Sunday, November 30, 2014

Something to Look Forward To

Luke 1:5-25; Ruth 1
November 30. 2104
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Ruth, Chaper 1

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there. But Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband. Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the LORD had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah. Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, "Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the LORD deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the LORD provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband."

Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. But they replied to her, "No, instead we will return with you, to your people." Naomi replied, "Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the LORD's will has come out against me."

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, "Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law."

But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you."

When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it. So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem. When they arrived at Bethlehem, the whole town was excited on account of them, and the women of the town asked, "Can this be Naomi?" She replied to them, "Don't call me Naomi, but call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?"

Thus Naomi returned. And Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, returned with her from the territory of Moab. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Luke 1: 5-25
During the rule of King Herod of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. They were both righteous before God, blameless in their observance of all the Lord's commandments and regulations.  They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to become pregnant and they both were very old.

One day Zechariah was serving as a priest before God because his priestly division was on duty. Following the customs of priestly service, he was chosen by lottery to go into the Lord's sanctuary and burn incense. All the people who gathered to worship were praying outside during this hour of incense offering.

An angel from the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was startled and overcome with fear. The angel said, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will give birth to your son and you must name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many people will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the Lord's eyes. He must not drink wine and liquor. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He will bring many Israelites back to the Lord their God. He will go forth before the Lord, equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, and he will turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

Zechariah said to the angel, "How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are very old."

The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in God's presence. I was sent to speak to you and to bring this good news to you. Know this: What I have spoken will come true at the proper time. But because you didn't believe, you will remain silent, unable to speak until the day when these things happen."

Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they wondered why he was in the sanctuary for such a long time. When he came out, he was unable to speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he gestured to them and couldn't speak. When he completed the days of his priestly service, he returned home.

Afterward, his wife Elizabeth became pregnant. She kept to herself for five months, saying, "This is the Lord's doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people."

You have to wonder how Naomi could have had any hope at all, even the hope of returning home. They’d hoped, she and Elimelech, for a better life in Moab. They were immigrants, fleeing the famine, hoping for a better life in a new land. Their hometown, Bethlehem, had always been a place of plenty. The very name means “house of bread.” Moving to the foreign land of Baal worshipers must have been difficult. They’d hoped, the two of them, for prosperity in Moab, for themselves and their sons, even in such a strange culture. They’d hoped for grandchildren, after their sons married, hoped for children who would be faithful sons of the covenant, carrying on the family name.

But there were not children at all. And now their sons were dead. But even in Moab, Naomi still trusted the God of Israel. She still believed in home, in Bethlehem. Naomi cared for her daughters in law, cared enough to set them free and send them home to hope for another marriage, while they were still young enough to bear children. There was no point in them staying with her – no hope for them with a widow woman who would go back to Bethlehem and throw herself on the mercy of whatever kinsman might take her in.

I will return to Bethlehem, she told Ruth and Orpah. You should return to your fathers and mothers. I am returning home, and you should go home as well. Orpah obeyed. But Ruth stayed. Please, do not make me leave you, she said. Where you go, I will go. Your people will be my people, she said. Your God will be my God. Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, to return to a place she had never actually been.

When they arrived at Bethlehem, the women of the town asked, “Can this be Naomi?” But she was no longer Naomi, no longer the woman whose name means “pleasant.” She was now Mara, which means “bitter.”

It is hard to imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth might have retained any real hope. They were getting on in years, and still no children. But he wasn’t heartbroken, not in despair. He had his vocation, both from his own family line and through Elizabeth, who was a descendant of Aaron. The priests served in groups in the temple, two weeks out of each year. And each time, one of them was chosen by lots to go into the holy of holies, the inner altar. On this day, Zechariah had been the chosen one. It was a once in a lifetime event, a privilege he had waited for, hoped for. He took the incense into the sanctuary.

That was when it happened. The angel appeared suddenly, unexpectedly. But who would expect an angel, after all? The angel said that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a baby, and that they would name him John, and he would be a joy and delight, great in the Lord's eyes, filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. The angel said that this baby would turn Israelites back to the Lord their God, would go forth before the Lord, would be equipped with the spirit and power of Elijah. This baby, the angel said, will turn the hearts of fathers back to their children, would turn the disobedient to righteous patterns of thinking. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zechariah was unsure.
This was impossible!
“I am old,” he said.
“I am Gabriel,” the angel replied.
Zechariah could not even tell what had happened to him, there in the holy of holies, could not tell what the angel had said. But before long, unexpectedly, Elizabeth was expecting.

Hope – the traditional focus for the first Sunday of Advent. We await the coming of the Christ child, the extraordinary story of God taking human form, coming to bring hope, to bring redemption. Which of us has reason to hope, in these dark days?

Just look around us:
The protests in Ferguson, turning violent and destructive, in reaction to the violent death of a young African American man. Now there’s the sad story that Michael Brown’s church in Ferguson was burned to the ground. Forty three students disappeared in Mexico, probably dead, victims of a criminal conspiracy that involved public officials. Five dead and thirty three wounded in a suicide attack in Kabul. Radical Islamic fundamentalists beheading captive Americans. In Jerusalem, where Zechariah served at the temple all those years ago, four Israelis shot dead at worship in the synagogue. In Bethlehem, where Naomi returned with Ruth, the Israeli army blocked tunnels that connect villages to Bethlehem, causing concerns that it was another step in Israel's plans to annex the area, stoking frustrations and blocking access to schools, hospitals, friends and families. Violence is increasingly common in the area with religious Jewish settlers "torching" olive trees and hassling residents.[1]

With news like this coming in every day, who could feel hopeful? 
What kind of future can we possibly expect? 
How can anyone among us hold out any hope for the days to come?

We could, like Naomi, sink into despair, call ourselves bitter, not pleasant. We could, like Zechariah, argue with God’s messenger, explain carefully how this promised hope is simply impossible.

But wait. 


It is Advent, a season of waiting. I knew a little girl once, (she’s a grown woman now) a child whose life was difficult, sometimes chaotic. Things at home were troubled; her father was an addict, unreliable, violent. They were barely getting by, and there were so many things they needed. But she would ask her mom, when things were bleak, “Mom, what do I have to look forward to?”

And her mom would get out the calendar – there’s your party at school, she’d say, or your birthday, or Christmas. You’re invited to go bowling next week, or we’re going out for milkshakes – whatever small positive events she could find, until her little girl could smile again. Because that child knew that she could make it, could get by, as long as she had something to look forward to –something to wait for; something to hope for.

Hope is the belief that something better is going to happen.
Hope is the belief that there IS something to look forward to, something better coming.

Naomi had reason to feel bitter, to be sure. Life had dealt her a long series of blows, hard blows – famine, immigration, widowhood, losing both sons, no grandchildren. She was penniless and far from home. But there was Ruth, Ruth, whose name means “friend.” Ruth’s friendship to Naomi was more than casual. Ruth was willing, because of her love for Naomi, to turn from her beliefs and adopt the faith of Naomi, the God of Israel. Ruth’s lovingkindness, her willingness to turn away from Moab, and turn toward a place where she would be a foreigner, was the first small glimmer of light, there in Naomi’s dark despair. That love and trust was a hint of hope for a future for them both, women alone in what was, quite literally, a no-man’s land- widows, displaced, refugees, without protection. But what Ruth sensed, somehow, in that place in-between, was that the God of Israel, and her mother in law’s faith, would not let them down. There was something, something to look forward to. Because Ruth could hope, there might be hope for Naomi.

We can be fairly certain, the way the story is told, that Elizabeth and Zechariah had long since given up any hope of ever having a child. Who knows whether Zechariah found a way to tell Elizabeth what the angel had said? We can be fairly sure, though, that both of them knew the prophecies, knew that no prophets had arisen in the land since the time of Malachi. They’d have known the prophecies in Micah, that said: “As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah's forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; he will become one of peace.” (Micah 5: 2-5) This unexpected pregnancy, no doubt so surprising to them both, marked a turning of the people, a hope that they would return to God, even as Naomi returned to Bethlehem. 

Now in this in-between time, not yet Christmas, but Advent, a time of waiting and penitence, a time of preparation, we too turn toward Bethlehem. We turn toward Bethlehem, as did Naomi and Ruth, looking for hope.

But it is only the first chapter.
The barley harvest is not yet completed.
There is still more to the story.

As we wait with Zechariah, we hear faintly the voice of the angel, telling us of the one that will be born, who will prepare the way for the Messiah. But the birth of John the Baptist is still yet to come. Zechariah is mute, and Elizabeth has not delivered. 
There is still more to the story.

So, we wait.
Things may look bleak today, but there is still more to the story.
Christ is at work in the world and we await his coming.
God is here, in the already and the not yet.

So we wait, not idly, not silently.
We wait, because the one who is coming has not yet arrived.
We are not idle, because there is work to be done to prepare for his coming.
We are not silent, because there is good news to share.
good news of hope for everyone in this weary old world.

We have hope, and God has promised us that hope does not disappoint.
We have hope because Christ has come, and is coming again.
We have hope that redemption will happen, for God has promised it.
We have hope because we have one another,
We wait in hope, live in hope, pray in hope, sing in hope.
It is the hope of salvation, and glory and peace,
because God calls us back toward Bethlehem,
to return to God,
to trust God’s promise,
to love God’s world.

The hope of the world is coming.
And that is something to look forward to.



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