Sunday, November 08, 2015

Benefit of Thinking Small

Today is the Sunday before Remembrance Day. I will not focus on that day, although I add my call to remember to the larger celebration. As a Mennonite, I like the statement, “To remember is to work for peace.” At the same time, I honour those who believe that such work may require military force, and come together in a common commitment to live so as to witness Christ to the world. Today is also International Day of Prayer. To call on God on behalf of our world is perhaps the most concrete and meaningful step we can take, working for peace and remembering those who have given their lives to fight against evil and for good.

The texts we have heard this morning suggest that the best step we can take (alongside regular prayer for our world) is to live so as to honour God in the everyday actions of our lives. Being faithful in small things leads to God’s action in our world in ways that we can hardly imagine. We will work primarily from the story of Ruth this morning, with brief references also to Hebrews and to the gospel reading from Mark.

Ruth 3 and 4
You know the story of Ruth, but allow me to remind you this morning what happened.
Elimelech (My God is king) and Naomi (pleasantness) have two sons, Mahlon and Kilion (sickness and death). (Note please: I am, not an expert in Hebrew names, so if someone who knows Hebrew well gives you different meanings, I won’t argue.) Elimelech and  Naomi’s names suggest a good family, one that honours God as good members of the Children of Israel. Mahlon and Kilion’s names suggest that their family is going to experience problems.

The story begins in Bethlehem (Beth lechem: house of bread). By its name, Bethlehem should be the bread basket of Israel, but there is a famine in the house of bread. So Elimelech and Naomi take their sons east to Moab (travelling from modern Israel to modern Jordan). Moab was not more fertile than Bethlehem, so you know this was a journey of desperation. But they found food, and their sons found wives (Ruth and Orpah).

Then the story turns grim. Elimelech, Mahlon, and Kilion all die, leaving the women as childless widows. Then in her distress Naomi hears that the famine is over, and she decides to return home. Her daughters-in-law decide to go with her. Naomi persuades Orpah to go back to her own family, but Ruth makes clear that her choice is to go with Naomi (1: 16f): “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. 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.”

In chapter 2 Ruth goes out gleaning to provide food for them back in Bethlehem. She ends up in the fields of Boaz, who sees her and asks about her. When he hears who she is, he realizes that she is his cousin’s widow. (I know he doesn’t say this, but it is clear from the action that he knows very well who she is and how they are connected.) He tells his workers to make sure there is enough left in the wheat field for her to get enough for herself and Naomi.

When Naomi sees how much food Ruth brings home, she also recognizes that Boaz knows who they are and is implicitly saying he will care for them. In the verses we heard read, as a good mother she makes sure that Ruth acts on that knowledge and tells her to find the place where Boaz is working, wait until he has eaten and drunk well at the end of the day, and then present herself to him. Naomi ends up with the words, “He will tell you what to do.”

In the next verses Ruth presents herself, effectively asking Boaz to sleep with her. Boaz recognizes that this offer is really a request that he do the duty of a “kinsman-redeemer”—the nearest male relative to someone in trouble, who can “redeem” them from their trouble. In this case, he would take her as his wife and provide her with children and with security. Boaz also knows that another male relative stands closer to Ruth’s dead husband than he does, and he takes the steps to make sure that the nearer “redeemer” will either take Ruth as his wife, or set her free so that he (Boaz) can do so. Boaz ends up marrying Ruth and they have a son, Obed.

The verses we read this morning (4:13-17) let you know that this whole story is not just a simple romance between Boaz and Ruth. We may be inclined to assign ages to Ruth (young woman) and to Boaz (middle-aged bachelor) and work out a Hollywood romance for them. The Bible instead connects their small story to God’s big story. When Ruth asked Boaz to take her as his wife, much more than her and her mother-in-law’s future hung in the balance. This small moment, so intimate, so limited, was actually a pivotal moment in history, which God used to redeem his people. By including Ruth and Boaz in the ancestors of the Messiah, Matthew 1 makes it clear that this small moment, so intimate, so limited, was also a pivotal moment in the history of the salvation of the human race.


The Principle
You can see the idea behind the story, an idea that applies also to us today. Sometimes we think that the most important thing in life is how we respond to the great opportunities that come our way. “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, ’twixt the sides of truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side.” It is certainly true that such moments are critical, and when they come, God calls us to respond as followers of Jesus Christ.

But more often we face smaller moments—at work, at home, in church, in the grocery store, at school. A situation arises, and we have to choose how to respond. Perhaps we see someone being bullied, and we have a chance to step in. Perhaps we face a conflict with a neighbour, and we search for a way to restore a good relationship. Small moments, but eternity hinges on these small moments. There is the principle: Eternity hinges on the small moments of our lives. This is the benefit of thinking small.

Hebrews and Mark
We heard earlier the reading of Hebrews 9: 24-28. This passage is part of a longer argument that Christ is the perfect High Priest, who makes the perfect sacrifice for our sins and brings us full salvation. The writer of Hebrews may not be thinking about the principle I have just stated, but we see here the great action of God’s salvation within which our small acts find their meaning. We see what lies behind all of our lives and what gives meaning to our small actions of obedience.

The gospel reading echoes our idea more clearly. Those who present themselves as holy and just will be judged by the actions of their everyday lives, which reveal them as hypocrites who will be judged severely. In contrast, the widow who gave her two copper coins is commended. Her small act of obedience participated in God’s great story.

In short, whatever we have, given to God, is what God needs to do his work in our world.

Contemporary Examples
I have told many stories as I preach here—one of them from Jon Bonk, who wrote an article in 1999 for the journal Missiology making the point that I have just made, on the benefit of thinking small. Jon tells the story of the growth of the church that we have seen in Nepal since about 1980. Jon traces the work of Prem Pradhan, called the apostle to Nepal, who was converted in a service where Bakht Singh was preaching. Bakht Singh was an Indian evangelist who came to Christian faith when he was a student at the University of Manitoba. John and Edith Heyward invited him to their home for Christmas, and through their quiet witness and through reading the Bible in their home, Singh came to faith in Christ. A small action of Christian hospitality led to new life for hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal.

I could tell other stories like that one, but refer instead to an email that I received this week from a friend who works with OM South Africa. Here are his words:
Three years ago Gabriel stumbled out of a university bar onto the street, stoned. I just happened to be walking by. He confronted me (or did I confront him? I cannot remember…)

I asked his name. “Gabriel” came the response. I said, “Hmmm, the messenger of God.” I walked away, totally forgetting the incident. (To this day cannot remember any of this happening).

A few days ago I was back in this same town, back for the first time in years. A guy came running up, so excited, so pleased to see me. I had NO IDEA who he was. He told me the above story, of walking out of a bar and running into me. Today he is on a pastoral leadership team in a church more than a 1000 strong. He said that when he heard what his name meant, he converted to Christ.

That is really quite bizarre. To top it off, while I was there, a girl named Jo came up and told me an almost identical story. Weird. Gabriel is joining our teams to work in Syrian refugee camps. Not sure about Jo.

Small actions. Relating to someone you meet randomly outside a bar, but the interaction changes that person’s life. I repeat the basic principle: Eternity hinges on the small moments of our lives. This is the benefit of thinking small.  When some great crisis is upon us, we often rise to the moment, but ordinary moments creep up on us almost unnoticed. You cannot predict which action, which choice, will be the pivot on which God moves another person’s life. God calls us to daily faithfulness.

Boaz did not know that his choice to act on Ruth and Naomi’s behalf would be a decisive step towards the coming of the monarchy to Israel and the birth of Israel’s greatest king. Still less did he think of the possibility of the coming Messiah. That’s an important part of the principle! You do what is right all the time. You treat people well all the time. You act in ways that bless other people all the time. And God acts through you to change the world.

We see the news stories of bombs falling and think that is the important event. In truth, the small group of people sitting and talking about God—seeking to follow Christ in that moment—is the important event. We can all take part in these daily moments of obedience—like the young men rolling the stone away from the grave of Lazarus, and we leave the great work of resurrection to Jesus. God works in our world as he chooses, and we get to join in. The benefit of thinking small.

Grace Bible Church
8 November 2015
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

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