Fear Not!

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

October 31, 2021
Reformation Sunday
Scripture reading – Ruth 1: 1-18

During my sermon research last week, I came upon a commentary that described the Book of Ruth as a “perfect short story from the Bible.”  While I agree on that description and the traditional take on Ruth and her journey to become the great-grandmother of King David, I believe there is another facet to this story that remains largely hidden from all the various commentaries that I searched last week.  

That facet is fear.

Today is Reformation Sunday in the Presbyterian Church, a day in which we remember the beginnings of the Reformation from the 1500’s, a day in which a young German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 points that he wanted the Catholic Church to address publicly.  For the rest of his life, Martin Luther claimed repeatedly that he was NEVER looking to break up the Catholic Church; he was never looking to start wars, separation of nations and loyalties; he only wanted to address some topics that troubled.  Yet the concept of fear also drove much of what happened in the early days of the Reformation.

Today is also Halloween, or as its official title says, “All Hallows Eve.”  On this day, the early church claimed it as the last day for all evil spirits, demons, and wicked things that go bump in the night to get their mischief out of their systems… because the next day, November 1st, was the feast of All Saints’ Day, a day that used to be the most important date in the Christian calendar.  The reason the Irish began carving out turnips, adding a candle inside, and setting them outside their doors was to scare away those evil things.  Again, fear was the driving force behind our custom of now carving jack-o’-lanterns out of pumpkins instead of turnips – which is what those superstitious Irish did when they found pumpkins in America.

So, no matter how I examine today, I find the concept of fear driving my thoughts and my message for today.

Let’s start with Ruth and her story.  

As we heard today, Ruth chose to remain with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, rather than leave her and return to her own homeland of Moab.  If Ruth had done this, chances were good that she would have been taken back in by her family, she was still young enough to have her family find a husband for her, and Ruth could have lived a satisfactory life.  Yet, Ruth chose the path that seemed to include a great deal of fear rather than the more obvious, safe path. 

Here is what Ruth should have feared:

  • There was no guarantee that returning to Moab would have worked for Ruth.  Moab and Judah were ancient, bitter enemies.  Ruth had been married to an Israelite for at least ten years and had lived with him in Moab.  She had become family to her Israelite mother-in-law.  She seemed to have abandoned the Moabite gods for Naomi’s Yahweh.  Ruth’s life had changed, and in the eyes of the Moabites, that might have been dangerous.
  • If Naomi was left alone, then she would have to travel alone to wherever she was going to go.  In those days, with multiple violent and bloody battles occurring between Israel and its enemies – such as Moab – Naomi would have been in great danger.  If you were Ruth, wouldn’t you have feared for her safety?
  • If Ruth left Naomi, the older mother-in-law would have had no other recourse than to beg in the streets.  She had no husband and no sons to depend on.  She was completely alone.  She had distant relatives such as Boaz – whom any reader would discover if you keep going in the story; but Boaz was not a close to Naomi’s family.  He had no tradition to force him to take care of a widowed relative.  Anything he would do for Naomi would depend completely on the goodness of his heart.  That’s a fearful risk if Naomi didn’t know Boaz well.
  • Even if Ruth remained with Naomi, their future together was filled with fear.  Where would they go?  What would they do?  How would they survive?  In fact, how would they even eat that day and sleep that night?  And was the famine over with anywhere besides Moab?  Separate or together, Ruth and Naomi were in big trouble.
  • Finally, if Ruth didn’t already have enough to fear, Naomi had decided that the Lord was against her for some reason.  Twice in chapter 1, Naomi lamented that the “hand of the Lord has turned against me.”  If you have ever tried to get someone who is in the midst of great depression to get moving, you know how difficult this is.  

If you have ever felt that Naomi’s comments were also your own thoughts, you also know how difficult it is to listen to anyone who is trying earnestly to help you.  That type of depression can cause others to fear for you and for themselves if they choose to stay with you despite your words.

So, on this Reformation Day, when we remember the courage that Martin Luther and the other early Reformers must have summoned, it is altogether fitting and proper that we remember the courage of Ruth and her loving example to us all.

Yet…simply remembering a great biblical short story isn’t enough to overcome the fear that many of us have today.  

Like Ruth, what is it that causes many of us to fear today?

  • The Covid-19 pandemic that seems to be fading, and the fear that it will make yet another comeback;
  • The next election cycle that promises to be as nasty and as divisive as any other in our country’s history – and one that includes fear at every commercial, every speech instead of a discussion on serious issues;
  • The unrest in our schools that causes riots to break out in our school board meetings; these meetings used to be pretty ordinary, pretty boring if you want the truth, until the almost violent confrontations about vaccines, wearing masks, and the teaching of any version of American history that dares to stretch the boundaries of what most of us learned when we were in school; this is causing a type of fear in our schools that I never encountered in my 29 years of teaching public school.
  • The amazing number of ministers, teachers, nurses, and doctors who are resigning, retiring, or just plain quitting because they fear they just can’t do their jobs anymore.
  • Realistic, non-emotional discussions of guns, immigrants, taxes, separation of church and state, abortion, adoption, federal vs. states’ rights, respecting airline personnel… check your local computer for any other topics I may have left out.  These are just the ones I fear can no longer be discussed in our country on a rational basis.

And all of that – and much more – makes me know that fear is a part of our lives today.

And yet…and yet…I also know in my heart – and so do you! – that the Lord tells us often in Scripture, “Fear not!”  According to the New American Standard Bible, “do not fear” is written 57 times and “do not be afraid” is written 46 times.  And if you do more checking, you will find quite a few more times in which the Lord is not quite so direct, and yet believers are told to “fear not.”

Perhaps on a day in which is it much too easy to get caught up in the beautiful language of a young Moabite woman who loves her mother-in-law, we can forget to be afraid.  Perhaps we also stop reading past today’s selection and fail to discover how Ruth was later blessed by the Lord because of her faithfulness.

Perhaps when we think of those Protestant Reformers who shaped the beginnings of our own denomination, but they did it over 500 year ago, it is easy to let the pages of history float over our memories.

Perhaps when we think of all the spooky, silly fun we have planned for the children in our lives tonight as “TRICK OR TREAT!” becomes the common battle cry…at least until the Astros’ game comes on, it is easy to fear not.

Perhaps when we turn off the computer, the smart phone, the pad…perhaps when we turn off the television and instead turn to our relationships with our friends, our loved ones, and our Lord, it might be easy to let go of our fears – whatever they might be.

Perhaps, we should do a better job of remember who is with us all the time, including and especially in those times in which we are most afraid.

Jesus is our Savior, our Lord, our King.

Jesus is also with us whenever we fear.

And that’s why we should “FEAR NOT!”