The kind folks of Peace Lutheran Church in Burlington, ND welcomed me as a guest preacher this fine, wintery Sunday. It was my first time ever preaching and a positive learning experience as I prepare to begin seminary in February. I’m grateful for their hospitality and for the confidence of their pastor, Emily, and my dear friend, Katie, who is a worship leader for Peace Lutheran.
Today marks the first Sunday in Advent, a season of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ. And something I just recently learned—and by “just recently” I mean “this week”—is that the Revised Common Lectionary uses the First Sunday of Advent to share apocalyptic Gospel texts in anticipation of the second coming of Christ. Such is the case for us this morning.
Had I known this tradition when I agreed to share a sermon with you all today, that I, in my first attempt at preaching, would at least need to touch on the apocalypse I may have very well shied away from this opportunity. I mean, c’mon… The apocalypse? The end of the world as we know it? What do I know about that?!
But then I actually read today’s Gospel and felt relieved because there’s nothing I can know about the apocalypse, really, for neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son of Man know when that day will be. All we know is that it will come at an unexpected hour and so we need to be ready for Christ’s return. That might sound a little exhausting—to always be prepared for Christ’s return and to have to wait for Christ’s return when we live in a society where you can pretty much purchase whatever your heart desires and your credit limit permits, and have it delivered the very next day.
But this gives me hope…
This gives me hope because, first of all, the Christ who is to come is the Christ who healed people plagued with diseases and sickness and ailments. The Christ who cast out demons. The Christ who brought the dead back to life. The Christ who loved us so, so, sooo much that he willingly broke his body and shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
This also gives me hope because we prepare and wait for Christ’s return simply by living out our days loving God and loving our neighbor. We do not prepare alone. We do not wait alone. We live and love together.
So that’s what I know about the end of the world. And, actually, maybe I know a bit more, too… Maybe I know a bit more about the dark side of the end of the world… About how it seeks to isolate us, and drain us of hope only to fill us with doubt. How it tricks us into thinking we are alone, and therefore unable to receive love let alone give love.
Yeah, I think I know a bit more about the end of world and I think you do as well because if you think about it, at some point or another in our lives we all experience our own personal apocalypses…
The loss of a job and the much needed income it provided. A move to a completely different climate or culture away from family and friends. A home destroyed by a flood. A friendship torn apart. The end of a marriage. A miscarriage. Addiction. Abuse. An act of violence. A tragic accident. Illness. The death of a loved one.
The world as we knew it…over.
In our reading from the book of Ruth, we walk with Naomi after the world as she knew it has fallen apart. Death claimed the lives of her husband and her two sons, leaving Naomi feeling utterly forsaken by God. And she implores her two daughters-in-law to return to the homes of their mothers as she sets out to return to Bethlehem. But Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi, boldly saying, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and 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 and me.”
It’s the end of the world as Naomi knows it and as Ruth knows it, having lost her husband as well, and here we see a powerful example of loving God and loving neighbor.
What I found to be particularly interesting in these verses of Ruth is that Naomi does not see God at work in her life. She does, however, know God is working because we learn it is when she hears that God came to the aid of his people by providing food that she decides to return to Bethlehem. So she knows God is present in the world, but since the world as she knew it has ended she does not, cannot feel or see his presence in her life post-apocalypse.
And yet, is it not God’s loving kindness and unshaken faithfulness that clings to Naomi in the shape of Ruth the Moabite woman? Not only has Ruth lost her own husband, but she chooses to leave behind the rest of the world as she knows it simply out of love for Naomi. She chooses to give up her life essentially for the life of Naomi.
Doesn’t that sound familiar…?
I think when we experience our own personal apocalypses it can be hard to see God at work when the rubble of the world as we know it is still settling like ash all around us. Especially considering the culture we live in, a culture that so often tells us “to get over it” and “move on”. It’s hard to see God at work when you’re, at best, rushing to heal, but more often than not just ignoring why you need to heal in the first place. And it can be hard to see God at work when, like Naomi, we’re determined to be alone in our grief—sending away those who might comfort us—or when we can’t reach outside of ourselves for help and end up essentially cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world.
In 2011 the world as I knew it ended. Twice.
The first time was when the Souris crawled out of its riverbanks and swallowed up a good chunk of Minot—including my home—along with Burlington and other surrounding areas. (You all know something about that watery apocalypse…) Now unlike Naomi, I can’t say that I ever felt forsaken by God and this doesn’t mean that I think I was somehow “better” than Naomi, or more faithful. I don’t think I ever felt forsaken by God because I was too caught up in how the flood impacted my parents, my friends, my church, and my community to take the time to see how it really impacted me.
That said, I can tell you that there were a lot of Ruths who clung to me during that end of the world. Ruths who, by their actions, pretty much said things like: “my kitchen is your kitchen”, and “my couch is your couch”, and even “your laundry is my laundry”.
God’s loving kindness and unshaken faithfulness was made known to me through his people.
Exactly one month after the Souris River flooded, the world as I was coming to know it again ended when I was assaulted one evening while out with friends a state away. I didn’t feel forsaken by God in this sequel to “Annie’s Apocalypse 2011” either, but the shame that clung to me made me feel as if I had somehow forsaken God and so,in many ways, I cut myself off from the rest of the world.
But God’s loving kindness and unshaken faithfulness again manifested in people who were able to slowly and gently slip between the shame I felt and myself, and cling tighter to me than ever before—helping to bring me back to life and helping to restore my world. And let me tell you, they spoke beautiful and profound and eloquent words to me just like Ruth the Moabite spoke beautiful and profound and eloquent words to Naomi. But more than anything, it was their unwavering presence that made God’s presence apparent in the ruins of my world. And it was in Ruth’s unwavering presence that eventually Naomi came to see God’s presence in her life.
This is one of my favorite aspects of our story for today—that God does not directly speak or act in it, but that God speaks and acts through everyday people. He does so with Ruth and through her blesses Naomi. And he goes on to do so later in the book of Ruth through Boaz, in turn blessing Ruth. So often we look to the sky for God and fail to recognize God in the person who is looking right at us. I mentioned earlier that I found it to be interesting in these verses of Ruth that Naomi does not see God at work in her life. What I also find interesting is that Ruth doesn’t necessarily know God is at work through her.
What a beautiful gift we are given in our relationships with one another—the gift to receive God’s love and the gift to give it. This, to me, is the power of community.
So who have the Ruths been in your lives? And how might you be a Ruth for someone else? We don’t know when the world will end, but, sadly, every day in a variety of ways the world as it is known to someone does end. We are blessed with the opportunity to love them and make known to them God’s love. And until that unexpected hour when Christ returns, may we spend our days preparing and waiting together by living out our faith and loving as Christ loves us. May we see God in others and may others see God in us because the God “who is, and who was, and who is to come” is here. God is here.