March 4, 2012

Tenacious Faith

So at last this morning we come to the end of our journey through the book of Ruth.  It has been a pretty fun journey, complete with some interesting traveling partners.  You have hopefully been able to experience the story and not merely hear it.  For some of you, I know that this is a very much familiar story.  You have heard it or read it dozens of times.  And yet, experiencing the story as we have done has hopefully opened up new avenues of depth and understanding for you.  What we have discovered together during our travels is that Ruth isn’t just a nice story with a happy ending.  It is a story which challenges us on how we respond to difficult times in our lives.

At the beginning of the story, things didn’t start off very well and quickly got worse from there.  An Israelite family faithlessly ran out on its land and its people.  The patriarch of the family promptly died and the two sons each married local girls—that would be non-Israelites.  In case I haven’t made it sufficiently clear over the past few weeks what a big deal this was, consider this: in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Israelites were rebuilding their lives in Jerusalem after the exile, there were several individuals among the people who had taken foreign women as their wives, many at the cost of their first, Israeli wives.  Ezra and Nehemiah were both so distraught by this that they actually commanded the Israelite men to divorce their foreign wives, send both them and the kids from the union packing, and either remain single for the rest of their lives or else be reunited with their Israelite wives.  For a people whose whole being was predicated on replicating the holiness of God by staying aloof from the hopelessly corrupt cultures around them, creating this most intimate, potentially land-forfeiting bond with someone outside of the clan was deemed suicidal.  At the least it was seen as the ultimate act of expatriation.  In any event, the sons died not long after this leaving their mother tasked with the care of two Moabite girls.  In the end of the first chapter, one of the girls obediently returned home in hopes of finding life once again while the other, Ruth, left behind everything familiar to her in order to journey with her mother-in-law back to the land of her people; to the land of her God.  Although we were left with some small hope at the end of the first part of the story, the two women were still walking at the bottom of a long, deep valley with no real signs that life was going to lead them out of it.  From this point forward the events of the story moved along in a generally upward trend, but at such a slow pace that the story seemed to be moving from one plateau to another instead of actually climbing a hill out of the valley.

All of that brings us to this morning.  This morning as we look at the fourth and final chapter of Ruth we are at last going to see all the hanging threads tied up in bows.  All of the looking forward, picking up the pieces of life with an awareness of God’s abiding presence, and taking risks of faith as we climb out of the valley of life lead us to this morning.  This morning, then, is about hope.  It’s about building into our view of the world the hope that even though we can’t often see it in full and sometimes not at all, God is at work in our situations.  Our challenge is to keep this hope in mind and live in such a way that makes it possible for His work to have meaning for us.  And so we’re clear, when Paul wrote in Romans 8:28 that God works all things together for good for those who love Him, He’s not doing special favors for some privileged class of righteous people.  Instead, God’s always working in history to bring it to the conclusion most honoring of Him.  These conclusions are laid out in the book of Revelation.  Folks who love Him, who are faithfully and intentionally dedicated to seeing His plans come to pass and His glory known in all the earth (which is what it means to love Him, by the way), get to share in these good ends.  Thus, all things work together for their good.  For folks who don’t love God (meaning they aren’t intentionally dedicated to seeing His plans come to pass and His glory known in all the earth—because simply having good feelings about God is functionally meaningless), He’s still working the events of history to His righteous ends, but because they have disconnected themselves from His working, from Him, they aren’t able (and wouldn’t want) to share in them, meaning that when things look bad for them, they usually stay that way.  Because they’re working against the one whose plans are going to happen.

But, that’s not the only thing I want to talk about with you this morning.  If you can remember back to the first part of this series, I spoke for a couple of minutes about the importance of viewing Scripture in context.  I said then that the more often we can look at large chunks of Scripture at one time, the better we will be able to grasp the overall story of the Bible.  We have done this in part by looking at the full story of Ruth; focusing on the story itself instead of any specific details in the story.  But, Ruth is itself a part of the larger canon of Scripture.  With this in mind, I’m going to wrap up the series this morning by trying to help you see how Ruth fits into the larger picture of the Bible and why this even matters.

With all of that said, let’s get to the story.  When we left off last week, Ruth had taken a huge personal risk of faith and proposed to Boaz.  In doing this she broke pretty much every cultural boundary.  The place was all wrong.  The timing was all wrong.  The manner was all wrong.  In spite of all that, Boaz responded in a manner exactly proportional to her intent.  In other words, in spite of linguistic appearances suggesting this was something very much risqué for Ruth to be doing, Ruth’s behavior was absolutely honorable.  Otherwise Boaz was kind of a gracious idiot to so badly, albeit positively, misinterpret her intent.  He welcomed her gestures with opened arms and lavished praise upon her faithfulness to not only her mother-in-law, Naomi, but now to him as well.  But, we were left with a problem.  Boaz was actually not the only one legally entitled to redeem Ruth.  There was another.  As far as the story goes, this is really a shocker.  We are all set up for Boaz to say, “Oh yes, Ruth, I will marry you!  Let’s run off to the church first thing in the morning and start our life together.”  But instead he tells her about this other guy who has to be willing to get out of the way before things can go as they would prefer.  And unfortunately, at least for our purposes, Boaz is way too honorable a guy to have this other guy quietly disposed of or otherwise intimidated into giving up his redeemer rights as perhaps a Hollywood retelling might have him do.  Instead, Boaz goes the next morning to the city gates, which is where all the important things in the city happened.

If you want to see what happened when he got there, open your Bibles to Ruth 4:1 and stay with me as I read.  “Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there.  And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by.”  Let me stop right there a minute.  Once again the text makes it sound like really positive events just happened without any rational explanation other than “behold.”  These are the places where the narrator is silently screaming, “God did it!”  I mean, are we really to believe that Boaz went right to the city gate and happened to be there when this other redeemer walked by?  Come on.  Let’s not push the boundaries of believability too far this early in the day.  Continuing: “So Boaz said, ‘Turn aside, friend; sit down here.’  And he turned aside and sat down.”  Now, English translations don’t give a name for this other guy, but in the Hebrew Boaz actually does.  He calls him Mr. So-and-so.  This does preserve his anonymity, but let’s not miss the humor for the lack of a translation.

At this point Boaz informs Mr. So-and-so of the situation with Naomi about which he is apparently clueless.  But the way in which he does it is beautiful.  Boaz totally sets Mr. So-and-so up and he never sees it coming.  It’s like he has a carrot dangling in a trap and Mr. So-and-so never even notices the trap until the gate slams shut.  Listen to how this goes starting in v. 3: “Then [Boaz] said to the redeemer, ‘Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech.  So I thought I would tell you of it and say, “Buy it in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.”  If you will redeem it, redeem it.  But if you will not, tell me, that I may know, for there is no one beside you to redeem it, and I come after you.’”  In other words, “Cousin Elimelech’s widow wants to sell all his land at a bargain price.  If you want to buy it go ahead, but if not, let me know because I’m next in line and I’d like to.”

Well, naturally Mr. So-and-so is thinking he’s scored a major deal.  I mean, if someone came to you and said you had the opportunity to buy a huge tract of land for way cheap with lots of potential for lucrative development you’re going to jump on it.  It would be a no brainer.  Mr. So-and-so thought the same thing.  It makes perfect sense that his next words are: “I will redeem it.”  Carrot bit, cage door slamming.  Look at v. 5: “Then Boaz said, ‘The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead [which is kind of a funny phrase since you can’t be the widow of the living], in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.”  In other words, “Oh by the way, if you buy the land, you also get Cousin Elimelech’s daughter-in-law in the deal whom you are honor-bound to take as your wife and with whom you are to produce a son and when he grows up he legally takes ownership of all the land and whatever capital improvements you’ve made to it.”  Click.  Now Mr. So-and-so isn’t so excited about the deal.  Verse 6: “Then the redeemer said, ‘I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I impair by own inheritance.  Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.’”  Game, set, and match.  Pretty slick the way Boaz saved the deal-breaking catch for the end in such a way that Mr. So-and-so was ambushed and quickly gave up all the ground he thought he had gained.

From here, things wrap up pretty quickly.  Boaz and Mr. So-and-so exchange sandals which apparently was how they finalized business deals back then.  Boaz announces to the gathered group of city elders his intention to purchase what had belonged to Elimelech, including buying Ruth to be his wife.  Let me add quickly that this language was simply a function of the culture and not a measure of the value of Ruth or any other woman on the part of the Bible.  With the deal then settled, the elders respond with this interesting blessing.  They wish the Lord would make Ruth like Rachel and Leah, the wives of Jacob, and that He would make the household like that of Perez, the son of Judah and Tamar.  Of all the people whose situations they could have chosen to wish upon the almost new couple they chose these?  A pair of sisters and rival wives who constantly fought over their husband’s affection and a second born son who resulted from a man impregnating his daughter-in-law who was herself posing as a prostitute?  Why?  Because of what God worked in their situations.  Rachel and Leah together (along with their handmaidens whom they gave to their husband as concubines) produced the twelve son of Jacob who in turn became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel.  And Perez was the first son of what became the tribe of Judah, the largest, most powerful, and most important of the twelve tribes.  These were indeed figures in Israel’s past whose situations were worth wishing on a pair of newlyweds.  And, somewhat appropriately, their situations started off at least as desperate as that of Ruth.  Many of you know the story of Rachel and Leah and we talked all about the story of Judah and Tamar before Christmas.  In both stories, what seemed like tragedy—and in the case of Tamar the double tragedy of an Israelite marrying yet another foreign woman—was turned by God into something very good when the people involved either remained or became faithful to God’s plans.  So yes, given everything we’ve seen about this story so far, this is quite a blessing on the nearly newlyweds.

Sometime after the business side of things was settled Boaz did take Ruth to be his wife.  More importantly, as the second half of v. 13 points out: “…the Lord gave her conception, and she bore a son.”  This is a big deal for the obvious reasons of having a male heir to take care of Naomi—because of the way things worked out legally back then the child was considered to be Naomi’s son—but also for another reason.  Remember how long Ruth and Mahlon had been married before he died?  Ten years.  Ten years of trying unsuccessfully to have children.  Ruth was a barren widow, cursed by God as far as the culture was concerned.  She had no real reason to believe that she was going to get pregnant this time.  Yet God had other plans.  Much like Sarah and Rebekah and later Samson’s mom and Hannah and a few others, God was directly involved in the birth of this child whom the women of the village would name Obed.  With this, Naomi’s lost joy was finally restored.  The joy she bitterly complained God had taken from her at the end of the first chapter was now fully restored to her by the same God.  Furthermore, when she was focused on everything she had lost instead of looking forward with faith to what God might be doing around her, she almost missed the blessing she had in Ruth who was, as the same village woman remind her here, better than seven sons.  In the end, then, our story has the happiest ending we could have imagined.  The characters of Ruth and Naomi had indeed lost much, but like Job, what they gained back far outstripped what was taken by this broken world.  This is a great reminder that God can work in our hard situations to bring us back to the path of life once again.

But is this it?  Is that all this story tells us?  No, it’s not.  I haven’t read quite to the end of the story yet.  Before I do, though, imagine for me that you are a young child hearing this story for the first time.  It is near the end of Solomon’s reign and his father David is already being lionized as the greatest king Israel will ever have.  Your father gets to the end of the story and reveals that the child born to Ruth and Boaz is named Obed which means “one who serves.”  But how does he serve?  Often the context of a story will give some clues to the reason for a character’s name, but not in this case.  Just as he closes the book he suddenly remembers there are a couple more lines to read.  Obed was the father of Jesse.  And Jesse was the father of David.  Yes, that David.  King David.  The David who would lead the people of Israel into their golden age when they controlled as much territory as they ever controlled and dominated their enemies to the point of extinction for some of the worst of them like the Philistines. Ruth’s story isn’t just a nice story about how God works in our hard situations to bring us back to life.  It is the story of how God created a people for Himself who would honor Him and reveal His name, His character, His glory to the nations.  Not only that, but it’s part of the much larger story of how God did the same kind of thing that He did in Ruth’s life, but over and over and over again, creating all the while a special people for Himself whom He could love and shape into the vehicle by which He was going to reveal the fullness of His splendor to a world very much in need of seeing something splendid.  When their father’s got to this little genealogy, the kids’ eyes would have flown open and their jaws would have hit the floor.  You mean David’s great-grandmother was a Moabite?  Yeah, and not only was Ruth a Moabite, and Perez’s mother a Canaanite, but even Boaz took a lot of work to create.  His mother was Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who betrayed her own people in a dazzling display of faithfulness to Yahweh.  In this way, our faithfulness enables us to participate in God’s plans.

Friends, it doesn’t matter what the current state of our lives is.  God is not limited by our circumstances in His epic journey to guide human history toward its most glorious conclusion.  And by most glorious conclusion, I mean the one that brings Him the most glory and us the most joy.  When we put it in context, the story of Ruth is another reminder that our God is sovereign and capable of accomplishing His plans, which are always for the good of His people, regardless of what things look like in the moment.  Whatever it is you’re facing—and it might be awful—the God you serve is bigger.  He’s got plans for you—not just some generic plans—that are good beyond what you are capable of imagining.  Faithfulness enables us to participate in God’s plans.  And hey, I don’t know exactly what faithfulness looks like for you.  It is going to look slightly different from situation to situation.   But I can tell you that if you are pursuing the God-honoring spiritual disciplines laid out in Scripture—serving others, giving generously from what you do have even if it’s not much, regularly studying the word, proactively seeking to purge sin from your life with the Spirit’s help, and the like—you are going to be in a faithful pattern.

Now, for the original hearers of this story, it reaffirmed for them that God really had been involved in putting David on the throne in spite of circumstances that seemed sure to derail His efforts.  From our perspective, though, David’s kingship was important, but not as important as Christ.  But think about it this way: David was three generations from Ruth.   Jesus was another 43 generations after David.  That’s a lot of time for things to go awry.  Three generations was tough.  When you take into account the ten generations from Judah to David and what little we know about the stories of some of the people in between that was a miracle. Jesus was still more than four times as many away.  And I suspect those 43 generations, about which we know pretty much nothing, were just as complicated and broken as the few we do know about.  Well, what’s four times a miracle?  I don’t know.  But it’s something only God could have done.  God worked through the lives of broken people with broken situations to see His good plans come to pass.  Just like Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, God worked through what was despised and seen as weak and foolish and even downright impossible to accomplish His purposes—of which we are now the beneficiaries.  If He is capable of such a feat in Ruth’s life as we have seen; if He is capable of such a feat over the span of human history from Adam to Jesus; then is this not a powerful indication that He is capable of such a feat in our lives?  Does this not demonstrate that He is able to take the brokenness and setbacks we have experienced—even the ones we have caused by our bad choices—and turn them out for His good plans?  By faithfulness are we really enabled to participate in His plans?  Friends, the unequivocal answer of Scripture is yes!  Faithfulness enables us to participate in God’s plans.  Now, this doesn’t promise easy on our part.  But it does promise good.  And when we live lives of tenacious faith, always stretching and looking for ways that we might show our devotion to God, we will experience that good.  It may not be in the short term.  It may even be that we are really just paving the way for our children and their children to experience that good.  But we will experience it when the time is right.  Just like Ruth discovered in the midst of her valley, just like history has shown over and over, faithfulness enables us to participate in God’s plans.