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A planned meeting

A sermon by Rod Benson

Ruth 3:1-18

Call me Naomi. And let me tell you a story from the days when the judges ruled Israel.

Life began well for me. I was born into an Israelite family, from the clan of Ephrathites and the tribe of Judah. We lived in the recently conquered town of Bethlehem. I grew to adulthood, married a good man named Elimelek, and had two sons, Mahlon and Kilion.

And then the famine struck, and we watched as our crops failed, and our herds were decimated, and hunger began to take its toll on our families.

Against our better judgment, we decided to move for a while east into the land of Moab, where the famine was less severe and we had a better chance of survival.

But there my husband died, and our two sons also, and I returned defeated to my home town with Ruth, the daughter of my son Kilion, convinced that “the Lord’s hand had turned against me” (1:13).

That may well have been true, but since my return the Lord has been faithful and gracious to us, in astonishing ways. He provided for our needs by giving us a place of shelter and security with the clan, and gleaning access to the fields of Boaz – grain enough to live well and rebuild our shattered lives.

And God has given me this extraordinary friendship I enjoy with Ruth – such a remarkable, surprising, courageous, wise daughter-in-law.

But Ruth is a Moabite, not an Israelite, and she needs to marry if she is to establish her life here. And that is a problem because the law of Moses forbids intermarriage with the Canaanites because of the danger of apostasy (Deut 7:1-4).

Boaz has helped Ruth and myself economically, but what can he (or anyone else) do about the permanent crisis created by the deaths of all the men in my family?

There’s a deep angst in my heart, and foreboding about what the future holds for us as we grow old. Children are our social security net, and we have none. So it is my difficult duty to find a suitable husband for Ruth. She will need someone when I am gone.

Imagine my surprise the other day, when I discovered the beginnings of a beautiful friendship between Ruth and a man from our clan named Boaz!

My deep pessimism is slowly lifting. I sense God is at work. It’s time to take action. Ruth knows the customs and etiquette of Moab, and the ways of the world, but she will need coaching in the ways of Judah.

So I ask Ruth to wash, and do her perfume and lashes and acrylic nails, and put on her best dress, and go down to the threshing floor of Boaz tonight, where he stores his grain, and wait for him to finish his evening meal, and take note of where he sleeps, and then quietly go to where he is, and uncover his feet, and lie down, and he will tell you what to do (vv. 1-4).

Now this plan entails both great risk and great opportunity for Ruth.

The threshing floor is a large public place, not unlike your Sydney markets, not unlike one of your food courts, a place where goods and services are bartered, and commodities are stored, a place for public entertainment, an outdoor bar and restaurant, a place where street workers ply their trade (cf Deut 16:13-17; Hos 9:1).

“I will do whatever you say,” says Ruth (vv. 5-6).

And so she did. She follows my advice to the letter, learning the ways of my people, nothing desperate or cheap or merely lustful, nothing like your culture’s degrading phenomena of “hooking up” or “sexting,” but a culturally accepted indication of desire and availability for sexual intimacy in the context of marriage, and all that involves.

God commanded our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), a universal command that we regard as binding on subsequent generations, and sometimes our children need some gentle encouragement, a nudge in the right direction, away from certain danger, toward the right kind of people.

That’s what I was doing that night: acting as a mediator, enacting a bold plan to encourage Boaz to see the goodness in Ruth, and to respond in an honourable manner, making a wise decision about his future and his cultural obligation to Elimelek’s heritage – something done thousands of times down through the ages, with inconceivably rich and complex consequences.

That must have been one of the longest nights in Ruth’s life – pensive, uncertain, perhaps terrified.

In the middle of the night, something wakes Boaz. It is dark. He senses Ruth’s presence, and turns, and there is a woman lying at his feet (v. 8)!

“Who are you?” he asks.

“I am your servant Ruth,” she replies. No more “the Moabite who came back from Moab with Naomi” (2:6). No more “the gleaner.”

And then, the marriage proposal: “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family” (v. 9). Boldly refashioning the blessing Boaz gave to Ruth on the first day they met in the fields (2:12), Ruth challenges Boaz to be the answer to his own invocation.

“I have come to take refuge under the wings of your God,” she says. “Now if it be your will, allow me also to take refuge under yours.”

I had explained to Ruth our custom that, where there is no surviving brother-in-law, the nearest male relative (the “guardian-redeemer”) is expected to marry and take responsibility for the widowed woman (Lev 25:23-25; Deut 25:5-10).

And this is what Boaz proceeds to do (see verses 10-11). He understands his place in the unfolding drama.

Feel the relief coursing through Ruth’s body! Sense her joy as Boaz encourages her, compliments her good moral character and actions. He understands the risk she has taken, and the alternatives she has declined. Ruth has placed the needs of her adopted family, and their culture, ahead of her own, and her instincts have been rewarded.

But Boaz knows something I did not: there is a closer relative able to redeem Ruth. And he responds to Ruth with honour and dignity (vv. 12-14). It’s impossible to fault Boaz. He is such a supremely good man. Was it merely rigid social duty? Perhaps. But I think not.

What I sense in my heart is that the mercy and grace Boaz had received from God, and experienced in his own life, uncovered the power and potential for his own selfless acts of mercy and grace toward others.

His personal spiritual regeneration, as a descendant of Abraham in both physical and spiritual dimensions, ignited a desire for love within him – not the grasping lustful empty counterfeit love that we see so often, but pure love, altruism, service, grace, the blessing of others.

And that desire, once kindled, enables Boaz to experience the joy-filled wonder of discovering (on a public threshing-floor, of all places!) that God intends to place a beautiful and noble woman at the centre of his life.[1]

The only appropriate response to the discovery of God at work in this way is to live up to the privilege of his responsibilities. As one of your Christian commentators has observed, “The lives of genuinely good people are not governed by laws but character and a moral sense of right and wrong.”[2]

And I am left wondering: Am I truly a good person? Is my conscience clear? What fruit is my life producing – in terms of godly character, compassion, justice and love?

Perhaps one of the most important questions to ask ourselves is not whether our lives are tuned well, but what tuning fork we are using. For Boaz, the tuning fork was his awareness of the loving-kindness and faithfulness of God, grounding him, shaping him, transforming him, guiding him to become an influential man of God.

What is it for you? What grounds and shapes you? What makes you feel grateful for the life you have? May I encourage you to pray for wisdom each day as you come to know God better, and learn to reflect his character in your life.

And so the curtain closes on Act Three of the story. But I am left wondering: what went wrong in finding Israelite brides for my two sons back then, that went right here and now in Bethlehem? Or are the valleys as well as the mountains all part of God’s good plan?

Please God: may the relationship between Ruth and Boaz be blessed, and bring happiness, and hope, and joy to the world.


Sermon 648 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 13 December 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Michael S. Moore, “Ruth,” in J. Gordon Harris, Cheryl A. Brown & Michael S. Moore, Joshua, Judges, Ruth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 305.

[2] Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 1999), p. 696.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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