A Sermon for Immanuel Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Fla.
September 1, 2013
Dr. Michael S. Beates
Forest Gump famously said, “My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” Oh my, I wish it were that simple, right? I wish all the crazy things that life throws at us ended up being sweet little treats like those we get from a box of chocolates. But you and I know that though we indeed never know what we’re gonna get in life, all too often, it is more bitter than sweet. So we need the goodness of God and the Word of God to make sense out of and to persevere through the bitter until God makes it sweet. Let’s see what the story of Ruth can show us in this regard today. I think there is encouragement in this story if we look carefully and if God gives us ears to hear. Let’s walk through the main points of this beautiful narrative so that we might see how God works His will through small and insignificant people in small and out of the way places. But before we dig in, let’s pray. . . .
The story of Ruth is one of those good news/bad news stories. Look how it begins in chapter 1: there is a famine in the land of Judah – bad news. But apparently there is food in Moab – good news; so Elimelech and his family go there. But Elimelech dies – bad news. But the two sons find wives – good news. But then the two sons die – really bad news. And that is just the first five verses! But after speeding through more than 10 years in 5 vv, the narrative slows down.
First steps after bad things happen (1:6-14)
In verses 6-14, we see a glimmer of good news – Naomi heard in Moab that there was food again in Judah, so she sets out and her two Moabite daughters-in-law start to follow her. But Naomi is a realist. Essentially, she lays it all out for them. “Look, you cannot come with me – I have nothing for you in your future. Even if I were married and conceived sons tonight, you cannot wait for them to grow into men to become husbands for you” – true enough. But then look at Naomi’s perspective in v. 13: “It is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”
Did you hear that? Naomi says that things that have happened were no mere occurrences of bad luck, no twist of fate or ill-wind of fortune. She lays her bleak life situation at God’s feet. Life is bitter because the hand of God has gone out against me. . . . Have you ever felt like that? Many followers of the Lord Jesus are unwilling to be this honest with themselves and with God. We have been lead to believe in our cultural context that we have a right to a safe, happy, and relatively comfortable life. But Naomi nails this. Her theology is sound. She knows and understands that things don’t “just happen.”
So she encourages the young ladies to go home, find security and happiness in Moab. She was a realist. There was no reason to think that things would get better for her. The worst life situation in the Ancient Near East was life as a widow with no sons. Actually, there was a worse situation than this – two or three widows with no sons. So she says, “Go home.”
But here is a principle we see in Ruth’s life: When things get really bad, commit to stay with people. See it through. Walk with your family through it. This is the context we have when Ruth gives her well-known soliloquy in vv. 16-17. And you must know that Ruth’s words here are desperate, almost blurted rather than finely spoken. She says essentially, “Where you go, I go; your people, my people; your lodging, my lodging, your God, my God. Where you die, I die.”
She commits to Naomi. She says, “You are family. May God deal with me . . . and the curse goes unspoken . . . and worse if I ever turn away from you.” Great stuff! When life turns sideways, stick with the people God has given you.
But here is a second principle: when life surprises you, do the next thing. Do the next thing. Small acts of faithfulness make the difference in difficult time. Major decisions, major changes in life need perspective. And we don’t have that perspective in the midst of earth-shaking difficulty. So you do the next needful thing. In this case it was traveling back to Bethlehem.
And look what happens in vv. 19-21when they arrive. The women of the town talk. And Naomi responds. Your notes in the margin help us here. She says, “Don’t call me Naomi [meaning pleasant], call me Mara [meaning bitter].” And hold on to your seats. Listen to what comes next. Naomi throws it down here: First she says, “the Almighty [the Shaddai] has dealt bitterly with me;” and second, “I went away full, but the Lord [just in case you’re not sure who I mean by the Almighty, I mean Yahweh!], the Lord has brought me back empty” – it’s God’s fault! And if that’s not enough, God has testified against her, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon her.
Whoa – let’s take a breath here.
Naomi is blaming God for her bitter state, for the calamity that has befallen her. . . . And our Westminster Confession of Faith agrees. In the chapter on Providence, the Assembly said, “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.” And the next paragraph essentially says God ordains whatsoever comes to pass . . . in some sense. Yes, we make decisions, some profoundly bad; yes, things happen out of our control, some unspeakably tragic. But nothing happens outside of God’s ultimate control. And the inverse is also true: everything happens within God’s control – loss, betrayal, death, bankruptcy, failure, . . . everything.
Am I commending Naomi’s attitude? No, of course not. But I understand it – and I think you understand it. How wonderful it would be if all of us in the midst of trials, tribulation, and loss could say with the psalmist, “The steadfast love of the Lord [the hesed of Yahweh] is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). And that is true: indeed God’s steadfast love is better than life itself. But God also knows our frame. The Lord knows your discouragement; He is acquainted with sorrows; He knows our frame that we are dust.
But look how chapter 1 ends – with the smallest hint of hope: They came to Bethlehem . . . “at the beginning of the barley harvest.” So when things turn upside down, commit to people, stay faithful, and do the next needful thing.
When Things Start to Turn (2:1-18)
So things take a turn for the good . . . finally. But make no mistake, things are not yet “good” – Naomi and her foreign daughter-in-law are still in a precarious position: widows without income, future, or security.
But in verse 2 Ruth says, “I’m going to go out and glean after someone in whose eyes I find favor.” The principle here is a corollary of “do the next thing.” Here the principle is when an upside down life provides an opportunity, Take initiative . . . even if it requires a small step of faith. Take initiative and see what God might do. “Doing the next thing” helps us through depressive situations when we want to turn off the lights and sleep – it’s a survival tactic. Taking initiative goes beyond this – an active investment in the future.
Look what happens when Ruth goes out to glean. The text in v. 3 says, “So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.” The Hebrew text here literally says, “It chanced a chance that she came to a portion of the fields of Boaz.” . . . “It just so happened” “As it turned out” “By coincidence” “The luck of the draw”. . . Really?
I think not. In fact, I think the writer of Ruth was winking to his readers here when this was written. God’s finger prints are all over this little seemingly insignificant happenstance. So often in life, this is how God works. Small acts of faithfulness in the course of life can become for us (and for many others of whom we are not even aware); such moments can become turning points in the large drama of our redemption and God’s cosmic plan for His world.
But then we see the next principle in this episode. Be grateful for the small kindnesses of God in the ebb and flow of life. First we see Ruth’s gratitude. Boaz notices her industriousness and rewards her with blessing in vv. 11-12. He says, “Word has gone out about your faithfulness and risky commitment to Naomi. May God reward you.” Then she expresses gratitude to him for his kindness. But she doesn’t yet know the full extent of God’s kindness. Look further down at verse 19. When she relates the story to Naomi who is incredulous at what she brought home, Naomi breaks forth with gratitude to God: “May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” She recognizes that the good things, just as the hard things, come from God. Naomi also said to her, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.”
Now this gets complicated and is difficult for our modern sensibilities, but basically what is happening here is an example of biblical “social security” – family takes care of family. It’s a sacred obligation. And Ruth had stumbled across family, a man who was now predisposed to do whatever it took to “redeem” to save from peril, to buy back from destitution relatives in desperate need.
Oh friends, do you see the Gospel in action here? God sees our desperate need, and at great, incalculable cost to Himself, buys us back from our poverty in sin. Redemption as practiced in ancient Israel was a sign pointing ahead 1000 years. It was a faint fore shadowing of a much bigger reality – a much more perfect and permanent redemption – not merely from financial or social deprivation; but from the sure prospect of judgment for our sinful and lost estate.
Finally, Have Eyes to See the Long View
But the story gets better. While the end of chapter 2 may seem like the high point, it gets higher. Though time does not allow all the details, Ruth and Naomi take a risk, leaning on the goodness of God they have seen thus far to seek even more blessing. And in short, Ruth becomes the wife of Boaz, the family is redeemed. But look at the ending in chapter 4.
Ruth has a son – a small thing, a normal thing, a blessing to be sure to Naomi and Ruth, and Boaz of course. But look at the ending.
This son, Obed became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David. And all Israel cheers. But friends, connect the dots. If there was no famine, no death, no loss, no destitution, there would be no David, or Solomon, no Joseph or Mary . . . and no Jesus Christ. Recently on Facebook John Piper wrote: “What could be more round about than the way God blessed Naomi? And in Christ the maze of your misery has a design and happy end.”
Do you see it? Ruth could not with her eyes see it, though I believe she eventually did. Seemingly tragic events, combined with seemingly small acts of faithfulness, in out of the way places by otherwise ordinary and unknown people changed the course of humanity! And if you are in Christ, Ruth’s commitment to people, her willingness to do the next thing, to take initiative, to be grateful to God . . . all these small things, in God’s kindness, led to your salvation and your everlasting hope in Christ.
Remember the words of William Cowper’s hymn “God Moves in Mysterious Ways”? One of the stanzas says:
“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.”
Ruth and Naomi saw the frowning providence in the hardship of loss, death, and hopeless deprivation. And some of us have had to stand – for far too long sometimes – with Naomi and Ruth. But behind this darkness, behind the hard providence lay blessings that would break upon them as individuals, as a family and community, and ultimately blessings for all of human kind across the world and across the centuries, even to you and me in that Pauline sense of infinitely beyond what they could see, hear, or imagine.
In closing, 1. Remind yourself of God’s faithfulness to you in the past; 2. Believe and trust that His purpose for you will prevail, no matter what today looks like; 3. Hear again The Lord’s words in Isaiah 43:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and [when you pass] through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.'”
God id with us through such times; He never leaves or forsakes us in the midst of such times. Thanks be to God.