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Mercies In The Shadows

Glimmers Of Hope

Rev. Philip Miller | August 9, 2020

Selected highlights from this sermon

To love deeply is to grieve deeply when love is bereft. And if you’ve ever grieved deeply, you will know how easy it is to start closing off, to start detaching, going numb, becoming hard and tough, and trying to survive and getting jaded and cynical and even bitter.

if you’ve ever been through grief and have allowed it to turn you hard and bitter, Pastor Miller takes us through Naomi’s transformation to show us how to get back to life and hope—how to get back into the land of the living.

You know to open your heart to love is risky business. It’s very risky business. C. S. Lewis writes in his book, The Four Loves, “There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.” Wow!

Dear friends, grief is the price of love. To love deeply is to grieve deeply when love is bereft. And if you’ve ever grieved deeply, you will know how easy it is to start closing off, to start detaching, going numb, becoming hard and tough, and trying to survive and getting jaded and cynical and even bitter.

In Naomi’s own words, that’s where she’s at. You’ll remember in chapter 1 of Ruth, Ruth 1:20, Naomi came back into Bethlehem and said, “Don’t call me Naomi. (Her name means pleasant.) Call me Mara, Bitter” (From pleasant to bitter), she says, “because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” She says, “I’m bitter and it’s God’s fault.” She’s lashing out. It’s raw and it’s unfiltered.

And we can feel, can’t we, the mistrust, the pain? She feels betrayed by her God. “How could you do this to me, God? How could you let my husband and sons die? How could you leave me here to fend for myself? How can I ever trust you again?” And yet, as we saw in chapter 1, she’s coming home. She’s coming back to Bethlehem. She’s coming back into the land of the covenant. She’s coming back into the presence of God. And so underneath all this bitterness there’s still some faith, a little tiny bit of trust, a fool’s hope, a mustard seed of faith. And as it turns out, that will be just enough.

We come to Ruth 2 today, verses 17–23. You’ll remember last time we were together, speaking about Ruth, you’ll remember that Naomi’s daughter-in-law, Ruth, went out into the fields to glean from the margins. There were rules in Israel, and the old covenant that the farmers were not allowed to glean all the way to the outside of the field. They were to leave some of the grains standing. It was kind of welfare system in those days, and the poor could come and glean from the margins of the fields. And so Ruth heads out and she just happens to choose one of Boaz’s fields, this character we’re getting to know, but he’s a really good man, and in kindness he offers protection to her. He says, “Come, stay with my young women. Work in my fields. I don’t know how you’ll be treated in other places, but here I know you’ll be safe.”

He invites her to lunch. He gives her roasted grain. She eats all that she wants and has leftovers. And then she is gleaning the rest of the field and he says to his workers, “Listen, let her come on in and take stuff out of the middle of the field, out of my portion, out of the part of the field that belongs to me. Pull out extra grain from the stalks and give it to her.”

This is extraordinary generosity and kindness, and now Ruth is about to bring back the fruit of all of her labors of working in the fields that day, and she’s going to bring it back and show Naomi what her day has been like. And she’s going to bring this barley, all these little seeds that she’s threshed out, and she’s going to bring them home to Naomi. And there’s something about this barley that is going to trigger something in Naomi’s soul. The barley is a glimmer of hope, and her heart starts beating again. And if you’ve ever been through grief, and you want to know how to get back to life, how to get back to hope, how to get back into the land of the living, Naomi’s going to show us how today.

So let’s grab our Bibles. We’re going to be in Ruth 2:17–23. Before we jump in, would you bow your head? Let’s pray together.

Father, we ask now that you would come by your Holy Spirit. Help us to see our hearts, the way our grief operates. Help us to understand your mercies in the shadows, in the hard places of life, and help us to hope again. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen. Amen.

Ruth, chapter 2, beginning here in verse 17. As I read here just follow along with me.

“So she (This is Ruth.) gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. And she took it up and went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied.” Just pause there for a moment.

So just imagine here. Ruth walks in with a sack over her shoulder, a huge sack of barley grain, and Naomi looks up from whatever sort of depressed, bitter placement, as she’s sitting there, and Ruth plops the sack down, opens it up, and says, “Look at what I’ve got.” Right? She has an ephah of barley, 22 liters. This is about two-thirds of a bushel, 30 pounds of grain here, two to three weeks’ worth of food for one person, and about a half month’s of wages gathered here in one bag. Pretty good for a day’s haul, right? And she opens it up and Naomi’s eyes get wide. And she says, “And not only that (and she opens up the roasted grain from lunch) I have more roasted grain. I’m already full. I got everything I need. Do you want some? Taste it.”

And so in light of all this bounty now Naomi is going to respond here with wonderment in her voice. Verse 19: “And her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where did you glean today and where have you worked? Blessed is the man who took notice of you.’” So Naomi knows Ruth has worked hard here, but this is more than just hard work. This is kindness. Someone has been generous, extraordinarily, exceptionally kind to her, but who was it?

Verse 19b, the second half here: “So she (Ruth) told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, ‘The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.’ And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, ‘May he be blessed by the Lord whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead.’ Naomi also said to her, ‘This man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.’”

So when Ruth here mentions Boaz’ name, she doesn’t realize the significance of the connections here, but it’s not lost on Naomi. She knows Boaz. He’s in the family. He’s of the clan of Elimelech. And furthermore, he’s a redeemer! If the word is goel, he’s a goel. Remember we talked earlier, we talked about about levirate marriages, a weird concept from Ancient Near-Eastern cultures that if a woman’s husband died, it was the obligation of the brother of the deceased man to come and marry (if he was unmarried), to marry the widow of his deceased brother in order to father an heir in his brother’s name who would inherit his property, and preserve the clan.

Now, if there was no brother around to provide this service, there were other relatives that could volunteer. They weren’t obligated, but they could volunteer, no pressure, to do the task to be a goel. And Naomi is saying here, “Boaz is not required to, but if he chose to, if he wanted to, Boaz could rescue us.” And something here begins to stir in Naomi’s heart, something that she’s scarce allowed herself to believe and hope in before. For the first time in forever, Naomi has a glimmer of hope of life, of a future, of redemption. And you could feel her heart beating as she comes back and responds.

But watch this. Ruth changes the subject. Verse 21: “And Ruth the Moabite said, ‘Besides, he said to me, “You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.”’” Now, here’s what’s interesting to me. That’s not what Boaz said. If you go back and look at verse 8 you will see Boaz told Ruth, “You keep close with my young women. You stay with the young women. I’ve told the young men not to touch you.” But Ruth here says, “He told me I could hang out with these young men.”

What’s going on here? Well, Ruth’s got her eyes on the boys here. That’s what’s going on. Ruth has redemption in mind here, but of a very different kind. She’s imagining one of these strapping young Jewish worker boys will cozy up to her when she’s out in the field, and that will lead to one thing or another, and then she’ll get married, and then she’ll have a second chance at life and a future, and all of this. But Naomi here admonishes her. Look at verse 22: “And Naomi said to Ruth her daughter-in-law, ‘It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted.’”

Naomi gives Ruth the same counsel that Boaz gave to Ruth, “Stick close with the young women. There’s protection in the numbers here,” But Naomi is also pondering something. What will happen here? Boaz is a good man. He is a generous man. He’s been kind and just, and he has shown favor to Ruth. Could he be even maybe more than all of this? So verse 23 we get the conclusion: “So she [Ruth] kept close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law.”

So for the next two months as the harvests come in, this is Ruth’s routine: she follows Naomi’s advice; she gets up in the morning; she goes out to glean; she hangs around the young women. She breaks for lunch, probably eats with the group. She goes back and gleans some more, threshes it out in the evening, and returns and brings the proceeds home to Naomi. And over the next few months, as time slowly works on Naomi, something begins to happen in her heart as well.

Remember back in 1 Corinthians 13:13, you have the three abiding marks of spiritual vitality: faith, hope, and love? In Naomi here, these three things are starting to come to life. Her faith is being kindled. She’s beginning to trust in God again. Her hope is rising. She’s imagining life with a future that’s bright and may be very different than what she’s faced. Her love is renewing here. You even see it in this initial maternal care of Ruth in her life here, watching out for her. The question though is what triggered this? To what do we owe this transformation in Naomi’s heart? Well, the answer is barley. (laughs) Barley. An abundance of barley! Ah! But barley isn’t just barley, is it? Barley’s not barley. Barley is the tender, little mercies of God in the shadows that Naomi is experiencing, aren’t they? That’s what the barley is. This is a tender, gracious mercy that is sinking down into Naomi’s heart, and she begins to wonder.

There are four things I think Naomi starts to wonder here.

Number one: What if this is not the end after all? What if this is not the end after all? I mean, it felt like the end when Elimelech died, didn’t it? How could she possibly go on? He was her rock. He was her best friend. He was her world. Now he’s gone. How can she keep going? And then when Mahlon and Chilion died, of course that felt like the end even more. No parent should have to bury their child. And her heart freezes in agony and pain, and it feels like the end. The bitter end of her life is at hand.

But then mercies in the shadows. First, Ruth’s loyal love when she won’t quit and leave, and now Boaz’s uncoerced generosity, just voluntarily given. All of these unexplained coincidences of Ruth just ending up in Boaz’s field who happens to be a goel. And then Naomi begins to wonder. What if bitterness is not the end after all? And it reminds us, friends, what is true for all of us, and that is that whatever we face, this is a chapter. This is a chapter. Grief will make it feel like it’s the end, but mercy reminds us that there is much more to the story to be written, that this is a chapter, not a conclusion. It is a moment, not the end. And in our pain and heartache and bitter sorrow, it is so very real, friends, but it is (Listen to me.) not final. It does not define who we are. This too shall pass. A new day shall come. The sun will rise and life will go on. The first wonder!

The second wonder that Naomi begins to ponder here is what if these mercies are messages? What if these mercies are messages? What if this just isn’t barley? What if Ruth’s loyal love isn’t just random? What if Boaz’s kindness here isn’t just coincidence? What if God Himself is messaging through these mercies into her life? What if in all of these things God is reaching out to her? What if He is pursuing her, calling her, softening and wooing and drawing her close? What if God is not done with Naomi? You know, she abandoned God with Elimelech, and they fled the land when they went off into the land of Chemosh, and into a foreign place. They left the covenant protection of God, and Naomi might be thinking here, “God’s just done with me.” But in this moment she’s beginning to dare to believe that there’s more grace, more mercy, more kindness in God than she could ever have imagined. And in all these little mercies God is speaking to her.

And friends, mercies are everywhere, not just for Naomi but for us. There are times when God shouts, when He splits the seas and the mountains tremble and glory breaks through. But most of the time, God whispers. He is subtle and discreet and conspiring. And in ten thousand little ways, He’s weaving His mercies into the tapestry of our stories, and His mercies are new every morning and they’re everywhere. They’re everywhere. In the laughter of a child, in dewdrops in the morning light, in the beat of hummingbird wings, in every breath, in every pulse, in every touch, in every melody, in the unexpected gifts that come our way, in the grateful smiles we see, in the faithful friends who stay with us, in His promises and in His Word, God’s mercies are everywhere. And friends, this world is so full of the mercies of God, we don’t even hardly notice them. They’re so common that we take them for granted. Just like birds don’t really notice the air and fish don’t notice the water, we swim in the mercies of God and hardly see them. But Naomi’s starting to see them, you see. Do you see them? Do you hear them? Do you let them into your heart?

The third wonder here: Naomi starts to wonder what if there is shelter in the shadows? What if there is shelter in the shadows? You know, Naomi has been living in the valley of the shadow of death, hasn’t she? But she’s not alone. Psalm 23:4 says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” See, she’s not alone because there’s another shadow that is even more powerful, more real, deeper and more abiding and lasting than the valley of the shadow of death, and it is the shadow of the Almighty. The shadow of the Almighty.

Psalm 91 says this. Verse 1: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” Verse 4 says: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” This is a beautiful picture of a mother bird shielding her young underneath her wings, protecting them from harm, throwing her body in between them and whatever predator might be out there. This is the same imagery that Boaz used in blessing Ruth back in chapter 2, verse 12, when he said, “The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge,” because in returning to the Land, for both Ruth and Naomi, the return to the Land was a return to the covenant, to the protections of God Himself. And as Naomi hears this report of what has transpired in the field earlier that day, this wonder starts arising in her heart. What if there is shelter in all of these shadows? What if there is mercy in all of these miseries? What if there is providence in all of these pains? What if the Lord is my shepherd? What if His goodness and mercy are following me all the days of my life, including the valley of the shadow of death? What if God is nearer than I could imagine? What if I really allowed my soul to dwell in the shelter, in the shadow of the Almighty God? What would happen?

And friends, this is true. This is the choice every single one of us make in our grief because God is right here with us. God is right here with us. My favorite name for Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, because in the valley, in the fire, in the pain, when life gets tough, God draws near. The whole triune God runs to us in our suffering and pain. The Bible says that God is near to the broken-hearted. Jesus is foretold as being a man of sorrows acquainted with much grief, and the Holy Spirit is described as one who groans with us in our suffering.

And so here we have God who shepherds us through the valley of the shadow of death. And His shadow, friends, is more powerful, more real, more dense, deeper than the valley, the shadow of death in the valley. And if He is with us, if our Good Shepherd is with us, it will be okay.

“I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Friends, isn’t this the beauty of the incarnation, that Jesus saw us fearfully living in the valley of the shadow of death, and He came close, and this good shepherd came and laid down His life for the sheep? He threw Himself between the predator and us, those He was protecting under the shadow of His wings? He threw his life in exchange for ours so that we who have taken shelter under the wings of the Almighty might find refuge and protection and life in Him? Is this not the beauty of the incarnation and the work of Jesus? Because, friends, we live in the shadow, but Jesus has defeated the shadows. “I will fear no evil for you are with me.”

The fourth wonder here in Naomi’s heart is what if redemption is God’s intention? What if redemption is God’s intention? What if redemption, this remote possibility that flitted into Naomi’s mind as soon as she heard the name of Boaz, what if redemption is exactly what God is doing here? Exactly what God has in mind? What if God could bring beauty from these ashes? What if God could bring light out of this darkness? What if He could bring hope out of this despair? What if He could bring resurrection out of this crucifixion? What if? And I guess we’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we? (chuckles)

But the takeaway is this. God’s kindness has just begun. God’s kindness has just begun. Friends, this is true of Naomi, and it’s true for us too, that these light and momentary sufferings are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. And if God, who did not spare His own Son but freely gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Jesus, graciously give us all things, for “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what it is that God has prepared for those who love Him.”

And friends, redemption is always God’s intention. Redemption is always God’s intention even now. No matter what you’re facing, friends, God is on the job, working for those who love Him, to bring redemption to even what you are facing. It may not feel redeemable, but right now God is on the job. He is redeeming it for His greater glory, and for our eternal joy.

You say, “I don’t know if God can do that, not with this, not with this mess, not with these circumstances. Well, He did it with the absolute worst thing that ever happened. The absolute worst thing that ever happened in all of world history was the scandal of what happened on the cross on Friday when Jesus died an unjust death. It was pure evil. You say, “Surely this can’t be redeemed.” But God took Friday, awful Friday, God-awful Friday, and turned it into what we now call Good Friday, didn’t He? And He took this horrible moment and redeemed it for the salvation of the world. And if God can do that with Friday, He can do it with your today, whatever it is you face.

Friends, there is a glimmer of hope here. We are being reminded of a glimmer of hope that no shadow in this life can touch, and it pierces through, doesn’t it?

In one of my favorite books, in “The Return of the King,”
J.R.R. Tolkien writes of Sam and Frodo who are among the slag heaps on the bottom slopes of Mount Doom near the end. They have this impossible task of destroying the ring, and everything looks like it’s going against them, and they are going to fail in their quest. And they are laying there amongst the slag heaps in despair, about ready to give up, just to roll over and die. And as they lay there, this is what Tolkien writes: “There, peeping among the cloud–wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”

Friends, the Apostle John writes of Jesus, “The light has shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And so here’s the challenge, friends. Won’t you let the light of Christ pierce through into your heart? Through all the grief, through all the pain, through all the hardness and bitterness, all the closed-off and protectiveness, will you let Christ’s light shine in and kindle your faith, and raise up your hope and renew your love because friends, God has given us way more than barley. Don’t you know that? He’s given us His Son, and His kindness has just begun. It’s just begun! Won’t you let it in?

Would you bow your heads? Let’s pray together.

Father, we hurt a lot down here. There is so much pain and grief, and we can hardly bear it. It helps so much to know that you know how this feels, to know that Jesus is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, that He has borne our shame, our sorrows, our pain, that you, too, know what it’s like to lose the object of your greatest love in your Son, that you are a grieving God. And so, Father, in all of our pain and distress we cry out to you. We pray that you would break through. Teach us to love again. Teach us to hope where there seems to be no hope. Help us trust you when we can’t find a way to trust you ourselves.

Father, we pray in your mercy you would help us tell our hearts to beat again, to step into the light of grace and a new day, an open door, and light that the shadow can never touch.

We thank you for Jesus, through whom all of this is available to us. Help us to cling to your mercies in these shadows, in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.

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