Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 2, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Reality Therapy)
Copyright 2019 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Ruth 1-2
A recent study reported that more than half of all adults in America engage in binge watching. Binge watching, if you're not familiar with the practice, is, by means of an online streaming platform or, if you're old school, a DVD box set, streaming together a series of episodes, watching them, one right after another, for hours on end. A recent study reported that 50 percent of viewers in their 20s binge watch weekly and, in some cases, daily. A study from the University of Texas reported that there is a correlation between binge watching and loneliness, depression, obesity, loss of self-control. I confess to you good people that I too have engaged in binge watching. Binge watching is something like piloting a spacecraft near a black hole. If you're not careful, you could be sucked in forever.
It was one episode, and then another, and then another, and I looked, and it had been three hours. What happened? I was confused. I was disoriented. Maybe just one more. No, I had to get outside. I had to go look at some trees, something to ground me again in the real world. And I wonder sometimes do I need some reality therapy—something to ground me in what is real? Not just real to me or real to you, but reality with a capital R?
Maybe you feel the same way, at times. Something that I have found helpful is biblical narratives. "Of course, he says that, He's a pastor." No, really, biblical narratives. Not just an inspirational verse but letting yourself be immersed in the narratives of the Bible in the great, grand narrative of Scripture, being caught up in this epic story. Now, I can hear a skeptic saying, "Really, the Bible? The archaic contradictory book of miracle stories and fantasies cobbled together over a thousand years. The Bible?"
Interesting. A man named Dr. Jordan Peterson, a very popular speaker these days, he is a secular psychologist. He is an avowed outsider when it comes to biblical belief, something of a skeptic himself. He did a series of lectures titled, "The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories," and people came out in droves to listen to him talk about the Bible from a secular perspective. They binged on these lectures.
In those lectures, Dr. Peterson encourages the listeners to consider the Bible. "Isn't it interesting," he said, "that this book has outlasted kingdoms—many, many kingdoms?" "Isn't it interesting," he said, "that this book has proved more durable than stone? More durable than castles, more durable than empires?" "Isn't it interesting," he said, "the stories of the Bible—these are the stories of Israel, of Jesus' family, stories that have been told and heard and retold in some cases for three, three-and-a-half thousand years, and during those three-and-a-half or more millennia kingdoms and nations and revolutions have come and gone, and the people who participated in those things thought that they had found a story that was reliable, that would endure, but now they're all lost in the rubble of history, and you look at it from that perspective, and it seems like they were living in fantasies."
And I think that even modern people deep down suspect that the story that has formed our culture, the story of scientific and technological and social progress, that even that is fantasy, and maybe that's why we do so much binge watching.
There's this short 3,000-year-old historical narrative about two widows and a farmer. It's set in the ancient Middle East during harvest time. There is nothing miraculous about it. There are no prophetic speeches, no ethical principles. It's about ordinary things and unimportant people doing everyday kinds of jobs. There is no obvious reason why this story would have been saved, and yet here it is, a reality for us to deal with. It has been translated into almost every written language in the world. It has crossed countless cultural bounds and political borders. There is nothing like it in the writings of other ancient world religions. There are no battles between gods and demigods, no epic voyages, no codified law set down for the ages. It's just about ordinary, unimportant people, but they saved this story from the rubble of history because the people who shared it believed that it was a strand in the ultimate story, the story of everything, the story of the creative and redemptive work of God.
They believe that you could not give a full account of God's work in the world to rescue the universe unless you talked about these two widows and this small-time farmer. Through them, God forged a link in an unbroken chain that led to the birth of the promised Messiah of Israel. The one who was supposed to be born in Bethlehem of Ephrathah, the descendant of David, the great-grandson of this widow named Ruth. People who have shared this story—many believe that God forged that chain and that the Messiah has been born. I'm one of them. I'm sharing this story with you so that this strand might be extended even to you and that you would become a link in this chain, connecting other people to this King Jesus and through Him be connected in love and trust to the God who created us.
Maybe when you hear people like me talk about God, you feel like an outsider. You think, "Look, I wasn't born in a religious family." Or, "I have too many doubts to believe in God." Or, "Look, I'm too busy to deal with God right now." Then you need to hear about the three characters in this story of Ruth. First, you've got Naomi. She's got too many doubts to deal with God right now. And then there's this guy Boaz, the farmer; he's way too busy, and then you got Ruth. Ruth is an outsider. She wasn't born in the faith of Israel, and yet all three of them are welcomed into the story. To get the history of Ruth, you need to understand a little bit about three things: you need to understand about Moabites and widows and harvest time—Moabites, widows, and harvest time.
First, there are the Moabites. The Moabites were from the land of Moab, the country just south of Israel. And ancient Israelites and ancient Moabites got along about as well as present-day Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, which is to say not very well at all. There's no reason why they would get together and yet Ruth is from Moab. She's a Moabite. She doesn't have the right ethnicity; she doesn't have the right system of beliefs, and yet she is welcomed into this story. Widows, at that time, see the two most secure vocations for a woman, at this time in this place, are marriage and motherhood. And if you're weren't married, and if you didn't have kids, and if you didn't have either, then you were going to find yourself in poverty, living on the fringe of society, and that's where Naomi found herself, and this plunged her into doubts about God's love for her.
And then harvest time. Harvest time is crazy busy. Farmers are dealing with non-negotiable deadlines, and that's where Boaz is. Boaz is busy, and yet all three of them are welcomed into the story, and here they are: three ordinary people not worth remembering by any modern standard, and yet they have come down to us in this book that some call "obsolete," and had been told and retold for 3,000 years in this strand of a story centered in Jesus and extended now to you. So I want to share the first half of the book of Ruth with you.
It starts like this. It came to pass in the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land of Israel, and a certain man went from Bethlehem together with his wife and two sons to live for a while in the land of Moab. The man's name was Elimelech, which means "God is King." And the name of his wife was Naomi, which means "delightful." And the name of their two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, and they went to Moab to live there.
Now, Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. They married women from Moab, one named Orpah, and the other named Ruth. After they've lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. When Naomi heard, in Moab, that the Lord, Adonai, the God of Israel, had come to the aid of His people by providing bread for them, she, along with her two daughters-in-law, prepared to return home from there. Together with her daughters-in-law, she left the place where she was staying and set out along the way that lead back to the land of Judah. And she said to her daughters-in-law, "Go back each of you to your mother's home. May the Lord show you kindness as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that you find rest in the home of another husband."
And she kissed them goodbye. And they wept aloud, and they said to her, "We will go with you. We will go with you to your people." And Naomi said to them, "Return home my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons who could become your husbands? Even if I thought there was any more hope for me, even if I were to have a husband tonight and to give birth to sons, would you wait for them to grow up to be your husbands? Would you remain unmarried for them? No. No, my daughters, it is more bitter for me than it is for you because the Lord's hand is against me."
At this, they wept aloud again, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth held on to her. And Naomi said to Ruth, "Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and to her gods. Go back with her." But Ruth says to Naomi, "Don't tell me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people. Your God, my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely if even death separates you from me." And when Naomi saw that she was determined, she stopped urging her. And so, the two women traveled together on the road that led back to Bethlehem.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred up because of them. "Naomi!" the women exclaimed. "Don't call me Naomi," she said, "Call me, Mara," which means "bitter," "because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi? The Lord's hand is against me. The Almighty has brought evil upon me." And so, in this way, Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem at the time the barley harvest was beginning; they used barley to make bread.
Now, Naomi had a relative on her husband's side, a mighty man of standing, whose name was Boaz, which means "in him is strength," from the clan of Elimelech. Now, Ruth the Moabite, said to Naomi, her mother-in-law, "Well, let me go and enter a field and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor." And Naomi said to her, "Go ahead my daughter," and so Ruth went and entered a field and began to glean, to pick up the leftover grain behind the harvesters, and it just so happened that she was working in the field belonging to Boaz, from the family of Elimelech.
Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters. "The Lord be with you!" "The Lord bless you!" they replied. Boaz said to the overseer of the harvest, "Who does that young woman belong to?" The overseer said to Boaz, "Oh, she? She's a Moabite, from Moab, the one who came back with Naomi. She said, 'Please let me go and enter and gather in the fields.' She went out into the field and has been here since morning 'til now except for a short break in the shelter." And Boaz said to Ruth, "My daughter, my daughter, listen to me. Don't go and work in another field. Stay here with the women who work for me, and follow along; watch the field where the men are harvesting and follow along after the women, and I've told the men not to harm you and, and if you get thirsty you get a drink from the jars of water that the men have filled."
At this Ruth bowed down with her face to the ground, and she said, "Why have I found such favor in your eyes that you would take notice of me, a foreigner?" And he said to her, "I have heard what you did for your mother-in-law—how you left your father and your mother and your homeland, and you came to live among the people that you did not know before. The Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly blessed by the Lord, Adonai, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to find shelter." And Ruth said to him, "May I continue to find favor in your eyes, my lord. You have set your servant at ease by speaking kindly to me, even though I do not have the status of one of your servants." At mealtime, Boaz said to Ruth, "Come here, have a seat, have some bread, dip it in the wine vinegar," and she sat down among the harvesters, and he offered her some roasted grain, and she ate all that she wanted, and she had some leftover.
And when she got up again to go and glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, "Hey, let her gather from among the sheaves and do not reprimand her. Even take out some of the stocks from among the bundles and leave them behind for her to collect. And don't you rebuke her." And so, Ruth gathered in the field until evening, and when she had threshed out the barley that she had collected, it amounted to 30 pounds. She carried it back to town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gathered, and she took out some of the roasted grain that she had eaten and had left over after she had had enough and gave it to her. And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, "Where did you glean today? Where did your work? Blessed is the man who took notice of you." And Ruth told her about the one, the one at whose place she had been working. She said, "The name of the man at whose place I was working is Boaz. The Lord bless him. He's not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead. That man is one of our close relatives; he's one of our guardian redeemers." And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, her mother-in-law, "He even said to me, 'Stay with the women who work for me until they finished harvesting all of my grain.'" And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, "It is good for you, my daughter, to stay with the women who work for him because in someone else's field you could be harmed." And so, Ruth stayed close to the women who worked for Boaz, until the wheat and the barley harvest were finished, and she lived with her mother-in-law. That's the first half of the book of Ruth. Come back next week, and I'll share the rest with you.
Binge watching. Binge watching might be an epidemic, but people need a break. People need to escape from the pressures and the deadlines of everyday life, and maybe the reason why we binge watch is because all of us intuitively sense that we were made for something more—something more than the cycle of production and consumption and production and consumption, ending one day in death. Maybe we binge on fictitious narrations of gritty, joyful world-making catastrophes because we know that we were made for something better. Maybe you're looking for the story that makes sense of you. Try the biblical narratives. Try the story of God centered on Jesus, extended also to you. You who are on the outside, you with your doubts, you with your deadlines. Try this story not as an escape, but as a link into reality: the reality that makes sense of the universe: you included—you who were written and redeemed in Jesus—not so that you can binge on fictions, but so that you can delight in what is real in the Name of Jesus. Amen.
Reflections for December 2, 2018
Title: Reality Therapy
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour, and we just heard a message by Dr. Michael Zeigler, titled, "Reality Therapy." I'm Mark Eischer here in the studio with Dr. Zeigler, and we have a special guest. Would you introduce him, please?
Mike Zeigler: Sure, Mark. With us we have Professor Tim Saleska. He is a professor of Old Testament theology at Concordia Seminary, also the Dean of Ministry Formation, and the basketball coach, and a very dear friend of mine.
Tim Saleska: Hi, Michael. I really was interested in your message, and especially one part of it, because it went in a different direction than you normally hear in a sermon like this. You invited people to consider the biblical narratives as part of their identity formation and part of the way they begin to think of reality. I just thought that was a really interesting turn that you don't often hear. So I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit more about that or explain that to me.
Mike Zeigler: I think what it does is it helps us talk about faith in a deeper way or more expansive way, like you mentioned identity formation. Of course, I want people to believe in Jesus and repent of their sins and trust Him for their salvation, but there's a lot to that, and part of it is coming to trust Him in the sense of not simply believing statements about Him as true—it includes that—but coming to identify myself as a part of His people, part of His family.
Tim Saleska: Too often people get the impression that Christianity's just this law code, or that it's really about moral ethics, and this just gives us a whole different way to think about and approach who we are as God's people, what it means to live in this world, what our hope is.
Mike Zeigler: And really if you look at the Bible, about 80 percent of it is in story, narrative form, historical accounts. And that's why I wanted to take, even though it took ten minutes to share this first half of Ruth, I thought it was important, because I think narratives do something to us in a holistic way that a summary or a short statement of them can't do. And I know it's something that's close to your heart. What would you say, Tim? How do narratives shape us as people?
Tim Saleska: Two instances come to my mind right now. My parents used to tell us in any given situation, "You know, Tim, what you're doing is not what we taught you. That's not how Saleskas act, all right?" Now notice that what my mom was doing in those situations was putting me back in touch with the story of which I am a part. You should know what to do in this situation. You should know what to say, what not to do, because this is how you've been raised. This is the story we raised you to be a part of.
I don't know if you've ever seen the movie Magnolia. If you haven't, I highly recommend it. But there's a line in there, it comes over and over again: "You may be finished with the past, but the past ain't finished with you," something like that. The other thing is that stories that we hear and listen to have a profound effect and can have a profound effect on, again—conversion, change—how we make sense of our lives.
I mean, there's a lot of examples like this in history, but one that comes immediately to mind is during the Civil War there were all kinds of sermons and treatises and laws put out about abolishing slavery or upholding slavery. A book that had more effect than anything was Uncle Tom's Cabin, and part of the reason is because it developed empathy. It developed kind of a self-awareness to someone. It's like, oh. So the story of Ruth shows us that in this, really, kind of ordinary way that we can kind of all relate to, but notice how relational it is and how experiential it is, so even a story like that can begin to reshape how we think about the world, how we think about ourselves, how we think about God in ways that aren't so off-putting, so to speak, stereotypical.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Savior of the Nations, Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)