The Fruits of the Roots – (1 Cor. 15:12-26, 42-49)

Today’s devotional is the final in our series “The Roots of Redemption.”  I trust you have enjoyed it and been enriched by it. The genealogy of Christ and the theological significance it holds is very deep and at the core of the entire gospel message. Chris’ summary yesterday was one of the best writings I have ever read. Review that; understand it; know and be able to explain the exchange – the imputation of righteousness. If you “get” that, you’ve really “got it.”

In the coming months of the winter and spring we will be doing two new series beginning on 1/11/15 for six weeks, and then on 2/22/15 through the Easter season and into early May. The first will be on the subject of growing beyond being a disciple to becoming a discipler, with the latter series on the book of Hebrews – so rich in the theology of salvation and Christ’s atoning work.

Big Picture Perspective

As I write these words, I do so having recently come home from the visiting hours with a family who lost a loved one. The husband of the deceased said to me, “I’m not praying for her anymore, and I am looking forward to going where she is to be there with her. We know that in Adam we all die once, but in Christ we are made alive.”

He is of course referencing the great truth from the pen of the Apostle Paul in 1st Corinthians 15 – our passage for today. This dear man was comforted by this great overarching perspective, that though we’ve got a big problem through our relationship with Adam, we have a greater solution in Jesus Christ.

While at the same event, a man approached me whom I only casually recognized. In conversation it came out that he was the grandfather of a boy I had coached at Williamsport High School. He said, “So I can see that you haven’t gotten your knees fixed yet!”  To which I said, “Oh, you imagined that I was limping when I walked in?”

No, I can’t run away from my bad knee problem – literally or figuratively. I can’t even fake “not limping” anymore. I received this arthritic joint problem fair and square from the relatives – they have all had knee replacement surgeries.

And none of us can run away from our connection to Adam and Eve and the curse of sin and death that has passed down to us. But there is hope and a new connection to a new family relationship in Christ. The proof of it is the resurrection. That was just the beginning—the first fruits of a harvest of life to come—the fruits of the roots of redemption. We are more than just physical creatures; we are spiritual beings in connection with God through the work of Jesus Christ.

The Resurrection of the Dead

15:12 – But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 

. . . . . . .

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual.47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven.48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

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“The Romance of the Fragment” (Romans 5)

Tragedy happens quickly; restoration takes its time.

The taller and more narrow our pedestal, the greater our chances of falling to the earth in a clamor of dust and ash.  Just ask Adam—a 500-year-old sculpture by Renaissance master Tullio Lombardo.  The sculpture of Adam was on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when it mysteriously crashed to the ground, shattering into literally hundreds of pieces.  Carol Vogel’s 2014 article in The New York Times was—perhaps appropriately—entitled: “Recreating Adam, From Hundreds of Pieces, After the Fall:”

“What followed was more than a decade of painstaking restoration that was unprecedented in the Met’s history. The project took so long there were rumors that the statue was beyond repair….In decades past, museums would have also restored a damaged work of art in a way that got it back on view as quickly as possible. In the case of a massive marble sculpture like Adam, conservators would have resorted to using iron or steel pins that required drilling many of the sculpture’s joints. But such invasive work can be risky, curators said, potentially harming the marble….Nobody at the Met thought that the process would take 12 years. But [the Met’s director] reiterated in a recent interview, that he wanted Adam ‘brought back to a state where only [art insiders] could tell anything had happened.’”

Vogel reports that experts in the field describe such restoration projects as “the cutting edge of art history.”  Restorers speak of “the romance of the fragment,” the re-assembly of damaged pieces to make the artwork whole again.

Yet for us—all of Adam’s true daughters and sons—there can be no “romance of the fragment,” no possible way of assembling our disjointed thoughts into a cohesive whole.  In fact, our every medicine seemingly only causes more illness.  Even in our best moments we are dimly aware that we are broken, beyond repair.  Our attempts to find wholeness through career, through relationships, through sex, through sports, through artistic triumph—even through religious devotion—only magnifies our brokenness, like children gluing pieces of china together in hopes our parents won’t notice the cracks in the dinner plates.

Malcolm Muggeridge—the twentieth century journalist—once remarked that original sin is the doctrine most often denied, yet the one most easily proven.  Just turn on your television set, and your living room will flicker with the evidence of a world where Adam’s legacy may be seen and felt.  Yet the problem is never simply “out there,” out in the world, someone else’s problem.  No; the problem goes deeper.  As a Russian writer once put it, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”

We’re speaking, of course, of the nature of original sin.  When Paul summarized the gospel of the people of Rome, he described it as a glorious exchange.  Or—more specifically—a series of exchanges.

THE FIRST EXCHANGE: ADAM TO US

First, Adam’s rebellion in the garden was passed on to us:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because wall sinned—13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. (Romans 5:12-14)

We are all the products of a fatal, genetic error.  The early Church called this “original sin,” a doctrine that states that sin is more than just what we do; sin is something we are.  We are “polluted in father and mother,” wrote Origen, a member of the early Church.  If this is true, then we can’t possibly defend ourselves as merely being “born this way,” or the products of heredity and environment.  No; we are guilty by simple virtue of being born.

But, you might object, surely that’s unfair.  In Western societies, we tend to think of responsibility as personal.  If my brother, father, sister, etc. commits a crime, I am not guilty—unless I participate.  So to be condemned for Adam’s sin seems unfair.  But this assumes you haven’t yourself participated in the same kind of rebellion that Adam did—or that even from birth you have a desire for self-indulgence.

Gary Willis says it best:

“We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness.  There is no ‘clean slate’ of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebears….At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as ‘having a past.’  The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, ‘has a past.’”  (Gary Willis, Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home, p. 384)

THE SECOND EXCHANGE: OUR SIN TO CHRIST

Paul writes:

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:15-17)

The gospel is a glorious exchange, wherein my wickedness—the same “reputation” I earned from Adam—is given to Jesus.  On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for my depravity.  And, in return…

THE THIRD EXCHANGE: CHRIST’S RIGHTEOUSNESS TO US

When Christ takes our sin, so too does he impart to us His righteousness:

 18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for fall men.19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21)

Christian thinkers have termed this as the doctrine of “imputation,” the process by which each of these exchanges takes place.  The imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we might say, is what puts back together the image that was broken.

And that’s why Luke, in writing his biography of Jesus, would extend Christ’s genealogy all the way back to “Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38).  For Luke, both Adam and Jesus were “sons of God”—though each in their own unique way.  But while the first Adam would result in ruin, the second Adam would bring about restoration.  For the first Adam, what began in a garden resulted in a graveyard.  But for the second Adam, what began in the graveyard would result in a garden.

“The deformity of Christ forms you,” wrote Saint Augustine.  And he was right.  If Jesus was broken so that I could be made whole, it liberates me from trying to reassemble the pieces on my own.  I am set free from the “romance of the fragment,” a romance that leads only to codependency and grief.  Instead, I may begin each day with joy, knowing my identity no longer comes from Adam, no longer comes from my career, no longer comes from a shameful past, no longer comes from my need for relationship, for sex, for sports victories—no longer comes externally at all.  Instead, my identity comes from Jesus, whose once-for-all sacrifice undoes the years of grief, and fills in my broken cracks with grace.  And life.  And joy.

 

Boundless Love (Ruth 4)

Love is never truly blind.  In recent years, marriage has become the latest boundary between social classes—the privileged elite more likely to marry than those living in poverty.  In 2012, the New York Times reported that in addition to this, Americans tend not to marry outside of their social class, only reinforcing the growing socioeconomic rift:

College-educated Americans…are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women…who left college without finishing her degree, are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes. (Jason DeParle, “Two Classes, Divided By ‘I Do,’ in The New York Times, July 14, 2012)

Opposites—including sociological opposites—never really attract, do they?  This is why it’s a common trope in love stories and fairy tales for a rich man or a king to stoop to marrying a mere peasant.  Think Cinderella.  We love tales of overlooked women moving from rags to riches.  If we stop and think about it, it’s actually quite condescending—not to mention a little sexist.   So why would this cultural trope persist?  I’d like to think it’s because we recognize a kindness inherent to the gentlemen of these stories, men who set aside cultural limitations and bias to heroically choose the maiden.  We love thinking that love—like beauty—can’t be limited by economics and social class.

So in the story of Ruth and Boaz, we can’t help but love the way Boaz sets aside any cultural barriers that might otherwise be in place, and do whatever it takes to “redeem” Ruth—that is, to marry her by securing Elimelech’s land.  It’s a business transaction, really.  But as we observed yesterday, there’s something radically subversive about the way we see true love flourish beneath the unpolished cultural surface.   In Ruth 4, we see this transaction take place at the city gates—actually a small architectural enclave where business was regularly conducted.  Think of it as sort of an ancient version of City Hall:

Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there. And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by. So Boaz said, “Turn aside, friend; sit down here.” And he turned aside and sat down. And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down.Then he said to the redeemer, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech.So I thought I would tell you of it and say, ‘Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.’ If you will redeem it, redeem it. But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one besides you to redeem it, and I come after you.” And he said, “I will redeem it.” Then Boaz said, “The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.” Then the redeemer said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Do you hear what’s going on here?  The “redeemer” had the right to purchase the land—but wait, Boaz notes: Ruth comes with it.  Reluctant to take on this wife, the redeemer politely passes.  Boaz is now free to purchase the land—and in “redeeming” the land, he acquires Ruth as his wife.

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the redeemer said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself,” he drew off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon. 10 Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day.”11 Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman, who is coming into your house, like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you act worthily in Ephrathah and be renowned in Bethlehem, 12 and may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring that the Lord will give you by this young woman.”

The text notes the cultural custom.  In a pre-modern world there were no contracts to sign.  So they would often seal the deal with some visual demonstration in the eyes of witnesses.  Commentators note that the practice would vary, but in this case the removal of Boaz’ shoe was intended to be a pledge to make good on his plans to purchase the land and marry Ruth.

13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15 He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.” 16 Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. 17 And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

The story now culminates in the ultimate purpose: to show how God—working seemingly “behind the scenes”—used these unusual circumstances to continue His mission to bring all men back to Himself.  And, ultimately, the original readers would recognize the way these events secured the lineage of King David:

18 Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, 19 Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, 20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21 Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, 22 Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.

If these last verses sound familiar, it’s because you might remember the way they repeat in the opening verses of Matthew:

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram,] and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. (Matthew 1:2-6)

But there’s something even deeper—even more spectacular than all of that.  It’s that Jesus is the true and better Boaz, who pays the price to redeem His bride, the Church.  As Paul writes, “He has purchased us with His blood” (Colossians 1:14-24).  Jesus is the ultimate redeemer—paying the price on the cross so that we could be brought into fellowship and glorious relationship.  And here’s the most amazing part: this union was brought about through love, through mercy.  None of us are in God’s social or economic “class” in any sense of the word.  No; we are unworthy of the redemption freely offered through God’s grace alone.  But instead He came to us, He died for us, so that we might be enabled to live for Him.

Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves? (Ruth 3)

Does God “meet us halfway?”  I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said that “God helps those who help themselves,” a phrase that’s become so commonplace I suspect many are surprised to learn it’s not actually in the Bible(!).  Humans have a deeply-ingrained sense of fairness.  In October of 2014, NBC News reported findings of a study that shows humans are naturally wired to be gratified by “fairness:”

“You might expect that deep inside the human cortex, the brain generally acts to maximize rewards for itself. But new research shows that the same part of the brain that lights up when a person is rewarded for their work, the striatum, responds more when that award is fair. This suggests that we have an inbuilt idea of fairness as well as a learned one.” (from: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/human-brain-finds-fairness-naturally-rewarding-study-n230021)

What—if anything—does this have to do with religion?  We expect God to play “fair,” to reward our faith with an equal measure of blessing.  So when blessings occur, we feel a natural sense of pride at having deserved such a reward.  And when blessings seem absent, we might feel a sense of guilt or injustice over not having achieved what we expected.

In the story of Ruth and Boaz, we find a curious mixture of God’s power and human responsibility.  It’s mysterious, truly—and a relationship that the Bible never fully reconciles.  As we observed previously, the story of Ruth unveils the fact that God is orchestrating the events of human life in such a way that what seems random is actually within the sovereign control of God.

So now that Ruth has met Boaz, Naomi sees before her an opportunity.  It’s time to play matchmaker:

 Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? 2 Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. 3 Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do.” 5 And she replied, “All that you say I will do.”

What’s going on here?  In his commentary on Ruth, Robert L. Hubbard observes the way that Naomi’s plan and God’s actions are beginning to flow together:

“Earlier Naomi had wished for these same things (1:8-9). Here human means (i.e., Naomi’s plan) carry out something previously understood to be in [God’s] province. In response to providentially given opportunity, Naomi began to answer her own prayer! Thus she models one way in which divine and human actions work together: believers are not to wait passively for events to happen; rather, they must seize the initiative when an opportunity presents itself.” (Robert L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, p. 199)

So her mother hatches this elaborate plan for Ruth to get Boaz to notice her—an event that’s become a common illustration in every bad Christian dating book ever sense.  I mean, this is where things get weird.  Naomi’s plan is for Ruth to put on her best party dress, a pair of heels and some mascara and go down to where Boaz is working.  She was then supposed to “uncover his feet.”  Now, here’s where interpreters like to point out that maybe this is getting a little risqué.  It’s possible—but only possible—that “uncover the feet” is referring to a lot more than just his legs (sorry; I only point this out because, again, a lot of bad Christian books have said exactly that).  But all we really need to see is that Ruth is supposed to uncover his robe a bit, then lay down at his feet.  It was an act of both submission and devotion—a way of communicating to Boaz, “Hey; I know I lost my husband, but I’m ready to move on if you wanna buy me dinner.”

Of course, that’s not to say the act wasn’t at least a little scandalous.  I remember my Hebrew professor pointing out that at the threshing floor, where kernels and chaff would separate in the winds, there was literally “fertility in the air.”  We’re meant to see romance and risk involved here.  And, what’s more, we can’t even point to some cultural reason why Naomi gets this idea in her head.  In his commentary, Leon Morris points out: “…why it should be done in this way we do not know. Nor do we know whether this was a widely practiced custom or not. It is not attested other than here.” (Leon Morris, “Ruth” in Judges-Ruth, p. 287)

Ruth obeys dutifully, waiting for Boaz to fall asleep before going in, uncovering his feet and then laying down (don’t miss the exclamation mark in our English text in verse 8):

6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. 7 And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! 9 He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” 10 And he said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. 11 And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. 12 And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. 13 Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the Lord lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning.”

Ruth’s request is that Boaz spread his cloak over both of them.  The symbolism is clear, even to modern eyes.  She’s asking for a marriage proposal.  And Boaz is upstanding enough not to give her one, until he’s absolutely sure he’s the right man for the job.  There may, after all, be someone else who is closer to her and may have the “right” to marry her.  I know that sounds sociologically backward to today’s readers—and certainly a bit sexist.  But I’d love to point out the way that this story seems to be culturally subversive in its portrayal of women.  Despite all the ways that a patriarchal society has worked against Naomi and Ruth, God provides for them through his sovereignty.  Even the kindness of Boaz is ultimately seen as directed by the hand of God.

We’re left to understand that nothing untoward happened between the couple that night, though Ruth returns home early enough to avoid suspicion.  I can’t help but picture Naomi sitting in the kitchen in her bathrobe—pot of coffee on—waiting to ask: “Soooo…how was your date?  Did you uncover his feet?”  “Moooom!  You’re so embarrassing!”

14 So she lay at his feet until the morning, but arose before one could recognize another. And he said, “Let it not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” 15 And he said, “Bring the garment you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley and put it on her. Then she went into the city. 16 And when she came to her mother-in-law, she said, “How did you fare, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, 17 saying, “These six measures of barley he gave to me, for he said to me, ‘You must not go back empty-handed to your mother-in-law.’”18 She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest but will settle the matter today.”

Naomi has a high view of Boaz.  She knows he’ll be true to his word, and the matter would be resolved—hopefully in their favor—that day.

What lessons are there for us?  Most of us won’t be put in a weird situation like this.  But we can trust in the providence of a God who offers us shelter, security, protection—not because we’re good but because He’s God.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty  He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge… (Psalm 91:1, 4)

So let’s get serious for a minute.  What about this story seems fair to you?  At what point is God merely helping a young woman who helped herself?   Sure, we see risks taken, and the promise of reward suspended above her head.  But ultimately we must equally see the way that up until this point, so much has rested in the hands of a God who brought her up to a point when such a risk could even be taken.

In the eighteenth century, a famous preacher named Jonathan Edwards suggested that perhaps both man and God are active in our lives:

“In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, we act all….God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects, wholly passive and wholly active.”

I don’t know how else to put it, really.  More recently, Dallas Willard wrote that “grace is opposed to earning, but it is not opposed to effort.”  Indeed.  The miracle of the gospel—the miracle of Christmas, for that matter—is that God steps in.  He doesn’t meet us halfway.  He doesn’t wait until we’re out of the margins of life before He reaches in to help us.  And the most beautiful treasure of all is not merely that God offers us blessing, but that God is our blessing.  He arrives in a lowly manger, He ascends to the agony of a cross, and He promises a return, when all things shall be new again.

Signs and Wonders (Ruth 2)

Does life have meaning?  Purpose?  Or is it all just one big accident?  When we find ourselves in the margins of life—caught somewhere between expectation and reality—we find ourselves asking: “Is God in this?”

Few today would agree that our world has any intrinsic purpose or meaning.  Terrorist attacks, an unstable stock market, rising divorce rates—all of these have had a profound psychological impact on western civilization. In a 2012 article in the New York Times, Todd and Victoria Buchholz noted that among young people, the word “random…has morphed from a precise statistical term to an all-purpose phrase that stresses the illogic and coincidence of life.” While the generation of the 1960’s could still express some measure of idealism, today’s world is fraught with pessimism and uncertainty.  Life, at its core, is unpredictable.

What, then, becomes of faith?  If life is full of uncertainty, if meaning is in the eye of the beholder, then Christianity—nay, all religion—shrinks to the level of mere therapy.  A beautiful dream—but nothing more than an opiate to numb ourselves to the problems of our world.

Yet are we really satisfied with such a bleak description?  Of course not; this is arguably why we remain captivated by the power of story.  In his 2004 book Jesus Goes to Harvard, cultural analyst Harvey Cox writes that stories represent a “common vocabulary.”  Though the students of his Harvard University classroom have been taught to be suspicious of “absolute truth,” deep down they seem to recognize that “there [is] something fundamentally inadequate about moral relativism.”   Indeed, our world’s most enduring stories—such as the Star Wars saga, or Lord of the Rings—open to us a world of depth and meaning, calling us subtly toward a truth bigger and better than any celluloid fantasy.

This is why the stories of Scripture become so valuable.  For in these pages we find a world sensitized to the beautiful way that God enters into the human situation, to set us free from the dolor and lifelessness of a world without meaning.

Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech. And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.” Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?”And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.”

In his analysis of Ruth, Ronald Hals points out just how great this story is:

“…the author’s real meaning in 2:3b is actually the opposite of what he says. The labelling [sic] of Ruth’s meeting with Boaz as ‘chance’ is nothing more than the author’s way of saying that no human intent was involved. For Ruth and Boaz it was an accident, but not for God.” (Ronald Hals, A Theology of the Book of Ruth, p. 61)

Is it possible there’s no such thing as chance?  Is it possible that God is already at work—seeking to reverse the fortunes of this young woman and her family?

Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.” 10 Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?” 11 But Boaz answered her, “All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 12 The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” 13 Then she said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.”

14 And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.15 When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”

Boaz is impressed with Ruth.  In part this is due to her hard work ethic, and I think it adds a human touch—maybe even a comedic one—that he seems really into the fact that she’s such a hard worker.  Some guys like broad shoulders, I guess.

17 So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. 18 And she took it up and went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied. 19 And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi also said to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” 21 And Ruth the Moabite said, “Besides, he said to me, ‘You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.’” 22 And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, “It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.” 23 So she kept close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law.

Ruth and Naomi’s fortunes are starting to turn.  For the first time, the story begins to ascend out from the margins and into the light.  Can God do the same for us?  Deep down, this is what every human heart longs for.  Yet for many of us, we’ve yet to really wrap our minds around the sheer absurdity of our circumstances.

In the 2002 film Signs, Mel Gibson plays a former minister who lost his faith.  When strange lights appear in the skies overhead, the world is gripped by fear.  Gibson’s character comforts his brother:

“People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance. I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear…But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”

Is it possible that there are no coincidences?  I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, but I don’t believe that there’s any such thing as mere accidents.  God is weaving a great story in which each of us has a part.  It’s a story about Jesus—the center and focus of all human history—yet in an incredible act of grace God allows us to be a part of this story, to allow Christ to be the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1).  Don’t live life as if it were random.  Don’t live life as if it were mere chance.  Live instead as if all of life were a gift from God, and live as if all of life were a chance for love.

 

It’s a Not-so-wonderful Life (Ruth 1)

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”  These immortal words were spoken by little Zuzu, played by Karolyn Grimes in the beloved Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  But for Grimes, “life has never been wonderful.”  In a 2011 interview with NBC news, she chronicles the death of her parents at age 12, her upbringing by her religiously-strict aunt and uncle, her husband’s cancer, her son’s suicide.  Yet she could always find comfort in looking back at the film that granted her early fame:

“It’s not a Christmas movie, not a movie about Jesus or Bethlehem or anything religious like that…It’s about how we have to face life with a lot of uncertainty, and even though nobody hears it, most of us ask God to show us the way when things get really hard… and (like in the film) it can be in Martini’s (bar), not a church on Christmas.”

Many people in our world feel the same—that religion has let them down, that Christmas can’t possibly bring us the joy it promises, as though Hallmark had written a check reality could never cash.

Jesus’ family tree contains a similar story.  In Matthew 1:5 we read that Jesus’ genealogy contains “Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth…”

The story of Ruth is a story of faith in hard times, of finding joy even in the margins.  The story is set during the time of the Judges, and its opening chapter deals a shocking blow as we narrow our focus to the characters of Naomi and Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

In a primitive, patriarchal society, this was harsh news—and in some ways represented a possible death sentence.  Without the support and security of husbands, these women were forced to fend for themselves—made all the worse by the fact that “there was a famine in the land” (Ruth 1:1).

What would become of Naomi’s daughters-in-law now that their husbands had passed on?

6 Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons,13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

In his commentary on Ruth, Frederic Bush observes that given the primitive living conditions of the ancient world, it’s understandable that these women would abandon their mother-in-law in favor of finding their own security.  In some ways, it’s almost like on the airplane when you’re told that in an emergency, you should secure your own oxygen mask before you try and assist someone else.  But at the same time, we may marvel at the faith of Ruth—who clings, we’re told, to Naomi even though she’s not flesh-and-blood.

15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

Now the story has established this elegant yet sad partnership of Naomi and Ruth.  Like some men come to a funeral, these two women came to the town of Bethlehem.

19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.

In the ancient world, names could often be used to reveal (or at least reflect) the contents of your heart.  So Naomi changed her name from Naomi (which meant “sweetness” or “pleasantness”) to Mara (meaning “bitter”).

At this point in the story, we find no real hope of resolution.  And perhaps we needn’t search for one.  The story, of course, is not over, but we remain confronted by the reality that life will not always bring comfort or immediate satisfaction.  Suffering is a part of life—part of the Christian journey, in fact.  Disappointment haunts us; anxiety lurks around every bend.  At Christmastime, these emotions become magnified by memories of loss, and reminders of failure.  The Christmas cards you sign by yourself—and not with your husband or wife.  The mantle that features one fewer stocking than last year—or the dinner table with one less plate.  Go through these experiences—endure these hardships—and Naomi’s name-change will no longer seem so strange.  Freud once argued that when we lose someone, we mourn not just the loss of the person but the loss of our role in relationship to that person.  He used the example of mothers who lost sons during wars.  These mothers grieve not just their sons, but also their identity as mothers.  Naomi experienced this same thing—and perhaps you do, too.  She missed her husband, she missed her sons—but she also had to grieve the fact that she was no longer a wife or a mother.

We can be thankful, then, that in our suffering we can still cling to the hope that we are adopted into God’s family.  Our earthly identities—whether as parents or spouses—may shift with the harsh winds of time and pain.  But the enduring truth is that we may count ourselves connected to God and his great family of believers.

And we can be all the more confident that God’s story hasn’t finished yet.  It’s no accident that the church historically celebrated “Advent”—looking not just to Jesus’ first coming, but his second.  A time when all would be made new.  When death and pain would be conquered.  Christmas—insofar as it is a day on the calendar—cannot possibly contain all of this hope.  All of this joy.  We must therefore learn to suffer as we look forward to this new day.

Just hold on.  Try to hold on.

I’m from Missouri: Show Me Your Works (James 2:14-26)

It has been identified that a significant problem in the evangelical church over the past couple of decades is that a genuine faith has not been owned by rising generations. Even with great youth programs and creative church ministry like no other time in history, so many have not held on to a personal faith and really made it their own as the went into adulthood.

The problem is neither new nor uncommon. It existed in the first century. And the writer James spoke to it by asking what good is a faith that is nothing but words? Is it not clear that a person with a genuine faith will have their lives so radically changed that they cannot help but have it impact what they do and how they invest with their time, talents, and treasures?

Apparently in James’ day there were people who also only came to church when there was nothing else better to do.

The beginning of this passage is really quite humorous as James raises the theological question with a hypothetical situation …

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Even before he was a believer in Jesus as the Christ, it was clear that this brother of Jesus had a very spunky personality. I like him; he could be from New Jersey! He continues …

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

This really is a great line. And it is true that even the demonic world believes in God. They know what the truth is; they know it better than we do. Just knowing and believing is obviously not everything!

And James will use two illustrations – the first one an obvious person that any good Jewish Christian might have expected to hear about, and that is Abraham …

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

Be sure to be with us on Christmas Eve at 7:00, as we will be covering this Scripture and this story of Abraham’s faith displayed by being willing to offer up Isaac. We know from the account in Hebrews that he was willing to do so because his faith was so strong that even if he killed his own son, he believed God would raise him from the dead and give him back to fulfill the promise of his seed coming through Isaac. That is powerful faith and action.

But then James turns to the opposite extreme and a most unlikely person – the prostitute Rahab …

25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

As we have already said of Rahab in this series, her faith was magnificent and huge. In the midst of a Canaanite culture and city where none believed in the one true God, she was sure that the God of the Israelites was the real and most powerful deity – in fact the only true diety. But she didn’t just think it, she put her everything on the line by aligning with the enemy of her own people.

In the midst of the sin and chaos of her life and her world, she believed that God would save her. Our sin may be of a different nature, and our world may have a dissimilar sort of chaos, but we are just as needy as this prostitute of old. We need a new identity beyond what we have in the here and now; we need a new family to be a part of – an eternal connection and membership in the kingdom of light.

How to be a Hero in One Simple Step (Hebrews 11)

Before we jump into the Hebrews 11 passage today, let me thank all of you who read these devotionals and comment here and there about how you are blessed by them. Since Chris and I have been writing these for close to two years, with today’s piece we have now penned 400 of these studies. Please see them as a reference not only for the current series, but also as a searchable reference, as I think we have now covered about 25-30% or more of the Scriptures.

Who wants to be a hero?

The ultimate commendation would be to have God say that in your life you were a hero of faith. And indeed we strive, hope, and press toward the upward calling of life in Christ with the hope of hearing on a final day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

It may seem to be a very “out there” thing to have any hope of being commended by the creator of the universe in such a way. Actually, it is very simple in that it only involves one step – just trust God in faith.

But that step is difficult to take, isn’t it?

I’m probably a bit “over the top” with this illustration, and it will drive our own Home Depot manager Tony Mazolla crazy when he hears this, but there is no way I am going to ask for help in finding something in that store. Even if someone says, “May I help you find something?” I’ll say “No, let me try to figure it out.”  Only when I’m completely stuck will I ask for help (unless I see Tony himself)!

Same thing with asking for directions. No way – that’s what maps and GPS systems on phones are for – I’m not going to bother anyone and ask!

Silly?  Probably. But that’s how we often live the Christian life – trying to figure out and work out situations on our own when God simply wants us to trust him with it all.

We get a sort of definition of faith at the beginning of the chapter.

11:1 – Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

Faith is believing that something you cannot see is as real and certain as something that you can see. That is difficult.

Imagine how difficult that was for Rahab. Why should she believe that two spies from the most powerful and apparently God-blessed nation on the earth would protect her from getting wiped out when her city of Jericho was destroyed? But in faith she believed God, and she acted on that faith by helping God’s people and risking everything in her own place and culture.

For this, she is listed in this chapter that records quite a who’s who, hall of fame of those characters of the Old Testament that found God’s pleasure because they lived in faith – they believed in things they could not see as if they were clearly visible before their very eyes.

She appears rather later in the chapter, being commended about the story of the defeat of Jericho and her faith to help by hiding the spies …

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

That final word “disobedient” could be understood as saying “unbelieving.”

So if a prostitute in a heathen culture can trust God and get commended for it in the Scriptures, how difficult really … really … is it for you to trust God right now with whatever is a burden or concern in your life?

Here is the rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews – a book we will be studying in the spring of 2015 …

3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

4 By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

5 By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6 And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

7 By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

22 By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

23 By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

<Rahab verses here >

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

A New National Identity (Joshua 6)

As we continue today with the story of Rahab, we skip from Joshua chapter 2 to Joshua 6. In the intervening chapters is the story of the nation of Israel crossing the Jordan. It was accomplished during the flood season, but as with the Red Sea, the waters stopped and the nation crossed on dry ground.

Most of the people would have had no memory of this happening when coming out of Egypt. Only those who were children at the time could recall it. So this must have been an amazing experience of fortifying their faith that God was with them.

I will leave most of the text of today’s chapter at the bottom of this writing, as you know the story of the fall of Jericho. But here at the top, let me pull up the portion that deals with Rahab …

Jericho ruins

Jericho ruins

22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.” 23 So the young men who had done the spying went in and brought out Rahab, her father and mother, her brothers and sisters and all who belonged to her. They brought out her entire family and put them in a place outside the camp of Israel.

24 Then they burned the whole city and everything in it, but they put the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron into the treasury of the Lord’s house. 25 But Joshua spared Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, because she hid the men Joshua had sent as spies to Jericho—and she lives among the Israelites to this day.

So Rahab and her family were spared, and presumably they all became proselytes to the Jewish faith and worshippers of the one true God. This was quite a change of identity for her.

There are three summary items that I would say are take-away points relative to the story of Rahab:

  1. God’s great sovereign power and his magnanimous love – Nothing on earth is too big for him, and no sin is beyond his grace to reach.

Throughout the Scriptures we see that the spirit of God did not choose to hide sin or glamorize people as better or more perfect than they truly were. Even the greatest of biblical characters are often deeply flawed people. But by God’s grace, when they yielded to Him, they accomplished great things for His glory. There is instruction and encouragement in this for all of us.

  1. God honors great faith – the most expedient thing for Rahab to have done would have been to turn the spies over to her own people.

Rahab risked everything in great faith when trusting that the God of Israel was the only true God. The same principle is true for us. It is not complicated. Trust God in everything; obey Him in all things … and there is no limit to what can be done.

  1. God can take a mess of a past, and turn it into mission for the present, and a legacy for the future.

Here is a great lie: “I’m OK; you’re OK.”  Nope. The truth is this: “I’m a mess; you’re a mess.”  But God is in the mess reclamation business.

Like Rahab, when we come to trust in Christ for salvation, we are new people with a new identity. For Rahab, she went from being a Canaanite to being an Israelite. We go from being enemies of God and members of the kingdom of darkness, to being his royal family and members of the kingdom of light.

Peter describes this so eloquently:  (1 Peter 2:9)  But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

There is nothing there to be insecure about, is there?  It is all about understanding our new identity; the rest falls into place.

Joshua 6 

6:1 – Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

2 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. 4 Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. 5 When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”

6 So Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the Lord and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.”7 And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city, with an armed guard going ahead of the ark of the Lord.”

8 When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the Lord went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the Lord’s covenant followed them. 9 The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. 10 But Joshua had commanded the army, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” 11 So he had the ark of the Lord carried around the city, circling it once. Then the army returned to camp and spent the night there.

12 Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. 13 The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the Lord and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the Lord, while the trumpets kept sounding. 14 So on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days.

15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! 17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. 18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. 19 All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”

20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

<< The Rahab section above fits here. >>

26 At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho:

“At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates.”

27 So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land.

Divine Appointments (Joshua 2:1-24)

Just when the story of the family tree of Jesus can’t seem to get more “icky” (as Chris called the situation with Tamar last week), we turn today to look at the account of Rahab.

We are only five or six verses into the New Testament in Matthew chapter one, and here we encounter again a very awkward and seedy situation and character – another veritable skeleton from the back of the closet. A prostitute.

Matthew 1:5-6 — Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

All of this is in the family of Judah, through whom the promise had been made that a king would come, ultimately through the line of David.

Matthew’s gospel was written to a Jewish audience initially, and for them to accept his argument that Jesus was the Messianic King of Israel, he would first, before anything else, have to establish that Jesus’ lineage was appropriate for such.

There are generations that are skipped in these genealogies, and that was acceptable at the time. The two verses above account for about 400 years of history. But Salmon was married to Rahab, and from their family came Obed, the father of Jesse who was the father of David.

So here today in Joshua 2 is the story of Rahab and the two Jewish spies who scouted out the fortified and walled city of Jericho.

Rahab and the Spies

2:1 – Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.

God often accomplishes his work through the most unlikely people, who, in the course of time and life circumstances – all under the sovereign control of God – work together to bring them to a place of great faith and service. This is apparently what was happening in the life of Rahab. Though a person of sin and wrongdoing, she looked at the world around her and the hideous Canaanite culture … seeing also the greatness of God through his work with the Israelites … and in faith she came to believe that this God was the only, one, true God.

So, the spies coming to her house amounted to a divine appointment for the individuals involved, as well as for the plan that God was accomplishing with the nation.

2 The king of Jericho was told, “Look, some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” 3 So the king of Jericho sent this message to Rahab: “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house, because they have come to spy out the whole land.”

4 But the woman had taken the two men and hidden them. She said, “Yes, the men came to me, but I did not know where they had come from. 5 At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, they left. I don’t know which way they went. Go after them quickly. You may catch up with them.” 6 (But she had taken them up to the roof and hidden them under the stalks of flax she had laid out on the roof.) 7 So the men set out in pursuit of the spies on the road that leads to the fords of the Jordan, and as soon as the pursuers had gone out, the gate was shut.

8 Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof 9 and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.

In these verses we hear the work of God in the heart of Rahab. The easiest and most expedient thing that she could have done was simply turn the spies over to her local authorities. She would have been a heroine. But Rahab was impressed by what she knew of God, believing that a God who dried up the Red Sea (that was 40 years before this time) and who enabled a nomadic people to defeat Sihon and Og – the biggest, baddest boys on the block – was to not only be feared, but worshipped.

12 “Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign 13 that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—and that you will save us from death.”

14 “Our lives for your lives!” the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the Lord gives us the land.”

15 So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. 16 She said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.”

17 Now the men had said to her, “This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us 18 unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house. 19 If any of them go outside your house into the street, their blood will be on their own heads; we will not be responsible. As for those who are in the house with you, their blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on them. 20 But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear.”

21 “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.”

So she sent them away, and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window.

22 When they left, they went into the hills and stayed there three days, until the pursuers had searched all along the road and returned without finding them.23 Then the two men started back. They went down out of the hills, forded the river and came to Joshua son of Nun and told him everything that had happened to them. 24 They said to Joshua, “The Lord has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.”

As the spies returned to Joshua, it was clear to them and to the leader of the nation that God was strongly with them … that they could have confidence in defeating this powerfully entrenched foe who stood in the way of their destiny and pathway into the Promised Land. It was all by divine appointment.

As we trust God and prayerfully seek to walk with him in obedience in the daily events of the ebb and flow of life, our lives too are filled with divine appointments. We often don’t see them as such at the moment they happen; and it may take years for us to look back upon life encounters and realize that God was in the midst of the most mundane facts and circumstances.

A part of the story may also be that we understand how God, in his grace, works to redeem our worst moments and failures. When we confess those and yield them and ourselves to him in faith and trust, he uses them for our good – though it may take a long time before we are able to see his faithful hand.