What’s God Done for You Lately?

Please take a moment to read Ephesians 1:1-14 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

God has done everything for us to inherit eternal life in heaven and abundant life on Earth.

I’d like you to take the message title as a question to you personally.  Ask yourself, “What has God done for me lately?”  How quickly can you come up with an answer?  When good things happen to you, do you tend to think of yourself as “lucky” or would you say you are “blessed?”  The difference between those two words is essential because “luck” is a concept associated with a God-less world view.  To be “blessed” is to have faith and acknowledge that God is in charge.  There is no such thing as luck.

Rev. Michael Cartwright posed this question and here’s how he answered it: “I will mention a few blessings from the last few days:

(May 11, 2007) One of the Managers for the Target stores in Southern California named Jeremy just gave me a free brand new Casio G Shock wrist watch. I did nothing but bring my old Casio watch in to get a new battery and the lady did not know how to put it back together. God blessed me with a new watch.

The same day I went to pick up a mechanic named Larry to work on a car that belonged to my employer named Bob, I explained to him about my Internet Ministry and how I am going to pick up a computer router over the weekend so that I can have high bandwidth. Larry reached over behind a table and under a pile of stuff he handed me a free router.

May 12, 2007, an air conditioner technician named Clarence came over to my home and he handed me a reasonable bill for $150.00 for parts and labor which I paid in cash. We were talking about our faith and what a blessing we are to each other and he gave me back $50.00.

(May 14, 2007) As I stepped out of my vehicle this evening, I was just outside of my home thanking my next door neighbor who lives on the left side of my home for helping me with his remote control to open the gate since my remote control needed batteries.

At the same time my other next door neighbor Walter who lives on the right side of my home who has a wonderful wife and family approached me and asked me to not go anywhere as he went back into his garage. He came right back out and handed me a $20.00 bill and told me that he found it in my front yard yesterday and wanted to give it to me.”

How would you like to have a week like that?  Here’s how Rev. Cartwright summed it up: “To some people these may not seem to be big blessings, but to me and God every blessing is a big deal because it shows how God keeps His promises to bless you in everything.”

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I once listened to a lengthy testimony from a guy who was convinced God helped him find morel mushrooms, leading him step by step through the woods.  The testimony was rather like following a treasure map!  These men are to be commended for the attitude of gratitude they are showing, but I wonder about one thing: do they see the big picture too?

I wonder if we have faith enough to see God at work in the more important matters of eternal life?  Do we have faith to see God is in charge when disease strikes, when we’re flat broke, when we feel lonely, when adversities pile up?  Do we sense God’s leading in all these circumstances of life?

Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus, a city where he’d made new disciples and founded churches.  He wrote to encourage them that God is in charge of all life’s events, ups and downs included.  He wanted them to have faith to see that God’s eye is on both the details and the big picture; that He is actively working to bring all of it into conformity with His master plan for humanity.

CONTEXT: Ephesians 1:1+2 sets the stage for what is to come in the letter.  We can note some themes in the first two verses:

One, Paul established his authority to write them not on his having founded the church, but on a higher level: the commission of CHRIST JESUS BY THE WILL OF GOD.

Two, Paul identified his target audience: TO THE SAINTS IN EPHESUS, THE FAITHFUL IN CHRIST JESUS.  This looks like two ways of saying the same thing, but I take it to be a two-fold greeting.  It’s as if Paul wrote, “To the church in Ephesus and believers in the Ephesus metro area.”

The city of Ephesus was an important city in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  It was a junction for land and sea trade routes for what we call Asia Minor, in modern Turkey.

God’s strategy in spreading the Church in Asia Minor was to start at Ephesus and fan out to other cities along the roads built by local governors to improve trade and impress their Roman rulers.

Three; using his typical greeting of GRACE and PEACE, Paul set forth two of the major themes of the letter.  He used the word GRACE 95 times in his letters, twelve of them in Ephesians.  PEACE is one of the great blessings of faith; Paul used the word eight times in Ephesians.

Paul wrote this letter six or seven years after he last visited the city.  In this letter he is doing everything he can to reassure the former pagans that their fate is not determined by the impersonal, unfeeling stars or any whimsy of false gods.  Instead, their hope is safe in the hands of the one true God.

  1. God has blessed you with every blessing (3).

In the Jewish culture of that time, the matter of blessing someone was very important.  A blessing directed to God was called a berakah.  Paul’s blessing of God is unusually long – it was written as one sentence 202 words long!  In it, He blesses the Lord for the way He’s blessed us with a plan of salvation.  He began with two general statements:

First, God has BLESSED US IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS.  Rather than referring to a place you can find on a map, Paul’s reference to HEAVENLY REALMS is similar to Jesus’ use of the phrase, Kingdom of God.  It is more a state of being and a sphere of authority than a place.

Two, God has BLESSED us WITH EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING.  Some may prefer earthly kinds of blessings, but the best things in life are not discerned by the five senses.

  1. God chose you (4 + 11).

He CHOSE you early – BEFORE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD.  God chooses individuals to do particular parts of His plan.  People like Abraham, Moses, David, Paul, and Peter are examples of God’s choosing.  This term is also used in a broader sense, that God chose the nation of Israel and the Church to be His covenant partners.  The fact that He made His choices BEFORE T CREATION OF THE WORLD indicates that God – in His wisdom and power – formed a plan of salvation long before it was needed!

He CHOSE you for a reason – TO BE HOLY AND BLAMELESS IN HIS SIGHT.  To be chosen is an undeserved honor.  (As we will see, the word GRACE figures prominently in this passage and in the letter overall.)  God has His reasons for choosing some people, but none of them have to do with our worthiness or His need: neither of those things really exists.

Instead, God chooses us in order that we might become HOLY and BLAMELESS. (See also 5:27.)  God, by calling us into service, makes us HOLY.  The word HOLY means set apart from everyday, worldly, and especially from sinful purposes to be used by God.  God, by forgiving our sins, makes BLAMELESS.  This is a moral perfection made possible by the complete forgiveness.  God does these things because He is creating for Himself a people all His own.  He is qualifying us to be part of His Church.

The key phrase is IN HIS SIGHT.  No matter how you or I may feel about ourselves; no matter what lies the devil may feed us to discourage us into thinking we are unholy and full of blame, what’s true in the mind of God is absolutely true.  You can rely on that!

The word CHOSEN in v. 11 can also be translated as “made heirs,” referring to our adoption into the divine family.  More on that next.

  1. God predestined you (4-6 + 11).

Because He loves you, God PREDESTINED you to be adopted into His family.  The word PREDESTINED is used to explain how God CHOSE us even before the world was created.  He set our destiny before the events that brought us into being!  PREDESTINED is a popular word among theologians, but occurs only six times in the Bible (see Romans 8:29-30 and 1 Corinthians 2:7).  For the benefit of theological readers, let me offer this statement: in thinking about how God saves us, we can emphasize free will and suffer the loss of eternal security or emphasize sovereignty and enjoy the security of eternal life based on grace, not works.

Adoption into God’s family is one of Paul’s favorite metaphors for salvation, which is a little surprising.  Adoption was a common custom in Greek and Roman law, but there are no laws or teaching regarding it in the Old Testament, only a passing mention in Esther 2:15.  His use of this metaphor says something positive about Paul’s use of the Gentile culture to communicate the Gospel.

This is an image of affection and deep relationship that illustrates God’s choosing.  After all, adopted children are chosen, and then welcomed into the family.

This is also a forward-looking image because according to Roman & Greek law, adopted sons become legal HEIRS of the father (v. 11).  This is meant to reassure us that we have a future and it is a very good one.

Your predestination gives Him PLEASURE because it fulfills His WILL and because He loves you.  That’s a feeling we can all understand: how it pleases us when things go acc. to plan.  Although in God’s case, I suspect it is a PLEASURE that is less self-centered.  Because He loves us, God is pleased to think about us as spending eternity with Him.

As an aside, it bothers me when we downgrade the joy that the Bible says is supposed to accompany a genuine faith.  Paul teaches that the whole process is effused with joy: he wrote that God took PLEASURE in choosing us and we enjoy the blessings His choosing imparts to us.

He predestined you by means of HIS GLORIOUS GRACE, which He FREELY gave us by means of Jesus (the ONE HE LOVES).  What this implies about Jesus is that He was present with God the Father before creation and that He was a party to our being chosen.  Jesus is God the Son.

GRACE is undeserved favor.  It is God giving us what we don’t deserve, because death is the only outcome sinners deserve.  The word FREELY helps us under-stand the word GRACE.  There is no way we can earn God’s choosing us.  We don’t deserve to be part of the family, but we are.  God’s GRACE is GLORIOUS in the sense that it directs our attention to God.  As the highest good, God deserves our attention and has earned our PRAISE.  All this was according to God’s PLAN, the one that works all things to conform to His WILL.

  1. God redeemed you (7-8, 14).

God accomplished redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross: His shed BLOOD.  In a culture where slavery was widely practiced, REDEMPTION is a commonly understood term.  In our culture, less so.

A person became a slave if they were captured during a war, or more commonly, as an item to be sold to pay off one’s debts.  (Instead of holding a rummage sale or going to a pawn shop, an indebted person avoided prison by selling one’s self or children into slavery.)  Death brought an end to one’s servitude, but it could be accomplished sooner by financial means.  If someone paid off the debt, the slave was set free.  That payment is the “redemption price.”

The Bible lists several “owners” to which we were in slavery:

The devil.

Our own sin nature and human nature hold us in bondage to sin.

The “darkness” of sin and willful ignorance of God.

God redeemed us from these three “masters” through the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.  Jesus paid the price for our lives by giving His own.  He is our saving substitute, sacrificing Himself that we might live.  Thanks to Him, we do not have to face God’s wrath onf Judgment Day.

This redemption was an act of GRACE.  It is so good, His salvation is “rich.”  There is nothing lacking in God’s GRACE.  He is completely able to save.  You can trust God’s power.  It is so generous, God LAVISHED it on us.  God is not stingy with His grace, He loves to a degree beyond our ability to understand.  You can trust God’s generous character.  God’s GRACE is evidence of His WISDOM AND UNDERSTANDING and/or part of GRACE is bestowing WISDOM and UNDERSTANDING on us.  In either case, GRACE is not at all like our overly-permissive, child-centered parenting; it produces change and growth.  You can trust God to challenge you to mature as He provides all you need to achieve it.

  1. God revealed His plan to you (9-11).

The MYSTERY is revealed; it was there all the time.  The phrase “hidden in plain sight” comes to mind.  From before creation on to our own time, God is graciously making His will known to His people.  One means of His self-revelation is the Bible.  We understand that the Bible is God’s “progressive revelation;” that means that God did not reveal all of His plan to save humanity in the first chapters of Genesis.  As time progressed and throughout the pages of the Bible, more of his plan was revealed.  Paul understood Jesus Christ as being the important piece to the puzzle, the key to understanding the Old Testament and preparing for the future.

Here’s that word PLEASURE again (vs. 5+9).  This word measures the joy God has in loving and saving people.

We are informed again, God the Father accomplished His will through God the Son. Paul clarified this in three verses.

In verse seven, the phrase THROUGH HIS BLOOD refers to the sacrifice, the physical means that makes salvation, the fulfillment of God’s plan, possible.  In verse nine, the phrase WHICH HE PURPOSED IN CHRIST identifies Jesus as the “linchpin” or “keystone” of God the Father’s redemptive plan. To emphasize this point, Paul used three different words which can be translated as PLAN.

In verse ten, the phrase TO BRING ALL THINGS…UNDER ONE HEAD, EVEN CHRIST looks ahead to the Second Coming, the event that will bring history to a close and complete the plan of God.  On that day, all rebellion and sin will come to an end, this current version of reality being replaced.  The paradise lost in the Garden of Eden will be regained and established for all eternity.

That is such a big promise, a universe-sized vision, that it can be difficult to believe.  But this passage is about HOPE (12) and about describing all that God has done for us.  We are being informed that God’s plan looks forward to complete fulfillment; we live in a time when we are God’s partners in bringing it to pass.

Verse eleven seems to serve as a restatement of Paul’s points in this section; here he repeats vs. 4-6+10, emphasizing that all these promises are what God intended to do all along, even before creation (4).  Notice the word EVERYTHING.  Our hope is that all things will be made new in Jesus Christ.

  1. God sealed His promises with the Holy Spirit (11-14).

God’s plan fulfills the promises He made to His people Israel, to the Jews: WE WHO WERE THE FIRST TO HOPE IN CHRIST (12).  Here Paul simply notes the historical events coming to pass in his own lifetime: Jesus was a Jew and considered His mission to be to His own people.  When the Church was formed, it was primarily made up of Jewish people, centered in Jerusalem, and continued to support temple worship and other Jewish traditions.

However, God’s plan always included the non-Jews (Gentiles); He always intended to save all people: AND YOU ALSO WERE INCLUDED IN CHRIST (13).  The means of the Gentiles’ inclusion: YOU HEARD THE WORD OF TRUTH and BELIEVED.

God the Father’s plan features the God the Holy Spirit (14).  The HOLY SPIRIT is a SEAL.  In Paul’s world, a SEAL was a mark of ownership.  Seals were often made of stone or precious metal that had some kind of image engraved in them.  When pressed in hot wax, the seal left an impression that identified the owner.  In our time, a brand on cattle, a trademark, copyright, signature, or fingerprint are ways we record identity and/or ownership.  When we truly believe, the Holy Spirit is given to us and His presence is indicated by Spiritual Gifts and Fruits of the Spirit, along with a change of character.  This is God the Father’s SEAL on us.

The HOLY SPIRIT is a DEPOSIT, GUARANTEEING OUR INHERITANCE.  Think of a “downpayment” or “earnest money” in modern financial transactions.  These are ways of validating a commitment to keep a promise.

Think of it!  God has no need to make a DEPOSIT; by faith we should take Him at His word.  And yet, He offers part of Himself; God the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that all He has promised will come to pass.  This also means God has not left us alone to sweat out the time between promise and fulfillment; He is with us.

The ultimate end of all of this is THE PRAISE OF [God’s] GLORY (v. 14; also vs. 6+12).  God’s GLORY is another way of referring to His presence among His people.  When the Bible talks about giving GLORY TO GOD, it means making Him known, sensing His presence, and responding to Him appropriately.

In the Bible, God’s presence is referred to in various ways:

As THUNDER (Psalms 29:3; 33:22).

As bright radiance (Ezekiel 1:28).

As a bright cloud (Exodus 40:34-35).

As unapproachable and invisible LIGHT (1 Timothy 6:16).

To PRAISE God is to sense His presence, recognize Him for who He is, and to make Him known to others.  It is worship.

Let’s review the four truths we’ve learned:

One, God is in charge; His plan is unfolding as He directs and will one day result in the salvation of all creation.

Two, God is at work; His plan was set into motion even before the world was created.  He took full inititiative and chose us for salvation.

Three, God will succeed; His plan to restore the paradise lost in the Garden of Eden will completely come to pass, with universal effect.

Four, Jesus Christ is God.  God the Son helped God the Father formulate the plan and is central in its success.  God the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity is the worldly evidence that identifies those whom God has chosen and encourage them to trust that all promises will be kept.

“The story is told of Dr. Christianson, Professor of Religion at a small college in the western United States. Dr. Christianson taught the required course in Christianity.

“He found that most of his students looked upon the course as nothing but required drudgery.  Despite his best efforts, most students refused to take Christianity seriously.

“One year, Dr. Christianson made a special arrangement with a popular student named Steve who was studying with the intent of going on to seminary for the ministry.  When class started, the professor pulled out a big box of donuts: the extra fancy big kind, with cream centers and frosting swirls. Everyone was pretty excited it because was Friday, the last class of the day, and they were going to get some delicious donuts.

“Dr. Christianson went to the first girl in the first row and asked, ‘Cynthia, do you want to have one of these donuts?’

“Cynthia said, “Yes.”

“Dr. Christianson then turned to Steve and asked, ‘Steve, would you do ten push-ups so that Cynthia can have a donut?’

“’Sure.’ Steve jumped down from his desk to do a quick ten. Dr. Christianson put a donut on Cynthia’s desk.

“Dr. Christianson then went to Joe, the next person, and asked, ‘Joe, do you want a donut?’

“Joe said, ‘Yes.’ Dr. Christianson asked, “Steve would you do ten push-ups so Joe can have a donut?”

“Steve did ten push-ups, Joe got a donut. And so it went, down the first aisle, Steve did ten pushups for every person before they got their donut.

“Walking down the second aisle, Dr. Christianson came to Scott, who wanted a donut, but asked, ‘Can I do my own pushups?’

“Dr. Christianson said, ‘No, Steve has to do them.’

“Scott said, ‘Well, I don’t want one then.’

“Dr. Christianson shrugged and then turned to Steve and asked, ‘Steve, would you do ten pushups so Scott can have a donut he doesn’t want?’

“With perfect obedience Steve started to do ten pushups.

“Scott said, ‘Hey! I said I didn’t want one!’

“Dr. Christianson said, ‘Look!, this is my classroom, my class, my desks, and these are my donuts. Just leave it on the desk if you don’t want it.’ And he put a donut on Scott’s desk.

“Steve had begun to slow down and the students were beginning to get a little angry.

“Dr. Christianson asked Jenny, ‘Jenny, do you want a donut?’

“Sternly, Jenny said, ‘No.’

“Then Dr. Christianson asked Steve, ‘Steve, would you do ten more push-ups so Jenny can have a donut that she doesn’t want?’

Steve did ten….Jenny got a donut.

“A growing sense of uneasiness filled the room. The students were beginning to say “No” and there were a lot of uneaten donuts on the desks.

“As Dr. Christianson finished the fourth row, Steve’s arms were shaking with each push-up, sweat was profusely dropping off of his face.  There was no sound except his heavy breathing and there was not a dry eye in the room.

At last, the professor explained, “’When I decided to have a party this last day of class, I looked at my grade book. Steve here is the only student with a perfect grade. Everyone else has failed a test, skipped class, or offered me inferior work. Steve told me that in football practice, when a player messes up he must do push-ups. I told Steve that none of you could come to my party unless he paid the price by doing your push ups. He and I made a deal for your sakes.’

“’And so it was, that our Savior, Jesus Christ, on the cross, plead to the Father, ‘into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ With the understanding that He had done everything that was required of Him, He yielded up His life. And like some of those in this room, many of us leave His gift on the desk, uneaten.’

“’My wish is that you might understand and fully comprehend all the riches of grace and mercy that have been given to you through the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Wouldn’t you be foolish and ungrateful to leave it lying on the desk?’”

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RESOURCE:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Clinton E. Arnold

2016 is a Year of Jubilee

(Please read Leviticus 25:8-22.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Message – God commanded a Year of Jubilee as a special Sabbath. We can do this in our own way.

  1. What the Year of Jubilee meant to Israel.

It meant freedom for indentured servants with the forgiveness of debts (39-43).  God did not free His people from slavery to the Egyptians (see the book of Exodus) only to make them slaves to one another.

In this culture, the “safety net” for poverty was for the head of the household to sell himself and/or family members into slavery.  We might call it “indentured servitude” to differentiate is from the other kind of slavery.  Indentured servants were countrymen and were generally assigned household chores.  Slave were Gentiles, became slaves by being conquered in war, and were not freed by the Year of Jubilee.  This allowed the man to work off his debt and when that was accomplished, everyone regained their freedom.

While this system his may sound cruel to our ears, I think it has some points to commend itself versus our system of welfare.  The indentured servants were provided a home, food, and work to do to restore their homes.  They were to be treated respectfully – as fellow countrymen – by their masters.  Our system creates a cruel dependency and a massive bureaucracy, both of which have been proven to be toxic to our social and political life.

While each approach to poverty has its strengths and weaknesses, the point is that the exception to this rule was the Year of Jubilee.  In this case, the debt that created indentured servitude was simply forgiven.

It also meant a second consecutive year of rest for the land (11-12; see Exodus 23:10-11).  It can be a little confusing because the term “Sabbath” is used in a variety of ways.

– The seventh day of the week was designated as the weekly Sabbath.

– The seventh year was designated as a Sabbath Year.

– I suppose you could say the Year of Jubilee was to be a “Sabbath of Sabbaths;” observed every 50 years, occurring after seven Sabbath Years were held (8).

In every case, however, a Sabbath is a rest from work, replacing work with worship and prayer. The term literally means “solemn rest.”  As God rested from His work of creation, so are His people to rest from their works.  But this was also a rest for the land.  The people were not to raise crops, but to trust God that He would provide for their needs through what grew on its own.  Imagine an entire year devoted to God!  What would 365 Sundays feel like?

I’m no farmer and have a black thumb, but I understand that land which is tilled and planted loses its vitality.  That’s why crops are rotated and occasionally land is left idle; to renew it.

The Year of Jubilee also required restoration of lands to their ancestral owners (10, 13).

This means that the land – the PROMISED Land – could not be sold permanently.  V. 23 = THE LAND MUST NOT BE SOLD PERMANENTLY, BECAUSE THE LAND IS MINE AND YOU ARE BUT ALIENS AND TENANTS.  This is the true theology of stewardship; everything belongs to God and He has appointed us as caretakers over it.  Our possessiveness, materialism, and pride are false and sinful because we don’t truly own a single thing.  How wonderful that every seventh year the people of God would get a powerful reminder not to put their hopes in money or earthly goods of any kind, but to trust in God instead.

The Year of Jubilee had practical as well as spiritual benefits.

– It emphasized the ties of family and brought them back to their origins: EACH ONE OF YOU IS TO RETURN TO HIS FAMILY PROPERTY AND EACH TO HIS OWN CLAN (10).

– It controlled inflation by resetting real estate prices every 50 years. (Today we use dollars in the way we used pennies 50 years ago and our purchasing power is diminishing.  Imagine how much better off we’d be with a 50 year reset!)

– It kept people from getting too far in debt. We know debt is hard on relationships.  (These days people are taking EIGHT YEARS to pay on a car, say nothing of 30 and 40 year mortgages!)

– Most importantly, it reinforced the essential truth that THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S (see Psalm 24:1).  This stops us from being selfish & materialistic.

By now you may be thinking of the ways in which the Year of Jubilee might be abused.  Notice that this passage required scaling prices according to the number of years until the next Jubilee (14-16).  This was a practical way to avoid abuse of the system.

Verse 17 provided a theological way to avoid abuse by forbidding abuse in principle: DO NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EACH OTHER, BUT FEAR YOUR GOD.  I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD.  This is exactly what GRACE is all about.  It risks abuse and misuse in order to make exceptions and aid others.

– The Year of Jubilee was to be 365 days of GRACE! WOW!!

– It was to be a whole year of trusting God to provide for you, not you busting your chops to grab all you can for yourself; a year of FAITH.

This sounds like crazy talk to worldly ears; utter foolishness.  Faith and grace have that effect on worldly-minded folk.  Grace is impractical and risky.  It has its own kind of logic that frequently opposes what the world says is reasonable.  The Year of Jubilee was also a practice run for the Kingdom of God, the ideal situation that will exist after the Day of the Lord.

The sad fact is that there is no biblical record of a Sabbath Year being observed, let alone a Year of Jubilee.  Apart from it being commanded in Leviticus and Numbers, it is never mentioned again in the Bible.  What a shame!  This wonderful command of God, so full of grace, was never adopted by the people of God.  What an opportunity wasted!

  1. What this Year of Jubilee will mean for us.

Freeing the captives and forgiving debts can be accomplished in our lives by our forgiveness of grudges and reconciliation of persons.  Forget about monetary debts; let us solve the relational problems in our lives by forgiveness.  We don’t need “drama and trauma” in our relationships.  God has called us to something far better: love.

One gauge of your spiritual life is the number of relationships that bring you joy compared to the number that are associated with negative emotions.  The more joy, the more spiritually mature you are.

An equivalent to resting the land can be taking rest from the tyranny of the ordinary and familiar.  Traditions and rituals exist to provide context, not constraint.  Spiritually mature people balance context with creativity and flexibility to follow the Spirit’s leadership.  Changing everything and changing nothing are ridiculous extremes and are scarcely worth mentioning.  Again, balance is key.  As human beings, we find joy in variety and familiarity.  This should balance should be sought as we make decisions together and live with one another.

In this, we can take as our example Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.  God created the institution for people, not people for the institution.

Being restored to our ancestral lands can take place by the restoration of our church’s place in our neighborhood and our attitude toward the people who live next to the place we call home.  I realize that the so-called experts say that neighborhood churches are a thing of the past, that everyone drives to church these days.  So what?  Be a neighborhood church!  Should any one of our neighbors die without receiving Jesus as Savior, let it not be because we failed to reach out and share the Gospel.

HOW WE GOT HERE – Pastor Dwayne and I were having a staff meeting, conversing about how difficult 2015 has been.  We decided to claim 2016 as a year of grace, of fruitfulness, and the fullness of God’s blessing.  “Let’s call it a Year of Jubilee,” we decided.  Something about that struck a chord, and we googled it.  We were surprised to find out that Pope Francis had already had this idea and announced it as such!

But we were even more surprised when we found that it we are already in an official Year of Jubilee according to the Hebrew calendar.  That is the traditional lunar calendar that is currently in year 5776!  According to that calendar, the Year of Jubilee began on September 23 of this year and will continue until the Day of Atonement next year.

SO, even though we’re a little late to the party, we’re going to adapt this biblical command to our church in the coming year!  I mentioned this later that day at the Nehemiah Prayer Group and we ran with it there too.  Since there are nine months left in the Year of Jubilee, we’ll emphasize one of the nine Fruits of the Spirit each month.  We pray that this emphasis improves church life and extends our outreach to our community.

Our God Loves a Happy Ending

(Please read Ruth 4:1-22.)

           I will explain this statement a little later on, but for now, let me observe about Ruth and the book’s place in the Old Testament, there seems to be a fascination with footwear in ancient Jewish culture (see verses 7-8).  When he preached on Ruth 4, Pastor Michael Dephillips of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church took this fascination and ran with it.  He identified five kinds of footwear and described how they symbolize five kinds of church folk.  Let me share the highlights with you today.

* “THE FIRST PAIR OF SHOES IS A SNEAKER!  The person who wears this shoe thinks that they can sneak their way around the true issues of sin in their life. The Word of God teaches that we must be faithful to confess our sins and then God will forgive us of the sins he already knew about.

* “THE SECOND PAIR OF SHOES ARE RUNNING SHOES! Jonah is the most famous person in the Bible for wearing running shoes! God told him what to do and where to go and immediately Jonah laced up his running shoes to head in the opposite direction of God’s will for his life.  I’ve seen people run from the CONVICTION OF GOD and reject the Lord Jesus Christ many times over the last few years as well as seen Christians run from the CALL OF GOD and refuse to follow Christ’s purpose for their life.

* “THIRD PAIR OF SHOES PEOPLE WEAR ARE FLIP FLOPS!  This type of Christian never makes up their heart or keeps their promises. You can always count on a flip flop Christian to cry at the altar and walk back to the pew no different than when they came in. You can’t put any confidence in what the flip flop Christian tells you because he’s got no follow-through.

* “THE FOURTH PAIR OF SHOES ARE BABY SHOES! Paul told the Corinthian believers that he couldn’t speak to them like spiritual brothers in Christ or as mature believers but instead as carnal because they

were still like babies in Christ, having never been fed anything but milk. Babies usually don’t like to eat food at first but play with it and make a mess out of the whole nutritional process. Did the person responsible for feeding them give up after they kept spitting out the food and just put the bottle back in their mouth because it was easier?

* “THE LAST PAIR OF SHOES IS COMBAT BOOTS. No army in the world will win the war if they send their soldiers out barefoot. The combat footwear at the time Paul wrote the need for this spiritual armor was what we would call hob-nobbed sole. Small spikes were driven through the soles to give the soldier the ability to be free from slipping down and falling.  Are you wearing your combat boots today?”

http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/gospel-in-a-shoebox-michael-dephillips-sermon-on-call-of-the-disciples-54716.asp?

Message: God may work out a happy ending in the short term, long term, in eternity, or all the above, but all His people have happy endings.  (See Romans 8:28.)

1. Boaz made his pitch. (4:1-6)

          As Naomi predicted in 3:18, Boaz wasted no time; he resolved the legalities of the situation in a day.  The next morning he gathered the necessary parties at the usual meeting-place; the gates of the city, the most public place in the community. (1-2) (See Deuteronomy 22:15; 2 Samuel 15:2; Proverbs 22:22; Jeremiah 38:7; Amos 5:10.)

Boaz acted on behalf of Naomi without having obtained her permission first.  I don’t think it’s disrespecting the text to see a little conniving in both of them.  He is still following the laws and customs of the day, but he is also moving things along as quickly as he could.

I found this factoid amusing – the Hebrew referring to the first-in-line kinsman-redeemer is best translated as “Mr. So-and-So!”  He is so unimportant to the story that the writer didn’t bother to mention his name (see 1 Samuel 21:2; 2 Kings 6:8 for other examples of this).  It may be the author’s way of shaming him for not being charitable enough to take on t role of kinsman-redeemer when offered.

In this time, the word ELDER literally meant “to have a beard.”  When ten bearded men were organized to decide an issue, they acted as judge and jury.  Although – in this case- they are more like witnesses than judges.

Boaz presented the situation to his kinsman in an accurate but persuasive way. (3-4)  His instructions COME HERE and SIT DOWN are emphatic in the original language, showing how eager he is for the proceedings to get underway.

He did not elaborate on WHY Naomi was selling her husband’s property, but we might guess poverty and/or debt as the cause.  I read Boaz’s remarks as being very carefully chosen.  He can’t appear TOO EAGER, yet he wants to resolve this so HE can be the kinsman-redeemer.

Truth be told, there was no way for Naomi to sell the land as the Law did not provide any way for a man’s estate to be passed on to his wife.  (Our law, of course, assumes the opposite.)  I can find no good explanation for this part of the passage, so let’s just leave it lay there.

In Israel, all land belonged to the Lord (see Leviticus 25:23).  That’s why the matters of land and inheritance were so important – they were part of their obedience to God.  When the initial tribal lines were set, the land was further divided among families.  These ancestral lines were to be honored among succeeding generations.  For example; to move a boundary marker was a serious offense in that culture.

At first, Mr. So-and-So was eager to redeem it and wanted to own Elimelech’s property (4-5).  In the Hebrew, his immediate response is in an emphatic voice, perhaps betraying his eagerness; “I – I will redeem.”  Chances are he was interested in the property.  He saw a chance to enlarge his estate and add to his wealth.

BUT, when Boaz reminded him of all that was included with the purchase, (marrying Ruth and dedicating their first-born son to Elimelech), he quickly changed his mind.  “Mr. So-and-So” decided to release his rights and let Boaz be the buyer of the property and the bride (6).  He offers a lengthy but obtuse excuse for not accepting the opportunity to redeem Naomi’s lands and Ruth from widowhood.

How it would ENDAGER his current holdings is not immediately clear.  My first guess is that he knew that his current wife would take a dim view toward his coming home with a SECOND WIFE!  More to the point, if he wed Ruth and they did produce a son, he would owe some of his current holdings to Elimelech’s grandson.  Thus, he’d be taking from what would have normally gone to his children.  This makes his motive for refusal financial.

He must have been an excitable character, for in the Hebrew, his second statement is as emphatic as the first; “Redeem for you, you, my right of redemption.”

2. Boaz became Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. (4:7-13)

          Here’s where we come to the fascination with footwear in this culture (7-8).  In a previous message in this series we learned that the Law provided some satisfaction to a widow who was refused by a kinsman-redeemer.  Deuteronomy 25 allowed the rejected widow to remove the offender’s sandal, strike him with it, and spit on him!

This sandal has, however, a symbolic value.  According to Deuteronomy 1:36; 11:24 and Joshua 1:3; 14:9, walking onto the property was the way one demonstrated taking ownership of the land.  Removing a sandal and handing it over replaced walking.  The ELDERS were there to witness the exchange.  By the time of Jeremiah (32:9-12), written and attested documents replaced sandals and elders.

Boaz completed the transaction by announced it to the elders and everyone at the city gate (9-10).  In a time without written records, it was shared memory and oral tradition that verified things like transfer of property.  It may be offensive to think about Ruth being part of a property deal, but remember this is God’s Law and it was a way of preventing widows from being made homeless.  It also doesn’t feel as much like a romantic story with all these legal proceedings, but all of this indicates to us that Boaz was a godly man.

The witnesses sealed the deal and pronounced a blessing on the new family (11-12). On the one hand, “WE ARE WITNESSES” is surely the legal, formal response.  The blessing, on the other hand, is unique to this situation.  The blessing included…

– Ruth’s fertility.  She’d had no children with her first husband, Mahlon.  Rachel and Leah were Jacob’s two wives, mothers of the 12 sons of Jacob who became the 12 tribes of Israel.

– Boaz’s success and fame as a man of faith.

– The success of their children.  They are likened to Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar.  I still don’t know why Perez was such a big deal.

3. God blessed their family. (4:14-22)

          The short-term blessing was realized in the birth of a son (14-17).  The fact that Ruth conceived and better still, gave birth to a son, would have been understood by the original readers as a clear sign of God’s blessing.

It also implies that Mahlon, her deceased husband, was the reason for the couple’s ten-year inability to have children.  Barren wombs were assumed to be an outcome of God’s wrath.

In verses 14-15 the same women who greeted Naomi and heard her complaints 1:19-21 are back again.  This time they offer praise for the way God blessed Naomi with a kinsman-redeemer and vowed his story wouldn’t be forgotten.  They gratefully acknowledged that God saved Naomi, providing a home for her into OLD AGE.

Note the endearing praise for Ruth, where they state she was better for Naomi than SEVEN SONS.  In the Bible, seven is a number that signifies completion.  So seven sons is pretty much a slice of heaven in this culture.  This is high praise, given the way this culture valued sons over daughters.

To make the scene even sweeter, verse 16 depicts Naomi taking care of the child.  She fully accepted him and loved him.  In fact, Naomi loved and cared for the little fellow so thoroughly that the women of Bethlehem would tease her, saying “NAOMI HAS A SON.”  (We all know from experience what “baby hogs” grandmothers can be!) Boaz and Ruth must have been delighted with Naomi’s affection for the child, for they allowed her to name him.  This is the only time in the Old Testament that anyone other than the parents named a child!

Naomi chose to name him OBED which meant “servant.”  Usually this was paired with another word that designated whom the person served.  The absence of a second word may indicate that Naomi hoped the boy would, like his Father, be a servant to all people.

The long-term blessing was realized in succeeding generations of this family, including King David (18-22) and Jesus (see Matthew 1:1-17).  Ruth is one of four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus.  What all of them have in common is that something made life difficult for them.

– We learned earlier this year about Tamar.  That may be the oddest Bible story.

– Rahab was the prostitute who protected the Israelite spies in Jericho.

– Bathsheba was King David’s mistress; that was another sordid tale.

– Ruth, a foreigner, has the most ethical story of this bunch!

One commentator wrote that it was difficult to know why this genealogy was placed at the end of Ruth.  It may be impossible to prove any theory, but I believe the genealogy is here for at least three reasons:

– One, to reinforce our appreciation of the grace of God.  He doesn’t seek out perfect people, but perfects the people who are willing to obey Him.  Grace makes it possible to overcome our circumstances and mistakes.  Grace makes it clear that all this is about God, not us.

– Two, to draw a connection between this wonderfully sweet story of love and salvation and the birth of Israel’s greatest king and ultimately, the birth of the King of Kings.

– Third, it brings a sweet story to a full conclusion.  Like movies that show you how the characters ended up after the events of the movie were over, this is a happy ending.  If we haven’t learned anything else from the book of Ruth, let us learn that our God loves a happy ending.

Let me conclude with an excerpt from John Piper’s sermon on Ruth 4:

“Here’s what I would suggest as the main lesson: The life of the godly is not a straight line to glory, but they do get there. The life of the godly is not an Interstate through Nebraska, but a state road through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Tennessee. There are rock slides and precipices and dark mists and bears and slippery curves and hairpin turns that make you go backwards in order to go forwards. But all along this hazardous, twisted road that doesn’t let you see very far ahead there are frequent signs that say, “The best is yet to come.” And at the bottom right corner written with an unmistakable hand are the words, ‘As I live, says the Lord!’”

http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/ruth-the-best-is-yet-to-come

From Trial to Testimony

(Please read Ruth 1:1-22.  The following remarks have been developed from study with the NIV.)

Message: One of the many reasons God allows suffering is so we can experience His salvation and be transformed to accomplish His purposes.

  1. Naomi’s destitution (1:1-14).

Naomi’s first experience of destitution was when famine “forced” her family to relocate (1:1-2).  I put the word “forced” in quotation marks because humans have always been prone to make excuses for themselves.  One way we do this is recast decisions we make as things we “had” to do; we can’t be assailed for making a wrong choice if we convince ourselves and others that we had no choice in the first place.  This observation is relevant to this passage when we note that not everyone left Bethlehem as Elimelech’s family did.  It’s clear the famine motivated their decision, but when Naomi returned to their ancestral home, people who’d lived there before were still there and they recognized her.  So – not everyone left and some survived the famine.  I’m merely emphasizing this was Elimelech’s choice.  This gives some substance to the traditional Jewish interpretation that Elimelech made a bad decision when he relocated his family.

Not to build too big a case on this one detail, but this is also good news.  It shows that one bad decision, even a catastrophically bad one, with deadly consequences, is not going to put us so far outside the will of God that we can’t be redeemed.  The book of Ruth is a story of redemption, a precursor to THE redemption story in the Gospels.  There is no sin that irredeemable or at least unusable in the redemptive plan of God.  GREAT STUFF!  OK, let’s carry on.

The last verse in Judges and the first verse in Ruth set the stage for this book: THE DAYS WHEN THE JUDGES RULED (1:1).  JUDGES were people God raised up to lead Israel out of periods of idolatry.  This period started with the death of Joshua (Moses’ successor) and lasted until the ministry of Samuel

Here’s how the Bible sums up that period of history; IN THOSE DAYS ISRAEL HAD NO KING; EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT (Judges 21:25).  Hint: that’s what Elimelech did when he decided Moab’s grass was greener.

Admittedly, this was not a decision made lightly.  After all, THERE WAS A FAMINE IN THE LAND.  Famines occurred as a result of raids conducted by neighboring nations or as the direct action of God in judgment for Israel’s sins.  The fact that Elimelech lead his entire family out of the country implies that the famine was not limited to Bethlehem and environs.  The text makes it clear that the scope of the famine was not just local, but it was not international either.  Of course famines do not respect political boundaries, but sometimes reflect neighboring nation’s different practices.  It should also be noted that Elimelech’s intent was not to resettle, only TO LIVE [there] FOR A WHILE.

In order to appreciate the depth of their decision, we can compare cultures.  In our very mobile modern culture, people move frequently.  With increasing globalization moving to other countries becomes increasingly commonplace.  But in this culture, here’s what this family gave up:

– Abandonment of ancestral lands; who else would tend to the house and fields?

– Severance from family and clan and all the relations within the tribe of Ephraim.

– Even leaving behind God.  At this time, the prevalent belief was “henotheism;” the belief that all gods were real and that they were most powerful in their own homelands.  This family was not just leaving the tabernacle and other tokens of faith, they were leaving their God’s domain and entering the lands where another god reigned.  (NOTE; this belief is not biblical –it is not accurate – but is occasionally noted in the Bible that people believed it.  Indeed, Naomi’s remarks in this first chapter seem very henotheistic when we reread them from this point of view.)

Naomi also suffered the devastation of grief and poverty when death took all the men from her family. (1:3-5)

The head of the household was named “Elimelech,” which means “God is king.”  We are not told how long the family lived in Moab before Elimelch died.  Jewish rabbis understood his death to be a sign of God’s judgment against him for leaving his homeland.

The names of the sons are a lot less positive. “Mahlon” means “to be sterile, weak, ill, pierce.”  (On the plus side, it could also be translated as “crown.”)  “Kilion” is based on a word that means “at an end, weakening, or pining.”  While you don’t want to read too much into this level of detail, perhaps the names of Ruth’s sons are offered as explanation for their dying young and childless.  We’re not told how far into their life in Moab Naomi’s sons married; only that after having been in Moab a total of ten years, her sons died.  In that culture, to die childless was a sign of destitution; especially after having been married for years.

The Law did not forbid marriage with Moabites (see Deuteronomy 7:1+3), but they were not considered part of the congregation of the Lord until the tenth generation after the marriage (see Deuteronomy 23:3 and Nehemiah 13:1-3).  In spite of this ambiguity, Jewish rabbis assumed that the deaths of Naomi’s sons were a sign of God’s judgment against them for marrying pagan women.

Regarding the daughters-in-law, here’s what we know about these Moabit maids. The meaning of the name “Orpah” is difficult to determine; It can be everything from “stiff-necked” to “perfume,” so there’s no help there.  “Ruth,” however, is easier to trace.  It means “friend or friendship, abundantly watered.”

One devastation lead Elimelech to decide to leave their homeland, then the devastating loss of her husband and sons lead Naomi to decide to return.  Her decision is a natural one; when you’re hurting and alone, going home sounds extra good.  Also, being without a male head of household was the same as being homeless.  Widows were just above slaves on the social ladder of Israel; who knows about Moab?  So, given the choice of being a “bag lady” in a foreign land or returning home to the charity of her kinfolk, Naomi chose the easier of the two.

  1. Naomi’s decisions (1:6-14, 19-21).

Her first decision to separate herself from her daughters-in-law. (1:6-14)  While there was certainly sentiment and emotion involved, the way Naomi handled this situation tends more toward a practical decision.

– ONE, she’d heard THAT THE LORD HAD [provided] FOOD FOR His people. So the green grass was now back in Israel.

– TWO, she realized that three mouths to feed would be harder for her kinfolk to support and probably harder for her to arrange.

– The girls might have a harder time being pagans living in Israel.

– If they returned to their fathers’ households, they would be cared for and the process of finding them new husbands would be initiated.  Their best chance was to return to their homes.

All three of them prepared to leave, perhaps with Orpah and Ruth assuming they would go with Naomi as she was now head of their household.  It seems from their reaction in the text that she surprised them (vs. 8+9).  In all, this was a sensible decision and probably the most loving thing Ruth could do for her daughters-in-law.  So when they stood at the head of the road, she formally released them from any obligation to her.  She offered a blessing on them (REST can be translated as “security”) and kissed them.

Their mutual tears reveal how traumatic this was for Ruth and Orpah, as does their initial refusal to leave Naomi (9+10).  This speaks well of these women and of Naomi.  Naomi shows her own tender heart in verse thirteen when she refers to them as “MY DAUGHTERS.”

In vs. 11-13, Naomi attempts to reason with them, showing how it was impossible for her to raise up sons to keep them in her household.  This assumes Naomi’s mind was on the Law of Moses, specifically the provision that a man would marry his brother’s widow and raise children in his place (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10).

Naomi’s second decision was theological: she decided God’s hand was against her. (1:13)  As Naomi attempted to reason with her daughters-in-law, Naomi explained that her lot in life was worse than that of her daughters-in-law; she had no hope for remarriage and the remainder of her days would be dependent wholly on the charity of others.  It should be easy for us to sympathize and see how Naomi would be bitter and angry with God for bringing this calamity on her.

Notice that the text neither commends nor condemns Naomi’s decision about the LORD’s intent.  The story simply is what it is.  As such, it’s more of a commentary on human nature than divine nature.  However, the Bible gives us evidence everywhere that God is in charge and that He is the hero of every story.

Naomi’s third decision was to be characterized as “bitter.”  We see this explicitly stated later, in verses 19-21, when Naomi wants to change her name.

Notice how this happens.  Her family greets her in a friendly way; THE WHOLE TOWN WAS STIRRED, AND THE WOMEN ASKED, “CAN THIS BE NAOMI?”  This may have just been a friendly, folksy kind of greeting.  But there may have been more to it than that; after at least 10 years away and after all the grief she suffered, Naomi’s appearance may have been altered.

Naomi reacted to this welcome negatively and strongly; she wanted her name changed to reflect her changed circumstances.  “Naomi” means “pleasant.” “Mara” means “bitter.”  What’s amusing about this is that nobody else buys it.  Nowhere in this book is Naomi ever called “Mara.”  This is her grief talking.

Even here faith is active; Naomi did not blame here trials on bad luck or the devil or other gods, she acknowledged that God was in control and He was making these things happen to her.  She may not understand or appreciate her trials, but they have not caused a crisis of faith for her.

Indeed, it is an immature faith that attributes pleasant things to God and unpleasant things to someone else.  If we say that anything happens outside the will of God then we do not believe in the Almighty God of the Bible.

  1. Naomi’s deliverance (1:14-18).

God used Ruth’s love to deliver Naomi from bitterness (1:14-18).  We’ll see this developed throughout the remainder of the book, but need to note it now.

Apparently Orpah was a practical person; she gave way to Naomi’s logic and reluctantly turned back to her father’s house (1:14).  Her virtue was obedience; nowhere in the Bible is she criticized for it.

But Ruth refused the easier path, the one more sensible if seen in worldly wisdom.  She chose the loving path instead and CLUNG to Naomi.  This reminds me of Jesus’ Resurrection when the women CLUNG to the feet of the resurrected Jesus, (see Matthew 28:9).  The word CLUNG is significant in the original languages; it is used to express the ideal of intimacy that can be achieved in any relationship, usually marriage (Genesis 2:24; 1 Kings 11:2).

Ruth’s response to Naomi’s logic is heart-strong; it stands as one of the most classic declarations of love in all of literature.  It is often used in weddings.  Most importantly, it demonstrates that Ruth’s commitment is total.   No commentary on those words is needed; they speak for themselves.  One thing to note: Ruth, though a Moabite, has clearly heard Naomi’s faith as she invokes the LORD as a witness and guarantee of her oath.  Part of the beauty of this statement is that it was a convincer.  After Ruth said all this, Naomi gave up on trying to argue with her.

Ruth is rightly praised for her commitment, but we must see Naomi’s influence behind it.  Think about it – she must have done something to inspire Ruth to this level of devotion.

The end of the story: RUTH WAS PART OF JESUS’ FAMILY TREE.  As we’ll see in the fourth sermon in this series, Ruth was one of the ancestors of Jesus.