Saturday, 14 November 2015

God's loving kindness in tragedy

I recently preached in Stirling Baptist Church on Ruth and the Brokenness of Family Life. You can listen to the sermon here.  The following blog post is a summary of what I said.

I was recently at a course on the 'Power of Storytelling'.  It was a great course and it proved that our brains are wired to respond to stories rather than large amounts of data.  As one of the facilitators said 'storytelling is data with soul'.  Surely this is why God has given us so many great stories in the Bible?  Through these powerful stories God doesn't want us to understand dry data but living truth and exciting doctrine.  He uses rich and powerful stories to teach us eternal truths which point us to our need of Christ.

There can be few more powerful stories than Ruth in the Bible.  It asks some of the big questions like; Where is God in all the suffering around us?  Where is God in death?  Can God still be in control when there is so much evil and chaos all around?

Perhaps, like we often ask in Bethany Christian Trust , you are asking, how does God want us to respond to
the poor?
 to the destitute?
 to the refugee?
 to the widow?
 to the hungry?

These are the questions that are asked and answered in the story of Ruth. 

There can be few Biblical stories more relevant to Europe in 2015 that the story of Ruth;

 A couple face the stark choice of bringing up their family in the midst of a natural disaster (a famine).  They give up everything and travel to a strange country.  They arrive disenfranchised, powerless and with nothing but what they can carry.

While away in this strange land, the tragedy turns into nightmare as Naomi stands at three open graves.  With no tears left to cry, Naomi returns to her homeland bereft, alienated and lonely.

How many millions of people are experiencing what Naomi experienced in this book?

As the church seeks to respond to the challenge of our age, what can we learn from Ruth?

We can look at Ruth chapter 1 under 3 headings.

1. Rebellion

a)  When the Judges ruled

Chapter 1 begins with the words ‘in the days when the Judges ruled’.

What kind of days were they? The last verse of Judges 25 tells us. It was a time of chaos, rebellion and apostasy.

The covenant God Jehovah had promised blessings for his chosen people when they came into the promised land. These blessings were dependent on their faithfulness to God’s law.

Deuteronomy 28 promises that God will bless the people of Israel;

And the Lord make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground, in the land which the Lord swore unto thy fathers, to give thee.  The Lord shall open unto thee his good treasure, even the heaven to give rain unto thy land in due season, and to bless all the work of thine hands: and thou shalt not lend unto many nations, but shalt not borrow thyself.  And the Lord shall make thee the head. and not the tail, and though shalt be above only, and not beneath.   Deut 28 v 11, 12, 13.

God had laid out the requirements of his people very carefully but they had rebelled.

Doesn't that sum up Scotland today?

We are living in a time of national rebellion.

We see this in family life don’t we?

·        The CSJ published a report in July 2014 stating that while 62% of 15 year old boys in the UK had a smart phone butonly 57% lived with their fathers.

·        1 million kids had lost contact with Grandparents as a result of separation and divorce.

·        Family breakdown cost the country £50 billion per year

·       By the age of five, 48 per cent of children in low-income households are not living with both parents, according to Government data.

We are a nation in rebellion against God.  He is judging us for our unfaithfulness.

b) Looking for help in the wrong place

The book of Ruth tells us that Bethlehem (House of Bread) was now a place of famine and desolation.  Instead of turning back to the Lord, Elimelech and his family turn their back on God.  They travel to Moab. Elimelech means 'my God is King' while Naomi means 'pleasant'.  They were Ephrathites – from the area of Ephrath or Ephrathah – now Bethlehem.  These were true Hebrews – they would have known the law of God.  But Elimelech took his family to Moab – a people God had forbidden Israelites to have anything to do with.  The  Moabites had refused to give Israel food and water in their wilderness journey (Deut 23 v 4).   Balak, King of Moab, called for Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 23 v 7).  God commanded the Israelites; ‘Do not have anything to do with the Moabites or the Ammonites in all your generation, forever (Deut 23 v 3)

Elimalech had heard God’s voice in providence, in the famine, and he had also heard God’s voice clearly through the law.  So why did he disobey?

Elimelech was addressing the wrong problem.  The problem was not the lack of bread – the problem was the lack of a right relationship with God.  There had been famines before and God had raised up Joseph to respond to that famine (Psalm 105 v 16-17).

The famine wasn’t the issue it was the rebellion that was the issue. 

Isn’t this the problem with our society?

So often we are addressing a whole range of issues when the fundamental issue is a spiritual and moral one.

What Scotland needs more than anything else is a spiritual and moral revival. 

No amount of social work intervention can ever stem the tide of family breakdown, abuse, domestic violence and intergenerational poverty.  Social workers do a heroic job in incredibility difficult circumstances with increasingly limited resources. Of course we need to help people in crisis but fundamentally we need to build a stronger and more caring society and that can only happen through the gospel.

It will only happen as churches in Scotland live out the gospel in their community – touching broken lives and stemming the tide hurt and pain through grace and love.  Only Christ can ultimately heal our broken nation.

2.  Return

a) A change of name

The time that Elimalech and Naomi spent in Moab became a nightmare.

As strangers in a strange land Naomi lost not only the bread winner, but both her sons – she had no living fruit from her womb.  The sons left two widows – Orpah and Ruth.  We see three widows in a patriarchal society with no assets and little hope.  As Iain D Campbell says;

The family had left Bethlehem-Judah and they had come to Moab expecting to find great things; instead all that they found were broken hearts and broken dreams, and sore experiences under God’s hand.

What good could possibly come out of this tragedy?

How could God be at work in such devastation?

Naomi is numb with grief as she says in Ruthe 1 v 13 and 20 – 21.

Naomi is not saying ‘the Lord has embittered me’ or ‘I am very bitter’.  Rather she is saying ‘I have experienced bitterness.’

In the midst of tragedy Naomi did not embrace atheism but rather anchored herself in the God of the Covenant.

b) A change in circumstances

We see in v 6 ‘the Lord had come to the aid of his people.’  Naomi hears that the famine had come to an end and prepares to ‘return.’  Just like the Prodigal Son, while she is in the far country people in Bethlehem are feasting.

Often we see in scripture that words that give signals.  'Return' is used 10 times in chapter 1

Return or go back – v 6, 7, 8,10,16, 22
Return home – v 11, 12
Going back – v 15

This Hebrew word 'shub' is used again and again to illustrate that Naomi and Ruth weren’t just going back to Bethlehem – but they were also returning to God and his covenant grace and mercy.   This was more than a journey for Ruth it was a spiritual transformation as we see in verses 8 – 18.  Orpah returns but how does Ruth respond?

Where you go I will go....

This word ‘return’ is running like a melody line throughout the whole story.  God is at work in the midst of tragedy.

This isn’t just a journey – it about turning back to God, it is about returning to his grace, it is about coming to faith.

Here we see God starting to work out his purposes.  This tragedy was used by God to bring a heathen Moabites to trust in Jehovah.

We see in the passage that all the women wept.  Orpah perhaps wept because she had left Moab and wanted to return.  Naomi wept tears of regret because she had gone to Moab ‘because the Lord’s hand has turned against me’ v 13.  Her decision (along with Elimalech) had brought down the judgement of God.  Ruth wept tears of joy because she had a new life, a new path and new people.  She no longer worshiped the gods of nature – she worshipped Jehovah.

Don’t you see God’s hand as we look back at this story 1000’s of year later?

Out of death God brings life.

As Sinclair Ferguson says It is a gospel secret that death is the way of life.

Think of the death of Stephen – stoned to death.  Yet this was the means to awaken Saul.

3  Redemption

Finally Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem.  The city was ‘moved’ or ‘stirred’.

How did God provide for these widows?  What provision was there in the Biblical economy?

Will the Lord answer Naomi’s prayer of verse 8?

a) The law of love for the poor

We often think of the Old Testament laws as harsh and cruel.  But God’s law actually expressed his love, particularly for the poor.  Leviticus 19 v 9-10 and 23 v 22 commanded farmers not to exhaust their crop but to leave it for those in need.  Everyone within the compass of God’s covenant – the haves and the have not’s had provision.  This was the law of grace – the rule of a bountiful father.

The Bible shows us again and again that God is interested in the widow, the orphan and the stranger.  God is concerned for justice for the oppressed and mercy for the needy.  Provision is made for Ruth by good laws from a gracious God.

Notice Ruth’s willingness to work.  Work gives people purpose, dignity, confidence and self-esteem.

b) The ties that bind

Notice also that in God’s providence help is to come through the family.  Ruth gleans in the field of a relative of her father in law – Boaz.

After her first day of harvest she brings back around 30lbs of barley.  See the surprise of Naomi in Ch 2 v 19.  You see what God is saying: ‘Naomi rebelled and came back empty, Ruth put her trust in me and has come back full.’

It was no accident that Ruth gleaned in Boaz field.

Boaz was Ruth’s guardian redeemer or kinsman redeemer.

Boaz showed Ruth kindness or hesed ch 2 v 20.  This word hesed is used 250 times in the O.T. – it means God’s loving kindness.  As Sinclair Ferguson says;

It [Hesed] means God’s deep goodness expressed in his covenant commitment, his absolute loyalty, his obligating of himself to bring to fruition the blessings that he has promised, whatever it may cost him personally to do that.

You see, through all the darkness, death and tragedy, God’s hesed was at work.

Ruth eventually marries her kinsman redeemer (Boaz) and they have a son called Obed, who has a son called Jesse who has a son called David.

As Ferguson says;  What God was quarrying out of the suffering of these two women was nothing less than his purpose to bring his Son into the world in Bethlehem.

God not only provided bread in Bethlehem but he went on to provide the Bread of Life.

The line of Jesus came through gentile woman with a Jewish mother in law.

What is God’s purpose in Naomi, Ruth and Boaz?  He was quarrying for diamonds.

By the end of the book they had all experienced God’s hesed.

The story began with no king in Israel
·        It led to a day when there was no bread in Bethlehem
·        A dark night when there was no children in her family
·        Now this covenant keeping, all sufficient God, Yahweh and El Shaddai, has given her a grandson, and within a few generations will give Israel it’s greatest king.

Do you know this King?  Have you come to know the ultimate Kinsman Redeemer - the Lord Jesus Christ?  This King who loves the poor and the marginalised?

‘Praise be to the Lord who this day has not left you without a kinsman redeemer.  May he become famous throughout Israel’ (ch 4 v 14).

Let's make our Kinsman Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ, famous in Scotland.