We cannot always interpret the events of life in terms of their immediate impact or personal implications. Throughout the Bible, as in the book of Ruth, God providentially works in the lives of ordinary people leading ordinary lives to accomplish His extraordinary purposes. Everything is part of God’s overarching plan, beginning in Genesis and continuing until Christ’s return. Even in the unremarkable lives of a widowed foreigner and an Israeli farmer, God’s plan of redemption unfolds. Have no doubt; our times are in His hands.
Well, can I invite you to turn again to Ruth chapter 4? We come to our final study of what must be one of the loveliest short stories that has ever been written, both within the frame and outwith the frame of biblical literature. Those who love a good story must surely say this is a good one. The way in which it falls out, the way in which characters are introduced and reintroduced: it really is lyrical poetry at its very best.
It is, interestingly, the only book in the Bible that carries a lady’s name and is concerned solely with the domestic circumstances of her life and those around her. It’s a story that, as we have seen, is set within the context of the book of Judges. Judges is the previous book. Judges ends just a page over, if you turn to it, in chapter 21, with the statement that “in those days Israel had no king; [and] everyone did as he saw fit.” In other words, the period in which this story unfolds is one of great instability. Within the nation there was civil unrest, social disintegration. Immorality was rife. Idolatry was enshrined. And when the people looked beyond the borders of their own locale into the international situation, they found that out there, there was only war and bloodshed.
And yet it is into those dark and fearful circumstances that there comes this wonderful ray of light, which shines clearly through these four chapters of this lovely short story. It is, as we have seen, the story of ordinary people facing the ordinary events of our lives, which of course should be an encouragement to us inasmuch as we are ordinary people living ordinary lives. That’s not a judgment on us; it’s just, frankly, the truth. There may be some days that are a little more extraordinary than others, but by and large, life is routine. We know that each of us needs to find employment somewhere, and some of our time is spent doing that—finding it and then fulfilling it. We enjoy family life, as did the people in Ruth. We endure the pain of the parting of loved ones when the time comes for us to be separated by distance. We enjoy the wonderful anticipation in our hearts as we look forward to the reunions that come as a result of geographical separation. They were experiencing bereavement, and so do we. They were trying to work out relationships with one another—and not least of all, “Ruth, how do you deal with your mother-in-law?” And somebody, I suppose, who was far more creative than myself can probably get a book out of the book of Ruth on how to deal with your mother-in-law. I don’t suggest you spend a great deal of time on it, ’cause it probably won’t sell very well.
But the fact of the matter is that the story, the four chapters, is a story of ordinary people going through their ordinary days. And the reminder that is at the very core of the story is this: that although God oversees all the affairs of the nations, still he is interested in and he is involved with a Bethlehem farmer and a foreign girl from Moab. And if you just think about it for a moment: in the great unfolding of revelation that we have in the Bible, it is interesting to have four chapters of the Bible given over to this little story. And clearly the story exists in a historic moment in time. Clearly it has immediate lessons in the community of its day and for us as we read. But it surely points back to Genesis, and it points forward into the New Testament.
Even in the darkest times, we discover that the work of God continues—that in the Judges period, leadership was ebbing and flowing; every so often a good judge would arise, and it would be fine for a while, and then it would fall apart. I think we could illustrate that from contemporary politics in the last ten or twelve years, but I’ll leave it well alone. I’ll let you make your own applications. Suddenly a good leader arises, and there is a measure of stability and security. Then a bad one comes along, and the people are thrown into chaos all over again.
And as a result of all of the social disintegration and the moral chaos, men and women are often asking themselves, and often challenging those of us who profess faith in Christ, to tell them how it is that we can believe in a God in the midst of all of these circumstances: “Where is your God in relationship to Bosnia? Explain to me God in terms of what has been going on in these dreadful suicide bombings in Lebanon. Help me understand the nature of God, with the Twin Towers lying in rubble and bodies still being pulled out. Where are we supposed to look?” That’s what people are saying. And we understand why.
It’s the kind of thing that people were saying in the period of the judges. “Into all of this darkness and into this fearfulness,” they’re saying, “now, where in the midst of all of this do we find God at work?” And the answer is, of course, in the strangest of places. Here in a quiet corner of the community, in this little place, the “village of bread,” the “town of bread,” which is what Bethlehem means; here in the routine familiarity of agricultural life; here in the apparently insignificant lives of Ruth the foreigner and Boaz the farmer is unfolding God’s plan of redemption—reminding us, as it should, that we daren’t make the mistake of assuming that we will find God always in the most obvious places.
They came looking for this King of the Jews where first? In the palace of Herod. Because, after all, if you’re going to look for a king, you’d look for him in a palace, would you not? How would these wise men, who had seen these cataclysmic events in the sky, find themselves to some little strange place, a little outhouse environment where there’s a few oxen and cattle and bits and pieces—and somewhere in the midst of all of that, he who is born King of the Jews. You see, they went looking in the wrong place. And people are looking in the wrong place today as well.
The events of this week in North Carolina in bringing together clergy from all across the country and all around the world in order that we might have this great interfaith communion may stand out as an indication to men and women of “Oh, the great future!” you know. “We’re all fine because these bright boffins down there in North Carolina, they’re going to put it all together again.” So presumably, God is down there with the clergy, you know. He’s down there with the intellectuals. He’s down there with the establishment. Probably not. Probably not.
So men and women rush to the cathedral to look for him. They get to the cathedral, and it’s empty. They get to the cathedral, and the songs are boring, and the story is dull, if it’s in existence at all. They’re looking in the wrong place. Where is God? He’s not in the cathedral; he’s in the cottage. Where is God? He’s not on the stage; he’s in the corner. Where is God? He’s not in the palace; he’s in the manger. Where is God? He’s not on the throne; he’s on the cross. There’s a song that talks about “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,” and I think that as people go looking for love in the wrong places, so they so often go looking for God in all the wrong places.
This past week somebody gave me a gift, a lovely old book, The Standard Book of British and American Verse, given to somebody in 1933 for the first time—interestingly enough, presented to a lady by another lady called Ruth, just so happens. And as I took this book—and I love poetry books—I took it home, and I immediately began to read it and look for any of the poems that I knew. Which turned me, first of all, to the Scottish poets, and to my Scottish national poet—namely, Robert Burns—and a poem from childhood, which I can’t read to you, because it’s too long, but I want to give you an inkling of it. And I marked it very specially so that I would be able to turn immediately to it. And after having read it in the first hour, I then took the mark out and put it in a poem by John Keats, which is a major problem as I stand before you right now. But that’s all right. There have been worse situations, and there will be.
The poem is called the “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.” Cotter is a Scottish word for someone who lives in a cottage. And it’s a wonderful description of agricultural life in rural Ayrshire in the middle of the eighteenth century. Burns himself was born in 1859, I think it was. He died; he barely made it to forty. He was a plowman. He wrote, “Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?” That’s his poem, which is a national, international song.
And it describes them eating supper together, and then at a certain point in the meal, the father decides that he’s going to have family devotions. And it reads as follows; I’ll translate as necessary:
The cheerfu’ supper done, wi’ serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The sire turns o’er, wi’ patriarchal grace,
The big ha’bible, ance his father’s pride:
His bonnet rev’rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets [his gray locks] wearing thin and bare;
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion with judicious care;
And “Let us worship God!” he says with solemn air.
Then goes on to articulate the way in which devotions were conducted.
Staggeringly, Robert Burns, who was known more for his philandering and his consumption of alcohol than for his ability with a plow, is able as a young man to write with such incredible knowledge as this. Let me just give you one other verse, as an off-line indication of the extent to which a Scottish heritage in the middle-eighteenth century implanted catechetical truth in the hearts of the general population. Otherwise, it would be impossible for somebody who was completely unrelated, uncommitted, to the things of the gospel to write in this way.
“Perhaps the Christian volume is the theme,” Burns writes,
How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed;
How He, who bore in Heaven the second name,
Had not on earth whereon to lay His head;
How His first followers and servants sped;
The precepts sage they wrote to many a land:
How he, who lone in Patmos banished,
Saw in the sun a mighty angel stand,
And heard great Bab’lon’s doom pronounc’d by Heaven’s command.
And then he describes the end of it all:
Then homeward all take off their sev’ral way;
The youngling cottagers retire to rest:
The parent-pair their secret homage pay,
And proffer up to Heaven the warm request,
That He who stills the raven’s clam’rous nest,
And decks the lily fair in flow’ry pride,
Would, in the way His wisdom sees the best,
For them and for their little ones provide;
But chiefly, in their hearts with grace divine preside.
So here is Scotland, ravaged by war on its borders, confronted by poverty within, in the heart of the struggles of those midcenturies. And Burns takes us into a corner of rural Ayrshire and opens the door on a tiny cottage, and he says, “God is still at work.” A God whom he doesn’t worship! A God whom he does not believe in! And yet he recognizes, “You may look for him up here. He’s not there. But let me take you to the cottage on a Saturday night, and I will show you that God, in the ordinary things of life, is still at work.”
Now, it is that message which runs all the way through these wonderful chapters here in the book of Ruth. The scene depicted here in verse 16 is not unusual. Ladies that are present this morning will identify with it. Men who have watched this scene unfold on a number of occasions can also understand it too: “Then Naomi took the child, [and she] laid him in her lap and [she] cared for him.” What a wonderful change in her circumstances! Back in chapter 1, remember, she comes into town, and the people say—the women, particularly, say—“Could this be Naomi? She looks so different from the woman who left.” And Naomi says—around verse 21—she says, “Please don’t call me Naomi,” which means “pleasant.” “Call me Mara,” which means “bitter,” “because God has made my life very bitter. I went away full, and I have come back empty.”
Off she goes, and her husband dies, and her sons die, and she’s left with her daughters-in-law. And finally, she makes her return journey—in rebellion, essentially, against God, disappointed with him, disappointed in her circumstances, the way some of you may be here this morning: “I don’t see why it should be this way. After all…” You know how your thinking goes. What a wonderful contrast. She went away empty. She has come back, and now look: her lap is full, full of this wonderful little bundle, snuggled peacefully up on her lap, as she brushes her gray hair away from her forehead. As she exercises the semiparental responsibilities; as mother-in-law, providing the kind of care that moms and grandmoms and grandmother-in-laws and so on are able to provide.
Indeed, her attachment to the child is such that the women living there—verse 17—actually thought of Obed as Naomi’s son. Because the great gap that had been left by Elimelech she had articulated when she told her daughter-in-laws to go home: “Why [sh]ould you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons?” “I’m not gonna be able to have any sons. And even if I could have sons, do you think you’re gonna wait long enough to marry my sons? The whole thing is finished,” she says in chapter 1. “There’s nothing now for me.” Now look at her. Now look at her!
You know, don’t miss these little things in passing. I think I need to preach this hymn that we just sang, and once I’ve preached it, then we’ll sing it again. ’Cause I’m not sure that it is the melody line of this tune that prevents you singing it. I don’t think you understand what it says. I think the language is too archaic. And I don’t have time to preach it this morning, but I want to tell you in part what it’s saying is this: before our infant hearts could ever conceive of what was happening, God in his gracious mercy was providing for us—in mothers who suckled us, in people we called our auntie who looked after us, in grandparents who came around us.
And these are the things which are the fodder for us when the days get dark and the doubts get real, and we go back and we say, “Do you think that God would quit on us now? That he brought me safely through all my infant years, all of the times I fell off my bicycle, all of the skinned knees, all of the bangs on the head, all of the trips to the hospital, all of that stuff. And he has guarded and guided me safely through the days.” You see, everything that has happened to us in our past, in our ordinary lives, is a reminder to us of these things. And incidentally, the role that you play in the nurture of those who bring little ones for you to cuddle up on your lap is a wonderful privilege. This is not an “it.” This is not a something. This is not a random collection of molecules. This is a divine creation.
Now, my children think I’m strange on multiple counts, but none more so than the fact that I have a bear that remains close to me because he’s the same age as me. He’s almost fifty years old, this bear. He only has one ear now, as a result of some mishandling in his youth. The stuffing is knocked out of him, but he’s in my company. Why do I keep him? Well, I think I probably keep him because he was given to me on the day I was born. And I remember it well. Course I don’t! But what does it tell me? Well, it tells me my grandmother cared; otherwise, she wouldn’t have brought the bear. It tells me that before my infant heart conceived of any notion of parental or familial care, God was ordering the steps of my life. Yours too!
Now, this, you see, is the great mystery. And it is the mystery of history, if you like—that all of the constituent elements of our past that have nudged and guided us along to this morning are themselves of distinct interest and importance. “And this child,” say the women, “is the one who will renew your life, Naomi.” And renew this lady’s life he did. She’d come back, and she was gloomy. She’d come back, and she was despondent. But now there’s a twinkle in her eye.
In routine terms, nothing had changed. In contemporary terms, she still got up largely at the same time. Her alarm went off at the same time. She still made tea at the same time. She still dangled the tea bag in the same way that she did. She still went for the shopping at eleven o’clock. She came back at twelve. She made herself a sandwich. She slept for twenty minutes, and then she woke up, and she did this and did that. And all of these days were just routine, routine, routine, and all of a sudden, the people see her in the routine of her day, she has a twinkle in her eye. She has a spring in her step. What’s the difference? The bundle! The bundle! “Can I show you the pictures of my grandson? Can I show you this? Oh, you’ve gotta hear about this. You know what he did the other day?”
“This child,” say the women, “he will renew your vigor.” And he did. And they said, “He will sustain you in your old age.” It’s like a word of prophecy. The very phrase there “sustain you” is a Hebraistic statement for “provide you with food and succor,” the very thing that had taken her into Moab with her husband in the first place, because there was no food, because there was a famine, and because she had gone into that darkness. She had returned in such emptiness, and now we see that here her life is lifted, her sagging spirits are picked up. And in the artful storytelling, the women who in chapter 1 were listening to Naomi’s lament are now, in chapter 4, the ones singing the good news of great joy. And the writer is telling us this: God’s gracious care extends to two defenseless widows, and beyond these two defenseless widows, ultimately to the benefit of all Israel. That David’s life—King David, that is—the great king of Israel, in terms of physical descent was linked to the story of a Moabite girl who was gleaning in a barley field many miles from her home.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve thought much about Ruth’s family. I haven’t. But she had a family. And she had a family in Moab. And when she married, her circumstances were altered because “the two will become one,” and “for this reason a man will leave his father and [his] mother … and the two will become one flesh.” And so they established a new family unit. But she had to walk away from that when she came back into Israel with her mother-in-law. And doubtless, the family that was left behind as a result of the geographical separation would have said to one another, “You know, I don’t know what is happening here. What will we make of our daughter? What’s to become of Ruth?”
And again, if you think of it in terms of Fiddler of the Roof, you see that dramatic scene there at the railway station. And he’s there, and the train is coming, and you can hear it in the distance. … And he knows that she’s going, and he knows that she must, and he longs for her to stay, but still she must go. And in all of the emotion of that…
Now these are real people living real lives, twelve centuries BC. And God is working his purpose out.
Go home and read the story for an afternoon siesta. Read it, and then fall asleep and dream about it. And read of the famine in chapter 1, and the family decision by Elimelech: “I’m going to have to take the wife and the kids. We’ll have to get out of here. There’s nothing left for us here.” Bad decision, wasn’t it? Certainly, to go to Moab; they weren’t to have relationships with the Moabites. He could have stayed at where he was and trusted God. Easy for us to say now, but he determined, “I have to provide for my family. It doesn’t seem as though anything’s going to come here.” So off he goes into Moab, takes his wife, takes his sons. He dies there. His sons die there.
Fortunes pick up in Bethlehem. Naomi decides she’ll go back to Bethlehem: “After all, I might as well be miserable amongst people that recognize me as be miserable here, so far from home.” She suggests to her daughter-in-laws that they stay. One says fine; the other says no. Ruth is converted; I can put it no other way. She had worshipped to that point, with her family, the god Chemosh. She must have come to the understanding that Chemosh couldn’t hear, couldn’t answer, couldn’t do anything at all.
You may have a god that you worship, and he can’t hear, and he can’t answer, and he can’t do anything at all. I don’t know why you worship him. I don’t know why you worship her. I don’t know why you worship it. Five times this week I read in the press about somebody and “his god,” somebody and “her god.” That’s fine, I understand. Everybody has their own god. They can carry them with them in a suitcase, they can prop ’em up when they move from hotel room to hotel room—whatever it is—carry it along. For the gods of the nations are nothing. They are idols. They’re set up with wood. They topple. They’re fastened with chains to prevent them from coming down. That was Ruth’s background. Ruth, somewhere along the line, as a result of the influence of Elimelech or Naomi or these men—the one she marries—comes to trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob.
So she’s committed to the God of Israel, she’s committed to the people of Israel, and she’s committed to staying committed. That’s actually what’s involved in being converted. If you are converted and changed by the power of God through the Lord Jesus Christ, let me tell you what happens to you: You become committed to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. You don’t go out and talk about your “faith journey.” You don’t go out and talk about your “personal God.” You don’t go out and talk about what it means to you. You go out and say, “The amazing thing is this: that I have met the God of all the universe.” And people say, “You’re half crazy.” Say, “I think I may be. But I have to tell you, I am committed to the God who made the universe. And secondly, I’m committed to the people who are committed to that God. That’s why I go to church. Because I’m committed to God, and I’m committed to his people. And furthermore, I’m committed to staying committed, and that’s why, thanks for the invitation, but I won’t be joining you.”
See, that’s conversion. That’s different from just kind of hooking up with a religion. And something dramatic had to have taken place to Ruth in order that she would then make this great dramatic statement, “Hey, Naomi, where you go, I’ll go. Where you stay, I’ll stay. Your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I’ll die, and there I will be buried. And may the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” That’s commitment!
And they move back, and they’re broke. And she gets up in the morning, and she says to Naomi, “I think I’d better go and try and find something to do.” And it’s not as much that she gets a job as she exercises the equivalent kind of responsibility that you would find today if somebody said, “I think I’m going to go out and find old pop cans—old soda cans—and I’m going to collect them all in a plastic bag, and I’ll get ten cents, for every one I collect, at the recycling bin.” You say, “This is my daughter-in-law Ruth, and she is gainfully employed in the Bethlehem region, collecting soda cans, and she’s getting ten cents a pop.” No pun intended.
Because what she actually does is, she goes out to work behind the people who are actually gainfully employed reaping. And the law of God made provision for really poor people, saying that the reapers could not go through and reap a second time and pick up the bits they’d missed. Nor were they to reap the totality of the borders of the field but to let things fall in the sides in order that those who were poverty stricken would be able to benefit from that if they were prepared to put in the effort. So you don’t see Ruth on the corner of the junction in Bethlehem with a sign that says, “I will work for food.” She is in the field working for food. There’s quite a difference.
And indeed, the social structures that we create in order to deal with the poverty stricken among us need to be set up along biblical lines, not just along political lines. Somebody told me last night that the city of San Francisco spends $107 million a year providing $200 apiece to the homeless every month, and their medical benefits. Well, I sure know where I’m going when it all hits the fan. That’s fine! Look for me on that big windy street, you know.
“Let me go and find favor,” she says. She goes, and she finds favor. Boaz takes a shine to her. “May I continue to find favor,” she says in 2:13. “I’m hoping to find favor. I have found favor. I want to continue to find favor.” She’s a smart girl, Ruth. She conjures up a nighttime conversation on the threshing floor, which you need to read in chapter 3. As a result of that, Boaz tips his hat, goes to the town elders, and tells them, “I’m going to marry if everything goes according to plan.” Seventy verses cover a few months, and by the time you get to 4:13, you discover that fifteen words cover nine months: “And the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son.” And here it was.
Now, let me say something to you: History matters. Your history matters. You are, to some significant degree, who you are because of who your parents were and who your grandparents were. You can’t disassociate yourself from that. You are the product of that lineage. And it matters. Now, I say that to you because we live in an environment in which history is debunked at the highest academic levels of our nation. Those who teach history in the Ivy League schools, who are the proponents of history, are at pains to teach their pupils that there is no history that is knowable—that we cannot know history in any pure form. Because, after all, we view history through the clouded lens of our own circumstances and presuppositions and so on. Therefore, it is impossible for us to know history. Which, of course, when you say that the Bible is a historical document and that Christ is a historical figure, then if you’ve already debunked the whole notion of history, then people say, “Well, that’s irrelevant, in any case, because there is no knowable history.”
George Harrison, in some of his final words, as reported in one of the magazines I read this week, said, “You know, all of our past is gone. And the future we don’t know anything about. All that we have is now.” Now, you say, “Well, there’s some measure of truth in that. After all, Jesus said, ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow—tomorrow’s got enough trouble of its own—and concentrate on today.’” Yes, but Jesus said that not in an existential sense. Jesus wasn’t saying that history has gone away and is irrelevant, and tomorrow is just in never-never land, and all you can do is, you know, with Kris Kristofferson, “Help me make it through the night,” you know. No.
Ironically, at the same time as a generation is growing up with history debunked, the generation that is paying for their education is going online, responding to the little icons that are calling us to find out where we came from. They’re everywhere. Have you noticed that? “Find your genealogy! Fifty-five dollars, and we’ll tell you that, just as you hoped, you’re from Scotland! We can trace it all the way back. We can give you a tartan. We can give you a kilt. We can give you a bagpipe. We can give you a plaque. We can give you a chart, a scroll, everything!” “Oh, let me find out where I’m from!” Why? Well, because innately we know that it matters where we’re from. This is the mystery of history.
And what this story really says is this—and I can give it to you, really, in three statements—is that here we have a striking indication of the purpose of God from all of eternity. What purpose is that? To put together a people that are his very own. Genesis chapter 12, in the word of God to Abram, he says, “And through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” In other words, the comprehensive appeal of the gospel, as a result of Abram believing in God and it being “credited to him as righteousness,” and then the lineage of Abram going out, it would lead eventually to Revelation 7, when John on the island of Patmos says, “And I looked, and I saw a company that no man could number, from every tribe and nation and tongue and language.” So from Genesis all the way to the book of Revelation, you have this great panorama of redemptive history, as God is putting together this amazing composite gathering.
And the engrafting of Ruth into the line which gave rise not simply to King David but to Christ himself speaks to the comprehensive nature of the gospel. God takes a heathen woman of a nation hostile to Israel, reaches her through Naomi, takes a bad decision on the part of Elimelech—who, as a dad, failed by letting his sons marry Moabitess women. Not allowed! Violation of the law. Messed up, Dad. Guilty. And God, in the immensity of his purposes and his providence, sweeps the ineptitude of Elimelech into his great panorama of redemption and crosses racial lines. The interracial marriage of Boaz and Ruth provides the lineage out of which King David comes and Christ comes.
Did nobody read the book of Ruth in Alabama fifty years ago? What was their problem? Do you think that you can teach racial apartheid from the Bible? No you can’t! The issue of purity about which God was concerned was doctrinal purity, not racial purity. Otherwise, Ruth the Moabitess, having married once into the nation of Israel, would be violating every commandment of God by marrying Boaz. But she wasn’t. Why? Because the issue was not the racial distinction between Moab and Israel. The distinction was that the Moabitess had now been converted and trusted the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Boaz trusted in the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and that was where the unity lay—not in their ethnic background, or the color of their skin, or their certain social predilections. May God forgive every one of us that has given grounds to that notion and tried to substantiate it from the Bible. It is erroneous! It is harmful. It is just flat-out wrong. And here the book of Ruth, in the strangest of places, God’s purpose is worked out.
It’s a story, then, of God’s purposes. It’s a story of God’s providence. It’s a reminder to us, as in our studies with Joseph, that we’re not held in the grip of blind forces. We’re not swept along on the sea of chance. We’re being trained in the school of God’s providence. The book of Ruth says this to you this morning: God cares, God rules, God provides. God cares, God rules, God provides.
A Christian understanding of the world introduces us to some great, wonderful perspective. You see, the message of Ruth is not that the people who trust in God, none of their family ever dies. No. Because Naomi had no husband, and both her boys were gone. The story of Ruth is not the people who trust in God always live in the lap of luxury, because she was essentially looking for soda cans to try and eke out an existence. The message of the book of Ruth is far grander than that, and far more wonderful to be conveyed to our friends and neighbors. In other words, we’re able to say to our friends and neighbors that the glories and the tragedies of the events of nations, the joys and the sorrows, the pains and the disappointments of family life, do not ultimately find their meaning within human history, do not ultimately find their meaning, ultimately, within the framework of personal biography. But they find their significance within the purposes of God, who has made himself known as loving and holy, as personal and infinite, as Creator and Redeemer, as Sustainer and Ruler. And this is good news!
Did you read the article this week that came out of MIT, concerning a decade of suicides? And the tragic stories of some of the brightest and best university students in the whole world, let alone North America, taking their own lives. And the young man at the very top of his field, writing his final farewell: “I refuse to live in mediocrity.” And then he jumps from fifteen floors to his death and triggers a whole span of others who follow along. Now, what do you need to go and say to that boy? You see, because he’s so bright! He’s not going to be palmed off with some happy-clappy, Christian-quotey-doty, flimsy-dimsy thing. He can beat you at chess without even putting chess players on the board. He can finish the logarithms before you grab your pencil. He’s so smart that he has seen to the end of his MIT degree, and his postgraduate degree—and nothing tastes! Because he is either atheist (“There is no God”), deist (“Somebody started it off, but we’re spinning hopelessly”), pantheist (“God is all, and I are God, and we are God, and if I am God, God help us”)—and what do we go and say to him?
Say, “You know what? I’d like to meet you just for a coffee. I’ve got a great story to tell you. It’s a twelfth-century-BC story. It’s about a lady. And the great thing about it is this: that she just ‘happened’ to work in a field that was owned by a guy called Boaz. The fact is, if she’d got the wrong field, there would be no story. In fact, the mathematical probability of this lady getting the right field or the wrong field is very interesting. I think you might like to think about it with me for a little bit. But beyond that, I want to tell you this: that God cares, God rules, and God provides. And the sense of intellectual emptiness that you feel, the sense of moral angst that pervades your being, surely has not been met in anything that you’ve discovered yet for religion’s sake. But have you ever considered the possibility that God the Creator, your personal Creator, knows you and made you?”
Say, “That’s a kind of ordinary story.” Yeah, it is an ordinary story. It’s about ordinary people. It’s a story of the Bible. A story of Ruth, a story about God’s purpose. A story about God’s providence, a story about God’s provision. We have a Savior to whom we may go. Naomi and Ruth were redeemed as a result of the outstretched hand, as it were, of Boaz, who went to them and took all of their poverty and credited them with all of his riches. And the future significant events of their lives, and the future significant events of the life of David, and the arrival of Christ himself, were directly tied to the story of Ruth.
And here’s my final thought: it is in the ordinariness of the events of life, and it is in the ordinariness of people, that God unfolds his plan for you and me. How extraordinary that God would come to such an ordinary couple! Who the world is Joseph, for crying out loud? Do you think if we were putting together the incarnation, we’d choose a no-name carpenter from some backwater town on the edge of a who-knows-what province in the middle of nowhere? And a slip of a girl called Mary, who left school at the age of twelve, if she ever went? And by means of this physical descent and arrangement, we will bring God Almighty down to earth! You say, “This is unbelievable!”
I say to you again, it is the very unbelievable nature of the Bible that makes it so compellingly believable. It’s ordinary—but, boy, am I encouraged, ’cause I’m ordinary. And not many of us, if any of us, will even be a footnote in history books. Our great grandchildren may not even be able to spell our first name. They may never even know anything about us at all. Forget our great-grandchildren—our grandchildren themselves. You never know.
And what are you going to do tomorrow, anyway, that’s extraordinary? Nothing. Because even if you have an extraordinary job, you still go through it in an ordinary way, don’t you? I mean, even the people here who have significant medical jobs, they’ll tell you: I mean, they play music down there when they’re cutting you apart. I’ve been there; I saw them.
But that’s the great wonder—that an ordinary mother, with ordinary kids, doing ordinary stuff, routinely, makes an impact for the gospel and for eternity. That a grandpa because of the stories he tells, that a father because of the faithfulness of his love, that “a tinker, a tailor, a soldier, a sailor, a rich man, a poor man, a beggar man, a thief,” doing all to the glory of God, living an ordinary life, in an ordinary place called Cleveland, may under God become the means of extraordinary impact for the sake of the gospel.
Father, I pray that for some of us who’ve been thinking that we’re not doing much, or we can’t do much, or we’re not well known, or whatever it is—whatever lie the devil fires at us—remind us that long after human wisdom is forgotten—mental, intellectual brilliance—long after the ability to speak is over because the person can’t speak anymore, that faithfulness, kindness, integrity, love, gentleness, all of these things, will prove to have been so dramatic in the lives of men and women. Thank you for the story of these ordinary people. Thank you for the mystery of history. Thank you for the reminder today that you, O God, are
Working your purpose out,
As year succeeds to year,
That you’re working your purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
And nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that will surely be,
When the earth will be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.
So help us, then, to lift our eyes and look up. Fill us, Lord, with joy and with peace. And may your grace and your mercy and your abiding love be the portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Judges 21:25 (NIV 1984).
 Bob Morrison, Patti Ryan, and Wanda Mallette, “Lookin’ for Love” (1980).
 Burns’s actual birth year was 1759.
 Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne” (1788).
 Robert Burns, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.”
 Burns, “The Cotter’s Saturday Night.”
 Ruth 1:19–21 (paraphrased).
 Ruth 1:11 (NIV 1984).
 Ruth 1:11–13 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 19:5 (NIV 1984).
 See Isaiah 40:19–20.
 Ruth 1:16–17 (paraphrased).
 Ruth 2:2 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 6:34 (paraphrased).
 Kris Kristofferson, “Help Me Make It through the Night” (1970).
 Genesis 12:3 (paraphrased).
 Romans 4:3 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 7:9 (paraphrased).
 Arthur Campbell Ainger, “God Is Working His Purpose Out” (1894). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.