Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Great Story - An Alien's Faith and God's Grace

Preached on Sunday, November 3, 2013
Scripture readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Ruth 2:1-12; 2:17-20; Ruth 4:13-17
Scenes outside my Door: October/November 2013
The Book of Ruth is a beautiful story: tragic and happy. It seems to show us the beauty of good people, but it shows a greater beauty than that. It shows us the beauty of gracious people who take vulnerable people under their wing. They do this because they know and trust a God who does the same. They trust in a God who takes the trouble-bound, and the poor, and the defenseless under his wings.
Boaz says as much to Ruth when he first meets her. “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. My you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wing you have come to take refuge.” (Ruth 2:12)


One of my favorite authors is G. K. Chesterton, a British writer and Christian of the early twentieth century. Chesterton wrote this. "There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever, or equally muscular, or equally fat…. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic." 
I think it takes some faith to say that. Some lives seem to fall toward one end of the scale or the other. Naomi’s family seems to have fallen, for a time, on the tragic end of the scale.
Naomi and her husband Elimelech, and their two young boys, were forced off their land by a long drought and famine. They became refugees in the land of Moab, to the southeast of the land of Israel. Perhaps there was food there because the mountains of Moab caught more rain than the hill country of Judah. Somehow they eked out a living, but Elimelech died in that foreign land. Naomi had to raise their sons alone.
As soon as the sons were old enough to marry, around the age of sixteen, Naomi found two Moabite girls, who would have been a little bit younger. But the boys died together before any children could come, and left their mother, and their young brides, to fend for themselves.
Naomi had spent ten years trying to make a life for her family in a foreign land, and she had less to show for it, in the end, than when she had begun. She had become an old woman because, by now, she was certainly in her thirties, and (therefore) practically unmarriageable.
Naomi heard that the long drought and famine at home were over. She still had her two daughters-in-law. She loved them and they loved her. They wanted to go with her.
Me and my vegetable garden after a few thorough frosts
Although this could have helped Naomi, it would be a bad idea for the girls. The people of Israel and Moab saw each other as enemies.
The common wisdom was that the daughters-in-law would have trouble being accepted in Bethlehem. The truth is that Naomi’s family could only have chosen to go to Moab because they were really desperate. It looks like most people had managed to stay put. Maybe their farm had been smaller than most in the first place.
Her daughters-in-law were still only slightly used, pre-owned candidates for marriage. Naomi was certain that they would be able to start a completely new life by just going home. She knew, and they guessed, that this would be for the best. So, one of them did just that: but not Ruth.
This was because Ruth, the pagan, had surprisingly become a person of faith, and faith had made her a person of grace. The poor refugee widow named Naomi must have taken Ruth under her wings very graciously when Ruth married her son.
Even in the tragedy of the death of a young husband who was Naomi’s young son, Naomi had shown Ruth something surprising. Naomi had shown something more that Ruth might have expected. Naomi had shown her something (someone) bigger and beyond herself.
Ruth knew how things really stood between Israel and Moab. She knew that if she went to Bethlehem she would be worse than a stranger.
But Naomi had clearly brought something from Bethlehem to Moab that attracted her. That strange country would be her country. That strange God was already not quite so strange. She wanted that God, and she wanted to go to a place, and to people, where that God was known.
This was trust, and so this was faith, and it was making Ruth into a person of grace who surprised Naomi beyond words. Ruth gave herself to Naomi. Grace always goes beyond what anyone requires, and beyond what anyone expects.
Grace is unconditional love. Grace is, first of all, what God is; because God is love. When this God truly dwells in you, you become a person of grace.
There were people in Bethlehem who were not people of grace. We don’t see much of them in the Book of Ruth. There were people who could not be trusted. There were people who could have been a danger to Ruth. But there were also many people of grace who were watchful and on guard on her behalf. There were people who cautioned her and warded off the dangers posed by the ungracious people.
The story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges. It was a time of chaos. It was a time when God’s people made their land a terrible place. They were not the people of faith, and so they were the opposite of being the people of grace. The Book of Judges gives us a sad refrain, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6; 21:25)
This even happened in Bethlehem, only we don’t see or hear much of it. What we see is the grace.
Boaz went out to his fields, where his people were bending and cutting the barley with hand scythes. He shouted: “The Lord be with you!” “The Lord bless you!” They called back. (Ruth2:4)
This was more than a common expression. This was not like one of us saying, “How are you?” without realizing that the other person is actually going to tell us how they are, because they think we might be interested.
Here were people who really listened to each other. They secretly planned and plotted how to help the innocent, and the needy, and the defenseless: people like Ruth and Naomi, and (maybe) people like you, if you had been abducted by flying saucers and taken back in time, and dumped down in that ancient place.
When Naomi and Ruth had taken the long walk from Moab to Bethlehem, and Naomi’s old neighbors and friends saw them, they said, “Can this be Naomi?” They hardly recognized her because they had last seen her as a glowing young mother and, now, here she was, almost unrecognizable as an aged woman in her thirties. But the town conspired in her favor.
Boaz knew about their story, and Ruth’s kindness, before he ever met her. He saw her working in the field and he recognized that what she did for the sake of good (what she did for others) she did with all her heart. He conspired to do her good with all his heart.
Naomi had said, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” (Ruth 1:20-21) In Hebrew, Naomi means “pleasant” and Mara means “bitter”. The great surprise, for Naomi, was that grace would make her pleasant again. It would surprise her because real grace is always unrequired and unexpected. The Lord had plans for her, for her hope and for a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
Naomi had no idea of this. She called herself bitter. She seems to have talked as if she were bitter. But she lived as if she loved others.
She wasn’t as bitter as she dearly wanted to be. She couldn’t help being excited when she thought that she could see the good things that were possible for Ruth. She couldn’t remember to live up to her bitterness when she had the chance to plot and conspire for a hope and a future for Ruth. It is the grace of God when we are able to become something good, for the sake of another person, that we thought we were never going to try to be again: a person of grace.
Naomi seemed to forget that there might be a way out of at least some of their hardship. Her husband’s farm was in some sort of state of limbo. We can’t be sure what was happening to it. It might have been lost to pay the family’s debts from the famine times, before they became refugees. It seems to have drifted outside of the clan. There were two relatives who had the means to buy the land back for Naomi’s husband’s family. They might do something.
These would be called “kinsmen-redeemers”. It was the job of someone among the relatives, if they could afford it, to step in and save the land (to redeem it) for the part of the family that had lost it. Then it would be given to the man who lost it, or to his sons. But there was no such man to give the land to. There were no sons. And Ruth wasn’t a daughter, but a daughter-in-law. A kinsman redeemer wasn’t required to come to their aid and, if one of them wanted the land, they could buy it for themselves and keep it.
There was another rule, in God’s law, that if a brother was married and died without producing a child, that man’s brother was required to marry his widow in order to produce a child (a son) who would continue that lost father’s line and hold the father’s property.
That was the law for brothers. Neither Boaz, nor the other relative were brothers of Ruth’s husband. Neither of them was required or expected to marry Ruth. Neither of them was required or expected to give the land, once they had bought it with their own money, back to a son that she might bear.
Naomi, knowing Boaz to be a man of grace, and knowing that Boaz saw Ruth as a woman of grace, conspired to have Ruth propose to Boaz. She did this, knowing that it was an outrageous and disgraceful thing for a woman to propose to a man.
The most outrageous place to dare to do it was right under the nose of everyone in town. This was at the threshing floor, where the wheat was knocked out of the heads, and the grain was separated from the chaff.
There was a party and feast at the threshing floor to celebrate the end of harvest. It was a warm harvest night and everyone slept side by side on the ground of the floor, and (after everyone was fast asleep) Ruth went to Boaz and tucked herself under the hem of his robe. Think of the strangeness of doing this in a world where men didn’t wear any pants (although they did wear loincloths).
Boaz woke up and felt a person up against his feet. This person felt very much like a woman. Ruth asked him to cover her with the corners of his robe. This is part of the madcap comedy of Ruth that grew out of tragedy: making a man wake up to find a woman under his clothes.
It was a comic proposal. The word for corners of the robe is also the word for wings. Ruth asked Boaz to take her under his wings (just as Boaz had once told Ruth that God had taken her under the divine wings; did he remember?). Boaz he said yes; but they hade to plot in order to do it right. She would have to wait, and see, and trust him.
Then Boaz tricked his kinsman into agreeing to buy the land, and then set him the completely unexpected and completely unrequired terms of having to marry Ruth in order to do it. The other relative had enough money, but money was rare. As poor as the old farm probably was, it was not worth it to spend good money for it, marry Ruth, give the land he had bought to her children, and then not have the money for his other children’s inheritance.
Boaz didn’t care what was expected. He didn’t care about what was required. He was a better kinsman redeemer than anyone expected or required him to be. He was a person of grace.
Ruth was not quite acceptable because she was a stranger and an alien in the land. God’s people hated to think of themselves as strangers and aliens in the land. They wanted to think of themselves as better than this, but God had set this model for them, and for us. Abraham had learned to call himself “a stranger and an alien” in the land. This is what it means to be someone who is called by God to be part of the great story of God’s love. (Genesis 17:8; 23:4) You are a stranger and alien when you are called to bring grace into a graceless world.
In the New Testament, the apostle Peter calls us “aliens and strangers” in the world. The reason is that we are not supposed to be more of the same old thing in this world. We are supposed to be part of the great story of God building a better world (a new heaven and a new earth): a world where people of faith also become people of grace.
You cannot be one of the people of God without some experience of being an alien and stranger. With God we become something from outside the world, by not living like those who live without faith and grace. We become a contradiction to the world as it is. We become a visible antidote to what is wrong in this world.
But, in another way, we are all aliens and strangers to God. He is the God of all grace and we are nothing like him. We are not people of grace until we know what grace is. We receive the grace of being bought and paid for by God himself. Then we know what to be.
God entered the world, in Jesus, and was treated as an alien and stranger. He was not allowed to be at home in his own creation. He was crucified and killed because he was too different. He refused to be the same old thing. Yet he was also killed as part of his plan to bring home to himself this faithless and graceless world that killed him. He was killed to make it into a new world of grace. Until we know him, and have his life in us, we belong to that old, deadly world; a world that does not live with God, or with others, as people of faith and grace.
When we hear the story of Jesus, when we get a glimpse of him, we see a strange and alien grace. It is an unexpected grace upon which we have no claim, but it claims us.
Boaz joined hands with the alien Ruth and they became the great grandparents of David. David became the earthly king of the kingdom of Israel, God’s people. God came down, in Jesus, and became a man who was descended from David the king.
God decided to be king of this world by being our kinsman redeemer on the grandest scale of all. He made us stop being alien and strange to him by making himself one of us. God lived in this world, in Jesus, as a person of faith who became for us a person of infinite grace.
This part of the story is God’s story, but it is meant to be our story. Ruth, and Boaz, and bitter old Naomi, and their little town all played a part as kinsmen-redeemers to each other.
And so they were all redeemed. Their lives were changed. They found that they had become part of a higher story in which tragedy could be changed and made into comedy, and tears could lead to laughter.
We can see in Ruth, and Boaz, and Naomi, and their little town how we can be people of faith. We do it by allowing God to make us into redeemers of others.

You all know people who need this. Will you be people of grace to them?

2 comments:

  1. I like this illustration. It is a good reminder of how powerful grace is and what grace really looks like.

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  2. I am not sure why I am being blocked.

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