Let me talk to you about eagles. I've been reading about eagles and watching some YouTube videos about them and I've come to the conclusion that they're pretty amazing creatures. Like did you know that Eagles can:
- Fly up to 10,000ft in the sky
- Reach speeds of 100mph when they dive
- Keep their eagle-eyes glued to a rabbit up to two miles away as they dive
- And if some of the videos I saw this week are to be believed they can also carry sheep and mountain goats… and even fly through the windows of airplanes!
Don't worry I'm not going to show you any pictures of that – it was pretty gruesome! And also don't worry about why on earth I'm prattling on about this – this is going somewhere! Because one of the most striking features of the Eagle is that they have the most enormous wing spans, sometimes stretching over 8 feet wide. So here's what I want you to do as we start this morning. Just imagine for a moment that you're a little eaglet chick. Where is the safest place for you to be? Sheltering under the wings of that mighty Eagle of course! There are few places safer in the world to take refuge – than to be enfolded in the massive wings of that fiercely protective, resourceful, sharp-sighted beast.
Now I mention this because we've been working our way through this wonderful little book of the Bible called Ruth this month – and the central image in the book of Ruth is of people taking refuge under the immeasurable protection of God's wings.
- So chapter 1 – Naomi and her husband Elimelech leave the shelter of God's wings in Israel and run off to Moab, as far away from God as they could get. And it all unravels as Elimelech and his two sons die. So now you've got Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, one of whom stays in Moab, the other of whom is Ruth and she comes back to Israel with Naomi. They are both widows. In those days there was no social security for them. And it seems like there is no hope for them.
- But then in chapter 2 – Ruth encounters Boaz. And he looks out for her, protects her and provides for her and her mother-in-law. And as Ruth asks him "Why? Why have you done this?" Boaz says: "The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel… under whose wings you have come to take refuge!"
Folks, all of us long to be covered. To be uncovered in any way is a scary thing that we always try to avoid. But Boaz offers Ruth God's covering, his protection because she has chosen to seek it. And so this little book of the Bible asks us: Are you taking shelter under the protection of God's wings? Is he where you find your security? Are his wings the covering you seek for your shame, your insecurities and uncertainties and your struggles? Well if he is, then you will find yourself acting in faith like our three central characters here in Ruth chapter 3. I've got one word for each of them to share with you this morning. And each of them is a challenge to us, to live by faith trusting that the safest place for us to be is sheltering in God and in his promises. So let's have a look firstly at Naomi. For…
1. Naomi is Responsive (v.1-4)
To which you might say: "No she's not, she's an "interfering" old busy body!" I mean look at what she says at the start of this chapter – verses 1-4:
"Then Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you? Is not Boaz our relative, with whose young women you were? See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Wash therefore and anoint yourself, and put on your cloak and go down to the threshing floor, but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down, and he will tell you what to do."
Doesn't that kind of make you cringe? Can you imagine the conversation? "OK, Ruth I must find a home for you. Now, what do we think of Boaz?" It's awkward, right? This is your mother-in-law after all. And it gets worse! "Why don't you have a little wash? Put some perfume on? Let's go girl! Let's go man hunting. Let's go get this man!" I've puzzled for a while this week about what Naomi is playing at here. It seems that Naomi is putting Ruth in a really awkward position here. It's been weeks now and Boaz hasn't called round, he hasn't phoned, he hasn't even dropped Ruth a text – So Naomi gets her all tarted up to go do some flirty stuff and seduce the guy. She is trying to force God's hand.
But I want to say that's not right. She is not being a pushy mother-in-law. She is acting in absolute faith in what she says. She has two grounds by which she makes this suggestion, and they are both really wise. The first is that she has God's word. You see God had made provision in his word for just this kind of situation. It's in Deuteronomy 25 and it says that if a woman is widowed, with no husband and no home – then the widows' husbands' brother or close relative should marry the widow in order that her family and their honour would be looked after. So do you see? Naomi's grounds for encouraging Ruth to take this initiative is God's word. She is trusting what he has said.
But, she's also got - here's the second ground – she's got God's kindness. As she's already seen his kindness through this man Boaz. It's not like she's going: "Oh Ruth, I've seen this guy Boaz and he's like really hot. Don't know if he's interested, but it's worth a shot." She does know that he's interested. He's shown massive kindness to Ruth, and through her to Naomi. This isn't a punt in the dark. She is not an impatient and manipulative old busybody. She is not trying to force God's hand. No! She is responding – She is responding to what she can already hear God is saying in his Word and see God doing in her circumstances.
There is a beautiful old hymn that puts what she's doing here wonderfully. One of the verses goes like this:
"Oh joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee, I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain, that morn shall tearless be."
Folks, that is what Naomi is doing here – She has suffered horrendously, she has cried and cried and cried and yet… she is still looking for the rainbow of God's promises, in the rain of her experience. And I want to encourage you this morning to be someone who, like Naomi, traces the rainbow of God's promises. When bitter experiences come upon us it is so easy to lose sight of the rainbow and only see the rain. But Romans 8.28 says:
"…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him."
In all things… even the hard things, God is doing good for us. So in the midst of our struggle with:
- Debilitating illness or disability
- Or a distressing family situation
- Or the difficulty of being single or childless when all your friends are getting married and having kids…
In the midst of the bitterness and the tears and the pain and the frustration and the "things aren't working out like I wanted them to" – Will you look for the good that God is doing in your situation and trace the rainbow of God's kindness and look for the promises of his word at work? And as you do that will you then be responsive, and start to act on it in line with God's word and in line with God's kindness? Let those two things lead you. I think that's what Naomi is doing. So she says to Ruth 'Go'. And that brings us secondly to Ruth, and…
2. Ruth is Bold (v.6-9)
There is one word which is very, very striking about Ruth chapter 3. It stands out like a sore thumb – look at your Bibles for as long as you want, but you won't be able to spot it because it's not there! The word is… Moab:
- In Ruth chapter 1 she is "the Moabite". She's from Moab. She's a foreigner. She is not one of God's people.
- In Ruth chapter 2 when she is "Ruth the Moabite".
- But then in Ruth chapter 3… she is never described as a Moabite.
Now you might be thinking: "Who cares? Come on Ken, stop being such a Bible geek." Well hold onto your horses 'cos if you get this it is stunningly beautiful and mind blowing. You see what is going on is that in chapter 1 and 2 her identity was: "I'm a Moabite." That was who she was. That is how she defined herself. But when you get to chapter 3 there is not a sniff of Moab anymore. Ruth says to her mother-in-law, verses 5-9:
"… "All that you say I will do." So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had commanded her. And when Boaz had eaten and drunk ['cos its the end of the barley harvest so Boaz and his men are having an end of harvest bit of a party] and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came softly and uncovered his feet [which is bound to get his attention as it gets colder in the middle of the night] and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet! [And as he gathers his wits about him here comes the key question:] He said, "Who are you?" And she answered "I am Ruth, your servant.""
What did she say in chapter 2? "Why would you notice me - I'm just a foreigner." Yet here it's: "I am Ruth, your servant." Chapter 2, verse 13 was: "I don't have the standing of one of your servants." But here she is one chapter later: "I am your servant." Do you see? Her whole status, her whole standing has changed. Her whole approach to Boaz has changed. Why? Because she has come to take refuge under God's wings. She is not a Moabite anymore. She is now one of God's people. One of his chosen, loved, redeemed, beautiful people. She has a new identity. It was confirmed to her by Boaz in chapter 2 when he commended her for taking refuge under the wings of the Lord God, the God of Israel. His words were actually laced with subtle loving intentions. So that he has in effect said to her: "Because you take refuge under the wings of God, you are the kind of woman I want to cover with my wings." So now she comes to him and says (v.9):
"I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are a redeemer."
I've been really struck by this picture of the boldness a new identity in God brings. Clearly we need to approach God with humility, but that is not the only story. If we're a Christian, we also need to approach boldly – confident of our identity in Christ.
Apparently on Twitter you can define yourself in 20 words or less. Now if you're as inept with social media as I am then you'll be unaware of this – But I'm grateful to my colleague Ben Pryke for keeping this old duffer up to speed on these things. But let me ask you – How do you define yourself in 20 words or less this morning? Folks, we carry so many labels about who we are, and where our identity is. We define ourselves by our work or achievements. We define ourselves by our family or relationships. We define ourselves by our personalities or education or upbringing. We define ourselves by our gender or sexuality. But all of those identities are shaky – they can go up and down, so defining ourselves in that way leaves us vulnerable. It leaves us uncovered.
But as we come to Christ, as we come to find refuge under God's wings, we are changed. We have a new identity, and a new security – As we become children of the King. Listen to these verses from the New Testament – and as I read them ask yourself: "Is this how I view being a Christian?" Because this is what Ruth is doing here: Ephesians 3.12 says:
"In Christ Jesus and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence."
Folks, how do you define yourself this morning? So often we actually define ourselves not only by our circumstances, but also by our sin. By the way that we rebel against God, or the way that we fail. And we end up going big on the unworthy idea. I am unworthy. I'm a sinner. And that is true! But it's not the whole truth, as in Christ we find freedom from our sin, so that we can be defined by him, our saviour. And that gives us great confidence – to trust in and claim the promises of his word – that he is for us and that he is with us and that in him we can do all things. And that if we go on trusting in and walking with him, one day he will take us home to be with him in his perfect glory forever.
This is the kind of confidence Ruth has as she comes to Boaz. Boldly trusting in the promise of God's word, that Naomi must have taught her – that as a close relative of the family Boaz is in a position to redeem her and the family property. He is in a position to marry her. Which brings us lastly to Boaz:
3. Boaz is Pure (v.10-18)
I mean come on! He wakes up in the middle of the night – and I don't know what you're like when you've only just woken up in the middle of the night, but I'd imagine there would be a certain amount of: "What's going on? Why are my feet so cold? What's happening?" But once he comes to his senses surely he will realise that there is a wonderful opportunity here! There's this beautiful woman at his feet. And it must have been tempting to take advantage of Ruth. It would be understandable, wouldn't it? If for a moment his desire for sexual pleasure got the better of him. "I couldn't help myself!" he might cry, "What else was I supposed to do?"
But sex outside marriage was not in God's plan for human flourishing and faithfulness in the Old Testament, just as it still isn't today. It is wrong – and not because God wants to spoil the fun, but because it is harmful to us, not least in the way our lack of obedience in this area says to God: "I do not trust you." So Boaz says in verses 10-13:
"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. And now, my daughter, do not fear. I will do for you all that you ask, for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman. And now it is true that I am a redeemer. Yet there is a redeemer nearer than I. Remain tonight, and in the morning, if he will redeem you, good; let him do it. But if he is not willing to redeem you, then, as the Lord lives, I will redeem you. Lie down until the morning."
It is midnight. The stars are overhead. He desires her. She desires him – and yet he stops for the sake of doing things in the right way God's way – And he does not touch her. He says "No" to sin. And I hope you can see how beautiful and commendable that is. In our world where sexual sin is completely out of control, and when many of us are tempted every day to indulge in sexual sin of all sorts, I hope you can see the beauty and integrity of this man who in the heat of the moment – when no-one would have known, and he could have done whatever he wanted – he chooses to say "no". And treats Ruth with total respect and purity.
And so can I just say as I close – that when you find yourself in that situation where temptation seems almost too great to bear – it is possible to do the right thing. Self-control is possible. In fact, it is crucial for all who want to follow Christ and pursue purity in him. So say: "Because I love you, and because I love God, and because I know he can be trusted… we will wait." I promise you God will honour that. He will honour that more vastly than you can imagine. So let me plead with you to stand with Boaz and Ruth in your commitment to never pursue sexual relations outside marriage. And if waiting means never having sexual relations in this life, then set your face to be among the number who join Jesus Christ in that hall of fame. He never had sex, but he was the most fully human person who has ever existed.
And if you have failed in this area, let me say as tenderly as I can that there is still hope. Failure is not fatal, but forgiveness is forever. There is forgiveness and cleansing in the offspring of Ruth and Boaz – in Jesus Christ. Remember: if your identity is in Christ, if you come to him and put your trust in him you can walk with your head held high, confident that he has stretched out – not his wings – but his arms to cover your guilt and shame, just like he covers all of our guilt and shame in love on the cross. Folks – let's just take a few moments to think and pray this through quietly on our own. Let's pray…