Wings of Refuge (Ruth 2, Mt 11, 1 John 4)
Are you ever overwhelmed by life’s events? The illness of a loved one, the unexplained rejection in a relationship, the never ending tasks of work, home or family? Or perhaps by the big problems in society. Issues around Brexit, global warming or mass immigration? We feel that we can’t do anything - we are paralysed by so many issues that seemingly have no resolution or way in which we can help. Well, today’s passage shows how God lovingly works thru ordinary people to transform the lives of others. I hope that it will be an encouragement to all of us that our lives count and that our actions may touch others.
You may have heard the old story of a man who in a rising flood had climbed onto his roof and prayed that God would rescue him. First a raft went past and invited him on board but he said ‘no I am awaiting God’s rescue’. Then a bigger boat went past and urged him to get on board before the water reached him. They got the same response. Finally a helicopter flew low over him and a rope was dangled down with a man on it. ‘Grab on to me and we will pull you out.’ ‘No, God will save me.’ The helicopter spun away and the man eventually drowned. When he got to the Pearly Gates he met with God. Why didn’t you rescue me as I prayed? God replied: I sent you a raft, a boat and even a helicopter but you ignored them all!
There are several things that I like about that invented story and one is that God uses ordinary people to help and save others. Sometimes he could do a miracle or send an angel, more often he uses a doctor or sends a friend. Bear this in mind as we look at Ruth 2. Please open your bibles. To recap our story from Ruth: ‘The family that left from Bethlehem, the ‘house of bread’ provided by God, to look for food in a pagan country has been reduced to two widows. But there’s hope, they return to Bethlehem “as the barley harvest was beginning”’ (1.22).
Get up & Go - Ruth (1-3)
As you can see in your service sheets the passage seems to fall into 3 parts, each focussing on 1 of the characters in our story. The first 3 verses have Ruth as protagonist but V.1 introduces the first man in the book who will actually talk as well as not die tragically. Boaz is a relative from the clan of N’s dead husband Elimelech. V.2 reminds us that Ruth is a Moabitess - from a despised foreign nation. Having arrived in Israel, an unknown nation, she could have been overwhelmed by the situation and not knowing anyone waited for Naomi to make the moves. But faith isn’t passive, it needs to get on the raft or cling to the helicopter rescuer. R has a get up and go attitude and asks N if she can go to work in the harvest fields.
With Naomi’s blessing she goes out and ‘As it turned out’ v.3 ‘she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz’ which the text mentions again ‘was from the clan of Elimelech’. The writer doesn’t explicitly tell us that God is at work - it looks as though Ruth is just extremely fortunate to choose the right field to glean in. But there are many hints in the book of Ruth which show that God is weaving events together to bless the characters and put in place his long term salvation plan.
Has that even happened to you that whilst you were in a difficult situation you couldn’t see God’s hand at work but when you look back, the coincidences seem too many and you discern God’s activity guiding you providentially? I know that I have. One writer says that ‘the providences of God are like Hebrew words: they can only be read properly backwards’. V.4 gives another hint: ‘Just then’. Just then Boaz arrived.
Generous Rich man: Boaz (God’s kindness) v.4-16
V.4-16 show the character of a Generous Rich man: Boaz. As we mentioned last week - we lack good role models in public life - especially male ones. One influential man called a leading politician in his own political party a ‘revolting character’, another a ‘classic third-rate, suck-up-kick-down-sycophant’ and a third as ‘thick as mince’, ‘lazy as a toad’ and ‘vain as Narcissus’. I won’t even repeat what others thought about him in response!
With Boaz we see a totally different type of man - one who reflects God’s character.
1. Firstly we see that he leads a God-centred life. The first verses we hear him say are: ‘The Lord be with you’. His workers obviously weren’t Anglican because instead of replying ‘And his Spirit with you’ they say ‘The Lord Bless you’. He is preoccupied by others: asking in v.5 ‘whose young woman is that’? In that patriarchal society if a woman didn’t have a man’s protection she was vulnerable to abuse.
His foreman replies: ‘She is a Moabitess who came from Moab with Naomi’ (6). And Ruth we remember was not only a widow but also poor and an immigrant (and the despised nation of Moab is mentioned twice by the foreman) and so she is triply vulnerable. So after Ruth asks for permission to carry on gleaning grain, Boaz instructs her to stay with his servant girls and orders his men not to touch her (8-10).
2. In second place we see that law and love come together in Boaz. When I first read the bible through, one of the things that impressed me was God’s special love and regard for the marginalised. The poor, the widows, the orphans and the foreigners - and Ruth falls into 3 of these categories. God provides special provisions for them - often written into what became know as the Mosaic law. Listen to these verses: Dt 10.17-19 & 24.19.
God provides for the weak in society and blesses those who do the same. If Boaz had been an unscrupulous western fat cat capitalist and harvested right to the edge of the field to make maximum profit, Ruth would have found no help in his fields. There is lots to reflect on here, as principles for the ways that we conduct our businesses. But Boaz showed God’s love by obeying God’s law.
Most people today see God’s law as something that should be ignored. We often think of rules and regulations as being the opposite of love and freedom: they are there to spoil our fun. But all good things come from God: food, sex, family, wine etc. When we distort the use of these gifts and try and enjoy them outside the parameters that God has designed for them, we run into all kinds of problems. Obesity, sexual diseases and emotional scarring, family breakdown and alcoholism just to mention a few.
God’s parameters are like those a loving parent puts around his children - as no doubt Catherine and Rob do. Sockets aren’t for putting fingers in, matches aren’t for children to play with and knives aren’t to be stuck in pets. Electricity, fire and knives all serve good purposes if they are used correctly. Boaz is a godly man who honours God’s law and so cares for and blesses others. V.15 he gives more instructions to his workers to help Ruth.
3. So Boaz leads a God centered life, shows love through living out the law and thirdly he is an example of God’s covenant love. In v.12 Boaz prays: ‘May the Lord repay you for what you have done (Ruth’s care for Naomi). May you be richly rewarded by The Lord, the God of Israel under whose wings you have come to take refuge’. Boaz recognised what we saw last week, that Ruth had had a conversion experience. ‘Your people will be my people and your God my God (1.16). Coming under the wings of God and taking refuge in him is a way of saying that Ruth has joined the People of God, she had become part of their covenant community.
The word used is hessed - which the King James Bible translated as ‘Loving kindness’. It refers to a love, a loyalty that is tied up in a covenant, in commitment. ‘It describes loyalty to the obligations of a covenant or agreement, and the generous spirit that is willing to go beyond those obligations. This is the kindness for which N praises God in v.20. For Boaz doesn’t just follow the law in a mean, legalistic, pharisaical way - no he goes beyond it.
Boaz doesn’t just let Ruth have crumbs off his table but verse 14 invites her to eat with him. Don’t you see in Boaz, the established older man with a good position amongst his people, sitting down and eating with the outcast Moabitess; a shadow of Jesus sitting down and eating with sinners & outcasts? Ruth eventually collects so much food that some-one says it would provide for Naomi and her for three weeks. The 2 months work until the end of the harvest would give them provision for the next eight months. We see God provide for 2 widows with overwhelming generosity. In musical terms this hessed, this covenanted commitment is a central theme in the OT and forms the melody line to the book of Ruth.
Hessed - ‘means God’s deep goodness expressed in his covenant commitment, his absolute loyalty, his obliging of himself to bring to fruition the blessings that he has promised, whatever it may cost him personally to do that’. Boaz show that to Ruth. His loving kindness cut into his profit, his time and his convenience. How does Ruth respond? Well we saw that Ruth was risking her security and well-being to show loyalty and accompany her MIL away from her country to Israel. But she was taking refugee under God’s wings as a chick does under the wings of a mother hen. She appears to risk it all but wisely chose the most secure place of all.
V.10 ‘At this she bowed down with her face to the ground: … ‘Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me - a foreigner?’. What a humble, submissive response! It shows Ruth’s character. She is a get-up and goer but asks her MIL’s advice. She is a hard worker who labourers all day under the sun to seek food but doesn’t presume to receive favour. How do we respond to the favour of another? ‘Oh, I couldn’t take your charity’. Or to the favour, the hessed of God? No I couldn’t accept the free gift of Jesus’ death (the ultimate example of covenant love), I will find the path elsewhere. I won’t take the outstretched arm of Jesus to pull me out of the waters of rebellion and sin and be given refugee under the wings of a loving Father.
Ruth acknowledges her unworthiness - she is a foreigner. Do we acknowledge our unworthiness to receive God’s blessings? We who have continually lived in rebellion to God’s law and love? Or do we want to say as old blue eyes himself: ‘I did it my way’. Apparently the most popular and most in-appropriate song choice for funerals today!
Do you respond to God’s loving kindness in humility and acceptance? If you want to know more about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus do sign up for the Christianity explored course.
Grateful to God (17-23)
Now moving to the last verses. Do you see the change between Naomi of the end of chp one and the end of this chapter? The OT professor Iain Duguid says of the bitter Naomi: ‘Naomi has misunderstood God and misjudged Ruth. She had failed to see that the Lord is the God who welcomes the outsider. She had forgotten that he is the shepherd who does not stop showing his covenant faithfulness to the wandering sheep. She didn’t remember that he is the Father who waits with open arms to welcome back the prodigal daughter’. But now she is grateful to God. V.19 Blessed is the man who took notice of you. V.20 The Lord bless him. And perhaps adds coyly: ‘That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers’ setting up a possible romantic finish to the story. Naomi has returned from her self-imposed exile and is seeing God’s blessing back in the promised land.
And what of us? The pastor Tim Chester says: ‘God is kind to Ruth and Naomi through the kindness & obedience of His people. We are to show the same kindness toward others, especially the vulnerable. This creates an attractive community of kindness. God is revealed as a God who liberates and protects, and people of all nations come to Him for refuge’. Sometimes people say - the church didn’t help me in my time of need. They mean the vicar, the staff, the church wardens. But someone from the church - the Christian community visited them, someone prayed for them, someone helped them in a practical way. The church did help. These acts often go unnoticed. The reason that we always have such a nice clean and orderly church is because every week a group of ladies come and work hard cleaning St Michael’s. Acts of kindness that bless us all.
One practical application form this passage is to help refugees and foreigners. What ever we think of current immigration policies, and I think a sovereign country is entitled to set its own parameters, a Christian response calls for helping genuine refugees. Bishop Peter of Barking has been formenting this in our area by helping resettle Syrian refugees. The former director for Reconciliation Ministries, the Rwandan Baptist Celestine Musekura says: ‘the church must work towards including foreigners in the social and economic structures of the community’. God uses us as individuals, to show his loving kindness to others as Boaz did to Ruth. How will he use us? To help with the Romford food bank, the diocesan refugee resettlement programme, reaching out to others outside our community with hessed love?
Those who live after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection know of the rich history of God’s long-suffering patience with his rebellious children. We know that the Father stands with his open arms and open heart, scanning the horizon for the returning prodigal, eager to welcome her home. It is this God full of loving kindness that Rob and Catherine have promised to model to Sophie Pearl and Louie John and bring them up to know. It is this God of hessed that we continually need to go to in times of trouble, to take refugee under his wings. It is of this covenant God of overwhelming generosity that the apostle Paul said ‘will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’. It is this Lord who enables us, ordinary people, to serve by helping others with deeds of kindness. What a privilege, what an honour! Let us pray.