Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Ruth - "When you're afraid to commit..."

We’ve entered a great stadium, mid-race, as thousands cheer us on.  One by one, great heroes of the faith have come down to encourage us on our journey.  A lone woman approaches us now…in her eyes we see a deep and unshakeable love, a courageous love that can overcome any obstacle.  As she begins to jog alongside us we know that we are in the presence of one of the greatest women of biblical history.  “Hello, my name is Ruth, and I have something to share with you: “Committed love is risky…but it’s worth it.”  

Ruth reminds us that her story took place “in the days when the judges ruled (Ruth 1:1).”  They were days of spiritual chaos, when God sent Israel examples of faithfulness and integrity, like Deborah, and Gideon, and in a far more surprising way a woman named Ruth.  The Book of Ruth begins by introducing us to an Israelite family from Bethlehem: a husband Elimilech, and his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion who flee to Moab, east of the Dead Sea, to look for bread. While in Moab, Elimilech and Naomi’s sons marry Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth (4), but within ten years, Naomi’s husband and her two sons die, leaving the three women with nothing (5).  That’s when Naomi decides to return to Israel, but urges her Moabite daughters to remain so they might remarry and start over.  Naomi believed God was against her and that it would be disastrous for Ruth and Orpah to follow her back to Israel which is why she urged them to remain in Moab. Orpah was obedient: she did the sensible thing. Ruth however did something extraordinary.  Despite the many good reasons she had not to do so, she pledges her lasting commitment to Naomi: 
But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you" (Ruth 1: 16-17)!
As we jog along with Ruth she helps us to see why the risk of committed love is worth it…

First, committed love creates a future of caring. For Ruth says, “Where you go I will go…”  I have heard young adults today express a great hunger for lasting, committed relationships and close-knit community – and a great cynicism about the possibility of such commitment in our disposable society.  Into such a world, Ruth speaks with authority and hope.  “Where you go I will go.”  Ruth cannot change the past.  She cannot bring Naomi’s husband back.  She cannot bring her own husband back.  She cannot stop Naomi’s sadness, but she can say this, “Where you go I will go.”  With one word, she can create a future of caring.  A promise is powerful!  Listen to these words by Lewis Smedes:
“When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty....When you make a promise, you take a hand in creating your own future…" [excerpts from Lewis B. Smedes, "The Power of Promises," A Chorus of Witnesses, edited by Long and Plantinga, Eerdmans, 1994].
Second, committed love makes room for others: “Where you lodge, I will lodge…”  For Ruth to remain with Naomi, she had to risk living life at close range with her, under the same roof; reminding us that committed love is always face to face, up close, vulnerable and honest. Remember that Naomi was not the “ideal” roommate. She was not only discouraged, depressed and heartbroken, she was angry.  She says later, “Call me no longer Naomi (Pleasant) but Mara (Bitter)” (20).  Yet Ruth accepted her; indeed she could empathize with many of Naomi’s feelings.  She knew it was part of the price of commitment, and that it was worth it.  


On Friday, my family got into the car about 1:00pm and began driving up to Visalia for a wedding rehearsal that I was leading.  Due to a brush fire, we had to take a detour through Tehachapi, and arrived, sure enough, 2 ½ hrs late!  Yes, I called ahead to let them know of our dilemma, but I was still impressed by the fact that when we pulled in there was not a single sour face.  In fact, the bridal party and groomsmen were having a great time, throwing footballs, decorating, enjoying the time together. Not surprisingly these were roommates or classmates or team mates, friends who had roomed together, traveled together, shared life together.  Those are the kinds of people you have at your wedding…It reminded me of my own room mates in the past, friends I have traveled across the country with, studied with, trained with, had late night conversations with, and especially my wife! 


I want to suggest that if you have never had to share a toy, a bedroom, a dorm room, a meal, a bus or a plane seat, a work space, or slog through the messy details of a wedding or a decision with some co-workers, to say nothing of a session or deacon meeting… you haven't lived.  And if you've had to make room for someone, but only done so grudgingly, than you haven't learned.  Having to make space for others is one of the greatest of life lessons. Have you ever considered the fact that God made space for us, that he made room for us by creating this universe?  God didn’t have to do this…he could have had it all to himself.  But God delights in our company...as unpleasant as we can be at times.  So, thank God for every opportunity he gives you to make room for others in your life.  It’s one of the ways we can grow with Ruth in the art of committed love.

Third, committed love blesses the community: “Your people will be my people.”  For Ruth to remain with Naomi she would have to live in a strange land, among a people that considered Moabites to be pagan adversaries. Ruth risked embracing a whole new people as her own; of joining a new family.  She had no idea how she would be received.  Certainly she could expect it would be hard. When we join ourselves to Christ and his people, we become part of a new family (not just symbolically, but literally).  Because of Christ, we can say to the person on our right or left (regardless of their nationality, gender, or social background). “I’m a member of your family!”


That commitment to one another not only blesses us and our church, it blesses the larger community.  I have met more than one family who said to me before they became actively involved in our church community that a long term commitment to this neighborhood seemed impossible.   Now, they can envision a long term commitment to this Body, and to their neighborhoods!  Committed love not only blesses a community, it makes a community.  A city and a neighborhood cannot thrive without it.  The stronger our network of personal commitments are, the stronger our community. 


A student once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead for the earliest sign of civilization in a given culture. He expected the answer to be a clay pot or perhaps a fish hook or grinding stone. Her answer was “a healed femur.”  Mead explained that no healed femurs are found where the law of the jungle, survival of the fittest, reigns. A healed femur shows that someone cared. Someone had to do that injured person's hunting and gathering until the leg healed.  In other words, forget community, you can’t have a civilization without the commitment to love, to care, and to show compassion!

Fourth, committed love draws us into the circle of God’s love.  For Ruth says, “Your God will be my God…”  Ruth knew that to commit herself to Naomi she had to risk trusting Naomi’s God. The stories that she was told by the Israelites of God’s loving-kindness toward Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, inspired her own and gave her hope, and the goodness she witnessed gave her confidence – despite all the tragedy she had experienced.  She renounced the gods of her own nation and family and became then and there, for all time, a worshiper of the God of Israel. 


I submit to you that this pledge,“You’re God will be my God,” is a formula for spiritual blessing.  When marriages and families share a common faith…it makes for an extremely powerful bond.  I’m concerned at how casually many young Christians today take this principle. Paul urges us "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" (1 Cor. 6: 14).   I need to be careful here, because I realize that there have been exceptions to this rule where a believing Christian has impacted an unbelieving partner in a significant way.  Yet this fact must not keep us from telling the whole story. Because what I observe is that when couples do not share a common faith conviction, either the partner with the strongest belief or worldview prevails, or - more often than not - the faith or worldview of neither partner prevails because such conviction is seen as a divider rather than a uniter.  Thus the couple misses the spiritual blessing of having a strong and vital faith in Christ at the center of their marriage when challenges come.  This basic posture of unbelief or simply nominal faith is then internalized by their children as the new normal...a kind of chain reaction of unbelief.  On the other hand, a couple can place the Lord at the center of their marriage, and, by his  grace, bless their children with this conviction...and the generations that follow them.   Listen instead to the words of Joshua who challenged his people to turn from their false gods and follow the Living God, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24: 15)!  May it be true with us...


Now I ask you, how long do you think Ruth’s extraordinary commitment to the God of Israel and her people would last?  Would it be in effect until Naomi died?  Would she then return to her own people in Moab?  No, her commitment had no expiration date, for Ruth says “Where you die, I will die –and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  What Ruth was trying to say was that…

Committed love is more powerful than death.  How could she be so sure?  Perhaps it was because she entrusted her promise to the Lord himself.  After all, it was the name of the LORD whom she called upon to certify her sacred promise.  She used his special name that day, the name he gave to Moses, ’Eh·yeh, the name that means, “I Am” or “I will be there for you as I am.” 


“I staked my all upon the forever faithfulness of that God,” we can hear Ruth saying, “and it was not in vain.  For into this powerful circle of steadfast love, God brought me and Naomi and Boaz together…Boaz, that wonderful kinsman who saw me gleaning in his field, who marveled at my loyalty to my mother-in-law and then chose to rescue our impoverished family by committing himself to me as my husband, and providing our family an heir. I did not know then that our son, Obed, would be the grandfather of King David, the man after God’s own heart, and the forerunner of Y’shua the Messiah  - all this from the seed of steadfast love and devotion which God inspired in me! Truly, committed love is risky, but it’s worth it!”


Ruth has nearly finished her lap with us...and as we ponder her words, words of loving commitment, words that even outdid Abraham’s (for Ruth was given no promise of future blessing from God before she took her leap of faith); words that also define a true disciple of Jesus who does not look back…but trusts in him fully... as we ponder such words we are in awe.  For only the steadfast love of the LORD himself could inspire such death-defying devotion.  Centuries later, the Apostle Paul would attempt to measure the love of God in this way: “Nothing in all creation, and certainly not death, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (see Romans 8: 31-39).  Not even death will be able to separate us from the steadfast love that God has demonstrated toward us in Ruth’s greater Son who gave his life for his people and for the whole world, and who rose again from the dead on the third day!  And that’s why I want to say that when you make a promise, an unshakeable commitment to Him, it is not in vain!

As I was speaking to this young couple whose wedding I officiated at yesterday…I was reminded of the fact that about five years ago her parents divorced because of an affair the bride's father had with another woman.  She had expressed to me how much she desired her marriage to be different; and as I looked at both of them in the eyes I wanted to bless that desire; to speak to them, and to those who have experienced failed promises, of God’s healing, of forgiveness, of the hope we have when we come to him in faith.


Although I have performed many weddings, I marveled again at the many friends, family, and church members who came to cheer them on as they made this death-defying commitment to each other…as they pledged to go through life together…to make room for each other…to embrace one another’s communities, and to put Christ at the center of their relationship.  It wasn’t a cold, lifeless commitment for commitments sake, but for Christ’s sake, and for each other…and for their grandparents, and children and the generations to follow them. 


Ruth is one of the greatest examples of devoted love in scripture…and despite our fears, we can be just as devoted and just as committed, because our Lord has committed himself to us.  So as this beautiful example of loving faithfulness returns to her stadium seat we’re thrilled that she asks if she can pray for us. “God of steadfast love and mercy, without you no promise or commitment we make is sure.  Inspire my friends to risk the adventure of committed love, and to know that in doing so, they are creating a future of caring rather than callousness, they are learning to overcome selfishness and make room for others, they are bringing blessings that extend far beyond themselves to their community, and they are imitating your own death-conquering love for us.”  Amen!


Click this link to read the entire story of Ruth right now!

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