Sermon delivered on the third Sunday before Advent, November 8, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
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Terry Gatwood is our seminarian in residence. He attends Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.
Lectionary texts: Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17; Psalm 127.1-6; Hebrews 9.24-28; Mark 12.38-44.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Ruth is a great little book tucked in our Bibles right between Judges and the Samuels. Its story follows a woman, called Naomi, whose husband and two sons die, and her two daughters-in-law, Moabite women, and their decisions to depart (Orpah) and to remain (Ruth). In the passage we’ve heard this morning we find Naomi giving directions to Ruth to present herself to Boaz, the man in whose fields she had been working, so that it may end up in a marriage to one of Naomi’s kinsmen and a comfortable life for them going forward.
Let me pause for a moment and tell you a story. Sixteen years ago I met my wife at a teen ministry event called Bible quizzing. We were both fairly quiet, she more than I. But we ended up becoming friends because of a mutual friend who is an extreme extrovert who thinks everyone should be pals. I ended up getting an invitation to Deanna’s sixteenth birthday party; we started a friendship there that has been a great blessing for now more than half of my life.
I mention this because of something her mother did. It might have been because my favorite things to do were more akin to what people two generations older liked doing (a benefit of having lived with my grandparents and learning how to do and enjoy things their way), or that I was one of the very few boys who actually tucked his shirt in for church, or the fact that I was one of the teen boys who just didn’t act like a nut all of the time. What she did was tell us when we were still young high schoolers that we would be married someday. We weren’t even dating yet! I don’t think I had even held her hand yet at that point.
We didn’t end up actually dating one another for another decade after we first met. But we continued on as friends as her mother continued praying every combination of words, I’m sure, to get us to finally marry. But because of her mother the thought was always in my mind. I loved Deanna long before I knew I loved her and wanted to be married to her. I loved her because her mother introduced to me the idea. Once it finally hit me, it was only thirty days after we went on our first actual date that I proposed to her. Thanks to the ole’ mother-in-law and her scheming on our behalf, seeing that we would be able to love one another and take care of one another the way that we do.
In a way my mother-in-law was taking a great risk here to try to present to us the idea of marriage at such a young age. She risked looking like a crazy person if our relationship had gone awry; but it didn’t. She did some motherly scheming as an act of care and peace of mind, but it seems that she was speaking providentially when she did.
Ruth also had to take a huge risk in this passage; and so did Naomi. It was one woman looking after the best interests of another because of love and deep devotion. And it nearly didn’t work out; there was another in line to redeem the lineage of Naomi’s dead son and husband by purchasing the estate of Elimelech, and with it the duty to marry Ruth and provide for her, as well as care for Naomi. But, it would have interfered with his own inheritance. Because of this both Naomi and Ruth are saved from a terrible future, and Ruth is blessed with a son to continue on the lineage. The house of this family continues to be built by what looks like human effort in a great and meaningful scheme to ensure a more comfortable future, but that is only the surface of the thing: the genealogy tells the greater story. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
We’ve just had a snippet from the writer of Hebrews. He speaks of the sanctuary that Christ has entered. It isn’t the holy of holies that the high priest used to enter year after year, offering sacrifices that the writer will tell us in the next chapter can never take away sins, but has entered into the presence of the Father in heaven itself. His one sacrifice of himself at the end of the age to remove sin is sufficient. The Temple and the sacrificial system was merely a copy or shadow of what God was intending to do on behalf of humanity. This system was carried out in a building built by human hands, and by priests who, even being sinful themselves and having to offer their own sacrifices for their sins, could not fully remove the issue of sin from the life of the people. But Jesus’ sacrifice does.
God used this system to prepare his people for the sacrifice of Jesus. God was working out that which we could never work out on our own. He was aiming to save our lives. Jesus came as the one with the cure that no dead person could ever give to him or herself. No amount of sacrifice by humanity on behalf of humanity could ever save humanity.
The presence of God no longer resides in the Temple built by human hands. It is present in the Church, the gathering of the saints everywhere who have received God’s Holy Spirit. This isn’t a gathering that we have forced together as a builder does with stones, but something God has done. For the Psalmist writes: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” God has built his house in us, and choses to dwell therein.
This house is built from living stones that come from every race, gender, and class of people. In this house, built and still being built by the Lord, there is no distinction such as “Jew or Gentile, slave or free,” to recall the words of the Apostle Paul, but “we are all one in Christ Jesus.” We are one house, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, designed and built by the Lord.
I recall those words of Paul this morning because of the story of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Ruth was a Moabite, not a Jew. She chose to follow Naomi’s God, and, if you’ll recall the genealogy at the end of the book of Ruth, became part of Jesus’ family line. What appeared to be a scheme to secure a bright future, which is what many of our evangelistic programs and practices sometimes look like as we press forward to build up congregational numbers, was really the moving of the providence of God to save not only Ruth and Naomi, but also through the line of Ruth and Boaz to bring into the world Jesus, who redeems us.
This providence of God emerges today in the Gospel passage. Mark shares with us the story of the rich people putting their money into the treasury immediately after Jesus taught about the Scribes and their practice of making themselves look and feel good. What an object lesson here! But Jesus doesn’t stop at complaining about the self-serving nature of those whom he was observing, but he points out how it should be. The poor widow, only have two pennies to rub together and likely a pocket with holes in it that couldn’t even contain them without loss, dropped into the treasury absolutely everything she had to live on.
We have given to us here the anti-Jesus, and the pro-Jesus models of religion. One does for themselves and gives what is left over to God, consuming without regard, but the other in weakness and poverty, much like Jesus’ sharing in our humanity with all the pain and grief that comes with it, gives up everything for the sake of God’s house, God’s family, God’s chosen.
We learn from this poor widow so much about our God, whom we follow, and who has redeemed us through his son, and who blesses us to continue to build his house with living stones. We learn that his providential care is always present in this world, even if we think we are succeeding by our own scheming and effort. Nothing we have, not one thing at all in the entirety of creation, is beyond God’s sovereignty and his providential care. In flesh he sent his son, and this son gave up everything to redeem us, even his own life.
God has always been designing something for us, that we might become part of the bride of his son, the Church. And someone told us about this wonderful man, Jesus, that we might become his bride in the Church, with all the saints scattered around the world in all places, at all times. Someone schemed on our behalf, through some sort of evangelistic method or technique, because God had already been doing the work of wooing us into his Church, to become his Temple where his Holy Spirit would dwell. And this Church has been called to bear fruit, to make new spiritual children in the faith because of God’s great love. “Children are a heritage from the Lord,” writes the Psalmist, “and the fruit of the womb is his gift.”
Let us take up this ministry given to us, and to bear children in this Church. Let us tell someone this week, this day even, of how much loves and cares for him or her, and wants to be with him or her. We cannot practice our religion in just this hour and in a few meetings throughout the week and hope that people will simply turn their lives towards Jesus Christ. As the wonderful man and faithful Bishop, Alden Hathaway used to say so often while preaching at the Parish Church of Saint Helena’s in Beaufort, SC: God does not have any spiritual grandchildren. Only children.
It is our calling, those for whom Jesus gave all he had so that this Temple of the Holy Spirit might be built, to live like this poor widow to build up Christ’s Church. It’s antithetical to much of what we understand to be prudence regarding our resources; and maybe God isn’t going to ask you to empty your IRA and put it in the plate, but I’m willing to bet that he’s going to call many of you to sacrifice your time, that most precious resource you have that you many never again recover, to share the gospel message with someone who hasn’t heard it. To invite them to the banquet with Christ. For what is evangelism other than one beggar, who we once were, telling another beggar where to find food, shelter, and a change of clothes
Take up your part in this work God is doing. Ask him to show you where and what it is that he is blessing that you might take part in this great ministry of creating new spiritual children for God. Then do it. Love someone enough that you want them to be a part of your family, the family of the redeemed, that they may spend their lives being fed and cared for by this Jesus who cares for his bride, the Church.
May the Lord himself give us a vision for ministry, and a burden for the lost, that they might become part of God’s providential story in this world with us.
In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.