If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Ruth chapter 4, verses 16 through 22.
Naomi took Ruth’s child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him. 17 The neighbor women said, “A son has been born to Naomi,” and they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
18 Now this is the genealogy of Perez:
19 Hezron fathered Ram,
who fathered Amminadab.
20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon,
who fathered Salmon.
21 Salmon fathered Boaz,
who fathered Obed.
22 And Obed fathered Jesse,
who fathered David.
This is the word of the Lord.
After today, we will be done with the book of Ruth. This is our final sermon, and we’ve been in this book since Mother’s Day. The norm is to take Ruth a chapter or so at a time, but we have gone very slowly through the Ruth story – one “story beat” at a time, wringing everything we can out of the story so that, if you have been here for every single sermon in our series, you are more or less an expert in the book of Ruth. Each of our sermons is about 3000 words long, there’s been about 15 sermons, and that comes out to not quite 50,000 words. So that’s about a book’s worth of information that you have processed surrounding the Book of Ruth. So you are well-versed in this particular book of the Bible.
In our passage today, the author says that “Naomi took Ruth’s child, placed him on her lap, and took care of him.” After everything Naomi’s been through – being dragged out of the Promised Land by her faithless husband Elimelech, then losing Elimelech when he dies unexpectedly, and then losing both of her sons soon afterwards as they die unexpectedly, returning back to the Promised Land once she hears that the famine is over – God has provided her with a grandson named Obed.
Being provided with a grandson is a lot weightier than it sounds, and if you’ve been here for the previous sermons, you already know why: The story of Ruth takes place during a time in human history in which – over against the will of God – more or less all cultures everywhere treated women as property rather than people. And property can’t own property.
If you were a woman, you were the property of your father or you were the property of your husband, and if you lost both of those things, you were the property of no one in particular and you were just kind of free-falling. You were shoved out to the margins. And your only hope was to become somebody’s property before you became an obituary.
As you’ll remember from our previous sermons, the law that God gave to Israel through Moses essentially ran “damage control” on that unfortunate fact of life, and so although it didn’t solve the problem of how women were viewed and treated throughout the Bronze Age, it did provide the kind of “safety nets” that allowed women in Israel to keep their heads above water in ways that women in the surrounding nations did not have an opportunity to.
As a result, by all indications, Israel became a place that the surrounding pagan nations kept losing their women to. Which makes sense: Pagan women would abandon their home countries and integrate into Israel because the God of Israel saw them, cared for them, and gave them a new life “under his wings” in Israel.
But the fact that things were better for women in Israel does not mean that things were good for women in Israel. During the time period in which the Ruth story takes place, things weren’t good for women anywhere, period. And so, no matter what, there was still the issue that women could not own property. Which means that Naomi could not own the plot of land that used to belong to her husband.
The only way for Naomi to lay claim to that land was for her male child to inherit it from her dead husband. But both of Naomi’s sons were dead, too. So the only way for Naomi the take claim to that land in the absence of her two sons was for one of her grandsons to inherit that land from her dead husband. But neither of her two sons had fathered any children before they kicked the bucket, so Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth have a serious problem on their hands.
They have an “if we don’t find a food source quickly we’ll die” problem on their hands. They have a “we can’t own our own land” problem. Which means they have a “we’ve got nowhere to live” problem, compounded by a “we’ve got nowhere to grow food or keep cattle” problem. That’s a life-or-death problem.
But in the law that God gave through Moses, the first born male child from any widow in Israel is considered to be the “heir” to her original husband. Which means that Obed, the child that Ruth has with Boaz, is legally considered the male heir of Ruth’s husband Mahlon.
Which sounds kinda strange, but there’s a logic behind it, because it means that Obed will inherit the land that used to belong to Elimelech. Which means that Naomi can live on the land that used to belong to them for the rest of her life. Which means she can tend to the fields, grow her own food, build up a household. The birth of Obed means that rather than dying homeless, she will be well taken care of till the end of her days.
So when God provides a grandson to Naomi, it means a lot. This is not just sentimentality. It’s a matter of life and death. This is not a “Hallmark ending.” Providing a grandson amounts to “pulling Naomi from the edge of the cliff” and on to stable ground. As always, God is a “refuge for the oppressed,” he is a “refuge for the abandoned,” he is a refuge for the “let-down,” and Naomi’s story is no different.
At the end of the day, the Book of Ruth is about how God works in every single detail of history, every single detail of our lives, every coincidence, every tragedy, every piece of good fortune, to rescue us from the darkness we’ve been captive in and reconcile us to himself forever.
And so we’ll keep that in mind as we look at the last few lines of this story, which might have seemed inconsequential the first time you ever read through the Book of Ruth. The last lines of the Ruth story list out a genealogy of Boaz’s distant relative, Perez. Since it’s a genealogy, most of us probably just glazed over and sped read through it the first time we read through this book. Right? Like, when you’re going through your “Read The Bible In A Year” plan, there are those days when almost everything is genealogy, and you’re just like, “So-and-so begat so-and-so . . . so-and-so begat so-and-so . . .” and you wake up an hour and a half later, and the sun’s down, and you don’t know where you are, you’re in a bathtub filled with ice and your kidney’s missing. This is one of those passages. And yet, it tells us so much about the things we’ve just read.
If you flip to Matthew chapter 1 – that’s, uh, the first book of the New Testament – you’ll see that Matthew copy/pastes this genealogy almost word-for-word at the very beginning of his book. Matthew says:
Abraham fathered Isaac,
Isaac fathered Jacob,
Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers,
Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar,
Perez fathered Hezron,
Hezron fathered Aram,
Aram fathered Amminadab,
Amminadab fathered Nahshon,
Nahshon fathered Salmon,
Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab,
Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth,
Obed fathered Jesse,
and Jesse fathered King David.
Very exciting stuff, I know, but bear with me. Next up, Matthew continues on in his genealogy, all the way down to verse 16 when he arrives at “Joseph, the husband of Mary, Mary the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.”
What we’ve been watching play out in the Book of Ruth isn’t just a self-contained love story, like something you read in a book you could buy at the airport. We’ve been reading the story of how God works behind the scenes, somehow orchestrating everything together for our good, bringing everything that happens to us, no matter how terrifying, no matter how inexplicable and seemingly meaningless, bending it towards his will.
What we see in the Book of Ruth is that even as the Israelites began to spin out once they got into the Promised Land, as they abandon God’s law, became every bit as wicked as the pagan nations that God had driven out before them, they became a place that was impossible for women, for foreigners, for the weak and oppressed, to be safe in; even as they became the sort of nation that positions itself as an enemy of God, even as they abandoned God with everything in them, as they ran away from his mercy, clutched their idols like you clutch your purse in an elevator, even as they brought a famine onto themselves because of their own fruitlessness, God was working to bend even their evil towards his will.
It’s like the story of Joseph – you know, the one with the flamboyant coat – where his brothers sell him into slavery because they’re sick of living in his shadow, but God bends everything that happens to Joseph in such a way that he works his way up the ladder, as he supernaturally attains the favor of all the people who are responsible for his fate, he ends up becoming Pharaoh’s favorite, he’s placed as a governor over all the people of Egypt, God uses his position as a way to preserve the people of Israel amidst a very different famine, and to bless the people of Egypt.
So when Joseph meets his brothers again as an adult, now in a position in which he could get revenge on them for what they’ve done to him, Joseph says “I’m not angry, because what you meant for evil, God used for good.” What we meant for evil, God meant for good. We see that in the story of Ruth: the people of Israel become a curse instead of a blessing to the other nations, but what they meant for evil, God jerry-rigged for good.
Paul alludes to this much in Romans chapter 8, when he says that nothing in the world, visible or invisible, can stand between the people of God and the love of God because God works everything, literally everything – every persecution, every trial, every fear, every difficulty, every threat, every nightmare – he works everything that happens together for our good.
If you’re looking at the passage, your translation might say it a little bit differently. It might say that he “makes all things work together for our good.” It might say that he “bends everything for our good.” It might say that he “brings everything about for our good.” I don’t know how that works, Paul doesn’t explain how that works – nobody in the Bible seems even remotely interested in how that works, but the New Testament is unanimous about that fact that it works.
To the point that, according to the 19th Century British Baptist Octavius Winslow, and I quote:
“So completely was Jesus bent upon saving sinners by the sacrifice of himself that he created the tree upon which he was to die, and nurtured from infancy the men who were to nail him to the accursed wood.”
When Paul says “everything,” he means everything. We have no idea how it works, but we can know for a fact that God works everything on planet Earth together “for the good of those who love him,” and we see that as vividly as it could possibly be in the story of Ruth, in which a battered woman is dragged out of the Promised Land by her good-for-nothing husband, then loses her entire family and is left with no one but her two foreign daughters-in-law that she is convinced she will be a burden on by sticking around, but God prepares the heart of her daughter-in-law Ruth to refuse to leave her, to follow her back to Israel against her wishes, to throw herself into working to support her with everything she has, and then marrying a man named Boaz, producing a grandchild named Obed for Naomi, and kicking off the events that lead directly to the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. God works everything together for our good.
Now, it’s very important that I talk about with that does not mean, right? You ever seen somebody on Facebook, or something like that, who posts, like, 90% juvenile nonsense – like, grown adults whose Facebook wall looks like a bunch of Middle School gossip, or something – but who also posts a thousand “Like & Share If You Love Jesus”-typed things?
Or, they’ll say something like, “You Might Think I’m A Jerk, But Jesus Thinks I’m To Die For.” “I’ve Got My Haters, But I‘ve Got God On My Side.” You know what I’m talking about?
We probably all know somebody who’ll spend the who weekend getting too drunk to walk, so you’ll be like, “Aren’t you worried about, like, alcohol poisoning, or dying in a ditch somewhere?” And they’ll say something like, “Hey, God Works Everything Together For My Good.”
If that’s you, I’m not judging, I just don’t wanna preach your funeral next week.
But I get it. It takes me about 6 seconds to go from “Pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church” mode to “8th Grade Doofus In A Locker Room” mode, you know what I mean? That’s, like, item #1 in our faith declaration: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” right? Like Romans chapter 3, which we talked about last week: “No one is righteous, not even one, all have fallen away, no one seeks God, together we have become faithless.” Right? Your translation might put that a little differently, but the point is not that we’re all bad and we should feel bad.
The point is that there is something in us that drives us toward unrighteousness, and most of the time the unrighteousness that it drives us toward is not “going out and being a serial killer,” it’s very mundane stuff. Most of the time, our sin takes shape as childishness. Sometimes our sin takes shape as good old fashioned dumbness. None of us are not Woefully Lacking. None of us are not Radically In Need Of Healing, and one of the things we all need healing from is that overwhelming part of ourselves that thinks and acts and desires like a child with no control over their appetites, no control over their emotional life, no control over what they think they want.
I am wildly immature at my worst, and my worst comes out way more often than my best, and my worst comes out way more often than my okayest. Talk to my parents. They know me very well. They see me act like I’m still 12. I’m talking about, like, last week. Right? That is alive and well in all of us. And because that’s the case, we have a tendency to take things like Romans chapter 8, that “God works all things together for our good” and turn that into “God Is On My Side” and “God Co-signs Whatever I Do,” “God Affirms Whatever I Want,” “God Endorses Whatever I Already Think.”
You know what I mean? It is catastrophically easy to section ourselves off from the influence of the Holy Spirit, confine ourselves to those brief passages in the Bible that we can gerrymander into meaning whatever we want them to mean, effectively empty a roll of duct tape around God’s mouth and position him as a kind of Magic 8 Ball we’ve rigged to give the “go-ahead” to our every inclination.
So we’ll walk from one sinful pattern to another, whispering to ourselves that “It’s fine,” because “we’re good” with the good Lord, “God and I have an understanding” – you heard that one before? We will swan dive from one obviously unhealthy pattern to another, and in the background, we’ll pray these, kind of, limp prayers to some imaginary God that we named Jesus, who approves of whatever it is that we do, and disapproves of whatever it is we disapprove of, who just kind of echoes whatever it is that we say, who signs off on whatever unhealthy pattern we are enamored with this week.
The problem is that that God has absolutely nothing with the Jesus that actually exists. That Jesus is no Jesus at all. If your God never disagrees you, your God doesn’t exist. I don’t know what God you’re worshipping.
So when Saint Paul says that “God works everything together for our good,” he doesn’t mean that God is our groupie. It doesn’t mean that “God is on our payroll,” that “We’ve Got God On Our Side So We Can Do Anything.” It means that God is on God’s side, and God will change our hearts in such a way that we get on God’s side, too.
And we see exactly this play out in the Ruth story. We see God prepare an Israelite name Boaz, not just to fall in love with Ruth as though all of this was just a by-product of his love life, but that God prepares Boaz to throw himself into blessing this foreign widow who has shown up at his doorstep, that God prepares his heart to throw himself into seeing to it that because God is a refuge for the nations, his own household will be a refuge for the nations, too. God works everything that happens to Ruth, everything that happens to Naomi together, not just for the good of Ruth and Naomi but for the good of the whole world. Far beyond simply taking care of the needs of a couple of widows in Bethlehem, God was setting the events into motion that would lead directly to the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.
God will work everything together for our good by working us into the image of Jesus, one way or another, the “easy way” or the “hard way.” God will cause everything to work together for our good, by causing us to abandon the things we think we want, and begin to want the things that God wants. God will shape us into tools for his good plan, because his good plan is good. God will co-opt us so that we abandon whatever plans we think we have that brush against his mission in the world and instead throw ourselves into whatever role we are meant for in God’s plan.
That means that we will be like Ruth, we will be like Boaz, we will be like Naomi no matter how reluctant we are at the outset. If you’ve been dragging your feet, resisting God’s call on your life, stop wasting your time. God is probably not going to move a fish to eat you and then vomit you out in the place you’re supposed to go, like he did with Jonah – although that would be awesome to read about – but he will “co-opt” you. God will co-opt you for his mission. God will hijack you to fulfill his will to bring everything together for good – the easy way, like he does with Boaz, with Ruth, or the hard way, like he does with Paul on the Damascus Road.
If you would prefer the easy way, come talk to me in a few minutes as we worship the Lord through song. As always, I will be standing awkwardly at attention, and I’ll be available to pray with, or talk through what it means to throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus, or anything else you feel led to have a conversation about.