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.

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