you’re not alone. Your promise to each other is made within a community bound together in the covenant of baptism. In a moment you’ll exchange rings. These rings deeply symbolize your personal commitment to one another, but they are also a very public announcement of your marriage. Your married life should reflect this dual purpose of your rings: intimately personal yet lived publicly within the grace of a community of fellow believers. As members of community, the gracious gift of your marriage is transformed into a gift of love and hospitality for others. They say it’s better to give than to receive; how will you share the gift of your marriage with others?

Marriage is a gift of grace, founded in the gracious covenant of God, to be shared with each other and with your community for a lifetime. However, every time we open ourselves to receive grace, we simultaneously expose ourselves to the wound of grace denied. The very people we love the most, the ones we commit our lives to, are the ones who hurt us the most. We are all wounded people who wound others in return. There is no avoiding this truth. Hannah, Nate: you will hurt each other and being married only makes the pain worse. Will you shut yourselves off? Will you fight back in anger, in fear? Will you accuse and point fingers? Will you keep score? You’ll be tempted to do all of these things and more. None will do any good. Unfortunately, marriage leaves you with only one option: forgiveness. The grace-gift we share in marriage is sustained by our acts of forgiveness.

Henri Nouwen says it best: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” God has created us with limits. We don’t know everything, we don’t see or hear everything, and we can’t be in two places at once. We’re also created uniquely with different needs, wants, struggles, hopes, and joys. On top of that, we’re always changing and growing. These realities make it hard to love each other well and we often do it poorly. After all, we’re not God.  Forgiveness, then, in the words of Nouwen, is about continually being willing “to forgive [each other] for not being God – for not fulfilling all [your] needs.” Forgiveness is not easy; it’s nearly impossible. Again, we come back to grace: we love and forgive because God has first loved and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible for God. Learn to forgive each other, just go ahead and plan on it.

Nate, Hannah: live freely in grace. Embrace the gift of your covenant. Love each other as God has loved you. What an awesome day of celebration this is! What a display of grace! What a gift! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Amen.

Get Busy and Wait: Jeremiah 33:14-16

JeremiahThink with me for a moment: when was the last time your well-planned trip down the interstate – I95, or maybe the Schuykill – was suddenly interrupted by that dreaded sight: brake lights as far as the eye can see, lines of cars backed up for miles, a parking lot, bumper-to-bumper? Your car comes to a stop, idles, and then… you wait. Why is it so hard for us to wait? It’s not just traffic you know. That website takes more than 5 seconds to load? Obnoxious. How bout that security screening at the airport? Oh, tons of fun. Visited the DMV lately? It’s ridiculous. All this waiting drives us crazy!

Why? Well, we’re busy people. We have plans, goals; we’re going places, pedal to metal, outta my way. Now, some people are “busy” doing things that probably aren’t as important as they think. Some folks could probably stand to wait a little bit. But not us – God has called us! The Kingdom is coming and we got some serious work to do! Our time is God’s time so you better not waste it! Everybody hates waiting because everyone thinks their time is of utmost importance. However, I think those of us who “work on God’s clock” have a particularly difficult time when it comes to waiting on all these “worldly” things getting in the way of our “heavenly” calling.

Our text this morning from the prophet Jeremiah begins with a message we’re sometimes loathe to hearing: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” “The days are surely coming…” Ok, that’s nice Jeremiah but WHEN, when are these days coming? When will God fulfill God’s promises? Waiting in traffic is bad enough, but waiting on God can almost be unbearable. Jeremiah’s audience would surely agree: the holy city Jerusalem was under attack by the Babylonians and God says, “The days are surely coming…”? These people literally had no time to wait; Jerusalem was on life support. Are our lives much different today? We read, we write, we analyze, we meditate, we pray, we preach, we serve, we listen, we counsel, we give, give, give, and we go, go, go and then one day we  just… crash. We’re busy, but if we’re honest we’re really on life support.

In the midst of Israel’s distress, as their world is quite literally being destroyed before their eyes, God speaks a word of promise to God’s people:  “Wait. I am on the way. Trust me. I am faithful. Don’t lose hope.” Israel’s sin had led to this point; they had turned away from God and worshipped idols, forsaking the law, failing to practice righteousness and justice in the land. We have our idols too: namely, ourselves. The law we prefer to follow is not God’s, it’s the one where we’re in control. Justice and righteousness are great but surely not more important than my own personal success. Our self-idolatry propels us to be busier and busier, and more and more out of control. We take God’s work upon ourselves – and that’s quite a burden to carry. God’s says to us today: “Wait. I am on the way. Trust me. I am faithful. Don’t lose hope.”

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord.” These words are hard for us to hear because we want God now, on our terms. The season of Advent teaches us to wait; to wait on God’s coming to save us. Not just to give ourselves a nice break to recharge our batteries before diving headlong back into our crazy, self-important lives. Rather, we wait because our lives, our work, our callings are not really ours at all – they came from God; we belong to God; “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Our waiting leads us to repentance. We realize that it is God who “executes justice and righteousness in the land” – not us. It is God who saves us and heals us day by day; we don’t do this on our own strength. Yes, God has called us to participate in this work of restoring all creation, but we need the humility that can comes as we learn to stop, to wait, and  repent of our self-idolatry. This kind of waiting is hopeful because it allows us to confess, in the words of Bishop Ken Utener, that “the kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.” What might this waiting on God look like in our lives today? One option is the ancient practice of Sabbath; a weekly time to stop, to repent from our attempts to be God, and to celebrate our good, created limits.

Surely, God IS coming to restore our brokenness, to restore the world in justice and righteousness. God is faithful today. Let’s get busy… and wait.

Home Is Where Hesed Is: Ruth 1:1-18

Naomi and Ruth“In the days when the Judges were governing,” an Israelite man named Elimelech lived with his wife Naomi in the little unassuming town of Bethlehem. But, there was a crisis in Bethlehem; a famine was ravaging the land. So, Elimelech and Naomi packed up their things, gathered their sons Mahlon and Chilion, and set off to find relief in a new land: Moab – a place no God-fearing Israelite would ever want to go. Once they settle down, Elimelech dies and Naomi is left alone in a foreign land with her two sons, who end up marrying two Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth. After ten years, Naomi’s sons die and her life seems to be in ruins. But then, some light shines through the darkness: God has visited Israel and given them food. The famine was over; Naomi could go home and she wastes no time. She hits the road back to Bethlehem, with her daughters-in-law by her side. Some time on the way, she stops, turns to Orpah and Ruth, and says:

‘Go back, each of you to your mother’s house. May Yahweh show you faithful love, as you have done to those who have died and to me. Yahweh grant that you may each find happiness with a husband!’ She then kissed them, but they began weeping loudly, and said, ‘No, we shall go back with you to your people.’ ‘Go home, daughters,’ Naomi replied. ‘Why come with me? Have I any more sons in my womb to make husbands for you? Go home, daughters, go, for I am now too old to marry again. Even if I said, “I still have a hope: I shall take a husband this very night and shall bear more sons,” would you be prepared to wait for them until they were grown up? Would you refuse to marry for their sake? No, daughters, I am bitterly sorry for your sakes that the hand of Yahweh should have been raised against me.’ They started weeping loudly all over again; Orpah then kissed her mother-in-law and went back to her people. But Ruth stayed with her. Naomi then said, ‘Look, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her god. Go home, too; follow your sister-in-law.’ But Ruth said, ‘Do not press me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go, wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I shall die and there I shall be buried. Let Yahweh bring unnameable ills on me and worse ills, too, if anything but death should part me from you!’ Seeing that Ruth was determined to go with her, Naomi said no more.

We come this evening to one of the greatest stories told in the Hebrew Scriptures: the story of Ruth. However, in this first chapter, we see that most of the speaking and most of the action belong to Naomi not Ruth. The story begins with Naomi and her family and the troubles they face. It tells of Naomi’s precipitous plunge into desperation. When the story comes to a close in chapter 4, Naomi is back in the spotlight. This book may be titled “Ruth,” but – make no mistake – this is a story about Naomi. So, I want to invite us to enter, if we dare, into Naomi’s reality and sit with her for a moment as her story unfolds.

It’s not a pretty story. It really couldn’t have gotten much worse for a woman in the ancient Near East: there’s famine, the death of a husband, foreign wives, and then the deaths of not one, but TWO, sons, leaving her childless. What we have here is every Israelite’s nightmare; “despair” would probably be the most appropriate word to describe Naomi’s reality. She’s at the wrong end of nearly every social and cultural spectrum: she’s old, she’s a widow, she’s childless, and she is living as a foreigner in the hostile, despised land of Moab. Now, she does have her two daughters-in-law, but, with both of her sons dead, these relationships have been severely weakened. Biblical scholars are actually at a loss to explain what the societal expectations would have been in this strange situation; we might call it “awkward.” What we do know is that Naomi feels hopeless and defeated. For her, all has been lost and she blames God. She has nothing to give to Orpah and Ruth and no hope of providing for their future. She has arrived at this moment of desperation when all she can think to do is to go home. Maybe she can figure something out when she gets back to Bethlehem? Naomi is lost; cut off from her family, her land, her community, and her God. She is homeless, without hope, and utterly alone – except for Orpah and Ruth, but she’d rather go it alone and not burden them with her problems.

For some in the room this evening, you may be immediately identifying with Naomi’s despair. Maybe you’ve been in that place before or you’re going through it now where the rug has just been pulled out from underneath your feet and you’ve fallen flat on your back and, once you pulled yourself up off the floor and looked around, you discovered that you’re all alone and your life, like Naomi’s, is in shambles. If that’s you, God is offering you hope this evening, so hang with me. However, I think many of us may have trouble putting ourselves in Naomi’s shoes. Sure, we’ve had some struggles, but life is going pretty well and we don’t feel homeless, hopeless, or alone. I want to suggest tonight that we all have more in common with Naomi than we think.

While we may all live in houses or apartments, we, like Naomi, are struggling to find our home. We live in a world racked with anxiety; built on our assumption of scarcity, of lack, of insufficiency[1]; we live in a land of perpetual famine – personally and socially. In this world, we fear that we’ll never have enough so we put our hope in getting more… and more… and more. We buy houses that own us; we buy cars that drive us; we consume things that only leave us empty – and wanting more. So, we work and work and work and we never find rest. Caught in this system, we have no time for others, no time for community, for relationship; so just like in Naomi’s time, “the time when the Judges were governing,” everyone does what is right in their own eyes because we all are just trying to break free from our slavery. In a way eerily similar to Israel’s experience under the judges, our society, and maybe our own lives too, are fragmented, divisive, and falling apart. We are constantly on the move looking for more, trying to find a place to settle down, a land “flowing with milk and honey” where we can find rest. Instead, like Naomi, we end up living in strange places where our relationships are always under stress and we’re not sure who is supporting us. We try to be at peace, at home, but it always seems just out of reach and, in the end, we are homeless.

But, as we look back on Naomi’s story, we can have hope because God is working redemption in Naomi’s life – even when Naomi can’t see it. Now, Naomi’s story has a very happy ending: Ruth becomes the source of Naomi’s complete restoration to a place in community amongst her people and her God. Naomi is blessed by God with a new home. However, when we find her at the story’s beginning, Naomi is overwhelmed by her despair and sees little hope for the future. She looks at Ruth and Orpah, the only two people who actually still know her, and demands that they go home. Four times she gives the command: “Go back,” “Go home,” “Go home, daughters go,” and then she says directly to Ruth “Go home too; follow your sister-in-law.” But God was working in a most unexpected place; deep in the heart of a foreign, Moabite woman. In the way her promise to Naomi is worded, Ruth reveals a prior commitment to Naomi’s family and her God. Ruth says that Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God will be her people and her God because they already are. She’s saying, “What is true for me now will continue to be true for me in the future.” In this promise to Naomi, we discover that Ruth knows Yahweh, the God who is “true to his covenant and his faithful love.”[2] In Ruth, we see what the Old Testament authors call hesed – God’s unashamed, faithful, relation restoring, community-keeping love – in order to redeem Naomi. But, Naomi was having none of it. She was ready to send Ruth right on home; in her despair, her homelessness, she couldn’t see how God was leading her to a new home. Through Ruth, God reveals that there is no home, no redemption, apart from communal relationships of faithful, selfless, and unrelenting love and mutual care. Some say “home is where the heart is” but I think Ruth is telling us tonight: “Home is where hesed is.”

The story of Ruth is like a parable; it holds up a mirror and invites us to identify ourselves with its characters. More often than not, we look in this mirror and see who we ought to be, which, for this particular parable, means we see ourselves as Ruth. The message is usually: “Be like Ruth!” Guess what? If we look honestly into this mirror and see ourselves for who we really are, we don’t see Ruth – we see Naomi. We are the ones in need of redemption this evening. We long for community. We long for home. Like Naomi, we are lost in our homelessness, our despair, and we think the only option is to go it alone, to pull up on our bootstraps one more time and see what happens. If all these people around us would just leave us alone we might have a chance! We’d rather just pull up our tent stakes, say our goodbyes, and strike out alone in search of a new “home” whenever things get rough. But church, I wonder tonight, and I worry, that maybe we’re leaving Ruth behind. Could it be that God’s redemption is waiting for us in the very relationships we have chosen to abandon? Could it be that God is creating a new home for us through the very people we would least expect? I wonder tonight if you can’t see God’s redemption because you keep ignoring Ruth. Who is it that you are “sending home,” just trying to avoid so you can get away? God redeemed Naomi and God will redeem us. But our redemption, our home, is only found in community with others, in relationships of faithful love. God is still working through Ruth today… have you turned your back on her?

[1] I have relied on Walter Brueggemann’s thoughts in chapter 1 of Journey to the Common Good (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) for much of this cultural exegesis.

[2] Deuteronomy 7:9 , New Jerusalem Bible.

Does Joshua support religious violence (genocide)?

The three main emphases of Joshua – the possession of the land, obedience to the commands of Moses, annihilation of the peoples of the land – articulate conventional markers  of group identity: possession of territory, proper religious practice, ethnic separation. As the plot moves from beginning to end, each of these markers is affirmed (claims that Israel possessed the entire land, obeyed all the commands of Moses, obliterated all the peoples) and compromised (reports of unoccupied land, disobedience to the commands, remaining peoples), rendering each an unstable element of national identity. As the narrative reaches its conclusion, only the covenant, in which the people choose the God who has chosen them, is left as a defining characteristic. Understood in this way, Joshua does not legitimize religious and ethnic violence, but rather undercuts claims of divine sanctions for such agendas.

by L.D. Hawk from Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, published by InterVarsity Press.