Love labours - Ruth 3

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 20th May 2001.

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A Christian worker, ministering amongst the down-and-outs in Chicago relates the following incident which happened to him: ‘A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two year old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter-two years old -to men. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story.. I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. ‘Church!’ she cried. ‘Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.’

Well, to whom can such desperate people turn for help? The pious, and no doubt religiously correct, answer would be: God. But both the Old and New Testaments testify that more often than not it is through his people that God’s help comes. That is what makes those words of the prostitute particularly tragic-the one place above all where she should have felt able to turn -the church-is the one place from which she felt most alienated. And perhaps that is why God was at work through that minister, if the prostitutes and drug addicts will not reach out to him, he will reach out to them-and he will often use the most ordinary and unassuming people to do it.

And in many ways that is the message which lies at the heart of the story of Ruth - that the God of Israel is also the God of the nations who gathers the destitute and broken hearted under his wings of refuge. But this is not something vague and nebulous, it is down-to-earth and practical-using people like you and me to achieve that purpose.

Here we have the story of two women- Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Naomi is a Jew, Ruth is a Moabitess and convert to the true and living God of Israel. She has left everything to support Naomi, venturing into an uncertain future. Without husband or heirs, both women have very little to look forward to except hardship and eventual extinction of the family name. But there is one ray of hope- a legal provision made by God, called the ‘kinsman-redeemer’. Here a close relative can marry the widow, ensure children and buy back the land lost because of the death of the husband, so securing a future for the family.

But some three months have past since the last chapter with the barley harvest and nothing seems to have happened. Life quietly goes on. So can you imagine what these women were going through? Waiting is difficult for us at the best of times, but when you are in the middle of a crisis and there is no end yet in sight, waiting can so easily turn into restless longing. And that is when we impatiently ask the question: Where is God? Why doesn't he do something? Well, we are back to the central theological message of this book, viz, that of the hidden and active God who is continuously at work amongst his people even when it appears that nothing is happening. Sometimes God disappears completely into the tapestry of everyday life and we assume he has forgotten us. But nothing could be further from the truth-he is still working, perhaps not in the way we would like or expect, but he is at work nonetheless achieving his eternal purpose through us and for us,. And we need to remember that, don’t we? when we are having to experience the waiting game: that while God may not be prominent he is still present-for he is a God who keeps his promises: ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you’- says the Lord. And that is precisely what Ruth and Naomi were about to discover. So do turn with me to Ruth chapter 3 and again we shall look at the passage under three headings: Naomi- pursuing God’s blessing; Ruth- trusting God’s protection; and Boaz- reflecting God’s character.

First of all, Naomi- pursuing God’s blessing: vv 1-5 : ‘One day Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, should I not try to find a home (or rest) for you, where you will be well provided for? Is not Boaz, with whose servant girls you have been, a kinsman of ours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself, and put on your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don't let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do."

It has been a really hard day. The office has been hectic, the children have been frantic but at last they are safely tucked up in bed, and all the chores have been done. What is the one thing you are looking forward to? It’s a ‘rest’ isn’t it? Well, one of the greatest blessings that God can give, according to the Bible is ‘rest.’ And that is the blessing Naomi seeks for he daughter-in-law according to verse 1, ‘My daughter should I not try to find you -rest’, which is a better rendering than ‘home’ as the pew Bibles have it. Now that one word ‘rest’ is pregnant with meaning. In the Scriptures it carries overtones of Eden, when after God created the world he pronounced it very good and he rested, proclaiming the seventh day a special day ‘Sabbath'- rest. It speaks then, of harmony, wholeness, satisfaction and peace. It was the promise made to the Israelites when slaves in Egypt: ‘My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.’ said God. But because of our rebellion against Him we experience unrest-a disturbed conscience, troubled relationships, wars, constant friction. But God’s desire in redeeming us is to restore us into a state of harmonious relationships- rest.- rest or peace with himself and peace with others. So the greatest blessing anyone could ever receive is ‘rest’ or to use another Bible word ‘salvation.’ And that is what Naomi wishes here for Ruth, obviously expressed in this culture in terms of having a family provided for by God-but invariably pointing us, within the grand sweep of Scripture to the ultimate rest which will come in heaven when we die and which we can know on earth as we live when we come to trust the ultimate kinsman-redeemer, the Lord Jesus. Do you remember his words? ‘"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:27). So Naomi had her priorities right-she wanted the best for Ruth- not so much a big house, well to do surroundings-but the rest which the Lord gives to his people- an expression of his covenant love. Can I ask you what it is that you want most of all for those you love? Those of you who have children for example, maybe not your own, but grandchildren, nephews, godchildren. What is uppermost in your hopes and prayers for them ?A good education, great career, marrying into the right family? What about them becoming faithful followers of the Lord Jesus, and so knowing the rest he offers? That should be our passion -as it was Naomi’s.

But far from this being a mere pious hope on the part of Naomi, she takes practical steps to secure it. Sure, this book speaks of God’s hand invisibly at work in all the so called ‘coincidences’ but it also emphasizes the part we play in co-operating with God -that real faith is always active faith. Did you notice the feminine planning that went into all of this? First, the beauty treatment- v2 : ‘I think a little splash of Chanel no. 5 wouldn’t go amiss tonight my dear,’ says Naomi. 'And what about that nice little black number you look so pretty in?’ Then second, the right moment- v3-4 ,’ Night time is much more romantic than the day, don’t you think?’ And you need to catch him in the right mood. So go down to the threshing floor, after they have been celebrating the gathering in of the harvest-he is bound to be in good spirits then. But don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet, and lie down. He will tell you what to do.’ Now, I don’t think Naomi is being particularly manipulative, in this culture this is just good old fashioned common sense. And being spiritual and full of common sense, you know, are not necessarily in opposition to each other .If we seek for people to receive God’s blessing of ‘rest’ - salvation - and all the riches which come with it, then without being underhand we too need to be wise in commending ourselves and the faith to people and avoid unnecessarily putting them off.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Some years ago a young woman became a Christian. Having the zeal of a new convert she let her enthusiasm get the better of her. To the intense annoyance of her non-Christian husband she attended every church meeting possible and thinking it unspiritual to wear make-up became quite dowdy. Not long after, the minister noticed she wasn’t looking too happy and asked why? She said that it all stemmed from the fact that she had really had been trying to witness to her husband, but to no avail. He suggested that she relaxed a little, smarten herself up, pray for him, and get on with trying to be a good wife. Several months later, the husband came to see the minister demanding what had happened to his wife. ’What do you mean?’ asked the minister. ‘Well,’ said the husband, ‘A while ago my wife came home telling me she had been born again, I thought she had gone nuts. I would go to the bathroom and a bible text would be stuck on my shaving mirror. I would go into the bedroom and a Bible would be left open on my pillow with verses underlined. I tell you Reverend, it was like going to bed with Billy Graham. But then she changed, she seemed more content, more interested in me as a person, nicer looking too, and frankly our marriage has improved. Now tell me-why?’ And that principle of practical common sense - which the Bible calls wisdom - applies to all our witnessing - in the home, to friends, at work-like Naomi -w e are to strategise and think it through.

So lets see how this works out with Ruth-trusting in God’s protection.-vv5-9. (v6)So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do. When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man, and he turned and discovered a woman lying at his feet. "Who are you?" he asked. "I am your servant Ruth," she said. "Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer."

Now you have to give Ruth full marks for courage if not outright audacity. Can you imagine the enormous risk she was taking? By approaching this man in pitch dark she was gambling not only with her dignity but her chastity as she lay at his feet, which in this culture is the place of submission. If he chose to take sexual advantage of the situation she would have no defence. What on earth did she think she was doing uncovering a man at that time of night? Had she read the man’s character properly? Was he sober? Would he understand her motives correctly? It was one enormous risk she was taking all right.

But faith, by definition, involves an element of risk otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. But of course this is not the reckless risk of a teenage joy rider, it is the calculated risk of someone who knows her God. She enters that barn trusting that she is under the protective wings of refuge which God provides. She has heard of the promises of the LORD, she has already experienced something of his gracious provision, the signs look favourable, but 100% success is not guaranteed beforehand .That is where trust comes in. And you may well be here this morning wondering whether God will accept someone like you? You have been looking into the Christian faith, it seems to make sense, but you cannot be absolutely sure. And if you were to become a Christian, putting yourself under the wings of refuge, then what? What will your family say, your friends? Will you keep it up? I am quite sure that similar doubts went through Ruth’s mind as she slowly made her way into that barn. Think of it like this: would any friendship be formed, any marriage entered into, any venture made without that element of risk? Would anyone get out of bed in a morning unless they were given absolute guarantee that nothing was going to go wrong? Of course not. And so it is with that most important relationship of all -our relationship with God. He has given us just enough light in his Word regarding his character and his purpose for our lives, to enable us to take one step at a time, but no more, so that our dependence upon him remains fresh and living moment by moment. Now I don’t know what decision you may be having to make this coming week or how it will turn out, but I do know this, if you are a believer, the one who has called you is faithful. His wings of refuge extend even to you.

And it is in Ruth’s request in v9 that we see her really launch out in expectant faith -taking a risk: ‘"I am your servant Ruth, Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a kinsman-redeemer." Now this is very clever. What she is saying is deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand the phrase in Hebrew means ‘marry me’. To ‘spread the corner of your garment' is a little like a woman today asking for an engagement ring to be placed on her finger. On the other hand the word for ‘garment’ is the same word used back in 2:12 for ‘wings’- spread your wings over me, the ‘wings of God’s refuge’ which Boaz commended Ruth for seeking. So do you see what she is saying? ‘You prayed for my blessing Boaz, since I sought the protective wings of the Lord. Well, you are my dead husband’s relative, a kinsman-redeemer. Shouldn’t you do more than pray for me? You have a responsibility under God’s law to provide for me. Don’t you see Boaz, you could be the answer to your own prayer. Maybe God is calling you to be the protective wings he wants to spread over me. So marry me’. You can’t say Ruth is backward in coming forward can you?! Again do you see how true piety is practical?

So what happens? Will she be thrown out on her ear as wanton opportunist? Not with Boaz-reflecting God’s character- vv10-18.(10-11) "The LORD bless you, my daughter," he replied. "This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don't be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All my fellow townsmen know that you are a woman of noble character.’ You see, there was no need to worry after all. He understood perfectly what she was saying and was struck by her motives and devotion. She could have sought after younger men, but Ruth was of such a noble character herself that she realised that there is more to being a good man than having good looks. She wanted to fulfil her obligation of providing a male heir for Naomi’s family, fulfilling God’s will, which was more important than fulfilling her own desires - that could have been had by returning home to Moab. And Boaz saw that, which is why he speaks of the ‘kindness’ she has shown. It is that word again ‘hesed’ which we saw at the beginning of the book, the covenant-love which God himself shows towards his people-that is the sort of love she is showing too- putting her new family obligations before her own, even in being willing to marry this much older man. So yes, for a woman like this he will do anything to redeem her-v 13.

Well, almost anything, because there is one fly in the ointment, there was another relative who was a nearer kinsman-redeemer than he was and so legally had first call on Ruth-v12. But Boaz was going to do God’s work, God’s way. There was no question of him trying to take a short cut by casting God’s law to one side and illegally taking her as a wife. No, he too would have to trust in God.

And as sensitive as ever to the needs of Ruth he tells her to wait until morning before she leaves. He doesn't want her character stained by idle gossip (v14).And then he wonderfully provides for her and Naomi, using her shawl as a carrier he pours so much grain into it that she staggers back under his generosity-v15-17. Do you remember how both Ruth and Naomi arrived in Bethlehem ‘empty’, well now they are ‘full’- a pointer to a greater fulness yet to come-v 18 ‘Naomi said ‘Wait my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.’ In other words, we shall have to tune in next time to discover out the final outcome of this amazing story.

Again, in Boaz we see a foreshadowing of Jesus don’t we; the kinsman-redeemer par excellence.

Think of how that other foreign woman, the Canaanite came to Jesus. Totally distraught she cried to him to heal her demon possessed daughter. The disciples wanted Jesus to tell her to clear off. But she persisted. Then even when Jesus said that his priority in mission was to the people of Israel, undeterred she cast herself upon his loving mercy and she too went away ‘full’- her daughter was healed and she was commended for her risky faith (Matthew 15:21ff).

When faced with the task of securing our redemption, Jesus didn’t put his Heavenly Father’s Scriptures to one side, yielding to the devil’s continuous temptation to take the easy way. No he fulfilled that law. His bride-the Church- was going to be purchased at infinite cost- with a broken body and spilt blood as he allowed himself to be nailed to a tree to satisfy the demands of God’s justice-the innocent one suffering for us, the guilty ones. And the same generous offer is open to us this morning. Those who come to him burdened will find rest. Those who dare come to him empty will go away full. His promises do not change, for his loving character does not change. As Boaz was with Ruth, his is a love which will not let us go.


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