Ruth and Naomi: “Where you go, I will go… where you stay, I will stay, Ruth 1:16”

TLW44

Scriptures to read in preparation for Sunday, November 4

Theme: The priority of returning God’s love to Him and others

SUMMARY

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 — First love God with all your heart; the foundation of the First Great Commandment.

Ruth 1:1-18— Ruth decides to trust God and look after Naomi. A choice to do what is right.

Mark 12:28-34 — the Great Commandment, love God, love others. Unselfishness the guiding principle of the kingdom of God.

Hebrews 9:11-14 — Love enabled by the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. Christ’s sacrifice changes us inwardly in a way the blood of calves and goats never could.

Also: Psalm 146

OLD TESTAMENT READING 1

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 — First love God with all your heart

The foundation of the First Great Commandment

1-2  These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.

“Fear the Lord your God” – ‘revere’ for His goodness, would come closer than ‘fear’ (of the consequences) although both are in the meaning. What follows is predicated on Israel’s covenanted relationship with a loving, sustaining, providing God  i.e. Exodus 34:5-7 “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love… and forgiving…”

Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

“Be careful to obey” — needs to be understood in terms of the heart and soul and passion of v.5, see note to vv. 6-8 below.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 

“The Lord is one” — distinctive among other tribes and nations who worshipped, and attempted to placate, various deities who were related to the prevailing threats and needs of life. Scripture is progressive revelation, and “The Lord is one” remains a truth that overarches God revealing Himself in His Son, and then the awareness of the third Person, the Holy Spirit of God, guiding and empowering the Early Church and our mission today.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 

“Hear, O Israel” — recited by Jews in the synagogue and often daily as well, this Shema (Hebrew for ‘hear’) passage is a foundational confession of faith, as the Nicene Creed has become in the Church of England.

“Love the Lord” — ‘love’ in English has a broad range of meanings. This has the specific sense of ‘adore, revere, be committed to’ in the way people show their devotion to a popular monarch, like Trooping the Colour in London every June.

6-8 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

“0n your hearts… foreheads” — the sense of verse 6 was lost on some Jewish sects who in religious zeal tied a small box containing the text over their heads. This is what we all tend to do: try to turn a heart relationship into a set of religious rules and routines which we find easier to control. But the Lord simply wants our hearts, and when He has our heart, that will be evident enough.

Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Application follows…

…OLD TESTAMENT READING 2

Ruth 1:1-18 – Ruth decides to trust God and look after Naomi

A choice to do what is right

1-2 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

“When the judges ruled” – following Joshua and preceding Saul and David, probably around 1100 BC.

“Ephrathites” – the area around Bethlehem village, as in Micah’s prophecy foretelling the Messiah’s birth in “Bethlehem Ephrathah”, Micah 5:2

“Mahlon and Kilion” – both names descriptive of a weak constitution.

3-5 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

“Married Moabite women” – not forbidden although classed as outsiders – there was a 10-generation (male) ban on “entering the assembly of the Lord”. However, marriage and continuation of the family line was socially essential.

“Naomi was left” – the plight of Ruth’s mother-in-law is set out early in the story. Life could be very hard and vulnerable for an unsupported widow in that culture.

6-7 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

“The Lord had come to the aid of His people” – this story emphasises the Lord’s sovereignty over events.

8-9 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

“Show you kindness” – Naomi had blessed her daughters-in-law with God’s hesēd, meaning the covenant, loyal love of God, although the daughters-in-law were not Israelites and in a foreign country.

9-10 Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

11-13 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

Naomi sees her difficult circumstances, wrongly, as the Lord’s enmity or discipline of her – as we often do. The book as a whole tells a different story of God’s gracious provision.

14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

“Clung to her” – dabaq, a strong word, also used of a man being joined to his wife, Genesis 2:24, or remaining faithful to the Lord, Deut 4:4, Joshua 10:20; Josh 22:5.

15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.

“Your God my God” – Ruth probably grew up worshipping the Moabite god Chemosh.

17-18 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

“May the Lord” – Ruth invokes the name of Yahweh for the first time, showing her commitment to Naomi and the Lord, with no other prospects in view. She is embracing uncertainty, leaving kinspeople and familiarity to go where she has no family and friends, as an outsider.

IN PRACTICE  Ruth and Naomi walk us through what it means to return God’s love by trusting Him and choosing His way in our relationships with others. They faced an uncertain future as women in a man’s world, their menfolk having been taken from them. Do they blame God, or trust Him? Do they do what gives them most opportunity, or choose to do what is right? Life and its pressures and choices hasn’t changed in three thousand years, except that we have many more choices we can make, and many more options for self-determination rather than seeking God’s best and trusting Him in it. We have too much practice in making easy but low-value choices, and we need to work up our skills in making high-value and lasting ones — seeking God and trusting Him for His way.

QUESTION  Trusting God, doing what is right by Him, making high value choices is difficult. Who can share this with you, and encourage you?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 12:28-34 – the Great Commandment, love God, love others

Unselfishness a guiding principle of the kingdom of God

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“One of the teachers of the law” – until now, in Mark, they have been hostile; this was probably a Pharisee, but a friendly and teachable one.

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

30 ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

“The most important…” – the rabbis had codified the law into 613 statutes, and debated which were ‘weighty’ and which were ‘lighter’. Jesus starts where they are, quoting the familiar ‘Shema’ or ‘Hear’ passage (which opens worship in synagogues today)._

31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“The second is this” – Jesus puts two sayings together (see For Further Study note below) that were widely separated in the law, and so not expected to be combined. The first summarises commandments 1-4 about loving God wholeheartedly, the second summarises commandments 5-10 about moral responsibility and treating others well. His point is that they cannot be separated. God, who loves us, expects us to return His love by putting Him first and also by honouring others, loving them as He does. 

32-33 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

“You are right” – this particular scribe had understood that God’s overriding characteristic was mercy. Without the accompaniment of just and merciful behaviour, without which the ceremonial was meaningless.

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask Him any more questions.

“Not far from the kingdom” – the scribe had the right priorities, but entering the kingdom would require him to recognise and speak out Jesus as being the Son of God, (who would shortly die in his place as a sacrifice for his sins).

For further study: The Great Commandment unfolds, Deut. 6:46; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14.

IN PRACTICE

This man had grasped the teaching and understood the way it fits together. He knew the priorities – a lack of moral compass and concern for others cancels out any good religious intentions we can perform. First things first, and with God, that is always mercy!

The second teaching here is about the spirit of the law versus the legalism of the law. Jesus upholds the broad intention of the law by being the fulfilment of the law. He shows what it looks like to know God’s love, and so to be provoked into returning it in devotion to God, that results in having a heart of mercy and generosity to others. By contrast, the Jewish teachers and scribes majored on the fine details of observance, where their response to God had become formulaic rather than feeling.

We can’t reduce the teaching of Jesus to a formula; either it is heartfelt or it is reduced to head-knowledge. To change the world around us – being bringers of the kingdom of God – must start with us having a demonstrable heart change. We can’t give what we haven’t got.

QUESTION  How can we, as the Church representing Jesus, be more effective at showing His transforming love to the world, rather reducing it to the kind of rituals and regulations which Jesus so clearly derided?

EPISTLE READING

Hebrews 9:11-14 – The cleansing, releasing power of the blood of Christ

Christ’s sacrifice changes us inwardly in a way the blood of calves and goats never could

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.

“Greater… perfect tabernacle” – a comparison between the tent that preceded the temple with its hammered gold lamp stand for seven lamps and its consecrated bread, and the ‘heavenly tent’ around God’s presence. The man-made one was a poor shadow of the real thing which Christ entered to take his high priestly seat.

12-13 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.

“Once for all” – a comparison between the repeated sacrifices of the Levitical priest, each of which amounted to a partial remedy for sin, and Christ’s sinless sacrifice, final, effective and unrepeatable.

14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

“How much more” – an argument from less to greater. The comparison emphasises the power of remembering, enacting and declaring what Christ’s blood has done for us. The balance between these actions varies across Christian traditions. 

IN PRACTICE  The flesh nature — how we behave naturally as humankind — is inherently selfish and self-protective, and therefore not disposed to be generous to others. We live in competition, not collaboration. Loving others is optional, depending on what we feel – because we readily store up resentments accumulated by emotional collisions with others.

Coming to Christ and having a personal relationship with God brings the Holy Spirit’s dynamic to counteract and change this self-centred flesh nature.  We have hurt God by our selfishness and rebellion, but He has forgiven us — massively. This is the work of the blood of Christ, not only spiritual forgiveness for sin, but emotional cleansing of conscience from the effect of sin. Now we can think and act differently, with a generosity of spirit towards others. It is still a choice — we need to constantly be reminded how Christ’s blood has cleansed us — but it is an empowered choice. We can reflect God’s love and generous spirit to us, in how we relate to others.

QUESTION  Christ’s blood is all-powerful and effective, but how do we assert this? What is the balance between remembering, and speaking it out, in your tradition?

= = = = = = =

PRAYER  Father, we see selfishness, hatred and war all around us yet You sent Jesus to be the embodiment of your way of love and the means to achieve it. Fill us with Your love and empower us to use it to bring change to the bit of the world we can influence. Amen.

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Priority! Return God’s love to Him and others

Ruth and Naomi: “Where you go, I will go… where you stay, I will stay, Ruth 1:16”

TLW44

Scriptures to read in preparation for Sunday, November 4

Theme: The priority of returning God’s love to Him and others

SUMMARY

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 — First love God with all your heart; the foundation of the First Great Commandment.

Ruth 1:1-18— Ruth decides to trust God and look after Naomi. A choice to do what is right.

Mark 12:28-34 — the Great Commandment, love God, love others. Unselfishness the guiding principle of the kingdom of God.

Hebrews 9:11-14 — Love enabled by the cleansing power of the blood of Christ. Christ’s sacrifice changes us inwardly in a way the blood of calves and goats never could.

Also: Psalm 146

OLD TESTAMENT READING 1

Deuteronomy 6:1-9 — First love God with all your heart

The foundation of the First Great Commandment

1-2  These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life.

“Fear the Lord your God” – ‘revere’ for His goodness, would come closer than ‘fear’ (of the consequences) although both are in the meaning. What follows is predicated on Israel’s covenanted relationship with a loving, sustaining, providing God  i.e. Exodus 34:5-7 “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love… and forgiving…”

Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

“Be careful to obey” — needs to be understood in terms of the heart and soul and passion of v.5, see note to vv. 6-8 below.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 

“The Lord is one” — distinctive among other tribes and nations who worshipped, and attempted to placate, various deities who were related to the prevailing threats and needs of life. Scripture is progressive revelation, and “The Lord is one” remains a truth that overarches God revealing Himself in His Son, and then the awareness of the third Person, the Holy Spirit of God, guiding and empowering the Early Church and our mission today.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 

“Hear, O Israel” — recited by Jews in the synagogue and often daily as well, this Shema (Hebrew for ‘hear’) passage is a foundational confession of faith, as the Nicene Creed has become in the Church of England.

“Love the Lord” — ‘love’ in English has a broad range of meanings. This has the specific sense of ‘adore, revere, be committed to’ in the way people show their devotion to a popular monarch, like Trooping the Colour in London every June.

6-8 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

“0n your hearts… foreheads” — the sense of verse 6 was lost on some Jewish sects who in religious zeal tied a small box containing the text over their heads. This is what we all tend to do: try to turn a heart relationship into a set of religious rules and routines which we find easier to control. But the Lord simply wants our hearts, and when He has our heart, that will be evident enough.

Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

Application follows…

…OLD TESTAMENT READING 2

Ruth 1:1-18 – Ruth decides to trust God and look after Naomi

A choice to do what is right

1-2 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.

“When the judges ruled” – following Joshua and preceding Saul and David, probably around 1100 BC.

“Ephrathites” – the area around Bethlehem village, as in Micah’s prophecy foretelling the Messiah’s birth in “Bethlehem Ephrathah”, Micah 5:2

“Mahlon and Kilion” – both names descriptive of a weak constitution.

3-5 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

“Married Moabite women” – not forbidden although classed as outsiders – there was a 10-generation (male) ban on “entering the assembly of the Lord”. However, marriage and continuation of the family line was socially essential.

“Naomi was left” – the plight of Ruth’s mother-in-law is set out early in the story. Life could be very hard and vulnerable for an unsupported widow in that culture.

6-7 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

“The Lord had come to the aid of His people” – this story emphasises the Lord’s sovereignty over events.

8-9 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

“Show you kindness” – Naomi had blessed her daughters-in-law with God’s hesēd, meaning the covenant, loyal love of God, although the daughters-in-law were not Israelites and in a foreign country.

9-10 Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

11-13 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

Naomi sees her difficult circumstances, wrongly, as the Lord’s enmity or discipline of her – as we often do. The book as a whole tells a different story of God’s gracious provision.

14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

“Clung to her” – dabaq, a strong word, also used of a man being joined to his wife, Genesis 2:24, or remaining faithful to the Lord, Deut 4:4, Joshua 10:20; Josh 22:5.

15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God.

“Your God my God” – Ruth probably grew up worshipping the Moabite god Chemosh.

17-18 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.

“May the Lord” – Ruth invokes the name of Yahweh for the first time, showing her commitment to Naomi and the Lord, with no other prospects in view. She is embracing uncertainty, leaving kinspeople and familiarity to go where she has no family and friends, as an outsider.

IN PRACTICE  Ruth and Naomi walk us through what it means to return God’s love by trusting Him and choosing His way in our relationships with others. They faced an uncertain future as women in a man’s world, their menfolk having been taken from them. Do they blame God, or trust Him? Do they do what gives them most opportunity, or choose to do what is right? Life and its pressures and choices hasn’t changed in three thousand years, except that we have many more choices we can make, and many more options for self-determination rather than seeking God’s best and trusting Him in it. We have too much practice in making easy but low-value choices, and we need to work up our skills in making high-value and lasting ones — seeking God and trusting Him for His way.

QUESTION  Trusting God, doing what is right by Him, making high value choices is difficult. Who can share this with you, and encourage you?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 12:28-34 – the Great Commandment, love God, love others

Unselfishness a guiding principle of the kingdom of God

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked Him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“One of the teachers of the law” – until now, in Mark, they have been hostile; this was probably a Pharisee, but a friendly and teachable one.

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.

30 ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

“The most important…” – the rabbis had codified the law into 613 statutes, and debated which were ‘weighty’ and which were ‘lighter’. Jesus starts where they are, quoting the familiar ‘Shema’ or ‘Hear’ passage (which opens worship in synagogues today)._

31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“The second is this” – Jesus puts two sayings together (see For Further Study note below) that were widely separated in the law, and so not expected to be combined. The first summarises commandments 1-4 about loving God wholeheartedly, the second summarises commandments 5-10 about moral responsibility and treating others well. His point is that they cannot be separated. God, who loves us, expects us to return His love by putting Him first and also by honouring others, loving them as He does. 

32-33 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

“You are right” – this particular scribe had understood that God’s overriding characteristic was mercy. Without the accompaniment of just and merciful behaviour, without which the ceremonial was meaningless.

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask Him any more questions.

“Not far from the kingdom” – the scribe had the right priorities, but entering the kingdom would require him to recognise and speak out Jesus as being the Son of God, (who would shortly die in his place as a sacrifice for his sins).

For further study: The Great Commandment unfolds, Deut. 6:46; Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 5:43; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14.

IN PRACTICE

This man had grasped the teaching and understood the way it fits together. He knew the priorities – a lack of moral compass and concern for others cancels out any good religious intentions we can perform. First things first, and with God, that is always mercy!

The second teaching here is about the spirit of the law versus the legalism of the law. Jesus upholds the broad intention of the law by being the fulfilment of the law. He shows what it looks like to know God’s love, and so to be provoked into returning it in devotion to God, that results in having a heart of mercy and generosity to others. By contrast, the Jewish teachers and scribes majored on the fine details of observance, where their response to God had become formulaic rather than feeling.

We can’t reduce the teaching of Jesus to a formula; either it is heartfelt or it is reduced to head-knowledge. To change the world around us – being bringers of the kingdom of God – must start with us having a demonstrable heart change. We can’t give what we haven’t got.

QUESTION  How can we, as the Church representing Jesus, be more effective at showing His transforming love to the world, rather reducing it to the kind of rituals and regulations which Jesus so clearly derided?

EPISTLE READING

Hebrews 9:11-14 – The cleansing, releasing power of the blood of Christ

Christ’s sacrifice changes us inwardly in a way the blood of calves and goats never could

11 But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.

“Greater… perfect tabernacle” – a comparison between the tent that preceded the temple with its hammered gold lamp stand for seven lamps and its consecrated bread, and the ‘heavenly tent’ around God’s presence. The man-made one was a poor shadow of the real thing which Christ entered to take his high priestly seat.

12-13 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.

“Once for all” – a comparison between the repeated sacrifices of the Levitical priest, each of which amounted to a partial remedy for sin, and Christ’s sinless sacrifice, final, effective and unrepeatable.

14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

“How much more” – an argument from less to greater. The comparison emphasises the power of remembering, enacting and declaring what Christ’s blood has done for us. The balance between these actions varies across Christian traditions. 

IN PRACTICE  The flesh nature — how we behave naturally as humankind — is inherently selfish and self-protective, and therefore not disposed to be generous to others. We live in competition, not collaboration. Loving others is optional, depending on what we feel – because we readily store up resentments accumulated by emotional collisions with others.

Coming to Christ and having a personal relationship with God brings the Holy Spirit’s dynamic to counteract and change this self-centred flesh nature.  We have hurt God by our selfishness and rebellion, but He has forgiven us — massively. This is the work of the blood of Christ, not only spiritual forgiveness for sin, but emotional cleansing of conscience from the effect of sin. Now we can think and act differently, with a generosity of spirit towards others. It is still a choice — we need to constantly be reminded how Christ’s blood has cleansed us — but it is an empowered choice. We can reflect God’s love and generous spirit to us, in how we relate to others.

QUESTION  Christ’s blood is all-powerful and effective, but how do we assert this? What is the balance between remembering, and speaking it out, in your tradition?

= = = = = = =

PRAYER  Father, we see selfishness, hatred and war all around us yet You sent Jesus to be the embodiment of your way of love and the means to achieve it. Fill us with Your love and empower us to use it to bring change to the bit of the world we can influence. Amen.

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True Greatness

“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves; and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.” – Thomas Merton

Proverbs 31:10-31 – Greatness comes through character and diligence

Mark 9:30-37 – Greatness comes through being able to defer

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8 – Greatness comes through embracing humility

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 1

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SUMMARY  The theme of the week is True Greatness

Proverbs 31:10-31: Greatness comes through character and diligence, as exemplified by Proverbs’ depiction of the “wife of noble character” whose skill, diligence and business acumen are all examples of the wisdom that comes from “the fear of the Lord”, meaning a willingness to submit everything to Him.

Mark 9:30-37: As the disciples argue about their individual status, Jesus teaches the Suffering Servant’s way of greatness through being able to defer.

James 3:13 – 4:3, 7-8: The teaching of the Early Church emphasised conquering pride, envy and personal ambition and embrace godly submission and humility, the true greatness.

MESSAGE OF THE WEEK  The fear of the Lord, submission and conquering pride sound like calls to a rigorous, monastic-style obedience – but the reality is that knowing God personally through Jesus releases and enables. The Life of the Spirit is empowering: it brings a freedom from ambition and status, enabling us to WANT to put God and others first.

Also in this Sunday’s readings: Psalm 1

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Alternative OT reading (C of E option) Jeremiah 11:18-20

OLD TESTAMENT READING

Proverbs 31:10-31 | Greatness comes through character and diligence

Book of Proverbs wisdom illustration about character and respect

Last week’s reading, at the beginning of the Book of Proverbs was about wisdom personified and wisdom’s voice – as it happens, a woman’s voice. Here at the end of Proverbs, we meet the wife of noble character. This wife, who is marked out by her fear the Lord, v.30, is also like the personification of wisdom. This chapter was not written by Solomon but King Lemuel, Prov. 30:1, not an Israelite king but a foreigner who had come to know the Lord.

10-12 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

 “Noble character” – moral and spiritual, but also very able. Elsewhere the term is used for the military exploits of men. Her husband can trust her because she is godly.

13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.

“Wool and linen” – wool spun from the fleece, linen woven from flax fibres. A linen garment sold for half a month’s wage and a woollen garment for four times that.

14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.

“Like the merchant ships” – she is enterprising: remarkable in a male-dominated culture and “provides… portions” – also considerate, the opposite of Proverbs’ sluggard, Proverbs 6:9-10, 26:14, not one to have servants attend her in bed.

16-19 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.

“Considers a field… sees that her trading is profitable” – showing independent judgment and financial wisdom, not the norm for women of that time. “Her lamp does not go out” – not working through the night but a sign of a well-run house where the lamp was kept burning all night as a sign of life.

“Sets about her work” – establishing a vineyard planting and press in stony ground was an arduous undertaking. By contrast, drawing wool thread from the distaff stick on to the spinning wheel was skilled work undertaken by women.

20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.

21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

“Clothed in scarlet” – implies dyed wool and good quality. She makes good clothes for her household and at the same time shows generosity to the less-well off, a characteristic of wise people.

For further study: generosity is characteristic of wisdom as emphasised in Proverbs, Prov. 11:24-26; 21:13; 22:9,16,22-23; 28:27.

22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.

23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.

24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.

25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.

This woman’s hard work and good judgment brings security and respect to the household and also her husband, who is valued as a decision-maker “at the city gate”.

26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.

27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:

29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

31 Honour her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.

“A woman who fears the Lord” – the poem, an A-Z of wisdom, builds to its conclusion that the reward of wisdom, personified as the woman of wisdom, is about where that wisdom is rooted: in the fear of the Lord, a simple but profound statement, Prov. 1:7, 9:10, 15:33. Being willing to listen to and defer to the Lord is perhaps a more feminine trait, as in this depiction, which wise men do well to acquire.

IN PRACTICE  In a hard-nosed world which prizes knowledge and puts a high value on information, something called wisdom looks like a ‘soft skill’. Perhaps in a different way, it is – set in largely male-centric stories and events, the word for wisdom is feminine. Proverbs begins and ends with wisdom, which it explains in terms of personality and character – a God-fearing, submitted, spiritual woman. It is more than having skills, it is having the character and sense of direction to know what to do with them. This is what brings that elusive quality we call success.

QUESTION  Out of the many attributes of this ‘woman of wisdom’, which particularly speak to you? Should you ask God for wisdom or just rely on Him to provide it?

GOSPEL READING

Mark 9:30-37 | Greatness comes through being able to defer

The disciples are caught in an argument about status

30-32 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because He was teaching His disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise.” But they did not understand what He meant and were afraid to ask Him about it. ”

“He was teaching His disciples” — they still couldn’t accept His teaching about His death and how it formed part of God’s plan. The resurrection of an individual was a new concept to them – they expected the resurrection of mankind at the final judgment foretold in Daniel 12:2. Luke’s explanation is that “it was concealed from them so that they could not grasp it”, Luke 9:45.

33-34  They came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

“Capernaum… in the house” – probably the one belonging to Peter and Andrew, Mark 1:29.

“But they kept quiet” – they expected disapproval of the argument. It would surface again, Mark 10:35-37. Because they had not yet understood Jesus’ destiny, they didn’t grasp the implication for themselves.

35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

“Sitting down” – as we would stand up, assuming the role of a teacher. Jewish rabbis taught sitting down.

“Want to be first…last… servant” – (here and below) Rank and status were important in Jewish society at this time. Jesus confronted those assumptions by teaching that in God’s kingdom true greatness comes through being the servant, not the master. Finally He demonstrated this conclusively in His death as the Suffering Servant.

36-37 He took a little child whom He placed among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes Me; and whoever welcomes Me does not welcome Me but the one who sent Me.”

“Whoever welcomes one of these” – Children had no status and were not romantically considered pure and innocent – just weak and inferior. Welcoming a child was putting yourself last in line, in a dramatically unexpected way.

IN PRACTICE  The disciples belonged to a stratified Jewish society – aristocratic and common, rich and poor, politically powerful and oppressed. Status and hierarchy was discussed a lot in their culture. For us (depending on what newspaper you read) there is quite a lot of emphasis on ‘being a celebrity’. But all of this flies in the face of God’s kingdom order, which turns man’s order upside down, twists it around and shakes it for good measure. Jesus was a servant, a suffering servant to the cause of providing a salvation path for mankind at the cost of His life and reputation. His life on earth made Him the greatest human being who has ever lived. True greatness, in His terms, has nothing to do with our imagined ideas of status, but is achieved by conquering human pride and self-sufficiency, and learning to embrace dependence on God and gain a true servant spirit.

QUESTION  Think of someone you know who is different because you can see Jesus in them? Why is that? What part of status and position would be costly for you to say ‘no’ to?

EPISTLE READING

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a | True greatness comes from humility, not pride

Teaching about dealing with ambition and embracing godly dependence

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.

“Humility” – literally ‘meekness’, prautes. ‘Gentleness’ in Gal. 5:23. Greeks considered it a weakness but Jesus made it a fundamental virtue, Matt. 5:5, 11:29. It is not passive or timid but an attitude of trusting God and therefore having no need to self-promote.

“Humility that comes from wisdom” – true wisdom, like true greatness, has nothing to prove.. James writes to Spirit-filled believers in the churches about “deeds done in the humility of the consequential fruitfulness of faith in their day by day experience of God.

14-16 But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

“Selfish ambition… disorder” – worldly teaching based on man-centred values  is unspiritual; more seriously, it invites the conflict and division that is the hallmark of the devil, James 4:1-3 below.

17-18 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

“Peace-loving… considerate” – the list parallels the character qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23  with more than a nod towards the Royal Law James has already mentioned, James 2:8.

“Desires that battle within” – the life produced by the Spirit and characterised by the peace-loving and fruitful unity He brings, contrasted dramatically with the bitter church conflicts and character assassination that result from rivalry and desire to control.

4:1-3 What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

7-8 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

“Resist the devil” – the opportunities given to the devil by unholy attitudes have been set out forcefully. Similarly the remedy – recognising the rule and reign of God in willing submission to His values. This ‘repent and resist’ teaching is paralleled by Peter, 1 Peter 5:8-9, in His letter written at a different time, giving weight to the gravity of this teaching.

For further study: the ‘wearing holy attitudes’ teaching in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Eph. 6:10-18.

IN PRACTICE  This week’s teaching follows a familiar pattern. The principles are set out in the Old Testament passage, but at this point, it’s more theoretical than practical. In the Gospel passage, Jesus brings the principles alive in His own life and teaches the values to the disciples. It still needs to be earthed in everyday spiritual life. The epistle is written to believers in the churches who are learning to live in their new life and new identity, as those who are new creations “in Christ Jesus” and who have the Spirit of Christ Jesus in them. They are empowered, they are guided, they have the original Scriptures and the new records of Jesus’ teaching BUT they have to make it work in their lives and their relationships, with all the tensions of a community. They have new life, but as we all find, the test is whether we can avoid being pulled back into what the Bible calls the flesh, or selfish nature. In this case, it’s rivalry, envy and desire to control and, like the weeds in your garden, it’s ready to spring up in every church fellowship to be a vehicle for the conflict and the disunity the devil wants to sow. That’s his strategy to disable the advance of the kingdom of God. We have a better a strategy to disable the devil, and that is the active choice to repent of pride, embrace again utter dependence on God and recognise that whatever we have of worth, is only from Him.

QUESTION  What do you feel entitled to control? Where do you have the need to be in charge? Where is the lordship of Jesus – over or under those perceptions?

PRAYER  Lord, looking into Your eyes is looking into life itself. Help and empower us to be people of the New Life – and life-givers to others who in their pain may need us to exercise our faith on their behalf. I pray this in and through Jesus. Amen.

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C of E alternative OT reading

Jeremiah 11:18-20 NIV

The plot against Jeremiah revealed

18 Because the Lord revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at that time He showed me what they were doing. 

“Their plot” – people in Jeremiah’s home town of Anathoth. He was a priest from a town of priestly families just north of Jerusalem, Jeremiah 1:1.

19 I had been like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter; I did not realise that they had plotted against me, saying, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.”

“Destroy the tree” – they wanted Jeremiah and his memory blotted out. They hated him because of his words against the ruling order at a time when God’s judgment was building, which resulted in Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians and deportation of most of the people.

20 But You, Lord Almighty, who judge righteously and test the heart and mind, let me see Your vengeance on them, for to You I have committed my cause.

“Your vengeance” – not personal vengeance. Jeremiah is simply calling for God to judge the actions of his oppressors fairly and handing over any personal desire for retribution to Him.

Good News given to us – for others

The emerging message – Friday, January 5 (Epiphany)

The headlines

Isaiah 60:1-6
“Arise, your light has come…” The light of God’s glory has risen, and it is prophesied that all nations, meaning Gentiles, will come to this light. Meanwhile the nation of Israel is coming home, truly.

Psalm 72
All kings, from the ends of the earth, will defer to the coming king who combines true greatness with a heart to rescue the poor and redeem them from oppression. The godly flourish during his reign, from shore to shore.

Matthew 2:1-12
Distinguished visitors from afar recognise the significance of the birth of Jesus and come to worship Him. Gentiles coming to the Jewish Messiah show that he is their Messiah, too.

Ephesians 3:1-12
God’s plan, which astonished the culture of the time, is revealed by the Holy Spirit: Gentiles and Jews are part of the same church body, with equal share. This united church has spiritual authority and is marked by believers who have confidence in their new identity in Christ Jesus, and confidence coming before holy, almighty God.

 

How do we respond? We look beyond our walls and our ‘tribe’ with light and love.

This united church has spiritual authority and is marked by believers who show confidence in their new identity in Christ Jesus and before holy, almighty God. There will always be the human tendency, born of pride, to keep separate. But the Holy Spirit’s work is always to unify, from a heavenly perspective. Jews, Gentiles, Christians or not, denominational barriers, state church or independent – the Holy Spirit gives us a heavenly, rather than worldly perspective, if we allow Him to.

Who is Jesus and what is this Good News? Who is it for?

This is the mystery that was being revealed to those early believers who knew Paul. They struggled with it. But the Holy Spirit gave them a sense of heavenly perspective — the greater vision of what God was about.

This what had been shown to Abraham in those earliest times, composed as prophetic song by David a thousand years earlier, foretold by Isaiah and others more than 800 years before and grasped by Mary, then acted out in a remarkable way by distinguished Gentile visitors. The early church, mainly Jewish to begin with, had to come to a completely new understanding of what they were about.

And so for us — every generation has to get this revelation afresh.

This Good News has been given to us, but not for us alone. It is given, not for people like us, but for us to share with people who are not like us.

That is our task as church — to be confident in the inevitable spiritual battle for souls and for God’s rest and peace, and to be as generous as the Lord Himself in relating to those on the fringe of faith or outside it.

Where does this generosity come from? We are, as the renowned Archbishop Temple said, the only organisation on earth that exists for those who don’t belong to it. We are people on a mission – the mission that springs out of the mystery Paul writes about. It’s a mission that only makes sense as we become empowered by the Spirit of Mission.

Paul writes: “God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by His Spirit He has revealed it to His holy apostles and prophets.” Paul wrote it, but God spoke it to Paul’s heart. This is Scripture —as meaningful for us as the prophecies about the Messiah were for the Jews and Wise Men of Jesus’ time.

This is what we see God doing, and so our call is to be willing to join Him in it.

Who are the ‘Greeks’ and ‘Gentiles’ of our world — the not-yet believers around us? Where is God working outside the church walls?

When we begin to address this honestly and join God in what He is doing, our church attendances and finances and very future will begin to look very different. The kingdom of God will be evident among us. As we seek to mirror something of God’s generosity of spirit, there will be a release. We trust God and give away what we have – and He finds us faithful and gives more.

For reflection and discussion – all the questions

1.  Where do we see the Lord’s light resting, and what response is the Holy Spirit leading us to make?

2.  If this is God’s pattern of leadership, and if this is a picture of Jesus’ kingdom rule, why does the church sometimes struggle financially?

3.  Good science is good – but are you tempted to seek explanations from within our knowledge and experience, and fit the narrative accordingly? Why do we need to try to do this?

4.  God’s plan and God’s purpose are mentioned half a dozen times in this short passage. How are you beginning to see God’s plan in your life, your church, your community?

5.  What are good ways of focusing our attention on God’s plan and purpose and encouraging one another in it?

Readings this week for Sunday, January 7, (Epiphany):
Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72
Matthew 2:1-12
Ephesians 3:1-12