Thursday, December 29, 2011

Loving Your Brother

We begin a new series this Sunday, but it’s not totally new. Actually, what we intend to do over the next 5 ½ months is to look at the implications of Christ’s healing of our brokenness.

Throughout the fall we examined the four areas of chronic brokenness that afflict every sinner. You will remember that sin affects brokenness in the four critical relationships of every man, woman, and child. There is brokenness in our relationship with God, ourselves, others, and the world around us. And as we have vividly seen, God understands every single dimension of our brokenness and in Christ He alone can heal it.

Throughout the fall we’ve examined biblical case studies of God’s healing of brokenness. During Advent we dove into the Book of Ruth and saw many of the brilliant instances of God’s healing power in Naomi, Ruth, and us. Isn’t it amazing that an 85-verse story of a family living 1300 years before Christ God can profoundly illustrate the full dimension of His healing power?

So the question before us now is this: What does the healing look like in a life where Jesus is Lord? What does it look like to be living beyond your brokenness in the power of Christ’s healing and wholeness? What does a transformed life look like?

A few weeks ago I had the chance to see what the perfect golf swing looks like. It was a sequence of video images of Mr. Woods on the fairway at St. Andrews in 2000. As the pros rolled the tape, they were able to draw critical lines on the video images. The result was a “frame by frame” portrait of perfect positioning, body turn, hand rotation, etc.

After showing Tiger’s images the pros videotaped my swing. They put all the lines on me as they did on him. And suffice to say it was instructive to critique all the features of my set up and swing in light of “perfection.”

So it is, that we intend in this New Year to focus on some “videos” of essential features of the transformed life. While there are myriad aspects of Christlikeness, we’ve selected six to examine over the next twenty-four weeks. As you can see from the card you received in the bulletin on Christmas Sunday, the first three are: Love, Hope, and Forgiveness.

We begin this week with our first of five messages on “Living in Love” with the message entitled, “Loving Your Brothers.” The text is Genesis 50:15-21 where Joseph addresses his brothers for the last time. In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following:

1. Identify the catalyst for this final meeting.
2. What is the implication of Jacob’s death for Joseph, the Egyptians, Joseph’s
brothers, and Israel?
3. What does the saying, “Conscience does make cowards of us all,” mean? How
does it apply here?
4. Having been made aware of the forgiveness of Joseph in chapter 45, why do
the brothers fear him now?
5. What does this say about our basic disposition toward divine grace?
6. What is the brother’s view of the continuity of grace?
7. What is the meaning of their self description in verses 17 and 18?
8. Why does Joseph weep in verse 17? Any correlation to Jesus’ tears in John
11:35, and/or Luke 19:41?
9. What is the answer to Joseph’s question in verse 19?
10. Someone has said that verse 20 is “one of the strongest rocks in the
foundation of God and one of the softest pillows on which faith may lay her
head.” What does he mean?

See you on NEW YEARS DAY! (Before the food and football)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Overcoming the Darkness

Some may have wondered at the selection of the Book of Ruth for our Advent study series this year. Of course, when you put the story of Ruth together with our fall theme of brokenness the segue makes sense. But how does Ruth fit with Christmas and the birth of the Messiah? I hope that the previous three Sundays have set the table for answering that question.

This week it’s on to chapter 4 and the climax of the story of Ruth. You may want to review your notes to see how God brings all the themes and sub-plots together in this final chapter. Let’s review:

It’s the time of the judges when nearly all of Israel is doing what’s right in their own eyes. Even a godly, wealthy, well-respected man whose name means “God is my King,” has trouble resisting the urge to do what’s right in his own eyes. For Elimelech it’s a “no brainer.” “The famine is fierce. It’s all over the land of Judah. What my wife and sons and I must do is leave the land of Judah to find food.” And where do they settle? In Moab, the most heinous place on earth for the Jew. The Moabites are the descendents of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his daughter (Genesis 19). For the Jew nothing good could come out of Moab. And for Naomi, that appears to be true. It’s in Moab that her son’s names are changed from Hebrew to Canaanite. It’s in Moab that her sons capitulate to pagan culture and marry Moabite women. It’s in Moab that Naomi’s husband and both sons die, leaving her in the center of the ancient triangle of need. She’s a widow, she’s childless, and she’s a stranger in a foreign land. In her pain and brokenness she hears that there is once again food in the land of Canaan, so she determines to head home. (This is pure providence on God’s part. Even in the depth of her darkness and brokenness God comes to her with a thought, “I should head home.”)

Once she arrives in Bethlehem (the House of Bread) she resists the friendly welcome of the townswomen. She renames herself from “beautiful” to “bitter” – Mara. She seems inconsolable. She is home with no more wealth and no more husband or sons. All she has is a foreign daughter-in-law, one who hails from Moab! And yet, it’s the beginning of the barley harvest (early spring).

So Ruth, “the sensitive friend,” says to her mother-in-law that she wants to go out in the fields and glean. It’s common for the poor to glean. God even makes provision for it in the Law of Moses. So Ruth heads out. It’s an extremely dangerous thing for a single, foreign woman to do. But remarkably she ends up in the field of Boaz. (God’s name is only mentioned twice in this book, but He’s all over it.) And there Boaz takes notice of her and imparts to her a crazy amount of grace.

When Ruth gets home and tells Mara about her day, Mara’s bitterness begins to show a slight sign of cracking. She blesses Boaz’s name. She recognizes his unbelievable kindness (heséd – a word used more than 1000 times in the Old Testament to describe God’s unconditional, steadfast love). So when Ruth heads out to glean the next day she is instructed to stay with the young women of Boaz’s field. And she obeys. In fact, after three months of gleaning Naomi determines to risk it. She and Ruth have been the recipients of profound grace and now, as is the case in every believer’s life, it’s time to walk in it. It’s time to put feet on their faith and send Ruth to their relative redeemer and lay herself down at his feet.

So Ruth steps out. She summons extreme courage. She heads to the threshing floor at midnight, (a place that’s off limits to all women, especially foreign women) and she lays herself at her redeemer’s feet. By uncovering his feet and laying herself down, Ruth is asking Boaz to marry her. He agrees, provided a closer relative chooses not to redeem her and Naomi.

Now think about all the parallels here to the story of Christmas. (1) We all are like Naomi – we all know what it’s like to be broken. (2) We all are like Ruth – a stranger to the people of God. (3) We all are hopeless without divine grace. (4) We all are starving to death. (5) God supplies for us a Boaz. (6) In our Boaz is supernatural strength. (7) He gives us heséd – unmerited grace. (8) In response to His grace we come and lay ourselves at His feet. (9) He pledges to marry us and make us to be His bride. But that’s not all – there’s chapter 4.

In preparation for Christmas Sunday you may wish to consider the following:

1. How quickly did Boaz act? Was Naomi right in Ruth 3:18?
2. What is the significance of sitting at the town gate?
3. Who is this closer relative that Boaz solicits? What is his name?
4. Why does Boaz gather ten elders as witnesses?
5. Why does this closer relative say, “Yes” initially and then back away?
6. What is the risk to taking Ruth as his wife?
7. What is the sandal ritual in verse 7 all about? (There’s another piece of the ritual that’s missing. Any idea what that might be?)
8. Why do the elders pronounce a blessing/prayer on Ruth in verse 11? (Note: She’s not there at the time.)
9. There are three elements to this blessing. Do they come true?
10. Why do the women bless Naomi upon the child’s birth? Do her blessings come true?
11. Why do they name the child?
12. What does the child’s name mean?
13. Why end the Book of Ruth with a genealogy?
14. Where does this same genealogy appear next in Scripture?
15. How does the Book of Ruth show us that God alone can heal all our brokenness?
16. How does the story of Ruth fit with Christmas?

See you on Christmas. P.S. God has a perfect gift for you and so do we!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Challenging the Darkness

A certain young bride wanted to be sure nothing would get in the way on her wedding day. The preacher was wading into the deepest part of the wedding vows. His voice got louder and more dramatic as he asked the groom, “Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…” Suddenly the bride interrupted, “Hush pastor, you’re going to talk him out of it!”

When you read the end of the Book of Deuteronomy and Moses words to the people of Israel, it’s a little like that bride. The prospects are clear and bright. Joshua will be used of God to bring all twelve tribes into the Promised Land. What could be more hopeful for a nomadic people like Israel? God had repeatedly promised a land of their own, descendants as numerous as the stars, and the blessings of milk and honey, physically and spiritually. And yet, once you turn the page to the Book of Joshua, you find that they have to fight for every inch of it. Like every marriage, there’s the wedding, then the living.

All of life illustrates a beginning and then the hard work sets in. This week I heard from a woman whose daughter has just been accepted to Harvard Law School. She and her daughter are thrilled, but the work is just beginning. Think of the guy who lands his dream job. His job now is to succeed in it. Think of the newborn and all the joy and all the potential, and yet there’s a lifetime of working it out.

The truth of the Gospel is that the reception of divine grace is only the beginning of walking with God. Whether it is Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land or Paul’s injunction to the Ephesians to “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ…”, the requirement of new life is to grow up. And one of the essential components of growing up is taking risks. It’s often called “trusting God” or “stepping out in faith”, and that’s exactly what we see vividly in Ruth chapter 3.

With the beginning of this new chapter is the introduction of a new component – COURAGE. After witnessing the overwhelming grace of God through Boaz, Naomi instructs her daughter-in-law to step out in faith and find the rest that God promises His people.

Chapter 3 is all about moving from receiving grace to finding rest, and it’s that same movement God requires of all of us. To stay at the reception of grace stage and refuse to risk trusting Him is a recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s a repudiation of the new life God has given us.

So consider Ruth, after three months of continuous gleaning she heeds her mother-in-law’s instructions to risk her life. She determines to go to Boaz and ask him to be their redeemer. She asks him to redeem Naomi’s household by redeeming the land she had sold in her poverty and providing an heir.

For some, chapter 3 is a little confusing, but when it’s interpreted in its context it’s a rich model of spiritual growth and divine blessing; the perfect antidote to brokenness.

In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following:
1. How much time has passed since the end of Chapter 2?
2. What is the meaning of Naomi’s statement to Ruth in verse 1?
3. What’s the word “rest” or “security” mean?
4. How is the land to be redeemed in Israel in the event of a family with no
heir? (See Leviticus 25)
5. What is the risk in Ruth going to the threshing floor at night? What’s the
meaning of uncovering his feet and laying down (verse 7)?
6. What is the meaning of Ruth’s statement in verse 9?
7. What is the correlation between verse 9 and 2:12?
8. How does the law of Levirate marriage factor into Ruth’s action? (see
Deuteronomy 25)
9. On what basis does Naomi instruct Ruth to wait on verse 18?

See you Sunday as we move toward Christmas and Ruth 4!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Piercing the Darkness

Years ago Chester Morrison was on a trip to Egypt at Christmastime. Somewhat lonely, somewhat depressed, and being away from home at Christmas, Morrison decided to go for a walk. He headed down through the lobby of his hotel and out the door onto the street.

Within minutes as he watched all the hustle and bustle of the evening traffic, a man in a horse-drawn carriage pulled up to the sidewalk and asked if he’d like to head into town to see the nighttime bazaars. Morrison hopped in and began to ride through the busy streets. Suddenly, Morrison looking up into the nighttime sky and seeing a panoply of stars said, “I wonder which one is the star of Bethlehem?” The driver looked around and exclaimed, “Bethlehem? I was born in Bethlehem!” To which Morrison instantly replied, “In a manger?” The man stopped the carriage and stared at him, “A manger? What’s a manger?”

If you’ve been to the mall lately or turned on the TV, you’ve undoubtedly had a similar experience. It’s astounding the ubiquity of the carols and the din of disregard all around us. In all of the brokenness and bitterness of the world today (and every day) there is a clear answer calling out in the darkness; and yet it’s unknown and unheard by most. And that’s a shame because God goes to great lengths to bring light out of the darkness. Indeed, C.S. Lewis said rightly, “God whispers to us in our pleasure, but He shouts to us in our pain.” And all throughout His Word He testifies to that fact.

When we ended our study last week we saw a glimmer of hope in an otherwise hopeless decade of events. Elimelech’s dead. His sons are dead. Naomi is left with two foreign daughters-in-law and a load of misery. She’s entered the ancient triangle of need. She’s a widow. She’s childless. She’s a stranger in a strange and pagan land.

So, in her pain she decides to head home – back to the land of Judah, the land of Promise. After Orpah (stiff-necked) determines to stay in Moab she’s left alone with Ruth, her Moabite daughter-in-law. In one of the most moving statements of Scripture, Ruth says she will not leave her, but will die with her. And this stands to reason, for her name means “sensitive friend.”

All around Naomi are hints of divine mercy, and yet she can’t see any of them. When she gets home she says to her fellow Bethlehemites, “Don’t call me Naomi (beautiful), call me Mara (bitter)!” Rather than being blinded by the light of God’s mercy, she’s blinded by her own brokenness and bitterness. But as the chapter ends there’s yet another sign that God is working out his purpose, for Naomi and Ruth get to Bethlehem just in the time for the first harvest of the year – the barley harvest.

Now that’s how chapter 2 begins. It gives us a glimpse into the life of the poor in ancient Israel. There were not many ways of making a living open to widows, but one way was to glean. In Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22 the Lord decrees that landowners should not reap to the borders of their property, but leave the corners and sides for the poor, the widows, and the sojourners. The disenfranchised could go out into the fields after the reapers and get what they missed. Indeed, if a reaper forgot a sheaf he had harvested and left it in the field, he was forbidden to go back for it (Deuteronomy 24:19). He must leave it for the less fortunate.

So, as chapter 2 begins, Ruth asks Naomi’s permission to go glean in the fields. Now interestingly it’s Ruth who goes out to glean, Naomi stays “home”. This is interesting on several levels. Naomi had been in the fields in Moab (1:6), but here it’s Ruth the foreigner who goes out into the fields. Her Moabite identity is mentioned five times in the Book of Ruth and twice in this chapter. According to the law of Moses, Moabites were forbidden from coming into the congregation of Israel up to the tenth generation. And yet, here she is in the fields of Bethlehem. It is an act of extraordinary courage. We see allusions to that fact in verse 8.

In the midst of Naomi’s deep darkness and brokenness the light of God’s grace cascades throughout chapter 2. As you read it and prepare for Sunday’s study, you may wish to consider the following:

1. What does the name Boaz mean? Can you find any other place in Scripture where the name Boaz appears?
2. Why does Boaz refer to Ruth in the same way Naomi does in verse 2?
3. What is the significance of this reference in verse 8?
4. Why does Boaz tell Ruth to stay close to his young women?
5. What is the meaning of Ruth’s posture and question in verse 10?
6. What is the reason for Boaz’s favorable comment to Ruth? (v.11)
7. How many dialogues are there in chapter 2? Which is the most significant?
8. How many evidences of divine involvement can you find in this chapter?
9. What correlations can you draw between the Boaz/Ruth relationship and our relationship with Christ?
10. What is the origin of Boaz’s “wings” reference in verse 12?
11. If you had to pick the most important verse out of this chapter, what would it be?

See you in the fields of Bethlehem this Advent Sunday!

Friday, December 2, 2011

This Present Darkness

In our English Bibles the Book of Ruth follows Judges and precedes Samuel. It’s not difficult to see why, since the first verse establishes the historical context as, “the days when the judges ruled.” In fact, some believe the Book of Ruth to be a commentary on the Book of Judges, a time when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” There are few greater symptoms of our human brokenness than doing what’s right in our own eyes. Indeed, much of the darkness of our own world is the consequence of reliving the time of the judges.

For the past 12 weeks we have examined what the Scriptures have to say about the four major areas of brokenness that exist all around us and often within us. And if you’ve been studying along with us you know that in 12 weeks we’ve only scratched the surface. In fact, we intend to continue examining the effects of Christ’s healing of brokenness throughout the first half of the year. We’re calling it “Living Beyond: A Transformed Life.”

This Sunday we begin a four-week Advent Series that continues our examination. It is uncanny how this little four-chapter Old Testament book speaks to the depth of our brokenness by highlighting the brokenness in the family of Elimelech. The way in which El Shaddai heals the brokenness in them is the same way He heals it in us. As is the case in so much of Scripture, the players in the story are mirror images of us. Their story is our story and their Healer is our Healer who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

We’ve titled these four messages to reflect the essence of the time of Ruth. It’s a time of deep darkness. It’s a time when both natural and spiritual famine are present in abundance. As one writer puts it, “It is a time when the broad sweep of Israel’s history is moving His people further and further away from God and increasingly under divine judgment.” It is a time much like the days of Noah. It is a time much like the final days, a time with which we are quite familiar.
But the darkness, the spiritual drift, and the increasing certainty of divine judgment are not the whole story. In the midst of all the brokenness is the God who works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

The story of Ruth is a microcosm of what life in Israel might have been, and would have been, if only the people of God had sought Him, loved Him, and trusted Him. The message of Ruth is the story of how God moves behind the scenes to reverse one family’s situation of collapse, despair, and brokenness by a series of remarkable providences. But it’s more than that. It’s the story of God’s governance on a macro-scale in which He is actively at work, bringing about a sequence of events that will lead to the emergence of the Kingdom of God in this world. Not only is David foreshadowed, but the Son of David is foreshadowed – the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is the same One who rules the universe in love, grace and truth.
We’ve titled our Advent Series, “Out of the Darkness, The Hope of Transformation.” This week we begin with Ruth, Chapter 1 and the title of the message is “This Present Darkness.”

In preparation for Sunday you may wish to consider the following:

1. Contrast the location of the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible and our Bible.
2. Why would the Book of Ruth be read aloud at the Feast of Passover?
3. What would cause a Jew named Elimelech to move his family to Moab?
4. Who are the Moabites and what does God have to say about them?
5. What are the meanings of all the names used in Chapter 1 and how do those
people live up to them?
6. What is “the ancient triangle of need?”
7. Why would the sons of Elimelach have Canaanite (Moabite) names? And what
does their choice of wives say about them?
8. What evidence of God’s blessing is to be found in Naomi’s brokenness and
9. How does a woman like Ruth, who grows up worshiping Chemosh the Moabite god
of war, come to saving faith in the true God?
10. What evidence is there in this chapter that God’s grace is in total control?

See you Sunday.