Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Timothy 2:1-13
Praise Yah! I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart...
I like to watch the baking competitions on television. I am always amazed how those contestants can think of their project and complete it in the limited amount of time they have on the show. The final task is usually very complex, a job that would take a baker many more hours, even days, to finish. They often require some very specific equipment which is always readily available. Iím sure the kitchens are filled with all sorts of interesting kitchen gadgets, but the supply seems endless. I was thinking last night that they must have some warning about the tasks they will be asked to do because they are always prepared no matter what they decide.
The reality is that reality TV is not quite as improvised as they make it seem. On one Halloween show, the pumpkin carver always knows which pumpkin he wants even before they supposedly give the theme. How would he or she know that would create the perfect centerpiece if they didnít have some idea what they needed to create? This lack of improvisation is true of all reality TV. The contestants are more like characters and they are expected to act according to this personality. It might be true to their real, but it is exaggerated to make good television. We also have to remember that while we get just forty-four minutes in an hour of a contest that has taken at least a day to film. The shows are so well edited that you see only what the producers want you to see.
It is still amazing to think that these contestants can create remarkable displays in such a short period of time. There is usually a disaster or two, but the bakers can usually overcome their problems and make something that looks and tastes wonderful. They can do this not only because they are prepared, but because they have practiced. They have learned their craft through hours of work and research. They could not have even been chosen to appear on the show if they had no experience.
I recall a variety show I saw a few years ago with the theater department at the high school the kids attended. There was so much talent: singers, dancers, and comedians. The group also did short skits and monologues. They even had a section where they did improvisation. I was impressed with their quick wit. The second night of the show, however, I realized that the improv was not really ad-lib, but was well rehearsed. The things that seemed to be coming out of the imaginations of the actors on the spot were actually carefully written and memorized. I suppose that is why the kids were so good; they made everything look so easy.
The reason the kids knew their roles were because they practiced. They went over their lines daily, they worked with the other actors and actresses over and over again. They made sure that everyone had the right timing and that they all understood the cues and staging. Each actor needed to know more than their own lines, they needed to know the whole skit. They needed to know the lines that led into their lines and the actions of the other actors. Otherwise it would just be a confusing mess.
Paulís letters are filled with repetition. Though each letter has a certain purpose and is written to a certain situation, there are some things that remain consistent. In every letter Paul shares Godís grace with the reader. In many of the letters Paul restates the story of Christ, reminding the readers of Godís salvation through Jesus. Though it may seem redundant to tell people over and over again to ďRemember Jesus Christ,Ē He is the center of our faith, so it never hurts to be reminded of the work accomplished through His death and resurrection.
We love to hear the story, over and over again, but sometimes we would prefer to hear only parts of it. We love Christmas because the story of His birth in the manager is beautiful and peaceful. We love the story of the Resurrection because it is in that story that we see the victory of God and the life we have by faith. It is uplifting and inspirational to know that God did that for us. We know how Jesus got to that point. We know the cross. We even accept that the cross was the way to true life. Yet, we do not want to talk about death. Paul reminds us that the story of Christ includes death, not only His death but our death in Him. We die with Him and we live with Him.
This is not something that comes easily to us. Though we live by faith and trust that God has done this great thing, we donít fully understand how death brings life. Sometimes we try to explain away the things we do not understand. We take the story of God and make it sound better to our ears and to the expectations of the world around us. Yet, by taking away the grace found in the death of Christ, we deny what God has done through Him for us. This causes confusion, even bickering about the Gospel. This makes it more difficult for the world to know Jesus, to come to faith and to receive the gift of true life.
It takes practice. It takes study. It takes daily immersion into the grace of God to stand firmly in that which we trust to be true. Living by faith is not something that we can ad-lib. It is not something we can do by improvisation. Paul reminds us to be ready to rightly handle the word of truth so that we might share it with others.
Living the life God calls us to live is not easy. Sometimes we have to make choices that seem counter to what we should be doing. It takes commitment to keep our hearts and minds on Jesus, to follow Him as He would have us go, to do what is right in His Kingdom. It takes work to know God so well that we will do what is right even if it seems like we should be doing something different. The psalmist writes, ďThe fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!Ē Thatís the difference we see in two of the characters in todayís readings.
Orpah is one of those obscure figures from scriptures. We are very familiar with her story, but she gets lost in the telling of Ruthís story. We talk about Naomi, her troubles and her bitterness. We talk about Ruth, her generosity and courage. We barely mention Orpah, the one who went home. I suppose we see her as the opposite of Ruth, perhaps a little greedy despite her love for her mother-in-law.
And yet, what Orpah did was not wrong. As a matter of fact, she was obedient to her mother-in-lawís wishes. Naomi was a widow with no sons. She had no means of support. She wanted to return to her homeland where she might find generous relatives who would take her into their home. It wouldnít be right for her to demand they also take in her daughters-in-law. Besides, the women were Moabites, and though her sons married them while in Moab, the girls would have difficulty finding husbands in Judah where marriage to foreign women was more firmly denounced. Naomi was being kind and generous by telling them to go home to find a new life. Orpah wept in grief about leaving, but she did so out of respect for the woman sheíd grown to love.
We have a similar situation in the story from the Gospel. We again have what seems to be opposites: nine lepers leave Jesus to go to the Temple while one stays with Him. The nine did what was right according to Jesusí word and the Law. We are quick to dismiss the nine because they didnít go back and say ďThank youĒ to Jesus, but they did what they thought they were supposed to do.
Jesus commanded them to go to the priests and they all went in faith. I wonder what they were thinking as they left Jesus. It was proper to show yourself to the priest when you were cured of a disease, but they had not yet been cured; it was only as they were leaving that they were cured. Nine of the lepers continued to the priests, doing exactly as expected according to their religion and society, then they disappear from the story. Did they go straight to the temple and offer their sacrifices? Did they stop at home to hug their wives and kiss their children before taking their thanksgiving and praise to God? They were thankful, I am sure. The miracle saved their lives. They could return home, work and live as a normal person again. It probably saved the lives of their families who suffered along with their loved one who had been outcast. Their world was returned to them and their thankfulness was displayed in a return to the normal course of life. This is not a bad thing.
Orpah and the lepers did what was right, even obedient, but we see in Ruth and the tenth leper something more.
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. Ruthís love and generosity made a difference to Naomi, and in the end Ruth also found love, a future, and offspring, 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. Orpah may have had a wonderful life, but Ruth was greatly blessed by her choice to follow. She experienced the blessing of relationships, not only with Naomi and her family, but with a husband, children and God.
Jesus told the lepers to go to the priests. Like the nine, the tenth leper, a Samaritan, headed that way, in hopeful expectation for healing. Along the way they all were healed. The nine continued in joy, 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 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.
Do we respond to Godís grace with a word of thanksgiving before going on to our normal lives or are we changed forever by what God has done? That was the difference between Ruth and Orpah, the nine lepers and the Samaritan. Those who trusted in God were changed; they were made new. When they turned to God, they began a life of faith. What is faith? I often define faith as trust in God, and yet is that definition deep enough? What does it mean to trust God?
Faith is not blind. The psalmist confesses his faith in the presence of an assembly, and he does so by recounting the wonderful things God has done. He praises God by referencing the works of His hands. ďYahwehís works are great, pondered by all those who delight in them. His work is honor and majesty. His righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered. Yahweh is gracious and merciful.Ē The psalmist knows that we need to hear the story over and over again so that we can see Godís hand even when it is not obvious. Unfortunately, Godís people often forgot the great and marvelous things He had done and they did not recognize Him when Jesus came in the final and most incredible act of mercy. The tenth leper saw the truth; they others did not recognize the presence of God and they went to do what was expected. They had faith in their actions rather than in the One who could really make them whole.
Paul wrote, ďRemember Jesus Christ.Ē It is not enough to confess faith in God. Our entire faith rests on Christ and His work on the cross. We cannot be saved in any other way but through Him. ďFor if we died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him. If we deny him, he also will deny us. If we are faithless, he remains faithful; for he canít deny himself.Ē
Timothy was a believer for as long as anyone could remember, having been raised by Eunice his mother and Lois his grandmother. They taught him, planted the seeds of 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. Timothy heard the story of Jesus over and over again so that he would remember and stay true to the truth.
Unfortunately, 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 heíd 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.
Paul encouraged 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 Godís Word is untrue. Though Paul suffers, Godís 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.
We usually focus on the idea of thankfulness when talking about the Gospel lesson for today. However, we can look at it from a different point of view in the context of the rest of the 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 todayís 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 Jesusí feet in worship?
It might seem like the one took the easy road. He didnít walk all the way to the temple or face those who would question them about the healing. He didnít provide thankofferings. We consider the nine as unthankful because they didnít worship Jesus, and yet they did exactly what He told them to do. When He said ďGoĒ they went even before they were healed. They trusted that Jesusí 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 donít, however, because we know that they did not need to seek forgiveness or absolution from the temple priests; they could find everything they needed in Jesus 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.
Hereís 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. There is always more diversity in 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.
The easiest relationship in our lives should be with God, but it is the hardest because 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 Jesusí words and he humbled himself before the One who does great things. He revered the One who can heal, who changes lives. He found life and forgiveness and wisdom at the feet of Jesus.
Christians are thankful to God, even for the little things; we are 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 donít know any Christian who would not feel joy and peace in singing the words of todayís Psalm.
Even those in our stories who did not follow God must have had some sense of thankfulness. Orpah must have been thankful for the time she had Naomiís family; the nine lepers were thankful that they had been healed. Even the Gnostics of Timothyís day must have had a sense of thankfulness for their life of faith. Yet they all were distracted in one way or another from seeking the one true God. We will endure and experience the salvation of Jesus Christ when we trust in God and live in awestruck faith in the God who has done great works.
We are truly thankful. We do sing Godís praises along with the psalmist. We even turn to Him, fall down at His feet and glorify Him in worship. The question we ask today is how are we responding to Godís grace? Are we like Orpah who did what was expected but missed the opportunity to find blessing in Naomiís God? Are we like the nine lepers who did their duty but missed the real blessing of being in the presence of God? Or are we like Ruth and the Samaritan who by turned to God by faith and received the greatest gift of wholeness and peace.
Do we just receive Godís grace or do we make it our own? Do we respond to Godís grace with a word of thanksgiving before going on to our normal lives or are we changed forever by what God has done? Jesus cares about our physical healing, but He is more concerned about our relationship with God. This is something that comes to us by grace, but then it takes a lifetime of continuing to hear the story and remember the great works God has done. It takes practice for us to hear Godís voice and to follow Him where will experience the greatest blessing.
The world expects only expects so much from us, and we are even patted on the back when we give up on lost causes. Our Lord Jesus Christ expects much more. He wants us to be like Ruth, Timothy, and the leper, willingly following Him everywhere He goes. Jesus wants your whole life. Are you willing to follow Him through everything?
A WORD FOR TODAY
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