Sunday, February 19, 2012

A soul cries out (Psalm 22): part 1...Psalm 22:1-11)

Life is full of ups and downs. Highs and Lows. Those times when we feel on top and can stop and look round at the great vista around us and the beauty of life and times when we find ourselves lying on a pile of bricks and it feels like there is a barrel heading straight for us. Maybe to start talking about such times we need a bit of humour.

The Psalm 22 was written by King David thousands of years ago. We don’t know the exact occasion in his life of great highs and lows that it was written for, but it captures something of the great pain and suffering that can occur in life and also the hope that we can find in those times as well.

When I was a teenager I used to write poetry, and I found a book with some of those badly written poems in them a while back and I almost cringed at the teenage angst that must have been really real at the time and the gushing of feeling that flowed into my words. To tell you the truth they are best left to gather dust or burned. But David’s poem captures something of the human condition. Something that has meant that they have stood the test of time they have rung true to each new generation of people who read them and go through what some people poetically call the dark night of the soul. When in the midst of the tough times we can feel abandoned and so alone, even God seems way off and hidden. More than that the passage transcends just mere poetry and there is the breath of the Spirit of God in these words as they paint a picture of what would come when Jesus died on the cross. The bones being out of joint, the people gambling for his cloak. It was this psalm that Jesus also chose as his last prayer his last words on the cross when he used the Jewish tradition of saying the first line of a psalm as a short hand for the whole of the poem. Fighting for breath he cried out “My God, My God why have you forsaken me’. Not a desperate cry of disbelief in the face of this worst that life could throw at him but like this Psalm a statement of faith in the midst of suffering. Were going to be using this psalm for reflections leading into Easter.

You get the picture that in the midst of the trouble that David is in that he feels most acutely the pain of aloneness and abandonment. All his friends seem to have abandoned him his people have turned on him. Even the God whom he has felt so close to all his life seems to have disappeared. So what does he do what is there here that gives hope.

In the 1970’s when there was a first rising of concern about the environment. You may vaguely remember such things as the energy crisis in 1973 when the oil prices first shot up and the resulting car-less days. During that time an academic posed one of the reasons why it was going to be hard to get people to change the way they used and consumed fossel fuels and other non-renewable resources. He said that most people find it hard to think beyond their own sphere in the world and to think in time beyond simply the here and the now. They may think about the community and extended family but to think global effects was hard. It can be like that we face hard times. Depression is an energy crisis where we don’t have the internal resources to be able to force ourselves to look beyond our problems or beyond simply trying to survive. It’s kind of like getting through that first few months of a babies life when you have to deal with sleep deprivation and four hourly feeds. Walking the floor with wind and during teething. It’s hard to think that this too will pass.

But David while he feels alone in his trouble begins to look back and catch a glimpse of a bigger picture. He looks back and sees that the character of God is that God has always been for his people. That from generation to generation, a relationship with the God who loves them has given people the strength to persevere and even to prosper despite what life may bring. God does hear and answer the cries from the soul. When people in their troubles have cried to him. It’s interesting that we had a baptism this morning because in brining Ella to be baptised Rodger and Annabel have wanted to affirm the relationship with God that has sustained and given strength to their families in the past. To say that they want Ella to join her story with the story of the people of God, Knowing and being loved by a God who hears the prayers and cries of his people. Aabraham, Moses, for us Jesus and Paul and those down through the last two thousand years who have found what they need for abundant life in relationship with God. David doesn’t doubt the character of God. God is good God is for his people.

David also looks at his own life his own experience and sees that God has been there with him right from his mothers womb. It’s one of the reasons we are willing to baptise Children because of the faith of parents but also with the hope and knowledge that they will grow up knowing the love of God all their lives.

So in verse 11 David can say with some assurance ‘Don’t be too far away God’ Because he knows that despite his feeling of abandonment that God is good and that God is near.

In his most wellknown Poem that follows straight on from this one in the book of Psalms David had voiced his faith in God as his shepherd. As the one who prepared a table for him in the face of his enemies.

The consistant character of God, the previous relationship that God has had both historically with his people and in David’s life gives him hope.

There is a U2 song off the album ‘All that you can’t leave behind’ that has this wonderful line ‘ But hope and history won’t rhyme’ and for many people that has been their experience for Bono this line is part of a song that expresees his grief and sorrow at the Omagh bombing. What people have tended to do is in the face of such paradoxies and personal or global disaster is to write off the Hope. What good is a god in the midst of the suffering in the world. After the boxing day Tsunami there was an on going discsion in the letters to the editor in my local paper about "can you maintain that there is a good God in the light of the natural disasters"  But David dosen’t do that he knows the reality of God and so even though in this one situation he feels abandoned and alone he still maintains that hope. In the end it is what he and his people have found is what stops them from despairing and has been the source of help. On U2’s latest Album there is a song of renewed faith in God. A renewal of hope, a giving of oneself to God. where Bono sings ‘YHWH’ the Hebrew name for God ‘There is always dark before the dawn’ YWHW’ there is always pain when a child is born.

This dosen’t mean he’s going to settle for the pat answers. You know the easy cliques, the God one liners that we perhaps throw at ech other. In verse and 8 we see that his detractors were simply telling him to commit his ways to the Lord’. In the film ‘About Smit’ staring Jack Nicholson there is a great scene where after Schmitt’s wife has died he goes and sees the local minister and in a dead pan almost bored voice the minister says ‘It’s al right to be angry with God God’s big enough to handle our anger’. You just get the idea that this is the platter, the speel that he gives everyone he’s counselling for grief. There is nothing wrong with the theology ofn the statement just like there is nothing wrong with comment that David’s tormenters make to him, But what David is looking for what the key thing that is looked for here is not just a knowledge of God but a knowing of God. That relationship be restored. That God again be near.

People down through the ages have called that feeling of aloneness when God seems distant and remote ‘The long dark night of the soul’. However the long dark night does not mean the absence of God’s presence or his love or his ability to hear the cry of our souls rather it simply means the inability of our eyes to see God, our souls to feel his embrace. Before the beginning before there was the universe the Christian faith tells us there was God and God was alone in the darkness. Light has to do with self disclosure of God, his revelation, the absence of light does not mean the absence of God.  Faith that gets us through those times is not the blind stumble in the dark carry on regardless sort of faith rather it is the perseverance that is able to keep going trusting because it is based on relationship. What we know of and the knowing of God.

It was the momentary withdrawal of God the father from a relationship with Jesus the son while he hung on the cross that was the worst pain Jesus endured. They were so close that they could only be described as one. It is this relationship with God that Jesus invites us into, a relationship where God is with us and for us even when we cannot see or feel him in the midst of the dark valleys that we must walk through in life’s journey.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hope: Redemption Made,Emptiness Filled and God's Purposes Revealed (hope in Ruth chapter 4)

Maybe we are used to a love story set in a legal drama. LA Law, The Practise, Boston Legal. Sadly we are used to love stories ending in court room dramas. Sadly we do have a high number of divorces in our society. We are not however used to the romantic lead showing his love by going to the city gate, which was the court of the day, for the right to marry, certainly not as part of a property settlement. But this is how Boaz reacts when Ruth’s proposal to him in a clandestine meeting on the threshing floor in a scheme concocted by her mother in law.

We are used to love stories ending with the couple heading off into the distance and the words and ‘they lived happily ever after’.  But the book of Ruth isn’t the ‘Mills and Boone’ of the bible.  The story of Ruth and Boaz is part of a wider story, a greater story. Their actions, their kindness and loyalty and their love are the human means by which the LORD is able to bring fullness into the life of the widow Naomi. Naomi’s life at the beginning of the story had started out pleasantly but had become bitter upon the death of her husband Elimilek and her two sons. Their deaths left her with no male heir to protect her, care for her in her old age and to carry on the family name. Despite going to Moab to avoid a famine she says she went away full but came back to her home town of Bethlehem empty. The LORD”S hand is against her. But her hands are not left empty at the end of the story. Her daughter-in-law and her kinsman redeemer place a son and heir into her hands. It fills her life and as we read the story we see it is the hand of God working behind the scene in the every day  actions of faithful, loving people. Through Ruth’s conception the women of Bethlehem rejoice that Naomi now has a  son. There will be someone to care for her and to carry on the family name and inherit the family property. Yes there is still the grief and the tragedy of the past. Can anything  take away the pain the death of her husband and two sons brought?, But now there is hope in what was a hopeless and a helpless situation. That is what God has done. Because our God cares for the individual there is hope even when it seems hopeless but this story is even greater than that.

This is a story that has three endings, an ending for Ruth and Boaz, an ending for Naomi and a third greater ending  with David. God is at work in this situation to bring about a greater blessing, a greater purpose for his people. For the original Hebrew reader there would have been a bitter irony in the tragedy that befell Elimilek. His name means ‘God is King’ yet he dies  and is left without an heir in a foreign land.   Perhaps I over use the old Tui billboard thing just like they do but it could easily read ‘God is King’ Yeah right! But this story ends with David, God’s chosen King. It illustrates for Israel and for us the sovereignty of God. God’s plans and purposes are being worked out even amidst the everydayness of life more than that even in  the face tragedy, the  sorrow and the seeming hopelessness. Even back here with David’s great grandparents, God was at work in a miraculous way David’s family line was kept going. Scholars argue over why the book of Ruth was included in the Hebrew scriptures and one explanation is that it does just that;  it shows that the LORD was at work to bring David to the throne, It wasn’t a fluke or something  David cunningly designed, but it was God’s plan. God is sovereign. He is working out his plans in the ebb and flow of history on a grand as well as a personal scale and those plans are for good not for harm.

Maybe it’s hard for us to see God at work in our lives, in our world, in the ebb and flow and the ups and downs the churn and blur of life’s events and world events, but here in what amounts to the story of a single family unit we can see that God paints on a vast canvas. The writer to the book of Hebrew’s talks of faith in God, of  being prepared to put our trust in him and move forwards even when we cannot or may not see the end result. The end result, that is in God’s hands. He talks of being surrounded by a  great cloud of witnesses, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, and the other patriarchs who lived by faith without seeing the eventual fruition of God’s promises.   The writer evokes the same forbears in the faith. Ruth is honoured  by being compared to   Sarah and Rachel, Rebecca and Leah, Tamar  the women who mothered Israel, and Judah.

But the book of Ruth of course is great because not only does it talk of the sovereignty of God being shown on this vast scale and life being about hope in God’s intervention it tells the story of God’s kindness shown through people, God’s loyalty shown in our loyalty. First we have Ruth’s kindness and loyalty to Naomi, those wonderful words on the tear filled road back from Moab  back into the LORD’s provision, “where you go I will go, Where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people and your God (even though Naomi had said God’s hand was against her) will be my God. This is a kindness and a loyalty that attracts Boaz to Ruth. Boaz’s prayer for Ruth Is ‘May you have a full reward from the God’ in whom you have come for protection. He’s saying that God would reward her for her kindness that reflects God’s own loving kindness. Then Boaz himself is part of God bringing that full reward. In his actions, his loyalty and his kindness and love Ruth receives a full reward and Naomi’s empty hands are filled. God uses his people who are prepared to show his loving kindness and loyalty to him in the way they live.

In Matthews chapter 9 & 10 Jesus sees the crowd he is ministering to and says that they are like sheep without a shepherd, that they are like a harvest that is ripe but that there are few labourers. He asks his disciples to pray to the LORD of the harvest to send more labourers out into the field and then Jesus sends the very people who are praying out to be part of God’s answer: To bring the good news and be the good news. God is still at work in this world and chooses to work through people who will show his kindness and a Christ like character in the decisions and actions and choices we make each day. We in our every day actions and in our extra ordinary commitment to love and kindness embody Christ who is with us to the world.

Boaz exemplifies this commitment to kindness and loyalty and justice.  Touched by Ruth and desiring to marry her he shows his kindness and his family loyalty by working things out with the redeemer kinsman who has a closer claim. He goes to the city gate and in what can only be seen as a divine coincidence the very person he is wanting to see comes by and Boaz is able to discuss the matter with him. In Israel’s society clan heads were asked to take on certain responsibilities as redeemers. They were to buy back any family member sold into slavery, they were to purchase any land that a family member had to sell for reasons of poverty and debt, in order to keep it in the family. Along with that went responsibility for widows left without an heir. Levite marriages meant that to carry on the family of a dead relative who was left with no heir they would enter into a Levite marriage marrying the widow in order to have a son who will then inherit the land and keep the name alive.

We might say that Boaz is rather tricky in the way he approaches the situation with this other kinsman redeemer, but in actual fact he is letting the man know the positive side of the man keeping his responsibility. There is a tract of land that is available because Naomi will have to sell it. She does not have sons to work the land. Here is a chance for the redeemer to add this land to his own. The kinsman redeemer says he will do that. That’s when Boaz tells him about the other part of the issue, that Ruth the Moabite who is Mahlon’s widow is part of the deal. It becomes the kinsman redeemers responsibility to marry her and have offspring to keep Elimelek’s name  and line going.   There’s a catch to this lucrative opportunity and the kinsman redeemer is not happy to take on that proposition because in the end it would actually cause inheritance issues in his own family.  We are not supposed to think anything less of this man. Like Orpah, Naomi’s other daughter in law in chapter one they have keep the requirements of the law, but what reflects God’s character is a willingness to show kindness and loyalty and love beyond that. We are to see in the story that Boaz’ dedication to family, loyalty and kindness is extra ordinary. It’s something special showing a Godly  character. It helps that he came to love Ruth. That’s why after he makes his declaration before the court after the weird and wonderful sandal swapping ritual, the crowd bless Boaz’ and hope that his family will be blessed and his renown grow in Bethlehem.

As we look at this wonderful illustration of someone being a redeemer, out of love fulfilling their responsibility and loyalty, we get a glimpse of an even greater redeemer, the one who the book of Matthew shows us is descended from Ruth and Boaz. This is Jesus who  out of love for us is willing to pay the price to buy us back from slavery to sin and death to redeem us and make us his own. In the first chapter of the first letter of John we see that this action too is based not on a whim or on an emotional response but on character, on God’s character. How do we know that if we turn to God and confess our sins that he will forgive us. It’s God’s character. “If confess our sins, God is faithful and Just, and forgives us our sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness: It’s God’ loving kindness the same word that is used throughout the book of Ruth of Ruth and Boaz’ actions. Just as Boaz’ love for Ruth leads him to a court settlement so God’s love for us leads to that wonderful courtroom metaphor, we are justified by faith declared not guilty set free because of the actions of our kinsman redeemer. He has paid the price.
Ruth shows us what it means to be redeemed. Ruth starts off as the foreigner, the outsider. Now she is welcomed into full acceptance into the people of God as wife and mother, even given an exalted part in the genealogy of David and further in Matthew’s gospel in the genealogy of Jesus. She is likened to other foreigners like Tamar the mother of Perez who is remembered as the clan head in Bethlehem. In terms of maori their hapu, their Iwi would be Judah.  Ruth’s  emptiness is replaced with fullness and she is blessed.  In the book of first Peter this is applied to you and I. once we were not a people but now we are once we had not received mercy now we have received mercy. We have been graciously redeemed and adopted into God’s family.

Even here way back in the Hebrew Scriptures in the time of the judges we see that it is God’s purpose to draw people from outside into God’s people. Those who would chose to know God and live out the kindness of God are redeemed and welcomed and bought into full membership of God’s people. Again in Matthews’s genealogy all Jesus non Israelite mothers Rahab the prostitute , and i wonder if it isn’t a comment on our society  that my computers spell check keeps telling me that I should be putting the word rehab in, its more common than a biblical name, Tamar and Ruth are highlighted. God’s vision God’s purposes have always been to bless and draw in all the people of the world to be his people in Christ.

I love the book of Ruth with its love story and a romance where the characters have real character. I love the way in which in the midst of tragedy, emptiness and  hopelessness the unseen hero of the story our LORD brings hope that fills the emptiness. I love the way it show us how that hope comes through human action: God’s hands clothed in our skin and our flesh. I love that the story of Ruth’s loyalty, Naomi ‘s tragedy, Boaz’ faithfulness and loving kindness find themselves standing in the midst of this greater story. This is a very human story, but  very much a divine God centred story: The love of our saviour Jesus in redeeming us shown in the kindness of Boaz’ . Our being adopted into the family of God and used by God to fulfil his purpose for good shown in Ruth, God’s ability to fill the emptiness of tragedy and sorrow shown in a son being placed in the hands of Naomi. In God there is hope, there is hope that can fill our emptiness.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hope Not Just A Romantic Ideal (Hope in Ruth Chapter 3)

Kris and I at our engagement party
I proposed to Kris while we were sitting on a rubbish dump. Well even that is romanticising it really. It was on a pile of rubbish, out the back of the Bible College of NEw Zealand (now Laidlaw College). Well it was a broken down old trailer that had been abandoned on top of a pile of branches and garden refuse. We’d been going out for about a year and had gone for a walk and sat down to keep talking. We were talking about weddings, typical male I can’t even remember why, I think  it was because we’d been to one and were critiquing what we’d seen and saying what we’d like if we got married.  I said to Kris well these wedding plans sound good when we are going to use them. To which Kris replied ‘are you asking me to marry you?’ after a poignant silence and being the confident person I am I said ‘If I was would you say Yes’. After an even longer poignant silence, which seemed like an eternity, Kris said yes. So I asked her and she said yes.

Not really romantic I hear you say in our classic Hollywood saturated society. No candles, no perfume, unless you like ode a garden refuge, no flash restaurant, no flowers, no ring. I did get down on my knee, I think; you’ll have to check it out with Kris. I do remember those wonderful eyes that Kris has just full of joy and love and the smile on her face and well walking round in a sort of stupid daze for the rest of the day, in fact you’d probably say well for the rest of my life really.  Of course that marriage proposal has nothing on the strange account of Ruth’s proposal to Boaz on the threshing floor outside Bethlehem.

I’m not sure you’d call it a really romantic situation either in the classic way our society thinks of it. It’s Ruth’s mother in law Naomi who sets to situation up. Who tells her daughter in law what to do.  Some scholars have postulated that she was telling Ruth to throw herself at Boaz in a very sexually charged situation. But that doesn’t fit what we know of the characters in the story. If you didn’t get it from the text Ruth saying to Boaz, ‘Spread your garment over me as you are the family guardian’ is Ruth asking Boaz to marry her,  Boaz’ reaction is not to melt into her arms but that he wants to do everything right. He is even righteous enough and aware of the way things are supposed to go to realise that because of the land issues involved in this marriage that there is another family member who has a more immediate claim. This is a love story but it’s not the romantic and emotionally charged romances we are used to in a society where TV shows and films portray first dates ending up in sexual encounters and romance novel can be a euphemism for soft porn.

The book of Ruth is actually the story of how God answers the complaint of the widow Naomi. It’s about how hope for the future enters into the hopeless situation Naomi finds herself in and not only hope for Naomi but in whose genealogy the books finishes with how hope for a bright future for the whole of Israel enters comes out of a hopeless situation. It’s a story that shows us that with God hope is not just a romantic ideal; the Lord is at work amidst the grief and sorrow through the actions and choices of everyday people to bring about his plans and purposes:  Plans for good and not for harm.

There had been a famine in Bethlehem and Naomi and her family had gone to sojourn in the land of Moab. While she was there her husband Elimelek had died and her two sons who were married to Moabite women had also died leaving no male heir to care for the women. When the LORD again provides plenty for the people of Israel Naomi returns home and as she is greeted by family and old friends tells them that she is no longer Naomi which means pleasant  but Mara, which means bitter because the LORD’s hand is against her, in  juxtaposition to the food situation in Bethlehem she had gone away full but the LORD bought me back empty. For Naomi in a society where woman found her identity, her protection, her social standing and her ability to make a living in her relationship to her husband and children she finds herself in a hopeless situation.   The rest of the book is how God, the unseen main character, answers this compliant. How hope steps into the seemingly hopeless story.

Hope steps into the story, God’s kindness and faithfulness steps into the story through the actions and decisions of the people round Naomi. Her Moabite daughter in law Ruth shows Naomi great kindness by committing herself to caring for her. “Where you go i will go where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people and your god will be my God, where you die there also I will die.

Hope steps into the story as Ruth goes out to glean from the harvest in the care and kindness of a relative of Naomi’s husband called Boaz.  Widows and strangers were able allowed to gather the fallen grain from behind the harvesters in Israel’s law, usually enough to survive. But Boaz show kindness to Ruth in his generosity, allowing her to glean in the field while the harvesters are still at work and instructing them to leave grain behind for her. He shows it in hospitality, inviting Ruth to eat with him and his workers, allowing her access to the lunch room and bathroom facilities of his workers. Boaz shows kindness through acceptance by treating her as one of the family.

In fact at the end of the previous chapter we find that Naomi’s bitterness and sorry has turned to joy as she experiences this kindness.

Hope is able to step into the situation because as we see in the introductory scene in chapter 3 Naomi is now able to look to the future. Grief sorrow pain despair has caused her to focus on the tragedy of the past and when we do that there is no hope. She begins to see a way to provide for her daughter in law by finding a husband for her.

It’s interesting to note in the story that it’s also only when Naomi and Ruth’s basic needs are meet that they are able to begin to look at the future. Boaz’ generosity and Ruth’s hard work has meant that they have enough food for the year. I don’t know if you’ve ever come across Maslow’s cone of human needs. It shows a hierarchy of basic human needs ranging from the provision of food and shelter, right through to the need for self actualisation, for purpose and meaning in life. Maslow observed that you can’t address the higher needs in life if you have to deal with the more basic ones.  It’s why poverty can be a vicious self propagating cycle. If all a person or communities energy goes into meeting the basic food and survival needs there is nothing left to deal with larger issues that in the long run will bring hope and change into the situation. For the church for mission we need to meet peoples perceived needs before we can talk about spiritual needs. We need to meet people at their point of need before we can point them to their greater need for God. As the writer of the book of James says, ‘what good does it do if someone hungry and dressed in rags comes to you and you say ‘God bless you and go in peace’ but do nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? One of the themes that runs through the book of Ruth is God’s kindness is shown through our kindness.

Naomi now begins to take steps towards that future. Her focus is no longer on herself but on returning the kindness she has received from Ruth. In telling Ruth to bath and put on perfume and her dress, her normal clothes she is not giving her daughter in law beauty tips or fashion tips or tips on how to catch your man, she is actively saying it’s time to move on. Do not dress as a widow any more. It’s putting that focus on the future and a new glimmer of hope into action.

From this passage we see that Hope comes when we are prepared to step out to take the initiative to risk for the sake of a vision of a preferred future. What Naomi tells Ruth to do is risky it’s fraught with danger. There is the danger of Boaz taking advantage of Ruth, as I said before it’s a sexually provocative scene, what if Boaz wasn’t the man they though he was and he takes advantage of the situation? What if he is put off by Ruth’s boldness? I mean she’s the one making the advance her, in the male dominated society she’s the one who is popping the question. In actual fact their reputations are on the line as well.

Hope, seeing God’s preferred future, calls us to step out, to risk. In the civil right movement hope of a different future Martin Luther King Jr’s dream that we have been reminded of recently caused people to step out and take a risk. If we have to ride at the back of the bus we are not going to ride the bus anymore, if we are not welcome in this white’s only restaurant we are going to sit in anyway. If we are to keep growing and growing as a church into the future it’s going to mean stop looking to the past and thinking of the way it used to be and stepping out for the way it could be in God. It means being willing to take a risk and be bold.

Finally hope comes into this story because of the character of the characters in this story. We’d love to see it as a real romance story wouldn’t we. Maybe it was... maybe, Ruth and Boaz had grown close over the period of the grain harvest, maybe there had been glances in each other’s direction and embarrassed looks away when their eyes meet. Maybe there were brief encounters and shy smiles as they shared the content of the water jar, maybe over lunches with the workers there was a deepening knowledge of each other and engaging conversation, we are not told. We do know that Boaz is really blown away by Ruth’s kindness in asking him. But the thing that really brings hope into this situation is the godly character of those involved. The thing that drew Boaz to Ruth wasn’t her looks or her curves but the kindness he had heard and seen that she gave to Naomi. He is smitten by her character He Praises her for not going after the younger men of Bethlehem, maybe there had been offers of marriage, but she has waited to do the right thing. And we see that Boaz is also a man of godly character, he wants to do things the right way. He invites her to stay with him, not out of a sexual desire or need but because he is offering her the protection she has asked for. It would be dangerous for a woman alone at night after the harvest. She is concerned for his repetition and goes before people will see and talk. He is aware that there is another family guardian, who because of land issues has to be considered. When Ruth reports back to Naomi, who must have had a real sleepless night what has happened Naomi has no hesitation of trusting Boaz’s character. She says “he said he would do it and you can rest assured he is not going to rest till the matter is worked out’.

We live in a society where emotions not character forms the basis of the relationship between men and women, I’m all for romance, I’m all for Love, but they are not enough by themselves to form the fabric of our society, they need the backbone the reinforcing of integrity family loyalty, a sense of duty, honesty, character.

Hope steps into any situation where people act towards others with a godly character, seeking righteousness and justice, to treat each other with God’s kindness. It’s why the key role of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives is to produce Christ like fruit. To make us display the character traits of Christ.

Hope is not a romantic ideal it’s very real, it has the ability to change the future. Hope in God is not a passive thing, as the story of Ruth shows us, God’s purposes, Gods plans for the future are worked out through our lives and our actions and decisions. In our being willing to look again to the future, in our being prepared to step out and act, in how our character reflects that of Christ. God works through that to bring hope.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gleaning Hope In A Just Society (Hope in Ruth chapter 2)

I have to admit that I'm not that interested in US politics, despite the fact that it does get shoved down our throats in the seemingly endless processes of a presidential election year. However I found myself actually quite captivated by the 2008 US elections. I even watched the demo0cratic convention that year. As it was a profound moment in American and world history, with the nomination of the first black presidential candidate, his nomination being endorsed by the first woman to seriously have a shot at running for president. I’ve took the opportunity to listen to the keynote speeches from that convention, not just because I’m interested in the historical moment but also out of professional curiosity. There were some amazing examples of oratory. Speeches that cast vision, that inspired, that were designed to broadcast hope , that have the potential to initiate change. Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barrack Obama himself.  They talked of the big issues the big problems, that they face on a national level and we face on a global level.

 One thing stuck in my mind as they articulated their dream for a more just society and the thing that stuck in my mind was two vinaigrette's in Hilary Clinton’s speech.

She talked of meeting the solo mother of two who had cancer and couldn’t get health insurance or medicare and this inspired her to keep on fighting for universal medical care, she talked of meeting a young marine wrestling with injuries and sickness from his national service, which did not get the medical treatment he deserved he told Hillary to fight for his buddies. Possibly just good political rhetoric, good speech writing,exploitative even the cynic in me says, but it reminded me of the book of Ruth. In the swirl of all this big vast happenings the sweeping tide of history,  that the plight and sufferings of individuals, matter. In the telling of the big story, God’s dealings with his people Israel, God working out his plans and purposes for all humanity, that the plight and suffering of one widow and her daughter in law matters.

You see one of the things that the book of Ruth does is that telescopes all the goodness and grace and sovereignty of God that we may think is all about the big things down to the fact that God cares for the individual. God cares for the suffering and the sorrow filed. He cares about the empty the bitter. It gives hope empty hands and empty hearts can be filled. No future can become a profound future, what happens to us here and now may seem meaningless and non consequential and yes harsh  in the torrent of world affairs but in God we don’t know the good that will come, beyond the dark night of our soul, even in generations to come.

The book of Ruth also says that what we do the decisions we make the actions we take in our everyday lives also matter. YHWH, Israel’s God is the key character in this book, but his grace, his purposes and plans his kindness and faithfulness are portrayed in this book, not miraculously or overtly but in the decisions and actions and words of human beings. Naomi the other main character in the story, is left an impoverished and destitute widow, her husband and then her two sons die while she is living in Moab because of a famine in Bethlehem. It hurts so much that she wants to go out to deed poll and change her name from pleasant, Naomi to Mara, bitter. As we saw last week hope steps into that situation, firstly because in 1:6 it says that the LORD again provided food for his people and secondly because of the loyalty and kindness shown to Naomi by her daughter in law Ruth who in those most profound and wonderful words, spoken not from the stage with the aid of speech writers and teleprompters, but through tear filled eyes and grief stricken heart, where you go I will go, where you stay I will stay, your people will be my people, your God will be my God. Hope steps into the story through the loving kindness shown by another human being. God’s hope steps into the story in the kindness and faithfulness of others, of people like you and me.

As we turn to look at the second instalment, (see Ruth Chapter 1) the second scene in the playing out of Naomi’s story we see that hope comes through the justice and mercy of another character that we are introduced to at the start of the chapter: Boaz. Boaz we are told is a leader in the clan that Naomi’s husband was a member of, not only that but he was a good friend to Naomi. But more than that Boaz is the embodiment of the just society that God had called Israel to be in light of the relationship they have with him, he was their God and they are his people.

Hope steps into this story because Boaz chooses to not only keep the laws in Israel that are designed to protect and care for the widow’s orphans and strangers in the land, but because he goes further to give generosity, hospitality  and acceptance.

In the opening scene, Naomi and Ruth have come back to Bethlehem; Ruth continues to show her kindness to Naomi by realising that she is going to have to provide for Naomi and herself. They need food to survive and Ruth is going to have to go out and collect it. She tells Naomi she is going to go out to glean in the harvest fields. In Israel’s’ law harvesters were not to pick their fields clean by going over it a second time. Rather they were to leave what had been missed behind to care for the poor and the foreigners in their midst. These people were legally allowed to glean. To pick up what had been dropped or missed.  As you read through the chapter and see the concern that Boaz has for Ruth’s safety you get the idea that this law was not kept with much enthusiasm. People seem to have risked the opposition of harvesters. Boaz does not want Ruth to be roughed up by the harvesters. When you read through the writings of the prophets, you see that God continually has to remind his people about caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

You know the true test of a nation or a society is not by it GDP or the height of its achievements or the grandeur of its infrastructure, not even on where it came in the Olympic medal table. It’s not even to be proved in the beauty of its art and music rather the greatness of a society is shown in the way it cares for its most vulnerable and poor. In scripture this was seen in terms of orphans, widows and strangers. How it treats its vulnerable children and women and immigrants. Even the kingdom of God says Jesus is not going to be judged by the splendour of our buildings or the enduring beauty of our cultural expressions and religious traditions but in the care of the least. In Jesus parable of the sheep and the goats, what differentiates between those on Christ’s left and his right is not what they believed or their religious observance but how they treated the least: The poor the sick, the prisoner, the dispossessed. Boaz gives us an example of the sort of kindness looked for in God’s Kingdom.

You’ll note that the story is told again in conversations in the interactions between people. Ruth had gone and almost tongue in check the narrative tells us she happened upon Boaz’s field. By chance Boaz also arrives at the field. The Lord is at work behind the scenes here in the everyday choices. He notices Ruth and asks his foreman whose young woman she is? The implication is that anyone out in the fields would be working for someone and Boaz knew his workers and she wasn’t one.  The foreman tells Boaz who she is and that she has asked to glean amongst the stalks. Usually a gleaner would wait till the workers had finished in a field and then they would be allowed to glean, but for Ruth the situation is so desperate that she is willing to face rejection to hope that someone would allow her to start her gleaning before they have finished. The foreman tells Boaz that she has patiently waited for a reply.

Boaz shows kindness to Ruth and faithfulness to the covenant in three ways.


Firstly he is generous; he invites her to come and to glean on his field not after the workers had finished. Not amidst the trampled remains, but just behind the women. Men would cut the barley and the women would then gather it into bundles once the field was harvested they’d take the bundles down to the threshing floor, then the gleaners would be welcome to the fields. Boaz had heard of Ruth’s kindness to Naomi and now repays her for that. He gives her permission to come up and to glean as close as she can to the women. Boaz gives Ruth the position of being a privileged gleaner. He even tells his workers not to be so efficient to leave more for Ruth. Kindness is shown not just in doing what the law required but in generosity.


Secondly, he shows her hospitality. He welcomes her to come and eat with him and the workers he makes sure she has ample to eat. He invites her to stay with his women in the field and to drink from the water that the men would draw for them. He’s given her the privileges of using the smoko room and the bathroom. It’s not only being generous to an outsider a stranger, a poor person but welcoming them into his inner circle. She is not kept at arms length but welcomed to sit as an equal. There is a way in which we can think of caring for the vulnerable and the poor being giving a hand out . Caring but still keeping them at a distance still seeing them as outside our circle. Objects of our pity and even our generosity but still set apart and different. Boaz does not do that rather he invites and welcomes Ruth to share what is his. He breaks down the barrier, without that Ruth would still be on the outside still a foreigner and vulnerable.  Part of that hospitality is that he extends his protection to her. He is aware that others may not be as kind and considerate as he is and is concerned for Ruth’s ongoing safety.

Finally, Ruth the foreigner is welcomed in and treated like one of the family.  Boaz accepts her into the clan. AS she sits for the midday meal it tells us that he serves her. Naomi will later tells Ruth in the concluding conversation in this scene that Boaz has been faithful and kind to the living and to the dead recognising the family ties. This sets the scene for the rest of the story and the bringing of fullness again to Naomi’s emptiness. While she had been willing to abandon her people for Naomi’s know she is welcomed into Naomi’s people. The greatest kindness one can show to the outsider and the poor and mistreated and vulnerable is to acknowledge them as one of us. That they are family, they belong, we stand with them and offer them the same hopes that we have for our own family. Jaun Carlos Ortiz picking up Jesus words says if me and my family sit down to three squares a day and our neighbours family has just one meal well then we each settle for two meals. If I have a coat and go out to buy a new coat and my neighbour shivers in the cold with no coat well I buy a coat and we both have one. We are all welcomed into God’s family by grace and that grace should be passed onto others. The poor the vulnerable are no longer vulnerable or dispossessed if they stand as part of our family.

Hope comes into Naomi’s story like a ray of sunshine. Her sorrow is turned into joy by the gleanings of a just society. Through Kindness displayed in generosity, hospitality and acceptance there is hope. Her basic needs for food and sustenance are meet. Ruth on her fist day is able to gather about a month’s supply of barley, she has a whole harvest season of work ahead and the whole year’s food will be provided. Ruth is welcomed into Naomi’s people, she has a place where she belongs. 

Once again the story is told through the conversations of individuals. The just and caring society we seek, the kingdom of God breaking into our world is in our hands and our mouths in our deeds and decisions. The LORD is the unseen character whose kindness is shown in our kindness whose justice is shown in our justice. Even here I cannot get away from the image of the body of Christ we have been talking about when we looked at the gifts of the Holy Spirit you are the body of Christ. Christ’s hands Christ’s feet. In the past the church has been seen as a powerful institution in this society, at its best it has used that power to care for the least and to seek the lost. Now we find ourselves on the margins of our twenty first century culture and our place is still amongst the least and the lost. Not seeking power but seeking justice for the powerless. Bill Clinton in his address to the democratic convention talking of America in the world and said we must change so that people will not see the example of our power but the power of our example. Just like the book of Ruth shows us God’s care for the individual it shows us God’s care though the individual God’s just society, starts here. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Glimmer of Hope Even In The Face of Bitter and Empty (Hope in Ruth chapter 1)

The book of Ruth is set in the time of the Judges. But as the story was completed and included with the writings of the Hebrew cannon a lot later than that there has always been speculation as to when it was written and why it was written. Some have suggested it was post exilic. That it was written or at least revived as a polemic to the exclusion of foreign wives mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah, telling as it does the story that even that most venerated of Ancestors David had a Moabite great grandmother. That God’s purposes were for inclusion not exclusion. Others have seen it as from an earlier date as an argument for the kingship of David and his descendants showing as it does how it was only through God’s grace and goodness that King David was born at all. That his line could have stopped at Naomi. In the end we don’t know when the book was written or its author or the purpose behind it. But it is a profound and wonderful story.

The book of Ruth is one of only two books in the bible named after a woman. The other book of course is... Esther. It is the story of a widow Naomi and her daughter in law Ruth. In the vast expanse of the narrative of God’s relationship with his people Israel it seems rather out of place. It doesn’t even read like biblical narrative. Unlike other biblical narratives the focus is not on telling the story but on the dialogue between the main characters. It does not speak of God’s miraculous intervention and salvation. God is very present and working his purposes but the way he works his grace is through the actions of people, through the ordinary. It does show us that in the midst of that flow of history that God cares for the individual and for the widow and that he does work out his purposes and plans through that care and through the everyday actions of people who seek to live a life that brings honour to God. It shows us something of God’s ability to bring about his good even in the midst of  tragedy and sorrow. Who would have thought that a story that starts with the decimation of Naomi’s family would finish with the blessing of a child and a genealogy that leads to the great King David? And then on to an even greater descendant. But it does.

While the book of Ruth is named after Ruth, it is her mother in law Naomi who is the central character. It is her family tragedy and situation that is the centre of the story. She is the one who gives advice to her daughter in law that leads to Boaz marrying Ruth. At its end she is the one who is said to be blessed through her daughter in law and she is the one who ends up holding the baby, a typical occurrence I hear you say in this mother in law rich environment) and the women living in Bethlehem finish by saying Naomi has a son. Ruth the other key character along with Boaz are the means God uses to restore hope and fullness to Naomi life.

So let me ask you have you ever experienced such sorrow in your life that you would want to change your name to ‘Bitter’, because that is where the book of Ruth begins. In the time of the judges there was a famine in Bethlehem and so one family goes to live in the land of the Moabites. Obviously in the hill country on the other side of the rift valley there was adequate resources and food to feed extras. So a family moves there from Bethlehem and live there as legal aliens in that land bidding their time till they are able to return.  While they are living there Naomi’s husband Elimalek dies. In the ancient near east as a patriotic society a women’s status and her well being and ability to look after herself was dependant on male family members. She was still Ok as she had two sons Mahlon and Kilion. They marry Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth. However after ten years the two sons die leaving no offspring or heirs to look after Naomi. Ten years in Jewish society was the time in a marriage when you would expect children before you went and sort help for infertility. Naomi  is destitute. But at this point we see that God begins to intervene in verse 6 it says that the LORD came to the aid of his people and provided food for them. The famine is ended and Naomi decides to go home. When she gets there she is greeted by her kins women and old neighbours who say “Can this be Naomi?”Not because they do not recognise her but it’s a way of showing surprise and delight to see her return. In response to that Naomi pours out her soul.

She is so full of sorrow that she cannot even stand her own name. Naomi means pleasant one her life has been anything but pleasant. She tells the women of Bethlehem to call her a new name Mara which means bitter. Because she says the Almighty has made my life very bitter. The family had left Bethlehem because of famine and returned because they had heard God had once again provided plenty and in bitter irony Naomi says “I went away full, but the LORD has bought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me, the Almighty has bought misfortune upon me.”

In the midst of sorrow and suffering she has not lost her faith in God. She acknowledges the sovereignty of God. All that has happened does not mean that God is not in control, she does not rile against God’s goodness or grace, rather all she can see is that the LORD must have turned against her. There is no thought that this is for any reason or because of any sin, like Job there is a sense that she is the innocent party here. The psalmists often find themselves in the same situation. They find themselves wrestling and crying out to God in what are called psalms of disorientation, because they find themselves in situations that do not equate to what they know of God’s character. God may have come to the aid of his people and provided them with food, but where was that aid for her. But it is not a faith that tries to sweep this disorientation under the carpet and dismiss it, Naomi is honest in her dissatisfaction with God.  In a patriarchal society where women’s identity and meaning in life was found in her husband and in her off spring she was left with nothing without any hope. God was sovereign and God was good but she is honest about the fact that he had dealt her a tough hand. That is her complaint that is the hopeless situation she finds herself in. Will God answer her complaint? Is there hope?

The chapter finishes by saying that Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by her daughter in law, Ruth the Moabite, her daughter in law, arriving just before the barley harvest. We’ve missed an important part of the story so far haven’t we. A bit like Naomi does at this stage. AS I mentioned before one of the features of the book of Ruth is the dialogues between the main characters. And one of the key themes in the book is the idea of  faithfulness. There is hope for Naomi because of the faithfulness shown to her by her Moabite daughter in law Ruth.

AS Naomi has gone to leave Moab her daughter in laws had packed up and prepared to go with her. Over the period of three different dialogues Naomi tries to convince them to remain behind. She has nothing to offer them. At first she sends them back and prays that God would be kind to them as they had been faithful and kind to their dead and to her. She hopes God would bless them with a new life and a new husband amongst their own people. Again in the patriarchal society women found meaning in their relationships with men.

Maybe this event happened at a cross roads that lead to their home village, but Oprah and Ruth and Naomi weep together and Oprah and Naomi say they will stay with Naomi and go back to her people.

But Naomi is persistent. She has nothing to offer the women, her place in her society will be based on the kindness of others. Even if she got married again and bore some more sons, obviously beyond her at this stage, but if it happened they would still have to wait for them to grow up and what a wait. Again in Jewish society there was the concept of levite marriage that  to continue a family line a family name and to ensure that the families property stayed in the family that if there was no heir a man’s brother would marry his widow and have a child to carry on the name. Naomi is saying that even this hope is gone, is not available to her. She has nothing to offer her daughter in laws in terms of status and identity or hope. Again she says that it is more bitter for her, the LORD’s hand has turned against me.

The tears flow again, Oprah as a dutiful daughter in law kisses her mother in law and turns back to her people and walks out of our story. She is doing what Naomi tells her. But beyond that we find Ruth still clinging to her mother in law. Beyond obedience is relationship, kindness and loyalty when as Naomi has already said all she has to offer is bitterness and emptiness.  The two women continue on together.

In this final dialogue we have this wonderful poem of love and loyalty. So wonderful in fact that it is often read and used at weddings.

Where you go I will go. And where you stay I will stay
 your people will be my people and your God will be my God.
 Where you die I will die and there I will be buried.

What profound love what amazing kindness. Naomi’s relationship with her daughters in law must have been so good over the past ten years that Ruth cannot think of leaving her. She chooses to be loyal even if the situation isn’t going to be easy or have any other outcome than dying where Naomi dies.  Note also that for Ruth it’s also a conversion, an abandoning all she has, her culture her own God’s and a willingness to follow Naomi’s God, even though Naomi has said the LORD’s hand is against her. There is a real faith here as well as real love. The text tells us that Naomi gets the idea after this that Ruth won’t be persuaded so she stops urging her. I’ve Got to fit a mother in law joke in here you could say she stops nagging her.

Here is where hope enters the picture. In this faithful loyal kindness that Ruth shows Naomi. I cannot help but see that kind of loyalty and love being reflected in the one who ultimately reaches his hand out to save us and says I no longer call you servant but friend. She’s with her till the end, it’s through that loyal love that God will answer Naomi’s complaint that hope and salvation will come. I’ve said it before in the book of Ruth like in most of our lives God does not intervene in an overt and miraculous, parting the red sea kind of way rather he uses the actions and choices of people to show his kindness. Maybe if we were looking for the answers to our complaints and for God to show his hand miraculously, we may feel that his hand is against us and miss the hand that God holds out to us in the shape of a loyal friend or family member prepared to walk the dark road with us.