Text: Ruth 1:1-19a
Date: Pentecost XXI + Proper 23 + 10/9/16
We have been hearing a lot about faith in recent weeks, especially that it’s not the so-called “strength” of our faith that makes any difference but the fact of faith in the promises of God. Today when we speak of “Amazing Faith” therefore we are not implying that some faith is more amazing than others but the fact that any faith is an amazing thing.
In the hymn “Amazing Grace” (LSB 744) some time ago we removed the original second stanza because, many thought, it confuses what God’s grace is and does. It says,
’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved.
But then that stanza ends, saying,
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
In that hymn we sing, “I once was lost but now am found.” How lost were we? According to the Small Catechism, Third Article of the Creed, I was so lost that “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him; but,” except for and until “the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” That’s because saving faith can happen only through contact with the means of grace, the preached Word and the sacraments, the Holy Spirit creating faith when and where it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel.
As for that other line, do you remember “the hour I first believed?” Again we might want to be more doctrinally correct and ask, rather, do you remember when you were first awakened or began to realize and appreciate your God-given faith? We are going to ask the ten lepers and especially the Samaritan one in today’s Gospel as well as Ruth the Moabite in today’s Old Testament reading that same question. When or how did they “first believe”?
Before we do that, however, allow me to read to you some interesting items from a Facebook thread collected by Pastor Mark Surburg of our Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Marion, Illinois. Listen to these. He begins by telling us, “I met a retired Army chaplain. While in Iraq a Muslim man said Jesus told him in a dream to go to the chaplain. The man is now a Christian.”
In the interesting discussion that followed, a man named Mark said, “I’ve heard of this happening with a number of Muslims who have now become Christian.” Richard adds, “I’ve heard a lot of stories about this kind of thing, too. Where Muslims don’t have access to the Means of Grace, the Holy Spirit is using extraordinary means to get them to a place where they do have access to the Means of Grace.” Tom said, “This story is not uncommon in my discussions with people from Iraq and India. Where the ordinary Means are not available, God moves extraordinarily…miraculously.” Bart says, “I would only second what has been said above. We are hearing more and more stories from Muslims who have had visions and dreams of Jesus being led into the church where they hear the gospel, receive baptism, and eternal life.” What shall we make of all this?
Uwe Siemon-Netto, a Lutheran lay theologian, journalist and recipient of a Doctor of Letters degree from our St. Louis Seminary recently wrote an article called “Where Muslim Dreams May Lead.” I adopt his comment as my own when he writes, “It is particularly difficult for me as a confessional Lutheran. We are a hard-nosed bunch. We don’t like to dabble in supernatural phenomena. We need to be ‘convicted by Holy Scriptures and plain reason’, to paraphrase Martin Luther’s ‘Here I stand’ speech before the Imperial Diet of Worms in 1521. We don’t ‘do dreams,’ as the Americans say. But now I must discuss Muslim dreams here, and leave it to my readers to question my state of mind.”
“Dreams are the only means by which the average Muslim expects to hear directly from God” he notes. “When I asked [a certain] Pakistani Presbyterian what had prompted these imams to come to his Bible school, he said: ‘Dreams! Christ had appeared to them in their sleep and instructed them to come here to hear the truth.’” Our own Lutheran Pastor Gottfried Martens in Berlin “estimated that at least two-thirds of his Persian and Afghan converts had followed the instructions of a ‘figure of light’ identifying himself as the Jesus of the Christian Bible.” Uwe cites huge numbers of converts though many are hidden since converting to Christianity means death in the Muslim community. One of our own Missouri Synod pastors says that many in the LCMS “think this is unbiblical.” But then he says, “But how unbiblical is it to report that large numbers of Muslims are being sent on the Damascus Road [Acts 9]” referencing the direct conversion of St. Paul.
So as I read this I naturally asked, is it possible? And of course everything is possible with God. It’s possible because people are being directed to the Means of Grace, the Christian Bible, preaching and sacraments.
Okay, so when did the ten lepers ever hear of Jesus in a way that made them beg Him for healing. Of course we don’t know “when,” only “that” they must have heard that Jesus is a holy man who could and would heal people. “Jesus, Master have mercy on us.” At the name of Jesus our Lord reached out and healed them. Did they all believe in Him, then? We don’t know except in the case of one, and He was a Samaritan.
It is similar with the story of Ruth, not a Jew but a Moabite who became the wife and then the widow of one of Naomi’s sons. Naomi’s little family came from Bethlehem in Judah to the country of Moab to escape a famine in their homeland. All three of the women now widows, and hearing God had once again favored Judah with food, Naomi began to return to her home. The two new daughters-in-law tried to go with her but she urged them to go back to their own mother’s homes. One named Orpah did.
Ruth objected and insisted on returning with Naomi. Now certainly there may have been some natural love and loyalty to her mother-in-law but her earnest request to go to Judah involved more than that. She said, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” She had obviously heard and learned of the God of Israel. Once again a foreigner is drawn by the Spirit and the Word to the God of salvation. Oh, and one more little detail. Without her there may never have been a savior as she was the great-great-grandmother of King David!
We could share with each other the many and various twists and turns in our own stories with our own coming to faith in Christ. That faith, however, happens only by God’s graceful actions through the means of His Word and Sacraments. No Word or Sacraments, no faith.
For our Muslim friends, is it more unlikely that, since they have no Christian friends or relatives, God is calling them by extraordinary means? “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” said St. Paul. “The word of God is not bound!”
Maybe it was God’s grace working through both His Law and Gospel that “taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved”!