Love is Stronger Than Death

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(The Book of Ruth)

Hope grows from the soil of God’s faithfulness. It has no other reliable source. A seed of hope planted anywhere else will die.

Naomi’s bitterness sprang up from the sting of death, a weed that still threatens to choke out our hope. Left alone by a husband and two sons, she had no earthly hope remaining. All she had were two bereaved daughters-in-law who could no more give her hope than they could raise the dead.

Without hope, without any means of provision, Naomi was sure to follow her husband to the grave.

Her name meant “pleasant,” but she changed it to Mara, a name that means “bitter.” “Call me the bitter one,” she said, “because I’m empty now. God must be against me. I am without hope.”

But God was never against her. Our God gives hope to the bitter. He fills their empty cups from His own storehouse of infinite hope. 

He gave Naomi a foreign daughter-in-law who chose to be a conduit of His faithful love. Like God Himself, Ruth told Naomi that she would never leave her. Ruth chose not to plant herself in the thin hope of a new Moabite husband. She knew that hope can only grow from the soil of God’s faithfulness, the One whose promises of life never fail.

And Boaz chose to care for a poor foreign widow and her bitter mother-in-law, despite having nothing to gain.

Ruth is a love story, but it’s not about romance. It is a story of the fierce and unchanging love of God. 

Ruth is the story of our great Redeemer God, the One who gives hope because He can raise the dead. You and I are born under the shadow of death’s sting. We plant our hopes in the dead soil of this world, looking for life to grow from all that we can never trust. Spouses, children, jobs, money, fame. Like Naomi, we see our earthly hopes fade and die and call ourselves bitter and hopeless and alone.

We tremble with the fear of death’s sting and we cry out for redemption.

And the God of Ruth and Naomi and Boaz calls back, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me will never die.” The one who trusts in Him is never without hope, because His love is unfailing. His power is infinite. Death will lose the battle.

He raises up hope from the ashes of certain death. 

Boaz was the father of Obed, who was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David. From the line of David came Jesus the Messiah, the King of Israel, the One who would live and die and live again. Our Savior would one day make a promise, rooted in the soil of God’s faithfulness, that those who believe in Him will never die.

There is no hopelessness in the presence of God. He makes the bitter pleasant and gives the dead their life.

Hope is rooted in the soil of God’s faithfulness. It has no other reliable source.

His love is stronger than romance. Stronger than even death. It is everlasting and perfect and it never fails.

And death will be swallowed up in victory, beaten by the everlasting love of God. Our bitterness will turn sweet, and our hopelessness will be eclipsed by His eternal hope. And like the very hope of God, those who believe in Jesus will never again have cause to fear the sting of death.

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What God Would Say to You First

blooming-rose-1446185-mImagine you are sitting in a room with God. Of course we know He’s everywhere, but imagine for a second that you can actually see Him. You’re in His presence in the same way as Moses was, or Isaiah, or John.

You fall on your face, because you are afraid. He is holy. You are sinful. So you drop to the floor. Then He opens His mouth to speak.

What is the first thing God says to you? Is it something like this?

“You need to be nicer to your family.”

“Stop looking at pornography.”

“You lied to your boss last week.”

“Read your Bible more. Pray more. Put it all on the line for Jesus.”

“Work harder to be a better person.”

“Your life is a mess, and it’s all your fault.”

In your imagined encounter, does God begin with all the terrible news about you? Does he start with what you aren’t doing well or with what you need to change?

Because in real life, I don’t think He does. The more I read the Scripture, the more I believe that God leads with love, that His interactions with you and me begin and end in grace. I’m not sure the exact words He would say to you, but I suspect it would be something like this:

“I love you more than you can imagine. I forgive you for things you don’t even know you’ve done. All Your sin is swallowed up in My grace, all because of Jesus. I gave my Son to clean up the mess you made of your life, to finish the work you never could, to free you forever from the consequences of sin and death. I love you. I love you. I love you.”

God’s Word does not begin with bad news. It begins with the story of a loving Creator, a good God who lavishes good gifts on His people. Food and companionship and love and safety and everything they could ever need. And it ends with the story of a loving King who saves the world and rescues His people and wipes out sin and death.

He loves you first and He loves you last. He begins with grace and He ends with grace.

He judges us because He must, because our rebellion and sin threaten to destroy us and the world He made. But God is not eager to judge. He is eager to give us good things. His Word begins and ends with good news, not with bad news. He leads with grace.

So imagine now that you are Isaiah the prophet in the throne room of God. The shining seraphim fly back and forth singing “Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts! The whole earth is full of His glory.” Imagine the room shaking and smoke filling the temple and your heart fills with despair and your eyes fill with tears and your knees buckle to the floor. Woe to you. You are ruined and unclean.

Now God sends you one of His shining angels, who touches your lips with a burning coal, and this flaming messenger who could burn you alive and toss you into an early grave instead says, “Your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” His message from the Holy One is that you are forgiven.

I love you. I love you. I love you.

Imagine you are John the Apostle, exiled on Patmos. Jesus arrives on your island with hair as white as snow and flaming eyes and shining feet. He holds the very stars in His hand and a sword is coming our of His mouth and you are terrified. Your fall to the ground like a dead man. Like Isaiah, you are ruined and unclean.

Then the Alpha and the Omega, the Maker of all things, places his hand on your shoulder. He places His perfect hand on your sinful shoulder and says, “Don’t be afraid.” Do not be afraid. “I was dead and I am alive forever and I hold the keys to death and Hades.”

John, you will not die as long as you are with Me. You deserve to die, but I did it for you. You want life, so I’ve brought it to you. John, I love you.

I love you. I love you.

God begins and ends with grace. His encounters with Isaiah and John are not exceptions in that regard. They are the norm. Time after time, God first affirms His love and mercy and grace before He speaks of sin and judgment.

Understand that before He asks you clean up your act, before He judges you for your sin, before He reminds you of all you are not, He says He loves you. This is not warm-and-fuzzy wishful thinking. It’s the story of God’s Word.

By the way, God does want you to be nicer and purer and to pray more and to read the Bible and to know Him better. He wants all of that. He wants those things because He loves you and because He loves the world and because He loves His glory. So His first words to you are that He loves you and wants you to know Him, because He alone is the source of all Life and of every good gift.

God’s grace then becomes the basis for changing your life, for cleaning out those sins and struggles that cause you such shame. God begins and ends with grace, in the Scripture and in your life.

So what would God say to you first? I love you. I forgive you. I want to know you.

Your sin is swallowed by grace and your death is swallowed in Life. Oh, my child and my friend, how I love you.

Question for you: Do you believe that God loves you unconditionally? Do you struggle to believe it? Why or why not?

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When Ability Outpaces Character

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Judges 13-16

A leader’s ability should never outpace his character. Strength and cunning cannot replace submission to God. Talent is no substitute for spiritual maturity.

Samson was the strongest man alive, but he was hollow at the core. He used his power to take vengeance and to satisfy his lusts. He forgot that his strength did not come from his hair. It came from God. He was appointed to protect Israel from the Philistines, to deliver them and lead them into worship. Instead he simply protected his own interests and didn’t really lead at all. In the final analysis, Samson acted like a Philistine himself. Brutish, angry, out of control, and godless.

He killed more Philistines in his death than he killed during his life. That’s not a glowing epitaph. It’s a tragedy. Samson is a vivid illustration of the theme of Judges: “Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” God gave him every advantage and every opportunity, and he squandered them all. When a leader’s talent outpaces his character, the result is disastrous for everybody involved.

Like Israel, we are too enamored with talent and strength. We follow men and women who are gifted without asking whether they’re godly. Those of us who lead are often too quick to cultivate our skills while neglecting our character.

Character takes time to develop. There is no easy road to spiritual maturity. So we settle for a mirage. After all, who needs character when talent is so much easier to come by?

But that approach is a tragic mistake. Time and again, God’s Word shows us that He exalts character over strength. He often passes over the tallest, strongest, and most talented leaders in order to lift up the humble. He knows what we sometimes forget, that the humble person depends on God. It’s not that talent and maturity are mutually exclusive. It’s just that extremely gifted people sometimes have a harder time trusting God. Letting go of control is tricky, and it’s even tougher if you feel capable of being in charge all by yourself.

That’s why Paul’s qualifications for leadership don’t include qualities like charisma, height, good looks, eloquence, talent or strength. They are all about character. Gentleness, sobriety, peacefulness, self-control, faithfulness.

Character trumps talent every single time. If you want to make an eternal impact, if you want to lead in a way that benefits God’s people, cultivate your character first. Talent will follow if God wants you to have it. And if He doesn’t give it to you, it’s because you don’t need it.

For those looking for somebody to follow, don’t assume that the most gifted person is the best leader. Don’t make the mistake that Israel made, the mistake we too often make even today.

Ability should never outpace maturity. There is no substitute for spiritual maturity, no substitute for dependence on God, who exalts the humble and humbles the proud.

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