Surprised by Joy

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Ruth 2

God has a habit of surprising us in the most exciting and delightful ways. When we least expect it, in our darkest moments, he will surprise us by sending us joy.

C.S. Lewis, the twentieth century’s best known Christian writer, entitled his autobiography Surprised by Joy. The book primarily tells the story of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity as a young Oxford professor in the 1920s. But much later in his life, joy of a different kind came to C. S. Lewis. This life-long, confirmed bachelor fell in love with an American woman named Joy Davidman, who, like Lewis, was both a Christian and a writer. Their marriage gave rise to a joke that made the rounds of Oxford and Cambridge wits: “Have you heard about Lewis? He’s been surprised by Joy!” C. S. Lewis himself described his new experience rather differently, “I never dreamed,” he said, “that the happiness which passed me by in my twenties would come to me in my sixties.”

The Turning Point

I think of that when I read the book of Ruth. Perhaps you’re familiar with the story. Naomi has returned to Bethlehem in Judah following a more than ten-year stay in the land of Moab. It is a bitter homecoming for the old woman, for Naomi left with a husband and two sons, and she returns, bereaved and broken hearted, accompanied only by her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth.

For Ruth the situation is even bleaker. She is both a widow and a foreigner in a strange land with no one to help or protect her. Against all expectations Ruth has chosen to cast her lot with Naomi and Naomi’s God, but she has no assurance that she will be accepted by Naomi’s people. The only certainty in Ruth’s life is her unswerving love for her mother-in-law; her only hope for the future rests upon her bold decision to cut loose from her old life and commit herself to the care and keeping of the God of Israel. Will Ruth’s faith prove to be justified?

As the two defenseless widows arrive, we learn that it is harvest time in Bethlehem the barley stands golden in the fields around the town. In fact, the first hint in the biblical text that things are about to change for the better for Naomi and Ruth is this line at the very end of chapter 1: “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest” (Ruth 1:22). A second hint comes immediately after in the opening verse of chapter 2: “Now Naomi had a relative of her husband’s, a worthy man of the clan of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.”

We don’t know who wrote the book of Ruth, but this moment in the story is a good example of the author’s genius. Notice the contrast between what we the readers know and what the characters in the story know. At this instant Naomi’s bitterness is at its greatest, and Ruth’s fears are at their highest. But this is also the moment from which nothing but happiness will follow. We can see it coming because we are outside the story and know how it all ends. But Naomi and Ruth and Boaz have no idea what is about to happen to them.

I think the same thing is true for each of us. We are still living inside the story of our own lives, and as a result we lack the perspective to judge them accurately. It may be that, like Naomi, we feel overwhelmed with misery because of past sorrows and present troubles at the very moment when in fact we are on the verge of receiving God’s choicest blessings. “I went away full, but now I am empty, the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me” (1:21), cried Naomi, even as the Lord was preparing to fill her life with joy once more, and restore her family and her future through Ruth and Boaz. Be sure you don’t make a final judgment about how sweet or bitter your life story is until you see how it ends.

So the turning point in Naomi and Ruth’s story comes with the introduction of this new character, Boaz. In a few brief words and phrases the Bible sketches the qualities of this altogether admirable man. He is “a worthy man,” we’re told, not only in the sense that he has many virtues, but in the literal sense that he is worth a lot. Boaz is loaded! But his wealth has made him neither arrogant, nor insensitive, nor ungodly. Instead Boaz is devout, compassionate, courteous and generous.

An Extraordinary Day

With the introduction of Boaz the stage is set for our story’s action to unfold. The critical events on which the book of Ruth hinges take place over the course of one eventful day (Ruth 2:2 – 4:12). Since it is harvest time, Ruth suggests to Naomi that she should go out to glean in the fields (2:2). In the Torah, the Law, God gave careful instructions to all landowners about the matter of gleaning in their fields and vineyards. We read in the book of Leviticus,

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. And you shall not strip your vineyards 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. (Leviticus 19:9-10)

Significantly, this command comes just a few verses before God says in Leviticus 19, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (v. 18). That’s right. That comes from Leviticus. You thought maybe Leviticus was just about a bunch of arcane Jewish rituals?

Now the provision for gleaning in the Law of God was the Old Testament equivalent of our welfare system. Both these things reflect the Lord’s demand that we love our neighbors in very practical ways, that we care about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, the strangers and sojourners in our midst – people like refugees, illegal immigrants, single mothers.

I learned just recently that Americans spend more money each year on lawn care than the whole country of India, with its one billion people, generates in tax revenues. Do we care about the enormous imbalance between the rich and poor in our world, in our own society? We may be certain that God does care, and his response is to insist that those who have much share with those who have little.

So Ruth and Naomi won’t starve. But neither will they sit around waiting for someone to give them a handout. Ruth is young, healthy and strong. She can take advantage of the Lord’s provision for people in their circumstances by spending all day gleaning in the fields around Bethlehem. And Ruth chapter 2 is the account of just such a day, one very eventful day that will have astonishing consequences, not only for Ruth and Naomi, but ultimately for the entire human race.

It begins with an apparently chance encounter. Listen to the story.

[Ruth] 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.

And behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem. And he said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you!” And they answered, “The Lord bless you.”

Then Boaz said to his young man who was in charge of the reapers, “Whose young woman is this?”

And the servant . . . answered, “She is the young Moabite woman, who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.”

Ruth 2:3-6

Notice the remarkable string of coincidences that begins to unfold here. Ruth, hard at work picking up the stray stalks of grain which the reapers happened to miss, happens to come to Boaz’s field, who just then happens to walk out from town to check on his field crew. And while Boaz is talking to his men, he happens to notice Ruth at work, and learns that she happens to be related to him by marriage. What a lot of happenstance!

But of course, none of it is, not really. The story of Ruth, like the story of the whole Bible, is meant to underscore for us the truth that nothing happens to us just by chance. We are not simply objects bounced around by the forces of blind fate. Behind the seemingly random events of our day-to-day lives is the hand of a personal God who is personally guarding and caring for us. What seems like accident or chance is actually providence, the goodness of our heavenly Father who is working out his plan to save us and bless us. The Lord brought Boaz and Ruth together that day in order to bless them, and ultimately, to bless us through them.

Blessing is what Boaz talks to Ruth about. He already knows all about her, and he commends her to God’s grace.

All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. 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 2:11-12

What Boaz does not yet realize is that he himself will be the answer to his own prayer for the Lord to bless and reward Ruth. And in doing that, Boaz himself is going to be surprised by joy in an astonishing way. But to learn how all this happens, we need to know how their story ends. So stay tuned.