‘God Is A Refuge’ – Ruth 2:8-19 – June 9th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth, chapter 2, verses 8 through 19.

Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Don’t go and gather grain in another field, and don’t leave this one, but stay here close to my female servants. See which field they are harvesting, and follow them. Haven’t I ordered the young men not to touch you? When you are thirsty, go and drink from the jars the young men have filled.”

10 She bowed with her face to the ground and said to him, “Why are you so kind to notice me, although I am a foreigner?”

11 Boaz answered her, “Everything you have done for your mother-in-law since your husband’s death has been fully reported to me: how you left your father and mother and the land of your birth, and how you came to a people you didn’t previously know. 12 May the Lord reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”

13 “My lord,” she said, “you have been so kind to me, for you have comforted and encouraged your slave, although I am not like one of your female servants.”

14 At mealtime Boaz told her, “Come over here and have some bread and dip it in the vinegar sauce.” So she sat beside the harvesters, and he offered her roasted grain. She ate and was satisfied and had some left over.

15 When she got up to gather grain, Boaz ordered his young men, “Let her even gather grain among the bundles, and don’t humiliate her. 16 Pull out some stalks from the bundles for her and leave them for her to gather. Don’t rebuke her.” 17 So Ruth gathered grain in the field until evening. She beat out what she had gathered, and it was about 26 quarts of barley. 18 She picked up the grain and went into the town, where her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. Then she brought out what she had left over from her meal and gave it to her.

19 Then her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you gather barley today, and where did you work? May the Lord bless the man who noticed you.”

This is the word of the Lord.

*

The book of Ruth is filled with people who image God for us. At the beginning of the book, Naomi tries to send Ruth away so that she wouldn’t burden Ruth with her own widowhood, and Ruth wouldn’t have any of it. She says, “I will never leave you or forsake you,” and the author of Ruth depicts her response as a poem, which is interesting, and her words remind you of Jesus’s high priestly prayer in John 17, or they remind you of God’s covenant with Abraham, or one of the more passionate Psalms where God makes sprawling promises to those who love him. Ruth images God for Naomi, and for us.

Now Boaz images God for Ruth.

But so far, Boaz isn’t doing anything he isn’t required to do. The Law required Israelites to be hospitable to the extreme, in a way that makes Israel a refuge for foreigners like Ruth. Yahweh is the God of the universe, and that means that he’s the only God, but Israel is the one place that you can go in the Ancient World where God’s moral requirements are also reflected, to some extent, the law of the land.

Ancient mythologies typically ran that Once Upon A Time, the gods lived in a “golden age” of leisure. There was nothing going on. The gods just spent their days getting high and eating potato chips – y’know. And the story varies from culture to culture, but the common denominator is always that something happened that brought the cosmic house party to an end so that they had to work to maintain the universe.

After so long, they get tired of doing menial labor, so they create humanity as a cosmic slave labor force. And that’s just what we were. We existed to do the blue collar work that the gods didn’t want to deal with. That was our purpose. The gods weren’t our parents, they weren’t our friends. They were the plantation owners. And we were the merchandise.

The Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish illustrates what I’m talking about pretty well. At one point, one of the gods says, “Let me put blood together, and make bones, too,” and “Man shall be his name.” So that “The work of the gods shall be imposed on him, and so they shall be at leisure.” From around the same time, there’s an Akkadian myth called the Epic of Atrahasis with essentially the same plotline – humanity is created, and I quote, to “bear the yoke” and “assume the drudgery of the god.”

So if you’re a pagan living in the surrounding nations, suffering under the cruel apathy of the old gods, whom the stories say created you so that you could do their hard labor while they kick back and watch, Israel is a refuge; Israel’s God is a refuge. And when Israel is working properly – when they’re observing God’s law faithfully and pursuing God’s will honestly, they become a place that pagans flee to.

They become a place that the surrounding nations keep losing their citizens to, not because of war or conquest but because of conversion. Because people see that there is a good God in Israel, and they gradually come to realize that this good God is the only God there is; that their own gods are no-gods. And they pack up their families and they emigrate to Israel, and become Israelites, and worship Yahweh instead of Ba’al, or Chemosh, or Moloch, or Ashtoreh.

And Israel’s hospitality is kind of like the “Front Porch” by which that happens. Foreigners have to travel through Israel to get to their destination, and if the folks in the village they travel through are faithful to God’s law, they make their sojourn a dream – their needs are provided for, they are welcome everywhere they go, they’re offered work on someone’s farm if they’ll be there long. God’s Law amounts to an invitation to stay forever, to become one of God’s people, to be set free from the slavery of the old gods in your old lands.

And Boaz is remarkable not because he goes above and beyond God’s requirements but because he doesn’t – Boaz is exemplary because he is precisely what it looks like when God’s people obey God’s commands; it’s contagious. Half the work of evangelism is simply to live faithfully to God’s good commands.

*

So Boaz invites Ruth to his table, literally. He says, “Come over here and have some bread and dip it in the vinegar sauce.”

Boaz understands that the end-goal that God’s Law has in mind regarding the poor, widowed, and foreign is to enable them to become full participants in the community. So the Laws surrounding the poor aren’t just welfare laws, the laws surrounding widows aren’t just “Replace Your Husband” guarantees, and the laws surrounding foreigners aren’t just “loose borders” – they’re all aimed at fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, that through his descendants, “all the peoples of the earth would be blessed.” So if Israel is faithful to the Law that God gave to them, Moabites like Ruth would be blessed, Canaanites like Rahab would be blessed, etc.

Boaz doesn’t just want to write off his obedience to God’s law on his taxes, he wants to obey them to the core – he wants to include Ruth fully in the community. Boaz doesn’t stop at leaving the edges of his field unreaped. He breaks out the stalks from his own grain supply. He doesn’t just feed her during a break in the work day, he invites her to sit with the harvesters and dip her bread in the vinegar sauce. He doesn’t treat her like a charity case. He treats her like a future Israelite. Boaz says to Ruth, “May you receive a full reward from the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”

She has “come under the wings of God” for refuge, and Boaz has elected to be the tool that God uses to provide refuge for her. Boaz accepted the call to be the wings.”

Because, like we talked about when we were going through James chapter 5, this God rarely works like the old gods: the old gods promised to heal your diseases and protect your crops and lower your infant mortality rate, but Yahweh rarely did any of that. When Yahweh wanted to heal the diseased he told his people to take up an offering to pay for their healthcare. Literally. That’s how that went. Very un-glamorous.

When Yahweh wanted to feed the hungry, he told his people to share their own food with them and content themselves with an emptier stomach than they would have had otherwise. And when Yahweh wanted to protect foreigners and the poor, he didn’t speak a wad of cash into existence, he told his people to leave the edges of their field un-reaped so that the poor and the foreigners could reap the edges of the field and feed their families.

But all of those things require actual human persons to “opt into” them. They require you to decide to obey them. Part of the reason that “the time of the Judges,” when this story takes place, was so hellish was that next to nobody was obeying any of these laws. Nobody was opting into obeying God’s provisions for the poor and the foreign and the widowed and the suffering, and so Israel had become like the pagan nations that God had ruthlessly driven out before them.

But Boaz “opted in.” Boaz decided to surrender himself as a tool for God to use to provide refuge for Ruth and others under his wings.

And that’s bigger than it sounds. That would require Boaz to crucify his selfishness and his fear. It would require him to allow God to override his inherent drive to protect himself from strangers like Ruth and instead soften his heart towards her.

It required him to allow God to change the way that he sees his own property – no longer as tools that exist simply to gratify or protect him from harm, but instead as tools in God’s hands to provide for other people instead. Boaz has “turned over the keys” to his conscience and his pocketbook to the Holy Spirit, and as a result he has become the means that God uses to provide refuge for Ruth and Naomi under his wings.

*

And so, when Naomi sees the way that Boaz has treated Ruth, she says, quote, “May the Lord bless the man who noticed you.”

Today when we say “God bless you,” what we mean is, uh, nothing. You say it when somebody sneezes, or if you’re holier than I am, you say it when somebody cuts you off on the road, or something. So it’s easy to miss the gravity when somebody in the Bible says, “May the Lord bless you,” and other things along those lines.

But when Naomi says, “May the Lord bless the man who noticed you,” it’s not an empty phrase.

She’s thinking back to the story in Genesis 12, when God calls Abram out of his homeland and says, quote, “Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

A lot of folks quote this passage today but they leave out all the key parts. God says, “I will make you into a great nation – I will bless you” so that “you will be a blessing,” and “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” God doesn’t bless the descendants of Abraham out of favoritism. It’s the opposite: God blesses Abraham so that he will be a blessing to the surrounding nations, so that his descendants will be a blessing to all of the peoples of the earth.

And Boaz is blessed by God, and we see that because he is a blessing to others.

Naomi blesses him, and we see that its come to fruition because the blessings that God pours out on us are never meant to terminate on ourselves. God’s blessings always refract out into the people around us. So you know that a person is blessed when they are a blessing to others. You know that a church is blessed when it is a blessing to others – when it’s a force for its city, when it’s a refuge for its community. You know that a family is blessed rather than cursed when they are blessing to the people in their orbit.

So if you want to know whether you’ve been “blessed by God,” the answer to the question has everything to do with the extent to which your neighbors are blessed by you: If you have never missed a meal in your life, but the folks on both sides of you issue a sigh of relief when they see that your car isn’t in your driveway, you are the opposite of blessed; if you were born pretty good-looking, and you gotten a pass on nearly everything, by nearly everyone throughout your life, but you’ve done absolutely nothing to wield that good fortune in service of the people around you, “blessed” is the wrong word to describe you. Your good fortune hasn’t been a blessing. It’s been a curse.

If your comfort has made you complacent, it’s become a curse. If it’s made you self-absorbed, it’s become a curse – it’s turned you into something worse than a wicked person: It’s turned you into somebody who could do good for your neighbors but doesn’t.

Our culture sees “blessing” as good luck and absolutely nothing else – folks who’re born into a fortunate family and manage not to move down the socioeconomic ladder, and so on and so forth, paint their “good luck” as some kind of “divine blessing” and then tell themselves and each other that God has favored them, and then take that as an excuse to assume that they are Right With The Good Lord, regardless of whether they’ve ever actually thrown themselves on his mercy to be forgiven of their sins and then transformed by the Holy Spirit into obedient followers of Jesus. You know what I’m talking about?

Countries do the same thing. Great Britain spent centuries telling itself that it was uniquely “blessed by God” because it was rich in material goods and natural resources. But they weren’t blessed. They were cursed, because they were a curse: They had more gold in their treasury than they had anything to do with, but that’s not because God had given it to them, it’s because they had marched into undeveloped territory after undeveloped territory, slaughtered the inhabitants, and then stolen their natural resources – and we’re still seeing the consequences of that today, with regions throughout Africa, South America, and so on, still recovering from having been pillaged by a kingdom that believed it had the right to take whatever it wanted, to kidnap and enslave whoever it wanted, to smash up anything it wanted, because it told itself that it was “blessed by God,” and that it had unique privileges to take whatever it desired.

But that’s not what “blessing” looks like in the Bible. God blesses us in order to be a blessing to the people around us. And we can know that we are “blessed” when the folks around us are blessed because of us. We can know that we are blessed when we have given ourselves over as tools in the hands of God to pull other people out of the pit, to set them free from the cycles of brokenness that they’ve been subjected to, or that they dive headlong into.

We can know that we are “blessed” when we allow God to make us into “useful vessels” for his good mission, to pour out his good grace onto people, tell them the good news of his good gospel, even in spite of our radical limitations.

And we have those, right? Don’t misunderstand me. To quote a bunch of old dead Baptists, each of us are “unworthy ministers of a liberating gospel.” We are “unworthy priests of a liberating covenant.” We are “unworthy regents of a liberating kingdom,” “unworthy images of a very good God” – a God so good that he comes to Earth as a human like us, goes to the cross to bury our sins far away from us, and then declares us “worthy” just like he is worthy.

He credits the worthiness of Jesus onto us just like he credits our unworthiness to Jesus in the cross. We are unworthy of the good mission that God has given us, of the good blessing that God has given to us in order to bless those around us with the gospel and to bless them with our friendship and to bless them with our material goods, but God makes us worthy.

He declares us worthy by the cross and resurrection and then he spends every waking moment of our lives from that point forward “hammering us into shape” like a soft piece of metal on an anvil, until one day, in the “New Heavens and the New Earth,” after “every crooked thing has been made straight,” after every broken thing has been “made new,” after everything “Fallen” has been “raised up with Jesus,” we will be every bit as worthy as we have been declared to be in Jesus Christ.

When God promised to “come and get us” in Genesis 3:15, when he promised to “bless us so that all of the peoples of the earth could be blessed” in Genesis 12, when he vowed to “take the curse that we have brought about onto himself” in Genesis 15, when he promised to “make us righteous like he is righteous” in Exodus 20 at Mount Sinai, to “make us holy like he is holy” in Leviticus, to put everything right that we made wrong when we abandoned him in the Garden, God’s not making an empty promise. He has-fulfilled-and-will-fulfill every promise that he’s made to us in Jesus Christ.

And every “good work” we carry out in submission God’s good commands presses forward toward God’s good fulfillment of his good promises. God fulfills his promises to us, most of the time, by fulfilling his good promises through us. So in Boaz’s obedience to God’s law in helping Ruth and Naomi, we see what Paul talks about in Ephesians chapter 2, verse 10, working itself out in real time: That, quote, “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works that he has set aside for us ahead of time to walk in.”

So like Boaz, we don’t bless other people in order to “catch God’s attention” so that he will bless us; we bless other people because God has already caught our attention, because God has already blessed us, because God has already rescued us, because God is already our refuge – he’s already made us into “his workmanship” through Christ Jesus, he’s already “set aside” our “good works” for us “ahead of time” so that we can “walk in them.” We obey God because he has “rescued us from the darkness” we were chained up in and “recreated us” to do exactly that.

Let’s pray.

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