In a Precarious Position

Have you ever felt a sense of desperation? Like you are having, not just a bad day, but a bad year, or even a rotten season of life? You will be able to relate to Ruth and Naomi, who at the beginning of Ruth, chapter two, are in a precarious position.

Naomi is a widow, who not only lost her husband and sons, but therefore also lost the rights to the family land. Ruth is a foreigner, and a Moabite at that! The Moabites did not a great reputation among the Israelites. Neither Naomi nor Ruth had a livelihood. These were desperate times for them.

Despite their precarious position, Ruth chapter two is all about hope. Let us learn where we can find hope when we are in a precarious position.

1 Now there was a wealthy and influential man in Bethlehem named Boaz, who was a relative of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech. Ruth 2:1 (NLT)

This book is full of hints, and chapter two begins with one; though Naomi and Ruth are destitute, there is a rich man in the family! Now, back to poverty:

2 One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.”
Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.”Ruth 2:2 (NLT) 

Poverty was the reality for Naomi and Ruth. Picking up the leftovers from the harvesting was what the poor did in ancient Israel. In fact the Old Testament law instructed that leftovers ought to always be left over for the relief of the poor. We should also note the danger that Ruth is in. She planned on sticking close enough to the women labourers for the sake of safety.

3 So Ruth went out to gather grain behind the harvesters. And as it happened, she found herself working in a field that belonged to Boaz, the relative of her father-in-law, Elimelech. Ruth 2:3 (NLT) 

The keys words here are “as it happened.” Remember the well-off family member from verse 1? Ruth unknowingly just happened to pick his field.

4 Just then Boaz arrived from Bethlehem and greeted the harvesters, “The Lord be with you! ”
“The Lord bless you! ” they answered. Ruth 2:4 (NIV) 

Remember that well-off family member from verse 1? He just happened to be drop by. Talk about Ruth being in the right place at the right time! But what kind of man is he? Is he kind, or blind to the needs of the poor? We will soon find out.

5 Then Boaz asked his foreman, “Who is that young woman over there? Who does she belong to?”
6 And the foreman replied, “She is the young woman from Moab who came back with Naomi. 7 She asked me this morning if she could gather grain behind the harvesters. She has been hard at work ever since, except for a few minutes’ rest in the shelter.”
8 Boaz went over and said to Ruth, “Listen, my daughter. Stay right here with us when you gather grain; don’t go to any other fields. Stay right behind the young women working in my field. 9 See which part of the field they are harvesting, and then follow them. I have warned the young men not to treat you roughly. And when you are thirsty, help yourself to the water they have drawn from the well.”
 Ruth 2:5-9 (NLT) 

As it turns out, Boaz is a kind man, a godly man. Talk about Ruth being in the right place, a the right time, with the right kind of person! Coincidence? No, the reader is to clue in that God is working unseen in the background on behalf of Ruth and Naomi. Despite their precarious position, there is hope!

God is working, unseen, in the background of your life in surprising ways. God is caring for you, even when you are not aware. 

Let us take a moment to see things from the perspective of Boaz. First, consider the blessing Boaz speaks over Ruth:

12 May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.” Ruth 2:12 (NLT emphasis added) 

Keep that in mind as we continue on with the story.

Ruth heads back to Naomi at the end of the day with a good haul of food, and the happy news that the owner of the field was a very kind man. Naomi asks for his name and upon hearing the name, Boaz, says,

20 “The Lord bless him! ” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law. “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our guardian-redeemers. ” Ruth 2:20 (NIV) 

Here is another hint. Help will come! Boaz is not just a kind man, he is a ‘guardian-redeemer’ to Naomi, and therefore, Ruth. An NIV footnote describes the Hebrew word behind ‘guardian-redeemer’ as “a legal term for one who has the obligation to redeem a relative in serious difficulty.”

Talk about Ruth being in the right place, at the right time, with the right kind of man, with the right kind of relationship to her. He is one who has a potential obligation to help. In fact, he may have an obligation to marry Ruth in order to restore the land to the family. Let us skip ahead to the next chapter where Ruth carries out instructions from Naomi on how to approach Boaz with a marriage request.

7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!
9 “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.” Ruth 3:7-9 (NIV) 

Most translations focus in on a request to be covered by Boaz’s cloak. However, there is something profound about the Hebrew word that gets lost in translation. The English Standard Version brings out well that a word we have seen earlier is used again:

9 He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer.” Ruth 3:9 (ESV emphasis added) 

Boaz spoke in verse 12 of Ruth seeking refuge under the wing of God, not knowing that Boaz himself would be asked to take Naomi and Ruth under his wing. God was working through Boaz on behalf of Ruth and Naomi. God may care for someone through us. You may be the person God uses to bring hope to someone in a desperate situation, you may become the answer to someone’s prayer for refuge.

There is something bigger hinted at here in Ruth, chapter 2. This is the first we hear of Boaz being a ‘guardian-redeemer,’ the one who can help family members in desperate situations. There is a desperate situation that we all face. We experience separation from God, an incredible loss of relationship with God due to sin. As Naomi had lost the rights to the land, land that was originally a gift from God, so we have lost our right to eternal life, life that was originally a gift from God. We need a redeemer, to restore what has been lost. There is a story of redemption in the Book of Ruth that hints at a bigger story of redemption. In the Book of Ruth we learn how God cared for Naomi and Ruth through Boaz. In the Bible, in its entirety, we learn how God cares for us through Christ. There is a redeemer, and his name is Jesus.

God cared for Ruth and Naomi. God cares for us. God cared for Ruth and Naomi through Boaz. God cares for others through us. God is our refuge when we find ourselves in a desperate and precarious situation. He is our redeemer.

Believable and Beautiful. Why Christianity is Compelling.

Can we really believe what we read in books written so long ago? With so many world-views and so many religions, how could we ever pick just one? Does it really matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere, and don’t bother others with it? Don’t people need to leave their brains at the door of a Christian church? Many people are reluctant to consider Christianity. However, in our series we have considered how Christianity is compelling, both in being believable, and beautiful.

First let us review why Christianity is believable, why one need neither leave their brain at the door of the church, nor their faith in the university parking lot. (Click on the links to read the corresponding “Shrunk Sermon.”)

BELIEVABLE

  • Compelling Truth.  People who are “relativists” when it comes to faith and religion suddenly become “modernists” when they need surgery. Truth can be known and does matter. We consistently live as people who know truth can be known and does matter. The truth about Jesus can be known and does matter.
  • A Compelling Cosmos. We considered that the universe had a beginning, the “fine-tuning” of the universe to be life-permitting, and the fact that anything exists at all. What we learn from studying the universe points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Morality. Very few people will say that there are not certain behaviours that ought to be considered evil for all people at all times in all places. The reality of objective morality points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Life. Life began and now flourishes in a world that seems ideally suited for it. The realities of life point to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Minds. Thinking people point to the reality of a thinking God.
  • Compelling Religion. The appetite for the spiritual points to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Evil. The existence of suffering and evil is consistent with what the Bible teaches about our experience. Suffering and evil point to the reality of God.
  • Compelling Holy Books. What caused each of the books of the Bible to be written? The documents that make up the Bible point to the reality of God whose interaction with the world stirred up much writing.
  • The Compelling Man. The most compelling man in history, compelling in his activity, his teaching, his ethics, his presence, his good works, his love, and his impact, points to the reality of God.
  • A Compelling Turn of Events. The tomb was empty and disciples were going about telling everyone that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. They were willing to die for that testimony. Naysayers like James and Paul, changed their minds. Devoted Jews took radical shifts in their theology. The events of, and following, Easter, point to the reality of God.

Cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace speaks of a cold-case trial as being a cumulative case. That is, the best explanation of the evidence is the one that explains all the evidence. With regards to religion and faith, certain world-views may explain some of the evidence. For example, with regards to suffering, Eastern religions have a nice tidy explanation. If you suffer, it is because you deserve it. Your karma is catching up to you. There is a cosmic justice and suffering makes sense. However, there are still many things that don’t makes sense. If Eastern religions are correct, then how did the Bible come into being? Why was the tomb of Jesus empty, why did the disciples go around telling everyone that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead and why were they willing to die for that? Why did naysayers like James and Paul change their tune about who Jesus is and what he is about? Likewise, atheism also gives a good explanation as to why there is suffering. However, again, atheism can not explain all the evidence. Christianity explains all the evidence! Therefore, not only are the truth claims of Christianity believable, there are compelling reasons why we can see them as being the best depiction of reality. God is for real, and in Christ, God is for us.

We can further ask if each worldview is consistent in where it leads. It would be strange if, while the evidence points to the existence of a good and loving God, belief in, and devotion to, that God led to a terrible way to live, and a horrible society. We have used the example of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. If you have read the novel, or watched the tv series, you will see the dominance of a worldview which leads to ugliness and not beauty. Does Christianity lead to ugliness, or to beauty? In our series we considered how Christianity leads to beauty.

BEAUTIFUL

  • Compelling Evidence. Science and Christianity point in the same direction. Christianity helped science get started. A perspective which denigrates science is ugly. That Christianity can work with science is beautiful!
  • Compelling Religion. While religion can, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, “poison everything,” a Biblical Spirit-led Christianity leads to healing. This is beautiful!
  • Compelling Grace. The love of God for people is beautiful. God’s grace and forgiveness is beautiful!
  • Compelling Grace, Part 2. The call to grace, forgiveness, and wisdom in human relationships is beautiful!
  • The Compelling God. The perfect justice and wonderful mercy of God is beautiful. Only at the cross do we see God being perfectly just while also being merciful. This is beautiful!
  • Compelling Mission. The sharing of good news is always beautiful. That we share the good news through words, rather than by force, and give people the space and freedom to choose for themselves, is beautiful!
  • Compelling Family. The Christian vision for parenting and marriage is beautiful. Yet the flexibility that no one is forced to fit the mold of “married with children” is also beautiful!
  • A Compelling Life. The Jesus-centred, Spirit-filled, life lived in wisdom is beautiful. That we don’t just follow rules, but grow in character, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Society.. Christians are not called to takeover the government and set up a society that enforces Christian living. That Christians are called to be salt and light is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Perspective on Humanity. No one has greater value than anyone else. That all people are created in the image of God, without exception, and without exception Christ bore the cross for all people, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling People. That the Church is to be a people who do good works in Jesus’ name, in allegiance to Jesus, under the influence of the Spirit, is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Future. The future of every single person, whether they receive Jesus or not, is reasonable & consistent with a good and loving God. This is beautiful!
  • A Compelling Invitation. Everyone is invited! You are invited! This is beautiful!

The outworking of the Christian faith is consistent with the good and loving God the evidence points to. There are many aspects of Christianity that make us say “of course that is how a good and loving God would do it.” However, Christians have often made a mess of things and been the cause of ugliness rather than beauty. When this happens, it results from a disconnect from Jesus, and often, an unfortunate understanding of God’s WordThe inconsistency is ours. The ugliness is ours. But there is beauty. There is beauty, because there is God.

Perhaps you still have questions. I do. We don’t need all the answers. I have long thought of faith as being like a jigsaw puzzle. As we are figuring out our view of the world, our spirituality, and the way things are, pieces come together. Some people start with the most difficult of questions and give up. But for many of us, the puzzle pieces come together in such a way that the picture begins to form. It is a beautiful picture. So beautiful, in fact, that we cannot help but keep working on it. Sometimes there are pieces that we cannot yet place. Sometimes we have the sense that we are forcing certain pieces together that don’t fit. Sometimes we need to take pieces out that we thought fit, and fit them in where they really belong. This is all a normal part of growing and maturing in our understanding. The picture that comes together as we grow in our understanding is beautiful, and well worth the effort. It is a picture of the cross, of God’s love in Christ.

My prayer throughout this whole series is that you would find the Christian faith to be believable and beautiful, that you would find Christ to be compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here.)

The Compelling Man. Is Jesus Evidence that Christianity is True?

Who is Jesus and why should we care? Some would say that we should consider Jesus apart from any religious ideas, without asking the “God question.” Let us do so for a moment. Before we ask whether God exists, or, if Jesus has anything to do with said God, what can we say about Jesus? Here are some things:

  • Jesus was a man of compelling activity. He went about doing good. Life changing miracles are ascribed to him, but even if your worldview is not open to miracles, you can at least say that the earliest witnesses knew him to be a man of good works for many people.
  • Jesus was a man of compelling teaching. He is described as teaching “with authority” and “not like the teachers of the law” (see Mark 1:22). He was not educated, yet was recognized as having better teaching than the educated and sophisticated teachers.
  • Jesus was a man of compelling ethics. His vision for behaviour was focused on love long before the Beatles sang “all you need is love.” In contrast to the religious leaders of the day, Jesus pointed out that the divine rules existed for the sake of humans, rather than humans existing for the sake of the rules (see, for example, Mark 2:27).
  • Jesus had a compelling presence. He was known as a friend to sinners (see Matthew 11:16-19). Despite his profound teaching and capability, things which can often make people inaccessible, he was a man of the people. People enjoyed and longed for his presence.
  • Jesus issued a compelling challenge. Whether telling the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more” (see John 8:11) or, as happened far more often, challenging the religious leaders, the status quo had no chance.
  • Jesus issued a compelling life-changing and world-changing call. Where it was expected, even hoped for, that Jesus would call people to pick up a sword and fight the Romans, instead he called people to pick up a cross and follow (see Matthew 16:24-26). His call was to the way of  understanding, love, grace, and forgiveness.
  • Jesus had and continues to have a compelling impact. Even if you do not believe in God, or that Jesus is God, you cannot deny that Jesus has had a huge positive impact in the lives of individuals, in entire societies, indeed upon the world. Yes, Christians at times have a negative impact, but the impact of Jesus has been profoundly positive and enduring.

Seeing all that is compelling about Jesus, it is no surprise that Jesus can be fairly described as the most compelling person in the history of the world. We have not even considered the “God question” yet.  Let us now do so.

In Mark 8:27-30 Jesus asked the disciples “Who do people say that I am?”, followed with “who do you say that I am?”. This is perhaps the most important question ever asked. Peter answers “You are the Messiah,” which shows that Peter was beginning to recognize that Jesus was from God in some special way.

We can also ask “who does Jesus say he is?”. Consider;

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven” John 6:51
“I am the light of the world” John 8:12
“You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” John 8:23
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me.” John 8:42
“Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” John 8:58
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:6-7

In case there is any doubt that Jesus had a very high opinion of himself:

For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. John 5:18

In case we think that John is putting words in Jesus’ mouth, let us consider that the “high Christology” of Jesus is consistent with all the New Testament witnesses. That is, all the New Testament writers affirm, or are in tune with the belief that, Jesus is God the Son. Take for example the opening of the Gospel of Mark, which is the most “down to earth” of the four Gospels;

1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’ ” Mark 1:1-3

This reference to Old Testament prophecy in Mark is not in mere anticipation of a Messiah, a man anointed by God to rescue the people from oppressors. That is not what the prophecy in Isaiah is about. This is anticipation of God, Himself, coming. The Gospel of Mark is about God coming to us, it is about Jesus.

Jesus taught that he was from God, that He came from God in a special way which could not be said of anyone else. But do we believe him? If a person we considered evil, like Stalin, said the kind of things about himself that Jesus said about himself, would we believe him? Given his life, you’d say “Nope!”. Likewise, if you said the kinds of things about yourself that Jesus said about himself, would anyone believe you? Again, “Nope!”. But when Jesus says it, with his compelling activity, teaching, ethics, presence, challenge, call, and impact, plus the eyewitness testimony of people saying “he was dead but lives!”, well that is different.

Consider also, if God were to come to us as one of us, if He were to become incarnate,  especially the kind of promise-making-and-keeping God we find in the Old Testament, what would He be like? We would expect Him to have compelling activity, teaching, ethics, presence, challenge, call, and impact. Because He is love, we would expect a rescue. Because He is powerful we would expect victory over death. Jesus fits!

Who Jesus was, who people experienced him to be, adds weight to who he said he is. Of course Jesus is the most compelling person in history. We would expect that from someone who is “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23), “Lord” (see Romans 10:9), and the “Lamb who takes away the sin of the world” (see John 1:29). He is the great God solution to the great human problem of sin and death.

Jesus is the most compelling person in the history of the world, even without the God question. Add in the God question, and the God answer to the human problem, Jesus is even more compelling! Jesus is compelling evidence that God is, and that God is love. Being a compelling man, Jesus is yet more compelling evidence that Christianity is true.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here. All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)