The Vineyard Church of North Grand Rapids
Welcome to the Family
Welcome to the Family!
Ray Befus June 8, 2008 Ruth 4
1. See any good movies lately? How about the latest Indiana Jones movie? Oh Yeah . . . Old Guys Rule! My brother told me that Iron Man is better than Indiana Jones! I like action movies with happy endings. You can hardly do better than Bruce Willis in Die Hard. All the bad guys take a bullet and, in the end, Bruce's wife's heart melts and she takes him back-bruised and bloodied-to the hotel with her. It doesn't get any better than that!
2. I like happy endings; I hate dark comedies and dark romances. People will say, you need to see this romantic comedy. It's a little dark, but you will laugh your insides out. Yeah . . . in the last scene the two lovers die in the process of planning their wedding; he's killed in a mafia shoot out and she, in her sorrow, overdoses on cocaine . . . leaving behind their love child to be raised by polygamists in west Texas. It's pretty sad, but it's really funny . . . it's a funny kind of sad. Friends, I don't need any kind of sad added to my life on a beautiful summer evening. My life is already hard enough. I'm holding out for happy endings.
You can bet I'll be at the final movie in the Chronicles of Narnia series-The Last Battle. Now there's a happy ending! Near the story's end, the children whom we've gotten to know through their adventures in Narnia are involved in a terrible train wreck. Everyone is killed-mom and dad, and each of the children. But they don't know it-kind of like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense . . . but without the dark ending. The children are, once again, surrounded by beauty and mystery and wonder and familiar faces. Then the children see him again in all his strength and beauty: Aslan the great lion. They can see that he's talking but, at first, they aren't able to catch his words. Who can be sure what all this means, though it's as marvelous as every other trip to Narnia.
"'There was a real railway accident,' said Aslan softly. ‘Your father and mother and all of you are-as you used to call it in the Shadowlands-dead. The term is over; the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.' And as he spoke he no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before".
4. Where does this deep longing for happy endings come from? From God, I think. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3 that God has set eternity in the human heart-a nagging feeling that more is going on in this life than meets the eye, a sense that this present, difficult life is not all there is, that there has to be more, that a wonderful surprise may still be waiting for us. We shouldn't give up on God or people, we shouldn't check out because of stressful problems or poor health; we shouldn't cash in our faith. There's a chance that our story's end may be the best part of all.
5. Through and through, the Bible urges us to hold out for a happy ending-to hang on to dreams, to pray in faith, to press on with hope, to keep loving strangers, to keep investing with confidence in God's promises. No book in the OT stirs up the hope of a happy ending than the book of Ruth. This short story begins in a valley, but ends on a mountain top. Circumstances surrounding two women are cloaked in darkness in chapter 1. But the night is darkest before the dawn, and the first streaks of sunrise begin to break through in chapter two. God has not forgotten these two. He's already working to redeem Naomi's bad decisions and he seems to be overlooking her dismal attitudes to bring good out of evil. Ruth, the outsider who doesn't know much about God or Scripture, is about to be overwhelmed by God's grace and kindness. Her nightmares are going to be swallowed up in dreams come true.
This morning we're finishing this four part series, dipping into chapter 4 (TNIV, p 180)-the happiest of endings. In chapter three, Ruth-a childless widow-has boldly gone after an older man, Boaz, and in the most direct and alluring manner possible, has communicated to him that she wants him to marry her (and take care of both her and her mother-in-law, Naomi). This all happens after a big party in the dark of night, shrouded in mystery and wonder. In chapter four, the sun rises, and everything is out in the open. PRAY.
I. THREE SURPRISES IN RUTH'S FINAL CHAPTER.
A. SURPRISE: Boaz loves Ruth!
Boaz is not just an old bachelor who is being pushed into a legal corner, forced by a lonely young widow to take care of family business by marrying her and buying her mother-in-law's land. He loves the girl and can't believe that she would ever, in a thousand years, think he was a great catch! When the sun comes up in chapter four, Boaz doesn't waste a minute: he's racing to the altar. At morning's first light, he heads straight Bethlehem's city gates where the city fathers gathered each morning to take care of business and local government.
The background for what transpires takes place can be read in Deuteronomy 25:5-10. The thing to notice here is that this old law applies to brothers-in-law of widows in that place and time. The law applied to brothers-in-law. Brothers-in-law were responsible to take care of family widows. This law had a very narrow focus.
This Scriptural law doesn't really fit the case for Naomi and Ruth. Naomi's dead husband Elimalek, apparently didn't have any brothers. Ruth didn't have any brothers in her new homeland. So, Naomi's other male relatives on her side or her dead husband's side, while encouraged by the spirit of the law to help Naomi and Ruth, weren't required to do so. Neither of these men were required by law or morality to marry Naomi or Ruth. Boaz is in it for love!
B. SURPRISE: Ruth's story is really about Naomi's redemption.
1. I'm not saying that Naomi was an especially bad person. But the writer suggests over and over again that she's stuck in resentment and bitterness-mostly toward God (1:20-21). She's opened her heart's door to cynicism and is probably a challenge to live with. The story's author leads us to believe that Ruth gave a lot more than she received from Naomi.
2. Notice this: chapter 1 begins with Naomi's losses and ends with Ruth's loving commitment two her. Chapter two ends with Ruth returning home to Naomi with the unexpected blessing of extra food. Chapter 3 ends with Ruth returning home to Naomi with another expected gift of food from Boaz. Boaz tells Ruth that he didn't want her to go back to her mother-in-law empty-handed. And chapter four ends with Naomi receiving more than she expected-perhaps more than she dreamed was possible. It's not clear that Naomi really gets it, so the story's author tells us that the women of the town can't help but celebrating God's goodness to Naomi through Ruth, then Boaz, and now the birth of a grandson (who, as Naomi's family guardian, will surely care for Naomi's every need to the end of her days (4:14-16).
Ever feel like God has forgotten about you, overlooked you, passed you by . . . and maybe he's angry with you for bad decisions that can't be undone, or attitudes that you know are hurtful to everyone around you? Naomi's redemption is the single thread that ties the whole story together. The story of Ruth is really the story of how God worked graciously in and through the people closest to a bitter woman to fill her life with kindness and love-in spite of her bad decisions and stinky attitude. There's hope for you. God hasn't forgotten about you!
C. SURPRISE: God does his best work through ordinary people who love like he loves (like Ruth and Boaz).
Chapter four ends by letting us know that God has worked in such a way as to include a noble farmer and a woman who was an outsider in the lineage of the man who will someday become Israel's greatest king-a true spiritual superhero. But, the coming hero, King David, won't even be born for a couple generations. Here in chapter four, there are no superheroes. An ordinary man and woman unlock the future with simple kindness.
2. How do you like your faith served up . . . ? With crisis and revival . . . with demonic villains and death-defying superheroes? If so, you would have loved living in the days of the Judges! Ruth's story unfolded in the days of Israel's Judges-Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jeptha, Sampson. Ruth may have been a contemporary of Gideon. If you like heaping portions of drama served up with your faith, wild and crazy rebellions and awesome, supernatural victories, the book of Judges lets us know that God sometimes works in those ways.
Or do you like your faith filled with the simple goodness of God's providence bringing rains and good harvests, working through wise and gracious people, to fill disappointed hearts with love and hope? That's the story of Ruth and Boaz. Sometimes its hard to recognize God's power in the ordinary kindness of simple people who reach out to strangers who are alone or in need. But, it's there, powerfully transforming lives, today as in Ruth's day.
3. ILLUS: We're sending a team of our ministry leaders down to Lakeland, Florida this month just to taste and see the goodness of God in the revival being reported there. But it would be an unbiblical mistake to think that there is more power or greater power at work in the dramatic shouting and dancing and singing and warring of revival meetings than there is in the simple serving that goes on ‘down home' in a single mom's night out, or the mentoring that is shared by adults and teens in our Re:Generation youth ministry, or the sponsoring or support that takes place in recovery groups where men and women like Naomi are being real about their pain. God works through revival heroes who perform miraculous kingdom feats and, he works through simple farmers who just keep planting seeds of kindness and love day by day in ordinary ways. Comparing the books of Judges and Ruth, and who God chose to bring King David into the world, I'd say that God does his best work through ordinary people like Ruth and Boaz who just keep on loving the way God loves.
TRANS: You may not have known much about the book of Ruth or paid much attention to it. But, Ruth is the heart of the OT (just as the Gospels are the heart of the NT); this beautiful short story from Israel's ancient history reveals God's heart. The story beats with God's grace, God's kindness, and God's faithfulness, God's providence.
II. TWO MESSAGES FROM THE HEART OF THE OLD TESTAMENT.
A. All of us will walk a mile or two in Naomi's shoes.
The Bible includes stories about men like Job and women like Naomi because we too will be tested by suffering. We'll launch into marriage or ministry, school or career, a new church or a new job or a new city full of hope and fresh expectations. But life is hard and, there is much that happens that God himself would not choose for us. And, at some point almost everyone will have the experience of launching out full of faith and hope, only to come home empty and bitter. Elijah lived through a season in which he believed that God had completely abandoned him. Jeremiah got the place where he decided that God had lied to him about the future and tricked him with empty promises. Pain is always shocking. But Peter say's that we shouldn't be surprised by fiery ordeals that test our faith, our willingness to keep on loving, or our hope of seeing God's promises fulfilled (I Peter 4:12). Jesus experienced all of the worst sorts of pain life can deliver. So did Naomi. But, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He will not stop working for good amid all your disappointments until your heart is filled up again with his goodness and gifts.
3. ILLUS: Nancy Guthrie, look forward to the new millienium (the year 2000), full of faith and hope. Like Naomi, she stepped into the new year with a full heart and, like Naomi, she came back empty. She tells of her experience of losing an infant daughter in her book, Holding onto Hope: Drawn by Suffering to the Heart of God (Tyndale House, 2002) "Not long after my six-month-old daughter Hope died, I was at a cosmetics counter buying some mascara. "Will this mascara run down my face when I cry?" I asked. The girl behind the counter assured me it wouldn't and asked with a laugh in her voice, "Are you going to be crying?" "Yes," I answered. "I am." We had Hope for 199 days. We loved her. We enjoyed her richly and shared her with everyone we could. We held her during her seizures. Then we let her go. The day after we buried Hope, my husband said to me, "You know, I think we expected our faith to make this hurt less, but it doesn't. Our faith gave us an incredible amount of strength and encouragement while we had Hope, and we are comforted by the knowledge that she is in heaven. Our faith keeps us from being swallowed by despair. But I don't think it makes our loss hurt any less." It is only natural that people around me often ask searchingly, "How are you?" And for much of the first year after Hope's death, my answer was, "I'm deeply and profoundly sad."
B. Judging God is never a good idea.
The story writer leads us to believe that Naomi has judged God as uncaring and harsh, maybe mean and unfair.
How do you know that you're at a place of judging God. (a) you blame him for the pain and sadness in your life because he's God, and he could have prevented it. :God has made me bitter." (b) you season your conversations with resentment. You offer doubts and suspicions when other people talk of answered prayers or feeling God's presence in worship or finding comfort in reading the Bible. Call me Marah; I don't think I can trust God anymore (c) you isolate or withdraw. You come late, leave early, or just don't join in at all. Ruth went out into the fields to do what she could to rebuild a future; as far as we know, Naomi stayed home. Ruth is a player in every chapter; Naomi chooses to stay on the sidelines. (d) you withhold your heart and blessing. You smile a thin, brittle smile from the back of the room. You don't reach out to strangers. You don't rejoice with those who are celebrating or weep with those who are being tested. You've made up your mind; God has emptied your cupboards, so you are done giving your heart away.
Buts God is not mean or punitive. His ways are mysterious and, he allows much more to happen in our world than he himself would have chosen. This ancient story reveals that bad things do happen to good people, and there are mysteries all around. But, the message of Naomi's redemption is for timeless: God has always been faithfully watching over you, redeeming your poor decisions and looking past your dismal attitudes to graciously keep his promises, fill your life with good gifts, and include you in his advancing kingdom.
ONE LIFE-CHANGING DECISION.
You may find yourself in Ruth, chapter 1 this morning. Resentful, sad, without hope. Or, you might find yourself in chapter 2, starting to wonder if God might be working again to fill your heart and mind with new possibilities. Wherever you are, a wedding celebration is in your future . . . if not in this life, than in the life to come. And you will not be sorry you hung in there, you decided to open your heart to God, and trust him with your future. A decision like that will set you free (again). PRAYER: "God, I'm here . . . I'm back".
Questions for small group discussion
As you think back over Ruth's four chapters, could you say that one chapter or another describes your inner life right now? Do you find yourself in chapter 1-deeply disappointed and sad, feeling that maybe God has intentionally brought loss into your life and left you to struggle without hope? Chapter 2-living in isolation and sadness, but feeling that God may be up to something new, listening to your prayers, and stirring up something good for your future? Chapter 3-surprised by some new developments in your life that renew hope, that make you think that maybe you should start trusting and loving and serving again like you use to do? Chapter 4-a time of unexpected fulfillment: loving without fear, serving in gratitude, and praying with hope?
Let's read Ruth, chapter 4. What thoughts, images, or feelings have stayed with you this week as you've thought about Ray's talk?
Ray commented that pain's invasion of our lives is always shocking. We probably shouldn't be surprised when crisis and hurt and even tragedy touches our lives but we often are . . . aren't we? Suffering fills the pages of newspapers every day, and the New Testament is clear: Christians have never been immune from suffering, loss, and pain. Jesus himself was a man of suffering, acquainted with pain (Isaiah 53:3). Normal Christianity includes defeats as well as victories, losses as well as wonderful gifts, heartbreak as well as celebration. Let's read I Peter 4:12-19. What part of Peter's ‘note of encouragement' stirs your thoughts or feelings?
Ray suggested that Naomi may have been judging God-as uncaring, distant, irresponsible, or even mean (to cause or even to allow her husband and two sons to die and leave her a widow in a foreign land). Naomi's judgment showed up in blaming God for her emptiness and bitterness, seasoning conversations with resentment, isolating, and withholding her heart and blessing from others. Do you think that in periods of personal sorrow and discouragement, you've-consciously or unconsciously-slipped into judging God? Tell us a little bit of your story.
We're you surprised to hear that Ruth's story is really about Naomi's redemption? Ray said that the timeless message of Naomi's redemption is for us: God has always been faithfully watching over you, redeeming your poor decisions and looking past your dismal attitudes to graciously keep his promises, fill your life with good gifts, and include you in his advancing kingdom. Whether in this life or the next, your story is going to end with a wedding celebration. How does this message touch you? Can you think of any New Testament promises that highlight the beauty of this ancient message? Here are a couple passages to get you thinking-Romans 8:28, 37-39; Hebrews 13:5; James 1:12.
Have you read William Coleman's book, The Shack? This overwhelmingly popular book is driving some Christians crazy but stirring others with hope. The book could best be described as theological fiction, and it is indeed very imaginative. At the book's heart, the author attempts to speak to the Great Sadness that he, and many Christians like him, carry through life. Have any of the book's chapters stirred hope in your heart? Tell us about your experience reading The Shack.
AMEN'd this Sermon: