Father God, your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. So we pray that you would shine its light into our lives and into our hearts this morning and show us the way to go. In Jesus' name, amen.
Well let me say a very good morning to you all. And let me ask you a question to begin – here's my question: What is love? If I asked you to turn to your neighbour and answer that question – what would you say? Now don't worry – I'm not going to get you to talk to your neighbour… I can see the look of fear in your eyes already! But we don't have to search far to find people offering a wide variety of opinions on what they think love really is. In fact, if you were to take a look at song lyrics over the years you'll find some pretty different ideas about love:
- Westlife tell us that "Love will find you" whereas the Black Eyed Peas want to know "Where is the Love?"
- The Beatles told us that "Love is all you need" but Tina Turner bluntly tells us "What's love got to do with it? What's love but a second hand emotion?"
- Or how about the spectacular glam rock band The Darkness - remember them? They seem to sum up our culture's confusion over what exactly love is. In one song they shout "I believe in a thing called love" yet a few tracks later they complain that "Love is only a feeling."
There is much confusion about love in our culture! Now don't worry, I'm not setting myself up as some kind of love Guru - perish the thought! But I think that last song is the main message our culture gives us about love: Love is a feeling. Whether it's those butterflies in our stomach when someone turns our head or that sense of arousal when we think things are going to go further or that crushing sense of disappointment, frustration or guilt when it doesn't all work out – Love is a feeling. A wonderful, joyous feeling –but it's an elusive feeling nonetheless. It's hard to find, let alone keep. I mean few cultures have thrown the word "love" around more freely then ours – So why is it that we still struggle to finding the quality of personal relationships we long for?
Well at the risk of being a bit geeky for a minute let me tell you about a study undertaken in the 1980s by a group of sociologists in which they analysed people's attitudes to their relationships – and the tension between individual freedom and social commitment. In it they discovered that the traditional view that feelings should always come second place to duty was now very rapidly being displaced by a very different attitude in which feelings took priority over everything else. So it wasn't self-control, self-denial, self-discipline that really counted anymore – but self-fulfilment, self-acceptance, and self-esteem. The important virtues were now not those which restrain expression of self, but those which liberate it. Emotional independence and contentment is the goal. So I must be happy in this short life. I must be happy! That is the message. And a personal relationship is simply a way to achieve my happiness. So if it's not working for me, then it and the person has to go. You see, life is now about choices, not commitments. And if a commitment isn't making me happy, I must make a different choice. And you may have to be disposed of in the process.
Now don't get me wrong here – this new attitude is not all bad. It has been a great help in making people more self-aware, in helping them get in touch with and express their feelings and in being aware of the guilt inducing manipulations of the family, the culture and the workplace. But the problem is, carried to an extreme this kind of attitude is desperately destructive for loving relationships. So we must recognise that this is what we have done as a culture. Do you realise this? We have essentially redefined the meaning of the word love. So it is no longer a sacrificial commitment to another person, but it is now the intensity of feeling within myself. That's what love is – what I feel. That change has come very subtly, but it is now universal in our thinking. And it is in your thinking. It is!
And that is what makes Ruth and the book that bears her name such a candle in the darkness for us. Because it's all about the difference that commitment in relationships can make to our experience of love. For this book is meant to convince us that: Love is a commitment. This book is about a sacrificial commitment to somebody else. It's about loyalty and duty and the cost that comes from putting the needs of others above our own. It's about the way God achieves his purposes in history through insignificant people who trust him enough to take the risks which sacrificial, committed, covenant, Calvary love demands. And as we come to the very end of this book in Ruth chapter 4, I have two scenes to walk you through – and they both reflect the theme of sacrificial covenant love. And in the first scene, we encounter…
1. The Loyal Wedding
"So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. And he went in to her, and the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son."
So, if you've been around as we've worked our way through this book of the Bible over the last month or so this is the moment you've been waiting for. If you've not, well why not read the rest of the book when you get home and catch up? But we all love a happy ending and here it is, as Ruth and Boaz finally get hitched and she has a baby. But who is it that gets all the congratulations cards? Well surprisingly it's not Ruth and Boaz! It's actually her mother-in-law, Naomi! Verses 14-17 go on like this – Ruth has the baby and:
"Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became his nurse. And the women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi."
Do you see? The emotional focus of this wedding and subsequent christening… is Naomi – as these women enter stage left to sing and dance around her like the cast of Mary Poppins. Why? It's intriguing, isn't it?
Victor Hugo, who famously wrote Les Miserables, once wrote that: "the greatest happiness in life is to be convinced that you are loved." And that is certainly Naomi's experience when it came to her daughter in law. Let's review Ruth's highlights reel, shall we?
So chapter 1, against all good sense and her own best interests Ruth commits herself in love to her widowed mother-in-law Naomi. Rather than leave this old woman bereft and alone, Ruth abandons her own country of Moab and accompanies Naomi back to Israel. She makes a vow of commitment to Naomi in Ruth 1.16 – she promises her:
"Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God."
That is what real love is about – It is about making promises, and with God's help seeking to keep those promises. Now if Ruth had mainly been interested in self-fulfilment she would've ditched Naomi and done her own thing. But no! She was part of Naomi's family and one of the few members of that family still left alive. And she was determined to put that loyalty first – even though as a Moabite she was by race, one of the sworn enemies of Israelites so was potentially putting her life on the line with every step she walked with her mother-in-law.
But then in chapter 2 Ruth meets Boaz. And he commends Ruth for her faithfulness to Naomi and expresses huge admiration for her as he prays for God to reward her for all that she has done for Naomi. That leads to Ruth coming to Boaz in the dead of night in Chapter 3 as she says to Boaz: 'Be the answer to your own prayer! She stands before him – in Ruth 3.8 and says:
"Spread your wings over your servant for you are a redeemer."
And as she calls Boaz to be her "kinsman redeemer" she uses a word linked to the care of a destitute family member in Leviticus 25. So it's as though she has Naomi her mother-in-law standing right next to her as she stands before him. As she's saying "kinsman redeemer" – she's saying: 'I've got my arm around my mother-in-law'. She's saying: 'Please marry me, but I come with my mother in law, and I will not break my vows of love to her.' Now that is some chat up line, isn't it? As she says to him: 'Leviticus 25 – Here I am with my mother-in-law. What do you think Boaz?' Some chat up line, eh? It's in a totally different league to the old classics like:
- "Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?"
- Or "I'm not a photographer... but I can picture you and me together."
Don't worry – I won't do any more! Not least because I'm sure Boaz didn't care about chat up lines at all – he was rightly much more concerned with the character of his potential bride to be, which is why he responds in verse 10:
"May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter. You have made this last kindness greater than the first in that you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich."
Now the "kindness" he is referring to is Ruth's kindness to Naomi. He's staggered by her promise keeping godliness. Here is this man, an Israelite brought up in the faith – and this Moabite woman comes in as a new believer – and she blows him away by her example and her godliness. And if you are a new or young Christian here today can I say that you probably think you still have much to learn – and you do! But do not underestimate the many ways in which you can teach, encourage and challenge us who are older in the faith.
Well Boaz is staggered by Ruth's love for her mother-in-law. And now here in chapter 4… what joy! He takes her to be his wife… and Naomi comes to live with them too. And they have a child and as Granny Naomi sits bouncing little Obed on her knee, the women all gather round to declare – verses 14-15:
"Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him."
Safe at last from the ravages of Moab and the vulnerability of her widowhood and the bitterness of her past – what is it that has brought Naomi to this place of security and fullness? What is it that led her to restored faith and hope? It was Ruth's love. That is how her faith in the covenant love of the God of Israel was restored. Because another human being demonstrated such committed, sacrificial, promise keeping love to her.
So let me ask you, if you're a Christian here this morning and you believe in the covenant love of God – which actually ultimately went to the cross. I mean this is the extent of his love for me, that he says to me: "Ken I love you so much that I will pay in death and blood to have your sins forgiven, as my enemy, as I take you into relationship with me. Even though you were my enemy." Because that is what I was – his enemy. But he gives his life for me, so that I can be forgiven, filled with his Spirit and greeted as a son. And if you believe in that cross-shaped love, then my question is: Who is your Naomi? Here is Ruth. She's a baby believer, she's just lost her husband, she's got every reason to stick around in Moab – yet here she is in Israel with her mother-in-law staggering Boaz by her kindness, by her sacrificial covenant love. And my question is: What about you? Is there anyone you're loving like this? Anyone? Who has God called you to love like this? Or what task has he called you to do, that quite frankly requires you to 'crucify yourself'?
- Maybe it is a family member – a relative who we have given up relating to because it's just too painful; a child with difficulties you just don't think you can cope with; a spouse who seems to be distant and drifting even further away.
- Or could it be a difficult, awkward person at work or at church or… dare I say it, even in your Midweek group?
- Or it might even be a group of people who God is calling you to love – like the thousands of students pouring into the city this week or those struggling to feed themselves and their families who we can serve through the West End Foodbank or the CAP Debt Centre.
To which we might say – "But I'm too busy!" But whoever your Naomi is, loving them will involve… well actually… real love always involves – self-discipline, self-sacrifice and self-denial. And as I say that, I must acknowledge that there are some here who are already doing that… and I salute you as you are a great example to us.
Why do it? Because Christ was crucified for you, so he calls us to love others as he has loved us. And because you never know what God can do through your sacrificial service. So let's have a quick look at our second scene here. As the loyal wedding, is swiftly followed by…
2. The Royal Family Line
Have a look at verses 17-22:
"And the women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David." Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David."
So from crying out in bitter emptiness – in God's plan Naomi is going to be the great, great, great grandmother of David – her name remembered for ever. And from David's line, which we picked up in that seemingly random reading earlier on from Matthew 1 – comes Jesus Christ, and he is the ultimate redeemer. Our true and only hope of salvation. As at the end of the day God is in control and his covenant love – which Ruth has modelled so wonderfully for us – is going to be victorious.
Do you see? In the big picture which Boaz can't see, which Ruth can't see, which Naomi can't see – they are just seeking to be Godly and do the right thing – but in the big picture they are part of God's plan for saving many souls through Christ.
There's a guy called Peter O'Brian who is an Australian minister who has written a number of helpful Christian books to help folks understand the Bible. He became a Christian because his next door neighbour who was dying of MS for 13 years, did so with such sacrificial servant-heartedness to others that his mum was so impressed with this lady's Christ-like faith that she became a Christian, and then so did he. Now if you had said to that woman: "If you die well, people all over the world will have brilliant, helpful Christian books." She would have said: "Deal!" But she couldn't see the big picture, she just had to be faithful.
And the big picture here was that God was going to produce David and ultimately Christ, through this seemingly insignificant family's line. But Boaz couldn't see that and nor could Ruth and nor can you! We just see in front of us our Naomi – that person God is calling us to live with covenant, promise-keeping, sacrificial love. And so the question is: will we trust God and obey, and leave the future consequences through history to God?
As I close let me say that you don't have to be amazingly gifted or in a position of leadership to pull that off. I mean after all Ruth was just a middle eastern refugee from a despised nation – She was a nobody. And yet here we are reading all about her because God can do amazing things through the simple everyday faithfulness of ordinary people.
You see brothers and sisters… this story is designed to deprogram us from our selfish, individualistic attitude toward love. For it is a story which encourages us to see that if we really want to experience what love means in its fullest and richest form… then we must be willing to follow the path of commitment and sacrifice… as the price of love.
So let me ask you again in the shadow of the cross of Christ: Who is your Naomi? What is the task God is calling you to do? Who might be in heaven, because of your courageous, patient, Spirit-filled love for them? Let's pray together:
Father God, we ask your forgiveness for the times when we have displayed self-love, when we've bought into the god of our own happiness and not the good of others. Give us the strength, we pray, in our lives to model covenant love, the love of Ruth, the love of Boaz. And Father as we do that please help us to trust in your sovereignty, to leave the results to you. Amen.