Sermon: Standing on a Precipice

Delivered by Moderator James Parks,  Ruth 1:1-17

In a famous scene from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Indiana comes to the precipice or the edge of a steep cliff deep in the cave he’s exploring. He’s standing inside a formation called the Lion’s Head. Nazis have shot his father and he is trying to retrieve the Holy Grail to use its power to heal his father. But the Grail is on the other side of an impossibly wide chasm. The ancient text he’s following gives him just one clue of what to do:  “only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”

Meanwhile, his father lies hurt behind him and the others are imploring him to hurry.  His father keeps saying “you must believe, boy, you must believe.” Indiana has a choice—go back to care for his father or jump to what could be a certain death. Finally, after several agonizing seconds he realizes the text is telling him to take a leap of faith. So he takes a deep breath, probably says a silent prayer, then steps into the abyss. Miraculously, a pathway forms under his feet and stretches all the way to the other side.

In our scripture today, Naomi and Ruth are standing on a precipice and they too must decide what to do. The Jewish faith celebrates the festival of “Shavuot” each year in which the entire book of Ruth is sung or read out loud. The Book of Ruth is only four chapters, but it is filled with so much that you could preach a series of sermons on it for a month. It has love, loyalty, faith, integrity, kindness to strangers, compassion for the poor, patience—all that in four chapters. It could easily be a movie.

The events in Ruth take place during the time when the judges ruled Israel some 2,500 years ago. This was a period when God’s people would disobey God, be punished, repent and be delivered, only to disobey again. Because everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes, sin was rampant.

So after one of their disobedient periods, the Bible says the Israelites were punished with a bad famine in Bethlehem, which caused Elimelech to take his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion, to live in the country of Moab.

Moab was a land with rich soil and adequate rainfall so Elimelech made a smart move and traveled to a place where his crops wouldn’t fail. Depending on where they settled, the trip would have been about one hundred miles and would have taken about a week.

But Elimelech was taking a huge risk. Moab was a mortal enemy of Israel. The Israelites really hated the Moabites. You could say their relationship was like that of Israel and Hezbollah today. The Israelites despised the Moabites so much that in Numbers 25, we read that the Moabites led Israel into sexual immorality and pagan worship. And Deuteronomy 23:3-6 lays out some pretty strong words: “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation. For they did not come to meet you with bread and water on your way when you came out of Egypt…Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them as long as you live.” So Elimelech is trying to flee the judgment of God on Israel and is disobeying doubly by going to live among the Moabites.

The two sons compound the situation by marrying Moabite women, one who was named Orpah, and the other Ruth. During their stay in Moab, Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies and then about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion also die. Naomi, Orpah and Ruth are now widows.

Widows in those days had no social status and no economic support. This would especially be true for Naomi, since she was an Israelite living in a foreign country. There was no Social Security system, no Meals on Wheels, no Medicare. She and Ruth and Orpah today would be considered homeless and out of luck.

I’m sure they cried out for God’s mercy. We don’t really know from the book whether Naomi wanted to go to Moab or not, but we do know that she continued to walk with God, even when her two sons married Moabites. She worshiped the true God when the entire culture bowed to the false god Baal. She made the most of her situation by teaching Ruth about God.

So one day, she hears that God has blessed Israel with good crops again and she decides to go home. Her daughters-in-law start out with her. But Naomi offers them a way out. She tells them she can’t promise they’ll have a good life. After all, they are Moabites heading into hostile territory.  And she has no sons left to marry and take care of them. So she suggests they go back home to their families and the gods they had grown up with.

But Ruth was extremely loyal. She stayed with her mother-in-law when she didn’t have to. She had learned faith in God through Naomi’s example and then she, in turn, helped Naomi trust God when she felt like giving up. Standing on that precipice, Ruth made a decision to step out in faith. She decided to follow God and not go back to her peoples’ false gods. Indeed, Ruth is revered by Jews because she is the first “believer by choice” in the Bible. She put her faith in the God of Abraham voluntarily and she did so with a full-fledged commitment.

I can imagine these two women walking a week across the desert alone wondering why God had put them in this situation. Besides the pure physical strain of the trip they were still grieving their husbands and sons. I’m sure they must have felt a lot like Thomas Dorsey who lost his wife and newborn son back in 1938. Filled with pain and grief he wrote one of our most familiar hymns:

Soloist sings hymn #834 “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” Verse 1

To make a long story short, after God takes their hands and leads them through that long walk in the desert they arrive in Bethlehem. Ruth goes to gather the left-over grain from the harvest in a field owned by a man named Boaz, who just happens to be a relative of Naomi’s dead husband. He’s heard about how Ruth is caring for Naomi and he is generous in letting her gather food. He is kind to immigrants instead of  building a wall to keep them out.

Naomi hatches a plot to help Ruth and she tells her to go lie next to Boaz when he is asleep. She does and when he awakes, she proposes marriage to him. Being a good man, Boaz wants to do the right thing so he asks Elimelech’s closest male kin if any of them want to marry Ruth. That was the law—a dead husband’s brother or next male kin should marry his widow. That way the land stayed in the husband’s family. When they say no, Boaz marries her and they have a son, Obed, who grows up and marries and has a son, Jesse, who grows up and has a son whose name is David, from whose line we get Jesus.

This is just another example of how God uses ordinary people and people you don’t expect to do great things. You see God was at work throughout this story turning bad things into good. Only God could have come up with a scenario in which famine, death, a walk across the desert and the seduction of an older man ends up with a son whose picture is in Jesus’ family album.

 

One of the things I’ve learned is that people don’t really make life-changing decisions until they are faced with a life crisis—somebody close to you dies, you lose your job or your girlfriend finds out you’ve been cheating on her with her best friend. In these situations, we are stripped down to our bare bones, freed from all our pretenses and our real selves unmasked and all we can do is cry out like Cannonball Adderly and say “Mercy, mercy!”

But the story of Ruth shows us that God is everywhere, moving under, around and through everything.  Ruth and Naomi went through some terrible things, but every difficulty, question, uncertainty, and broken heart became God’s way of doing something better than could have happened otherwise. We find the beginning of God’s grace when we come to the end of ourselves.
All it took was for Ruth to take a leap of faith and head off to Israel with her mother-in-law and to follow God. But sometimes when we get the opportunity to make a decision on whether to follow God, we back off like Orpah and decide to go where we are comfortable. But that’s not what God is looking for. Just as God worked through Boaz and Ruth , She is working everything together for our good and Her ultimate glory. Our responsibility is to surrender to God’s sovereignty and to answer God’s call.  We need to fall in love with God and like Ruth take that leap of faith.

Throughout their ordeal Naomi and Ruth maintained their faith. Not only did they surrender to God’s power, they refused to give up on God. Last Sunday, I reminded the congregation at Grace Presbyterian that they need to have as much faith in God as God has in them. We say we believe in God’s power, but we act like we don’t. We try to tell God what we want Her to do, when to do it and who to do it to.

The God that brought the Israelites out of Egypt is able. We are His hands and if we take a leap of faith and stick to it, then we have found the real deal love and happiness. Our God can take the death of a husband and two sons and turn it into the family line that gave us Jesus. That is if we get out of Her way and let God use us.

You see we believe that we are in control of things. We believe that we can set the course of history. And look what it has gotten us. Wars in Afghanistan, Syria, violence in Israel, murders every day in our back yard, poverty at alarming rates, presidential candidates who spout uninformed  vitrol and call it policy.

When God calls, I don’t think any of us would directly disobey God.Instead, we make what sound like good excuses: “I need to learn more, give me time to research the situation and let’s meet next week.” “I really can’t focus on that right now. I have so many things on my plate.” “There are others better qualified to do that than I am. I’ll be glad to help if they lead.’ If God calls you to do something, God will provide you with all you need to complete the mission. All you have to do is to say ”yes” and take a leap of faith.

Don’t think for a minute that it only matters if we follow God in the big decisions. Every day we face the question of how we will live our lives. When we wake up do we thank God that we are still alive or as I heard a man say last week “that we woke up on the upper side of the grass?’ Or do we start out thinking about what we have to do today? That little subtlety makes a difference as to who controls your day—you or God. When you are driving down the road and somebody cuts you off, do you think of that person as a child of God? Or the beggar in the street—do you avert his or her eyes and forget that Jesus says “if you do it to the least of these you do it to me?” Every day we stand on a precipice and God is asking us to take a leap of faith.

Right here this day in Baltimore we are standing on a steep precipice. We face the same decision that Ruth and Orpah faced 2,500 years ago. Do we go forward with faith that God will lead us or do we turn back and retreat to the comfort of not being involved?

Almost six months ago, our city erupted in flames and violent demonstrations. God did not create the riots, but God is calling us to use the events of April to spread His love and justice and to reconcile the different communities where His children live. You see doing nothing is like a slap in God’s face. By doing nothing, we are saying we don’t care if God is calling us to make a prophetic witness.

In the next four months the police officers who are involved in the Freddy Gray case will all go on trial. The city is tense and we can all feel it. The conditions that spawned the riots are still there. God is calling Baltimore to be a prophetic witness to Her power by taking that walk through the desert like Ruth and Naomi and trying with God’s help to bring hope out of despair, light out of darkness.

We have the opportunity to do something amazing in Baltimore. This is not a time for us to turn around and go back to the comfort of business as usual. In this very sanctuary on last weekend, people from across the city came and worshipped and talked about ways to be the church in this city. And you know what we realized–the bottom line is that God’s children are hurting—living in poverty, suffering through violence each day—and all God asks is that we show we care. Because if you care, you’re going to want to do something to change the reality. Will we answer that call or will we tell God we’re too busy with the Ravens game or our house remodeling or caring for our families to care about what happens to our neighbors?

Ruth cared about Naomi. Ruth had faith and she kept that faith no matter what. In your life, can you say you kept your faith even in the worst times?  As we face a call to be God’s witnesses in these hard times, will we say as Ruth did:

“Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people .”

Will we say “yes” to God?  I pray that we will.

 

Amen.

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