“Rescue by Invitation. Are You Ready?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 3:2b-6
Malachi 3:3-7a

Luke 3:2b-6

…The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Malachi 3:3-7a

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.  Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.


 

When Isaiah made this prophesy that we hear John the Baptist later quoting, what do you imagine Isaiah thought of it?  How did he see this playing out?  All those years later when John begins quoting Isaiah in the desert, did John have a vision of what God was doing?

How did the people of Israel hear this prophesy?

 

I hear it in two ways, and I wonder what we are to take away.

First, I hear this call to each of us to prepare the way of the Lord by making the Lord’s paths strait.  In this I hear that familiar call and caution:  to be ready so I do not miss God, when God comes.  We human beings are notorious for cluttering up our hearts and lives with lessor things.  We are notorious for our mistakes and errors.  We insulate our hearts from the touch of of God, shut our ears to the voice of God, close ourselves off from the light of God simply in our stubborn willfulness to go our own way.  And the more we sin, the more we insulate ourselves apart from God.

This is the tragedy in which we find ourselves crying out to God, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!  For indeed, we need God to come and rescue us.  For we are captives to our own sin and the sins of one another.  Against all our better judgement, again and again, we find ourselves in the same spots:  broken and distracted.

 

And so the prophets Isaiah and later John both call for us to wake up to God’s presence.  For God is coming.  The Savior is coming!  And we do not want to miss out, distracted in sin, blinded by defensiveness, numb to God.

Make God’s paths strait.  Prepare the ways of God into our hearts and lives.   Be ready!

 

In the second half of this prophesy, however, I hear a shift.  Instead of hearing it as a directive to us, the listeners, I hear a shift as the prophet begins to state what will happen, what God shall do.  They say,

“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

It is as if to say, that God is removing every kind of obstacle SO THAT all flesh shall SEE the salvation of God.   God is doing it, and the prophet speaks to this radical coming of God in which every obstacle shall be removed.

 

Do you hear the relentless love of God?  Do you sense the lengths to which God is going to so that ALL will know God’s salvation?

 

And our second scripture reading today speaks to what shall happen when Christ comes.  It speaks out this truth that none can stand on the day of our Lord – since all have sinned and fallen short – and that Christ will purify and refine us, with fire.  Christ will bear witness against all who do not fear God but rather persist in sin.

But Christ’s fire will purify us until the offerings of our lives and labors to God are presented in righteousness.

I love this verse.  Though the thought of the fire of God is a scary thought, I invite you to entertain another way of imagining it.  The image here is not a raging wildfire.  It is not a firey furnace.  No, it is the refiners fire.  It is fire for a purpose.  The object being refined is not consumed and no more.  Rather it is made more pure.  The excess is burned away.  What remains is fine and beautiful, pure and useful.  In this image, God’s fire is not to smote us from the earth, but to heal us – doing what we cannot do on our own.

And this image shows the persevering love of our God.  It is not a persevering love that tolerates evil and injustice.  It is not a perseverance that sits passively by, ignoring all that steals, kills, and destroys.  No, it is a fierce love.  It is a purifying love.  It condemns sin and evil, all that wounds and breaks.  It is a love that will not let us go and tolerates nothing less than holiness.

 

And God is making a way,

Removing every obstacle,

That ALL might know God’s rescue.

 

But our loving Lord does all this through a vulnerable, little child.

Our loving Lord does all this through a humble carpenter from the back-water town of Nazareth.

Our loving Lord does all this through the invitation, “Come, and follow me.”

 

We are invited.

Not controlled.

Not wiped out.

Not kept down.

…Invited. 

 

“Come, and follow me.” 

 

And yet another invitation comes to us in this scripture verse from Malachi:

“Return to me, and I will return to you.” 

 

God is assuring the people that GOD WILL DO IT.

God will make the paths strait and the mountains level.

God will eliminate every obstacle.

GOD will make us righteous before the throne.

GOD WILL DO IT.

 

Our job is to return.

Our job is to follow.

 

 

“Prepare ye, the way of the Lord.”

The Lord comes. 

Are you ready?

“Sure As the Morning Sun”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 11:13-24
Jeremiah 33:14-26

 

Romans 11:13-24

Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead! If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And even those of Israel, if they do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree.

Jeremiah 33:14-26

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Thus says the Lord: If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken, so that he would not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with my ministers the Levites. Just as the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will increase the offspring of my servant David, and the Levites who minister to me.

The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: Have you not observed how these people say, “The two families that the Lord chose have been rejected by him,” and how they hold my people in such contempt that they no longer regard them as a nation? Thus says the Lord: Only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David and not choose any of his descendants as rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy upon them.

 


 

In this scripture from Jeremiah, we hear God’s promises to the people, and I am impressed by God’s reassurances.  God makes this round-about point – just to show Jeremiah how faithful and trustworthy God is to the people and to fulfill these promises.  God says that if any of them can cause God’s covenant with day and night to be broken, that only then would God’s covenant with David be broken.

And since human beings cannot cause the cessation of day and night, even more-so can human beings not cause God to break faith and promises with David.

These promises are sure.

They are steadfast.

They are as steady as the day.

They are as reliable as the night.

 

 

This reassurance of God’s faithfulness is needed.   It is needed because time and again, human beings do horrific things.  And down deep we fear God may turn God’s back on us.

And these fears are not unfounded.  Indeed our behaviors can affect whether or not God will respond to us or answer our prayers.  Our behaviors do have consequences.  We indeed reap what we sow.

Just before this in Jeremiah’s book, we read that the Chaldeans will come & fight and fill the broken-down houses with dead bodies that God will strike down, precisely because of the people’s wickedness.  God will hide God’s face from the city.

 

Indeed our actions do have consequences.  We can close ourselves off to God’s presence and God’s grace.  We can harden our hearts.  We can become intrenched in sin, deaf and dumb to God’s Spirit.  And we can set ourselves -in opposition to God- and all that is holy.

And knowing we will always revisit this question, God gives us this very visual demonstration of faithfulness.  So that with each morning and each evening, we might remember that God’s faithfulness is as steadfast as the morning sun, as reliable as the evening shade.

 

We do not alter God’s faithfulness.

We can only alter our participation in God’s work.

By our actions we may opt in and opt out.

But our actions do not lesson God’s faithfulness. 

 

And so knowing that we can indeed turn our backs and hide our faces from God, it is imperative that we humbly return to God, day after day.  God’s faithfulness does not wain, but we can close ourselves off to God and all that is good and true.

 

The sun is again a good visual aid for this concept.

I remember when I first rode in a plane.  I wasn’t young, and yet I was surprised when we passed through the cloud-cover of a gray and drippy day only to find the sun shining strong on the other side.

Now had you asked me, I could have worked out that this would be the case – of course the sun is still shining even when I cannot see it – but it was a profound perspective shift.  This fact that the sun is still shining, even when we cannot see it, remains with me today.

 

And God’s faithfulness is like the sun.  It is a faithful as the morning and the evening.  It shines, even when we cannot feel it or see it.

We can box the sun out.  We can keep the shades drawn and stay in the basement, but God’s radiance, God’s faithfulness shines on.

 

Now God’s faithfulness doesn’t always take the forms and timing and paths we expect.

In this scripture passage we read about how God will keep a son on David’s throne and a priest to offer sacrifices for all time.  And I expect many have and many still do expect that God was speaking about the human nation of Israel.  Many still read these passages and think they are all very specific to the Jewish nation and their continued existence and prowess.  But I do not think in that way.  The book of Hebrews makes clear that Christ has become our high priest – for all time.  Christ is the sacrifice.  Christ himself became our way to God, our mediator, our cleansing blood.  And Christ is a descendant of David who reigns in power to this day.

In Christ, this promise is fulfilled!

And in this same passage, God says God will increase the offspring of David and the Levites who minister to God.  And in Christ, this too has been fulfilled – for all time – for from every nation God has risen up offspring of Israel.  God has grafted all those who believe into the family tree of God.

In Christ, God has forever set a descendant of David on the throne, God has forever set before us a high priest, and God has risen-up offspring to Israel by grafting in believers from many nations and times.

 

God has done something no human mind could have imagined.

We were thinking small.

God was thinking big.

We were thinking local.

God was thinking global.

 

And so as we leave this place of worship today, I invite you remember, with each sunrise and sunset, just how steadfast is God’s faithfulness and love. 

God’s promises are sure.

Nothing we do or don’t do can break them.

 

And so the question is:

Will we take part?

Will we experience the radiant love of the Lord?

Will we experience the never-giving up love of God?

Will we receive the sunlight on our skin and in our hair?

We will continue in the kindness of God?

 

God’s faithfulness is unending.  God’s love is steadfast and true.  God’s promises are sure.

Now our job is to stand in the light of God’s radiance,

Day after day,

And wait

And listen

And receive

And follow.

 

And may we experience and take part in

God’s abiding, steadfast, and

unbreakable love and faithfulness,

in this world

and in our lives.

“I Once Was Blind, But Now I See”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 100
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to the Lord, bless God’s name.

For the Lord is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

 


 

In this season, we are reminded to give thanks.

Giving thanks is something we know we should do.  On some level, we all know we are blessed, but in the day to day, we find it exceedingly difficult to stay in a grateful place.

Some days, things seem to fall into place; the road rises to meet us!  Other days we find ourselves face to face with injustice, with short-sighted and inconsiderate behavior, with quandaries in which we feel forced to choose between the lessor of two evils…

And even when our situations aren’t so dire or discouraging, we’re often just in a funky mood because we had to drive behind someone slowly on the highway, or wait long in line, or make extra trips to the store because what we wanted wasn’t in stock…

From the simple things to the deeply complex, we find ourselves mired in negative thought patterns.

 

So if you will, I’m gonna give you several minutes to briefly jot down all the things that are bugging you today – big and small things.  Nobody needs to see your list, unless you want them too; this is just an exercise we’re doing for ourselves.

So if you will right now, actually take the next three minutes, and jot down all the things that have got you down or angry or worried.

It is exceedingly difficult to stay in position of gratitude, but gratitude it turns out is one of the markers of resilience.  Gratitude actually has the power to drive out depression and fear.  It turns out that anger, fear, and depression, to name a few, cannot thrive in an atmosphere of gratitude.

So it would seem that giving thanks is the chicken soup for a tired soul.

 

As my son Caleb was growing up, he struggled to say thank you.  In his early years he often forgot, and if I reminded him, he would get upset and the gift-giver would become uncomfortable.  No one wants a forced thank you!  We want folks to mean what they say.  Otherwise the words feel hollow.

But waiting till we feel thankful is also a danger because gratitude at its root is a spiritual discipline.  Discipline is something few of us want.  I know I certainly don’t.  But there are disciplines that strengthen and ground us.

We discipline ourselves to eat regular meals

So that our bodies will be well and able to support us.

We discipline ourselves to get good sleep

    So that we have energy and a good state of mind and body for the coming day.

We discipline ourselves to not speak words in anger

  So that we don’t burn bridges and create divides between us and the people in our   lives.

 

Gratitude in its best form is also a discipline, a spiritual discipline.

Gratitude becomes lifegiving to us, when we do it whether or not we feel anything.  In fact, it is most powerful when we discipline ourselves to give thanks in the midst of trial and adversity.

 

Our own Phylliss Moret tells the story of supervising other supervisors.  They would come to her complaining about so & so, offering a litany of shortcomings.  And after listening for a bit, she would say, “Well if they are that bad, then why are they still here?  Should we let them go?”  And at this, the disgruntled supervisors would quickly say, “But, we need them because…..”  For all the frustration, there was also so much good, and when it came down to it, the good often outweighed the bad.  The complaints were only part of the picture.  Usually there was a host of good that the supervisors were failing to articulate.

The same is true of our lives.  Talk to any one of us on a given day, and we can give you a litany of the many things wrong; of the challenges; of our worries, concerns, and fears.  But in this same moment, we are standing on a wealth of immeasurable blessing that we are taking for granted.

 

A friend of mine illustrated this so well in a facebook post.  She posted a list on notebook paper equating her complaints with their converse, blessings-in-disguise.

11'25'18 Grateful List

This is why gratitude as a spiritual discipline is so very important.  It is precisely because we become blind to the blessings and gifts in our lives.  We need the routine task of giving thanks in order to wake us up to the immensity of blessing in our lives!

 

So at this moment, I want to give you another 3 minutes to consider your complaints one by one and to write down the blessings that lie just under each complaint.  And if you finish while there’s still time, just go hog wild & start a list of the things in your life you are grateful for.

I have asked you to do this exercise not to shame your for your unhappy feelings and thoughts.  Those feelings and thoughts are legitimate.  They are important.  Our negative feelings are there to teach and guide us.  We feel what we feel, and then we process them in light of our values to decide how we will respond to them.  But in and of themselves, feelings are neither good nor bad.  They may be uncomfortable.  They may be deeply upsetting.  But when befriended, they can give us insight into ourselves.  They are one of the many fabulous tools God has given us to navigate our mysterious selves and this mysterious world.

So please don’t take away any shame.

Rather, I hope you will take away a greater awareness of how you’re feeling – the happy, the sad, and the ugly – and of the many blessings in your life.

Life is not one thing.  It is a mix of events – both beautiful and tragic; of feelings – both highs and lows; of growth – both painful and invigorating.

 

Following Christ in this life does not mean we will be always blissful and that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  But Christ teaches us to give thanks in all circumstances.  For in all things, there is much to give thanks for.  And when we do, we unlock new perspective and strength.

 

As we leave the season of Thanksgiving and approach Advent, I invite you to begin your own spiritual discipline of giving thanks.  Do it however you like:  keep a gratitude journal, keep adding to a list, speak the things you’re grateful for at mealtimes, share three things you’re grateful for with a spouse or a friend each day…  But whatever you choose, stick to it.  See it through.  Persevere.

 

And let us see what God can do

in and through hearts

that are AWAKE to the profound gifts and blessings of God in our lives.

 

French novelist Marcel Proust writes, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

 

May God grant us the ability to see as God sees,

with new eyes. 

And who knows,

we may find our whole world transformed.

 Thanks be to God!

“You Prepare A Table Before Me”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Deuteronomy 31:1-8
Psalm 23
John 14:1-7 and 10:10b

Deuteronomy 31:1-8

When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua also will cross over before you, as the Lord promised.  The Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them.  The Lord will give them over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command that I have given to you.  Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it.  It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

John 14:1-3 and 10:10b

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

 


 

Have you ever gone out of your way to surprise someone, to honor and celebrate someone?  The careful planning.  The details and arrangements.  The coordinating.

Can you recall a time when someone when out of their way to surprise you?

Some of us have these kinds of memories.

Others of us may not.

But I want to tell you that God has done just this for you.

You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflows.

I’ve always read this line and immediately switched out of the sheep/shepherd analogy and back to real life.  It is a beautiful image, and one I believe to be true, of God preparing a place for us, at a table of abundance, in the presence of our enemies.

But I hadn’t before thought of this image in relation to sheep.

The Shepherd, Phillip Keller, who wrote the book “A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23” tells that the word table is often used in reference to high country:  the tablelands.  The Spanish word “mesa” is often used to refer to such lands, and mesa literally means “table.”  When one thinks of how a table is where we find our sustenance, nourishment, and fellowship, it is most appropriate to think of the highlands in this way as well.  The tablelands are the place where the sheep find their nourishment, sustenance, and closeness with the shepherd during the hardest, hottest season.

And in the same way, the assertive shepherd will go ahead of the sheep, making several trips to the tableland, before even all the spring snow is melted, to determine the best route, the best camp, the best bedding grounds, the best pasturage, and the areas of danger.  He or she goes before.

Carefully planning.  Each detail.

The shepherd will likely take with him or her some salt and minerals, to place in certain areas, for the benefit of the sheep, and he/she will scout out poisonous plants, sometimes even going to lengths to eradicate them.

Phillip Keller tells of his own experience at his first range.  When he bought it, he didn’t know the ranch was covered in blue and white cammas in the spring.  Though gorgeous to the eye, the white cammas were poisonous to the sheep.  Lambs were especially vulnerable to its poison and would stiffen up like a block of wood and die, if they ate even a few of the leaves.  So Phillip and his children would go into the fields, every spring, on hands and knees and pull each camma from the ground.  It was grueling work, but it was necessary for the sheep’s survival.

 

David was likely familiar with what it took to prepare the land for the sheep, as well.

He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

He anoints my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 

I don’t know about you, but there’s something about that going before, about that preparing everything in advance for me, that I find so loving.  Our good shepherd will lead us along valley pathways, onto highlands, into lands flowing with milk & honey, good lands.  And the whole journey, our Shepherd has taken before.  The dangers, the temptations, the fears, and hope, and love…Christ has felt it all before.  Christ has gone before us – through the valley of the shadow of death and to glory eternal.  And Chist goes to prepare a table before us, preparing a place at the table of God, for us.

And Christ doesn’t just go ahead, and leave us to try to make our own way.  In John, we hear Jesus speaking of returning, to get his followers, so they will be with him.

In both this image of the Shepherd, who goes to lengths to prepare the highlands for his/her sheep, and Christ, who has gone before us, both in life and in death,…to prepare a place for us…

I feel that deep and abiding love of God for me.

I feel comfort that the Shepherd will come back for the sheep, to lead them through the valleys and into the highlands – that promised land of nourishment and sustenance.

I feel comfort that Jesus promised to not leave us alone but to come back so as to lead us safely home.

 

I read the book “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo a number of years ago now.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.  It is a father’s retelling of his own journey through extreme valleys in his life, culminating in his 4 year old son Colton’s major brush with death.  In the time following his son’s recovery, his son would say things, casually and unexpectedly, over time, about experiences with Jesus and heaven and angels…from when he was near death.  And the family was blown away by the Biblical truth, by the details and things their son could not have otherwise known, had he not indeed had such an experience with Jesus, while barely hanging on to life.

Whatever your feeling about the book or their story, I respect that.

Myself, I found it very compelling, overwhelming, profound, and simply beautiful.

One of these moments in which they got a glimpse into Colton’s experience, was when Colton and his Dad went to visit a man in the nursing home, who was very near death.  Colton’s dad Todd is a part-time pastor like myself, so where his Dad went, he went also.  Let me share a bit from this story:

Read p 117-119 of Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo, starting at the last paragraph, “Colton peered out the window…” and reading through the end of the chapter. 

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 1

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 2

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 3

 

I find it very comforting, that we are not alone.

That our Lord goes before us

And comes back for us

For every season of our journey.

 

From the Israelites crossing over the Jordan and entering the promised land… to now

God has promised to go before us AND to be with us.

 

Our Lord has prepared a table for us.

And Christ leads us to it

 

It is not merely a heavenly table, surrounded by God, in all God’s glory

I believe it is that,

But it is also a table, here and now, in the presence of our enemies…

 

In the midst of our trials and troubles…  In the presence of those who hate, bad-mouth, and look down on…   In the muck and mire of our real, day to day…  In the misunderstandings and hurt feelings…  In the systems we feel powerless to change…  In the battles we fight over and over again…  In the midst of all that would threaten our life and our happiness…

Here,

God prepares a table before us.

In this place,

Our cup overflows! 

 

What a miracle of our Lord!

that our life and healing

protection and closeness

happiness and sustenance

would be given us

in the midst of such adversity

 

Let us pray.

Lord, Christ, we long to be in the tablelands.  We long to know what it’s like that our cup overflows!!!  We want to know your loving preparation and provision.  We want to see your fingerprints all over every aspect of our lives!!!

We want to follow you into the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey.

Thank you,

that you have gone before.  Thank you that you are getting everything ready even still.

Thank you,

that you have not left us on our own to find our way.

Thank you,

that you lead us still

Every step

Every season.

 

Thank you for being the Lord of our life

life to the full!

both in this life,

and forevermore.

 

Lord, do it.  Make it so!!!

We love you.

Amen

“What Love is This?!”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 23
Ruth 1:1-18

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Ruth 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

 


 

This story of Ruth and Naomi compels us.

What possesses someone to cleave to another like that?

 

It is a mystery.

Did Ruth not have a better option?  Was her family of origin a place she never wished to return?  What were Ruth’s ties with her home country like – that she would give it all up to stay with Naomi and move to away from the only place she’d ever known?

Or did Ruth love her hometown and family of origin but love Ruth more?  Was her commitment to her husband so deep that not even death would end her commitment to his mother?  Did she pity her mother-in-law for having lost so much and feel an obligation to care for her?  Was her connection with her mother-in-law so extraordinary, that leaving her felt like more than she could bear?

 

We do not know.

For some undisclosed reason, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.

And this seems clearly NOT in the best interest of Ruth.

She had a much better chance starting over in her hometown.  She could re-marry.  She was young enough.  She could start again.

But following after her mother-in-law, who could no longer marry and had absolutely no way of caring for herself (as a woman in those days), was most certainly the bigger risk.  As women, their entire livelihoods were reliant on their having men to provide for them.   And all the men were gone.  The ties that bound them were gone.

 

But Ruth commits herself to Naomi – that not even death should part them.

 

This is extraordinary.

And it probably saved Naomi’s life, as two were much more likely to survive than one, alone.

And so we have Ruth and Naomi traveling back to Israel, to Naomi’s nation-of-origin, in the hopes that they would somehow find a way to survive, as word had reached them that God has spared the people of Israel, giving them food.

This commitment by Ruth to Naomi is so extraordinary that couples getting married will often pull from this text – in hopes that their own love and commitment might be half as strong that that shown by Ruth to Naomi.

 

What is it about this text that draws us in?

I think it’s this utter commitment.  I think it’s the depth of love shown in this most tangible way – of not leaving, even when it surely means suffering and risk and a difficult journey.  This cleaving to another person with devotion is so utterly gorgeous.  It draws us in.

 

Mercifully, Hebrew culture had a system for caring for the people.  Since in that day men were alone allowed to own property and conduct business, so all women needed the care of a man in order to survive.  Sometimes the man was a husband, sometimes a son, sometimes a father.

This system was so developed that they even had a system for making sure each man’s name and legacy was carried on.  If a woman lost her husband and had no children, the next of kin had an obligation to marry that woman so that she could conceive and bear a child to carry on the family name.  This was a family obligation.  And the character and integrity of one’s nearest of kin could be measured in their willingness at such times to step in and provide for the bereaved woman in this way.

But in this instance, Naomi was advanced in age, and it seems her time of bearing children was over.  She fell through the cracks.  There would be no more children to care for her, even if her next of kin were to step in.  She had lost the two she bore, and she could bear no more.  The two young wives had no brother in law to step in redeem them, as it was called in that day.  In fact, since Naomi and her husband had traveled to Moab and were foreigners in that land, they had no next of kin there at all.  So these two women had absolutely nothing.

This was about survival.

 

And in this place of nothingness.  In this place of emptiness.

They are reliant on God.  They are reliant on the mercy of strangers along a risky journey.

And in this place of emptiness, they cleave to one another.  They rely on each other.

 

When Naomi has no societal power left and no inroads to survival, Ruth will not leave her side.  She works tirelessly for herself and her mother-in-law that they might have food.  And to Naomi who feels as if her life is over and she has nothing, Ruth is living proof that God loves her and will not leave her.

Naomi shelters Ruth by bringing her back into the land and culture of Naomi’s roots.  There, there is food; God has been merciful to the people.  There, they have land owned by her former husband.  There they have kin, if one will step up and care for Ruth in this way.  And so Naomi guides her daughter in law – instructing her in this foreign land and culture – that Ruth may find her way and start anew, with fresh hope.

 

I will probably never tire of hearing this story.

We all need people in our lives like Ruth…

The kind of people who stay – long after their obligations have ended,

The kind of people who love – even when there’s little in it for them,

The kind of people who are committed to us – in thick and in thin, in plenty and in want.

 

We all come to places in our lives when we feel utterly stripped of all power and security.  We face journeys that feel so endless and barren.  We find ourselves with more loss than gain.

And in these times, we need people like Ruth.

 

I don’t know why some of us enjoy friendship and love like this only for a short season.  I don’t know why some of us search all our lives and never find such companionship.  I don’t know why others of us are so blessed to have several folks in our lives who would love us like this.

But wherever you find yourself today, I invite you to give thanks for those in your lives who have been there for you, for a lifetime or a season, or even a moment.

 

I have spoken to you before about that very low time in my life, that time pinnacled with acquiring bed bugs just before Christmas.  The bed bugs themselves can be enough to make the strongest among us feel crazy, but the real pain was in feeling so alone in my suffering.  And the bed bugs felt like icing on that cake of suffering.

The day I got the news that all fabric in my house had to be bagged and laundered and all belongings had to be pulled out 4 feet from the walls – for the bed bug treatment- I despaired, as I have no family in area.  Who could I possibly ask to come and enter into my misery – to help me through this mountain of a task?  I only had a few friends, and some of those friendships were new and untested.  So I called one such friend, and though it may be hard to tell at the outset, she is among the saints of this world – if her acts of love are the measure.  She agreed to come help, but she knew we would need more help if we were going to get everything ready in time, so she called some of her friends.

In the end, one of her friends agreed to come help.  It was a tiny miracle.  And so the three of us worked until we could work no more, and when it became clear that more would be needed come morning, the friend of my friend slept on my couch, in order to help me again in the morning.

 

What love is this?!?

What love is this – that goes the extra mile – and for someone essentially a stranger?

 

In this very low time, God showed God’s love for me through the love and selfless generosity of a stranger – to enter into my misery and walk with me until I could go on.

 

I do not know who your angels in disguise have been.  They come in all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds, times and places.

They have come in our times of greatest need.  And sometimes they come only for a moment.

But in these moments, God is showing the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.  In these moments, God is present and real to us in flesh and bone through people who have opened themselves to be used of God.

 

In our lives full of glorious mountain moments and valleys of despair, may we find God present with us, in the stranger, in the friend, in dear companionship, and in moments of utterly selfless beauty.

 

It is hard to love like this.

That’s why it is so rare and precious.

That’s why an entire book of Bible is one such story.

But as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, to be used by God,

we will find ourselves party to more and more such moments,

we will find strength to love with this kind of self-less and persevering love,

and we will witness the profoundly gorgeous love of God poured out.

 

God is actively working

To comfort the afflicted

To restore the oppressed

To heal the broken and brokenhearted

To shepherd us through the valleys of the shadow of death and bring us into a broad

land of milk and honey

To make our cups overflow!

 

God is actively working.

 

May we open ourselves,

listening for God

asking God to use us

and being obedient to the Spirit

That more people may KNOW the gorgeous love of God,

      in moments, and friendships, and love, like the love Ruth showed Naomi. 

 

Lord, use us.