Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
2 Timothy 2:1-13
The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all they that do his commandments: His praise endureth for ever.
Children often have irrational fears, particularly at night. Every parent has stories about dealing with monsters in closets or under beds. Some children demand a light be left on or a closet door tightly closed before they can even think about going to sleep. Others need a parent nearby to feel safe. Fear can be a good thing; it makes us aware of our surroundings and it can keep us safe. However, some fears take over our lives and make living very difficult.
One evening when Zack was a little boy, I was busy on the computer after putting the kids to bed. I heard the pitter patter of little feet, and looked up to see him peaking in my door. “What are you doing out of bed, Zack?” I asked. “I’m afraid, Mommy,” he answered. I took him back to his room and sat by him on his bed. We talked about his fears and I assured him that he was safe. “Zack, Mommy is right here. I won’t let anything happen to you.” This was enough to calm him and he fell asleep quickly.
People have all sorts of fears, even adults. Some people are afraid of spiders, others snakes. Other people are afraid of what will happen if they lose their job. Some are afraid to fly, others to walk in the woods. Fear causes some people to be burdened by behaviors that they think will protect them. Some people have so much fear that they are unable to leave their homes, meet new people, try new things or see the world in a different way. Sometimes these fears can be helpful, keeping people away from danger and protecting them from doing the wrong thing. However, most of these fears are ridiculous and can be debilitating.
The psalmist writes, “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of the Lord is not like those irrational, debilitating fears. It is defined in Easton’s Bible Dictionary as, “used in the Old Testament as a designation of true piety. It is a fear conjoined with love and hope, and is therefore not a slavish dread, but rather filial reverence.” This respect, which is the knowledge that God has the power to protect His children, will manifest itself in obedience. Like a mother who is always near a sleeping child so that he need not be afraid, our Father is close and we need not be afraid.
Ruth was from Moab. At that that time Moab was a place of refuge for people from other lands that were suffering from a drought. Those refugees included a man from Bethlehem named Elimelech along with his wife Naomi and two sons Mahlon and Chilion. They remained there for so long that the boys took wives from the land, Orpah and Ruth. They stayed in Moab for about ten years, but during that time Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion died, leaving all three women widows.
As Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth were expected to care for her, but Naomi could not stay in Moab any longer. The land held too many memories, sad memories about how she lost those she loved. She wanted to go home, to go back to her people, to live among those who knew her God and lived according to His ways. But she had no means to care for her daughters-in-law, so she set them free from their responsibility. “Go, return each of you to her mother's house: Jehovah deal kindly with you, as ye have dealt with the dead, and with me.” She sent them home to begin a new life; she wished them well and blessed them as they had blessed her and her family.
Both girls refused to abandon Naomi. They wept for love of her and were willing to follow her wherever she might go. She pushed them away. “Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me?” She had nothing to offer them. There was no chance that she could provide them with husbands. She had no idea what she would find when she returned to her homeland. She was depressed and bitter; she was going home to die. Orpah finally gave in and returned to her home, but Ruth still refused.
Naomi said to Ruth again, “Behold, thy sister-in-law is gone back unto her people, and unto her god: return thou after thy sister-in-law.” Ruth could have gone home to her family. She could have found another husband, had children, and led a normal life in her homeland. Something pushed her to go with Naomi. Perhaps there was something about Naomi’s faith and the faith of her family that was planted in Ruth’s spirit. However it happen, Ruth feared the Lord whom Naomi worshipped. She was willing to follow Naomi to her people, and to worship her God. Ruth was so committed to her mother-in-law and this God of Judah that she was willing to turn away from her home to face the unknown. Any fear she might have had about her future had less of an impact than her fear, or reverence, for the Lord.
This fear, or reverence, for the Lord is where our life begins. Ruth followed Naomi, who was probably not very good company. Her bitterness made caring for her difficult, but Ruth willingly went into the fields to glean so that they would survive. Ruth’s love and generosity made a difference to Naomi, and in the end Ruth also found love and a future. Her future included children and grandchildren, including her great grandson David and ultimately Jesus Christ. It might have been frightening to go with Naomi, but God had plans for her life, and her obedience was blessed.
It is never easy to be away from home. Our family was military and we moved a lot. We were always stationed far from our family, but in each place we managed to find new friends who became like family. Sadly, with every move we had to leave behind the things we knew and had come to love. It was scary; we didn’t know what we would face, but each time we found our place in the community and friends.
In some ways the worst move was to England. We were in another country, and though we lived in military housing, we still had to experience a different culture: different food, different television, different ways of doing things. We even had to drive on the opposite side of the road. It was frightening, but in the end it was one of our best stations. We traveled, met so many great people, and experienced life in a whole new way. And God gave us plenty of opportunities to minister to our neighbors and friends. We worshipped Him in some of the most spectacular buildings and took part in some incredible ministries. We might have been frightened by the unknown, but we were blessed for following the plans God had for our lives.
We do not fear the Lord because we are frightened by what He can do, but because we revere Him for what He has done. The psalmist writes, “His work is honor and majesty; And his righteousness endureth for ever.” God is faithful. He is just. He remembers His covenant. We are afraid of the unknown because the world is not faithful or just. The world does not keep promises. We revere the Lord because He is and does. Ruth was not afraid to follow Naomi into the unknown because she knew that Naomi’s God was faithful. Though she was a foreigner who did not know the God of Israel, she trusted Him in her heart and she followed Him where He led.
We’d rather take the easy way out. When I attended to college I was afraid of pursing art as a major. I was afraid of the hard work it would take to complete that course of study. I was afraid that it would be difficult to find a job that I enjoyed, and I was afraid to become a high school or junior high school teacher. I took the route I thought would be easier: elementary education, after all, it had to be easier to teach little kids how to read than to deal with prepubescent and pubescent youth, right. In the end it was not the easy path. I did not do well in the field and I ended up doing something completely different when I graduated. Now I’m pursuing that art that I should have tried thirty years ago and I’m blessed by the opportunities I have for sharing my work.
Following a mother-in-law to a foreign land to worship an unknown God is definitely not the easy path. Neither is being a young pastor. Timothy was a believer for as long as anyone can remember, having been raised by Eunice his mother and Lois his grandmother. They taught him, planted the seeds of his faith and prepared him to follow the vocation to which God had called him. Paul continued to teach him everything he would need to know, mentoring him into a pastor that would serve God and the people of Ephesus.
The people of Ephesus were deceived by the Gnostic heresy, and they had no respect for Timothy. There were those in the congregation who even held Paul in contempt. Since Timothy was so young, they thought it would be easy to turn him into the kind of preacher they wanted him to be, teaching the heresy that tickled their ears. Paul wrote to encourage him to stand firm in the Gospel, to teach the Word as he’d heard it from Paul, even if it was hard to make the stand. He had a very specific job to do: God called him to teach the truth, not to conform to the desires of the world.
Last week we heard Paul encourage Timothy to believe the word he spoke and to continue to follow it. Paul had to justify himself over and over again, first as a converted Pharisee, then as a man who was constantly persecuted for his work for the Gospel of Christ. He was in prison when he wrote this letter, and it would have been natural for his adversaries to use his suffering as proof that he was not a reliable apostle of Christ. Paul continues his encouragement by reminding Timothy that suffering does not mean God’s Word is untrue. Though Paul suffers, God’s salvation is real. So, Paul charges Timothy to take that message to the people, the message that Christ is faithful even when we are faithless.
Paul writes to Timothy, “Faithful is the saying: For if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us: if we are faithless, he abideth faithful; for he cannot deny himself.” The life God calls us to live is not necessarily the life we want for ourselves. We might have to suffer. We might even be put in prison like Paul. But we are called to live the best life we can live, unashamed of the troubles that come from speaking the truth of Christ to the world. When we do, when live in awestruck faith in the God who has done great works, we will endure and receive the salvation of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal glory with Him.
The Gnostic heresy was that the material world was evil and that it was the quest of man to rise to a spiritual realm which could be reached with the right knowledge. The Gnostics considered the flesh of no import and so it could be used and abused without spiritual consequences. Salvation did not come by faith but by escaping the body, a relationship with God was dependent entirely on this special knowledge. The Gnostic heresy is dangerous, of course, because it rejects the reality of Christ’s dual nature, it ignores the calling of God on mankind to be Christ-like in this world. It also led the Gnostics to live freely in ways that went against God’s Word, rejecting the Law, ignoring their sinfulness and ultimately denying the work of Christ on the cross for our salvation. To them, salvation was something they could achieve, not a gift of God’s grace.
But Christ lived and died and rose again for our salvation. We can’t earn it or possess it by our own actions. We can’t gain enough knowledge or do enough service or read enough books or feed enough people or save enough strangers. We are saved by the whole work of Christ, by His blood and for His glory. We are not meant to rise to some spiritual height, but to die to ourselves so that we can live in Him.
The focus for today’s Gospel lesson is often about thankfulness, and it is a text that is used for days of Thanksgiving around the world. However, I think we can look at it in the context of today’s lectionary. Ruth took the hard road and she was blessed. Timothy took the hard road and he was blessed. Who do we think took the hard road in today’s Gospel lesson? Was it the nine who went to the Temple to show themselves to the priests, even before they were healed, or was it the one who turned around and fell at Jesus’ feet in thanksgiving?
We might think that the one took the easy road; after all he didn’t have to walk all that way to the temple or face those people who would question the healing. He didn’t have to provide thank offerings for his healing. We often consider those nine men unthankful because they didn’t praise God like the one, and yet they did exactly what Jesus told them to do. When He said “Go” they went even before they were healed. They trusted that Jesus’ word was true and that they would be healed. They did what was required of them according to their law. We should be heralding their faithfulness.
We don’t, however, because we know that they did not need to seek forgiveness or absolution from the temple priests because they had already received everything they needed from Christ. The one who turned back took the hard path, because it was the path that went against the expectations of the world in which he lived. He died to self and turned to God. And in doing so, he was blessed beyond measure. The other nine were healed, but he was made well.
Here’s the rest of the story: like Ruth, the one leper who turned to Jesus was a foreigner. Jesus was passing along the borders of Samaria and Galilee. Border areas always have more diversity since human movement doesn’t always recognize political and religious boundaries. The Galileans were from Judah; the Samaritans were from the Northern tribes that had been Israel. The differences between the people were largely political; there were some religious differences, but in many ways the ordinary people related to one another on a human level. Yet, among those who were strictly observant of the Law, the Samaritans were unclean because they had a history of syncretism (accepting and trying to meld together opposing and conflicting belief systems), allowing the worship of other gods in their communities. These differences did not matter much to the lepers. They were all outcast, all unclean. They all stood at a distance from Jesus, respecting his position not wanting to make him unclean. They all sought mercy.
We don’t know what they expected. They probably heard about Jesus and His power to heal. However, as outcasts they needed many things for their day to day existence like food, clothing and shelter. Whether Jesus was the Messiah or just a compassionate guy on the road didn’t really matter; they needed someone to be merciful and meet their needs. The lepers also needed comfort, healing and peace.
I’m sure they were all surprised when Jesus told them to go to the priests, especially the Samaritan. But like the others, he headed that way, in hopeful expectation that they might provide healing. Along the way, however, they all were healed. The nine continued on their way, but the Samaritan returned to the One who made him clean. The ten lepers were all healed physically, but only one sought out the true healing. When He praised God, Jesus gave him far more. He was made whole: physically and spiritually. Jesus is concerned for our both our physical and our spiritual well being. Jesus changes people from the inside out, granting them forgiveness and filling them with the love of God, bringing them back into a relationship with their Creator. It is that relationship that makes them whole.
The easiest relationship in our lives should be that relationship with God, but it is the hardest, because to have that relationship we have to turn away from everything we know to follow Him into the unknown. Ruth did it. Timothy did, too. The leper from Samaria saw the work of God in Jesus’ words and he humbled himself before the One who does great things. He revered the One who can heal, who does change lives. He found life and forgiveness and wisdom at the feet of Jesus.
“The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all they that do his commandments: His praise endureth for ever.” I think most people are thankful to God, even for the little things. Ask any Christian and they will be thankful for their daily bread and for life today. We are all eternally thankful for our salvation. We voice our thanksgiving in worship and when we are sharing our blessings with others. I don’t know any Christian (or even people from other religions) who would not feel joy and peace in singing the words of today’s Psalm.
Even the Gnostics of Timothy’s day must have had a sense of thankfulness for their life of faith. Yet, in their quest for knowledge, they missed blessing of that life: the wisdom that comes to those who live according to God’s true word. This is not a word that leads to some spiritual glory or keeps one from suffering, but it is a word that promises that we who die with Christ will live with Him forever. We are called to live the best life we can live, unashamed of the troubles that come from speaking the truth of Christ to the world. When we do, when we live in awestruck faith in the God who has done great works, we will endure and receive the salvation of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal glory with Him.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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