Amazed By Grace
If I had to describe the Christian faith, following Jesus, with just one word, that word would be GRACE. Unearned love. Undeserved forgiveness. Unmerited favor. Grace is God treating me, a sinful, broken, flawed, imperfect human being, as if I’d never, ever sinned. Grace is Christ taking my sinful, broken, flawed, imperfect, human identity upon himself and dying the death that by rights I should have to die myself as a sinful human being, and giving me his perfect, whole, unflawed, sinless identity before God. I am a sinner saved by grace. Grace is God wading into the human mess and dragging us out of the pain and mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Grace is the core of my faith in Christ, the core of my identity in Christ. Ravi Zacharias shared this true story about a conversation he had with a young Muslim Palestinian: We were sitting in a coffee shop in Jerusalem and he spoke in soft tones.
He mentioned to me that he had observed a conversation between a leading Muslim sheikh and a Christian missionary named Brother Andrew. The sheikh had recently ordered the killing of eight Israelis because the Israelis had killed four Palestinians whom they had accused of crimes against the Jewish people. Brother Andrew asked the sheikh, “Who appointed you judge and jury and gave you the authority to order such killings?” The sheikh replied, “I am not the judge and jury. I am merely an instrument of God’s justice.” There was a moment of silence and then Brother Andrew asked, “What place is there, then, for forgiveness?” The sheikh replied, “Forgiveness is only for those who deserve it.” Now there was a real protracted silence. The young Palestinian said to me, “I thought at once, this explains everything and nothing. If forgiveness is merited, then it’s not really forgiveness, is it? But I remained silent,” he said, “because I saw two completely different worldviews at work, both with a common starting point about God, but with radically different views of God.” Grace is real and needed.[i]
The tiny, four chapter Old Testament book of Ruth paints for us a picture of what the grace of God looks like, and in that picture we see three aspects of grace – we see the transaction of grace, we see the transportation of grace, and we see the transformation of grace. We’re going to focus this morning just on the 4th chapter of Ruth, but we have to set the stage first, so that we understand the story.
The story begins in the time of the judges in the town of Bethlehem. Bethlehem literally means “House of Bread,” but there was no bread to be found because of a famine in the land. So a man named Elimelech moved to the land of Moab with his wife Naomi and his two sons. It’s significant that he chose to move to Moab, because God had forbidden the Israelites from intermingling with the Moabites because of their treatment of the Israelites during their wilderness wandering. In Deuteronomy 23:3-4 we read “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever, because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam … to curse you.” But because it was close and there was no famine, Elimelech moved his family to Moab, and they stayed there for quite some time. But while there, Elimelech became sick and died, leaving Naomi and their two sons in Moab. So her sons married Moabite women and began to take care of Naomi. One of those Moabite women was named Ruth. Remember, in that culture, women worked in and took care of the home, but they could not work outside the home or do business in any way. Without a father, or a husband, or a son to provide, a woman was reduced to poverty, to begging. And then both of Naomi’s sons got sick and died. So the Israelite Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law were stuck in Moab with no one to provide for them. So Naomi tells the two women to return to their families, and she’d return to Bethlehem, because the famine had ended.
Although both women protested at first, one ended up returning to her family. But the other, Ruth, refused to leave Naomi alone, and her answer to Naomi’s direction to return to her own family is beautiful. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ru. 1:16-17). What beautiful words. And Ruth meant it! In today’s language, we’d say that Ruth was Naomi’s “ride or die.” That’s a phrase that’s been expanded to mean absolute best friend who will never leave you, but it has its origins in hip hop culture describing a woman who would support her partner and his illegal lifestyle of drugs and gang violence regardless of the danger to herself. It’s a friendship that recognizes the potential great cost of the friendship and goes ahead anyway. That’s your “ride or die,” and Ruth was Naomi’s ride or die. Regardless of what we have to face in your homeland, we’re going to face it together.
Now, in the culture of ancient Israel, a man had two things that he could pass down to his descendants: his land, and his legacy. His name. The name of a man who had no sons would die out. And your land was more than just land. It was your little piece of God’s promise to Abraham. But, and again, this was the culture at the time, God wasn’t saying “this is the way things are for all time,” but a woman couldn’t hold property. So all that Naomi had was through Elimelech, and everything he had was now in jeopardy because he and their sons were dead. No legacy. No land. And no one to protect and provide for Ruth and Naomi. They had nothing. In fact, when they return to Bethlehem, Naomi tells the women “I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty” (Ru. 1:21). Fortunately, there was provision in the Law of God for just such an occasion. A kinsman-redeemer, someone related to the deceased man who was willing and able could come along and purchase his land so that it staying in the family, at least in the clan. And the brother of the man could marry his wife and hopefully have a son with her who would carry not the brother’s name but her first husband’s name so that his name, his legacy, would live on. And Ruth and Naomi found just such a man in Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s who is willing to fill both roles: he will purchase Elimelech’s land and he will marry not Naomi, but Ruth. And that’s where we pick up the story. Ruth 4:1-11a.
Boaz is more than willing to do what Ruth and Naomi are asking of him, but there’s a problem. There is one family member closer to Naomi than he is, so that man is the next in line to be the kinsman-redeemer. Now look. Boaz goes and sits at the city gate. That’s where business and legal transactions happen. And the guy who is next up to redeem Elimelech’s land happens to come by. That’s important in the book of Ruth. Things that seem to just “happen.” Ruth goes out to glean from the edges of the fields as poor women often did and “just happened” to be gleaning in a field owned by Boaz, whom she had never met but whom the Bible says was already on Naomi’s mind as a potential redeemer. And she “just happened” to catch his eye. And now the man Boaz needs to talk into giving up his right to redeem Naomi “just happens” to be walking out the city gate while Boaz is there. God in the shadows, working in the background, leading people where he wants them to go. Here at Christ Church we call them God moments.
Unfortunately for Boaz, the guy is more than happy to redeem Elimelech’s land. He’s happy to help Naomi out. More land to farm, more potential for production, a bigger inheritance for his own sons. Elimelech’s property stays in the family, in the clan, and his own legacy is much larger. But there was a catch. A key piece of information that Boaz had intentionally held back. He hadn’t mentioned Ruth. You see, not only was the redeemer going to purchase Elimelech’s land, he was going to marry Ruth and if they had a son, that son would carry on Elimelech’s name. So when the guy agrees to redeem the land, Boaz brings up the land AND Ruth. Whoa. Wait a minute. I didn’t know about that. If I have a son with this Ruth, he won’t carry on my name, he’ll carry the name of Elimelech, and when he comes of age, Elimelech’s land will be his. Plus he’ll be my son, so some of my own land will be his too. That will mean less for the sons I already have. And so he backs out. The cost was too great. The risk was too much.
So now Boaz can step in. And look at the language that’s used here. TEN elders from the town were called as witnesses. They were often called upon to oversee legal and business transactions. We don’t know what a quorum was, but the writer wants us to know specifically that ten elders were witnesses. And then the custom for exchanging the right to redeem is spelled out in detail. And then Boaz spells out exactly what he is obtaining: the land and property of Elimilech and his sons, and the hand of Ruth in marriage. He didn’t actually buy a wife. This was just the way he took upon himself the role of kinsman-redeemer, something Ruth has already asked him to do. And the elders and everyone else watching these events unfold indicate that this is exactly what has happened. A transaction has taken place. An able redeemer stepped forward and then refused. And then an able and willing redeemer stepped forward and paid the price of redemption. He purchased all that belonged to Elimelech and his sons, and he agreed to take Ruth as his wife.
Redemption always involves a cost. Grace, God’s redemption of you and I cost him dearly. It cost him everything. 1 Peter 1:18-19 says “knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” For someone to be redeemed, the debt that person owes must be paid. Jesus Christ paid, with his broken body and shed blood, the steep, steep price for your redemption. This is the transaction of grace.
Now look at Vv. 11b-16. Ruth, the Moabite woman and widow is no longer either. She is Ruth, husband to Boaz, and an Israelite. She is no longer an outsider, no longer a foreigner. She belongs. She is no longer homeless. She has a home. She has been transported from one kingdom to another, not by the act of traveling from Moab to Bethlehem with Naomi, but because of the redeemer’s willingness to redeem her.
St. Paul, in Colossians 1:13, says “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” And St. Paul in Ephesians tells us that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (2:6). In Christ, you are, right now, seated with Christ in the heavenly places, even as you sit here in this sanctuary and listen to me drone on and on and on. Christ’s death has become your death, and his resurrection has become your resurrection, and you are, right now, because of your place in Christ, in his presence even as you walk this earth. Grace transports us from the kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom of light without us ever taking a physical step.
And look at how Naomi was blessed. This son of Ruth and Boaz would carry on Elimelech’s name, and Naomi would raise him! Talk about Naomi being Ruth’s ride or die! The problem all along has been that Naomi is without husband or son, and Ruth is also without husband or son. Now Ruth has a husband and in this one baby, both Naomi and Ruth have a son. Elimelech’s land will stay in the family. And his name, his legacy, will carry on. In fact, Ruth has been more valuable to Naomi than even seven sons could have been. This baby will bring life into her soul again and will care for her in her old age. And HIS NAME would be renowned in Israel. And would it ever. Check this out. Ruth 4:17.
I said that Ruth paints a beautiful picture of grace and that in this picture we see three aspects of grace – the transaction of grace (a price has been paid), the transportation of grace (we have been transferred from darkness to light), and the transformation of grace.
Ruth’s identity has changed. In fact, the people speak a blessing over her asking God to make her as significant in Israel as Leah and Rachel, together the two mothers of Israel, for it was their sons who each became a tribe of Israel. And Tamar was Judah’s tribal mother. The identity and the destiny of this Moabite woman named Ruth have been forever changed by grace. And her son was named Obed. Who had a son named Jesse. Who had a son named David. Ruth became the great grandmother of the great king David. And the line of Ruth and Boaz would continue. Reading now from Matthew 1:5, “and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king …” and skipping down to V. 16, “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” How does a Moabite woman, banned from the presence of God even to the 10th generation, a descendant of those who tried to starve and place a curse on the people of God, wind up being the great grandmother of Israel’s greatest king and the human ancestor of Christ himself? Grace.
You know, it’s difficult for many people to accept that there can be only one way to rescue us from sin and judgement. But Ravi Zacharias uses this analogy to show how the cross of Christ is the one and only solution we need: “Most ailments need particular antidotes. Increasing the air pressure in your tires will not fix a troubled carburetor. Aspirin will not dissolve a tumor. Cutting up credit cards will not wipe out debt that is already owed. If your water pipes are leaking, you call a plumber, not an oncologist, but a plumber will not cure a cancer. Any adequate solution must solve the problem that needs to be solved, and singular problems need singular solutions. Some antidotes are one-of-a-kind cures for one-of-a-kind ailments. Sometimes only one medicine will do the job, as much as we may like it to be otherwise. Mankind faces a singular problem. People are broken and the world is broken because our friendship with God has been broken, ruined by human rebellion. Humans, you and I—are guilty, enslaved, lost, dead. All of us. Everyone. Everywhere. The guilt must be punished, the debt must be paid, the slave must be purchased. Promising better conduct in the future will not mend the crimes of the past. No, a rescuer must ransom the slaves, a kindred brother must pay the family debt, a substitute must shoulder the guilt. There is no other way of escape.[ii] When you say, “Christ is my Redeemer,” you are saying, “He has paid for me a debt that I owed that I could not pay.” In God’s grace there is a transaction. He pays our debt. There is a transportation. He brings us into His Kingdom. And there is a transformation. He makes us His children. Let us pray.
[i] Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods, (FaithWords, 2017)
[ii] Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Zondervan, 2017), pages 131-132