Thursday, July 20, 2006

Piercing

I told a friend this week that preaching through the book of Ruth this month is “tying me in knots.” By that I meant that I am finding the story so rich and deeply layered that it is hard to distill each week’s passage into a “simple” message. Yet this is one of the wonderful and powerful characteristics of the Scriptures. They continually challenge us at deeper levels. Indeed the writer of Hebrews declares that “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12).

So, for instance, the book of Jonah functions as an enriching story for children about God using a whale to prod Jonah along to accomplish God’s mission through him. But when we probe beyond the children’s level we encounter the challenge of Jonah’s flight from God, seeking comfort in Tarshish instead of ministry in Nineveh. And then when we probe some more we face the challenge of the foreign Ninevites’ immediate response to Jonah’s half-hearted preaching, a stark contrast to Israel’s repeated apathetic responses to the passionate preaching of the prophets. We have moved from a nice children’s story to a penetrating, incisive (sword-like?) word to God’s people to repent of our self-absorption and be God’s message bearers to the world.

Likewise with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. This is a great example story about helping people in distress instead of passing them by. But when we probe beyond the example story we encounter the challenge of the religious figures (Levite and Priest) passing by the distressed traveler so as to not violate purity laws. Ouch. And then when we probe some more we face the challenge of the religious peoples’ loathing and disdain for Samaritans, and the Samaritan being the one Jesus commends for “loving his neighbor,” a bedrock command from God to his people! We have moved from a nice children’s story to something much more disturbing and provocative.

And so it is with the story of Ruth. On one level it is a wonderful story about how God provides to people (Ruth and Naomi) who have lost everything. When we probe deeper we encounter the issue of Ruth’s status as a Moabite foreigner, and how this shapes the events that occur (or don’t). Then when we continue probing we find the dynamics of power and provision in the ancient world, roles of men and women, patriarchal customs and the subversive means women are forced to employ to find justice. And these further God’s purposes, as the genealogy makes clear! Suddenly what functioned on one level as a feel-good story is challenging us about our own customs and presumptions about power, justice and God’s purposes.

Friends, be careful about trying to tame the Scriptures. They are one of God’s primary ways of transforming us (Romans 12:2), of helping Christ be formed in us (Galatians 4:19), of prodding and nurturing and provoking and loving and comforting and challenging us towards Christ-likeness and into passionate participation in God’s kingdom mission. There’s a reason Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that trouble me, it’s the parts of the Bible I do!”

Being shaped by the Scriptures is an adventure I wouldn’t miss for the world. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

2 Comments:

Blogger Kevin and Darla said...

Matt, I've enjoyed listening to your weekly sermons on the book of Ruth. You indeed have delved into a deeper study and found other layers of meaning than I remember from studing these passages before. Relaying the historical customs of the time has also helped me to understand some of these deeper meanings as the pieces seem to fall into place much more easily.

Your lessons on the Israelites journey through the wilderness was also intriguing with the ties you were able to make to our current relationship with God and how he communes with us.

Please know that even though you may not see people respond to your sermons each week, we are feeling a piercing of our hearts that calls us to live our lives for Christ.

Thank you for all you do to serve God!
Kevin McKamey

4:25 PM  
Blogger Matt Soper said...

Thank you for your encouraging words, Kevin and Darla. May God continue to pierce us all with his powerful and life-changing Word.

8:21 AM  

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