DO YOU BELIEVE YOUR LIFE IS IMPORTANT?
With permission, The Journey has asked to publish a transcript of Mike Cope’s sermon about Ruth in four blog posts. There are links to the four parts at the bottom of each of four blog posts. The sermon was preached at the 2017 Pepperdine Bible Lectures, now called Harbor. You can also watch the sermon here.
Chapter four, in verse one. Now we move the camera, and we’re looking at the city gates. Where all the men come in, to make a decision. And they wait, and eventually the actual closest kinsman redeemer comes in. And Boaz says, “Come over here, I want to explain the situation. You’ve got a deal.” And he talks about this land, and it sounds so good. No downside, all upside. And he’s in.
And then Boaz says, “Now let’s talk about the fine print in the contract.” It turns out the fine print says that this deal comes with two widows. One of them hasn’t been able to get pregnant. But if she does get pregnant, then the land will revert back to that family. And he is out. There’s too much downside, too little upside. And so Boaz steps in. And later we find out that he and Ruth have a baby, named Obed. We’ll come back to that in just a moment.
But first, I just want to reflect on that a little bit. Because it strikes me, that everything in this story is so run of the mill, and ordinary. It’s mundane. Yeah, I know at the very end, we get King David. We’ll get there. But right now, I almost wonder how did it get into Scripture? You don’t have any fiery prophets, no courageous kings. No clouds by day, no fire by night. It says it’s in the time the judges judge, but no mention of Gideon or Deborah, or Samson, or Samuel. None of that is in there. It’s the story of a farmer and two widows. Which sounds like a hackneyed joke, doesn’t it? Not a great biblical story.
It’s just such an average story. And I actually think that’s what draws me to it. And it doesn’t escape my notice, that my most influential grandparent was named Ruth. Because when I come to this story I think, okay. There’s there’s something in here, for those of us whose lives have been pretty ordinary. I’ve got to tell you, my obituary is not going to be in the New York Times someday. I’m not gonna appear in The L.A. Times. Like many of you, I’ve just lived a normal life. I was born in the area the Beverly Hillbillies left!
I was born and raised in the Ozarks. I went to an elementary school named Field. My favorite elementary school teacher was Mrs. Land. I have Mrs. Land at Field school. Between our elementary school and our junior high, there was an intermediate school. Which they ingeniously named Intermediate School. It was so nondescript they didn’t name it. My most powerful memory, of all of those three years, came early on my fourth grade year. I still kind of remember feeling sick in class. I said, “I need to go see the principal.” So I went into the principal’s office, and there was an amazon woman over there looking down at me.
And I said, “I’m sick, and I need to go home.” I was trying hard not to say, “I need my mommy.” And this woman towered over me and said, “You cannot go home, unless you have a note from your mother. There is only one way you can go home. You must have a note from your mother.” And I said, “But I didn’t know I was gonna be sick.” She said, “I’m sorry. There’s only one way you can go home. Would you like me to call your mother?” And I said, “Yes, please.” Well there were no cell phones, so we called. 4-5-1-4-4-9-3, ring, ring, ring, ring. Mom didn’t answer. Mom, I know you’re watching the streaming video, and I forgive you, it’s okay.
She’s probably outside, you know what, it’s not hard to understand, pre-cell phone days. She’s not there. And she looks at me and says, “I’m sorry, you cannot go home. There’s only one way you can go home. You have to have a note from your mother, or your father. You can either go to the classroom, or you can sit here in the principal’s office.” And it was at that moment, with really no warning, that I vomited all over her.
Not vomit, I erupted. I was Vesuvius she was Pompeii. If it was lava instead of vomit, she would still be encased there today. Children in the Ozarks would take field trips, to see what the 1960s were like where I grew up. I’m sixty years old, and it’s still my gold medal vomiting performance. By the way, turns out there were two ways that you could go home. A note from your mother, or vomiting all over the associate principal.
I used to come out here to Pepperdine University about once a year, to speak in Convocation. I always loved speaking to the Pepperdine students, in Convocation. And every year, I’d send them a little bio. But one year, there was a new person in charge of chapel. And so I sent my little bio, and they sent it back to me. It got rejected. They were trying to ramp it up, and interest the students. And was like seriously, nobody’s gonna be interested. He sent me a note, I’ve got it right here.
“Mike, here are a few examples from last semester. Each one contains a short quote from the speaker, as well. Thanks for taking the time to do this.”
Steve Arrington. “Steve Arrington’s story begins in the jungles of Vietnam where he’s introduced to marijuana. That faulty step shatters his naval career, as a bomb disposal frogman. Plunges him into the underworld of drug smuggling, and sentences him to the terrors of prison. There, amid brutal inmates and stifling depression, Steve discovers hope, through a life changing relationship with God. He’s soon in deep water again. This time, surrounded by great white sharks, as chief diver for the Cousteau society.” Of course he was, you know. “I went from a world of darkness, into an incredible new life.”
Next was Bernice King. “Bernice King was only five years old, when her father, civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Today she’s amazed others by following in her father’s footsteps, by becoming a minister. Author of Hard Questions Hard Answers, King continues her father’s legacy. In Bernice’s voice, you’ll hear echoes of the late Dr. King. But the vision is now her own.” Pressure’s mounting.
Sue Thomas. “At the age of eighteen months, Sue was watching television with her family, when she suddenly went deaf. She responded by turning up the volume full blast, and was sent to her room. The next day, realizing there was something drastically wrong, Sue’s parents took her to the hospital, where they learned that nothing could restore her hearing loss. Since then, she’s spent endless hours working with voice and drama coaches. And because of her outstanding lip reading ability, Sue eventually worked for the FBI as an undercover surveillant.”
So I wrote back. “Mike Cope’s spiritual crisis begins in a VBS classroom, when he realizes he hates the song, “Booster Booster be a Booster.” That’s really, that’s all I’ve got. That’s my bio. It’s just not a New York Times kind of bio. But you know, what I love about the book of Ruth, is it’s affirming that God’s in all of those little run of the mill stories. I really love the missional church movement. But I realized recently, maybe I was guilty of always telling those phenomenal Kent Brantly type stories. I want those stories to be told, it’s like being in the presence of a saint. But if those are the only stories you tell, it’s almost like everybody else’s life is second tier. And it’s not like that.
It’s not like that. Because you can start feeling, if you’re staying home with kids, and changing diapers, and getting meals on, and just trying to survive, like that’s not kingdom work. And then lo and behold, it turns out it is. Gathering barley is kingdom work. And connecting and staying loyal is kingdom work. And getting stuck in traffic, and not killing the people that are cutting in front of you, that’s kingdom work. Doing your job faithfully, grading those math papers, and helping out in the nursery program at church, and on, and on, it goes.
It’s easy to think that your life is not significant. But that’s not the way the kingdom happens. It’s mustard seed everywhere. It’s little things, built, and growing, and moving by the power and the Spirit of God. Now I wanna say a word. After several years of being privileged to follow in Jerry Rushford’s footsteps, and working with churches on the west coast . . . can we be honest and admit, that on the west coast, many of our churches are in numerical decline. We know that’s not a secret. We know it’s true. We can go one, by one, by one.
And if we’re not careful, we’re going to be like the people in the book of Haggai, that can’t enjoy Zerubbabel’s temple because they remember Solomon’s temple. And Haggai says, “Would you listen to me. The Spirit of the Lord is in this place.” It’s a good time, your church right here, right now. I know in your church, there’s some church that’s blown out the top. And they’ve got multiple campuses, and so on. And we say to them, God bless you. We need that. But you know what’s also needed? Some of these little churches, that are doing just what your churches are learning to do.
Starting house churches. Starting these small connecting groups. Reaching out to broken people. It’s not a time that we just look and say, “Oh, the glorious past.” No, the Spirit of the Lord is among all of these churches. If we can quit being so obsessed for a little bit, on these patterns, and capture, that like the Book of Ruth, God is in this story. Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful thing that would be.
And then, just a word to those of you who minister in these churches. Who maybe never have done keynotes at lectureships. It’s easy, I think, sometimes to think, “My work doesn’t really matter, because it’s not known.” And that’s just not a Bible’s way of looking at things. The Bible affirms those people, who are living out a life of hesed. Those people who are being loyal, in the life they’ve been given. And so, may we as a church, affirm all of you tonight who are there in the trenches, and living out the faith of Jesus Christ. It’s a great thing, and God is in that story.
Ruth four and verse one, which says, “Meanwhile Boaz went up to the town gate, and sat down there. Just as the guardian Redeemer he had mentioned came along, Boaz says, “Come over here ploni almoni and sit down. So he went over and sat down. Your Bible doesn’t say ploni almoni, does it? Because they make some feeble attempt to translate that Hebrew phrase.
Truth is, we don’t know exactly what it means. It may be kind of like double trouble, hocus pocus. But we think it means, “Dude without a name.” Mr. So and So, John Doe. It’s a funny thing, but you know, sometimes when we don’t know who’s coming . . . have you been to places where they’ll just put a place mat that says “John Doe”? Well in some circles of Jewish faith, they don’t put John Doe, they put ploni almoni. Somebody’s coming, we don’t know who it is.
It’s also true, if you look on the Googles, you’ll find out, that probably some less than reverent Jewish students, have created a very powerful social media presence, for ploni almoni. He’s got a Twitter account, he’s got a Facebook account. You can buy ploni almoni merchandise, a coffee cup, a water cup, and so on. But I think the point here is, everybody else got a name. They’re all named: Elimelech, Mahlon, Chilion, Orpah, Ruth, Naomi, Boaz. They all got named. But the one guy, for whom it was just too inconvenient, we’re just not gonna mention him.
We’re not gonna mention him. But everybody that’s willing to step in, and live this life of hesed, of steadfast loyal love. This kind of commitment that Ruth made to Naomi, and that Naomi lives out, in the midst of deep, unfathomable grief. Those people have all got a name. And God knows every one of those names. And he works in them, and through them, and because of them. Well at the end, we mentioned there was that baby Obed. But, Obed had a baby, and his name was Jesse. And Jesse had a baby, and his name was David. And I know it winds up in that, and maybe that’s how it’s squeezed into the scriptures. So there’s a remarkable thing there, right?
But that’s at the very end. The vast majority of the story, is telling us just these average lives. And then every once in a while, in the work of God, something bursts forth. And you think, “I didn’t see that coming.” But it comes, because of a thousand other choices that people made, in their lives, as they press forward faithfully.
We give you thanks, oh God, for using our lives. For being present, even when we don’t see you. For constantly moving our story forward, from confusion to clarity, from mourning to dancing. Even for those who don’t have everything figured out, give them confidence to know that you, the God of all power, are using their lives. Open our eyes to see, how your Spirit works powerfully in our humble lives.
Each year The Journey sends members to The Pepperdine Bible Lectures that Mike Cope directs. Check out the video below to learn more about it and consider going with us in 2019.