August 24, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
HOW GRACE WORKS
My grandmother’s name was Ruth. She was named, as far as I know, after the Ruth in the Bible. Another woman’s name that was popular when my grandmother was born was Grace. Grace has made a come-back. It’s # 22 on the most popular girl baby name list. Ruth didn’t even make the list. That means you’ll find a lot more little girls named Grace these days than little girls named Ruth. But I want to suggest that these two names are connected. The word “grace” appears twice in the passage of scripture we read today (in the King James version). And signs of grace are all through the book. Because the Book of Ruth is really a book about grace.
We Christians will often say something that is offensive to our Jewish brothers and sisters. We will say that the New Testament is about grace and love but the Old Testament is about law and judgment. That is a gross oversimplification. Worse than that. It’s just not true. There is a lot of law and judgment in the New Testament. And there is a lot of grace and love in the Old Testament. For example, the Book of Ruth. It’s book about grace. It’s about how grace works.
So what is grace? Grace is God’s unmerited favor. Grace means that God treats us better than we deserve to be treated. God “does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10). That’s the Bible’s classic statement about grace. And by the way, it is found in the Old Testament.
The book of Ruth is short and easy to read. It’s a love story. I think most of us like love stories. Men do too, more than they will admit. It starts with a woman named Naomi. (Naomi, incidentally, also made that list of top baby names for girls. It’s # 87. It seems like all the old names are making a comeback. All except Ruth.) Naomi is Jewish. She lives in Bethlehem. But there is a famine, so she and her husband and two sons move to Moab. The sons marry Moabite women. Naomi now has two daughters-in-law. One of them is Ruth. The other is named Orpah.
We’re going to be saying a lot about Ruth. So let me first say a little about Orpah. There’s some trivia about Orpah, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, that I find interesting. A famous person is named after her. Oprah Winfrey. She’s named Oprah, not Orpah because her mother misspelled the name she took from the Bible. Which has nothing to do with what we are talking about today, but I just thought you might be interested.
So here we have Naomi in a strange land with her husband, her two sons and her two daughters-in-law. Then things start getting difficult. First, her husband dies. Then one of her sons dies. And finally her other son dies. So we now have three women without a man to look after them. In that culture especially, that was a very scary situation. Especially for Naomi, living in a foreign land.
So she decided to move back to Bethlehem. She heard the famine was over. She told Orpah and Ruth to stay in Moab. That was their home country. They would find new husbands there. Orpah stayed, but Ruth insisted on going with her mother-in-law. “Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
Helen and I had that verse read at our wedding, 35 years ago. We knew we were about to be sent God knows where by our United Methodist bishop, so that verse seemed to fit.
The first sign of grace in this love story is found here. Ruth refused to leave Naomi. Kind of like God refuses to leave us.
The second sign of grace follows closely. They get to Bethlehem. They have no money, so even though the famine is over, there may as well still be a famine as far as they were concerned. But Naomi remembered an old law in her Hebrew Bible that was different from many of the old laws. It was not legalistic. It was a law written to enforce grace. Here is it:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 19:9-10).
That is grace. Food for those who might otherwise go hungry. Food for the poor and the sojourner.
But there’s more. When Ruth went out to glean the grain on the corners of a field, we are told “she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz” (2:4). She just “happened” to. And then Boaz just “happened” to come along and meet her. She had just “happened” to meet her future husband.
Now isn’t that an amazing coincidence! That’s one way to look at it. Another way is that God was arranging the whole thing. It wasn’t chance. It was the hand of God. Someone has said coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous. So even though the Bible says it just “happened”, it really didn’t just “happen”. It was God. It was grace. The third sign of grace in this book of Ruth.
That’s how grace works. It appears to just happen. It appears to be chance or luck or coincidence. It’s too good to be true but we figure, “Well, maybe I was just living right”. But it wasn’t that. You know it wasn’t that! You didn’t deserve it, but God smiled on you anyway.
William Gladstone served as prime minister of Great Britain but before that he was the equivalent of our Secretary of the Treasury. He requested the financial information he needed to make his budget proposals. The numbers he was given were not accurate. Not even close. But Gladstone had such confidence in the man who gave him these numbers, he didn’t bother to double-check. He used these numbers to build his budget and then he stood before the House of Commons and gave an impassioned speech defending this budget.
The press quickly uncovered the inaccuracies. Gladstone became the brunt of jokes. He was incompetent. He should resign. How could he ever be trusted again?
So William Gladstone sent for the statistician who had given him the bad information. Surely this would be the end of his job. Maybe worse. He was filled with fear and shame as his boss spoke to him:
I know how much you must be disturbed over what has happened, and I have sent for you to put you at ease. For a long time you have been engaged in handling the intricacies of the national accounts, and this is the first mistake that you have made. I want to congratulate you, and express to you my keen appreciation.
That’s grace. We expect condemnation. We deserve condemnation. But that’s not what we get. We get kindness. We get forgiveness. We get the opportunity for a new beginning that we never thought possible.
Eventually Boaz and Ruth do marry. There are quite a few twists and turns in the story that we don’t need to get into. Grace is at work every step of the way. But let’s get back to the scripture we read for today. We left Ruth in Boaz’s field gleaning. They have just met. Boaz is kind to her. He wants her to stay in his field where he knows his hired men can be trusted not to take advantage of her. He tells her where to find water when she is thirsty.
The fourth sign of grace in this story is here, in Boaz’s kindness to this woman he has never met. She is poor. She is a foreigner. She might remind us of some of the poor foreigners who have crossed our border and who are often not treated with much kindness. You might be a cynic and say that Boaz is treating her well because he is a man and she is a woman and he is attracted to her. I think Boaz, at this point of the story at least, is simply a good man who loves God and who wants to be a channel of God’s grace.
Ruth is amazed. Grace has a way of amazing us. That’s where that hymn comes from, “Amazing Grace.” Ruth says, “Why?” It doesn’t make sense to her that she should be treated so well. “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me when I am a foreigner?” (2:10)
And Boaz gives her a reason. He tells her why. It’s because of the kindness she showed to Naomi, her mother-in-law. He saw the grace she extended to Naomi, so therefore he is extending grace to her. Grace begets grace. That’s the lesson here. When you are kind to others, it has a way of sending out ripples of kindness far beyond your own kindness. “Paying it forward”, this sometimes is called. A chain reaction of goodness. A chain reaction of grace.
But what Boaz said to Ruth here can be confusing and can lead us astray. He tells her she has earned his grace. But grace can never be earned. Grace is always better than we deserve. Even Ruth doesn’t deserve the grace that is extended to her. But it’s extended anyway. That’s how grace works.
The last verse we read today refers to the wings of God. Boaz says that Ruth has come to this strange land to take refuge under the wings of God (2:12). It’s a beautiful image. Life has its storms. The wind, the rain, the hail. The heat of summer that can kill us. The cold of winter that can kill us. We need shelter. Physically and spiritually. I picture a newborn bird who happened to come into the world in the middle of a fierce blizzard and who never would have survived if not for the shelter of its mother’s wings.
We won’t survive without the shelter of God’s wings. Not for long. You live long enough and you will come upon a storm too powerful for your own resources. But God’s grace is there. God holds you safe and secure under his mighty wings.
David wrote about this in the Psalms:
Those who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say, “My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” For he will keep you safe from all hidden dangers and from all deadly diseases. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge (Psalm 91:1-4).
Ruth and Boaz get married at the end of the book. It’s a happy ending. You do know what kind of a man Boaz would have been if Ruth had not agreed to marry him? He would have been ruthless. As often happens, the married couple soon find that they are expecting an addition to their family. And it is here that we find one more sign of grace in this beautiful story.
It has to do with Naomi. Remember Naomi? She lost in rapid succession the three most important men in her life, her husband, and both of her sons. Her grief was greater than we are capable of imagining. But even worse than her grief, in that culture, was the awareness that her family would now end when she died. Because her children died before they could have children. No grandchildren. In Naomi’s world, nothing could be more horrible.
But wait. Ruth, her daughter-in-law, is still part of her family. And now Ruth is expecting a baby. So Naomi can die knowing that her family will go on.
Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the LORD. who has not left you this day without a next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him (4:14-15).
Don’t you love happy endings! Naomi has a grandson. His name is Obed. You may never have heard of Obed. He is hardly mentioned in the Bible. And you may never have heard of Obed’s son, Jesse. He gets a little more mention, but not a lot. But I’m pretty sure you have heard of Jesse’s son. His name was David. David the Shepherd. David the King. David the one who wrote most of the Psalms. Including the one that says that we are safe in the shelter of God’s wings (91:1-4). Including the one that has the Bible’s classic statement about grace: “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities” (103:10)
Ruth and Boaz were his great-grandparents. Naomi was his great-great-grandmother. And his great-great-great, many times great, grandson was someone I know you have heard of. Jesus.
Remember how Ruth and Boaz “happened” to meet in that barley field? Somehow I don’t think that just happened. It was the grace of God.
Dear God, each and every one of us lives under the shelter of your mighty wings. Each and every one of us lives under your grace. Thank you. And may we do more than just say our thank you. May we live our thank you by extending grace to others. Not waiting until it is earned. Because nothing of value is ever really earned. It all comes as a gift from you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.