It Just So Happened Back to all sermons
Date: April 12, 2013
Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen
Scripture: Ruth 2
Synopsis: In the Book of Ruth, we find the wonderful truth that God loves to rebuild broken lives. But just how does he do that? In this message from Ruth 2, entitled It Just So Happened, we discover three methods God uses to provide for us as his children and, when necessary, to mend our broken lives. Sometimes we miss seeing God’s hand at work because we don’t know where to look.
We had a good friend in our church in Alaska who specialized in magic. It wasn’t real magic, of course, but illusions and magic tricks. He could pull rabbits out of hats, and coins out of people’s ears, and cut ropes and put them back together again with a wave of his hand. He used his magic to present the Gospel and he was especially popular with children. Of course, his shows always left the audience asking one astonished question: How does he do that?
Today, we are in Ruth chapter 2, and the second of four messages on this little Old Testament book. Last week, the message was entitled: Shattered Dreams and Broken Lives. We followed the story of a woman named Naomi and how her dreams were shattered and her life broken through the deaths of her husband and her two sons. But while the Book of Ruth starts out with tragedy, it is really a very positive and encouraging book, because the overall message is the one we introduced last week: God loves to rebuild broken lives.
But we also pointed out last week that before he will do that, we must get up and return, spiritually, to our Bethlehem, our place of blessing, our spiritual place of closeness and fellowship with God. That’s where we left the story last week. Naomi had returned to Bethlehem along with her daughter-in-law Ruth. She was back in her “house of bread” her place of blessing. But life was still difficult and bitter. Basic physical survival was a challenge. Without husbands to provide for them, how would they live? What would they eat? Life was about as broken as it could get for these two widows.
But chapter 1 ended with a faint glimmer of hope, of light at the end of the tunnel. We are told that they returned “at the beginning of barley harvest.” God was about to take a hand and begin to rebuild their broken lives.
But that brings us to this question: How does he do that? How does God rebuild our broken lives? What tools or methods does he use to provide for us as his children and to rebuild our broken lives? We read Ruth 2 in our Scripture reading a little earlier in the service. As I have studied this chapter, I have identified three methods or agents that God used to rebuild Ruth’s and Naomi’s lives, each one beginning with the letter “P”.
The first way that God provided was through Ruth’s own PERSPIRATION.
Let’s look at verse 2:
And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.” And she said to her, “Go, my daughter.” 3 So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers…
I need to stop here and explain the Old Testament law of gleaning. It was one of the ways God provided for the poor in Israel. It’s described in Leviticus 19:9-10:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
This was God’s law. When they harvested their fields, they were to leave the corners of he field and the grain that fell to the ground for the poor. It didn’t say that you had to gather it up and give it to them. Leave it in the field. Leave the poor with the dignity of work to gather it and provide for themselves. Ruth was taking advantage of God’s means of provision. But the key point I am making is that she took initiative. She didn’t sit at home feeling sorry for herself. She didn’t wait for someone else to show up at her door with a handout. It was barley harvest. There was food to be gathered. She asked for permission to go and gather it.
As the story unfolds, we find that she did not do it half-heartedly. Listen to the testimony of the foreman in the field in verses 5-7.
Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?” 6 And the servant who was in charge of the reapers answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab. 7 She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.’ So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest.”
She stood out for her diligence. And she didn’t stop until the task was complete.Look at verse 17: So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. (An ephah is about 22 liters.)
There is a well known saying that “God helps those who help themselves.” It is actually not found in the Bible. And it is important to understand that in the matter of our salvation before God, it is not true. But in this matter of material provision and the rebuilding of broken lives, there is a great deal of truth in it. Scripture never presents trusting God for our needs as a substitute for good, honest, hard work. Trusting God is not an excuse of doing nothing. God loves us too much to do for us what we are capable of doing for ourselves. God has given us the ability to work and to work diligently. He intends for us to use that ability. It is his normal means of providing for our needs.
This truth is reinforced in the New Testament context in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:
and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, 12 so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
Paul follows this up with further instructions in 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12:
For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
Trusting God is never an excuse for laziness. We are to take the means of provision which are at hand and be diligent in them. So the first means that God will use to begin to provide for us and to rebuild our broken lives is that of our own efforts, our own honest labor, our own perspiration.
The second method or means that God will use is his PROVIDENCE.
Providence is a theological term that has gone out of fashion and been largely overlooked in recent years. Providence refers to God’s sovereign control of all the circumstances of our lives and his managing of those circumstances to fulfill his plan and purposes in our lives.
Providence has been overlooked in recent years because of an emphasis on the miraculous and the supernatural. Now, some of this is just a matter of semantics and terminology. In some common speech, anything God does is called a miracle. But for the sake of clarity, I think it is helpful to reserve the word “miracle” for those acts of God which are contrary to, or a suspension of the laws of nature. They are “super”natural. The laws of nature cannot account for things like Jesus walking on water, calming the storm, feeding 5000 people with five loaves and two fish, or instantaneously healing a blind man. The laws of nature cannot account for many of the things that happened through the ministry of Elijah. Miracles are examples of God working above and beyond nature. Providence is God working through the laws of nature and circumstance to fulfill his purpose and to meet our needs.
Let’s see how God’s providence is displayed in Ruth 2. Look at verse 3: So she set out and went and gleaned in the field after the reapers, and she happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech.
The writer had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he wrote this. It is deliberate irony. He already set us up in the first verse, by giving us some background information and telling us who Boaz was. Now Ruth just “happened to come” to that particular field. The original language actually highlights this by repeating the same root in the noun and the verb. We could translate this “her chance chanced upon the part of the field.”
Keep in mind the setting of farms in the Middle East at that time. People didn’t live in their fields, or build homes on or near their fields. They lived in villages and in the towns. The fields were spread out around the village, and the workers went out to the fields to work in them during the day. That’s why Boaz is described as coming out from Bethlehem to check on the progress of his workers in the field. I say this because there would have been no obvious signs to indicate whose fields were whose, especially for a stranger in the village like Ruth. She simply started working in the first field she came to. “It just so happened to belong to Boaz.” That’s a great example of God’s providence at work.
Maybe you have had some “it just so happened” experiences in your life; times when a seemingly random and insignificant meeting or circumstance became a turning point in your life.
It was in April, 23 years ago this month that I made a seemingly random decision. We were living in California where I was working at a counseling center for missionaries and pastors. But I was getting restless. My life felt kind of broken at that stage. I wasn’t doing what I really loved to do. I saw an invitation to a conference in Pasadena for people who worked in “member care” from different mission organizations. I’d seen these invitations before. I’d never attended one. On the spur of the minute, I decided, “Why not?” So I got my boss’s permission and I registered to go to the conference.
It’s a 4-hour drive from Fresno to Pasadena. I remember thinking on the drive, “Why am I doing this?” When I got to the conference, I walked in to register. The very first person I saw was a good friend from our time in Nairobi. I hadn’t seen him for 4 years. I didn’t know he was coming to the conference. But there he was! We had a great reunion and a time of catching up. He asked me what we were doing and I told him, but also told him about my restlessness and desire to move into a different kind of ministry; one that was overseas in an international setting, one that involved opportunities for preaching. He listened. He affirmed my search. But that was all he said.
The conference ended. It was nothing remarkable. The high point was meeting my friend Ken. He went home. I went home. A couple days later, I got a phone call from Ken. He said, “I’ve just been talking to a colleague who used to pastor a church in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates. He told me that there is a church in Abu Dhabi that is looking for a pastor. It sounds like it might be a good fit for you. Here is his phone number if you want to give him a call.”
Four months later, in August, 1990, we arrived in Abu Dhabi.
I have sometimes thought back to that “chance” meeting. At least it was “chance” as far as my planning went. What if I hadn’t decided to go? I’d never gone to one of these conferences before. I made the decision rather casually. I don’t even remember praying about it. But what was a “chance” on my part, was not “chance” in God’s providence. God is in control of our circumstances. God guides the seemingly random and insignificant details of our lives. We never know when some random choice or small detail may become God’s means of providing for our needs, or guiding the course of our lives, or very deliberately rebuilding our broken lives.
We might ask: Was it a miracle that Ruth chose that particular field? No. No laws of nature were suspended or set aside. Ruth was not carried to that field on angel’s wings, defying the laws of gravity. She simply went, walked on her own two feet and “randomly” chose a field to start gleaning. There was no miracle involved. But was God involved? Absolutely. God is sovereignly involved in every detail of our lives. There are no accidents and no details outside of his control.
There is an expression that I sometimes hear among Christians. I don’t know where it originated, but I like it. It’s the expression, “It was a God-thing,” used to describe something that we ascribe to the working of God in our lives. I like that. It is a way of pointing at something and saying, “God did that.” A miracle is a “God-thing.” We all recognize that and celebrate. But here is my point today. Providence is a “God-thing” too!
Miracles are wonderful things. But they are, by definition, not the norm. They are not God’s usual means of working. He does do miracles as and when it suits his purpose, but far more commonly God meets our needs and rebuilds our broken lives through his providence; his divine control over the everyday, normal details of life; the “it just so happened” circumstances of life which we don’t control but he does.
God is at work through his providence even when we don’t know he is working. The thing about God’s providence is that it is best viewed “backwards”. In other words, we can see God’s hand of providence best when we look back at life, and we can see how different, seemingly insignificant choices and circumstances have been woven together to lead us and to bless us. When we look back, we can identify his hand of providence and celebrate and say, “That was a God-thing.”
Perspiration: Work hard. Do what is in front of you to do and do it well. Providence: Trust God and his sovereign control over all the details of life. Trust in him to do what only he can do. And when you see his hand, celebrate it.
What is the third “P” God uses to rebuild our broken lives?
The third thing God uses is PEOPLE.
God uses faithful, generous people who go out of their way to meet the needs of others and to meet our needs. We find such a person in this story in the person of Boaz. The name Boaz is somewhat uncertain in meaning, but best interpretation efforts relate it to speed and strength. He is described in verse one as a “worthy man”. But that doesn’t quite capture the meaning. He was a “mighty man”, a man of influence and wealth and status; a “great” man. But one of the primary ways that Hebrew narrative literature reveals a man’s character is through his words and his actions. In both these ways, Boaz is revealed as a man of worthy character.
In verses 8-9 we read:
Then Boaz said to Ruth, “Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. 9 Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn.”
There is a strong element of protectiveness in his words. And lest you think these were unnecessary, read through the last couple chapters of the Book of Judges and see just how lawless and dangerous the society had become. A young woman alone in the fields was truly at risk. But Boaz’s kindness here goes beyond mere protection.
Let’s read verses 13-16:
Then she said, “I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants.” 14 And at mealtime Boaz said to her, “Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine.” So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over. 15 When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. 16 And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.”
We see that Boaz went far beyond the requirement of the Law in his generosity and care for her. And he is careful of her feelings as well as her physical needs. Many, many times God comes to our aid by sending people into our lives; people who reach out and kindly minister God’s love to us; people who become God’s agents in rebuilding the broken places in our lives. Boaz is God at work. Can we say it? Boaz is also a “God-thing.”
I would also like to point out that in Ruth and Naomi, we have an example of the right way to respond when God uses people in our lives to meet our needs. Look at verse 10: Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, “Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?”
Then, let’s read from verses 19-20:
And her mother-in-law said to her, “Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you.” So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, “The man’s name with whom I worked today is Boaz.” 20 And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, “May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!”
There are two elements in their response. They recognized and were appropriately grateful for the kindness of the people involved. But they also recognized the hand of God. Naomi particularly in verse 20 expresses blessing on Boaz while at the same time recognized that his kindness to Ruth was a kindness that came from the Lord himself. She is able to see God’s hand and rejoice: God has not forgotten us after all!
This is an important balance; thankfulness toward the human agent while also recognizing God as the ultimate source of the blessings. I think, too often, we tend to put a kind of distinction in our minds between what people do for us and what God does for us. We might say, “People have been very kind, but where is God?” We fail to recognize that God is in the people. They are his agents, expressing his love.
I would like to suggest two applications at this point.
The first one is to let God use people in your life to meet your needs and to bind up the broken places. Recognize God’s hand, but let God use people. Some Christians aren’t very good receivers. They are too proud, too self-sufficient. Ruth was a hard worker. But she was also a grateful recipient of the provision God made for her through Boaz.
The second application is to let God use you in the lives of others. When God has blessed you financially, be willing to play the role of generous Boaz in the lives of others. Be sensitive as Boaz as was to physical needs. But all of our needs are not physical. Be sensitive as well to emotional needs; to the need to protect and to preserve human dignity and self-respect. Above all, simply be alert to the opportunities God may give you to be his hand of kindness and provision in the life o f another.
Let’s come back to one of the key verses in this chapter and in this book. We looked at it last week, but so far we have kind of skirted around it today. It is found in Boaz’s words to Ruth in verse 12: The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
Ruth, the young woman from Moab has come to seek the protection of the God of Israel; the outsider has come “inside” to seek God and his help in rebuilding her broken life. God loves to rebuild broken lives. But how does he do that? Sometimes we miss his provision because we don’t know what to look for.
Remember these three “P’s” for three principal means God uses. Perspiration: our own effort and initiative to do what we can. Providence: God’s sovereign control over all the seemingly incidental circumstances of our lives. People: gracious, generous, Spirit-empowered people whom he brings into our lives to be agents of his grace and his love to us.
These are the means that God uses. But let us never forget that God is the hand behind it all. These are all “God-things.”
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Read Ruth 2 together.
- “God helps those who help themselves.” Do you agree or disagree and why? How does this story illustrate the principle?
- What principles do you see in God’s “law of gleaning” (Leviticus 19:9-10)? How might these principles relate to the work of NGO’s and Christian charities today?
- Share an “it just so happened” experience from your life (an experience in which a seemingly random decision or circumstance had major effect on your life).
- Discuss the theology of God’s providence. Why is it important? Do you agree that it has been neglected in recent years and if so, why? What effects does a strong theology of God’s providence have in our reaction to life circumstances?
- Name a person or persons and share how God has used them in your life to provide for your needs or to help rebuild your life.
- How has God used you as his hand of blessing in the life of someone else?
- What is your reaction to the expression, “It was a God-thing”? Why is it important to recognize God’s hand of blessing in our lives (even when he uses intermediate methods or means)?