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Walking Into the Purposes of God


The first words of the Bible tell us that this universe of which we're a part belongs to a God of purpose: "In the beginning. God created." Shortly thereafter we are told in a succession of statements "And God said this is what I want, and he spoke it into being, and it was so." And from those very first words of the Bible to the very last pages, the theme of God's unfolding purpose is stated. There's the counter-theme of sin and rebellion, as you know so very well. But even this does not thwart God's purpose.

God says, "I'll accomplish my purpose through Abraham," and he called Abraham, and Abraham said, "I'm ready." He said, "I'll accomplish my purpose through a nation," and he gave Moses his instructions and laid before the people a covenant. Then came the kingdom and the climax in the great King David through whom God was accomplishing his purpose. Beyond that there is the succession of prophets who repeatedly called the people back to God's purposes. And toward the close there is the fact that one or two of the prophets begin to talk not about the people of God but about the remnant of the people of God—that small knot of people who are willing to be loyal to the purposes of God.

Then the book closes, and there's a lapse period, and then the second division of the book opens and we discover that God's purpose has been narrowed down to one person who is absolutely and completely obedient. His name is Jesus the Christ. So when I think of the Old Testament, I think of a cone that closes down to a point, and then from that point begins to open up again as it begins to embrace nations and peoples and tribes and kingdoms until we have the closing book of the Bible, which tells us that in that world which we now cannot see but can be a part of, there will be people from every tribe and nation and kingdom and ethnic group from all over the world. All of these have become a part of God's great unfolding purpose.

Now that's a very sketchy statement about what the Bible is all about, but its dominant theme that God is a God of infinite intelligence and infinite power, so that all that he can conceive of he can do, and with that, he's a God of infinite love so that even when people go away from his purpose, his love keeps reaching toward them.

Now for a subtheme. It's a subtheme that isn't very often explored, but that's the theme we're looking at this morning. And I'm calling it "Walking into the Purposes of God" because it represents God's purpose as sort of a great shaft of light that cuts down through his world, and you have people sometimes who don't begin at the very center of it as did, say, the sons of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but people who come from the fringes and find themselves walking into God's purpose. There are other cases, which I can't deal with, where there are people who walk out of God's purpose. But this morning we are confronted with a situation where a woman actually came from outside the chosen people, and by attitudes that she herself expressed, this foreign woman, for she calls herself a foreign woman, (Ruth) walked into the purposes of God. The story is not a fairy tale, it doesn't have that kind of tone to it. It's not a Harlequin novel in which everything ultimately comes out in sweetness and light. No. It's a gritty slice of life. It has in it some of the indigestible characteristics. Some of the absurd. Some of the difficulties. That's the way the Bible is. It's a book of tremendous reality. But out of this gritty slice of life, with hurts and fears and disappointments, there nevertheless is woven some understanding of God's matchless purpose touching that life. And through all of the hard times bringing goodness to pass. And that's what I'm going to talk about this morning.

God unfolds his purposes even in the darkest of times

First of all, here's a story about God's purpose in the darkest of times. Now I have to go back and weave it together a bit. Let's start with this woman called Naomi. Talk about adversity. Talk about a person for whom things have gone wrong. Here she and Elimelech were down in Bethlehem and famine came to the land, and it was so severe that they had to leave the property they owned and cross down into the valley of the Jordan and up on the other side and move down along the eastern side of the Dead Sea until they were in a different culture, amongst a different people, speaking a different language, and here they had to reestablish themselves.

You and I have a hard time understanding that because as soon as we're finished we'll go home and have beef steak and many other wonderful things and we'll turn up the thermostat if it's a bit cold, and we'll live with the sense that we're always going to be here. At least indefinitely. But how would you like it if circumstances in Houghton today were such that we were busily engaged in nailing up our windows, boarding up our windows, getting ready to turn the thermostat down and get in the car and head for somewhere distant where the culture is different and situations are harder? That's the way it was with Naomi and Elimelech. Then they get into Moab and what should happen but Elimelech dies. That's double trouble. Now Naomi is a widow in a strange land. But her sons have done what you'd expect. They have found young women in this culture that appeal to them, and they've married them. But over the course of about 10 years, what should happen but she loses her two sons, too. Kilion and Mahlon die. So now she s got two daughters-in-law who are not of her culture. They have their little struggles in talking the language because she speaks Hebrew and they speak something else.

So finally the day comes when Naomi says, "Well really there's not much point in my staying here. I've buried my sons in foreign soil. I've buried my husband in foreign soil. The word comes to me that things are a bit better back in Bethlehem. The only thing I know to do is to start back." And she tells her daughters-in-law and they do the culturally accepted thing. They walk with her out on the road. They're going with her. We're not sure of that because in this kind of culture people don't always say what they intend in the clearest language. They may have been promising to go, but there has to be a test whether they really mean it or not. And out on the road comes the test. That's Naomi's adversity.

Now what about Ruth? She's a young Moabite woman who now has to think about leaving her parents. At least if she goes with her mother-in-law she does. And that means now she has to become a DP, a displaced person. She has to leave the culture and the sounds and the odors and all the things that make life pleasant and take her chances in a country she's never visited before. She's lost her husband. She's a young widow. Let me tell you what that would mean. One, it would mean either she would lock herself into the seclusion of her parents' home and that would be it for the rest of life. If some of you have traveled in villages in the Middle East, you know that still a woman's life and particularly a woman who doesn't have a husband can be little more than a vegetable existence, living out of sight and out of mind, just eeking it out. Her second option might be to marry again, but remember in that culture the wife is the property of her husband, and now she's damaged property. She's had a husband. She can't bring the kind of value that she would have earlier, and therefore she might be married off to some second-grade or third-grade person and live out a very despicable existence. Or the third and most likely possibility is that she would become a woman of the street, a prostitute. So what future is there in that? Talk about adversity.

Orpah and Ruth demonstrate two levels of commitment

Here's Naomi with her problem, here's Ruth with hers, and Orpah with her problems. And life is rough. Now all of this is background for the scene on the roadside where Naomi says, "Look, my daughters, I know we love each other. I can't tell you how much I've appreciated your loyalty, but there's no future for you in Bethlehem. Your chances of getting a husband there are slight. If you think you can follow the procedures that we follow in our culture and wait until I should have another son you could marry, remember I'm not married and even if I should marry today and immediately conceive you'd have to wait half your lifetime before you could marry. You'd better go back." They say, "No, we don t want to go back." But she entreats them, and finally Orpah says "All right." Orpah really is devoted to her, but it's what I think we would call a conventional devotion—it lacks depth, lacks richness.

So Orpah goes back and then the two of them are on the roadside and Naomi says, "Now look, Ruth, dear. You should go back too." And after she has entreated her a certain length of time, the entreaty actually releases something in Ruth and she says, "Mother, do not entreat me to leave you. Don't ask me once again. I'll tell you the truth. I'm going with you. Where you live I'm going to live. I'm going to have your people as my people. I'm going to take your God. I've seen something of the God of Israel in your life, and he's going to be my God. In fact, where you die I will die and I'll be buried there. I'll never come back to this place as much as I love it. My commitment to you, mother dear, is complete; it's rich, it's full."

I have to say on the side that this kind of commitment is a beautiful thing wherever you see it. There's a wild kind of commitment, a wild kind of abandonment where people say, "Look, I'll take my chances with drugs, and if they blow my mind, that's my problem. Forget about it." But that's more in the nature of gambling. This is a calculated commitment. This is a woman who sees the implications. It has to do with religion. It has to do with family. It has to do with future. And something in this beautiful young woman simply explodes with commitment as she makes this statement to her mother and says, "Mother, I'm going with you. I'm going to die with you. I hope God will deal with me severely if anything less than death should ever separate us." It's a beautiful thing.

God looks after those who choose to walk in his purposes

Well, there's one more note of adversity that I have to add before we can move on, and that is that when you look in your copy of the Bible you'll discover that Judges and Ruth are together, that is Judges is followed by the story of Ruth. And there's a reason for that, and this is it: The period of the Judges tells us about one of the darkest times in Israel's history. When as we're told repeatedly, "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." It was a do-your-own-thing period of history. And of course you know what the consequence is when everyone does what is right in his own eyes: Shoplifting increases, rape increases, crimes of violence increase. It was a dangerous time to be alive, and if you read the story of Judges, you'll discover that's the case. And yet the book of Ruth is really a slice of history that fits right into the Judges because it's the same period in history, and what it is here to tell us is that God is at work in the darkest times.

And suddenly we get a glimpse as this story unfolds that here while people are killing and fighting and getting in trouble and having to be rescued, here are two or three families who are living for God and living in piety and seeing God's purposes work themselves out in life. But for the moment it's not easy because when Ruth goes back to Bethlehem where everyone does what is right in his own eyes, she knows that it's not going to be safe for her on the streets at night. She knows that if she does any farm work, her life is at risk. It's not the best of possible times, and yet what the Bible is trying to tell us is: Don't sell God short in the dark times, because God's purposes can't be thwarted even by the sinfulness of man. And so here is a story of the purpose of God working itself out in the darkest of times.

Besides that, here's a story about God's purposes in the most unplanned of circumstances. When they get back to Bethlehem it says the harvest, the barley harvest, is about to begin and the people see these two women coming down the road and they see this older woman, her face more lined now with the veil pulled up over her head and they say to one another, "Who is this?" And someone says, "It surely looks like Naomi." And finally they begin to accost her as she enters the village of two or three hundred people and they say, "Are you Naomi?" "Oh,' she says, "Don't call me that. Naomi means pleasant. Call me Mara from now on. I tell you, I'm a bitter woman. Life hasn't gone well for me. Everything's gone against me. Seems like God's sort of made me a special test case. He's put me through it, I tell you. I'm just a bitter person.' You see how frank the Bible is? It doesn't judge her for being bitter. Later on the Scriptures talk to us about the bad things that happen when we're bitter, but it simply says she's bitter. This is the way life has brought her out.

But Ruth is of a different stamp. We're told immediately after that, that almost as soon as Ruth gets there, before she really knows the ways of the land or knows any of the people, she says to her mother, "I'm going to go out, I'm going to do some gleaning." Of course that means I'm going to do the lowliest thing a woman can do. She could have stood on her reputation. She could have stood on her relationship. She could have said "Where's the government office that's going to look after me?" But she didn't. She said, "I'm going to go out and glean." If you think of the most menial things we have people do in our society, that's where Ruth's gleaning would be. Here are the men who are harvesting. Here are the women who are coming along behind them picking up and making into sheaves the grain. And then along behind comes this widow, this woman from another country, this foreigner, this person who has no status. Wherever the girls drop some, she picks them up and puts them into her big apron.

But it says just about the time she begins this gleaning along comes the boss, the head man, the owner, and his name is Boaz. I think of him as a jolly sort of fellow, a little on the rotund side, but a man of high caliber and high reputation, and he looks around and says, "Hey, who's this?" And they give a little description and then he goes to her and says, "Look, young lady, I want you to stay right here behind my harvesters. Don't go to any other fields. If you're thirsty go get a drink." During the mealtime he calls her over and says, "Look, dip your bread in our vinegar here."

Later on he tells why he does this. He says, "You know, Ruth, the whole town's talking about the way you've treated your mother-in-law. We're pretty proud of you actually.' That's an amazing thing again. You see there's a way of talking about the grace of God so that we have to make everybody wretched so that God can save them, so we have to almost discredit any kind of goodness in human conduct. But the Bible doesn't give us that treatment. It says, here is a beautiful young woman. In fact, they read this story during the feast of weeks at the close of harvest once a year in Israel. Tell the world about Ruth! One good reason for it: People of faith need models.

In our own times we need models. We need to take a look at a person like this and say, "Well imagine that. She's good to her mother-in-law, and people notice it." Finally Boaz says, "I've heard about the way you've treated your mother-in-law. You've certainly been kind to her." And then of course he helps her so she has a little more than she would have normally gleaned, and it says she goes home and eats what she needs, and then says to Naomi her mother-in-law, "Mother dear, would you like the rest? Here it is. I want you to have it." She could very easily have said, "Look I'm at the bottom of the ladder. I may not do as well tomorrow. I better stash this away in the pantry." But she didn't. A generous woman. An energetic woman. A good woman. And of course you know how the story comes out.

Well, before we get to that, notice how the writer tells us about that. It says that she went out from Bethlehem—and if you've been to Bethlehem you know about Boaz' field way down below. She could have chosen a dozen or two or three dozen fields to glean in, but it says she "happened" to glean in the field of Boaz. The Jerusalem Bible says "she chanced." Imagine that. Lady luck is on her side. But of course you and I know that isn't what's being said here. You and I know that as the writer writes this, and he says she "just chanced" to land in the field of Boaz, as he does it he winks. He's saying "You know that's not the truth, and I know that's not the truth because we're living in a world where God is in charge." And people who say "Your God is going to be my God" then come under his protection and he does all kinds of wonderful things. We call them providences—to look after the needs of his people.

And so here in the most unplanned of circumstances, she lands in the field of Boaz. Boaz befriends her and later marries her. You know how the story unfolds so I'll not go through that. But there's a powerful point here that the twentieth century needs. It's that the ordinary events of life can have a sacred meaning which only time itself can reveal. But, the ordinary events are caught up into God's purposes by our deep commitments.

The degree of our commitment determines whether we walk into or out of God's purposes

By our commitments, we walk into God's purposes. Or by our refusal to be committed, we may walk out of God's purposes. There was a fellow once who climbed up into a tree. Jesus said, "Come on down." He walked into God's purposes. Another fellow came running to him on the road and said, "Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said, "It's going to take everything you've got because you really love your things too much." And he got up from where he was kneeling and brushed the dust from his robe and turned around and it says he walked away sorrowful because he had great possessions. The issue of commitment caused him to walk away from God's purposes. Perhaps if he hadn't, if he had committed himself, if he'd taken the opposite attitude, we might have five accounts of the gospel today. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Rich Young Ruler—who knows? But you see there are purposes of God working themselves out in our lives all the time, and sometimes it takes ten years to see all that happened. But the degree of our commitment determines whether we actually walk into those purposes or whether we walk out of them.

Just about 100 miles from here, there's a woman who is in her middle to late 80s whose name is Norma. She's in a nursing home. She has had a stroke, and she's not at all well. More than 60 years ago she went from Ontario out to a city called Regina in Saskatchewan. In Regina her sister persuaded her to stay and go to normal school there and study to be a teacher. Because her sister was so lonely she stayed. She went to normal school and then got a job teaching in a little place called Mount Green. You've never heard of it. I scarcely have. Just a rural community of farm people, and there it "chanced" that she boarded in the home of devout Christian people. In this case they were Free Methodists, but they could have been Baptist or Wesleyan or many other groups. They were devout. They lived their faith.

After two years, she left there and married and went up to a place called Coming, where she began to live out her married life, but she experienced out there in the vast prairie such a desperate loneliness. And she had been so touched by what she had seen in the Free Methodist family that she said to the Lord, "Lord, if I'm ever again in a place where there's a Free Methodist church I'll look it up and I'll go there.' Remember she's not a Christian. No background of that sort. Well I must tell you that her husband died. He died after surgery. By then she had six children. She was four months from giving birth to the seventh child. There she was out in the prairies in depression time. Talk about adversity. On a mortgaged farm.

She stayed for a year and then a brother in Niagara Falls said "I'll look after you" and brought her down to Niagara Falls. There she began searching. I hate to tell you that the Free Methodist Church wasn't even listed in the daily paper so she had a hard time finding it. But eventually she did, carrying out a vow she'd made years earlier. And then the brother died. And that widow raised those seven children by faith, by the faith she had discovered, by the support of God's people, by the grace and goodness of God. See, the reason that's important to me is that the fourth child is my wife. And if she had not made that pledge out there and then carried it through, my life would be different. She walked into the purposes of God, and the purposes of God as they touch my life are different because of it. In fact, just a week ago today I sat in church—here is my wife beside me, elsewhere in the church is my son, and his son. Elsewhere in the church is my daughter and her son, and all of us are cashing in on the way one person in a time of adversity and loneliness made a kind of pledge that caused her to walk into the purposes of God.


Now, you see, I'm looking into the faces of several hundred, perhaps as many as a thousand people this morning, and I recognize this God of infinite intelligence and infinite power and infinite love has purposes that shine through this world like a shaft and those purposes would involve every one of us. But there's this issue of commitment. Will it be like Orpah—conventional? "I'd like to go with you mother, I think it's a good idea." But when mother says, "No, you'd better go back; there's no future for you there." She says, "All right then, if that's what you want, I'll go back." It's a kind of commitment that's sort of at the surface of things. It never touches the gutty issues of life.

Or is it a commitment like Ruth who catches a picture of her God and God's people and for her mother-in-law whom she loves and says, "Mother, don't entreat me to go back. I'm going with you. Where you go, I'll go. Where you stop, I will stop. Where you live, I will live. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. In fact, I'm going to die where you die, and may God deal severely with me if anything but death should ever separate us.' That's the kind of commitment that puts vigor into life. That makes life exciting and beautiful even in the face of adversity. But it's a kind of commitment that can't be cajoled. It can't be forced. It can't be coerced. Something inside us has to see God's great purpose in Jesus Christ and has to say, "Oh God, your Son will be my savior. Your cause will be my cause. My future will be what you want my future to be. I'll go where you want me to go. I will stay where you want me to stay. I'll be the kind of person you want me to be."

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

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Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

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Sermon Outline:


I. God unfolds his purposes even in the darkest of times

II. Orpah and Ruth demonstrate two levels of commitment

III. God looks after those who choose to walk in his purposes

IV. The degree of our commitment determines whether we walk into or out of God's purposes