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Mercies In The Shadows

Manipulating Grace

Rev. Philip Miller | August 16, 2020

Selected highlights from this sermon

What do we do when we have a line of sight to hope and redemption and what God might do, and yet God has us waiting? We might be tempted to take matters into our own hands and give God a little nudge to make something happen. Pastor Miller gives us three warnings for us to keep in mind while he shows us the dangers of stepping beyond what God has called us to do.

Hope is a beautiful thing. It’s the reason we press through all the hard things that life brings to us, all the pain, all the sorrow. It is the thing that keeps us going, isn’t it? Hope is what carries us through the darkness to the dawn. And last week we saw it.

Naomi’s heart began to beat with hope again for the first time in forever. It was nothing short of a miracle. This woman who gave us her epitaph just a few verses before, and said, “Bitterness will be the story of my life,” has begun to hope again. She’s believing for the first time that her story isn’t over, that God is still at work in her life, and that redemption is still possible, even for her.

And what was the trigger? It was the moment, if you remember, that Ruth came back with that overabundance of barley from her time of gleaning in the fields. And Naomi realized this is way more barley that anyone should have been able to gather in a single day. Someone has been extraordinary in their kindness and grace toward Ruth. And then she learned his name, this is Boaz. And Naomi’s heart started beating again in a way that she had scarcely allowed herself to hope before because Boaz was one of her relatives, one of Elimelech’s kinsmen, and he was what they called in Hebrew a potential goel.

A goel means a redeemer or a rescuer. It’s a technical Hebrew term that refers to the ancient Israelite practice of what is called levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was where, in the case of a man who died leaving a woman widowed who did not have an heir, it fell to the unmarried brother of the man who died to actually marry her, secure her family, her line, to father a child in the name of the family who would inherit the property. It seems very strange to us, this idea of levirate marriage, but in a world where property could only be passed down the male line, this was the way things were done. And if there wasn’t a brother who could step in and fulfill this duty, it became a volunteer situation. Another relative could step in. They didn’t have to, but they could. No obligations here.

And so when Naomi hears that Boaz is the one who has been kind to Ruth, her heart begins to start dreaming here. Perhaps Boaz, who has been incredibly kind, will be more than kind. Maybe he would volunteer to be a goel, a redeemer. Maybe he would step in and rescue both Ruth and Naomi, because if Boaz were to fall in love with Ruth, say, and be willing to pledge himself in marriage, their lives, their standing, their security, their future, their everything might change here.

And so as Ruth goes back to Boaz’s fields day after day, week after week, month after month (It took about two months to bring in these harvests.), this hope is stirring in Naomi’s heart. When she wakes up in the morning, it’s what she’s dreaming about. When she’s going about her chores during the day, it’s what she’s meditating on. And when she goes to bed at night, it’s what she’s praying about. And she is wishing and hoping and thinking and praying. There’s a song there, isn’t there? I think there is. (chuckles) Anyway, she’s beginning to wonder about redemption, and it becomes so real to her, so solid, so close in her mind, she can almost taste it.

But now two months have passed, and while Boaz has been generous and kind, nothing romantic has materialized out in the fields, and Naomi is starting to get anxious. The harvest is almost over. The long winter will set in, and Ruth and Boaz will have very little reason to hang out from here on. And so something has to happen soon or all hope will be lost.

Do you see what’s happened here? Naomi has a line of sight to the redemption of God, but now it’s stalled out, and she’s getting desperate. “God, you’ve got to hurry up here. You’ve got to do something quick, or all hope will be lost.” Have you ever been there? Have you ever been so close when there was something you were looking forward to, something that symbolized for you freedom and joy and life and security and redemption and hope, and it was right out there? It was so close you could almost reach it and taste it and touch it. Maybe you are longing to be married, and it just hasn’t happened yet. Or maybe you were praying for relief, and it stays the same. Or maybe you were hoping for a breakthrough and everything stays stuck, or you are dreaming of better days, but reality is a stubborn thing.

And here’s the question. What do we do when we have a line of sight to hope and redemption and what God might do, and yet God has us waiting? What do we do in that moment? And we have to be so careful, friends, so careful, especially when we’re in grief and we just want to get through it and get to the other side, because it’s so easy in this moment to become restless and impatient and desperate and take matters into our own hands, give God a little push, and make something happen. And in fact, that’s exactly what happens in our story today, and it serves as a warning to you and to me this morning.

So let’s grab our Bibles. We’re going to be in Ruth, chapter 3, this morning. We’re going to look at the first eight verses, but before we do that, would you bow your heads. Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank you that you are so patient with us, and that your wisdom guides us in all the moments we face in life. Help us to learn today the dangers of stepping out beyond what you called us to do. Help us to learn to trust You to be patient and wait for you. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen. Amen.

If you’ll join me here, I’m going to read Ruth 3:1: “Then Naomi her (That’s Ruth’s) 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?’”

Now just pause for a moment here. See, Naomi in these opening questions, they’re leading questions, she’s playing matchmaker here, okay? The first question: “Should I not seek rest for you, that it may be well with you?” This echoes what she said back in chapter 1, verse 9, when she released Ruth and Orpah to go back to their land and said, “The Lord grant that you find rest, each in the house of your husband.” So this rest here is marriage. It’s stability. It’s peace. It’s companionship. It’s security. And she’s meddling a bit here, isn’t she?

But she says, “Listen, I’ve got your best interest in mind. It is right for me to meddle here. But I have somebody in mind.” Who is it, Naomi? Question number two: “Is not Boaz a relative, the one whose young women you’ve been hanging around the last few weeks?” And you can sort of see it here, Naomi’s twinkle in her eyes. She says, “I’ve got a plan here, a scheme (verse 2b) here. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor.”

Now, how does Naomi know this? Well, she scoped it out. She has listened. She has asked questions of her friends and she’s got a plan here. “Trust me,” Naomi would say. “He’ll be there. He’ll be there. Trust me. I have a plan.”

Look at verse 3: “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.”

Now, here’s what’s surprising to me. In chapter 2, at the very end, when Ruth mentioned all the strapping young men who were in the fields that she got to hang around with, Naomi advised Ruth very wisely, and said, “I want you to hang out with the young women lest the young men take advantage of you.” So Naomi, at the end of chapter 2, is very concerned with Ruth’s safety, with propriety, that she do the right thing, not put herself in a vulnerable position. But just four verses later here Naomi is advising Ruth to bathe and perfume herself, you know, make herself as alluring and as attractive as possible. In the Hebrew there are overtones here preparing even for a honeymoon night. “Go down to the threshing floor.” Threshing floors were secluded areas out in the fields. In the Ancient Near East they were notorious for hook-ups. “Hide secretly,” she says, “until Boaz is all wined and dined up and he’s happy and content, and his guard is down, and then under the cover of darkness go cozy up to him in the middle of the night, and he will tell you what to do.”

What is going on here? I mean, what’s happening? I mean just back up for one moment here and pretend that Ruth is your daughter. Is this the advice you would give your daughter on how to go get a husband? No! Absolutely not! And yet, verse 5, Ruth replies, “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, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. And then she came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. And at midnight the man was startled and turned over and behold, a woman lay at his feet.”

Of course he was surprised here. Hello! What is going on? Well, first of all, Naomi here is taking matters into her own hands. Can you see that? She has seen God’s little mercies that had hinted at redemption that is coming, but after two months Naomi is getting tired of waiting, and she’s done. She says, “Okay, God, if you’re not going to get a move on, I will.” And she’s forcing a moment here. It’s savvy and it works, but it’s manipulative.

The second thing that’s going on here is Naomi is encouraging Ruth to fall back on her Moabite instincts here. After all, this is the Moabite way to get a man. If you know the history here, you will know that the Moabites were founded (This story is from Genesis 19.) when Lot was drunk and his daughters slept with him. And so the name Moab literally means mo-ab (“Who’s your daddy?) as a testimony to the scandal of how the people of Moab began. And just a few decades earlier in Numbers 25, when the Israelites were coming into the Promised Land, the Moabites were alarmed, and the Moabite women tried to seduce the Israelite men as a whole in order to derail the plans of God. And so the Moabite women, friends, were known for being enticing. They had a reputation, and the Israelite men were known for having a weakness for falling for Moabite women. And that’s something that Naomi knows firsthand in watching her own sons, Mahlon and Chilion, fall for Ruth and Orpah.

And so what’s happening here is Naomi is sending Ruth to proposition Boaz, to bathe and perfume, to put on her best clothing and avail herself to Boaz when he’s happy from wine under the cover of darkness on the threshing floor in the middle of the night. And the Hebrew writer wants us to squirm a little bit here. And as a matter of fact, there are euphemisms all over this text. Reading the Hebrew will make you blush, and you can feel the tension and the scandal of it all. And you say, “Wait a minute. I thought Ruth was a good girl.” Well, she is, but there’s also a kind of risqué side to her as well.

Do you remember in Matthew, chapter 1, in the genealogy of Jesus there are five women who are mentioned by name in that genealogy? And they’re, all of them, strong women with a hint of scandal in the background. So you have Tamar who seduced her father-in-law. You have Rahab, the prostitute, who by the way, is Boaz’s mom. Interesting! Then you have Ruth, our character here. You have Bathsheba who had an affair with King David. And you have Mary who has the scandal of an unwed pregnancy. Of course, that’s just by the Holy Spirit. There’s no indiscretion on her part. But Matthew is highlighting these scandals on purpose because he’s trying to say that scandal is no stranger to the redemptive plan of God. He’s used it in the past, and he will continue to use it in the future in Mary’s life.

But here’s the point. Ruth is not the one exception in the list. No, she fits in with the rest here. There is real scandal in what she’s doing. This is not the right way to get a husband. But here’s Naomi’s line of thinking. She’s thought this out. If Boaz is with Ruth out in the field, and then decides not to marry her, he’ll want to keep this hushed up, and so Naomi and Ruth will be well taken care of in exchange for their silence. If Boaz is with Ruth and then decides “I want to marry this girl,” everybody wins. It all works out.

If he’s a man of strong character and says, “No, not now, but I will marry you later,” then everything works out. If he says, “No, away with you. What are you doing? How dare you come meet me like this in the middle of the field?” well, they’re not that much worse off, are they? They’ve gotten pretty much everything they can get from Boaz this harvest season, and they’re just as destitute as they were before. They can’t fall much lower on the social scale, and probably they’ll have to resort to this kind of lifestyle in order to survive anyway.

Now, spoiler alert! Everything does happen to work out, doesn’t it? We’ll see it next week. Boaz turns out to be a man of tremendous character, and he chooses to do the right thing in the right way here. And God is incredibly merciful to Naomi and Ruth anyway. But listen! It does not make what they did right here. They are not acting in faith in this moment. This is not full of trust and obedience in the way of God. They are manipulating. They are scheming. They are controlling. And they are trying to get redemption, even if it means seduction and scandal. These are not examples we should follow.

In fact, as I read this text I see three warnings for us to keep in mind when we also have a line of sight to the redemption that God might bring into our life, and we’re tired of waiting for it. Three warnings,

Number one, the first warning, we can pursue the right thing at the wrong time. We can pursue the right thing at the wrong time. You know, when we pray to God, one of the hardest things is when God tells us to wait. There are three ways he can answer our prayers. He can say yes, and then we’re like “Yay, God! Thanks!” Then He could say no, and we’re like “Oh, disappointed, but I can get over that. I trust you God.” But the hardest one, I think, is when God says, “Wait. It’s the right thing and I’ll bring it eventually, but right now I need you to wait. Not now!” And it’s hard because in that waiting space we can end up doing something really stupid.

We may want to be married so badly and God says, “Wait,” and in our desperation we lower our standards, and we settle things and we rush, and we take shortcuts. Or maybe we need money and God says, “Wait,” and in our desperation we can grow dishonest and steal and take shortcuts. Or maybe we want relief from the pain, the sorrow, the grief we’re experiencing, and we just want to get to the other side, and God says, “Not now. Wait.” And in our desperation we can take matters into our own hands and take shortcuts. It’s so dangerous.

I’m reminded of 1 Samuel 13, in the story of King Saul. He and his army were pinned down by the Philistines. And Samuel, the prophet of God, had promised to come and meet him to make a sacrifice so that God would bless them in their battle. And Samuel was delayed in coming, and Saul grew impatient in waiting and decided, “I can’t wait anymore. I’m going to do this sacrifice myself,” and he assembled all the stuff and he performed the sacrifice. And then Samuel showed up and said, “What on earth did you do?” It’s the right thing. Wrong timing.

Right thing. Wrong timing. To obey is better than sacrifice, the famous line. And so, friends, here’s the takeaway for us. We’ve got to wait upon God’s perfect timing. We’ve got to wait upon God’s perfect timing. I wonder what would have happened if Naomi and Ruth had let things unfold just a little bit longer. If they had waited just a few more days and allowed God to work, I wonder what story might have unfolded. I wonder what would have happened, but we will never know, will we?

And maybe God has you waiting right now, and you’re tempted to rush ahead and get things moving. But friends, listen to me. God makes all things beautiful in His time. And His time is always perfect. His time is always perfect. And so we wait on Him. We trust in Him, and we learn not to rush ahead of God. That’s the first warning here.

The second warning is that we can pursue the right thing in the wrong way. We can pursue the right thing in the wrong way. Friends, the ends do not justify the means. And God­, listen, God will never call you to pursue a godly end in an ungodly manner. It is true that God has a beautiful plan of redemption for each and every one of our lives, that He is working always to bring hope and a future, and He calls us to walk in obedience as we cling to that hope of redemption. In other words, faith–looking to what God will do, and obedience–being attentive and following Him in the now, go together. Faith and obedience. Trust and obey.

I’m again reminded of another story from the Old Testament in Genesis 16 where Abraham and Sarah learned this the hard way. God had promised Abraham and Sarah: “I’m going to make you a great nation. I will give you a son and he will become a great people, and I will bless all the nations of the earth through you.” But Abraham and Sarah at this point in chapter 16 are still childless. They’ve been waiting a long time. No child has been born, and Sarah concocts a plan and says, “Listen, I want you to father a child with my slave, with Hagar.” This is a common custom in the Ancient Near East, pretty messed up, but they decide to have a kid the wrong way. Right thing! An heir, a son, someone to multiply their line, but the wrong way. Right thing, wrong way.

And the story that comes out of that is a disaster of this rivalry between Sarah and Hagar, between Ishmael and Isaac, and it’s a huge mess down through history, even to this very day, the dynamics that started in that error.

And so, friends, we learn. Here’s our takeaway. We learn to submit ourselves to God’s perfect will. Submit to God’s perfect will. Friends, God has a beautiful redemptive and hope-filled story for you as you follow after Jesus. Don’t compromise, friends. Don’t take shortcuts. Trust and obey. As the song says, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

Now the third warning here is that we can pursue the right thing with the wrong heart. We can pursue the right thing with the with the wrong heart. See, the real issue underneath all these other issues of timing and approach, there is an issue of the heart. The question is where will Naomi and Ruth find their ultimate true and real security in life? Where will they look? Will they trust in God’s redeeming love, and do things His way, or will they trust in a man’s redeeming love, and get it however they can get it? And both Naomi and Ruth falter in this moment under pressure. They view Boaz as their greatest hope, as their greatest redeemer, as their greatest security in life. And Boaz is a great guy. Don’t get me wrong. Boaz is awesome, but Boaz is not their hope in life.

Their hope in life lies not in Boaz, but in the Lord God Himself, under whose wings they have come to take refuge and shelter. It is the Lord God who is their greatest security. It is the Lord God who is the real satisfier of their souls. It is the Lord God who will give them the significance and place in the community that they need most of all. It is true that God is going to use Boaz, to embody for Ruth and Naomi all the provision and kindness and redemption of God, but friends, Boaz is the gift. God is the giver. And there’s a huge difference.

And friends, this is the essence of idolatry wherever we find it. Idol worship. It’s when we mistake the gift for the giver. When we look to anything other than God to find security, satisfaction, significance in life, when we root our ultimate sense of things in something other than God, we have made an idol and we have started to worship it. And that’s what’s happened here. Naomi and Ruth have made a kind of idol out of Boaz and the redemption that he has to offer here. And so they will do whatever it takes to get him.

It reminds me of another story from the Old Testament, and that’s the story of Jacob. Jacob: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob in the line there. Jacob knew that God’s blessing was on his life. There was a prophecy over his life that the older, Esau, would serve the younger, Jacob. And so Jacob grows up with this sense of identity that he will be blessed of God. But then he decides, “I’ve got to go get this blessing on my own.” And so he tricks Esau. He connives to have Esau sell him his birthright for a bowl of soup in Genesis 25. And then he deceives his own father, Isaac, in the dark, in the tent, to get the first-born’s blessing in Genesis 27, because for Jacob, the blessing of God was more important than having God Himself. He wanted the things of God more than the person of God and the relationship with Him. And so he manipulates, and he schemes, and the story of Jacob is where God ultimately has to wrestle Jacob down to the ground, in Genesis 32, and pin him down because Jacob has to learn that there is no blessing without God Himself. God is the blessing, and God cannot give His blessing without giving Himself. And God will not respond to manipulation, to control, to coercion, to any sort of thing that Jacob might do here. He’s tricky, and God has to wrestle him down so that Jacob realizes in the end that God is the blessing, and he can only have God by grace as a gift in who God is.

And that’s exactly what is happening in this story. God will teach Ruth and Naomi (We’ll see this next week.) that there is no redemption without God, that God is redemption, that His presence is what they need. And friends, this is what we’re learning as well. Our takeaway is that we’ve got to rest in God’s perfect sufficiency. We’ve got to work in God’s perfect sufficiency. When we’re tempted to cut corners, to rush ahead, to compromise, to settle or sell out, it’s usually, friends, because we believe something or someone can give us the security, the satisfaction, and the significance that our souls ultimately long for. We’ve made an idol. But here’s the truth, and you know this. God is our portion and He is more than enough for us. He is our true satisfaction. He is our greatest security. He is our ultimate significance. He’s the only one who can really redeem and bring joy and life to our souls, and He’s more than enough for us.

You know, Jesus faced a similar kind of moment that Naomi and Ruth face here. It’s very different, but it’s kind of similar. In Matthew, chapter 4, when Satan himself came and tempted Jesus, he tempted Jesus to do the right thing at the wrong time and in the wrong way. That’s what those temptations were.

“Make this bread.” It’s not a problem for Jesus to make bread. He makes bread later, but not here, not now, not that way. “Throw yourself off the temple. God will save you from death.” Did you know God saved Jesus from death? He did in resurrection morning. It’s the right thing, wrong time, wrong way.

You know, “Bow down and worship me,” Satan says, “and I’ll give you the praise of the nations, the inheritance of all the peoples of the earth.” You know, Jesus will inherit all the nations? He is the rightful heir to all of creation. Right thing! Wrong time! Wrong way!

And Jesus persevered and was faithful to God in the midst of all that pressure. Where Naomi and Ruth, and you and I and so many of us fail, Jesus was faithful, friends. And this is good news for us. It’s really good news. See, Jesus trusted God’s perfect timing. Jesus submitted to God’s perfect will. Jesus rested in God’s perfect sufficiency for Him, didn’t He? And the good news is this. Listen! Our hero is not Ruth. Our hero is not Naomi. Our hero is not our own selves or the best people we know, because at the end of the day we all fail, we all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God. And the only hero left standing in all the Bible is Jesus Christ, the only righteous one who was faithful to the very end in all the fire and all the trial and all the temptation and all the moments. Jesus is enough, and because His righteousness has covered us, God is gracious beyond anything we ever deserve because salvation—redemption—is by grace through faith in Christ.

And so Ruth and Naomi here do not deserve the beautiful, redemptive story they get to live into. But then again, neither do you, and neither do I. We are, all of us, trophies of grace because of the faithfulness of Jesus. And that changes us, doesn’t it? It teaches us to wait upon God’s perfect timing. If Jesus waited, we can learn to wait. It teaches us to submit to God’s perfect will. If Jesus submitted, we can learn to do that too. And if Jesus rested in God’s perfect sufficiency, then we’re learning to do that as well.

And so because of Jesus’ faithfulness, friends, now we can learn to walk in faithfulness as well, by the power of His grace and mercy. This is the only way redemption ever comes. It’s by grace. We can’t control it. We can’t manipulate it. We can’t coerce and scheme. We can only ask, seek, and knock. It’s the only way it works.

Can you bow your heads and pray with me this morning? Father, we confess that so often we meddle. We scheme, we try to manipulate and control, and bargain, and try to take ownership of the outcomes in life, and that’s not how mercy and grace work. Help us to lay down our schemes, our striving, all the wrestling, and just trust you, wait upon you, surrender and submit to you.

This isn’t a passiveness where we stop doing anything, but it means that everything that we do is full of trust and faith. We do things at the right time, in the right way, and with the right heart. Father, give us your mercy and grace today wherever we are, whatever we face, wherever we’re stuck, whatever griefs we bear.

Father, we invite your presence. We ask that we would yield to you, surrender ourselves to you. We ask for your mercy and grace, your kindness in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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