Ruth #3 - Finding Rest in God

READ – Ruth 3

Chapter 3 is the “love story” chapter in Ruth. Here we are told of how Naomi, having come out her depression, begins to see how vulnerable Ruth’s future is in the land of Israel. She tells Ruth that it is her duty to find “rest” for her. At this time, rest for a widow meant coming under the protective care of a husband. Naomi hatches a plan to get Ruth hitched – to Boaz. When Ruth comes back from her nighttime encounter with Boaz, Naomi tells Ruth she can wait (ie she can rest) because Boaz won’t rest until she is redeemed. It’s a story of how Ruth moved from restlessness to rest. It’s a story that shows us how we can find rest in all our restlessness.

1. HOW RUTH FOUND REST

Naomi’s plan was risky. Sneaking into a man’s tent in the middle of the night looking your best, uncovering his feet and lying down next to him? This was not only risky, it was dangerously risqué. Boaz was known as a man of character and integrity. Threshing floors were frequented by prostitutes for business. What was Ruth doing!? All this could easily have been misinterpreted by Boaz.  But the story is told in such a way to highlight the character of both Boaz and Ruth. Boaz understood Ruth’s intentions. Ruth trusted Boaz’ character.  This was not a night of passion but a night where character of heart ruled over the cravings of the flesh.

If Naomi’s plan was risky, Ruth’s execution of the plan was crazy. Instead of waiting for Boaz to take the lead, Ruth took the lead and proposed to Boaz (“spread the edge of your garment over me was a figure of speech for engagement)! A foreign, poor woman asking a rich, noble man to marry her was absolutely unheard of… Yet Boaz didn’t flinch. When Ruth called Boaz to fulfill the role of family redeemer – he saw she was right (v12). The law called him to care for Ruth, for Naomi and to honor Elimelech. Marrying Ruth would take care of all these needs and bring rest to these vulnerable women. He promised Ruth with a solemn vow—he would make sure she would be redeemed by the next morning. When he sent Ruth home with a pile of grain, Naomi knew what it meant – it meant Boaz could be trusted, he would not rest until Ruth found rest.

2. HOW WE CAN FIND REST

What does this ancient love story teach us about finding rest in all our restlessness?

Be at Rest…God is mysterious. God is faithful. The story of Ruth shows us two things about God that we must hold together, in tension, to find rest. 1) God is mysterious – his ways are subversive and surprising. 2) God is faithful – his ways are sure and steadfast. God’s mysterious ways are highlighted in this book in the Old Testament Jewish cannon named after a Moabite woman (the only book named after a non Jewish person). It’s as if God is saying, “You want to know how I work and who I work through? How about this – I work through a woman proposing to a man, a younger person proposing to the older, a beggar field worker of the lowest class proposing to an upper-class field owner, a Moabite foreigner proposing to an Israelite, using a plan that’s uncomfortably like that of a prostitute! It’s through this that my greatest King will come. It’s through this that my son will one day enter the world.” What?! This was utterly shocking in its day. God subverts the status quo and surprises at every turn. Much of our restlessness in life comes from wanting to have all the answers; to have all the answers about God. Ruth shows us we never will. God always surprises. He works in ways that subvert human expectation and thinking.

God’s faithfulness is also highlighted in the book of Ruth. So much of our restlessness in life is because we want to eliminate all risk. But Ruth shows us we will never eliminate all risk and we don’t have to. Why? We can trust God to provide and to direct our lives even when we don’t know how things will turn out. God faithfully led and directed Naomi and Ruth. The lesson – he can be trusted, even when he calls us to step out in faith and risk.

Be at Rest…God’s limits in your life are gifts– Ruth is one of the greatest characters in all the bible. But her greatness was not found in how much she did and how many people she impacted. Her greatness was found in her love for two other people. Ruth did not spend her life resisting all her limitations – her poverty, her widowhood, her barrenness, her being an immigrant refugee. Instead she learned to show “hesed” love within her limits and therein was her greatness.

So much of our restlessness comes from trying to do it all and be it all. But In giving us the limits we have, God is teaching us to love like him – with hesed love that is loyal, committed and available. 

Be at RestGod won’t rest until you are fully redeemed.  Boaz uses the strongest words a person could ever use at the time. He say, “As the Lord lives…I will”. He’s making a covenant oath in essence saying, “May God kill me if I break any of my promises to you.” He even sent Ruth home with a “down payment” on his promise (a full load of grain). Naomi hears what Boaz said and sees what he did and she knows – Ruth’s rest is sure. She tells her she can wait for Boaz who won’t rest until he has made good on his word.

The covenant oath of Boaz points us to a greater covenant. The love story of Ruth and Boaz points us to a greater love story. How do we know this? We know this from how the book ends. It ends not with a wedding but a birth – the birth of baby that shows God is keeping his covenant to a wayward people to give them rest by raising up a king after his own heart (David). Ruth’s story is a part of God’s great promise and covenant of redemption. Ruth is not only about Ruth’s baby and grandson (David), it’s about her greater grandson – the baby born in Bethlehem to bring the world lasting and full rest. Ruth is not only about the love of this unlikely couple, it’s about the love of God for a broken world – a love that will not rest until we are redeemed. In Jesus, we see why we can trust God with whatever makes us restless. Jesus left his eternal rest at the Father’s side to pursue his faithless bride, so she would finally find rest in Him. He showed us how far God would go to prove to us beyond a shadow of a doubt that His love and His faithfulness to us can be trusted. In between the first and second coming of Jesus, we can wait, knowing he won’t rest until we are fully redeemed.   

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      Where would you say you are today on the rest scale? 10 – completely at peace and rest – 1 – full of anxiety and restlessness. Why? What makes you most restless?

3.       Ruth shows us God surprises us and subverts our expectations. How does this help us rest and keep us from trying to figure everything out/have all the answers? What about Ruth has surprised you about God and his ways?

4.      Ruth also shows us how God is faithful and trustworthy. How does Ruth’s story show us this? How does Ruth’s story encourage you to trust God in areas where you may be called to risk or trust him without knowing how it will all turn out?

5.      Do you struggle with trying to live a “limitless” life, ie trying to do it all and be it all? How does this affect you? What limits has God put in your life right now? What might it look like to see your limits as a gift that help you focus your love (hesed) on a few?

6.      Advent is a season that acknowledges our struggle with restlessness. Advent means “arrival” or “coming”. We live in between the comings of Jesus. At his first coming – he bore our sin and defeated all the enemies of our rest. At his second coming – he will completely redeem us from the curse of sin and death and usher in a endless age of eternal rest. In between, we wait. Ruth teaches us our waiting can be a hopeful, expectant waiting instead of restless waiting.

In light of this, what difference would it make to you right now if you believed with all your heart that you can trust God to redeem everything you don’t understand, everything that hurts, everything you are afraid and worried about? How does all Jesus has done at his first coming assure you he will fully redeem you and all your sorrows/fears at his second coming? How does the gospel prove to us that God can be trusted in this way?

Ruth #2 - How to Find Refuge in God

READ – Ruth 2

The story of Ruth continues in chapter 2 with the two grieving widows in Bethlehem. Naomi is immobilized by her brokenness and depression (and who can blame her after all she’s suffered?). But Ruth (true to her character) takes the initiative and asks Naomi if she can go to the fields in hopes of finding favor with a generous and merciful landowner. In a patriarchal world during the very dark and dangerous (especially for women) time of the Judges, we wonder, “How will such a vulnerable woman find a safe place?” “Where will these two women, who have suffered so much, find any security or hope?” Ruth has come under the “wings” of the Lord God to take refuge (2:12). Will she find it? This part of Ruth’s story shows us what it means to find refuge in God.

1. LATCH ON TO GOD’S PROVIDENCE

On the surface, the story of Ruth seems so ordinary compared to other parts of the bible. Ruth is a wonderfully crafted and beautifully written love story but there are no miracles, no prophets speaking, no dramatic signs or any direct interventions by God. Instead, Ruth shows us God at work everywhere behind the scenes. The storyteller gives us a hint of God working behind the scenes in 2:1 by mentioning a prominent and noble relative of Naomi’s. We wonder, “What’s he got to do with anything?” But then in verse 3 we are told Ruth just “happened” to glean in this very man’s field and this very man walks up at just the right moment to see her gleaning. This is the man (Boaz) who will be God’s means of giving refuge to Naomi and Ruth.

What’s the lesson? We are meant to see God’s hidden work everywhere in Ruth. He was at work in the famine (to get his people’s attention), he was at work to end the famine (1:6), he brought the news of the famine’s end to Naomi in faraway Moab, he was at work in the exact timing of their return (at the beginning of the harvest), he was at work in leading Ruth to Boaz’s exact field and he was at work in the timing of Boaz coming to the field. God’s hidden work in history and in our stories is what theologians call God’s providence. When life is hard, when our emotions are all over the place, when life doesn’t make any sense, we can begin to take refuge in God by latching onto his providence. In chapter 2, Naomi, Ruth and Boaz couldn’t see what God was doing but He was at work writing a story of redemption for them beyond what they could see or imagine. The same is true for all who take refuge in Him.

2. LEARN WHAT IT MEANS TO TAKE REFUGE

When life seems like it is falling apart, when we are struggling, scared or losing hope - latching onto God’s providence can help but can also feel somewhat remote and abstract. Ruth shows us that finding refuge in God is something very personal. She models for us of what it looks like to take refuge. Taking refuge in God involves at least two radical things:

1.       A Radically Exclusive Faith… Ruth let go of all other sources of identity and security to take refuge under the wings of God – her family, her prospects of marriage, her homeland and her gods (see 1:16-17). She let go of all other refuges and banked everything on finding refuge in the God of Israel. This is what it means to take refuge in God. It means leaving all our other refuges at the door and coming to him empty handed.

2.      …in a Radically Inclusive God – Ruth came to God as an outsider and a nobody. In going out to the fields to glean she must have known that the God of Israel was a God for the outsiders and nobodies (see Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22). When Boaz offered her protection and blessing, she showed remarkable humility. She said, “I am a foreigner” and “I am not like one of your female servants” (ie lower than the lowest position in society at that time). She saw everything she received as grace (“finding favor” v10, v13). Ruth shows that we don’t earn our refuge in God because of what we do or who we are but only because of God’s gracious heart for the outsiders and nobodies. The only ones who God excludes are those who come demanding refuge or who think they deserve it. But to all who come to him as outsiders and nobodies, God welcomes in to find refuge in his grace.

3. LOOK AT WHAT KIND OF REFUGE HE IS

Where did Ruth get such radically bold and humble faith? If we read the story and think, “I’ll be like Ruth”. We have it all wrong. Where did Ruth’s faith come from? Her faith came from where she was looking when she was in a place of need and trouble. She didn’t look to her circumstances. She didn’t look within herself. Ruth looked to God and the more she saw of Him, the more bold and the more humble she became.  In the story, the strength and kindness of Boaz are a picture of the strength and kindness of God Himself. Naomi recognizes God is showing His own kindness to them through Boaz (2:20). Boaz is a picture of the strong and kind Redeemer God sends for those who take refuge in him. Where can we look to find this kind of strength and kindness? We look to the greater Boaz from Bethlehem – Jesus. When we look to Jesus, we see what kind of refuge he is:

He notices us – Ruth, a destitute Moabite widow, is the last person anyone would notice. But Boaz notices her and calls her “daughter” (2:10, 19)! He shows that he knows her situation - how she must be feeling and what she must be going through. In calling her daughter, he shockingly addresses her as his equal. As a prominent and powerful man, he comes “down low” to her level to say – I see you and I know it’s hard. In the manger at Bethlehem, God came down as low as he possibly could. He was born in way no one noticed. He came and lived in a way that impressed no one (Isa. 53:6-7). Why? So we could know that He notices our pain, suffering and weakness. So that we would trust Him when he says, “I know what it is like to be weak, to suffer, to be afraid and to be tempted. You can be confident that whatever you bring to me, I empathize. I understand exactly what grace and mercy you need, and I am eager to give it to you, my daughter/my son” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

He shields us – Not only does Jesus notices us but, as a refuge, he shields us. Boaz goes out of his way to make sure Ruth knows she is under his protection (2:8-9). She is safe with him. To take refuge under God’s wings is to have His protection. Just as a mother bird shields her chicks with her wings so Jesus announced that his mission was to call and gather us to himself “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matt. 23:37). In Jesus, God shows us that He himself will shield us against His judgment for all the ways we have taken refuge in other things. He is our shield against everything the curse of sin brings into our lives - condemnation, guilt, shame, loneliness, fear.

To all who take refuge under Jesus’ wings, He says, “I am your shield.” He takes the worst, so we can have God’s best. This is what kind of refuge Jesus is. He says to us, “Nothing can get to you unless it comes through me first. Nothing. Everything that gets through me is for your good, my glory. Take refuge under my wings.”

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      In the sermon it was said, “We all need refuge. We all take refuge.” In other words, life is hard, confusing and overwhelming for everyone and everyone takes their difficult emotions and troubles somewhere or to something. The question isn’t whether we take refuge, it’s where we take refuge. Where do you go for refuge when life gets to be too much?

3.       How does it encourage you to know God is working even when you can’t see it?

4.      If God were to allow Ruth, Naomi and Boaz to write their stories, they each would likely have written a “happily ever after” story for themselves – with no suffering and no God. Ruth shows us God was writing a better story for all three of them – even in their suffering. How does it encourage you to know God is writing a better story for you than you would write for yourself?

5.      Which aspect of Naomi’s radical trust is most challenging for you? a) Letting go of all other refuges in radical faith in Him alone OR b) Humbling yourself to believe God will accept you as you are – as a nobody and outsider who deserves nothing yet who is given everything?

6.      In times when you really need a refuge, where do you tend to look? Your circumstances? Yourself? How might it change things if you looked to Jesus as a refuge who notices you and empathizes with you (see Hebrews 4:14-16).

7.       How does looking to Jesus as our shield give us greater boldness and humility in times of trial and uncertainty? What would change if we believed Him when He says, “Nothing can get to you unless it comes through me first. Nothing. Everything that gets through me is for your good, my glory”?

Ruth #1 - How God Fills the Empty

READ – Ruth 1

The story of Ruth takes places “in the days when the judges ruled” (v1). These were dark days in Israel. Judges tells us how the people of Israel continually spiraled away from God further into the emptiness of idolatry.  Not only was it a time of spiritual emptiness, it was also a time of agricultural emptiness - “there was a famine in the land”. Ruth tells us the story of one family’s response to living in these empty times and how God met two women in this family to fill their emptiness in the most surprising of ways. But Ruth is more than the story of just one family or two women. It’s the story of how God filled the emptiness of all His people by paving the way for a King who would lead them out of the dark and difficult days of Judges into a time of rest and blessing (see Judges 21:25 and Ruth 4:17). This is why Ruth is a “Christmas story” – it’s the story of how God raised up a faithful king to lead His people back to Him through a miraculous birth by the most unlikely of mothers in the city of Bethlehem.

1. HE DRAWS THE DRIFTING

Ruth is a story about a family that drifted far away from God. Because of the famine, Elimelech led his family out of the promised land into the land of Moab. Though we can’t blame a man for trying to keep his family alive, in the OT leaving the promised land behind was the same thing as leaving God behind. On top of this, Moab was a place of spiritual emptiness. Moab had repeatedly sought to undermine Israel’s faith in God. It was supposed to only be a short stay (a “sojourn” v1) for the family but it turned into a place to remain (v2), find wives for their sons and settle in. Before they knew it, 10 years went by… and God was all but forgotten to them.

This family’s drifting away from God was subtle and gradual. This is how almost all spiritual drift works. We distance ourselves subtly and gradually away from God, his people (the church) and practices that keep us connected to God. Pretty soon we wonder if God is necessary at all. The men in the story end up dying but Naomi and her daughters-in-law are left alone. Three widows in the ancient land of Moab would be so easily forgotten in the annuals of history. But God had not forgotten them. In the fields of Moab with no husband, no sons-in-law, no grandsons and barren daughters-in-law, Naomi is empty. She represents someone completely emptied in life. It’s here she begins to realize also how far she has drifted from God. Here God begins to draw her back.

2. HE MEETS THE HURTING

Though our times of emptiness are often the times when God gets our attention, it doesn’t mean they are easy. They are often very painful. God knows this. Notice how he meets Naomi in her hurt:

·         He hears the hurting – Read verses 13 and 20-21 again. Naomi is talking about God again (maybe for the first time in 10 years) but it’s in a way that would make most of us uncomfortable. In her pain, she uses the language of lament. She laments that God’s hand is against her, he has emptied her, made her life bitter and brought calamity on her. By the end of the story we realize that, in fact, God’s hand is for her, he will fill her, make her life sweet and bring her more good than she ever imagined. God knew where the story was headed but Naomi didn’t. When Naomi lamented in pain, God didn’t correct her or rebuke her, he heard her. Lament is the language we need to find our way from emptiness and pain and back to God.

·         He uses the hurting – Amazingly, God uses Naomi in a powerful way despite her weak faith and hurt. When Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law to return home, Orpah takes her up on the offer and goes back to Moab. But Ruth, in some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture, pledges herself to stay with Naomi and her God. On the road to Bethlehem, Ruth decisively converts to faith in Israel’s God. Why? It’s because she knew what Naomi was doing in releasing her to go home. Naomi was giving up all prospect of hope and security (ie in her daughters-in-law remarrying). Naomi was emptying her life of hope, to fill Ruth. This was all Ruth needed to see. This self emptying love drew her to Naomi and Naomi’s God for good. God uses us even when our faith is weak.   

·         He comforts the hurting – Though Naomi’s life was emptied, it was in the emptying that God was filling her with something better than she ever had – the covenant friendship with Ruth. Through Ruth’s pledge of friendship God comforted Naomi. God often comforts the hurting through people. This is the power of friendship – the kind of friendship that sticks with us when we feel empty and aren’t very pleasant to be around.

3. HE WELCOMES THE RETURNING

The story of Ruth chapter 1 is a story of return. In fact, the Hebrew word for return is the most repeated word in the chapter (8X). Naomi’s return is a case study in repentance. Our understanding (and experience of) repentance reveals whether we understand the gospel, the very heart of the message of Scripture. Our understanding of Christianity boils down to our response to these questions -  How does God treat us when we return from drifting away from Him into sin? How does he treat us when we return hurting with weak and fragile faith?

How did Naomi return? She came blaming God. She came unable to see how God had given her Ruth; how God had brought her home right at the beginning of the harvest. She was so focused on herself – her pain, her mistakes, her circumstances. She barely returned, but she did return. How did God welcome her? The rest of the story tells us: He welcomed her back to the land, her hometown, to a great harvest, right into the life of her nearest relative (Boaz), and into the lineage of Israel’s greatest king – David.

This is how God always welcomes the returning. No matter how far we drift or how empty we feel. How can we be sure of this? We can be sure of this because of the good news of the self-emptying love of God for us in Jesus. At his birth, Jesus entered into the bitterness and brokenness of our human experience. He emptied himself of his Kingly honor, glory and eternal comfort. He became the One who God testified against and took the calamity of judgment upon himself.  Why? To take away our sin, to bear the cost of our drifting so we could be welcomed into his family. So we would always be welcomed home anytime we return.

To those who return barely clinging to faith in Jesus, God says - whenever you are emptied, it is only that I might fill you with something better. Whenever you return, you return as one welcomed home - for you are in the family of the King.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      Do you agree that most spiritual drift is subtle and gradual? Have you experienced this in your own life? How might we counteract this drift from happening? What role does connection to our church community play in this?

3.       Times of emptiness can also be times when God gets our attention. They can be times when we realize how we’ve been looking to fill ourselves. Has God used times of emptiness in your life to get your attention or draw you closer to Himself?

4.      Lament is the language we need to find our way from emptiness and pain and back to God. Is lament a part of your spiritual experience? If so, how does this look? If not, why not?

5.      In the sermon it was said that God can use those with weak faith, those whose lives are marked by a mix of unbelief and belief. He used Naomi to bring Ruth to faith. How does this encourage you?

6.      The role of friendship is a major theme in Ruth. Ruth’s self-emptying friendship became Naomi’s salvation. What can we learn from Ruth about what kind of friends we need and what kind of friends we need to become? 

7.       Why is our attitude and experience of returning (or repentance) so vital for our understanding of the core message of Christianity? What do you tend to feel in times of repentance? Guilt? Shame? Regret? Remorse? What does God feel in times of our repentance? (See Luke 15 for help).

8.      Namoi was written into the family of the King (David) by grace through (weak, stumbling) faith. What difference does it make to know that – even when we barely come in weak and imperfect faith, God welcomes us because of Jesus?

Blueprint #10 - A Church for Outsiders

 

READ – Acts 8:1b-25

 Along with being the longest sermon in the Bible, Acts 7 laid the theological  visionary groundwork for the church to move beyond the city of Jerusalem. Stephen’s main point was that God is on the move. This claim was both radically subversive to the religious elite, but inspiring to the early Christians. We see that in Acts 8 as Philip and the scattered Christians begin implementing the vision of Stephen’s teaching by crossing boundaries to reach people who both rejected the temple (Samaritans) and could not access the temple (Ethiopian eunuch). Essentially, the question for us is how does a church become a place for outsiders? We can get some clues by looking at the followers of Jesus in Acts 8.

1. The FRUIT OF THEIR SUFFERING

Acts 8:1 tells us that Stephen’s death sparked a large scale persecution of early Christians that leads to hundreds and maybe thousands fleeing as refugees. Humanly speaking, this was an organizational and personal disaster. The church had lost one of its most dynamic, gifted leaders. Even greater, people were being actively hunted down and imprisoned for their faith, while others were fleeing homes, families, jobs, and neighborhoods to preserve their life. Ordinarily, setbacks and personal disasters move us to look inward, but these early disciples saw it as an opportunity to face outward.

It’s important to see a couple things about Acts 8:4. First, the scattered Christians weren’t the apostles. They were ordinary men and women. They weren’t trained professionals, but everyday followers of Jesus sharing Jesus with others in their ordinary lives. Second, most translations aren’t particularly helpful. These believers weren’t “preaching” the gospel in the traditional sense. Rather, they were “sharing the good news.” Or as one writer puts it: “gossiping the gospel.” This was, in fact, one of the primary ways that God turned the Roman Empire upside down: ordinary Christians sharing Jesus with their neighbors.

What was the result, fruit of this scattering? Joy. The suburbs and cities of Samaria experienced joy. These Christians were living examples of Jesus’ teaching in John 12: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Disciples of Jesus get the pattern: something needs to die, seed needs to be scattered for there to be a harvest of joy.

2. THE CHARACTER OF THEIR WITNESS

The scattered disciples moved from being ministry consumers to ministry providers. They no longer had the luxury of sitting back and listening to the apostles’ preaching, now they were forced to go out. So what characterized their witness? We can observe that their evangelism was marked by truth and grace.

Their evangelism was marked by truth. The first-century was highly pluralistic. While Roman society was mostly tolerant of various faiths and religions, they were intolerant of narrow or exclusive religions, like Christianity. Christianity’s claim was that Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life – and that there was no other name through which you can receive salvation, other than Jesus. Right at the point in which it would have been easy and prudent to water down Christian truth, and soften its hard edge to make it adaptable to another culture, Luke says that Philip was showing them “the Christ” (v. 5) and preaching “the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 12).

But their evangelism was also marked by grace. We see this from Philip’s example. Philip is in Samaria (a city that Jews typically avoided). He’s interacting and socializing with Samaritans (Jews traditionally avoided Samaritans). And he’s close to – maybe even touching – Samaritan paralytics and the disabled which would have been both culturally and cultically taboo. Philip understood that he was just as religiously unclean as everyone else. Yes, the gospel is radically exclusive – Jesus is the only way. But the gospel is radically inclusive – the good news is for everyone, Jew or Samaritan.

3. THE GREATNESS OF THEIR GIFT

How was it that these disciples could be scattered and die so that others could have joy and live? How were they able to approach people with both conviction about the truth, but be compassionate in their engagement? It was because of the core element of the gospel: salvation is a free gift of grace. That’s what we learn through the bizarre encounter between Simon the sorcerer and the apostle Peter. Luke says that Simon both believed and was baptized and yet Peter refers to him basically as an unbeliever. He’s still in the “gall of bitterness” and the “bond of iniquity,” which was covenantal language for saying, ‘you are under God’s curse.” Why? Because even though Simon was intellectually convinced of the truth of Jesus, he was still confusing Christianity with religion.

All religions basically tell you there’s something you must do, achieve, or give. Christianity is unique because only in it will you discover something that’s been done for you, something to receive, a gift freely given.

How can salvation be free? The answer comes by considering the “gall of bitterness” in which Simon is cursed. Gall was essentially a bitter, sometimes poisonous, liquid that tasted horrible. While some scholars think the “gall of bitterness” refers to an emotional state, it’s more likely that Peter is referencing Old Testament covenantal language to describe a cursed condition. The irony is this wasn’t because Simon practiced sorcery (a lifestyle that would have resulted in capital punishment), but because he thought he could buy grace. Several years earlier, Jesus had encountered a Samaritan woman (whose lifestyle also would have been punishable by death). He crossed the social, cultural, gender, and religious barrier to meet her where she was. In that conversation – recorded in John 4 – Jesus offers this Samaritan a drink of living water resulting in eternal life and joy. The reason he could offer that drink freely to Samaritans and to us is that on the cross Jesus experienced the bitter curse of God’s wrath against sin. He was thirsty and his executioners offered him wine mixed with gall, yet he did not drink. He refused because all the wages of sin were being credited to his account. The bitter cup of God’s justice against evil was being drained. Why? So that salvation could be free, a gift, undeserved, unearned grace.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?

2.      Is there a particular setback in your life right now? A place you are feeling scattered? What might it look like to move beyond your own suffering to bring others joy through your suffering?

3.       What are the obstacles to sharing the good news of Jesus with your friends and neighbors? When was the last time you tried to intentionally move someone toward Jesus?

4.      Our witness, both individually and corporately, should be marked by truth and grace. Explain. Where do you tend to be lop-sided? Why is that?   

5.      Who is an ‘outsider’ in your circles right now? Maybe it’s someone who is culturally or religiously other? Maybe it’s just someone who is weird and awkward. What might it look like to move toward them this week?  

Blueprint #9 - The God Who Goes Out

READ – Acts 6:8-7:60

The first section of the book of Acts (Chapters 1-12) can be divided into two parts: Part one (Chapters 1-5) is mainly about the gospel going deep into the growing church in Jerusalem. Part two (Chapters 6-12) is mainly about the gospel going out to new places and people. Chapter 7 – the sermon and martyrdom of Stephen – provides both the theology and the impetus that moved the church outward with the gospel. Stephen recounts the story of the Old Testament (the story of “our ancestors” ) to answer accusations that he was against Judaism’s most important institutions - the temple and the law.  He explains that he isn’t against either but is for the God of glory and the Righteous One that they reveal.

1. THE SEARCH FOR GOD

Stephen begins his sermon by reminding his audience what they were really talking about, or more accurately, who they were talking about. He is “the God of glory”. Those who search for and seek this God need to remember what He has said about his own glorious presence.

·         God cannot be confined – The bible’s story shows God meeting his people in Mesopotamia, Haran, the land of the Chaldeans, Egypt, the land of Midian and Mount Sinai. What do all these places have in common? None of them are the temple. The lesson? God cannot be contained. The story of the Old Testament is clear - God’s glory was never meant to be confined to one place and people. The ultimate purpose of the temple was that it was to be a starting point for God’s people to show and to take God’s glory to all the earth and to all peoples.

·         God cannot be predicted – God is not found where we think we will find Him or expect Him to be. He is definitely never found where we demand Him to be. Stephen appeals to his hearers, “Remember our story brothers! God was not with the powerful, the mighty and those who thought they had him figured out. God was with the wanderer (Abraham), with the sufferer (Joseph), with the rejected (Moses)”

·         God cannot be manufactured – Shockingly, Stephen’s sermon implies that the temple of God had become idolatrous. The God whose hand made everything (v50) “does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands” (v48). This phrase, “made with hands”, is the same phrase used throughout the bible for idolatry (see v41, 48). The God who manufactured all things, says to us, “You can’t manufacture my presence.” In the temple of Jesus’ day, we see how something God-made can turn into something man-made. Instead of searching for and seeking God in the temple, the Jewish leaders of the day were confining and predicting God - which meant they weren’t really seeking the God of glory but manufacturing a god of their own hands.

The story of the bible reveals that the great search in everyone’s story is to see the glory of God. Yet, in our search for God’s glory, we all end up choosing a god we can confine, predict and manufacture. Why?

2. THE FLIGHT FROM GOD

The bible’s story teaches that every person’s story is shaped by a paradox - though we all long to see the God of glory, when given glimpses of His glory, we all run from Him. We all flee. Stephen explains how his ancestors always fled from God in one of two directions (and sometimes both!):

·         The irreligious flight from God – Stephen was charged with being against the Torah – God’s law that reveals his loving will for humanity. In verses 38-43, he responds to this charge by asking his accusers what happened when the law was first given to Israel. When Moses received these “living oracles”, the people were unwilling to obey and pushed him aside, turning their hearts back to Egypt. They made up their own gods. They made gods to match their own values and their own rules. A god whose law matched their own desires and beliefs. Though “making an idol” sounds very religious to us, it’s the same thing as saying, “I don’t want a God who tells me what to do! I will make my own rules and values”. This is the heart of the irreligious flight from God.

·         The religious flight from God – Stephen’s sermon shows us another way we flee from God – not away from religion but right into it. The zeal for the temple, the fanatic obsession with the law of God, the ardor against law-breakers – Stephen says all it was a sham. Outward religion was hiding the lack of inward reality (“uncircumcised hearts”). The obsession with other people’s law breaking (sin) was just a way to deflect attention away from their own sin and inability to keep the law (7:51). Stephen is trying to say, “All our religious effort has done nothing to change us to be able to keep the law! All the religious fervour surrounding the temple isn’t about running to God, it’s actually enabling people to hide from and run away from God.” The more religious people use religion to run from God, the angrier they get when their façade is exposed.

3. THE GOD WHO GOES OUT

As Stephen reaches his conclusion he says, “For all the ways you think you are defending God and his word, you have missed the very heart of the story.  It makes all the difference - Is God a God that stays in and says “come to me” or is He a God who goes out and says “I am coming to you”? Which one is it? This sermon shows us how the story of the bible is the story of God’s search for and flight to us. He is a God who goes out. Abraham, Joseph, Moses – did not come looking for God – He came looking for them.

But what happens when a fleeing person meets the God of glory? It’s what happened to Moses. He “trembled and dared not to look” (v32). When confronted with God’s glory, we want to run! Even a glimpse of his glory reveals our sin, our brokenness, our guilt and our shame. How does the story resolve this tension?

Stephen (v52) says God has made a way for us to come back to Him by coming out to us as the Righteous One. Stephen is using a title for the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:11. There we learn a Righteous One will come so unrighteous people could be counted righteous and welcomed into God’s glorious presence. How? The Righteous One will bear our sins by  pouring out his soul in the death we deserve; by being numbered as a rebel (as one who flees), by standing for us in God’s glorious presence (interceding for us).

Stephen is saying the Righteous One has come.  In Jesus the search for God is over, the flight from God is over. Out of his glory, He came to bear our sin and to make us righteous so we could see the God of glory and enjoy Him forever.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

1.       What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions? Do you agree that every person’s story is – at its root – a search for God’s glory?  How have you seen this in your story?

2.      Why is it important to remind ourselves in our thinking or conversations (or debates) about God that we are talking about “the God of glory”?

3.       How do you tend to confine God? Control (or predict) God? Have you had moments in your life when you realized you had manufactured a god of your own making? How has God revealed to you that you have had a diminished view of Him?

4.      In what ways do you tend to flee from God? Is it more of a flight into irreligion or religion? What does this look in your story?  

5.      Which of the following signs of the religious flight from God do you most exhibit? How might the gospel help you change in this area? What would it look like for these things to change?

a.       More focused on others “breaking the law” than your own failure to keep it.

b.      A focus on external behavior and rule keeping rather than inward love for God and what he loves.

c.       Anger when others point out your inconsistencies

6.      Read Isaiah 53:11-12 (or the whole chapter).  How does Jesus, the Righteous One, resolve the tension between our search for God and our flight from God? Read the excerpt below on the implications of Isaiah 53:11-12 for us. How would believing this change our relationship to God? How would it help in our struggles to keep his law (ie, his loving will for us)?

When our faith is in Jesus, where He is, we are. Where He is is where we belong and where we are welcomed. He covers our sins, He bore our sins, He poured himself out for all our law breaking (sin) and feeling, and he makes us righteous like He is, we can not only come into God’s presence & glory but we are invited to his very right hand (the closest and most intimate place).

7.       If everyone is searching for God but can’t find Him, if everyone is fleeing from God and is afraid to find Him, how can we show and speak the gospel as good news?