Sermon Manuscript – 25 March 2007

What would this sound like to you: a mysterious woman leaves her home in the middle of the night, gets in her car, and drives outside the city limits. She turns off the headlights as she drives so no one will see her from a distance. Eventually she arrives at a rather run-down motel. She’s looking for a rich local man who she knows is staying there, because he’s working across the street and has to get up early the next morning and it’s too far to drive home. She quietly gets out of the car, closes the door very softly, and walks into the shadows, avoiding anyone who might see her. She quietly turns the doorknob – the guy left the door open – and slips into the room, closing the door behind her. Finding the man asleep, what does she do? She lays down on his bed! Only early in the morning, before sunrise, does she leave that seedy motel – again avoiding anyone seeing her, and carrying a great deal of money.

Does that sound like a scandalous set of circumstances to you? It should. That’s precisely the same situation described in our story. In our day, prostitutes use seedy motels. In Ruth’s day, it was the threshing floor where bad things happened. Staying overnight with a man not your husband in a hotel is a questionable set of circumstances even today – staying at a threshing floor would have been the same in ancient Israel.

What if I said that Ruth and Boaz “slept together?” What would I mean if I said that? One meaning would be to take the words at face value – they fell asleep next to each other and were dormant all night. Well, that’s what the Bible tells us they did, right? But that’s a bad choice of words for what happened, isn’t it? If they behaved themselves, didn’t do anything wrong, would anyone use the phrase “slept together?” Of course not. Why? Because “sleeping together” is a euphemism for something else entirely, isn’t it?

The author of Ruth does exactly what I just described. Naomi tells Ruth to “uncover his feet.” And that is exactly what Ruth did – pulled Boaz’ blanket off his feet, leaving them exposed, and then lay down at his feet. Literally, word for word, what Naomi said. It doesn’t sound so bad in English. But to ancient Hebrews, “uncovering the feet” was a euphemism for the very same thing that we mean by “slept together.”

Why would the author choose those words? Why would he go out of his way to paint the picture in suggestive terms? So that we might ask, “What will they do?” “Will they obey God?” “Will their conduct be honourable?” The author wants us to ask those questions. The Bible portrays the entire event in a way that grabs the audience – grabs their attention, calling attention to the behaviour and actions of Ruth and Boaz.

So Ruth has approached Boaz in the middle of the night. What happens next? Something unusual. She pops the question!

There’s a show on television named “Perfect Proposal.” Have you ever seen it? They get a camera crew to help this poor guy set up an over-the-top proposal for his girlfriend, and they get it all on tape. It’s actually kind of funny to see the lengths these guys will go to for their perfect proposals. I was introduced to it when I was still dating Erin, and she liked watching these shows with me. Hint, hint, hint? Yeah. Just imagine the pressure that a show like that puts on a guy. How do you top a guy who puts on a reality TV show competition as the stage for his proposal? Like, come on!

One thing I find remarkable about the show, however, is what it says about us as a society. It’s remarkable that in an age when our culture is trying its level best to destroy any distinctions and differences between man and woman, most girls still expect and dream of and look forward to some man sweeping them off their feet, getting down on one knee, and asking her to marry him. And most guys still feel it’s their privilege and responsibility to go save money, buy the ring, and plan some special event when he can pop the question. Even though our society might want to pretend that there’s no difference between men and women, this old habit is dying hard.

See, I think all of us would be at least mildly surprised if a friend or relative got engaged and it was the woman who proposed. Now, in case anyone here did just that, I want to be clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it! But you have to agree with me that it’s not that common, and it is remarkable.

Let’s rewind about three thousand years or so. The culture is far, far more conservative than ours. There isn’t any such thing as dating. Men and women don’t usually pick their own mates, their parents do. Especially for the women. Marriage was not entered into out of love or fuzzy feelings or even physical attraction. Rather, it was a union arranged by two families with the purpose of continuing the family name, and making sure that the family stayed healthy and prosperous. We tend to see marriage today as a union of two individuals for mutual benefit; they saw it as a union of two families and the future of the entire family line. The idea of a woman approaching a man and offering a marriage was even more uncommon in that age than it ever was in ours.

So put yourselves in the place of the original readers of Ruth. Imagine yourself as an ancient Hebrew hearing this story. Ruth approaching Boaz? Being so bold as to propose to him? That would have raised eyebrows, let me tell you.

Ruth and Boaz were faced with temptation. We see Ruth approach Boaz in an unusual way at an unusual place. We see her reverse tradition and custom and ask him to marry her, going against culture and tradition to approach a man of higher status and virtually demand that he marry her. We see her remain the night with him, despite the risk to their reputations. They had the opportunity to sin, away from the eyes of men. But they were faithful. They remembered that it is the eyes of God that matter. They knew the darkness didn’t hide them from their Lord. And above all, they were faithful despite temptation.

What brought Ruth here in the first place? Her mother-in-law sent her, and she obeyed. She went out on a limb, putting her reputation and even her safety on the line. And for what? To find a redeemer for her family. See, Ruth was a faithful woman. Ruth submitted to Naomi. She placed the needs of the family ahead of her own. She put her covenant obligation to Naomi and to God, her covenant obligation to look out for her family, ahead of herself. Even Boaz recognizes this. He praises her for “not going after young men.” Ruth had met plenty of younger men, men her age, in Boaz’ field. But she asked Boaz, a man old enough to be her father, to marry her instead. She could have married someone else – for love or for money, as Boaz put it, “whether poor or rich.” But she chose covenant loyalty, faithfulness to God and to Naomi, instead. She was a woman of faith, whose faith was not just held in her heart – it was expressed through her actions.

Why did Boaz respond the way he did? Asking her to stay the night was a risk to his reputation. But he was concerned for her safety. Harvest time was party time in ancient Israel. Who knows who Ruth might have run into in the dead of night if she went off on her own. See, Boaz was faithful. Boaz protected Ruth for the night at the risk of his own reputation. Why did he send her off with a load of grain? It might have been taken the wrong way – as a payment for questionable services. But again, Boaz is a faithful man. In doing this, Boaz not only provided for the women’s physical needs, but he gave Naomi a down payment. He promised Naomi that, one way or another, she would be redeemed. Her fortunes would change. Her needs would be met. And she, like Ruth, would be sheltered and protected. Boaz was a faithful man.

Ruth leaves Boaz knowing she will be redeemed. But she doesn’t know Boaz will do it. Here we are at the end of chapter three, and the author leaves us hanging. Just when the guy and the girl finally talk about their relationship, when they finally admit their feelings, when they finally tell each other, “I want to marry you,” our author throws in another roadblock. See, there’s another guy. A guy with a stronger claim than Boaz. A guy who has first dibs on Ruth.

And Boaz refuses to go behind his back, or marry Ruth anyway. That wouldn’t be right. The other guy has a legitimate claim. Boaz respects that. He respects the law. He honors God and will not do what is improper. See, I think Boaz knew he was a redeemer, but the reason he hasn’t brought this up to Ruth or Naomi himself is because he knows he’s not first in line. Out of respect for the other man, out of respect for God and his Law, Boaz waits his turn. Boaz was faithful to Ruth, to God, and to his responsibilities.

Ruth was a faithful woman. Boaz was a faithful man. That’s the message here. Against a backdrop of scandal and suggestiveness, despite temptation, this woman and this man remain true to God and to their covenant obligations.

I find one phrase in our story to be so interesting. Remember back to chapter two. Boaz has just met Ruth in the field. Impressed by her faithfulness, he says, “The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!” Remember that prayer? Boaz asked that the Lord, under whose wings Ruth had taken refuge, would give her a rich reward for her faithfulness. Look at chapter three. Do you see something familiar? It’s Ruth’s words – her marriage proposal, actually: Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.

Boaz asks God, who spread his wings over Ruth, to reward her. Now here’s Ruth asking for that reward from Boaz! Using his own words! It’s ironic, actually. Talk about your words coming back to you. Ruth asks Boaz to answer his own prayer!

There’s an important lesson about prayer here. There was a man trapped by a flood, who took refuge on the roof of his house. A man of religious conviction, him, he prayed to God to save him. And in due time a guy in a rowboat drifted over to the house and called out, “Jump in! I’ll save you!”

“No,” the man replied. “God will save me!”

You know the rest. A canoe comes by, and the guy in it calls the man to jump in. Again the man chooses to trust God rather than men, right? A zodiac pulls up. The driver pleads with him to come, but he refuses. After all, God will save him. At last, a helicopter lowers a line to him, but the man still believes in God and won’t take human help.

Then he drowns.

He arrives in heaven, realizes what happened, and, bewildered, looks to God and asks, “God, I trusted you. Why didn’t you save me?”

“What do you mean? I sent you a rowboat, a canoe, a zodiac, even a helicopter!”

Yeah, it’s corny. But all too often we pray and then wait, thinking that God has to do something directly, something spectacular or miraculous, to answer our prayer. We forget that God works through means. We forget that God uses men and women to accomplish His purpose.

The Bible tells us that the steps of a man are ordered by the Lord. Not one thing we do, not even the tiniest action we take, was unplanned by God. His plan includes everything we do, not just what He does Himself. Many of the answers to prayer that He gives are the seemingly ordinary actions of human beings.

God doesn’t want His people to sit on their hands and pass the time until He does something. God uses people who are already in motion. People like Ruth, who trusted God to act and then acted on that faith. People like Naomi, who put their faith in God’s plan and then made their own plans in faith that God would use them.

Ruth showed her faith in God and her faithfulness to Naomi through action. She trusted God, and she had heard Boaz ask God to bless her. But she didn’t sit around and wait for a miracle. She acted – not because she didn’t trust God, but because she trusted Him to act in her life. She stepped out, put it all on the line, and acted in faith – faith that God would use her decisions to answer her hopes and prayers. Boaz showed his faith by acting against his best interest, risking his own reputation, in the hope and the trust that God would turn his actions into divine glory.

A man named William Carey, in the seventeenth century, once called his brothers and sisters to action in world missions. At the time, people thought that if God wanted to save the heathen, He would do it without any help from human beings. Carey changed all that with a sermon that had two points: Expect great things from God, and attempt great things for God.

When Paul and his missionaries were wondering where God would send them, they didn’t wait. They didn’t sit around. They didn’t examine their feelings or look for some ill-defined sense of peace about their options. No! They moved! They were already heading toward Europe when God sent a messenger in a dream to Paul, calling him to Macedonia, confirming the direction they were already taking!

God still does miracles. But far more often he works through the faithfulness of His people. Most of God’s responses to prayer are mediated through the trusting actions of His people.

God hears the prayers of His people, as they are faithful to Him. We must show our faith by our deeds! We ask, and we must act! God may sometimes create from nothing, but he also shapes and molds the actions and intentions that we offer! We are to pray and then to work for God’s glory in trust that God will use our decisions – that our decisions themselves are ordained by God in eternity past, that what we do fits into His plan!

Don’t ever be afraid to act because you are worried about thwarting God. Naomi didn’t. Ruth didn’t. Boaz didn’t. They all acted and trusted God with the results. God’s will cannot, CANNOT ever be defeated or missed. It will come to pass. And if we live our faith in our deeds, if we trust God in our actions, we can be assured that God will give us the privilege of seeing our actions fulfill His purpose.

– Jeff Jones

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Sermon Manuscript – 11 March 2007

Our society, like any other in history, has its idols. For us, they tend to be the living, breathing type rather than the carved wood and stone variety of past years. I remember sitting in a class watching a video of spirit worshippers in Taiwan – it was the weirdest thing. They carried their idols, carved wooden things, on litters like ancient kings. Gods that need to be carried around like my six-month-old son, being venerated and worshipped by adoring crowds – some of whom would beat themselves until they bled as a show of devotion.

It’s easy to call that idolatry. Most of us would look at that and think, “That’s definitely pagan.” And yet we go home, turn on our TVs, and splashed all over CNN is the latest news about the funeral of a dead Playboy model – a story that’s been constant in the news for weeks and just won’t die! You watch Entertainment Tonight and they devote a different episode each day to different eulogies said at the service. It’s sad, and it’s a real indictment of our culture. The producers of those shows are probably spending thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars to feed our appetite for the latest dirt on the hottest celebrities.

Watch the Oscars, and it’s easy to wonder if our culture has really moved past the idolatry thing.

See, to us, these are “great people.” They’ve made spectacular films. We’ve got other idols, too. They’ve written the most powerful software programs. They’ve led the troops in battle to victory over terrorists and insurgents. They’ve overturned a corrupt government and are steering the country in a new direction.

Some of these are real accomplishments. Some of these things definitely make the world a better place. You could argue that God is using some of these people to accomplish good in the world.

But do these accomplishments make a man (or woman) great? What is greatness?

What measure or gauge or standard do we use? Popularity? Results?

Do we even have the right or authority to make that judgment? What about God’s opinion? Isn’t that what really matters?

At the beginning of our chapter, we meet a man named Boaz. The text tells us he is a “worthy man,” or “a man of standing.” The Hebrew word used here usually refers to might in battle, and often means “man of valour.” It is used in Judges to describe Gideon, who took three hundred men against a half a million Midianites in the dead of night and scared them out of the country. Yet Boaz is not a warrior – or, if he is, the text doesn’t tell us. We know of no battles. We hear of no victories, no decisive engagements. So if Boaz is a worthy man in the eyes of the author, it’s not because of some feat at arms.

We do know he’s a wealthy man, and that’s probably what the word is referring to. He’s got fields. He can afford to hire many labourers and servants – all the young men and women working in that field were probably either hired hands or members of his household. Either way it tells us he had money. Later we’ll see him buy a piece of land in a business transaction and take a wife as part of the deal – an act that would have been quite costly in the long run, but he could afford it.

But does wealth make a man great? Does money make someone “worthy” in God’s eyes? Of course not. Every penny of that wealth and every square inch of that land were gifts given to Boaz by a generous God. The wealth wasn’t even his own – it was on loan from above. As is the property of all of us.

If not wealth, maybe wisdom or experience? Does age make one worthy? Boaz was not a young man. In verse 8, Boaz addresses Ruth in a fatherly way: “Now, listen, my daughter.” That phrase appears twice elsewhere in the passage, in verses 2 and 22 – both times from the mouth of Naomi. Her mother-in-law. Naomi recognized the name of Boaz when Ruth told it to her. She knew who he was. She knew he was a relative. The two had probably known one another before Naomi left Bethlehem, through her husband Elimilech. Boaz might have been in his fifties by this time.

The Bible does tell us that age brings respect; and rightly so in light of the wisdom and experience that usually comes with it. But age doesn’t make a man great or worthy. Naomi’s husband chose to leave Bethlehem and run to a land of idolatry rather than repent of sin and call on God. He chose to do it his own way, make it on human terms. Naomi’s husband may have been around the same age as Boaz, but the wisdom he showed didn’t impress God.

But comparing Naomi’s husband with Boaz does give us a glimpse of what God does value in His people. Elimilech left the land that God had promised to Israel. Boaz stayed. Elimilech thought he’d do better on his own away from his covenant with God. Boaz stayed in the land and remained God’s faithful follower. Elimilech didn’t think God would keep His promises. Boaz trusted those promises.

Boaz was a loyal man. When he first met Ruth, he praised her highly. He talked about what Ruth had done for Naomi, about her faithfulness. He pronounced a blessing on her, asking that God would reward her for what she had done.

Boaz was a faithful man. He knew the law of Israel. He allowed a gleaner to work in his field, and
ordered that she be treated with respect.

Boaz was a generous man. He told his workers to pull stalks of barley from the sheaves and leave them for Ruth. This was his own grain. No law required him to give it away. And more than that, he gave Ruth a meal to eat, a meal like she probably hadn’t had in months. Did you notice that Boaz, the man, served Ruth, the woman? Generous, and a gentleman! Actually, in that culture, women served men their food. What Boaz did was astonishing! Even more remarkable, if you remember that this is a poor foreign woman being served a hot meal by a rich man in his own field!

Is that how we treat people in need? Do we even treat our families with this sort of kindness? Remember, these two eventually get married. Husbands, do we treat our wives like this? We can all learn from Boaz.

Boaz was so generous that Ruth went away with 30 pounds of grain. That’s a huge amount. The daily wage in the ancient world, measured in grain, was between a half-pound and a pound per day. Ruth took away one or two month’s worth in just one day of gleaning! That wouldn’t have happened without Boaz.

Boaz didn’t do this because he had a crush on Ruth. Ruth worked in that field for six or seven weeks – the whole harvest – and we don’t hear about any other conversations between her and Boaz. Yes, probably they did meet from time to time, but the chapter closes at the end of the harvest and Ruth is still single in her mother-in-law’s house. In the next chapter, Ruth has to go propose to him! Obviously, marriage wasn’t the first thing on this guy’s mind, at least not at this point in the story.

No, the behavior of Boaz is motivated by his character, a unique and special character. Boaz saw things through God’s eyes. In Ruth, he saw a woman who was faithful to God, who expressed her faith through loyalty and kindness toward Naomi. Boaz saw a woman who trusted God and valued her family. A woman who knew the Jewish law – after all, she was taking advantage of her right to glean that field; who not only knew that law by its letter, but lived that law in its spirit.

God doesn’t give us rules and regulations and laws and covenants to make us Pharisees, obsessed with the details and letter of the law. God cares about the spirit of the law. And Boaz understood that. When you know the spirit of the law, you go beyond the letter of it. Boaz only had to allow Ruth to glean after the harvesters went through, but he told her to work in among them. Boaz didn’t have to offer her a hot meal, but he not only did that – he served her with his own hand! He knew it was a hot day and that she was thirsty, and that this would slow her down. So he told her to drink from his own workers’ supply.

A great man is one who is humble before God and who walks according to His ways. A worthy man, in God’s eyes, is one who not only obeys God’s Word but lives God’s Word. Who lives and feels and thinks and acts as if it’s true in everything it says. Who lives as if it’s the only thing that matters.

Look how generous Boaz was! What keeps us from being so free with our own possessions? I think one of the biggest restraints on our generosity is our fear of the future. We are simply not as free in our giving as we could be because we worry that we might need it later. I’m not just talking about money here. We’re the same way with our time – there is so much work that needs to be done for God’s glory out there in the world, but we don’t make the time to help like we should. We’re stingy with time and money because we fear that if we give it away, we’ll lose something.

Boaz had a character that trusted and reflected God’s promises. That’s a covenant character. God has made us promises as part of His covenant with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will bless us and keep us. He will be there with us, through disaster and pain and suffering right into eternity itself. And God guaranteed these promises, this covenant, to us with what was most precious to Him – the life, the blood of His own Son. There’s no way in heaven or earth or in all eternity that He will break those promises. And when we understand and believe and live like God is a God of promise, then we can give it all for Him.

See, God has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love him. He has promised to provide for His people. One of the reasons that the church exists at all is to be a place where believers can find help and support. We have to trust him! We must believe in Him! Faith brings freedom. Faith frees us because it removes the burden of tomorrow from our shoulders and places it at the feet of God – who’s already planned tomorrow out! The kind of generosity and kindness Boaz showed is only possible from one who knows God and trusts God. It’s only possible if we understand that God is a sovereign and all-powerful God who works all things according to His will, and who loves us as His own children. It can only happen if we trust God to keep His promises.

– Jeff Jones

Sermon Manuscript – 4 March 2007

One of the first contemporary worship songs I ever heard was “Awesome God.” Even years later, it’s one of my favourite songs. It paints a picture of a big God. It doesn’t just mention the awesomeness of God – it describes it. Our God is an awesome God. He reigns over heaven above. He reigns with wisdom. With power. With love.

When you leave the chorus of the song and get into the verses, which aren’t sung as often, the picture of God gets even bigger. And scarier. It paints a portrait of God that many people don’t like to think about. There is thunder in His footsteps. Lightning in His fists. Our God is an awesome God. Judgment and wrath he poured out on Sodom. Mercy and grace He gave us at the cross.

I have been told of church teachers who refuse to let this song be sung – because it makes God sound angry and harsh.

It might. The real important question, though, is this: does the song paint an accurate picture? What kind of God is revealed in the Bible? Does the Bible tell us that’s what God is like?

It does. Yes, it does. It tells us about a God who is in total control of all things. It commands us to obey Him and believe in Him. Just in this passage, we see God stepping into ordinary human events, bringing food to His people after a devastating famine. The whole book of Ruth is a series of convenient and amazing coincidences, all of which remind us that the seemingly ordinary things of life are actually perfectly arranged to suit God’s purpose. Including the bad things. Including deaths and disaster. The God of the Bible brings food and famine, builds nations and destroys cities. He gives men life and strikes others dead, heals the sick and sends plagues, forms light and creates darkness, brings peace and ordains wars. The same Christ who healed the lepers also took a whip and physically beat the moneychangers in the temple. Among all his talk of heaven, Jesus talked more about hell than anyone else in the Bible.

A God like that scares people. As C.S. Lewis put it, he’s not a tame lion. Ours is not a fluffy, feel-good marshmallow in the sky kind of God. He is not a teddy bear God who just makes you feel better when you’re feeling down before you stick Him back in the closet. This is not a God we can control. No. This is a God who controls us. God is doing His own thing and sometimes the effects on us are not pleasant.

That makes God hard to deal with. It’s not easy being a Christian. Bad things still happen to us, and usually we don’t know why. When someone dies, when the pink slip comes, when the test comes back positive, an all-powerful God can look to our human eyes more like a problem than a solution. That’s certainly how the women of our passage felt. They had all lost their husbands. They had all been plunged into poverty. They were alone and vulnerable in a dangerous and hostile world; three single women in an age where women simply did not make it on their own.

It’s interesting to read how Naomi saw the situation. Many people today would try to divorce these disasters from God. He’s a good God. He would have stopped this if he could. He weeps with us, shares our pain – he’d never cause it. That might be a pleasant and likable God, for sure. The problem is, He wouldn’t be a God who could give any hope when things go wrong. If He couldn’t stop it in the first place, how can He be expected to help at all? And to Naomi’s credit, even though her life had literally fallen to pieces around her, she doesn’t believe in a God like that. She knows God controls all things. She knows that nothing comes to pass outside of His will – nothing at all.

Now, it’s all fine and well and good to know that. God’s in control. That’s a great idea in the abstract, in theory. But how do you respond to an all-powerful God who’s just dropped a ton of bricks on your head? How do you relate to a God who plans and appoints and oversees all things, when those things now all seem to working against you?

But the Bible is a realistic book. It doesn’t ignore these questions. Our passage shows us three ways, three examples of people who dealt with that problem.

Exhibit A is Orpah, one of the widowed daughters-in-law. She comes from a religious background, but it was a pagan faith. She had worshiped idols before, limited gods who had some power in certain areas of life or particular regions but not unlimited power over all things. She’d been in Naomi’s family for ten years; she knew about the God of Israel, how He claimed He alone was God, that He had all power and all authority. That must have been a totally new concept to her – a God who does what He pleases, who wasn’t limited by space or time or human activity. It must have seemed refreshing, even exciting to Orpah to learn about such a big and powerful God. A beautiful idea. A great concept.

At least until that idea became reality, and that concept took concrete form. See, God is more than an idea or a concept. That God of power took her husband away from her and dropped her into poverty. God’s power looks a little different when things aren’t going well, doesn’t it? How will Orpah deal with this kind of God? She can go ahead to the land of this God, the people of the very being who brought this disaster upon them. Or she can try to ignore God and what He may be doing or saying through these events – try to make it on her own, in her own way, without His help or guidance or advice.

And that, sadly, is how Orpah dealt with her problems. She did it her own way. She walked back down the road to Moab.

What’s sad is there’s nothing down that way. You can try to ignore God, but it’s just pretending anyway. If He controls all things, you aren’t going to get away. And since salvation is found in no one else, you’re dooming yourself. God’s power is unlimited. His patience is not.

Exhibit B is Naomi herself. She is proof positive that the Bible is a realistic book. This is a woman who struggles with faith. She knows God. She knows who He is. And she has faith in Him – she’s started a dangerous journey back to her homeland because God is there, because His blessing is there. But God has been hard on her. His work in her life has not been merciful – it has been painful. Naomi believes God is in total control, and that all the disasters that have come to her are His doing. But then she assumes that He must be angry with her – He must be punishing her for something. Maybe He is. But maybe He isn’t – maybe He’s testing her, or making her stronger. But she is fixed on the idea that God has testified against her, has struck her down. She believes in God, but sees herself as His enemy. She doesn’t know why, and she wants to. She’s bitter. Very bitter.

Her faith is real. It’s genuine. But it’s not a perfect faith. She has slid into bitterness. And bitterness clouds your judgment. It blinds you. It handicaps you. We see in the text how it affects her judgment. In one breath she prays that her God would bless her daughters-in-law. In the very next breath she’s trying to send them back to their old ways and their old gods – guaranteeing God’s judgment upon them. Her motives may be pure; she wants them to be provided for, and she can’t do it. But she’s trusting God to do it for her – does He have only enough grace for one woman? She may be hoping that sending them away will shelter them from God’s judgment on her, the disasters she thinks are aimed at her. But sending them back to Moab and its god Chemosh is no shelter from God’s wrath. It’s a magnet.

Even when she returns to Bethlehem with Ruth, Naomi’s bitterness prevents her from recognizing God’s mercy and grace in her life. She accuses God of making her empty. But she has returned with a loving and committed young woman who just gave everything she has ever known up for Naomi. She says the Almighty has dealt bitterly with her, but she had just arrived safe from a long journey through a very dangerous land, at a time when there wasn’t a highway patrol.

Naomi dealt with her problems by blaming God, by being bitter. But that doesn’t solve anything. It didn’t make Naomi feel better. It deceived her into sending Orpah away from God – the only real hope. It blinded her to God’s activity around her. It took away her hope.

Our final exhibit is Ruth. Like the rest, she’s a widow. She’s poor. Her life is a wreck. And she faces the same choice Orpah did. Take a risky trip back to Israel, all in hopes that the God of Naomi will provide for them. The same God who Naomi believes took her husband and her life away. Or go back to the only home she’s ever known, to her comfortable religion, to a homeland she loves.

What does she do? Ruth puts her faith in God anyway. And she does so in a way that burns all the bridges behind her. She swears a solemn oath to stay with Naomi, to take the Israelites as her people, to take this very same God as her God. She will live where she lives. She will die where she dies. Her oath calls on God to strike her down if she breaks it – and given recent events, she had every reason to expect this would happen. She gave up her homeland, her family, for Naomi and for God. She was faithful to them. She showed amazing faith and loyalty.

See, Ruth trusted in God because there is no other way. If God is who Naomi believes He is, there is no hope anywhere else. And if God is really as sovereign as all that, if God really is in control, then all these disasters are no longer pointless tragedies. They are not useless accidents. No! They have a purpose. There is a plan, a point, a sense in it all somewhere. There must be a reason, and if there’s a reason there is hope. And that hope can only be found in God.

But it’s even more than that. How did she do this, in spite of all that happened? Where did she find this faith? How is it humanly possible? That kind of faith, that kind of trust and loyalty isn’t natural to human beings. We see the hand of God in this young woman’s life. He gives her the gift of faithfulness. God created in Ruth a heart that aimed to please Him and care for her mother-in-law. In the midst of all the suffering, God has given Ruth hope. This is not something she generated herself. This was a fire that only God could start.

We all have faced or will face tragedy and disaster in our lives. It doesn’t matter if you believe in Christ or not. Loved ones will die. You may get sick or be crippled in an accident. You may lose your job. Your kids may go down all the wrong roads. Something’s bound to happen. Maybe it already has. Maybe you’re wrestling with God, with faith. Why believe if this is what happens in God’s world?

Don’t be like Orpah, deciding to ignore God and try life on her own. There’s no hope that way – only God’s judgment and punishment. And don’t be like Naomi, as natural and easy as it might be. Bitterness only hurts you and the ones you love, and it robs you of your hope. Naomi was so lost in her bitterness that she failed to see God’s hand in her life giving reason to hope.

Trust God, like Ruth did. Even when you think there’s every reason not to do so. Because this is God’s world. Because He is an awesome God. Yes, He can be terrifying. But it’s that very power that makes trust and prayer possible. There is salvation in no one else. Put your faith and your trust in God, even if it seems that you can’t humanly trust God yourself. Because God creates faith. He is working in you – to will and to work. Ask God for faith. Ask Him for strength. Everything else in heaven and on earth can change and will pass away, including our own works. But God doesn’t. Put your faith in the One who never changes.

– Jeff Jones

Sermon Manuscript, 25 February 2007

In the days when the 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. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. (ESV)

Ruth begins so tragically. Put yourself in the shoes of Naomi and it seems the hits just keep on coming. First of all, you’re living at a time when your people keep getting raided and invaded and conquered and exploited. And as if that wasn’t enough, there were civil wars – some of the tribes versus the tribe of Ephraim, and later everyone against Benjamin. Yes, there were judges, but they were only effective while they were alive. When the judge died, the next war soon followed.

To top all that, there was a bad famine. The winds scorched and dried up the ground, no rain came, the trees withered, animals dropped dead in the fields. And this was no local problem – it affected the whole land of Israel. It was so bad that Naomi’s husband decided to take the wife and kids and leave, and the only place to go was to one of Israel’s enemies – Moab, one of the same nations that had conquered them before.

They got there and before things can really settle down and get better, her husband dies. Suddenly. They weren’t expecting it. Now widowed, Naomi has to depend on her sons for support. They go to work, meet nice local girls, and get married – finally, some joy! Some happiness, right!

Years and years pass, and something’s wrong. Did you notice that neither couple had kids? After ten years? To be childless in that time – it was a BIG problem. There weren’t retirement plans and RRSPs back then. Children and grandchildren WERE the pension plan in that age. And just as things are starting to look bleak again, disaster: both men die. We don’t know how, but we can be certain that this was an utter catastrophe. Now Naomi is widowed AND childless, far away from all her blood relatives, far away from her land, far away from God.

Where was God in all this?

Actually, that’s the wrong question. We have to look at the story again, this time from God’s perspective. See, before he brought Israel to the Promised Land, God made a covenant with them. They would be His people – He would care for and protect them. He would be their God – they would worship Him alone and live according to His standards.

But this was the time of the judges, and it was an evil time. Look back to the last verse of Judges – that book ends on a very sour note: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Does that sound familiar to you? Could that describe our land? The Israelites saw the gods of their neighbors, the impressive statues and the mysterious high places. They learned that worship involved prostitutes – and they couldn’t resist the temptation. They turned from God and, in the Bible’s words, “whored after” idols. Are we much different, as a society? Chasing after money, comfort, fame, new cars, that dream vacation?

Nothing is an accident in God’s world, where He works all things according to the counsel of His will. Especially not famines. God promised His people that if they didn’t obey Him, He would curse them in various ways. One way was war. Another one was famine. God took away the crops and the fruits and the rains. Bethlehem’s name means “house of bread” – but there was no bread to be found in the house of bread. Israel disobeyed – God was still there, and He kept his promise, all right.

He promised something else – that if His people would turn back to Him, He would save them, and bless them again, giving their crops back and defeating their enemies. The wars and famines were punishment, for sure, but they were also calls for repentance, reminders to the Israelites of their covenant obligations. When the famine struck, they should have turned. They should have repented.

Have we seen disaster strike in our lifetimes? Was it an accident that the Twin Towers fell? Do you think God tripped and dropped Katrina on the Gulf Coast by accident? Are wars in Afghanistan and Iraq signs of God’s favour with us? How do we react? What is our gut feeling when disaster strikes? Do we as a people turn and beg for forgiveness for the state of our culture?

Or do we ignore it? Now a famine’s hard to ignore, so Elimilech decided that he’d go elsewhere. Rather than heed God’s promise and repent, and turn from his sin and call on God’s name, he left the land of promise instead – he’d rather do it on his own. It’s ironic, actually. Elimilech means, “God is my king,” yet he traveled to a foreign land and lived under a foreign people where a foreign god named Chemosh was king.

And what did it gain him? He died in a foreign land, was buried in enemy soil. He left his wife and two kids behind. His sons hadn’t learned, either. The Hebrew word used here for the son’s marriages is not the usual word, but one used elsewhere for illegitimate or sinful unions. God had forbidden his people to marry Caananite women. And while Moab wasn’t in Canaan, and so by the letter of the law might have been okay, the purpose of that law, in God’s own words, was so that his people would not go after pagan gods. They were not to be joined with idolatry. But Moab served another god, and Naomi herself tells us that Orpah’s family had other gods.

Fruitless crops aren’t the only kind of curse. Neither of Naomi’s sons were fruitful in having children. Childlessness was seen as a curse back then, as a punishment. While that wasn’t always the case, certainly, it’s hard to read this story without seeing this as a sign of God’s displeasure with the marriages. Then both men died suddenly, without heirs – a curse in itself.

Where was God in all this? Right there every step of the way. God kept His promises – Israel had no cause to complain. God promised disaster if they disobeyed – and He kept that promise.

See, we like it when God gives us good things – when he keeps his promises to bless us. We don’t like it as much when he gives us bad things – when he curses us for our disobedience. There’s nothing wrong with crying out to God in pain, or praying for strength or for rescue. That shows faith in God. That shows trust in His promises. But that’s not what Elimilech did. That’s not what his sons did. When things got rough, when all these curses and disasters fell, they decided to take care of things themselves. I wonder what they were thinking: these are just accidents. These are just coincidences. Ill-fortune. Bad luck. It’s not like these things happened for a reason. After all, God is good, right? He couldn’t possibly have anything to do with this.

Those, my friends, are the words of an atheist. They are not the words of a believer. Nothing happens in God’s world without going through the hand of God. There are no purposeless tragedies – they may be senseless, to us anyway, but they do have a purpose, whether we understand or not.

If there are hard times in your life, stop and pray. What is God telling you? Examine yourself. Examine your life. Is He calling attention to some hidden sin, some self-centered thing in your life? Have you left the land of promise by trusting in something else? Do you have an idol in your land? Maybe it isn’t a sin – Job hadn’t done anything wrong, after all. Bad things aren’t always punishment. But even Job needed to grow. Even Job had lessons he had to learn. Is God using hard times to strengthen you? To build you up?

But in God’s plan, disaster isn’t just punishment. It is never an end in itself. It has another, more positive purpose. The account of the stay in Moab brings to mind the story of Joseph. He was sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual assault, thrown in prison. He had a hard life, all right. Where had God been in the midst of all this sin and catastrophe?

God doesn’t make promises without intending to keep them – and keeping promises requires a plan. God used those disasters to make Joseph the prime minister of Egypt, and to prepare the land for a famine. When that famine came, people came from all over to buy food from Joseph – including the very brothers who sold him into slavery. When Joseph met his brothers that day, and they trembled before him, Joseph understood what God had been doing through all that disaster and evil. Those things – even the evil things – had been no accident. “You meant it for evil,” Joseph told them. “But God meant it for good, so that many lives would be saved.”

Isn’t that interesting? One series of events. Two intentions. The brothers committed sin, because what they did was done from malice. God fully intended for it to happen too; He had decided and planned and ordained that even these wicked things come to pass. But the difference was that God planned it for good. Even the sinful natures and wicked deeds and evil wills of those brothers were tools used by God to accomplish His purpose. Those disasters wound up saving countless lives.

Like the story of Joseph, the story of Elimilech is a tragic one. And like the story of Joseph, all the evil and all the disasters and all the sin that took place happened for a reason. God used the sinful actions and the punishments he brought upon them to pave the way for salvation. Even as Elimilech turned away from God and dragged his family into a wicked land, God was working through that to bring salvation. Without those disasters, Ruth never would have met Naomi, never would have married Boaz. How would David have been born? Where would Jesus’ parents have come from?

When hard times come, don’t ever forget that God is still there. He is working right in the middle of it. All things are being shaped to the good of those who love Him. That is a promise. God has promised that all our sufferings will be as nothing compared to what we have in Jesus. If you’re in pain – God has promised to take it away. If you fear death – God has promised eternal life. If you struggle with sin – God has promised His Holy Spirit to give the strength to overcome it. If you are lonely – God has promised to never leave you or forsake you. Call on His name. Trust in Him.

God is a God of promise. And he always, ALWAYS, keeps his promises. If you love him and trust Him alone for your salvation, if you are one of His people who are called by His name, He is working all things together for YOUR good.

– Jeff Jones