Monday, February 05, 2018

Sermon: Ruth 2: 1-23 Finding Favour

Would you do me a wee favour? Would you nudge the person beside you if they fall asleep? I’m sure you’re familiar with the idea of doing someone a wee favour. They ask you to help out, and so you do something they need done, you do it out of the kindness of your heart. You don’t expect or want anything for doing it, it’s just a wee favour.

Favour is the theme of our reading tonight in Ruth. It’s the driving force behind the developing story, as Ruth looks to find favour - but the question is, will she find it? Remember that she finds herself in Bethlehem, a new and strange place for her, a Moabite. Ruth had been married, but her husband had died young. Her mother-in-law Noami had decided to return home to Bethlehem, and told her two daughters-in-law to go back to their own homes.

But Ruth had pledged her loyalty to her mother-in-law, so here she is. A foreigner, far from home, far from family, living with Naomi. What would happen to her? Particularly since immigration seems to be such a contentious topic these days. How do we treat the foreigner and stranger? How will Ruth be treated?

Before we get to Ruth’s story, verse 1 seems almost a wee bit out of place, doesn’t it? We’re hearing about Noami and Ruth, when suddenly there’s this mention of Boaz, a relative of Elimelech. And all we’re told about him is that he is a man of standing. A man of good reputation. And then by verse 2, we’re back with Ruth and Naomi.

Verse 1 is a bit like the start of Casualty. Normally at the very start of Casualty you see someone you don’t know before, maybe someone on their bike, or a family setting off on a car journey, or someone making a cup of tea. And you know that very soon, something is going to happen to this person - they’re going to have some sort of mishap, and they’ll be brought to Casualty. Well verse 1 is a bit like that. We don’t know Boaz, haven’t met him before, but keep him in mind... we’ll soon get to know him better!

Do you remember how Naomi described herself at the end of chapter 1? She was Mara (bitter) and empty. And she’s still empty, because it was the men who went out to work. There’s no universal credit, no welfare system, and so the two women are hungry.

But Ruth takes the initiative. Here’s her plan in verse 2: ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favour.’ There were no welfare benefits, but there was a system of provision for the poor. It was the idea of gleaning. Nowadays the combine harvester gathers the full harvest in fairly quickly, but in these days, you had a line of harvest workers, pulling the stalks. Sometimes they would maybe miss some, or drop some.

The Law said you weren’t allowed to reap right to the very edges of your field, or go over the field a second time. You were to leave some for the poor and the alien. (Lev 19:9-10). And so that’s what Ruth set out to do. She was looking for favour, for some kindness, to allow her to go gleaning.

Look at the middle of verse 3. ‘As it turned out, she found herself working in a field belonging to Boaz, who was from the clan of Elimelech.’ As it turned out - it just so happened. I’m reminded of that line from Casablanca - ‘of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ Of all the fields around Bethlehem, Ruth just happens to be in Boaz’s. Coincidence? or God-incidence?

Just then, Boaz arrives. Now, I wonder what happens/ed when the boss arrives at your place of work? Or if you are the boss, how do you greet your workers? We see the greeting in verse 4 - the greeting we began our service with: The Lord be with you! And the workers reply ‘The Lord bless you.’ We’re getting a glimpse of Boaz’s standing. He certainly talks about God... but is it all just talk?

Boaz is sharp - he immediately sees someone in his field who he doesn’t know. So he asks his foreman - who’s that? And it’s Ruth. Her foreignness is emphasised - do you see how the foreman answers? She is the Moabitess who came back from Moab with Naomi. The Moabitess from Moab. She’s not from around here. She had been polite, asking to glean - and we see that she’s been a hard worker, steadily all morning, except for a short rest.

From verse 8 we hear the words of Boaz to her. She is granted welcome (Don’t go and glean in another field and don’t go away from here. Stay here with my servant girls);
work (Watch the field where the men are harvesting, and follow after the girls.)
protection (I have told the men not to touch you.);
provision (And whenever you are thirsty, go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled.) Boaz didn’t have to do any of these for her. Yet he goes out of his way to help her. And Ruth recognises just how kind he is:

‘At this, she bowed down with her face to the ground. She exclaimed. “Why have I found such favour in your eyes that you notice me - a foreigner?”’ (10)

She went out looking for favour, just a few scrap ends of the harvest to feed herself and her mother-in-law. But she’s overwhelmed with the favour she has received. It’s all the more remarkable because she is a foreigner. So why has he been so kind?

‘I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband - how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not now before.’ Boaz knows who she is. He knows her story. And then he gets to the heart of what Ruth had done, as he blesses her:

‘May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.’ (12)

Boaz was showing her favour, but that was nothing compared to the favour that God bestows on anyone who comes to him. Or, as we might know it better, the grace that God lavishes on us - that totally undeserved free gift, given to all who trust in him. And that’s what Ruth had done. She had taken refuge under the wings of the Lord.

(And that’s what the people of Jesus’ day refused to do in our second reading. He pictures himself like a hen wanting to gather her chicks under her wings, but they would not.)

Boaz is gracious to Ruth, because he knows the grace of God in his own life. And so he passes it on, he shares it widely and freely. And Ruth is so grateful - she knows her lowly position, she doesn’t even have the standing of one of his slave girls. Yet this man of standing has given her comfort and kindness.

We see that kindness continuing at mealtime, giving her bread, vinegar and grain, more than enough. We see his kindness in the way he instructs his workers to leave some out for her. So much so that she has gathered an ephah of barley - 22 litres (22 kilograms or 3 stone 6lb). In one day of gleaning! Imagine her carrying home this heavy load! And she also brings home the rest of her unfinished lunch.

At such a sight Naomi is excited! In verse 19 she speaks out a blessing on the mystery man - ‘Blessed be the man who took notice of you!’ And then in verse 21 she utters another blessing: ‘The LORD bless him! He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.’

The favour of Boaz is bringing about a tranformation in Naomi’s heart. No longer is she talking of being bitter, or of being empty. And that’s what God’s grace does to us. Even when we feel far from him; even when we know that we don’t deserve anything; God’s grace give us an overabundance of blessing. He gives us far more over and above what we would deserve.

That Jesus would come, to take on our sins, to give his life, to die on the cross for us - his enemies. Foreigners to him. Yet he shows us this favour, this kindness, this grace. How marvellous, how wonderful is our Saviour’s love for us. It’s wonderful grace. And it’s available to you tonight, if you’ve never experienced it before. Look to the cross, look to the kindness of God, and receive that grace.

As we come to the end of the chapter, we come up to another cliffhanger. We have the detail revealed to Ruth that Boaz is a close relative, that he is a kinsman-redeemer. But to find out what that is, you’ll have to join us next week.

For now, though, we’re focusing on finding favour, gazing on this glorious grace. This grace which can be yours tonight, as you trust in Christ.

May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 4th February 2018.

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