Fearless Decisions | Sermon from 11/11/18

I have made some really dumb decisions in my lifetime. But the good thing about those: they make the best stories.

One day, we took our dog Lily for a walk. Dana was pregnant with Jack at the time and needed to move around. So we set out around our very hilly neighborhood in Macon, right behind the Medical Center. Not long before this particular evening, someone had stolen our trash dumpster. The city had told us it would be six months or more before we got a new one, so we were making do until then. While walking around the neighborhood, I spotted our trash dumpster. I knew it was ours because I have a mind that easily remembers numerical sequences. So I knew the serial number for our dumpster. And there it was!

I gave Lily, our fifty pound pit bull mix of a dog who pulls violently when you walk her, I gave that dog to Dana, who’s eight months pregnant, asking her to hold Lily while I ran the dumpster back up the hill to our house. So off I set up the hill, dumpster in tow. I got it to the house, put it up against the side where we kept it, and noticed ants. I opened the lid and discovered the dumpster, our plastic trash dumpster, was crawling with ants.

So, I thought to myself that fire does a good job of killing ants. I put the dumpster on our sidewalk, doused the inside with lighter fluid, lit a match, and watched the ants get incinerated. As I looked in masculine delight at the fire I had created, I noticed something glowing to my left. It was my grass. There was a hole in the bottom of the dumpster. The lighter fluid had flowed out of the hole and onto the grass. The fire followed.

I ran around the side of the house to get the garden hose, unwound it from it’s perch on our siding, and was running back around the house to put out the fire when I encountered Dana, huffing and puffing, eight months pregnant having drug Lily back up the hill, looking incensed and saying to me, “What are you doing?!”

The fire got put out and the fact remains: I made several really dumb decisions.

We all do that. I pulled pranks as a college student that were dumb. I once tried to skim board on the beach, which resulted in a concussion that resulted in post concussion syndrome that left me in a dark room for a week. All because I thought I could be twelve years old again and skim board. I’ve been known to make some really dumb choices.

And we all do that. But what do we do when we make really bad choices? Or better put, how do we prevent ourselves from making really bad choices? When the big decisions of life come, when we must decide among things, how do we make the best decision? Or even in smaller, but still weighty decisions, how do we ensure that we do the right thing?

Many times, we turn to scripture for help in making decisions, especially when they’re weighty. Where do I go to college? When should I retire? Do I take this job? Do I remain in that job? Should we have another child? Should we take care of our grandchild? Do I get this health treatment or follow that doctor’s orders? Do I make that investment or is it safer to leave my money alone?

When we face big decisions that have weighty consequences, how do we make the best decision possible? How do we arrive at those decisions? What does scripture have to say to us about how to make choices?

That’s what we’ll explore together through Ruth. The scripture I’ll read provides us with the Readers’ Digest version of the story. I encourage you to go home and read the whole thing for yourself, as it’s a great story. But through this sermon, I’ll weave in several highlights and we’ll review the whole thing together. But for now, let’s hear together chapter 3, verses 1 through 5, and chapter 4, verses 13 through 17.

Scripture

Ruth and Boaz get married. Ruth gives birth to Obed, the grandfather of King David. That’s why, in your bibles, Ruth is located between Judges and 1 Samuel. It tells us where David came from, the greatest King of Israel in the Old Testament. In Jewish Bibles, Ruth is located after Proverbs as an exemplar of the kind of woman Proverbs 31 describes. And that she is: she is devoted, hard-working, industrious, and does her best to provide for those in her stead. Ruth wins herself Boaz’s hand in marriage and, in doing so, saves the day for her.

And all this happens through a series of decisions made by her and her mother-in-law, Naomi.

Naomi was originally from Bethlehem, a town whose name means house of bread. It’s an ironic designation because Naomi is married and living with her two sons when a famine hits the land. The famine is so bad, for so long, that they make a decision: go to enemy territory in the hopes of finding food.

So they go to Moab. There, they find some food and wives for their two sons: Orpah and Ruth. But then disaster strikes. Naomi’s husband dies. Both her sons die. So she’s left with herself, Orpah, and Ruth. Women at that time were destitute if left without a man to provide for them. They had no means to earn a living, no means to purchase land or utilize land to grow a crop, and no standing in society. They were highly vulnerable. And Naomi is living in a foreign land. Her daugthers-in-law are Moabites, not Israelites, but even though they’re locals, they can’t give her standing because she is a foreigner.

So Naomi makes a decision: go back to Israel, back to Bethlehem. Ruth makes a decision. She begs to come along. So they both set out for Bethlehem. There, they aren’t welcomed but rather treated with hostility. The locals are inhospitable. Afterall, Naomi left them when they were facing famine. And she went to an enemy territory. And she brought back a foreigner, a member of the enemy tribe. No one is pleased with this.

Destitute, they make another decision: they glean. Just as the law allows for in Leviticus, the edges of fields were left unharvested for the hungry to come and take what they needed. But there’s a catch: young men in the field have taken notice of Ruth. To protect her, Boaz makes a decision: he will take care of her. And he does. Boaz is a relative of Naomi’s, and as a favor to the family, he ensures Ruth’s safety.

With Boaz, Naomi senses an opportunity. If she and Ruth were to marry, that would provide her deceased husband’s land for them. If they married, that would mean both she and Ruth would be secure. And that’s where our scripture picks up, with another decision: to get Boaz interested in marrying Ruth.

So late one night, Ruth goes to the threshing floor where the men have been working hard and drinking hard. The methods used by Ruth are very human, and not to be discussed at length here; but the end result of that encounter is Boaz agrees to marry her, goes and secures Naomi’s deceased husband’s land, marries Ruth, and they all live happily ever after, just as we read in the latter part of the scripture.

This story is full of decisions. Very human decisions. Some are made out of necessity, like fleeing to a foreign country in search of food. Some are made out of charity, like Boaz agreeing to protect Ruth. Some are made and then pursued with questionable methods, such as how Ruth convinces Boaz to marry her. Decision after decision is made, fearlessly, and pursued. There are good consequences, such as getting married, and bad consequences, such as losing a husband and two sons. But through it all, God is never consulted.

That’s what stood out to me as I read this short story. God is mentioned: in blessings, in greetings, as being set against Naomi and as being the cause of Ruth’s pregnancy. But God is never consulted. There’s never a question of “what’s God’s will” or “what decision would God have me make?” No one spends time in prayer, asking for guidance. No one visits the priest or offers a sacrifice. And it’s notable to me not just because of how we often act when making decisions, but because throughout the Old Testament, when a big decision needs to be made, the characters of the story are making sacrifices, asking priests, asking God, trying to discern God’s will. All the time.

And these are big decisions that are made in Ruth. Decisions about moving out of your home country. Decisions about returning and then decisions about how to survive. Decisions about marriage, about family. Some of these decisions carry implications for life and death. These are major decisions, human decisions, decisions we can relate to. And they don’t pause to ask for divine guidance.

Which is the opposite of my experience as a pastor. In my time, I have seen and heard of many decisions stymied by asking the classic question, “Is it God’s will?” When facing major life decisions, or even decisions that maybe weren’t life decisions but still felt major, I have encountered many worries and fears of making a decision that’s outside of God’s will. I have sat with many people who have fretted over if they were listening properly to God, if they were asking God the question in the right way, if they were approaching the whole discernment process correctly. And when a decision finally gets made, there’s much worry and fear over whether or not the right decision was made.

In those moments, the primary characteristic of the decision-making is fear. Fear of doing the wrong thing. Fear of making a decision that will lead to bad consequences. Fear of acting outside of God’s will. Fear of missing out on God’s blessing. But above all, fear.

So, how do we make the right decisions? Should we not consult God and do whatever seems like the best thing at the time like Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz? Should we consult God and priests like other Old Testament characters? Or should we make a fear-based decision to discern God’s will? What is the right approach? What does it mean to engage properly in decision-making as a Christian?

That question is certainly relevant to our daily lives. We all have decisions to make, in big ways and small ways. I once made a decision, in about 2005, to not purchase Apple stock when it was $42 a share. Apple’s stock price has since grown exponentially and the stock split a few times. I estimated not along ago that if I’d invested the $200 I was considering at the time, I’d have a few thousand dollars today. But I didn’t because I was afraid to let go of the $200 when I was a college student. That decision to not purchase turned out to be a mistake.

When I left to attend graduate school at James Madison University, it was my second choice. The University of Georgia had denied me admission, and so it was JMU or returning to my job at the University of West Georgia. I could have kept my old job for another year, and I wasn’t so sure about JMU and moving all the way almost to Pennsylvania, but Dana and I made the choice. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

I bet we could all share stories of a similar kind: decisions we wish we’d made differently and decisions we made that didn’t quite feel right at the time but turned out to be wonderful. And in all the decisions I’ve made in this life, and I am confident in the ones to come, God has been present in those decisions, just as God was present in the decisions of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

God was present when they decided to flee to Moab. God provided daughters-in-law who took care of Naomi after she lost, in quick succession, her husband and two sons.

God was present when Naomi and Ruth decided to go to Bethlehem. God provided food through gleaning and protection through Boaz.

God was present when Naomi convinces Ruth to get Boaz to marry her. And God is present with Boaz as he takes the proper steps to secure property for Naomi and Ruth as they get married.

God is present, always: providing and redeeming. That’s the model for decision-making that I see here in Ruth, the answer to the question of how to make proper decisions. We get so worked up about making the right decision on the front end, wanting to make sure that we’re doing what God would have us to do, what God would want us to do, what will ensure that we receive God’s blessing. But God doesn’t work that way: we don’t get blessed because we make the right decision and cursed because we make the wrong decision. We get blessed and provided for because God loves us, regardless of the decisions we make.

This is not to suggest that how we make decisions doesn’t matter. It is to suggest that decisions made in fear of whether or not we’re within God’s will are decisions being made wrongly. It is also to state that thinking we can gain God’s favor by making the right decision is wrong. Sometimes, God gives us a direct command and says “go this way” or “do that thing” or “take that job” or “take that health treatment” or “make that investment” or “retire now.” Sometimes that happens. And when it does, we can all attest, it’s clear as day that God is talking to us. God is abundantly clear when God calls us to something. And then we do have a duty to say yes to whatever God is calling us to.

But when we don’t have that call, that clarity, then it’s up to us to make the best decision that we can with the information and wisdom that we have. We should do the things we all know to be good: seek wise counsel, ponder over the decision, do research, pray about it to see if there’s a call from God; but then when we make a decision, we can have confidence that God is with us in that decision-making. Where we make a wrong decision or there’s an ill-effect from a decision we made, God will provide and pave a path forward. That’s what happened to Naomi when her husband and sons died: God made a way. That’s what happened when they returned to their homeland: God paved a way through Boaz.

God will make a way.

That’s what happened to me about eighteen months ago. I’ve reported before that things did not go well when I was chaplain at Reinhardt University. Dana and I labored over whether or not to take the job after it had been offered. We did all the right things when it comes to decision-making. And we chose to go. When things went wrongly, it was tempting to believe that we’d made the wrong choice; that if we’d stayed in Macon, we would have experienced blessing but, because we were experiencing a terrible moment instead, it was evidence we’d made the wrong choice. We were outside God’s will.

But that’s not how God works. God doesn’t bless or curse our decisions based on if we discerned God correctly. No, God redeems and God provides. God makes a way.

I lost several thousand dollars in pay and in selling our house. My family suffered for all the transition in our lives. I wrestled with inner demons. It was a trying experience. But God made a way.

And that way was the path that led here, to be your pastor. That was a path to healing for me and my family, to financial restoration, to hope. God redeemed, God provided, God made a way. We didn’t make the wrong decision. We made a decision. And God was always with us.

We don’t have to be fearful in decision-making. In fact, we must remember that fear is never of God. Fear comes from a lack of faith. If we’re afraid to make the wrong decision, perhaps we don’t have faith that God will provide, that God will make a way, even if we’ve made the wrong decision.

Again, this is not license to make any decision we want. It’s not permission to make wrong decisions because they feel the best. It’s not a call to make decisions without being careful and thoughtful. Part of our responsibility as Christians is to be wise, and part of wisdom is in how we make decisions. When we make a bad decision, we will almost certainly suffer the natural consequences of the wrong decision. But the good news this morning, the message, is that God will provide and make a way, no matter what.

Because God redeems. That’s what God’s in the business of doing. In the story of Ruth, what Boaz does in securing the land and marrying Ruth is called redemption. In the law in Deuteronomy, to marry the widow of a deceased relative and take possession of the property was redemptive because it provided security, protection; it made a way for the widow. Boaz demonstrates what God does for us with our decision-making: redeems and blesses.

So make decisions fearlessly. What decisions are you facing today? If you’ve prayed about it and sought wisdom and don’t have a clear call from God, make the decision fearlessly. The next time you face a decision-point, pursue wisdom and make the decision fearlessly. God will make a way. God will provide. God will redeem.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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