September 4, 2016

God’s Not Done

Alright, survey time this morning: Raise your hand if you have ever had a cold.  Anybody want to admit to having a cold this morning so we can all move away and make you feel really isolated?  Okay, next question: how many of you recovered from your cold?  Since you’re here or at least you haven’t died yet if you do have a cold I’m going to go ahead and expect everybody can answer that one affirmatively.  Do you know how that happened?  Your immune system kicked into gear and kicked out the cold.  That’s a pretty surface-skimming explanation, though.  Do you know how your immune system actually works?  We have enough nurses and other medical folks in here that at least some of you probably have a pretty good idea, but for the rest of us check this out.

Now is that just cool, or what?  Bad stuff comes into the body and starts creating chaos.  When that happens the body has special defenders that go and not simply remove the particular pathogen, but create a genetic memory of it so that if it tries to come back a second time, the body will more quickly recognize it and get rid of it before it has a chance to do anything.  But did you catch what’s happening with the body when all of this is going on?  That’s when all the various symptoms of a cold show up—coughing, sneezing, pain, a fever.  On the inside the immune system is doing its good work, but all we know on the outside is that we feel crummy.  In other words, while all the chaos is going on, there’s something happening behind the scenes that is working not simply to heal us, but to inoculate us from getting sick in the same way a second time.

For the last several weeks we have been working through the book of Judges and a couple of weeks ago we finally finished it.  On the whole, it was a pretty depressing book.  It starts out with the people unfaithfully trying to complete the work they had begun under the leadership of Joshua and goes downhill from there to the point that when you reach the last few chapters the people are in a place of total moral chaos.  I won’t recap the events of last time for you, but suffice to say here: they were bad.  They would make for an R-rated movie.  The bottom line on the whole book, though, was that the people were insistent on going it alone and God let them.  He let them go and go and go until they finally got what they wanted—freedom from His authority.  Sure they came back when things started getting bad, but they didn’t want help from Him so much as relief in order to keep moving down the path they had chosen.  Ultimately, doing what’s right in our own eyes never goes well.  And yet, no matter how dark things may get, the lamp of God never goes out.

This morning, then, as we wrap up our series, Going It Alone, I want to turn the page on the book of Judges with you and see together this very wonderful fact.  Even in the darkest times of the period of the Judges, God never totally abandoned the people.  He let them experience the consequences of their choices even to the point that the few remaining faithful were affected by this, but He had a plan both for Israel and for the rest of the world through them and he wasn’t about to let it go just because most of the nation had veered fairly wildly off course.  Like the antibodies of our immune system—which, incidentally, was designed by God—God was patiently at work in the background, building the structures that would ultimately lead to the salvation not merely of the Israelites, but of all the world.  The evidence for this constant work lies in a beautiful little story that follows Judges and serves as the bridge between Judges and 1 Samuel wherein we are ultimately introduced to the story of David which, of course, plays out in the person of Jesus.  This little story is named after its main character, Ruth, and it is here that we can see the evidence for God’s unwavering activity for the benefit of His people even when they had abandoned Him wholesale.   Now, many of you know this story pretty well and that’s great, but let me recap it for you and then we’ll talk about what it means in light of where we’ve been journeying together.

Ruth’s story takes place during the time period of the judges.  From 1:1: “In the days when judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.”  Now this was presumably not during one of the times when the Moabites were the primary antagonists for the people of Israel, but the fact that this man would risk losing his family’s land—which was a really, really big deal in those days, and travel to live in the midst of a foreign people who not only did not worship Yahweh, but had even in the past led the people of Israel in rejecting Him, suggests just how bad this famine was.  In any event, this man named Elimelech, takes his wife, Naomi, and his sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to Moab and basically sets up shop there.  The boys each find a wife from among the Moabite women surrounding them, and it doesn’t appear they’ll ever move back to Israel.  But, God’s got a plan in mind.

Eventually Elimelech dies.  Life back then was a fragile thing, so while this certainly wouldn’t have been totally unexpected, it would have nonetheless been a devastating blow because of the financial impact it would have had on the family.  Then the tragedy gets compounded.  Both of Naomi’s sons die as well.  In a world in which women had no place and had to have a husband or at least a son in order to survive, this was about the worst thing that could happen to her.  She decides to pack up and head back to her hometown since reports were coming in that things had gotten better there.

When she sets to leave both of her daughters-in-law try to come with her, but she encourages them to go back home.  After all, she says in v. 12, “…I am too old to have a husband.  If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown?  Would you therefore refrain from marrying?  No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”  Eventually one of them, Orpah, takes her advice and heads back home.  But the other, Ruth, refuses.  In a beautiful declaration of faithfulness she insists: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.  For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

Naomi herself relents this time, and the pair head back to Bethlehem to begin building a life together there.  Yet life for two widows even in Israel was not going to be easy.  Ruth would have to take to gleaning—a practice in which the poor were allowed to harvest in a field after the owners’ workers had finished in order to gather up whatever remained for them to be able to eat.  It was essentially a social welfare system—one of the first in the world.  Ruth sets out to do this and as it would happen (in other words, as God would plan it) she gleans in the field of a good and righteous man named Boaz.  Boaz, as it turns out, is a relative of Elimelech and more importantly a relative close enough to be able to take on the role of a kinsman redeemer.  This was an odd practice of the people that was more a nod to the realities of the times than something God wanted enshrined for all times.  Under this system if a husband died without leaving any children to inherit his land and carry on his name, a close relative could take the widow as his own wife (even if he was already married) in order that she might have sons to whom would be given her first husband’s land and who would carry on his name so that the record of his existence would not be scrubbed from the nation.  Weird, I know, but in a culture like they had, it was actually something that was necessary.

In any event, Ruth gleans in Boaz’s field, catches his eye, and goes home to tell Naomi about it.  Naomi is as excited as could be about the whole thing because she understands who he is and what this potentially means for the two women.  With this in mind she soon sets on a plan to essentially seduce Boaz into marrying Ruth.  Fortunately, her scheming does not take away from the purity and righteousness of these two main characters.  Boaz is humble and gentle and Ruth’s character of faithfulness and righteous boldness continues to shine throughout the story.  The proposal scene (technically she proposes to him underscoring that theme of righteous boldness) is touching and intimate.  It feels like the unfolding of a love story…which is because it is.

There’s just one potential hang up.  And if you’re into Hallmark movies this is that “oh no!” scene that comes during the second to last show segment before the romantic conclusion.  There’s a kinsman redeemer who is technically in line for the job ahead of Boaz.  Boaz handles this in a brilliant bit of interpersonal diplomacy.  In fact, it’s best if I just read this to you.  From Ruth 4:1: “Now Boaz had gone up to the gate and sat down there.  And behold, the redeemer, of whom Boaz had spoken, came by.  So Boaz said, ‘Turn aside, friend; sit down here.’  And he turned aside and sat down.  And he took ten men of the elders of the city and said, ‘Sit down here.’  So they sat down.  Then he 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, Boaz talks with this other guy all about the land that Naomi wants to sell without once mentioning Ruth—who would have come as a packaged deal with the land.  You get the land, you get the woman, you’ve got to have kids with the woman, and the land goes to her kids.  And again, I know that this is culturally bizarre to us, but Boaz’s whole point here was to save her from getting stuck as the property of some guy who didn’t really want her in the first place.  He’s essentially working within the system in order to subvert it.  That’s the stuff of modern-day heroes.

Well, after making his pitch to the other potential kinsman redeemer, the guy responds just exactly like Boaz had hoped he would.  Look again with me at the end of v. 4: “And he said, ‘I will redeem it.’”  What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he has now stepped firmly in the middle of Boaz’s trap.  Verse 5: “Then Boaz said, [by the way…I added that] ‘The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.’”  This changes things.  Now, instead of simply acquiring a productive piece of land on the cheap, he gets another mouth to feed and more in the future, and instead of financially benefiting from the land, everything he puts into it will eventually go to a child who does not bear his name.  The price just launched from “let’s deal” to “I’m outta here…you can have it.”  All that remained was to seal the deal by exchanging sandals, and everybody lived happily ever after…all the while the nation around them was burning to the ground.  But you see, while God wasn’t disinterested in all of that—in fact the narrative of Judges shows He was very much interested in in—He was here busily making sure that His people were going to not only survive the chaos, but become the very blessing He had promised Abraham they would be so many years before.   What we see shining so clearly here in this beautiful little story is that even in the darkest times, God is still at work.

Look a little more closely at the details of the story here to see how powerfully this was the case.  Where does most of Ruth’s story take place?  Bethlehem.  Think back to Judges 17.  Where did the young Levite come from who was at the center of all the mess?  Bethlehem.  Let’s push this just a bit further.  In that same chapter, where did Micah live, the man who made the idol?  In the hill country of Ephraim.  Alright, now flip a few pages forward, past Ruth, to the first chapter of 1 Samuel.  Where did Samuel—the good and righteous judge who anointed David as king—come from?  The hill country of Ephraim.  When I say that even in the darkest times God was still at work among the people of Israel I don’t mean He was off to one side trying to get a few pieces shoved into place around the edges.  He was right there in the midst of the mess making sure that His plans for His people were accomplished.  Folks, God’s still doing this in our lives today.  Even in the darkest times of our own lives, God is still at work.  When He promised to never leave or forsake us, He meant it.

Look, there’s no question that the culture we’re living in right now is a mess.  We talked about that a few weeks ago.  It’s a mess from top to bottom and inside to out.  Very few things are working right now and even fewer seem poised to have a positive impact on the future.  And when you broaden things out to the world at large the picture looks even worse.  Corruption and violence exist on a scale that’s frankly hard to imagine.  There is no continent on earth exempt from their reach.  More people live as slaves today than at any other time in history and move of those are caught up in the sex trade industry—even in this country.  I observed a few minutes ago that the events of Judges 17-21 would make for an R-rated movie, but you know, thinking about it again, they might not.  We’ve so defined deviancy down, that we almost don’t recognize it anymore.  And this is all to say nothing of the wreck that the lives of so many individuals are today.  We all know somebody right now whose life is a wreck whether that’s from the sinful choices they’ve made or merely from the impact of sin in our world more generally.  In fact, I dare say, most of us know more than one person.  We ourselves might even be one of those people.  The darkness of sin is everywhere.  How do we avoid getting pulled down into the darkness ourselves?  How do we avoid the tangling twines of despair?  How do keep from letting the darkness be the thing that defines us whether because we join in it or simply because that’s all we ever see?  We do it by remembering this very simple, but powerful idea: Even in the darkest times, God is still at work.

The truth is, Jesus called His followers to be salt and light in a tasteless, dark world.  Anywhere His followers get that right, their stories are going to stand out for anyone who cares to look.  Sometimes those stories are given a very much public stage.  Consider the testimony of U.S. Olympic men’s tandem diving silver medal winners David Boudia and Steele Johnson when being interviewed after winning their medals.

How cool is that?  These two Jesus followers win the second highest honor their sport has to bestow with the whole world watching and are able to give glory to God on international television.  That’s a pretty big stage.  There was a lot of darkness surrounding this year’s Olympic games.  From doping scandals to the ill-preparedness of the host country to dangerous conditions for the athletes to entirely legitimate fears regarding public safety.  Yet even in the darkest times, God is still at work.  All things considered, though, giving a grand testimony to the glory of God after winning an Olympic medal in a location that many people still regard as close to paradise is pretty light duty.

So how about another story.  Let’s go to Sri Lanka, an island of about 20 million people off the southern tip of India that is predominantly Buddhist.  Listen to the testimony of a Christian worker there courtesy of Voice of the Martyrs ministry.

“It was a Thursday.  We were in a prayer meeting in another believer’s house in a place called Wattegama.  At around two in the afternoon, just when I was about to come out of the house, I got a call from a stranger.  The stranger said she wanted to come and ask for our prayers.  At 3:00 PM, the caller—a mother and her three daughters—arrived.  Before praying, I introduced them to Jesus Christ.  Just when I was about to pray for them, five Buddhist monks arrived.  They surrounded the house with a mob of young people.  They took their cameras out and recorded a video of us from the outside.  With the cameras rolling, they trespassed; they came over to where I was and slapped me and hit me.  They forced me to go with them to the temple.  I refused, so they dragged me to the temple instead.  They took my bag, my Bible—everything I had.  They poured a bottle of water over my head and a man came in and strangled me.

“They told me they would kill me.  I told them that Jesus was there for me, so I have no problem with dying.  They saw that I was being stubborn and tried to scold me, but there were no tears in my eyes.  Even though I was alone, I didn’t have fear.  They mocked and cursed me.  The monks took my belongings and called my family, saying they had handed me over to the police.  I’ve been doing prayer meetings for four years and nothing like this has ever happened.  Somebody had planned it.

“I am still going through some trauma, but I know God loves me very much.  There is nothing compared to that.  He changed my life, and I want to see other people’s lives being changed by Him.  I want to see more people redeemed.  I was more drawn to Jesus after this incident.  I believe this has given me strength for my future ministry.  After what happened, the fear that I had for society had gone.  Now, there is no fear at all.”

Buddhist monks aren’t usually who come to mind when we think of other religions violently resisting the efforts of Christian mission workers in other countries, but they are there nonetheless.  Hindus do the same thing just across the ocean in India and in other nations where they are the dominant religion.  We just tend not to hear about it because Muslims grab all the headlines.  Yet in the midst of all this darkness there is an ongoing uprising of the church. There are workers every bit as brave—and as persecuted—as this courageous young woman who are committed to seeing the Gospel advance into every part of their world.  Even in the darkest times, God is still at work.

Or how about something a bit closer to home.  Let’s go to Richmond.  You’ve perhaps heard of the Church Hill neighborhood.  Whatever you have heard about it, my guess is that it probably wasn’t good.  Lots and lots of darkness there.  Murders.  Gang activity.  Broken families.  Failing schools.  Poverty.  Drugs.  You pick the social malady and it’s probably manifest there somewhere.  But in the middle of all that is Church Hill Activities and Tutoring, or CHAT.  About 13 years ago, Percy and Angie Strickland felt called to move into the neighborhood.  After living there for a time and building some relationships they began opening their home to their neighbors and local kids.  The kids in particular were drawn to their hospitality.  Eventually they began offering to tutor some of them.  This became a formalized program which has grown to include a preschool, a high school, peer-to-peer mentoring, adult-to-teen mentoring, summer camps, and more.  But the programs themselves are not the measure of the organization.  The changed lives of the impacted students are.  There are waiting lists for every single mentoring and tutoring program they have.  They have older teens mentoring younger ones, teaching them how to be responsible adults.  They are seeing teens graduate from high school and go on to some form of higher education who would have otherwise dropped out and turned to who knows what else.  They are seeing young kids looking up to older kids as their role models and the older kids setting examples that are actually worth following.  They are transforming that neighborhood from the inside out.  Now, is there still a lot of darkness there?  Oh yeah.  You hear about it just nearly every time you turn on the news.  But even in the darkest times, God is still at work.

Now think about this with me for a second: If God was at work even in the darkest times of the people of Israel; if He was at work in the secular free-for-all that is the modern Olympic games; if He has been at work in the darkness of modern Sri Lanka; if He is right now at work in one of the darkest neighborhoods in Richmond, then what do you think are the odds that He is at work in the dark places in your own life?  One of the most efficient tools Satan uses to keep us in the dark is the lie that we are alone and isolated in our brokenness whatever it happens to be.  Yet even in the darkest places, God is still at work.  I don’t care how much darkness you think you are carrying right now—and let’s just be honest about the fact that even long-time, committed followers of Jesus can fall into pretty deep pits of sin and brokenness and darkness—God hasn’t left the building.  He’s still working in and around you to create the structures that will allow you to leave the darkness behind and walk fully in the light.  Even in the darkest places, God is still at work.  But, He won’t force this work on us.  If we refuse it, He’ll let us.  He’ll honor our choice.  God is working hard to see you become fully who He created you to be.  Receive it.  Receive His grace.  Receive His love.  Receive His mercy.  No, you’re not worthy of it, but you are worth it.  Do you see the difference there?  God doesn’t deal with us according to what we deserve.  He deals with us according to His grace.  Grace that came out of another time He worked in what was literally the darkest place the world had ever been in: the death of His Son.

In the betrayal, arrest, trial, torturing, and finally crucifixion of our Lord, God entered into the darkness of this world as fully as He possibly could have and got to work.  His work led to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day, and out of that work came life for all who would receive it.  He worked in the darkness of Judges to bring us Ruth who was the great-grandmother of David.  Fourteen generations later, He would once again work in the darkness of the death of His Son to finally bring the eternal life to the world that He would not give up on even in the darkest days of the people through whom He had all along planned to bring it.  And again: because of His work in the darkness, we can enjoy the light of life.

This morning as we wrap up this journey, I want to approach the table of the Lord’s Supper together in order to remember and celebrate.  I want to remember the work God did in the darkness of His Son’s death.  From that I want to remind us that He is still at work in the darkness of our own lives no matter how deep it gets.  But I want to move on from the remembering to celebrate the end of this work: eternal life for us.  And so as you receive the elements this morning, I want to do something a little different.  First, offer up a prayer of thanksgiving as you remember God’s work in the darkness of our past and the darkness of your own life.  And then, when I’ve reminded us of the reason we are doing this and if you are able, stand as you eat and stand as you drink.  We will stand in celebration of the life we have because of God’s work.  If you are a follower of Jesus and there’s nothing between you and God this morning, I invite you to join with us in this time of remembrance and celebration.  Parents, if you have little ones with you who haven’t yet gotten their hearts and minds around the Gospel, have them hold off for now.  We will eat and drink all together so hold on to the elements as you receive them.  But when you do, know well: Even in the darkest times, God is still at work.  He’s at work in you, around you, and even through you to His great glory and your great joy.  Deacons, come on forward as I pray.