In the last post, I mentioned that one of the ways I’ve been able to contribute to the church here in Virginia was through a sermon, which I called “Responding Like Ruth.” Here’s a condensed version. I include this here because there is rarely a time when what I preach is not for me, too. The point I was making was that we respond to the difficult uncertainties like Ruth did–with loyalty, sacrifice, love and blessing. God has continued to challenge me over the last months with these four things.
What do you think of when you think of church? Probably not the line from the Nicene Creed, which states, “And we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
One. God is one in three Persons, and the church is one through our common worship of God. We strive to live out Ephesians 4:3-6 (a passage which is followed by an expression of the diversity found in the church). There is unity in diversity.
Holy. God is holy and is making the Church holy, like Ephesians 5:25-27 says. The Holy Spirit empowers us to fulfill the great commandment to love God and neighbor together.
Catholic. Affirming this means two things. First, the church exists everywhere in the world, not just in one place. You don’t have to go to Rome or Jerusalem to be part of the church. Second, it implies inclusiveness. The church embraces men and women, Republicans and Democrats, whites and blacks, Northerners and Southerners, rich and poor. This is Galatians 3:28. The church is a place where dividing walls are broken down as we forgive one another and carry out the ministry of reconciliation given to us, as in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20.
Apostolic. Finally, the church is apostolic. It is sent on a mission from God. The Church doesn’t have a mission, but God’s mission has a Church. There would be no church without God first being on mission, sending His Son, who then commissioned us in Matthew 28, John 20, and Acts 1.
Now, you may be wondering, “Thanks for the lesson in theology, but what does this have to do with me?” The tension comes into play when it seems like Christ, the Head of the Church, the one who said that the gates of hell would not prevail against her, is letting the Church down. It comes when, if we were God, we would’ve done things differently.
Question: How will we respond?
The story of Ruth in the Old Testament is one of a person who moved from her homeland into a foreign country. The way Ruth responded has keys for us today. Some of the earliest church fathers—pastors and theologians who lived in the centuries after Christ—interpreted Ruth as a picture of the Church.
Ruth is such a short book that you could read it rather quickly. The story begins with a famine that forced Elimelek and Naomi to move to Moab.
Moab was located east of the Jordan River and because of its geography, rarely experienced draughts and famines. It would’ve been an enemy of Israel during this time, and yet there must’ve been relative peace between the two groups if Elimelek felt like he could move there. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a desperate move. To relocate his family wasn’t like what we do today. No moving trucks. No packing up everything you own and doing a change of address form.
Moving meant carrying whatever you could with you, maybe with the assistance of a donkey or cart, and starting over. In Israel, when they settled the land, each tribe was allotted land and each family unit would’ve lived in the same spot. In Moab, they lost of all this. Foreigners in a strange place.
To make matters worse, Elimelek dies and Naomi is left with her sons and their Moabite wives. Evidently the famine lasted quite some time, because they had been there at least ten years and then another unfortunate event took place. Her sons died, leaving her in a precarious position for a woman in the ancient Near East. Without a man to provide for her, she was dependent on others to come to her aid. Scholars believe that by the time Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, she would’ve been in her mid-forties, with Ruth and Orpah in their mid- to upper-twenties. Naomi was destined for a life of dependence on others, wondering where her sustenance would come from. Unless someone responded.
She heard, though, that the LORD had provided food in Israel. The famine was over. It was time to go back home.
Naomi went back home and kindly offered for her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. One did, and one came with her. Ruth said in 1:16-17, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
- We live in a culture where loyalty is not valued anymore. We switch insurance agencies to get the best deal. Stores go out of business because people quit shopping there. We give up on friendships and marriages when things get sticky or rough. The number of children who grow up without one parent is staggering.
- We do a cost analysis on all of these things and then determine if they’re worth sticking with. Our tendencies toward the expedient and avoidance of pain have shaped us into people more worried about the affect loyalty will have on us than what it could do for a relationship. We are more concerned over our potential loss than we are in what leaving someone else does for them.
- And yet, loyalty is one of God’s characteristics. It’s what makes Him God. Over and over again in the Old Testament, one word pops up. In Hebrew, it is chesed, God’s faithfulness. Just a few examples (from Gen. 39:21; Ex. 34:6; Isa. 54:10; Ps. 136).
- In Ruth 1:8, Naomi uses this word. “Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead and to me.’” Ruth doesn’t wait for God to show her kindness or faithfulness back home, but instead exhibits it with Naomi.
- Here I challenged the church to respond with loyalty because by doing so, they would be exhibiting the oneness of the Church.
- Ruth’s commitment to Naomi demands to be held in high regard. This is no small move.
- She is detaching herself from all family ties—her mother and father cannot rescue her from poverty or the uncertainty ahead.
- She is detaching herself from her culture and language—she will now become the foreigner, in danger of ethnic persecution due to the complicated animosity between Israel and Moab.
- She is detaching herself from her way of life—knowing the streets, the sellers in the marketplace, the children who played near her home, the people who spoke her name with kindness and familiarity.
- She is detaching herself from her support system—the other women in her hometown, her family.
- She is detaching herself from her god—Chemosh, the national god of Moab, who enabled them to win military victories.
- The Christian life is full of sacrifice. Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow Him. That sacrifice gets magnified when we gather as God’s church. When one person sacrifices, it can impact everyone. When one person holds their ground, it also impacts everyone. The difficult thing is that you cannot forecast the ripple effect from your sacrifice or lack thereof. The only way to know what might happen is by doing it.
- Here I challenged the church to respond with sacrifice, as in doing so, they would be living out the apostolic nature of the church–leaving the familiar for the foreign for the sake of the gospel.
Transition in Ruth’s Story.
- Ruth’s story progresses as they move to Bethlehem. Ruth is sent to glean in the fields and happened to end up in the field of a relative. His name was Boaz. He showed her kindness and favor and let her glean. Boaz found out in the process that Naomi was going to sell the land that belonged to Elimelek.
- In Hebrew Law, the land was to be redeemed by a close male relative so that it wouldn’t end up in the hands of another family, if at all possible. Boaz approached a close relative and asked if he would do it, but this man was unwilling to do so because it also meant marrying Ruth. Any baby boy born to them would be thought of as Elimelek’s heir, not the redeemer’s heir. Faced with the possibility of losing all the property he would have bought, this man declined. Boaz didn’t. He bought the land and married Ruth. We then read Ruth 4:11-17.
- After all of this happens, Boaz announces that he has done it to the people and elders of the town. It’s official. Notice what the women of the town say to Naomi in verse 15—Ruth is the one who loves Naomi and is better to her than seven sons! This is what she is known for. This woman, who at the beginning of the story was empty and felt as if the Lord’s hand was against her, that God had become her enemy, now experiences the love of God through Ruth.
- Now we know that the greatest commandments are to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Christ said so. John Wesley said that this love is singleness of intention. We are on longer duplicitous, sometimes longing for selfish gain and other times putting others first. We truly love others will all our hearts.
- This is the love Ruth showed Naomi. Her every action placed Naomi first, and in the end, she became known for it. I wonder what it would take to be known as people who love? God calls us to respond to this current circumstance by loving the people in Radford and in Christiansburg.
- On the south side of Kansas City, on the border of Kansas and Missouri, there are remnants of an old town called Little Santa Fe. It was the first stop on the trail from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico—where people traveled during the 1800s to search for gold. They also called it Blue Camp 20, because it was next to the Blue River and just 20 miles from Independence, Missouri. If you were on your way to Santa Fe, it would’ve only taken you one day to reach this first stop. By 1850, the camp had turned into a little town because some of the pioneers stopped pioneering. They figured it was better to settle down there than continue on.
- We are all tempted with Blue Camp 20s in the Christian life, to stop short of the call of love. When we first become Christians, the love of God burns within us and we long to know Him and live for Him. But as the years pass by, it becomes easier to have this love tamed. It’s why one the churches in Revelation has lost its first love. So God brings us to moments like this to test us once more, to push us to renew the love we once had.
- Pete Greig writes, “At transitional moments in life, God tests our hearts…. Why? Because he knows that the choices we make at the crossroads determine our future direction and destiny. The priorities we establish in the gear-change moments of life set our trajectory for years to come. And of course, the choices that matter most in life are not functional, strategic, or territorial, but relational” (Dirty Glory, p. 123). It’s when a child is born, a friend is given a terrible diagnosis, it’s time to move, get married, etc.
- Here I challenged them to choose love, and therefore to put the holiness of the Church on display.
- Ruth has shown loyalty, sacrifice and love. This all culminates in blessing. As we look at the responses given by the women in Ruth 4:14-17, it is Naomi who is said to have a son. The women rejoice with Naomi because her life will be sustained and renewed. And Naomi gets to take part in caring for her new grandson, Obed. Ruth has blessed her mother-in-law, who once was empty and had lost every man in her life. She now has hope for the future. Ruth’s choice to move with Naomi ultimately ended in blessing.
- As I thought about the various people in Scripture who moved, I made two lists. You may think of others, but here’s who I thought of.
- Adam and Eve—forced to move out of the Garden of Eden because of their sin.
- Cain—left God’s presence and lived east of Eden in Nod (Gen. 4:16).
- The people of Babel—scattered by God after they tried to reach heaven in their own strength (Gen. 11:8).
- The sinful people of Israel and Judah—sent into exile for their idolatry.
- Sin’s consequence is being uprooted. Then there are other moves in Scripture, not for sin, but for the opposite purpose.
- Abraham—moving from Haran to Canaan (Gen. 12) in response to the call of God.
- Israel—moving from Egypt to the Promised Land
- Ruth—moving from Moab to Bethlehem with Naomi
- The apostles—moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth
- In every case, the purpose of the moves is blessing someone else. This is the distinct call of God at work in their lives, moving them to the right spot, with the right people, in order to bless them.
- Here I challenged them to choose blessing others, and to live out the Church’s catholicity—the ministry of reconciliation.
We ended by asking people to commit to living out one of the four–loyalty, sacrifice, love or blessing as the church began its merging process.