Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Idolatry and Power: Judges 18:1-31

 

Our world has, in many ways, championed the individual and the virtue of independence to an unhealthy degree. We are taught from a young age that we can be whatever we want to be and told that we can do whatever we put our minds to. While these sound bites feel good and may prove popular in the focus-group, if taken to their extreme any number of things can be justified. Add social media to this mix and the constant need for attention and approval (or a constant ego stroking), and you get what we see all around us. Many people have placed themselves at the center of their carefully-constructed solar systems of self-importance and in a world that claims to be more connected than ever before many have actually never been more isolated. Not only is this trend unhealthy for the individual, it is potentially harmful to others. In fact, Judges 18 goes a long way in illustrating the dangers associated with idolatry of the self and the pursuit of self-importance/power. It is my prayer that we might learn from this passage how we as God people ought to vigorously insist on keeping God at the center of our universe and not usurp his rightful place in our lives.



1. ELEMENT #1: A People are Found Ambitious-1:1-6

While in chapter 17 we saw the connection between idolatry and money, in the next chapter of Judges we trace the relationship between idolatry and power. Judges 18 begins with the same ominous note introduced in 17:6—“In those days there was no king of Israel.” This again illustrates the vacuum of godly leadership in and around Israel at the time. This vacuum made it easy for Micah to create a god(s) in his own image rather than submit to and obey the one true God in chapter 17. This same vacuum is also going to leave an entire tribe susceptible to all kinds of nefarious behavior in chapter 18. This tribe is introduced in the last part of verse 1—“and in those days the tribe of the Danites was seeking an inheritance for themselves to live in, for until that day an inheritance had not been allotted to them as a possession among the tribes of Israel.”

In this introduction we learn that the Danites were a people unsatisfied with their home. In Judges 1:34 we learned that this group was beaten back by the Amorites and confined to the hill country. Even before this event, the Danites occupied a land on the coastal plain, leaving them on the front lines of Philistine attacks. Needless to say, they are looking to relocate to an area where they can really thrive.

To this end, the Danites employ five warriors as spies and request that they scope out a new territory for them to occupy—"So the sons of Dan sent from their family five men out of their whole number, valiant men from Zorah and Eshtaol, to spy out the land and to explore it; and they said to them, ‘Go, explore the land.’ And they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah, and stayed overnight there” (1:2). Like the young wandering Levite in chapter 17, these spies stumble upon Micah’s home (and pagan cult shrine) in the hill country of Ephraim. Micah, being the hospitable chap that he is, invites them to stay the night. Little does he know that these same visitors will soon return to wreak havoc on Micah’s household.

However, before we get there, let us observe what else took place upon the first meeting between Micah and these spies—“When they were near the house of Micah, they recognized the voice of the young man, the Levite; and they turned aside there and said to him, ‘Who brought you here? And what are you doing in this place? And what do you have here?’ He said to them, ‘Micah has done this and that for me, and he has hired me and I have become his priest.’” (1:3-4). The spies recognized the southern accent of this Levite and knew that he was somewhat out of place. After inquiring what he was doing in this peculiar place (so far from where he belonged), they learn that he is a priest serving in the house of Micah.

Immediately, these spies seize an opportunity that they hadn’t expected—”Then they said to him, ‘Inquire of god, please, that we may know whether our way on which we are going will be successful.’” (1:5). What these men request of the Levite is an oracle from God (notice however that the covenant name of God, Yahweh, is not used and it is unclear exactly what god they were hoping to hear from). An oracle involved asking a god a yes or no question and sometimes included the casting of lots or, as in this instance, inquiring of a prophet or priest at a shrine. These spies wanted spiritual confirmation that they were heading in the right direction as they sought a land for their people to inhabit. This young Levite, in their minds, could (and does) provide this confirmation for them when he says, “go in peace; your way in which you are going has the Lord’s approval” (1:6). This proclamation is not given after much prayer and careful consideration as much as it is offered carelessly, perhaps in a quick way to curry favor with these visitors. Also, a more literal translation of what the Levite says is ambiguous. In reality, the Levite simply says that the actions of these spies are in full view of Yahweh (not that God is necessarily blessing their endeavor).

The ambition of the Danites and these spies is unmistakable. They are looking to move up on the world’s stage and are taking dramatic steps to that end. Ambition, on its own, is not necessarily a bad thing, however, ambition in those who are far from God is a breeding ground for gross idolatry and certainly this seems to be the case here as the story unfolds.

2. ELEMENT #2: A Parcel is Discovered-1:7-13

With the Levite’s blessing “the five men departed and came to Laish, and saw the people who were in it living in security, in the way of the Sidonians, quiet and unsuspecting; for there was no oppressive ruler humiliating them for anything in the land, and they were far from the Sidonians and had no deals with anyone” (1:7). Poor Laishians, just sitting there minding their own business like an ancient Switzerland in both beauty and neutrality without a care in the world. Now these Danites 100miles away from where they are supposed to be see what these unsuspecting people have and want to take it away from them (for all the obvious reasons). Here is where ambition turns into entitlement. Here, the Danites conclude, “Why shouldn’t this prime real estate be ours, especially if we can easily acquire it?”

The text continues by saying, “When they came back to their brothers at Zorah and Eshtaol, their brothers said to them, ‘What do you say?’ And they said, ‘Arise, and let’s go up against them; for we have seen the land, and behold, it is very good. And will you sit still? Do not hesitate to go, to enter, to take possession of the land. When you enter, you will come to an unsuspecting people with a spacious land; for God has handed it over to you, a place where there is no lack of anything that is on the earth.’” (1:8-10). What is worse than feeling entitled to something that is not yours? How about believing that you have a divine right to something that is not yours. Here, the Danites invoke God (borrowing from their experience with the Levite earlier) to justify their conquest of this land. Sounds crazy, but this is the kind of rationality that can result from unchecked ambition and entitlement both in the ancient world and today. The Danites are bent on gaining a substitute land for what was already given them and nothing appears able to stop them in their pursuit.

The next thing they do is assemble and equip an army for conquest—“Then from the family of the Danites, from Zorah and from Eshtaol, six hundred men armed with weapons of war set out. They went up and camped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah. Therefore they called that place Mahaney-dan to this day; behold, it is west of Kiriath-jearim. And they passed from there to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah” (1:11-13). After collecting their ranks together, they advance to this new area for conquest, only to make a pit stop (like the Levite in chapter 17 and the five spies earlier in chapter 18) at Micah’s home (he must have been set up on the interstate).

Micah’s home does not appear to be the kind of pit-stop that encourages godly behavior. Even still, these troops probably pull in Micah’s driveway given the relatively positive experience that the five spies had earlier.

3. ELEMENT #3: A Prize is Stolen-1:14-26

However, after grabbing their soft drink and chips at the pit stop outside Micah’s home, “the five men who went to spy out the country of Laish said to their kinsmen, ‘Do you know that there are in these houses an ephod and household idols, and a carved image and a cast metal image? Now then, consider what you should do’…” (1:14). Like the region of Laish, Micah’s stash of idols caught the eye of these Danites and, their ambition and entitlement began to take over. After all, if one is able to feel entitled to land that isn’t his, what is stopping him from feeling as though he is entitled to items that don’t belong to him?

But why? Why was there interest in Micah’s stash of pagan relics? Some believe that a light may have clicked on in the minds of the spies upon seeing this religious shrine at Micah’s house. They may have believed that they would need to set up a similar cult site in their new land (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 458). Rather than make their own, it would have been far more convenient to just steal Micah’s and relocate it to the place of their choosing.

“So they turned aside there and came to the house of the young man, the Levite, to the house of Micah, and asked him how he was doing. Meanwhile, the six hundred men armed with their weapons of war, who were of the sons of Dan, were positioned at the entrance of the gate. Now the five men who went to spy out the land went up and entered there; they took the carved image, the ephod, the household idols, and the cast metal image, while the priest was standing at the entrance of the gate with the six hundred men armed with weapons of war” (1:15-17). Picture this. The Levite wakes up in his cottage outside of Micah’s home near the cult shrine to 600 armed men who are standing guard while the five spies you met earlier are hauling away Micah’s personal property without blinking. What is the young Levite to do? All he seems to be able to do is stand and watch this unfold. The ambition and entitlement of these Danites had led to robbery. Clouded by their idolatrous pursuits, the Danites don’t seem to be bothered by this in the least and others seem powerless to stop it.

The text continues with, “When these men entered Micah’s house and took the carved image, the ephod, household idols, and the cast metal image, the priest said to them, ‘What are you doing?’ And they said to him, ‘Be silent, put your hand over your mouth, and go with us, and be to us a father and a priest. Is it better for you to be a priest to the house of one man, or to be priest to a tribe and a family in Israel?’ The priest’s heart was glad, and he took the ephod, the household idols, and the carved image, and went among the people” (1:18-20). Is there any limit to what these Danites are willing to take? It was not enough that they were on their way to steal a land that was not theirs or take idols that did not belong to them. Now, they are after this young Levite—Micah’s employee. After all, if they planned to erect a cult shrine in their new land, they probably reasoned that they would also need a priest to go along with it. Why not just take this guy?

They tempt the Levite with increased power and responsibility—the kind that would not have been possible if he stayed in Micah’s employ. The Levite takes the bait and reveals that like these Danites, he too is teaming with selfish ambition, willing to go anywhere with anyone to climb the latter of self-importance. If he had any sense, he would stop to consider who he was joining—entitled thieves bent on unjust conquest. This does not appear to matter. If they had a better job for him, he would take it.

Notice how this has all unfolded. Unchecked ambition led to entitlement which has grown and given way to idolatry. Make not mistake, while the Danites and the Levite seem to promote the worship of these idols, ultimately they themselves are at the center of their universe, taking the place of the one true God on the throne of their own lives. Everything about these characters is about what they want, what they believe they are entitled to, and what would advance their cause.

4. ELEMENT #4: A Power-grab is Executed-1:27-31

The final element of this chapter in Israel’s story is found in verses 27-31—a power grab is executed. “Then they took what Micah had made and the priest who had belonged to him, and came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, and struck them with the edge of the sword; and they burned the city with fire. And there was no one to save them, because it was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with anyone, and it was in the valley which is near Beth-rehob. So they rebuilt the city and lived in it” (1:27-28). The writer is careful to highlight just how “unsuspecting” and vulnerable the poor people of Laish were against the Danite takeover, making the Danites look like bullies picking on a much younger and smaller kid on the playground. After being totally caught off guard and with no one to team up with, Laish falls to the Danites.

The chapter concludes with the following note in verses 29-31—"And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father who was born to Israel; however, the name of the city was previously Laish. The sons of Dan set up for themselves the carved image; and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of the Danites until the day of the captivity of the land. So they set up for themselves Micah’s carved image which he had made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh.” Here we see the fruition of the Danite’s vision for themselves. They had relocated to a better area, had settled in a new city, and had established a means to worship the idols they had stolen. In a very worldly sense, they proved successful in their endeavor, and yet, all of this is just the latest expression of idolatry of the self fueling a misplaced pursuit of power and self-importance.   

So What?

Can we really expect that these Danites would be satisfied for long in their new digs, in their new arrangement, with their new ornaments? After all, how much power is enough? How many things are enough? When is the monster of entitlement ever satisfied? When is unchecked ambition ever silenced? The Danites and the Levite they steal away from Micah were placing their value and purpose in the next big thing instead of the only thing that mattered—a relationship with the one true God. As a result of their selfish pursuits, they justify offenses against others, even stealing and murder. Though this is an extreme example of what can happen, make no mistake, when anyone places themselves at the center of their universe, others around them ultimately pay a price. Unchecked pride and the selfish ambition and entitlement that comes with it inevitably causes collateral damage. People can prove to be casualties of our idolatrous pursuit of self-importance. Such was the case with the Danites and is often the case today.

To curb this, we must surrender our agendas to the Lord’s greater plan for our lives. We must recognize that the One we follow, God the Son, did not consider what he was entitled to, but instead, emptied himself to sacrifice and serve others. We must remember that God stands at the center of the universe—not you, not me. We are in his orbit, not the other way around.

Monday, January 4, 2021

God is Not For Sale- Judges 17

Today we return to our Judges series—“Broken People, Faithful God”—in chapter 17. I want to reintroduce the context of Judges by drawing several parallels between the days of the Judges and our day today that I think will prove helpful as we look at this text and draw appropriate applications for our lives. You see, Israel in the days of the Judges suffered from a vacuum of godly leadership, leaving people to their own devices and inventing ways to satisfy themselves. In the days of the Judges, the majority of people had forgotten what God revealed in his Word and this ignorance led to all kinds of disruption (both personal and general). If this sounds familiar, it is because this is not unlike our world today. What is interesting is that most people, even those who are far from God, recognize that there is a problem with the way the world is. In fact, many even seek to find a solution. Unfortunately, most end up entertaining the wrong methods/practices/personalities in their pursuit. In today’s passage we are going to witness how this takes place and hopefully draw attention to the only hope for escaping this evil and broken world. In Judges 17 we will learn two important lessons about idolatry that will serve as a helpful reminder to the people of God and a word of correction to those who might find themselves far from the Lord.



1. LESSON #1: You Can’t Build a God-17:1-6

When we last left Judges, we watched God’s people descend to new lows under the leadership (or lack thereof) of Samson. His failure to lead God’s people well was the latest example of many of just how far Israel was from God during this dark period of her history. One might argue that chapter 17 gives us one illustration of the kinds of things that were happening in Israelite homes during this era. In verse 1 we are introduced to an ordinary family from Ephraim that serves as a case study of how NOT to conceive of God or divine favor—“Now there was a man of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Micah” (17:1). Several components of this introduction hint at coming disaster. First, the region of Ephraim and the people from that area have been portrayed negatively by the narrator earlier in the book. Second, the name Micah is a shortened form of “micayehu” which means “who is like Yahweh?” Because the author chooses to use the shortened form of the name, some believe that the reader is being subtly tipped off that this man is going to fall far short of his name’s association in the unfolding story (Block, Judges, Ruth, 478).

Our suspicion about this character receives immediate justification upon reading verse 2—“He said to his mother, ‘The eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, about which you uttered a curse in my hearing, behold, the silver is with me; I took it…” (17:2). Yes, this man had stolen a great sum of money from his mom and only returned it after she cursed the unknown culprit in his presence. What he stole was not just a few dollars from his mother’s pocketbook. Micah had stolen 1,100 shekels (the same amount each of the Philistine governors had given Delilah as a reward for delivering Samson into their hands). This was a great deal of money. Fearful of the curse coming true, Micah returns the money to his mom and fesses up to his crime. Make no mistake, Micah is more concerned about being cursed than he is contrite and repentant for what he did.

However, his mom does not seem to be able to see through this. In fact, she is impressed by what Micah does, so much so that she seeks to bless him and the Lord in a most peculiar way—“He then returned the eleven hundred pieces of silver to his mother, and his mother said, ‘I wholly dedicate the silver from my hand to the Lord for my son to make a graven image and a molten image; now therefore, I will return them to you…” (17:3). The apple (Micah) does not seem to have fallen far from the mis-informed and confused tree (his mother). Once her fortune is restored to her, she celebrates with dedicating the sum to the Lord (sounds good so far). However, she then hopes that the son would use the silver to make a graven image (not so good).

Let us count the ways that the characters in this story have acted against God’s covenant with Israel as found in the ten commandments. First, Micah had stolen (see commandment 8 in Exod 20:15; Deut 5:19). Second, in stealing, Micah had dishonored his mother (see commandment 5 in Exod 20:12; Deut 5:16). Now here in verse 3, we see the mother violating the prohibition against making a physical representation of deity (see commandment 2 in Exod 2:4-5; Deut 5:8-9). This laundry list of infractions once again reveals the spiritual condition of God’s people in this era. While we might want to blame willful wickedness for these crimes against God, I am not sure if these are not committed more out of ignorance. How else might you explain the mom’s desire to use the very silver she as just dedicated to Yahweh to build an idol? Acute ignorance of God’s revelation can be the only explanation for such an action. This reveals just how important it is to know and be reminded of what God has said.

The text continues in verse 4: “So when he returned the silver to his mother, his mother took two hundred pieces of silver and gave them to a silversmith who made them into a graven image and a molten image, and they were in the house of Micah,…” (17:4). While we are not sure what happened to the rest of the silver, at least 200 pieces of it was used in the construction of this idol (roughly five pounds). Though not a large statue, it was important enough for Micah to later refer to it as one of his “gods which [he] had made” (see 18:24). This new object of Micah’s worship was placed in his home. This too (like the laundry list of infractions already mentioned) was in direct violation of God’s law as found in Deuteronomy 12. There, God declares that when the Israelites entered the land and had settled in it, they were to worship only at the place which Yahweh would authorize (see Deut 12:4-7, 11, 13-14, 18;18, 26-27) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 480-81). Here, Micah establishes a cult center for worship of his own choosing.

More details of this cult center are revealed in verse 5—“and the man Micah had a shrine and he made an ephod and household idols and consecrated one of his sons, that he might become his priest…” (17:5). The latest idol used from his mom’s silver appears to be just the latest addition to a collection of false gods Micah had accrued/manufactured as part of his own personal lavish house of pagan worship. Micah’s commitment to his idolatry is not just witnessed in the large number of “household idols” lining his bookshelves and standing in his garden; it is also seen in the employment of one of his sons to serve as a priest! Don’t worry though, Micah had taken the time to consecrate this son for the role (as if that means anything given what we have already learned about this man). This man was devoted to his false worship. He sacrificed time, space, and resources to practice his own brand of idolatry. Micah even drew others around him to participate in the charade. What can explain such a blatant display of ungodliness? Verse 6 reveals the answer.

“In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6). A vacuum of godly leadership left everyone to live according to their own devices and with this autonomy came pervasive idolatry. This verse, in fact, goes a long way in explaining much of what happened in the time of the Judges as recorded in this book. Personal autonomy birthed pervasive idolatry.

The same happens today in our world. Our culture questions all authority (especially God’s authority and the authority of his Word) and has made everyone a king or queen of their own life. As a result, people cherry pick their own objects of worship (or make their own) in an effort to satisfy the spiritual itch every human possesses. What we see placed around many people today, what many give their time to, what many place their hope in, what many spend money on, and what many spend their attention pursuing, is not unlike Micah’s cult worship center—a collection of man-made things accrued to bring meaning, value, and hope in the place of the one true God. However, the point the author of Judges is making here is that you cannot build a god (at least one worth worshiping). Not only is it forbidden in Scripture, it is foolish. Such gods are inept at providing the satisfaction humans are pursuing and offer no ultimate or compelling hope. Though idols might prove comfortable, familiar, and taylor-made to make people feel good, they will inevitably disappoint and most assuredly lead to destruction.

2. LESSON #2: You Can’t Buy Divine Favor-17:7-13

The next lesson concerning God and divine favor involves a new character that emerges onto the scene in verses 7-8—"Now there was a young man from Bethlehem in Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite; and he was staying there. Then the man departed from the city, from Bethlehem in Judah, to stay wherever he might find a place; and as he made his journey, he came to the hill country of Ephraim to the house of Micah” (17:7-8). Like Micah introduced in verses 1-2, there is something a bit off about the description of this youth from Bethlehem in verses 7-8. First, he hails from the wrong place. In Joshua 21:9-16 we learn that Bethlehem is not one of Judah’s Levitical towns. Also, we discover later (in 18:30) that this man was a descendent of Gershom son of Moses and therefore was supposed to live in Ephraim, Dan, or western Manasseh (Josh 21:4, 20-26). This unnamed character is a man wandering from the wrong place to Lord knows where and Lord knows why and stumbles upon the home and local cult-shrine of Micah while looking for a place to stay.  

“Micah said to him, ‘Where do you com from?’ And he said to him, “I am a Levite from Bethlehem in Judah, and I am going to stay wherever I may find a place.’…” (17:9). You can hear the opportunism in this man’s voice as he proudly claims his tribal/professional class only to then confess his openness to any opportunity that might come his way (whatever opportunity that Micah might have for him) (Block, Judges, Ruth, 488). What is of special interest to Micah upon this man’s response to his question is this man’s status as a Levite. This tribe was given responsibility for the spiritual leadership of the nation (what a bang-up job they had done). “According to Exodus 32:25-29, because the descendants of Levi had distinguished themselves by standing with Moses against apostasy represented by the gold calf, they were rewarded for their faithfulness to Yahweh by receiving the divine blessing and being dedicated for priestly service” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 486). But oh how the times had changed and how all the tribes had fallen, including the Levites, out of a right relationship with God.

This doesn’t appear to matter to Micah. All he hears is “Levite” and immediately associates this man with all things religious and spiritual. Never one to pass on an opportunity himself, Micah makes this Levite an offer—“Micah then said to him, ‘Dwell with me and be a father and a  priest to me, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, a suit of clothes, and your maintenance.’…” (17:10). Here, Micah offers the Levite a salaried position as a spiritual advisor in his cult complex of pagan idolatry. He promises the man payment, cool clothes, and regular provisions. Not only does Micah desire a companion, he wants a father-figure of sorts and someone to serve as his representative before God and to see to it that religious practices are performed at his shrine on his behalf.

You might be wondering to yourself, “I thought Micah had already enlisted his son as his priest?” You would be right. This quick change suggests that Micah is understandably ambivalent about his spiritual practices (and rightfully so given that they are all out of whack). This Micah obviously has daddy issues (and I mean that both in a literal and spiritual way) and cannot seem to find real rest in the manufactured religion he has constructed for himself on a compromised foundation of syncretism (the mixture of the one true God with the paganism of the world). You see, when your spiritual foundation is precarious, you are always having to repair whatever is on top. Micah believes that hiring an actual Levite as a priest will go a long way in stabilizing the shaky worldview he is endorsing. However, as we will eventually learn, this Levite will only serve a crude band aid for a much more desperate flaw.

The text continues, “The Levite agreed to live with the man, and the young man, and the young man became to him like one of his sons,…” (17:11). While the Levite agrees to live with him as requested, immediately the intended roles are reversed. Instead of the Levite becoming to Micah like a father, he is treated like a son. Let’s be honest, Micah doesn’t really want to place himself under the authority of someone else (even if it is on his own terms). No one does in their flesh. Micah has been too comfortable for too long calling his own shots. Why give that up now when he can have the feeling of being spiritual and the mirage of being close to God without any of the submission?

Just like he did his son, “Micah consecrated the Levite,” and again I ask, one what authority (moral or otherwise) does Micah do this? Nevertheless, “the young man became his priest and lived in the house of Micah,…” (17:12). Take a moment and just digest how backwards this situation (and all the people therein) is. You have a child of the one true God erecting a makeshift pagan shrine out of his own home that would make a polytheist blush who turns it into a family business and then implicates an actual Levite in the farce by paying him off to abandon his actual calling and duties. This Micah does to again scratch the spiritual itch all humans possess. It may not make any sense and on its face and it may prove to be utter nonsense; but it made Micah feel good.  

Just note the tone deaf comment from Micah that ends the chapter—“Then Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, seeing I have a Levite as priest’…” (17:13). Oh really Micah, is that what you “know” now? What do you know? Very Little! This stupid conclusion that Micah reaches betrays his whole prerogative in this second half of the chapter—buying divine favor. Micah believed that if he had the right assortment of idols and the right people employed in his pagan practice, he would somehow be able to purchase divine favor.

So What?

Before we write Micah off as crazy, we must recognize just how typical this is in our world today. You see, our culture is not too different from the world of the Judges in which people do what is right in their own eyes. This includes what is right in connection to the divine. As made in the image of God, human beings have a bent toward worship. However, because of sin in the world, this inclination is directed at the wrong things—things that are ultimately unsatisfactory and only give way to personal anxiety and destruction. Like Micah, misinformed people will pursue any number of things or a collection of things for purpose, meaning, hope, and blessing. While they know they need these, they are unwilling to embrace the only One who can provide them. Rather than submit to the authority God has over their lives, they make themselves the authority over their lives and scramble aimlessly to satisfy their cravings for wholeness, going to great lengths to construct their version of god and seeking to earn/purchase divine favor. Sometimes, like Micah, these same people drag others around them into their charade and end up living woefully inconsistent and incomplete lives.

The good news is that there is another way. There is one God who alone provides satisfaction for the soul, purpose for life, truth, and hope in all things. He is knowable for those who are willing to surrender their lives over to him—those who are willing to take off their embarrassing god-costume and stop looking foolish. Also, there is one Way—Jesus Christ—to enjoy divine favor with God. He purchased this favor when we never could and offers it in grace through repentance (turning away from yourself and your vain pursuits) and faith (trusting in who he is and what he has accomplished).  

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

More Like Jesus in 2021: Humility-Philippians 2:1-1-11

 

As the New Year begins many people are hoping for better things ahead in 2021 and some are making resolutions to that end. I have never been much for resolutions, and yet, after some reflection on my own life and the life of our church, the Lord has impressed upon me a focus that I want to introduce to you today in a special New Year message that I am praying will point us in the direction God would have us travel in together. The theme and focus is “more like Jesus.” I want my life, the life of my family, and the life of our church to look more like Christ. Throughout the year and in tandem with prayer meetings and during special series at different intervals throughout the year we will be visiting and revisiting this theme as we grow together as a body of believers. This starts today as we are introduced to one of the most foundational, most necessary, and most challenging ways to look more like Jesus—humility. Today we are going to witness THREE PARTS OF PAUL’S CALL TO HUMILITY in Philippians 2:1-11 and apply what we learn in appropriate ways in our lives as needed.



I. PART #1: THE CALL TO HUMILITY-2:1-4

It must have been a joy for Paul to write to the church in Philippi. He had planted this church while in the region and after some years had passed, this church had grown and was thriving in many ways. However, even good churches have their share of concerns. You know what a church needs to hear from Paul because, well, Paul will tell them in these letters the Lord inspired. One of the things Paul is willing to call out (literally by name) in the letter to Philippi involved a dispute between two women (Euodia and Syntyche) in chapter 4:2-3. Given this source of division and tension, Paul highlights one of the many characteristics that the church ought to consider and improve upon so that this example (and others like it) did not disrupt what God was doing in the life of this congregation. It just so happens that this needed area of improvement is also what Christ exemplifies and excels at so well—humility (but alas, I am getting ahead of myself).

So important is the call to humility for this church that Paul introduces it in the following way—“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship off the Spirit, if any affection and compassion” (2:1). You can tell from reading this opening that what is coming is exceedingly important and to be investigated very carefully.

What proves exceedingly important and especially worthy of investigation as it pertains to humility in the life of the church is answered next in verse 2—“make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (2:2). Humility looks like unity and a body that is not united most assuredly has members operating from the opposite posture—pride. Pride, the opposite of humility, is the enemy of unity. Competition instead of cooperation among the members breeds discord and paralysis. This was true in the church of Philippi and it is true in the church today. Notice to what extent Paul goes to highlight how necessary unity is in the life of the church. Unity is said to not only “complete his joy” but words like “same,” “united,” and “one” are repeated again and again in this single verse. If you want to know whether a body of believers is adequately humble, Paul appears to argue that unity is a good gauge.

However, unity is not the only hallmark of humility Paul emphasizes. Next, Paul introduces selflessness as another test for a heathy body of believers—“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…” (2:3).

I have often quipped that if was ever called to give a graduation speech or present at a baccalaureate ceremony I would slowly walk up to the podium, lean into the microphone and very clear utter a single word—“others”—and quickly step away and return to my seat. After all, “others” ought to be our preoccupation in life, regardless of what God may call us to do. That is, after all, who we are left on this earth for—others. It is the second greatest command given to us by God—loving “others”—and one of the most important ways we obey the first greatest commandment –loving God. An “others”-focus is what we see modeled in the life of Christ and his apostles. Others is what this life is all about…not you…others!

Paul makes this very clear in his call to humility when he utters verse 3 which reads (again) “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (2:3). A humble church is  concerned about the feelings, needs, desires, etc. of others first and gives others precedent over personal agendas, personal campaigns for self-aggrandizement, and personal preferences.

In fact, Paul’s call of the church goes beyond merely treating others as equals. That is not a high enough bar to clear. Notice what he states: “but with humility of mind regard one another as MORE IMPORTANT than yourself” (2:3). Therefore, the old adage “treat others the way you want to be treated” ought to instead read “treat others even better than you would like for them to treat you.” This applies to the way one speaks to others as well as what one does for others. People in the church of Philippi may have been tempted to say “Well, I don’t need to hear that” or “I don’t handle my business that way” in their dealings with one another. Here, Paul responds with “So what? To do more than you may think is necessary in a situation is to be like Christ and that is ultimately what the church ought to be pursuing—Christ-likeness (but alas, again I am getting ahead of myself).

So far Paul has argued for the church at Philippi that a humble church is a united church and a selfless church. In verse 4 he adds that the humble church is a serving church—“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:4). Oh how this must have spoken to volumes to the church in Philippi where so much was going on and the church was enjoying growth in many directions. Paul’s encouragement here is to avoid compartmentalizing the ministry of the body into tribes/factions/silos that are mutually exclusive. After all, when this happens, different campaigns, efforts, or endeavors begin to compete rather than cooperate and mini man-made kingdoms replace the mission of the kingdom of God. It is important that the members of the body support and pray for all efforts in the church, even/especially those in which one may not have direct involvement. The nature/proximity of our involvement in this or that ought have no bearing on our enthusiasm to see this or that succeed as the church is on mission. When we choose to serve only what interests us or supports our pet project, we rob ourselves of the joy that comes when God may be doing something elsewhere.

Paul’s call for the church of Philippi to be humble requires that unity win out against division, selflessness beat self-centeredness, and service overwhelm mini-kingdom-building. So urgent and important are these encouragements toward humility that Paul frames these many admonitions through present active participles, indicating that these practices are ongoing, progressive, and require consistent and deliberate work on the part of the members of the church. These are things—unity, selflessness, and service—to work at constantly. Such enterprises ought to be on the radar of every Bible-believing, God serving member of any church (be it in Philippi or in this one right here). Thankfully, Paul provides an example for the church to learn from as they are about these pursuits.

II. PART #2: THE EXAMPLE OF HUMILITY-2:5-8

When looking for a standard to judge oneself against or an example worthy following, you cannot get any better than Jesus himself. Paul introduces Christ as the humility expert in verse 5 when he says, “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). While unity, selflessness, and service are good instructions to follow, Paul throws these up against a more general and all-encompassing test case to consider—the life and ministry of Jesus. Ultimately, the call to humility for the church is the call to Christ-likeness. So what did he do? How might the church follow in his footsteps?

Paul presents three expressions of humility in the life of Christ that believers can learn from in verses 6-8 that are of special significance. In fact, together these verses form one of the most powerful and aesthetically-pleasing hymns on the ministry of Jesus ever written. In it the incarnation is highlighted first with—“who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” (2:6-7a). Consider what Paul says here very carefully. First, Jesus existed “in the form of God.” In other words, his form perfectly expressed the inner reality that he was and is God himself. Hebrews 1:3 puts it this way: “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” Paul says elsewhere of Christ that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).

No other resume is higher than Christ’s—this one who preexisted time, created the world, and sustains all things in his power. He is unlike us in that there never was a time in which he was not. No higher status can be granted that he doesn’t already have and no greater glory can be enjoyed that isn’t already his.  And yet, while possessing all of these things and all of the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto this same Jesus—the glorious son of God and second person of the Trinity—“did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6). I love that. While Jesus could have insisted to embrace his glorious splendor undisturbed, he willingly chose to forego certain blessings that only he knew how to enjoy to accomplish God’s will. Though equal with the Father, he subordinated himself to the Father’s plan and left the comforts and wonders of heaven for others (a selfless service brought on by his unity with the Father).

To follow Christ and to look like Christ means taking on the same willingness to let go of what we think we need, what we may feel entitled to, or what we believe is owed to us either from God or from others to move forward with God’s plan. Oh how we love to grasp hold of our way, our agenda, our preferences, our public perception, or what we have worked so hard to achieve. Christ-likeness is not about grasping hold of things tightly, but about letting them go and placing the Father’s agenda first. People might say “but I know better!” or “it is comfortable here” or “I’ve always been” or “that isn’t what I had in mind.” I am glad Jesus did not say these things or stay where he was. His incarnation proves his humility and part of that incarnation involved letting go of what was rightfully his for the sake of God’s will. Some of us would look a lot more like Jesus if we would let go of what we believe we are entitled to and quit insisting that we get our way in everything. Jesus did not lean on what was his and demand what always was, he emptied himself. He became human! The only way for Jesus to empty himself would be to take on limits and this he did by wrapping himself in flesh and becoming a man. To do this he left (at least in some ways) his position, rank, and privilege, rendering these “of no effect” (Melick Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 103). Think of the quantum plunge this required, the levels to which God the Son stoop, the degree he was willing to condescend to accomplish this. We are talking about steps toward humility that make the Mariana Trench (the deepest known point in the earth’s ocean) look like a shallow puddle.

However, Jesus does not just exemplify humility in his incarnation, but while at this subterranean level of humanity, we see evidence of his modesty in the way he lived—“taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (2:7b). Though a king, he was born in a manger. Though God made flesh, the Bible says “there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him” (Isa 53:2). Though he is of the highest stature, he became a servant. Though God, he lived life as a man. Perhaps this is why he consistently taught that the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Matt. 19:29-30) and that the greatest among you will be a servant (Matt. 23:11).

If the example of Christ’s humility could not grow any more acute, consider how his humility was expressed in his death! Paul continues “being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8).  As a true “bond-servant” Jesus chose to obey even when it cost him his life, and that further in a most ignoble and humiliating way” (Melick Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 105). The impact of Jesus’s death by crucifixion would have been powerful for the Philippian audience. After all, no Roman could be subjected to such a death and the Jews took it as a sign that the victim was accursed (Deut. 21:22; Gal. 3:13). It was one of the most painful and humiliating ways to be executed ever conceived by man and Jesus humbled himself to this extent out of obedience to for the glory of the Father.

Christ’s humility in death is an especially important reminder to us today in our world that champions comfort and preaches safety, security, and health as ultimate virtues. Make no mistake brother and sister in Christ, God’s chief concern in your life and my life is not about your comfort, safety, security, or even health; it is that he receives the maximum glory from you regardless of what that entails and despite what that may cost. Such was true of Jesus himself and it ought to be true of those who follow him.

III. PART #3: THE RESULT OF HUMILTY-2:9-11

After exploring the call of humility and the example of humility, the apostle Paul explores the result of humility. For Christ, the result of his humiliation was exaltation—“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,…” (2:9). Following Jesus’ condescension, service, and sacrifice for others, he was elevated greatly/exceedingly and bestowed a name higher than any other. This is not to say that Jesus became anything that he was not already. It is to say that what he was (and is) was confirmed in special ways. It is in his humility that his glory is most realized for those who are willing to accept him for who he is and what he accomplished.

In fact, accept him now or not, one day Paul says that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11). Here lies the ultimate result of Christ-like humility—the glory of God the Father. For Christ, his humility was awarded with exaltation because in exalting Christ, God exalts the One who is the “image of the invisible God” the “exact representation of his glory.” As followers of Christ, when the church models Jesus’ example of humility, she resembles him and returns to the Father the glory that is due his name. The church is operating best and glorifying God most when she and her members are at their most humble. That is when they look most like the one who humbled himself on their behalf.

So What?

This year as a church we will giving special focus to living and speaking more like Jesus. As Paul has indicated in this passage for the church in Philippi, humility goes a long way to that end. We have been called to humility, been given the greatest example of humility, and have the greatest reason to live humbly like our Savior (the glory of God). What does this look like? It looks like unity, selflessness, and service and less like competition, self-aggrandizement, and personal kingdom-building. It looks less getting our way and pursing God’s will. It looks less like grasping hold of what we believe we are entitled to or expect from others and more like letting go and giving God control in all things. It looks less like treating others how we think they should be treated and more like treating them better than we treat ourselves. It looks less like comfort, security, and safety and more like obedience, faith, and sacrifice, regardless of what it costs. This is a message I am convinced the church needs to hear in this moment, especially as we stand at the precipice of a new year and give ourselves to reflecting and thinking ahead. I’m convinced of this so much because of how I’ve wrestled with this message and its implications in my own life. Maybe I’m alone; but I think not.  

You see, after ten years in full time ministry and some reflection during time away this past week, I can honestly say that this past year has stretched me more than any before it on so many various levels. Amid the trials and triumphs, frustrations and blessings, something has been made very clear to me after spending a lot of time with myself…I am relatively sick and tired of me. Because I know what is in me. I know what I am. I do not need more of me, my way, or my agenda, or my attitude, or my preferences, or what I believe I’m entitled to. I need more of Jesus. I need more of Jesus every day. Because as Paul says in Colossians 1:27, there is nothing about me that is exceptional, brilliant, prepared, or qualified. It is Christ in me that is the hope of glory.

Aren’t you tired of you? If you are not tired of you, maybe you have not thought hard enough about who you are. Maybe you don’t know yourself as good as you think you do. Maybe you have not thought about how much you struggle with that old ugly pride that like an unending whack-a-mole character rears its head again and again and again. Maybe you don’t know how debilitating the ancient foe of pride is to your pursuit of being more like Christ in the context of his church. If you want to be more like Jesus in 2021 and every year thereafter, let it start with less of you and more of him. Let it start with humility.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Journey to Bethlehem Pt. 3 Luke 2:8-20

 Over the last several weeks we have been making trips to Bethlehem. First, we traveled with Ruth and Naomi to a place of restoration and blessing following a season of tragedy and discouragement. Last week we traveled with Mary and Joseph to a place of fulfilled promises following inconveniences and peculiarities. Today we are going to take one more Journey to Bethlehem, this time alongside several shepherds the same night Jesus was born. Their story is revealed to us in Luke 2:8-20 and as we witness two meetings that take pace in this passage we will learn that journeying to Christ is only the beginning of what God has in store for those who embrace him in faith.



I. MEETING #1: THE ANGELS MEET WITH THE SHEPHERDS-2:8-14

When we last left the Christmas story we saw the greatest miracle ever—the birth of Jesus Christ. God had come to earth as a baby and news of this magnitude needed to be shared. Enter the next set of characters to emerge onto the scene—“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night…” (2:8). While it might seem a bit peculiar to announce this important news first to shepherds in a field (especially when one understands their humble place in society), consider the prominent role shepherds play in the Scriptures. King David, after all, was a shepherd and God is described as a shepherd (see Psalm 23:1). Later Jesus himself would be called the Good Shepherd (see Jn. 10:11). These references seem to indicate that God seems pleased with associating with and elevating the lowly for his incredible purposes. This would be Jesus’ M.O. throughout his ministry as he would extend good news to those who were humble enough to understand that they needed it. What a treat, undeserved and unmerited, it would be for these shepherds to be entrusted with this great news of Christ’s birth!

While watching their sheep in the cool of the night “an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (2:9). Just imagine these men, nodding off to the soft braying of the sheep and the sound of nearby crickets, suddenly being awakened by the bright light and presence of this heavenly figure. This angel was probably that same Gabriel who appeared in 1:11, 19, 26 to foretell the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. The initial reaction to the emergence of this angel is terror (and understandably so). It is not every day you are visiting by a figure from heaven with the glory of the Lord. In fact, remember, heaven had been relatively silent for over 400 years! The shepherds were anything but prepared for what they saw and, what they were about to hear. That said, this is just the latest in a series of divine interruptions used the lives of people to bring them to Bethlehem—to a place of great blessing. Remember, Ruth and Naomi’s life was interrupted by death and famine; Mary’s life was interrupted by a miraculous pregnancy; Joseph’s life by a decree from Caesar; and now these shepherds with the appearance of an angel. God uses these interruptions to interrupt the world of sin and death with the solution of a Savior.

After the initial shock of this divine disruption, “the angel said to them (these shepherds), ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all people’…” (2:10). The nature of the message the angel gives is especially important. First, it is good news. This is the definition of the gospel—(euaggelion). In fact, it is the best news of all—God has sent his Son to save the world. Second, this should bring about great joy. In a world of heartache, brokenness, darkness, and death, nothing can change the fact that God has provided a remedy for and ultimate salvation from these things. This ought to provide sustaining joy to all who know and understand it. Third, this gospel and joy is “for all the people.” It is for everyone who will accept and embrace it! Rich and poor, Jew and gentile, slave and free, shepherds and kings (Gal. 3:28; 1 Tim. 2:3-6). I imagine the look of terror on these shepherds faces was beginning to change, their mouths curving into a smile.

Next, the angel reveals that this gospel and joy with implications for the world is found in a very special newborn baby—“for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). This birth announcement indicates that this baby has a royal pedigree (city of David) and would be the long-awaited “Savior” of his people. In the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah, God is frequently identified as the “Savior” of his people. Jesus would prove to be the Savior because through him God would redeem his people (Strauss, ZIBBC, 343). The title the angel gives Jesus—“Christ the Lord”—calls to mind his special anointing as the salvation-bringing king of the Jews in keeping with the messianic expectation found in promises of the Old Testament. A King, Savior, and Messiah had been born to bring good news and joy for all who would accept it.

This message could be verified in a confirming sign—“This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12). Perhaps we can now understand part of the reason behind the peculiar nursery Jesus was inhabiting. After all, how many babies would be found lying in a feeding trough? Certainly, this anomaly would help indicate that something very special had taken place, that is, if the shepherds were willing to check things out for themselves.

If this wasn’t already enough of a spectacle, “suddenly there appeared with eh angel a multitude of the heavenly host,…” (2:13a). Such hosts or “armies” of heaven reveal God’s sovereign power and authority—sovereignty that we have already traced in every detail both great and small in this unfolding story. The same God who orchestrated the geo-political climate, lives of Mary and Joseph, timing of the pregnancy, and issuing of the decree so that the birth of Christ would take place at the exact right place at the exact right time in the exact right way was now showing his control over who would receive the news and how it would be spread.

This heavenly host turns into a mighty chorus of singers “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (2:13b-14). Here, the events and circumstances of Jesus’ birth are properly directed to the glory of God. Everything that has occurred in this endeavor of bringing God’s Son into the world glorified the Lord in a most special way. Not only that, but it would result in “peace among men with whom he is pleased.” Those who will embrace God’s gift will know the peace of God that overwhelms the anxiety and brokenness brought on by sin.

Talk about an exciting meeting! A welcome interruption of the greatest news about the greatest gift come to the world to provide the greatest relief from mankind’s greatest problem. This news is just as good today, and it is our prayer that if it has not already interrupted your life, it would this Christmas.

II. MEETING #2: THE SHEPHERD MEET WITH JESUS-2:15-20

The shepherds respond to this divine interruption with immediate action. Luke reveals that ”when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, ‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us’…” (2:15). The way this response is described here suggests that the shepherd left at once in a hurry to confirm what the angel has disclosed to them.

“So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as he lay in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds probably checked the animal stables until they found the one with the baby; Bethlehem was not a large town by modern standards and this search probably did not take too long for them (Keener, IVPBBC, 185). Their journey to Bethlehem ended when they happened upon exactly what the angel predicted they would see—the God-child laying in a manger with Mary and Joseph on either side.

What a special camaraderie this small group shared on this most consequential night. All these parties had journeyed to Bethlehem because each of their stories was interrupted and redirected according to God’s grand narrative. Mary and Joseph were brought to Bethlehem at the behest of Caesar’s edict, the shepherds were called to the stable at the call of the angel, and Jesus was sent through Mary to save the world. Each in their own way, following the journey to Bethlehem, was brought to this point of blessing in keeping with God’s plan and mighty purposes.

The text goes on to say that “when (the shepherds) had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child…” (2:17). This implies that the first reaction to the experience they just had with Jesus was to go and tell others what they had witnessed. This is the first example of a pattern that will surface again and again throughout Jesus’ ministry and thereafter. Many who are healed by Jesus later in his ministry go and tell those around them what occurred. The Samaritan woman at the well, immediately upon her interaction with Jesus, shares who he is with her town. The disciples, following the resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit, go and tell Jesus’ story and establish the church. Saul, after confronting Jesus on the road to Damascus, changes his name to Paul and spends the rest of his life going and telling others the gospel message throughout the Roman Empire. The Ethiopian Eunuch, after learning about Jesus from Philip, was saved only to then go and tell his people back home. The Philippian jailer, after hearing about Jesus, goes and tells his family. We could go on and tell you story after story that repeats the same theme. This pattern, which began with the shepherds seems to be the first and most appropriate response to interfacing with Jesus—whether the person or his message. Those who understand who Jesus is and what he came to bring ought not be able to help themselves and, like these shepherds, busy themselves with sharing the greatest news of all.

The testimony of the shepherds appears to prove effective as “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds…” (2:18). At least for the present, this “wonder” that was instilled in those who heard their message was enough to set in motion the next phase of God’s plan. There was something wonderful about what was shared by these shepherds and the happenings of that first Christmas night and such wonder drew the gaze of those who heard their report toward the heavens. “Could this be true?” “Has God broken through?” “Is salvation really come to earth?” The answer to these questions is a resounding YES! Jesus has been born and with him, the redemption for all who believe.

Do you know this? If you know this are you keen to go and tell those around the greatest news of all? Do people stand in wonder at your testimony of who God is and what he has done? What better gift can we possible give this Christmas than to go and tell this story and what it means to those who have not heard it or have not yet been willing to embrace it?

So What?

Over the last several weeks we have journeyed to Bethlehem no less than three times: with Naomi and Ruth, with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and with the shepherds. We have made the case that God has been actively engaged in all of the details to bring all of these parties to this special place at very specific times and in very specific ways so that he might bring all to a point of unprecedented blessing. This same sovereign God is in control of this moment and your viewing of this message (whether live in-person, online, or in recorded form). It is not by accident that you are listening to this or watching this at this juncture in your life. The only question you must answer is why? What is God trying to get through to you or leading you to do in response to what you have heard? Perhaps God is leading you, much like the shepherds to the person of Jesus Christ so that you might surrender to him and embrace the gift that he was sent to bring—salvation. Perhaps God is leading you, much like Mary and Joseph, to be obedient, even in the little things, trusting that God is in control over even the small details and working them out for his good in your life. Or perhaps, as in Ruth and Naomi’s case, God is revealing to you that despite the heartache and struggle, he is not through with you and is, even in this season, leading you according to his perfect will. Do not miss out on what God has for you this Christmas. Take the journey he is leading you to take and wait expectantly for all the wonderful things he will do!

Monday, December 7, 2020

Journey to Bethlehem Pt. 2 -Luke 2:1-7

 Typically during this season, many people are thinking about different trips they will be taking to celebrate Christmas—visits to family, going to grandma’s house, taking a long-anticipated vacation, etc. However, given everything going on in our world today, many traditions and/or plans have changed. Christmas will look very different for many people this year and this can prove annoying, frustrating, an inconvenient in many ways. Regardless of what may happen to your plans this year, today, I thought we would take a trip of our own back to the first Christmas. As part of this trip, like last week, we are going to go on another journey to Bethlehem. This journey is recorded for us in Luke 2 and given the four observations we will make in verses 1-7, we are going to learn that God’s sovereignty extends to even those annoying, frustrating, and inconvenient disruptions to our plans. In fact, even these can be used of God to bring us to a place of blessing.



I. OBSERVATION 1: THE COMMAND-7:1-2

The account that Luke provides in chapter 2 connects worldwide significance to the relatively trivial events in Judea (Strauss, ZIBBC, 339)—“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” (7:1a). What began in a small town with a couple of special birth announcements for Elizabeth and Mary is now set alongside the backdrop of the entire Roman Empire. The author suggests that something major is going to take place. What will happen in Judea is going to affect the entire world. At this time, Causer Augustus (“exalted one”) was in power and was responsible for inaugurating the Pax Romana (an unprecedented period of peace and stability throughout the entire Mediterranean region). “The freedom and relative safety of travel afforded by this peace would prove a major factor for the rapid expansion of the gospel message” later in Jesus’ story (Strauss, ZIBBC, 341). These details reveal God’s sovereign control over history. It is in this context on the world’s stage that a decree goes out at the very time when the greatest gift God would ever offer could be introduced to the world. When we consider the journeys God has for his people, we must remember that the Lord is both aware of, involved in, and willing to use even the small details of life to execute his great purposes.

In this case, the decree was “that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria,…” (7:1b-2). Censuses were routine in the Roman empire and were used (as they are today) for a host of purposes (taxation, registration, information, etc.). Many understandably balk at government intrusion into their personal lives and tend to resist what appear to be frivolous requirements and/or hoops that we are made to jump through; however, consider that even these kinds of ordinances and annoyances were used in God’s plan all those years ago to bring this journey to Bethlehem about! Yes, God is not just sovereign over the time and details of a journey; he is also involved in the trivialities we are made to endure that seem, on their face, to be meaningless or unnecessary.

II. OBSERVATION 2: THE COORDINATES-7:3-4

In compliance with the decree “everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city,…” (7:3). It is possible that the Romans here, as on other occasions, allowed their client states (or local jurisdictions) to conduct affairs according to local customs. In the case of this census, Judea may have decided to count the people according to ancestral tribal divisions. Everyone in Judea was made to return to his/her tribal roots to be registered. Talk about an inconvenience! Taking time out of life to travel to your family’s hometown just to be counted seems to have at least provided potential for some frustration. And yet, the people complied, including a man named Joseph.

Let us consider Joseph for a minute (as the spotlight is often appropriately directed to others involved in the Christmas story like Jesus and Mary). Joseph was, by all accounts, a good man, respected in his small town both as a blue-collar professional and in the synagogue. As far as we can tell, Joseph was the kind of man you would wish the very best for. However, though Joseph appears to do everything by the book, several unexpected things had interrupted his rather ordinary life in Nazareth. His beloved Mary, whom he was engaged to and had honored and respected and kept pure, turns up pregnant. Fearing the worst (that she had proven unfaithful), Joseph considers his options and nearly divorces Mary quietly. Imagine Joseph’s surprise when he is visited by an angel in a dream and learns that this baby Mary is carrying is the son of God and that her pregnancy is a result of the Holy Spirit’s power in her life. After submitting to this grand plan and electing to play a small role in God’s unfolding story, Joseph now learns that he must take a very pregnant Mary with him to be counted in the census. This episode in Joseph’s life was anything but convenient, easy, normal, or expected. That said, Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem is exactly what God desired in his life at this very moment in history.

So there went Joseph in compliance with the decree—“[he] went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem,…” (7:4b). Bethlehem proves to be the destination of Joseph’s journey. “The House of Bread,” located about five miles south of Jerusalem, was closely associated with King David, being his birthplace and original home. It was in Bethlehem where, even before David, seed was restored to Naomi’s family through a kinsman Redeemer—Boaz. His marriage with Ruth continued the family line that would lead to David. Here, as in Ruth, Bethlehem would prove to be a small town with a big role in God’s plan. This is what the prophet Micah suggests in Micah 5:2.

Micah 5:2-“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”

Joseph is journeying to this storied but humble location “because he was of the house and family of David” (7:4c). Because Joseph traces his ancestry to King David, he was to be counted in David’s hometown. However, do not miss the significance of this association. Joseph was, in many ways, a part of the royal family of the most beloved and powerful king in Israel’s history—a king who, by the way, was promised a forever kingdom with an even better king who would sit on a forever throne.

2 Samuel 7:16-“Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”

Psalm 89:3-4-“I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations”

Even Jesus’ adoptive father, his ancestry, and the destination of their journey is being orchestrated by God for important reasons. Every detail is being meticulously managed by the Lord for his glorious purposes. What looks like an inconvenient trip by a man living well beneath his family heritage, is so much more. However, Joseph is not traveling alone.

III. OBSERVATION 3: THE COMPANY-7:5

Joseph traveled “in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him,” (7:5a). Though we have already mentioned a little about Joseph’s relationship with Mary, let us take a closer look at this young girl and appreciate some of what she has been through. Typically Jewish girls during this period of history were engaged between twelve and fourteen years old. This engagement was a far more formal commitment than it is today. In fact, it took a formal divorce to break one off. The girl in this arrangement would even be called the fiancĂ©’s wife prior to the wedding and infidelity would be treated as adultery. Against this backdrop, we ought to understand Mary as a young girl (probably around fourteen) who was following the customs of her day in compliance with all the social and biblical norms. However, her life, much like Joseph’s, was interrupted. She too was visited by an angel and was told that she would conceive and bear a son, though she never knew a man. Even more shocking was that this son would be the Son of God, the Savior of the World! What would people say? What would Joseph do? After wrestling with all these questions and more, she commits herself to the Lord’s plan and concludes “may it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Unconventional, shocking, and peculiar though Mary’s story may be, it was an important part of God’s story and plan to bring his Son into the World.

The third passenger on this journey to Bethlehem is the child in Mary’s womb—“and was with child” (7:5b). This was the same “seed of the woman” sent to crush the head of the serpent (the devil/Satan) as prophesied in Genesis 3:15. This was the same child who would prove that God was with his people (Isaiah 7:14). This baby would be the Savior of the world, the Christ child, Jesus, God made flesh.

With everyone accounted for, these three—a humble man of God, an even more humble young girl, and the God child in her womb—make their way to Bethlehem in compliance with the decree late into Mary’s pregnancy.  

IV. OBSERVATION 4: THE CULMINATION-7:6-7

God has already proven sovereign over the people, ancestry, political leadership, frivolous decrees, and general context in this story. In verse 6 we also learn that he is sovereign over the timing and execution of specific events—“While they were there [in Bethlehem] the days were completed for her to give birth.” At this exact place and at this exact time, the introduction of God in human form would take place and the fulfillment of many prophecies would be fulfilled.

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son;…” (7:7a). The tense of the verb here suggests the end/culmination of a long process/journey. Here the pregnancy (at least in this final stage) runs parallel to the journey to Bethlehem. Both these journeys were now complete—this family had finally made it to their destination and Jesus had finally been born. He is divine by means of miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit, He is king as hinted at by the location of Bethlehem and his earthly parent’s familial connection to David, and He is here! The greatest ever miracle has occurred—God was now incarnate to bring about salvation for his people.

Though such a figure is certainly worthy of incredible fanfare and the most special accommodations, Jesus, like his parents, proves utterly humble and unassuming from the beginning—“and she wrapped Him in clothes, and laid Him in a manger” (7:7b). These traditional “swaddling clothes” were strips of cloth intended to keep limbs straight—a sign of motherly care and affection (Strauss, ZIBBC, 340)—and the manger was a feeding trough for animals. This was hardly the nursery you might expect for the God-child, but God, you see, is even sovereign over these details. These humble accommodations illustrate that this Jesus who can be laid in such places can also take up residence in a heart like yours and mine.  

This theme of glory in humility continues as our passage comes to a close and we learn that Joseph, Mary, and the newborn are making the most of their peculiar accommodations “because there was no room for them in the inn” (7:7c). Crowded conditions amid this census forced Joseph and Mary from normal lodging to a place reserved for animals. This could have been a lower-level room or stall for animals attached to a private residence, a cave used to shelter animals, or even a feeding place under the open sky. “whatever the precise location, the commonality and humility of the scene prepares the reader for the paradoxical story of the Messiah, who attains glory through suffering” (Strauss, ZIBBC, 342).

So What?

Last week we learned that God can use even tragedies in our life’s journey to bring us to a place of great blessing. In Luke 2 we learn that God’s sovereignty does not just extend to the epic or over-the-top episodes we may be made to endure, but it also supervenes over the mundane, trivial, and small details of our lives. Even little inconveniences/annoyances/interruptions can be used to direct us where God wants us to go. This was the story of the first Christmas. It was a governmental decree for a census that led Joseph, Mary, and her unborn child to the exact right place at the exact right time to bring God’s son into the world—utter glory wrapped in utter humility. Had it not been for Joseph’s willingness to remain with Mary, Mary’s willingness to say yes to God, and their collective obedience to the God-appointed leaders of their day, the first Christmas would have looked very different.

As we reflect on what this may mean for our lives, consider the hoops that you and I might be made to jump through, the small but inconvenient changes that disrupt our day or alter our plans. While we might be tempted to rail against these as curses, perhaps we ought to consider that even these are not outside the scope of God’s sovereignty. In fact, he might just be directing you to the exact right place at the exact right time for a specific purpose. Perhaps even these things are being used to bring you to a place of blessing or paving the way for an opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Journey to Bethlehem Pt. 1 - Ruth 1

 

Many are especially excited for this Christmas season to finally get underway given the year we have all endured. There is something about the holidays that gives people something to look forward to. This season, for believers and unbelievers alike, acts as a finish line of sorts that many are eager to reach after the marathon of the previous months. It is this theme of journeying to a preferred place/end that I’d like to explore over the next couple of weeks in our Christmas series—“Journey to Bethlehem.” In the Bible, Bethlehem proves to be the epicenter of a lot of activity and a lot of blessing. However, it is getting to Bethlehem that proves to be the issue. What is God willing to do to lead his people where he wants them to be? What are God’s people willing to endure on their way to accomplish God’s will? We will answer these question as we journey to Bethlehem today in Ruth 1 and next week in the New Testament. In Ruth 1 we are going to witness four episodes in the journey to Bethlehem for Naomi and Ruth and learn how God can use even the worst experiences in our lives for his incredible purposes.



I. INTRODUCING TRAGEDY-:1-5

This important book begins with a less than positive assessment of the situation in Israel: “Not it came about in the days when the judges governed that there was a famine in the land…” (1:1a) In this period between Joshua’s death and Saul’s coronation, God-appointed judges to rule his people and yet, each new judge proved worse at the job than the one previous. This failed leadership led to all kinds of problems.

Judges 2:16-18-Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them…”

Judges 17:6-In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.

In verse 1 of Ruth, the great spiritual famine is brilliantly juxtaposed (placed alongside) the literal famine that Judah was experiencing. In fact, the curse of the famine may be a direct result of the lawlessness and spiritual deprivation that was rampant during this time period.

As the author continues to set the scene, he introduces us to a particular places and people—“and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and two sons”(1:1b). The irony is unavoidable when the reader learns that Bethlehem means “house of bread.” The “house of bread” is without food or any seed for growing such for this family. Because of their seedless situation, this man leaves the homeland to the land of Moab (literally, “the fields of Moab”). This distinction is important because it alludes to the sole purpose of their sojourn, survival.

This move was not easy for several reasons. 1. The Moabites originated in the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter (Gen. 19:30-38). 2. The Moabites’ resisted Israelite passage through their territory when they came from Egypt (Num. 22-24). 3. The Moabite women were know to seduce the Israelites (Num. 25:1-9). 4. Israel maintained a constitutional exclusion of Moab from the assembly of the Lord (Deut. 23:3-6). 5. Moab had recently oppressed Israel under king Eglon (Jud. 3:15-30). Desperate times, however, called for desperate measures.

Next, the author reveals more about this family—“ The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife, Naomi and the names of his two sons were Maholon and Chilion …” (1:2a). Elimelech, “My God is King” is married to Naomi, “to be pleasant,” and they have two sons: Mahalon (“to be sick”) and Chilion (“to eb finished”) (yikes—doesn’t sound like these two were destined for greatness). Each of these names in their own way point to the intensification of the crisis about to strike Naomi.

The entire family is identified ethically as “Ephrathites of Bethehem in Judah” (1:2b). The author is hoping that the audience will invest in these characters as he describes a tightly-knit family of a Dad, Mom and two boys down on their luck. This makes what happens next so much more shocking.

Having escaped the clutches of famine, this family falls into the unrelenting snare of death—“ Then Elimelech, Naomi’s Husband, died; and she was left with her two sons…”(1:3). Here, the proverbial rug is pulled out from beneath this family unit and hope suffers a desperate blow. The narrator adds that Naomi was “left with” her sons (Lit. “to be left over,” or “to remain” which often speaks of bereavement at the death of another). Naomi is now a widow and she and her two sons bury their father in this foreign land (which, according to Amos 7:17, was considered the ultimate punishment).

All is not lost, however. The line and Naomi’s seed may still be saved as her seed (her sons) can go and carry on the family line. This is what they seek to do in verse 4—“they took for themselves Moabite women as wives” (1:4a). The marriage of both sons raises the hopes once again for the reader that line of Elimelech and Naomi may continue. 

“the name of one was Orpah and the name of the other, Ruth, and they lived there about ten years…” (1:4b). Although little can be said concerning the names of these women and what they mean, it is no secret that they were Moabite women. These marriages must be understood in light of Moses’ prohibition against marriage with pagans (Deut. 7:3-4).  This prohibition should have been reason enough for Naomi to forestall these marriages. Although not ideal and perhaps even forbidden, marriage to these Moabitesses was a desperate effort in order to save what was lost, in much the same way that the journey to Moab was in the first place. Lack of seed brought on by the famine led this family to Moab, and it would be lack of seed necessary for children that would introduce them into these marriages.

In a second round of tragedy and in one climactic blow—“Then, both Maholon and Chilion also died and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband” (1:5a). This left Naomi with no male remnant—neither husband nor children. Things move from bad to infinitely worse as now there appears to be no hope for a restoration of the family line (a restoration of seed in Naomi’s life). Famine and death—what a way to begin a book! What a way to begin a journey! However, what we learn next is that these events, painful though they may be, are the very things that direct Naomi to the place of blessing.

II. VEILED SOVEREIGNTY-1:6-14

The idea of “returning” to the land from whence she came permeates the remainder of the chapter. In fact, the word “return” is repeated 6 times in verses 6-14 (cf. 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12), the first of which is in verse 6--“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab” (1:6a). The author is emphasizing something about the significance of Naomi’s journey back to the land that should not go unnoticed. By returning to her homeland, Naomi reversed the direction she and her husband had taken earlier. The author therefore creates and apt illustration of repentance that can be enjoyed throughout this passage. In fact, the same Hebrew word for “return” is also used for “repent.” 

Perhaps the reason for her departure paralleled the reason for her sojourn in the first place—“ for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food” (1:6b). Originally, she and her family had left Judah because there was a lack of seed in the land (a famine). It appears that the seed had been restored in her homeland (the famine in Bethlehem was over) and the timing could not have been more perfect. Naomi’s plight in Moab would have been very grim. With no husband or children or seed possibilities, she would soon die in this foreign land. Although she would still face a difficult time in Judah as a lone widow, her odds of survival would have been better among her people.

Already, God’s hand can be traced as we see it lifting the famine in the homeland at the very time that would have helped Naomi best. Although Naomi is no doubt being led by God back to Judah, she was unaware that this leadership was taking place and her life and perhaps believed that this was her only opportunity for survival. However, already the reader can pick up on the reality that God is moving in Naomi’s favor. This doesn’t make the journey easy, but it does make it deliberate.

“So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the lane of Judah…” (1:7).

While on the way home Naomi, taking nothing for granted, urges her two daughters-in-law to return to their own homes in Moab—“ And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go return each of you to her mother’s house…” (1:8a). It would have been quite a stretch for either of them to remarry in Israel. These two girls may have been in their late teens or early twenties, and Naomi took a motherly interest in seeking what was best for them.

Naomi continues by saying “May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me…” (1:8b). It is obvious from this pronouncement of blessing that Naomi loved these girls and thought that they had proved themselves to be loving wives. The word hesed (loving-kindness), is an important word in the book of Ruth (cf. 2:20; 3:10) and throughout the Old Testament. It speaks of God’s covenant loyalty to His people. Not only did it involve grace that was extended even when it was not deserved, it is often shown to accompany human action. Here, Naomi hopes that this kindness would be extended to these women.

After pronouncing the blessing of God’s grace and love upon them, Naomi continues and asks that God would grant each of them a place of rest with another husband—“ May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept…” (1:9). This becomes a key issue in the book also. Marriage in the ancient world meant security for a woman and Naomi wanted these girls to enjoy the security that a husband could bring once again. After pronouncing these blessings upon them she literally kisses them goodbye and they enjoy a good cry together.

In spite of her advice and the conclusive pronouncement of blessings she gave sealed with a kiss goodbye, these two women, against all expectations , determine to return to Judah with Naomi and appear to give up the possibility of marriage by leaving their home, Moab (“And they said to her, ‘No, but we will surely return with you to your people…’”) (1:10). The resolve of these women to remain with Naomi seems to suggest that Naomi’s sons had picked for themselves excellent wives who demonstrated incredible loyalty to their mother-in-law.

Naomi’s determination to continue back to Judah alone is expressed in her persistent request for the women to leave—“But Naomi said, ‘Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands?’” (1:11). Ultimately, Naomi was out of sons, out of seed. This realization would have been enough to discourage any young woman from following their mother-in-law. Usually, when there is no one left to marry, there would be no more interest in the family. In this way, Naomi is telling them that there is nothing left for her to offer them and the one thing she could offer them, she is out of, sons.

Obvious that her first reason proved unsuccessful in discouraging the women before her, Naomi sounds off and introduces the second reason why these two women should go away. Notice that her request grows more emphatic with two commands side-by-side, “Return,my daughers, Go! for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me…” (1:12-13). If the first reason was not enough to deter their interest in Judah (that there was no more seed), Naomi’s second realization would certainly do it! There is no time! Naomi was not about to run to Vegas, have a shotgun wedding, and conceive another child, nurture him to health, wait around until he can marry and then hand him over to one of these girls. Naomi’s prospects were done away with. Although the women must have realized this, the author of the story through Naomi reiterates the lack of seed with this rhetorical question. The answer of which is “of course not!”

Once again, these women lift their voices in agony at the prospect of their plight—“And they lifted up their voices and wept again” (1:14a). The text makes it clear that what these women went through was highly emotional. No more seed. No more time. Faced with these grim realities, what would these women choose to do next?

 “and Orpah kissed her mother in Law but Ruth clung to her…” (1:14). Orpah decides to leave and repay Naomi’s kiss goodbye with a kiss goodbye of her own. In contrast to Orpah’s long-anticipated farewell, Ruth clings to Naomi. Rather than shake free of this Moabitess, Ruth attaches herself to Naomi against all odds and in spite of all Naomi has said. Little does she know that in so doing, she would reap the answer to the prayers of blessing Naomi voiced in verses 8 & 9. In the end, God would award her courage and extraordinary action with an extraordinary blessing. 

Having listened to the choices given and the conversation that took place, which would you have chosen? It is quite clear that either is justified, and the account of Ruth is the one that the author chooses to follow from this point on. Anyone could have left, but Ruth chose to stay. What is more impressive than Ruth’s actions here is the commitment that she makes later.

III. POWERFUL POETRY-1:15-18

Naomi tries one more time to discourage Ruth from following her in verse 15--“Then she said, ‘Behold, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods;…” (1:15a). In the biblical world, nations tended to be distinguishable on the bases of ethnicity (hence “her people”), territory (hence “land of Moab”), kingship (hence “Eglon, king of Moab” in Judg. 3:12-17), language (Moabite, Hebrew, etc.) and theology. Just as the Israelites were known in the world as people of Yahweh, Naomi associates Orpah’s return to Moab in reference to not only a change in geography but a return to her gods. 

Naomi actually suggests to Ruth that she should return with Orpah back to her gods—“return after your sister-in-law” (1:15b). So desperate is she to go it alone in her discouragement that she encourages this woman to return to a land of sin rather than remain with her. Her theological perception at this point seems no more orthodox than those of many characters in the Book of Judges. If Naomi represented the highest level of faith in Israel, it is no wonder God had sent a famine in the first place. Sure, Naomi had repented, but she still had a long journey ahead of her both physically and spiritually.

The first words we hear from Ruth’s lips in response to Naomi are among the most memorable in all of Scripture. Few passages in the Bible match this speech in poetic beauty, and the extraordinary courage and spirituality it expresses. This poem exists in 5 major parts that can be distinguished into 5 couplets.

A- “Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you;

 B- For where you go I will go and where you lodge I will lodge

C- Your people shall be my people and your God, my God

B’- Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried

A’- Thus may the lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.” (1:16-17).

Just as Naomi’s speeches increase in intensity, so Ruth’s first statement intensifies her joint response to Naomi with Orpah in v.10

Some suggest that such an oath may have been accompanied by a nonverbal gesture, like sliding one hands across one’s neck or in our context pointing our index finger to the temple of our head. With all of this in mind, it is plain that Ruth is making a life-long commitment to her mother-in-law that is unexpected and unparalleled at this point in Israel’s history. She is willing to change everything—her home, her identity, her religion, her allegiance, her life—for a new one with Naomi in Bethlehem.

Ruth’s eloquent declaration of devotion to Naomi leaves the older woman speechless. Although impressed by her skill of communication in the poem itself, the even more beautiful display of her resolve and the determination in her voice were the agents that convinced Naomi to back off and stop her efforts. Soon, the reader will be able to observe first-hand how Ruth makes good on these promises.

IV. MEANINGFUL HOMECOMING-1:19-22

The story picks up again in verse 19 with “so they both went until they came to Bethlehem” (1:19a). Remember, although a familiar territory to Naomi, this was a foreign land for Ruth.

No doubt Naomi’s relatives and family had heard of the grief she had experienced since her husband and sons had left the town and headed for Moab more than a decade ago. One can imagine their excitement when Naomi suddenly shows up unannounced—“ and when they had come to Bethlehem, all the city was stirred because of them…” (1:19b). Naomi and Ruth’s entrance caused an uproar in the town consisting of soft-spoken comments and a quiet chorus of speculative townspeople.

Shocked at Naomi’s appearance, the women of the town cannot help but ask each other, “can this be Naomi?” (1:19c). This question brings to light a double-dose of surprise. First, they were surprised to see Naomi as they were not expecting their friend back at this point or at all. Second, there is little doubt that the years of grief and deprivation had surely taken a toll on Naomi’s visage, rendering her almost unrecognizable. This one who had left Bethlehem as the “pleasant one,” a robust woman in her prime, had returned as a haggard and depressed old woman.  There is little doubt that although Naomi had changed outwardly, she was welcomed back with open arms by these women who could not believe that their friend had returned. Despite appearances and loneliness, Naomi was home again and that was enough to excite the crowd.

In one stifling outburst, Naomi interrupts the humming crowd with a pointed response, giving public vent to her years of frustration and pain—“She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (1:20a). In the process of getting everyone up to speed she requests that people no longer refer to her as Naomi “pleasant” but Mara “bitter.” In the aftermath of this request, Naomi begins accusing God in four pointed attacks, each with their own indictment.

    A- “For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me

B-I went out full, but the LORD has brought me back empty

B-…since the LORD has witnessed against me

    A-and the Almighty has afflicted me” (1:20)

In her first accusation, Naomi refers to God with the title of Shadday. This term associates itself with a heavenly council that met at the top of a mountain. As overseer of the heavenly council, Shadday commands all the angelic hosts through whom His providential care and disciplinary judgment of humans is exercised. In Naomi’s mind, it is her perception that God had made her a target His arrows of misfortune, hurling them down from high above her.

In two parallel clauses we are given Naomi’s take on what has happened in her life.

“I             went out           full

Lord      brought back     empty” (1:21a)

On the one hand, if “fullness” is understood as referring to food and satisfied stomach (physical seed), the first statement “I went out full” is false. Otherwise, why would they have left Israel in the first place? On the other hand, if “fullness” is understood in terms of family and descendents (seed of a different kind), then the statement is true. Indeed she had gone out with potential for many offspring and came back with nothing left to sow.  Although, in her mind, she was empty both physically and spiritually, the Lord has now brought her back to food and family.

Naomi continues to accuse the Lord and, in the language, take him to court—“Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?’” (1:21b). Phrases like “the Lord has witnessed against me,” suggest that like Job before her, Naomi believed God had called her to account, found her guilty, and instigated the affliction she experienced in response. For this reason, she once again reminds everyone that “pleasantness” is no longer a suitable name.

The narrator continues with “So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth, the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab,…” (1:22a). There is that word again, “return.” Do not miss the significance that Naomi and Ruth’s return on a physical level has been completed. Underscoring the very real emotional and spiritual journey that we just read through and discussed is the change of locality and geography that has taken place. Notice how much “Moab” is emphasized also. It was a big deal for a Moabite to be seen let alone adopted in Israelite society. To “return from the land of Moab” was unheard of and something that would have shocked the original readers. However, unexpected though this may be, Naomi and Ruth had, after a string of famines and death returned “to Bethlehem a the beginning of barley harvest” (1:22b).

They had returned to the “house of bread” (where seed had returned) and would find food. The harvest was ripe and we look ahead with anticipation as to how these women will be filled. Now that the place is set, the time is right, and the people have assembled, all was prepared for God to dish out His incredible blessings, the blessings we will observe in the rest of this extraordinary book.

So What?

It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth and Naomi would find food in the scraps left over after the harvesters. It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth would meet Boaz who would become her husband. It would be in Bethlehem that Ruth and Boaz would have a child and give Naomi a grandchild that would make her the envy of all the women in the town. It would be in Bethlehem that the family line responsible for King David and Jesus, a line which was jeopardized in the death of Naomi’s husband and sons, would move forward. Bethlehem proves to be a place of great blessing in Ruth and Naomi’s life. However, it was tragedy—famine and death—that led them there. As we consider this text and its message against the backdrop of this year and the journey(s) all of us have been on, consider how God’s story is greater  and bigger than the difficult episodes we may come across. Yes, even a depletion of resources (famine in the case of this story), relocation, and death, are not wasted by our sovereign God. In the life of Naomi and Ruth, and in our own lives, even these sources of heartache may be exactly what God uses in our lives to bring us where he wants us —to a place of blessing. Trust him in this season and every season for he is in control, he is writing the story, and while this chapter may prove especially difficult, the story is not yet finished.