In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the wake of the news that we received last week, that Pastor Ryan Wendt was returning the Divine Call we had extended to him to serve as our next senior pastor, I had been thinking that last Sunday’s Gospel reading would have been a good text for today. Today’s Gospel, as we just heard, is verses 11–19 of the 17th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. Last Sunday, the Gospel was the first ten verses of that chapter. In particular, my attention was drawn to verses 5–6:
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
“Increase our faith!” may well be the cry of every believer in the face of the various “stress tests” to which our faith is sure to be subjected. I don’t mind telling you that, as I came here last Sunday morning, prepared to make that announcement and read Pastor Wendt’s letter, I felt fine, even joyful and energized. Sometime in the second service, though, I was flagging. By that afternoon, when I had planned to participate in the Life Chain, I definitely felt a bit ill and in need of extra rest. Strange as it may sound, I was looking forward to our District Pastors’ Conference as a break and rest. Another pastor asked me, “So, how’s your vacation been?” I never went so far as to call it a vacation!
Challenged, stressed, tired, tried, I say, you say, “Lord, increase our faith! Increase my faith!” What is His answer? “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could” command a mulberry tree, or even a mountain (Mt 17:20), to move itself into the depth of the sea, “and it would obey you.” The cover of last Sunday’s bulletin showed a mustard seed held between a thumb and forefinger. What a tiny seed! As someone said to me last Sunday, “Pastor, I don’t relish the thought of comparing my faith to a mustard seed!” Indeed, how minuscule our faith must be if we offer an absolute “No way!” to giving that command to a mulberry tree. At least we’re no worse off than were the Apostles, chosen and called personally by Christ. For it was to them that He gave this instruction and, as far as we know from Scripture, none of them ever commanded a mulberry tree, much less a mountain, to move so much as an inch.
When we find ourselves weary and worn, our faith small and weak, our God remains ever faithful and merciful, as Paul says, “if we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim 2:13). He calls us to His rest and refreshment, to return to Him, come away for a while and receive His provision, that our spirits may be revived by His Holy Spirit. He intends for us still to carry on His work and His mission here on earth through our various vocations and callings; yet, He doesn’t expect us to do so apart from His strength. Through His Church, His people, He provides what is needed for the work and growth of His kingdom. First, though, He provides to His Church, His people, His gifts, His means of grace for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. With the ten lepers in today’s Gospel reading we must call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (v. 13). The actual disease known as leprosy can damage the nerves and result in a lack of ability to feel pain. In our natural-born state, all of us, the whole human race, are infected with the far more destructive leprosy of sin, and we don’t know our lost condition, that apart from Christ we are spiritually dead, and that we are in need of a Savior.
More than disappointment, more than trials and temptations, more than weariness, beyond sickness and disease, in this fallen world, in this life, we also know the sorrow and grief of death. Our text for today introduces us to three women, Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. During a famine in their homeland, Naomi went out with her husband Elimelech from Bethlehem of Judah to the country of Moab, with their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech died, leaving Naomi with her two boys, who married Moabite wives. After about ten years in Moab, Naomi’s sons die, leaving her without husband or sons to provide for her. Evidently, there was no male relative, either father or brother, left in her father’s house to provide for her, either. With the famine over back in Judah, “she arose … to return” home, and her daughters-in-law went with her. Probably at the border between Israel and Moab, Naomi tells them to go back to their mothers’ houses, saying, “The LORD grant that you may find rest, security, each of you in the house of her husband” (v. 9), that is, with new Moabite husbands. The three women weep loudly, and Orpah does return “to her people and to her gods” (v. 15).
In doing this, Orpah has directly obeyed the command of her mother-in-law. On the other hand, “Ruth clung to” Naomi, disobeying her mother-in-law, and thereby breaking the letter of God’s Law, “Honor your father and your mother”; but in so doing, Ruth was obeying the spirit of God’s Word. For His First Commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” As a Moabitess, Ruth had worshiped the false gods of her people. Through the examples of Naomi and Elimelech, and of Mahlon and Chilion, Ruth and Orpah came to believe in the LORD, the one true God. Jesus warns about the seed of God’s Word being snatched, unrooted, or choked by the devil, the world, and the concerns of our sinful flesh in this life. In going back to “her gods,” that is probably what happened to Orpah’s faith. In clinging to Naomi, Ruth shows forth a faithfulness and loyalty that come from the faithfulness and loyalty of God. She goes above and beyond the call of duty. She confesses the LORD, the God of Israel, the Creator of heaven and earth, to be her God, and binds herself to Naomi as though she is Naomi’s own flesh and blood. Ruth becomes as Naomi’s own son, promising an oath to provide for Naomi’s future and to keep the family alive. Ruth effectively declares, “May God strike me dead if I should break this oath, this covenant with you, and with your people, and with Him!” Such an oath our faithful God also calls us to make.
We hear Naomi’s complaint before Orpah and Ruth, “It is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” At the end of Ruth 1 (19–21), we hear Naomi’s complaint repeated to the women of Bethlehem:
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi [Pleasant]; call me Mara [Bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”
We have perhaps been so conditioned to hear such complaints as expressing a loss of faith in the LORD. What then do we make of these words?
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Why are You so far from saving Me, from the words of My groaning?
O My God, I cry by day, but You do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
The opening words of Psalm 22, “a Psalm of David,” but the words are from the lips of David’s greater Son and Lord, Jesus the Messiah, God the Son. It is a complaint, Jesus’ own complaint. The Scriptures are full of the complaints of God’s people. Yet Naomi’s complaint is also her confession that the LORD is still her God. So is Jesus’ complaint from the cross also His confession of His faith and trust in His God and Father, “My God, My God.” The shadow of the Cross of Christ is cast long into both the past and the future, even into eternity. The earthly life of the holy and sinless Son of God was one of sorrow and grief, rejection and denial, pain and longsuffering, tribulation and endurance, suffering and death. Our lives as His people are shaped by the Cross and marked with the likeness of His suffering and death. What sort of faith is it if it is not tested as by fire? Yet faith so tested is purified as silver, so that as in purified silver the smith can see his reflection, so in purified faith the Lord can see His likeness in us.
We can try to work out and fathom some of the reasons why God sends suffering into our lives. If that sounds like too much to accept, that He sends the suffering, then take it that I am speaking of it as Naomi did, and as the Apostle Paul spoke of the thorn in his flesh, which was given to him to keep him from pride at the great revelations he was receiving. Such a thorn would be a strange thing to come from the devil, wouldn’t it? For the enemy wants us to be puffed up with pride so that we fall from grace. God’s intermediate purposes are not clear to us, especially when we’re in the midst of difficulties. Yet He gives us His Word and Spirit so that we may know His overall will and purpose, and that we may think, speak, and act in God-pleasing ways and walk in His ways, to the glory of His holy name.
The LORD worked through the faith and faithful words and actions of Naomi and Ruth to find a go’el, a kinsman-redeemer, a relative who would provide a son and heir to the women so that their family would not die out. Boaz knew of Ruth’s faith in the true God and her faithfulness toward Naomi, as the women of Bethlehem would declare, “your daughter-in-law who loves you … is more to you than seven sons” (Ru 4:15). He took Ruth as his wife, and they had a son, Obed, of whom the women said, “A son has been born to Naomi” (v. 17). The Book of Ruth ends, “Obed fathered [or begat] Jesse, and Jesse fathered [or begat] David” (v. 22), in Bethlehem, the city of David, whose name means “house of bread.” And out of His manger in Bethlehem, Christ, the True Bread come down from heaven feeds us Himself, His flesh, which is the true bread of life. A woman who was born a stranger to God, outside of God’s chosen people, became a mother of Israel’s greatest king, and through his line she became an ancestor of the Redeemer of the whole world, “great David’s greater Son,” Christ Jesus.
The story of Ruth is your story, too! Were you a member of God’s chosen people by birth? If you’re a Gentile and not a Jew, then you were not born a member of God’s chosen people. Jesus left His heavenly home country to become your Kinsman-Redeemer, sharing in your flesh and blood as true man. Through Baptism and faith, He has claimed you and every believer as members of His beloved bride, His holy Church, binding Himself to you and binding you to Himself. He purchased and won you with His holy, precious blood and His bitter suffering and death, that you may be His own. And there’s another way in which Ruth’s story is your story. Ruth sacrificed for the sake of Naomi. She devoted her whole life to the welfare of her mother-in-law. Showing true loyalty and love which can only come from God, Ruth was as Christ to Naomi. So also He sends you to be “little Christs” to those around you. That was His mission then, and it still is now, that you show forth His life and death and new life in your life and faith, by the power of His Word and Spirit.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.