The First Commandment? Ruth’s Way, Jesus’ or Paul’s?

Blackheath Uniting Church – Service 1.11.15

Call to Worship

Invocation: O God, our God, how great you are.  On this first day of the week we celebrate your creation of the world and all that is in it.  On this first day of the week you raised Jesus from the dead.  On this first day of the week you sent the Holy Spirit on your disciples.

We thank you for the light that wakes us morning by morning. We pray that we may be raised with Jesus to new life.  We pray to be renewed in Spirit day by day.  AMEN

Hymn TiS 121: God himself is present

ADORATION: almighty and everlasting God, we give you praise, we offer worship, we bow in adoration. You alone are our hope, you alone are our salvation, you alone are our life.  We praise your Holy Name.  Amen.

CONFESSION: God, our Father, you love us with an everlasting love. But we confess, with sorrow, that we have loved neither You nor our neighbour as we should.  You have called us to be your people, but we confess, with shame, that our response has been half-hearted and indecisive.  Loving God, help us to face up to what we really are, and that turning to you in penitence and faith, we may receive forgiveness and healing through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

ABSOLUTION: Good people, I say to you that God who loves all who truly try for change in their lives gives you forgiveness of all that you have done.

I give you this assurance in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

WELCOME & REFLECTION

Readings: Ruth 1:  1 – 18; Hebrews 9:  11 – 14.

Hymn TiS 105: Let all the world in every corner sing

Reading: Mark 12: 28 – 34

SERMON

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!  So says today’s Psalmist in words that we like to sing but find it not quite so easy to say.  Certainly not, in everyday usage.  It is a fact that religious words and ideas, so precious and full of mysterious truth, are either too remote and rarefied or they get vulgarised and trivialised in being forced into everyday speech or even slang.  “Praise the Lord!” How often do we use the words?  Not often.

Yet we do have a very human way of looking at things and saying “Ah, yes, that’s good!” We see a person do something well and say “Well done!” The impulse to praise, to affirm, to congratulate is strong within us.  We read a book or even hear a sermon and say “Ah, yes. How satisfying, how penetrating.”  We have all these ways of affirming that “life is good”.  And it keeps on being good – our society, our culture, our religion – along with all its change.  Our religion takes on new shapes and forms.  We continue to “praise the Lord” in a dozen different ways.

These thoughts come from our Scriptures today. They come, too, from the traditions of our Christian church year.  Today is All Saints Day, tomorrow is All Souls Day and yesterday was Reformation Day.  And, of course, October 31st saw children knocking on our door and saying “trick or treat” in their best Halloween voices, little Aussies imitating little Americans (if they only knew it!).  We are surrounded by religious traditions, mostly suppressed or rendered charmingly childlike.

Today our Scriptures offer us three widely different situations to consider. A young woman finds happiness after overcoming some of life’s most difficult obstacles.  Jesus faces a direct challenge to his authority, yet accepts the challenge and brings a new way of living with, and transforming, the past and its power over us.  Then the Epistle to the Hebrews embraces sacrifice to God – with Christ Jesus as our mediator – in a way that is both outward and inward.  How wide is the extent of our Christian faith!  Do you have a story in your life of overcoming difficulties, of confronting the past creatively, of finding your best way of approaching God?

The Old Testament story of Ruth in today’s readings makes the tension between religion and culture clear. We find rich moral truths here but in a world of culture quite foreign to us.  Can you imagine a Ruth story today?  A young Moabite woman married into a migrant Jewish family, but then suffered the misfortune of losing the father-in-law and also her husband. Faced with returning to where they came from but without any means of support, things could hardly be worse.  She was advised strongly to stay in Moab.    Yet we hear Ruth saying to Naomi, her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go”, beautiful words of loyalty that transcend all the problems and blockages they are meeting in life.   Later, Ruth’s humility and modesty, back in their homeland, especially in the way she handles her relations with Boaz leads to their eventual marriage.  How this story found its way into the Hebrew Scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament, is a wonder.  It becomes pure romance.  Jane Austen could have written it!  Yet we are glad it is there in the Bible.  We say, or feel, how good!  We would love to say “Praise the Lord!”

What restrains us is the cultural contexts of the story. The life presented is so different from our own.  Women are so dependent on men, few means of support exist outside family structures, moral qualities have to be discovered or created through hard experience and over and above the structures of society.  History prevents us from identifying fully with the Ruth world.  But what helps us in part is the mind of the character, her way of seeing through and beyond the problems that life has put in her way.

When we come to the New Testament, however, and to today’s Gospel of Mark and the Epistle to the Hebrews we find ourselves in a whole new world of belief. It is a belief that challenges the culture and the institutions that govern us.  We hear Jesus offer us a way, a truth and a life through new belief.

A scribe appears, one who is learned and skilled in the old traditions of Hebrew spirituality and culture, and who wishes to test Jesus. The scribe asks “Which commandment is the first of all?”  Jesus answers in a way that honours the old Jewish tradition of Moses, agreeing with the scribe about the first commandment, but speaks not from a legal or moralistic point of view, but from inside himself, from the heart.  He says “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” then follows with these words:  ‘You shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  These are revolutionary, if not original words that make us, ourselves, the subject.  Christianity becomes in these words something that has a powerful inner and outer dimension.  God is to be known and honoured as God.  Yes, but humanity is free, noble and rational in being able to choose to know God or not.  The power that comes from choosing to know God – that is to live in faith and to live in His love – this becomes the power that would drive the next two thousand years of history in Western civilisation.  It was a radical position but not one that was self-centred or individualistic.  Its energy was a spiritual energy and it had an outreach that embraced the neighbour “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

Fundamentally, however, this kind of new human response in love depends on the other kind, the first kind of love, the love of God. We know that love of neighbour is not easy, it must grow out of a love of God.  Jesus deepens the relationship with neighbours by deepening first our relationship with God.  There is interplay between God and humanity, not subservience on our part.  Humanity is dignified, liberated, even made noble in believing from, and with, the heart.

In Hebrews 9: 11 – 14 we hear the voice of someone profoundly influenced by Jewish tradition, yet turning this tradition inside out. The old way of sacrificing to God “the blood of goats and calves” now becomes expressed in fully human terms:  “How much more will the blood of Christ purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God?”  The pattern of making a sacrifice to God still remains.  Here the writer of Hebrews sees that the unbelievably precious sacrifice, not only of a human, but of a divinely human one, makes a difference.

So it is that on this day, when we celebrate All Saints, All Souls, Halloween and Reformation Sunday, we know we are part of a rich dimension of life that has been lived for centuries and will continue to be lived for centuries.  We have history.  Let us embrace it.

Our With Love to the World writer talks of a young girl who when asked what a saint was, could only think of the images of saints seen in stained-glass windows.  “Someone, “she replied, “the light shines through”.  How true, how appealing are her words.  We meet saints often in life.  We should pause today to recollect when and where.  Others may even see us in this way.  We recognise we are not isolated individuals.  We inherit  richness from the past and hope for the future.

Then we are finally part of the Christian tradition that gives emphasis to living by grace through faith, liberated from any cultural law that constricts our humanity, being  reformed in freedom through Christ Jesus “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God to purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God.”  For this may we all say:  “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.” AMEN

Hymn TiS 609: May the mind of Christ my saviour

OFFERING & PRAYERS: Bless our gifts, Lord God; we pray that this offering may be for us a sign of a greater giving, the offering of our time and our talents, our loyalty and our love.  Through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Hymn TiS 276: There’s a light upon the mountains

BENEDICTION: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all evermore. Amen


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