We are living in a moment of crisis and chaos. It seems in many ways that God has left the scene and we are merely fending for ourselves. This is exactly how it felt in Israel at the end of the season of the Judges. But, as we turn the page on that book and peer into the next–Ruth–we are reminded of an incredibly powerful truth: No matter how dark things may get, God’s still working. Keep reading to see how this incredible reminder unfolds.
God’s Not Done
Alright, I want to start this with a little survey. You can’t participate by a show of hands, but hit your “like” button or post a comment with your answer. Hit your “like” button or comment about it if you have ever had a cold before. Now, I can’t see those from where I’m sitting, but Nate is checking on them and letting me know the entirely expected news that most of you have had colds before. Okay then, next survey question: How many of you have recovered from your cold? Since you’re tuned in this morning or at least haven’t died yet from a cold if you do have one—and that’s one positive thing about this format…you didn’t just out yourself as a germ-factory to a roomful of people who all want to get away from you now—I’m going to go ahead and assume that everyone has answered that question affirmatively. Do you know how that happened? Your immune system kicked into gear and kicked out the cold. That’s a pretty surface-skimming explanation, though. Do you know how your immune system actually works? I know we have a few medical folks watching who know a bit more than the average bear, but that’s admittedly not a question we generally think too much about—the current season being an exception to the rule.
Allow me to offer a wildly oversimplified explanation. Bad stuff comes into the body and starts creating chaos. When that happens, the body has special defenders called white blood cells that go and not simply remove the particular pathogen causing us trouble, they create a kind of genetic memory of it so that if it tries to come back a second time, the body will more quickly recognize it and get rid of it before it has a chance to get us a second time. The tiny bits that hold this genetic memory are called antibodies. But, while all of that is happening on the inside of the body, on the outside all we know is that we are suffering through the various symptoms of a cold—coughing, sneezing, pain, a fever, and so on and so forth. On the inside the immune system is doing its good work—work whose intricate and beautiful complexity serves as a pointer to an intelligent designer being the best explanation of how we are the way we are over and against any evolutionary explanations—but all we know on the outside is that we feel crummy. In other words, while all the chaos is going on, there’s something happening behind the scenes that is working not simply to heal us, but to inoculate us from getting sick in the same way a second time.
For the last several weeks, we have been working our way through the book of Judges. Last week, we finally finished it. On the whole, it was a pretty depressing book, right? It starts out with the people unfaithfully failing to complete the work they had begun under the leadership of Joshua, and goes downhill from there to the point that when you reach the last few chapters, the people are in a place of total moral chaos. I won’t recap the events of last week for you, but suffice to say here: they were bad. They would make for an R-rated movie. The bottom line on the whole book, though, was that the people were insistent on going it alone and God let them. He let them go and go until they finally got what they wanted—freedom from His authority. Sure, they came back when things started getting bad, but they didn’t want help from him so much as relief in order to keep moving down the path they had chosen. Ultimately, doing what’s right in our own eyes never goes well. And yet, no matter how dark things may get, the lamp of God never goes out.
This morning, then, as we wrap up our series, Going It Alone, I want to turn the page on the book of Judges with you and see together this very wonderful fact. Even in the darkest time of the period of the Judges, God never totally abandoned the people. He let them experience the consequences of their choices even to the point that the few remaining faithful were affected by this, but He had a plan both for Israel and for the rest of the world through them and He wasn’t about to let it go just because most of the nation had veered fairly wildly off course. Like the antibodies of our immune system—which, incidentally, was designed by God—God was patiently at work in the background, building the structures that would ultimately lead to the salvation not merely of the Israelites, but of all the world. The evidence for this constant work lies in a beautiful little story that follows Judges and serves as a bridge between Judges and 1 Samuel wherein we are ultimately introduced to the story of David which, of course, plays out in the person of Jesus. This little story is named after its main character, Ruth, and it is here that we can see the evidence for God’s unwavering activity for the benefit of His people even when they had abandoned Him wholesale. Now, many of you know this story pretty well and that’s great. But let me recap it for us and then we’ll talk about what it means in light of where we’ve been journeying together.
Ruth’s story takes place during the time period of the judges. From 1:1: “During the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land. A man left Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and two sons to stay in the territory of Moab for a while.” Now, this was presumably not during one of the times when the Moabites were the primary antagonists for the people of Israel (like during Gideon’s tenure), but the fact that this man would risk losing his family’s land in order to travel to live in the midst of a foreign people who not only did not worship Yahweh, but had even in the past led the people of Israel in rejecting Him, suggests just how bad this famine was. In any event, this man named Elimelech, takes his wife, Naomi, and his sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to Moab and basically sets up shop there. The boys each find a wife from among the Moabite women surrounding them—something God had told the people rather specifically not to do—and it doesn’t appear they’ll ever move back to Israel. But, God’s got a plan in mind.
Eventually Elimelech dies. Life back then was a fragile thing, so while this certainly wouldn’t have been totally unexpected, it would have nonetheless been a devastating blow because of the financial impact it would have had on the family. Then the tragedy gets compounded. Both of Naomi’s sons die as well. In a world in which women had no place and had to have a husband or at least a son in order to survive, this was about the worst thing that could have happened to her. She decides to pack up and head back to her hometown since reports were coming in that things had gotten better there.
When she sets out to leave, both of her daughters-in-law try to come with her. That alone speaks of their character…or how bad their only family situations were. But, she encourages them to go back home. After all, she says in v. 12. “…I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me to have a husband tonight and to bear sons, would you be willing to wait for them to grow up? Would you restrain yourselves from remarrying? No, my daughters, my life is much too bitter for you to share, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me.” Eventually, one of them, Orpah, takes the invitation and does as instructed. But the other, Ruth, refuses. In a beautiful declaration of faithfulness, she insists: “Don’t plead with me to abandon you or to return and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and where you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” Now, we like to include those words in wedding ceremonies, but they were originally a promise made by a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law.
Naomi herself relents this time, and the pair head back to Bethlehem to begin building a life together there. Yet life for two widows even in Israel was no easy affair. Ruth would have to take to gleaning—a practice in which the poor were allowed to harvest in a field after the owners’ workers had finished in order to gather up whatever remained for them to be able to eat. It was essentially a social welfare system—one of the first in the world—laid out in the Law of Moses to provide for the vulnerable in the land. Ruth sets out to do this and as it would happen (in other words, as God would plan it), she gleans in the field of a good and righteous man named Boaz. Boaz, as it turns out, is a relative of Elimelech’s and more importantly a relative close enough to be able to take on the role of a kinsman redeemer. This was an odd practice of the people that was more a nod to the realities of the times than something God wanted enshrined for all times. Under this system, if a husband died without leaving any children to inherit his land and carry on his name, a close relative could take his widow as his own wife (even if he was already married) in order that she might have sons to whom would be given her first husband’s land and who would carry on his name so the record of his existence would not be scrubbed from the nation. Weird, I know, but in a culture like they had, it was actually something good and necessary.
In any event, Ruth gleans in Boaz’s field, catches his eye, and goes home to tell Naomi about it. Naomi is as excited as could be about the whole thing because she understands who he is and what this potentially means for the two women. With this in mind, she soon sets on a plan to essentially seduce Boaz into marrying Ruth. Fortunately, her scheming does not take away from the purity and righteousness of these two main characters. Boaz is humble and gentle, and Ruth’s character of faithfulness and righteous boldness continues to shine throughout the story. The proposal scene (technically she proposes to him underscoring that theme of righteous boldness) is touching and intimate. It feels like the unfolding of a love story…which is because it is.
There’s just one potential hang up. And if you’re into Hallmark movies, this is that “oh no!” scene that comes during the second-to-last show segment before the romantic conclusion where it looks like the couple isn’t going to be able to get together after all. You see, there’s a kinsman redeemer who is technically in line for the job ahead of Boaz. Boaz handles this in a brilliant bit of interpersonal diplomacy. In fact, it’s best if I just read this to you. From Ruth 4:1: “Boaz went to the gate of the town and sat down there. Soon the family redeemer Boaz had spoken about came by. Boaz said, ‘Come over here and sit down.’ So he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the town’s elders and said, ‘Sit here.’ And they sat down. He said to the redeemer, ‘Naomi, who has returned from the territory of Moab, is selling the portion of the field that belonged to our brother Elimelech. I thought I should inform you: Buy it back in the presence of those seated here and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you want to redeem it, do it. But if you do not want to redeem it, tell me so that I will know, because there isn’t anyone other than you to redeem it, and I am next after you.’”
Did you follow all of that? Boaz tells this other guy all about the land Naomi wants to sell without once mentioning Ruth—who would have come as a packaged deal with the land. You get the land, you get the woman, you’ve got to have kids with the woman, and the land goes to her kids, not yours. And again, I know that this is culturally bizarre to us, but Boaz’s whole point here was to save Ruth from getting stuck as the property of some guy who didn’t really want her in the first place and was probably going to resent her for the duty he would be legally bound to perform for her at the expense of his own family. He’s essentially working within the system in order to subvert it. That’s the stuff of modern-day heroes.
Well, after making his sneaky pitch to the other potential kinsman redeemer, the guy responds just exactly like Boaz had hoped he would. Look again with me at the end of v. 4: “‘I want to redeem it,’ he answered.” What he doesn’t realize, however, is that he has now stepped firmly in the middle of Boaz’s trap. Verse 5: “Then Boaz said, ‘On the day you buy the field from Naomi, you will acquire Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the deceased man, to perpetuate the man’s name on his property.’” This changes things entirely. Now, instead of simply acquiring a productive piece of land on the cheap, he gets another mouth to feed and more in the future. And, instead of financially benefitting from the land, everything he puts into it will eventually go to a child who does not bear his name. Not to mention the dynamics of his own family are going to be pretty undone by the whole thing. The price just went from “let’s deal” to “I’m outta here…you can have it.” All that remained was to seal the deal by exchanging sandals, and everybody lived happily ever after…all the while the nation around them was burning to the ground. But you see, while God wasn’t disinterested in all of that—in fact, the narrative of Judges showed us just how interested He was—He was here busily making sure that His people were going to not only survive the chaos, but become the very blessing He had promised Abraham they would be so many years before. What we see shining so clearly here in this beautiful little story is that even in the darkest times, God is still at work.
Look a little more closely at the details of the story here to see how powerfully this was the case. Most of Ruth’s story takes place in Bethlehem. Think back to Judges 17 from last week. Where did the young Levite come from who was at the center of all that mess? Bethlehem. Let’s push this just a bit further. In that same chapter, where did Micah live, the man who made the idol? In the hill country of Ephraim. And where did the Levite later settle with his concubine? The hill country of Ephraim. Alright, now flip a few pages forward, past Ruth, to the first chapter of 1 Samuel. Where did Samuel—the good and righteous judge who anointed David as king—come from? The hill country of Ephraim. When I say that even in the darkest times God was still at work among the people of Israel, I don’t mean He was off to one side trying to get a few pieces shoved into place around the edges. He was right there in the midst of the mess making sure that His plans for His people were accomplished. Folks, God’s still doing this in our lives today. Even in the darkest times of our own lives, God is still at work. When He promised to never leave or forsake us, He meant it.
Look, there’s no question that the culture we’re living in right now is a mess. With all this COVID-19 nonsense, the whole world is a mess. Closer to home than that is the mess we are facing of riots and protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd. We talked about that last week. We’re in a mess from top to bottom and inside to out. Very few things are working right now and even fewer seem poised to have a positive impact on the future. And when you broaden things out to the world at large, the picture looks even worse. Corruption and violence exist on a scale that’s frankly hard to imagine. There is no continent on earth exempt from their reach. More people live as slaves today than at any other time in history and most of those are caught in the sex-trade industry—even in this country. I observed a few minutes ago that the events of Judges 17-21 would make for an R-rated movie, but you know, thinking about it again, they might not. We have so defined deviancy downward, that we almost don’t recognize it anymore. And this is all to say nothing of the wreck that the lives of so many individuals are today. We all know somebody right now whose life is a wreck whether that’s from the sinful choices they’ve made or merely from the impact of sin in our world more generally. In fact, I daresay, most of us know more than one person. Come on, you might be one of those people. The darkness of sin is everywhere. How do we avoid getting pulled down into the darkness ourselves? How do we avoid the tangling twines of despair? How do we keep from letting the darkness be the thing that defines us whether because we join in it or simply because that’s all we ever see? We do it by remembering this very simple, but powerful idea: Even in the darkest times, God is still at work.
The truth is, Jesus called His followers to be salt and light in a tasteless, dark world. Anywhere His followers get that right, their stories are going to stand out for anyone who cares to look. Sometimes those stories are given a very much public stage like what happened to David Boudia and Steele Johnson after winning a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics. The pair were interviewed on NBC afterwards and spoke openly and fervently about how their confidence of their identity in Christ was a greater affirmation of their worth than any Olympic medal could ever be.
How cool is that? These two Jesus followers win the second highest honor their sport has to bestow with the whole world watching and were able to give glory to God on international television. That’s a pretty big stage. There was a lot of darkness surrounding the Olympics that year. From doping scandals to the ill-preparedness of the host country, Brazil, to dangerous conditions for the athletes to entirely legitimate fears regarding public safety. Yet even in the darkest times, God is still at work. All things considered, though, giving a grand testimony to the glory of God after winning an Olympic medal in a location that many people still regard as close to paradise is pretty light duty.
So how about another story? Iran is one of those countries that have been hit hardest by the virus pandemic even if they won’t be totally honest about how bad it is. Christians in Iran are taking courage and reaching out to their communities that have been hit so hard by the virus and the lockdowns in spite of an ever-present threat of being jailed or killed for being a part of a house church. In China, where the persecution of churches is ramping up more and more all the time, believers are boldly stepping into the gap to fill the spiritual hunger among the Chinese people whose beliefs about the sufficiency of the Communist Party to keep them safe from all threats are being torn to shreds in light of this pandemic. In North Africa and across the Muslim world more generally, Muslims are turning to Jesus without ever even meeting Christians. They are having dreams of Jesus speaking to them and calling them to follow Him. In a book from a couple of years ago by David Garrison called A Wind in the House of Islam, the author, based on hundreds of interviews, argues that Muslims are coming to Christ by the tens and even hundreds of thousands. This trend is only accelerating.
Or how about something a bit closer to home. Thanks to a grant the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina has received from the USDA, we have been able to receive 100 boxes of fresh produce each week for the last several weeks. We’ve also been able to receive dozens of gallons of milk along with sandwich meat and local cheese. We have been able to share these not only within our community here, but with our community at large in ways that are making a difference in the lives of our neighbors. All told, if we only do this for the six-weeks the Convention initially estimated, we will be able to give away about 11,500 lbs. of food to folks in our community and beyond. Statewide, there are 8,000 boxes of fresh produce, 2,000 boxes of sandwich meat, 2,000 gallons of milk, and 1,000 boxes of cheese being distributed each week. In case you’re curious, that’s about 150,000 lbs. of fresh produce each week along with the milk, meat, and cheese. This is a difficult season for many, but God is still at work.
Now, think about this with me for a second: If God was at work even in the darkest times of the people of Israel; if He was at work in the secular free-for-all that is the modern Olympic games; if He has been at work in the darkness of modern China and Iran and the Middle East; if He is right now at work in providing blessings of food across our state (and rest assured, there are many more similar efforts happening all over the country); if He is at work bringing flashes of unity and peace in the midst of the violence and chaos gripping our nation, then what do you think are the odds that He is at work in the dark places in your own life?
One of the most efficient tools Satan uses to keep us in the dark is the lie that we are alone and isolated in our brokenness whatever it happens to be. Yet even in the darkest places, God is still at work. I don’t care how much darkness you think you are carrying right now—and let’s just be honest about the fact that even long-time, committed followers of Jesus can fall into pretty deep pits of sin and brokenness and darkness—God hasn’t left the building. He is still working in and around you to create the structures that will allow you to leave the darkness behind and walk fully in the light. Even in the darkest places, God is still at work. But, He won’t force this work on us. If we refuse it, He’ll let us. He’ll honor our choice. God is working hard to see you become fully who He created you to be. Receive it. Receive His grace. Receive His love. Receive His mercy. No, you’re not worthy of it, but you are worth it. Do you see the difference there? God doesn’t deal with us according to what we deserve. He deals with us according to His grace. Grace that came out of another time He worked in what was literally the darkest place the world has even been in: the death of His Son.
In the betrayal, arrest, trial, torturing, and finally crucifixion of our Lord, God entered into the darkness of this world as fully as He possibly could have and got to work. His work led to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day, and out of that work came life for all who would receive it. He worked in the darkness of Judges to bring us Ruth who was the great-grandmother of David. Fourteen generations later, He would once again work in the darkness of the death of His Son to finally bring the eternal life to the world that He would not give up on even in the darkest days of the people through whom He had all along planned to bring it. And again: Because of His work in the darkness, we can enjoy the light of life. Even in the darkest times, God is still at work.
I know this has been a trying season. It is a season that isn’t over yet. There is more to come. But never doubt for even a second that God is still at work on your behalf. Don’t just believe it, look for evidence of its truthfulness. Tune your vision to what God is up to in the world around you and marvel at just how much you start to see after a while. Even in the darkest times, God is still at work. Rest in His faithfulness and participate in His plans. I can guarantee you this: You’ll be glad you did.