God working for the good - Ruth 2

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 13th May 2001.

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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 where 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 one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. But before he could take it up, he died through a smallpox vaccine which went badly wrong. He was fifty four 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 unpacks with tender clarity that behind every human story is a divine story Because this is not merely some story of a romance between two human lovers, it is the much richer 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 teaches us. So if you have not done so already turn with me to Ruth chapter 2 and I want us to look at this story under three headings.

First of all, here we have an example of superintending grace. The whole burden of this book is that the one true living God is a great and gracious God. Ruth who began life as a pagan, a Moabitess, one of the enemies of God’s people, is to discover that unlike the hard hearted, pagan god’s of her youth who simply instil fear and craven superstition , 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, 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.

Now to some extent our author 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’. 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. According to Dt 25:5-10 that duty fell on a brother, but it could be extended to a more distant relative. The point is this: Boaz was such a relative, as we see in v20b "That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers." . 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 alright.

But what guarantee is there that that will happen?. Well Almighty God is the guarantee, what he wishes to bring to pass for the good of his people will come to pass.

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 Boaz arrived from Bethlehem .’ Now, what a surprise! Well, not really, we have already been prepared for something like this. This wasn’t chance at work , this was God at work, and although Ruth didn’t realise this, Naomi spotted it straight away. Look at 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!" 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." . Now notice that Naomi doesn’t say ,yes God is in this because it is a potential blessing, a great way out of our dire straights, while the death of her husband and sons and the famine, wasn’t. That God somehow hadn’t seen that coming, for in 1:21 she says ‘The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune one me.’ Naomi saw God at work throughout the whole of her life-in the bad as well as the good.

But 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, that is the kind of God he is. 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 is the all knowing God. 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 his other relative 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. That is providence-God weaving a purposeful pattern of his own design in our lives.

Let me tell you something. It is no accident that you are living in Hull in 2001 AD. 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 so 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 active faith of the believer.

The apostle Paul did not say- ‘In all things God works for the good willy nilly’. He says ‘In all things God works for the good for those who love him.’ That is an important qualification. If you live a life ignoring God and flaunting his laws, what possible right to do you have to expect that he will smile upon you? Why should he? But if you do love him, a love which shows itself in active obedience then you can draw at least two conclusions when trouble comes your way. First, that the trouble comes from God and is not an accident. And second, that the arrival of the trouble has a purpose, even though it may not be that plain to see what that specific purpose is. You can say that it is one of the ‘all things’ which work together for your good.

And that is what we see here in the two main characters, two people who love God, who are used by God and receive the blessing of God -the good.

First there is Ruth .In v2 she asks Naomi for permission to go out and do some work. She doesn’t sit back at home moping ‘Woe is me! Let God provide a miracle or two.’ She is a woman of faith. 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 favor in your eyes that you notice me--a foreigner?" . 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 v23 ‘So Ruth stayed close to the servant girls of Boaz to glean until the barley and wheat harvests were finished. And she lived with her mother-in-law’. That is the sort of faith God will always use. In fact it is a contradiction in terms isnt it? to think of a faith which is proud, selfish and disobedient. And yet it has to be said that some seem to think that it is legitimate to have faith like that. The Christian who shouts why me? Why can’t I have what I want now in Jesus name .But not Ruth, here is a woman of substance.

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, long before Mel Gibson came onto the scene, he knew what a woman wanted or rather didn’t want-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. But Boaz’s sensitivity shines out too doesn’t it-Christian men should be sensitive to women. Now, whether he knew a pretty face 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 and so received his kindness was because of the sort of woman she had slowly become, no doubt due to the influence of Naomi. May I 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 they 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 person of substance.

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? Is he saying that those who love God will always be happy ,prosperous and healthy? 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.. ’ What is God’s ultimate purpose for his people? It is that they 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 v14 ‘At mealtime Boaz said to her, "Come over here. Have some bread and dip it in the wine vinegar." That was quite unexpected. 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 millenia and half later Jesus Christ-the Saviour of the world.

In fact Jesus is prefigured throughout this story isn’t he 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, in spite of all that life might throw at us and however at times, painfully that: ‘In everything God works to the God for those who love him.’

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