Her sermon on “How ordinary stories become extraordinary with God” took as its text the first chapter of the Book of Ruth
HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT THE GENRE OF THE BIBLE?
In the Bible we learn how to live – and we learn about the character of God, and about the things His people did down through history.
So what are the ways that these kinds of messages could have been written? They could have been written as a list of dates recorded next to things that happened. It could have been a very long list of rules or recommendations. Or ot could have included lots of speeches, and great lists of instructions.
In fact, the most common form of writing in the Bible is STORY. The Bible is full of all sorts of different types of story. There are parables, poems, and songs, there are historical accounts of things that happened, and there are fictional stories – all of which teach us about God. God uses stories because we can relate to them. They are more interesting and exiting to listen to, and they often have characters which we can understand – people who might be a bit like us. Often the stories in the bible are of people who actually seem quite ordinary.
One of the most amazing things about all of these stories in the Bible is that they are woven together to form a much BIGGER story. God’s BIG story is the whole narrative of the Bible from the creation of the world, right through to Revelation. In fact it’s a story that is still being written.
So what is God’s big narrative? In Genesis we read a story which explains to us the creation of the world, and man’s decision to not follow God. This is shown to us through the story of the fall of man when Adam eats the apple in the garden of Eden. After this story in Genesis, we see throughout the Bible the story of God working in relationship with his people to bring about his kingdom on earth. God is renewing our world, one story at a time.
I’ve come to the conclusion therefore that God is a big fan of stories.
The Bible is not just a book which we leave next to our bed and pick up when we want to read it. It is not just a set of teachings and rules to live by. When we read the Bible, we realise that it is made up of lots of different stories of ordinary people who are trying their best (or sometimes not trying at all!) to live out their life by following God. It is these ordinary stories which actually shape and create the narrative of the big story. It means that WE are a part of making God’s big story. In John 1, verse 14, we read, ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’. This is not an abstract word, a guide in how to live, or a set of rules. This is the ‘Word made flesh’, a collection of real stories, stories of ordinary people who God has made, who God loves, and who God wants to work with to bring about his BIG story. The story in which he reveals himself on earth. That’s pretty amazing isn’t it?
RUTH: A FAIRLY ORDINARY STORY BECOMES EXTRAORDINARY
Most of the time the stories in the bible are about very ordinary people. That’s a bit of a relief to me! So I want us to have a think about the story of someone fairly ordinary in the bible. This is the story of Ruth which we have just listened to.
Now, just to go back a little and make sure we’ve understood the stor. Naomi was a woman from Bethlehem who had to flee to Moab with her husband. When they were in Moab, her two sons married two girls from Moab. One of these girls was Ruth. In the story, all the men in the family died, leaving Naomi, Ruth and her sister in law Orpah. We get the impression in the story that Naomi probably wasn’t much fun as a mother-in-law. She’d had a hard time and she was left feeling quite better. Anyone who refers to themselves as ‘bitter’ is probably not someone you want to be best mates with.
Naomi heard that the lord was providing ‘aid’ (or food) for the people of Bethlehem so she wanted to go back and take her daughters in law with her. However, she does something rather unusual. After they’d set off she stops and asks both of the girls to go back, saying ‘there will be nothing for you in Bethlehem’. Now Naomi was right, if the girls went with Naomi they would be foreigners and life would be very difficult for them. We see today how hostile some people can be about those who are ‘foreigners’ in this country. Back then, it was an even bigger issue. The young women would have no family support, no guarantee of marriage or friendship. They would be choosing to live a difficult life of poverty and alienation.
At this point in the story, you might think: “Phew! Ruth and Orpah have finally got rid of this slightly difficult woman and they can go back to their own people. Thank you God!”
But Ruth does something rather surprising. It says in verse 14, ‘Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye, but Ruth clung to her’. At this point we should be thinking: “What?!! This is your moment to escape! Go on, go back!” But Rutch doesn’t. Naomi says again, ‘Go back’. But Ruth refuses, ‘don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.’
There are three things I want us to notice about Ruth. Firstly, Ruth knows the heart of God and was obedient to it. Secondly, Ruth is brave, and finally, Ruth acts with great humility.
So the first point. Ruth’s decision to accompany Naomi did not benefit Ruth in any way. But she wanted to go to accompany her elderly mother-in-law. She wanted to look after her, and not abandon her. This was a remarkable act and showed that she recognised this is God’s heart-to accompany, to come alongside, to remain with us. Ruth was obedient to the will of God. Knowing that it would be good to do something (which I referred to earlier as knowing the heart of God) doesn’t always lead to obedience. But Ruth chooses to be obedient. She does not want to leave Naomi alone. She is loyal to her family.
Secondly, Ruth is brave and demonstrates great faithfulness. As I mentioned earlier, being a foreigner in Moab would have been a very difficult thing. She would have no support, and no family. We know that she was poor. Despite all this she was faithful. She was prepared to live wherever Naomi wanted to be in order to support her.
Finally, Ruth was humble. She was prepared to give up everything that she had in her home and come and work in the fields in Bethlehem. Ruth did not tell people about the sacrifices she had made, but she chose to walk humbly with God for the sake of Naomi. She had the option not to, but she chose to anyway.
Now why am I telling you about this particular story? I’m telling it because something rather extraordinary happens at the end. We heard in the second part of the reading that Boaz sees Ruth’s noble and humble actions and chooses to marry her. Through this marriage, Ruth actually enters the genealogical line of Christ. Now we question genealogies and family lines, but what this story demonstrates is that ordinary Ruth from Moab chooses to act out of obedience, bravery and humility in accordance with what she understood to be the desire of God’s heart, and her ordinary story comes into direct line with God’s big narrative of the whole bible.
We read in chapter 4 about the family line of someone called Perez, which ends in this way: ‘Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the Father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David’.
This is Ruth’s family tree! The line of David. This is the same genealogical line as Jesus. Now actually, it doesn’t matter here how much we know about the genealogies. The point it demonstrates is that Ruth’s ordinary story in which she chooses to serve God by coming alongside Naomi becomes woven into the arc of the whole biblical narrative. God’s BIG story.
Ruth’s story seems fairly ordinary. Yet the way it comes into the line of the whole biblical narrative is extraordinary. To us Ruth might seem fairly ordinary, to God she is extraordinary. When we look at the root of the word ‘extraordinary’ we see that it actually means beyond the ordinary. I like this a lot. Often I think we understand the word extraordinary to mean something which is particularly impressive. Something which started out impressive. Like a beautiful sunset, or a spectacular view. But actually, what this suggests is that there is a progression from ordinary to extraordinary. There is a journey to go on from the ordinary to the extraordinary. When we look beyond this ordinary story, we can see it’s role in shaping something ‘beyond’ the ordinary. That is God’s BIG story. This is extraordinary.
I’ve talked about Ruth. But there are lots of other stories of ordinary people being used in extraordinary ways throughout the bible. Remember the boy who had just 5 loaves and fishes. He was a child and yet because he was willing to offer the little that he had, God was able to use him to feed 5,000 people. This narrative is used to explain something of God’s generosity. The ordinary story of one person and the big story of God’s redemption of the world are, yet again, woven together. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR US?
So what does all of this mean for us?
I wonder whether you know the stories of everyone in this congregation? I certainly don’t. In what way might God be using you, and using everyone else to contribute to his big story of redeeming the earth?
The question I want to ask is ‘What part of Naomi’s story did Ruth see when she looked at her’?
When she looked at Naomi, perhaps she saw these things:
1. Perhaps she saw that Naomi was in her family, a family which God had given her, and a family Ruth therefore wanted to remain loyal to, even if it meant she would be poor and that she would have to live as a migrant.
2. Perhaps she also saw that Naomi had a need. Naomi was an old woman who would really benefit from the support and accompaniment of Ruth-someone younger who could look after her.
3. Perhaps she also saw God? Did she see Naomi was someone who God loved and cared about deeply about. Someone who God loves and wants to be with.
I think the Bible is full of stories because God loves the stories of his people. He loves to see how each one of us is joining in with his plan to restore creation through seeing the needs, and desires of those around us.
As with Ruth, God doesn’t just see what is on the outside of our stories, he sees what is going on inside. For a story is more than a description. When I look at Adam I could say that I see a man who is wearing a black cassock, or jeans and a shirt. Or…I could find out what Adam’s story is. Who he cares about, the things that make him excited, the things that he finds hard. God didn’t just see Ruth. He saw her humble, and faithful obedience.
This has implications for how we act as a church. What happens when we truly seek to know the stories of those around us. When we seek to see beyond the surface. In the same way that the bible is not a sequence of lists, and rules about how to live, neither is the church to be a place where we come along, learn about God and go home.
How much more life-giving is it to think about church as a place where we try to understand the stories of those who are around us? Perhaps those we are sat next to, those who live next door to us, those who serve us in the local shops on the hackney rd, those who drive the bus? What are their stories, and how might God want us to be involved in them?
I am certainly challenged and encouraged by Ruth’s story. Everything seemed quite hopeless for her. Yet because she was willing to be obedient to the will of God, she felt God’s compassionate heart for Naomi and acted took action. Through these humble actions her story comes into line with the grand narrative of God.
SHARING STORIES TODAY
I’m going to ask Emmanuel to come up briefly. Emmanuel [a member of St Peter’s, and of its youth group] has been absolutely brilliant recently working with me to do some community organising – as part of our church’s involvement in London Citizens.
Emmanuel, can you tell me who was at the meeting we went to last Wednesday night? Lots of local people from churches, schools and mosques in Tower Hamlets
And what happened at the meeting? We shared stories together of things in this community which we all care about.
So what kinds of things came up? Issues of poor lighting in tower hamlets, inequality in the borough, people being treated badly on zero hours contracts,of people’s fear of crime and of gang culture
What has been brilliant about working with Emmanuel, is that he is really keen to listen to the stories of people from around here. He is committed to understanding what people are going through, and because of this he is seeing more and more of the things that God wants to do something about in this community. These are our stories, and they matter to God.
Sometimes we have to be intentional about asking people about their stories, and we also have to be sensitive to when it is and when it isn’t appropriate to ask. This is not about being nosey! This is about asking this question when we wake up every morning: God-whose story do you want me to see today?
God will bring people into our day who he wants us to talk to. This is where there is a beautiful meeting of our ordinary stories, and God’s extraordinary story.
As we start to recognise that God values our rather ordinary stories, and we can see that God wants to help us to see the stories of those around us, amazing and new opportunities are created.
Knowing someone’s story might lead us to wanting to help them, perhaps even to take action to help them with a particular issue like Ruth and Naomi. Or it might mean finding out that there is something that they love doing that we can encourage them with. Maybe they are a keen footballer, actor, mathematician?!
Sometimes, knowing someone’s story might lead us to share with them more about our faith, why we love and follow God, sometimes even when things are hard. Have you ever thought about what you might say if someone asked you why you choose to follow God? Have a think about. What is your story and why would you share it? I bet everyone has got stories of things that God has done each day which are signs of God’s goodness and faithfulness even when things are hard. Those stories of what God has done are unique to you. No-one else has experienced them, so you’ve got to share them. They might seem ordinary, but it is extraordinary that God speaks to us, and works in our lives. These events are part of our stories which are being created in partnership with God. Often I think people who maybe don’t know God like we do have no idea how we live out our stories. How we ask God to do things in our lives, and how he does respond. Sometimes in miraculous ways, and sometimes in more normal ways. And you know it’s much easier to share with someone your own story of what God is doing in your life than it is to try and explain who God is. You should try it.
A few years ago an old friend who I hadn’t seen for about 3 years sent me a message suggesting we meet up. “Brilliant,” I thought – so off I went and we chatted on a bench outside UCL where she was working. It was great to catch up. But I know that God had more planned for that meeting because my friend kept asking me questions about my life, how I’d made the decisions I had, why I am doing what I do. I couldn’t help but start to tell her pieces of my story. After I finished my degree a friend of mine said I had to meet Angus. So I did. There’s nothing particularly spectacular about that but I was sure in that meeting it would be a good thing or even the right thing for me to work for CTC for bit. Along the way all sorts of surprising doors have opened. But the thing about this meeting with my friend was that she just couldn’t stop asking questions about my story with God. She wasn’t asking me to explain God. But she was captivated that I believed he was doing things in my life. She started coming to church, and continued to say she was fascinated by the things that God was doing in peoples lives. These things seemed fairly ordinary. Someone had got a new job, someone had met someone in the street and been able to offer some advice, some were more miraculous stories about God providing money out of the blue. But you know all the time my friend didn’t want me to explain God. She wanted to know the stories. She has since moved to Australia and her faith is growing from strength to strength. Somehow God brought us together to talk, and he used my stories of very simple things he’s done with me to change my friends life.
Each story is different, and God will prompt us at different times to respond in different ways to the stories that we hear. Sometimes we will see that it is appropriate to help someone with a specific need-maybe they need help collecting shopping or doing homework, or campaigning on a bigger issue because we’ve heard that their living situation is really poor, sometimes it is appropriate to encourage someone to do something that they are capable of doing, sometimes it will be appropriate to share more of our faith. It won’t be appropriate to respond in all those ways to every story. The bible is made up of all these different types of stories at different times and in different places. Together they are part of God bringing about his light and love on earth.
What we can be sure of is that God delights in our ordinary stories, and he wants us to see the stories of one another, and to respond together, developing a community where we knowone another deeply, and where we act obediently, bravely and humbly to his prompting in every conversation we have. We share our story, and we hear the stories of another. This is not just for some of us to do-for the people who we think have got time or energy. Ruth’s situation was very difficult-she had no money, no family support and knew little of the place she was going. Yet God used her in remarkable ways. God loves all of our stories, whatever our situation, or however ordinary you think it might be. To God, our ordinary stories can be extraordinary.
When we enter into conversations with one another to hear our stories we build new relationships. This changes us. We learn more of who God is, and God uses those simple actions to do extraordinary things.
This is how God is bringing about his extraordinary story on earth.
So here is the challenge for all of us when we wake up tomorrow morning. Whose story does God want me to see today?
So finally let’s just look back to that family tree I mentioned earlier. Think of all those brilliant characters lined up in Jesus’s family tree-Boaz, Ruth, Jesse, David, Jesus. But Jesus died, didn’t he? He wasn’t married and had no children. So that should be the end of that lin,e shouldn’t it? But this is the beautiful thing. Jesus died on the cross to take away our sins. This is the beginning of the story in Genesis. But he didn’t remain dead. He came back to meet the disciples, the women and children, the lepers, the tax collectors, the Pharisees and the rabbis. He came back to bring about new life and to keep writing this story. He is weaving goodness and mercy into the big story of God’s world. We can be part of that family tree. We can be next in line with Adam and Eve, With Ruth and Naomi, with Jesse and David. We too can be part of that story. We can choose to let God be part of making our ordinary stories extraordinary. He is the AUTHOR of our faith. Isn’t that spectacular?
So remember when you wake up tomorrow morning, God wants to write your story with you. and here’s the question:Whose story does God want me to see today?