Ruth 2 - Ruth 2

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 14th August 2011.

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He was  a Christian minister of outstanding ability, the greatest theologian his country had ever produced they said, under whose ministry his church and surrounding area saw 4 mighty revivals with hundreds coming to a personal faith in Christ. After 23 years of ministry in that church, he was thrown out, simply because he suggested that those who take Holy Communion should at least be professing Christians. He, his wife and 8 children were more or less on the streets with nowhere to go. Eventually they were given a small missionary work to do amongst a handful of illiterates. After several months the minister was offered the place as President of the most prestigious college in the country- Princeton. But before he could take it up, he died through a smallpox vaccine which went badly wrong. He was fifty four years old and his name was Jonathan Edwards. His broken hearted widow wrote: ‘What shall I say? A holy and good God has covered us with a dark cloud. O that we may kiss the rod and lay our hands on our mouths. The Lord has done it. He has made me adore his goodness that we had him so long. But my God lives and he has my heart.’ How does the apostle Paul put it? - Romans 8:28 ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’

That is a wonderful portion of Scripture isn’t it? But how are we to understand it?

What Paul says in those few verses captures the teaching of the entire Bible: viz that the whole universe has not only been created by an infinite-personal God, but that every twist and turn in it, from the fall of a sparrow to the numbers of hairs on our head are personally superintended by God for his own glory and his people’s good. Of course, from the standpoint of our own limited perspective there are plenty of occurrences which often perplex us and cause us to ask: ‘why-what is God doing?’ But from God’s standpoint there are no accidents only incidents of his design and overruling. We honestly do worship a God who does have the whole world in his hands.

And what we have in this amazing little book of Ruth is, if you like, Romans 8:28 in the form of a story. It tenderly unpacks the deep theological truth that behind every human story is a divine story. Or rather that the divine story works itself out through human stories. You see, this is not merely a story of a romance between two human lovers; it is part of a much bigger story of the covenant love between God and his people. And if you and I are going to keep on keeping on when the going gets tough, when we have no option but to walk by faith because we have no sight, then we need to take to heart what this story, and in particular this episode in chapter 2,  teaches us.  

First of all, here we have an example of superintending grace. One of the great burdens of this book is that the one true living God is a great and gracious God. Ruth who began life as a pagan, is to discover that unlike the hard hearted, pagan god’s of her youth, like Chemosh, who simply instilled fear and craven superstition and accepted child sacrifices, Yahweh-the Lord- is generous, he actually moves towards us in a spirit of kindness. And this entire passage is carefully structured in the original to bring this out with the verses being arranged like a cross- what is called a chiasmus , so that our eyes are draw to the intersecting verse  which is v 12, in which Boaz says to Ruth, ‘ May the LORD  repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ Like a mother hen gathering her chicks under the protection of her wings to shield them from danger, so God gathers this bereaved, frightened, foreigner to himself. So we have the words of Psalm 36: 7 ‘How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low men find refuge in the shadow of your wings.’

Now to some extent our author almost gives the game away right at the beginning of the chapter that something special was about to happen- v 1 ,‘ Now Naomi had a relative on her husband’s side from the clan of Elimelech, a man of standing, whose name was Boaz.’ Now what is so special about that? Well, here we have Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in -law and Ruth widowed with no children and so no one to take care of them. They are on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Had they been around today they would be amongst those sitting by the entrance to the railway station trying to sell copies of the Big Issue. But the all knowing, all -caring God had made a special provision for such people, it was the institution of the ‘kinsmen-redeemer’ the ‘go-el’ Let me explain. This was a tribal society, based upon close family ties and each family or clan had an obligation to defend and provide for other members of the family who were less fortunate than themselves. And here, such duties extend to providing an heir for a male relative who has died childless. It is called the principle of levirate marriage (levir is the Latin translation of the Hebrew for ‘brother-in-law’).According to Dt 25:5-10 that duty fell on a brother, but it could be extended to a more distant relative- so he had to marry the widow. The second principle in operation is the law of redemption in Leviticus 25: 25-28, buying up his relative’s property. The point is this: Boaz was such a relative. So the way is being opened up for the reader to expect a change in fortune that somewhere along the line this man is going to turn up and things are going to turn out right.

But what guarantee is there that that will happen? Well, God is the guarantee. What he wishes to bring to pass for the good of his people will come to pass- you can be sure of that.

So look at v2-4a ‘ And Ruth the Moabitess said to Naomi, "Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour." Naomi said to her, "Go ahead, my daughter." So she went out and began to glean in the fields behind the harvesters. As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech. Just then ( or as it “happened” )Boaz arrived from Bethlehem.’ The reader knows that Boaz is a relative and with Dt 25 in the background knows there are possibilities here. Ruth ends up in Boaz’s field and lo and behold just at the moment Boaz turns up! Gosh, what a surprise! Well, not really, we have already been prepared that something like this might happen. This isn’t chance at work with a capital C, this is God at work with a capital G, and although Ruth didn’t realise this, the reader is on to it and Naomi spotted it straight away- v19 ‘Her mother-in-law asked her, "Where did you glean today? Where did you work? Blessed be the man who took notice of you!" (She is somewhat gobsmacked by the takings of v 18). Then Ruth told her mother-in-law about the one at whose place she had been working. "The name of the man I worked with today is Boaz," she said. "The LORD bless him!" Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. "He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead." She added, "That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers."

You see, God had been long at work superintending and preparing things long before this particular incident occurred, showing he is a God who is gracious. It was because of his laws that Ruth was able to go into the fields picking up the left over corn in the first place, which then ‘just happened’ to bring her into contact with her relative-in-law-Boaz. Leviticus 19:9 allowed for the poor to do this, because God cares for the poor. Do you not think that when he instituted such laws of gleaning and redeeming that he didn’t specifically have Ruth in mind, as well as thousands of other people? Of course he did, he is omniscient. Neither was it an accident that it was to Israel, the only nation on earth which had such laws of grace that Ruth came, because no other nation worshipped a gracious God whose laws reflected his character. Neither was it an accident that at a time such as this, the time of the Judges, which was more or less one of social anarchy, that Ruth was steered (unbeknown to her of course) to a field where her virtue would be protected-v22 ‘Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, "It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with his girls, because in someone else's field you might be harmed.’ Too true, molestation and rape were common enough in those days. And do you not think that from the time of his birth, indeed before, because the sort of parents we have affect the people were become, that God was not grooming and shaping the character Boaz so that he would be the kind and thoughtful man he proved to be? Also, do you not think that God was working to make him into the prosperous man so that he could provide the material support for Ruth and Naomi which another couldn’t as we shall see in chapter 4? The word used to describe Boaz in v 1 as ‘a man of standing’ could mean a man of wealth or  a man of strength or a man of  character There is no reason to suppose that all of the descriptions didn’t equally apply to Boaz. He was just the right man, at the right place, at the right time. Friends, that is providence-God weaving a purposeful pattern of his own design in our lives. In chapter 1 with the death of Naomi’s husband and sons it is a hard providence. Here in chapter 2 it is a hopeful providence, but in both cases it is still providence.

Let me tell you something. It is no accident that you are doing what you do and living where you are  any more than it was an accident that it was these particular workers in this particular field in ancient Bethlehem. You know, sometimes Christians get terribly worried  about whether they have missed out on God’s will for their lives and spend the rest of their days living in regret, as if God had a plan A for them but because of so many wrong decisions they have ended up with plan D or E. Well, do you think for a moment that God did not know what you were going to do? Do you think he cannot hold a billion and one possibilities in his mind at once and take into account every contingency and still achieve his purposes for you and through you? If not then you do not know God as Ruth and Naomi knew him. ‘In all things God works for the good.’ Do we believe that? This book of Ruth says-yes we most certainly should.

But this doesn’t mean we are to be passive fatalists of the ‘que sera, sera’ variety-whatever will be will be. No, because alongside the superintending grace of God is the active faith of the believer.

And we see such trust in God displayed by the two main characters, two people who love God and so who are used by God to receive the blessing of God -the good.

First, there is Ruth- a woman of substance. In v2 she asks Naomi for permission to go out and do some work. Notice that she doesn’t sit back at home moping ‘Woe is me! Let God provide a miracle or two.’ She is a woman of faith which means taking action on the basis of what you do believe. First, it is a humble faith, notice how she responds to Boaz’s kindness-v10 ‘At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She exclaimed, "Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me--a foreigner?" The word translated ‘favour’ in v 10 and 13 (hen) is a word meaning grace. Secondly, it is selfless faith. Her reputation as we see in v6 is the ‘Moabitess who came back from Moab with Naomi’, the very thing which Boaz commends her for in vv11-12. You see, she puts the well being of her mother-in-law over and above her own. Thirdly, it is an obedient faith, she does as Naomi suggests in v23 ‘So Ruth stayed close to the servant girls of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished.’ That is the sort of faith God will always use.

But then there is Boaz, a man of character. In the midst of a society in which moral and spiritual rot had set in, Boaz stands out. Notice in v4 how he greets his workers, ‘The Lord be with you.’ This is not a perfunctory ‘have a nice day’, this is the sincere blessing of a man who knows his God. Notice too how he thinks of Ruth’s needs -v15-16: As she got up to glean, Boaz gave orders to his men, "Even if she gathers among the sheaves, don't embarrass her. Rather, pull out some stalks for her from the bundles and leave them for her to pick up, and don't rebuke her." .Wouldn’t it be great to have a few more Christian men around like that today, ladies? You see, Ruth would have been very sensitive to her difference and vulnerability, a Moabite, a woman on hard times and so easy prey for abusive men; hence his keenness to ensure she stays in his field where she would be protected- v8.  This wasn’t missed by Naomi v 22 ‘It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the girls, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.’ What is more, his generosity knows no bounds, v 14 ‘At meal time Boaz said to her, “Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in wine vinegar.” When she sat down with the harvesters, he offered her some roasted grain. She ate all she wanted and had some left over.’    But Boaz’s sensitivity shines out in other ways too doesn’t it? Not only does he seek to protect her, his care borders on extravagance in that he gets the men to pull out some stalks for her, but not at the expense of embarrassing her. How more sensitive and caring could he be?  Now, whether he knew a pretty face when he saw one we don’t know, but he certainly knew a wonderful faith- v12 ‘May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." ‘. Now do you see how the goods God brings about in our lives are in part a result of the character we have been cultivating under God? The reason why God could use Boaz as a source of blessing to Ruth and Naomi was because of the kind of man he was. He was a man who knew God’s Word and lived in its light and so when he saw someone in distress he didn’t need some special word of guidance telling him what to do, he did what came naturally as a result of a lifetime cultivating his relationship with his Maker. Similarly with Ruth. The reason why she commended herself to Boaz was because of the sort of woman she had slowly become. May I gently ask: what are you doing to cultivate those virtues which will enable you to respond Christianly when the hard time comes? How else do you think Jonathan Edwards wife was able to say what she said when her husband died? It came from years of active, loving, faithful obedience in which she got to know the God who works all things to the good for those who love him. Let me put it this way: The only way you and I will be able to shine when the big tests come our way  is by responding well to the little trials as they  come our way. And every little thing counts that God uses to make you more into the man or woman of faith he wants you to be. That daily Bible study, that time of prayer, that desire to witness to your friends ,that meeting with fellow Christians, that deepening your understanding by reading Christian books ,standing against a culture which wants it all and wants it all now-those are the ways God uses to make you into  a woman of substance or a man of character.

But finally, we move from superintending grace, through active faith to endless goods. When Paul says ‘In all things God works for the good for those who love him’, what good does he mean? That everything is always going to be hunk dory? Hardly, because those words are written in the context of Christians suffering. No, we must look at the rest of what Paul says,’ In all things God works for the good for those who love him ,who have been called for his purpose.’ What is that? Paul tells us ‘For those God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.. ’ God’s ultimate purpose for us is that we become mirror images of Jesus, reflecting his glory. Now this is an important point we need to grasp, namely, that we must bear in mind God’s timescale which is much, much bigger than ours. He has eternity in view.

And that is what we see in this story. God is able to bring many goods out of a situation, some which can be seen and experienced in the here and now, others which will not be seen until we are long gone from this world. So there are short term goods God is bringing about in the life of Ruth-look at v17,- she gathered an ephah- 22 litres of grain which, frankly, was unheard of. Then there are mid-term goods hinted at in v20 that this might be the kinsmen redeemer who will provide for Ruth and Naomi. But then there is the long term good which neither Ruth nor Naomi could envisage in a million years, that as we read at the end of the book and the genealogy, from this most unpromising match- a Moabitess and a landowner would come King David and nearly a millennia and half later Jesus Christ-the Saviour of the world. Ruth is the Lord Jesus’ great, great, great-however many greats-grandma!

In fact Jesus is prefigured throughout this story i in Boaz- the kinsman redeemer.  Think of the tenderness and compassion Boaz showed to this widow, this outcast. Do we not see his greater Son, Jesus, doing the same with the Canaanite woman-who comes to him in desperation? Do we not see the same overwhelming generous provision in feeding 5000 with some left over as with Boaz in 14? Is he not the Lord under whose wings we find refuge, as he looked over Jerusalem with tears in his eyes, wistfully sighing ‘How I have longed to gather your children together , as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’? And of course in Jesus we have the kinsmen redeemer par excellence, who as our brother paid the price for our rescue from spiritual poverty and ultimate oblivion not with silver but with his own blood. And that is why we can say, inspite of all that life might throw at us: ‘In everything God works to the God for those who love him.’

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