December 12, 2018

Sermon: Extraordinary Love

Harvest in the Heartland (2018)

Sermon: Extraordinary Love
Ruth 1:16-17

…Ruth said,
‘Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’

• Ruth 1:16-17

• • •

You may never have heard of a couple named Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin, but theirs is one of the great love stories of my lifetime.

Dr. Robertson McQuilkin was a respected Bible teacher, author, and missionary leader. When I was in college, he was president of Columbia Bible College in South Carolina. During the 1980s his wife Muriel began showing signs that her memory was deteriorating. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but continued to try and live as normally as possible.

Gradually, Muriel began losing her life. She had to give up the radio program she had. Then she had to give up speaking and all forms of public ministry. She tried to stay involved in the life of the college and continue counseling the students who came to her, but soon she couldn’t do that. Even the letters she wrote to her children were becoming incomprehensible. In 1990, McQuilkin described her condition as “a slow dying for me to watch the vibrant, creative, articulate person I knew and loved gradually dimming out.’

That year at age 57, Dr. McQuilkin approached the board of the college and told them they should search for his successor. If Muriel were to need him full-time, he planned to step down. But it was a struggle for the college president. He had devoted his life to Christian service and his ministry was now at its height, with an impact all around the world. What was even harder was for him to hear his colleagues remind him of that. They thought he should arrange for care Muriel so that he could continue to serve Christ and his Kingdom. After all, did not Jesus say that sometimes we must leave our loved ones to follow him? Against this counsel, Robertson McQuilkin resigned from Columbia in 1990 to care for his dear wife Muriel.

About this decision he said, “When the time came, the decision was firm. It took no great calculation. It was a matter of integrity. Had I not promised, 42 years before, “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part”?

Besides, McQuilkin said,“She is such a delight to me. I don’t have to care for her, I get to.”

That, my friends, is extraordinary love.

There is a word in Hebrew that is one of the most important words in the Book of Ruth. It is the word “hesed.” In your Bible it is sometimes translated “love,” or “grace,” or “mercy,” or “kindness,” or “lovingkindness.” Some of the newer versions use the phrase “steadfast love” or “covenant love” to translated it. I would vote for “hesed” as the greatest single word in the Hebrew Bible. It describes God’s committed, everlasting love for us, and it describes the extraordinary love that people can show each other with God’s help.
In Ruth, it is primarily the human expression of this committed love, particularly on the part of Ruth and Boaz, that is emphasized. These ordinary people show extraordinary love, and by doing so, they rescue Naomi and her family from a desperate situation.

The famous text I read from Ruth 1:16-17 is her expression of the determination she has to stay with Naomi, to help her in times of trouble, to never leave her or forsake her. This text is often used in wedding ceremonies to describe the importance of lifetime promises, but in this situation it is spoken by a young woman willing to give up everything to help a family member in need.

Let me read it again:

…Ruth said,

‘Do not press me to leave you
   or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!’

Do you remember the background? Naomi and her husband had gone to Moab in time of famine with their two sons. The sons married Moabite women — Ruth and Orpah. The husband and two sons died, leaving Naomi with her two daughters-in-law. When Naomi heard that God had once again blessed Israel with a harvest, she decided to return. She argued that it would be better for the younger women to stay in Moab and find a new life there. That would be the prudent and sensible thing for them. Orpah was finally convinced and she went back to her childhood home to try and resume her life. But Ruth refused, casting her lot in with Naomi.

Because Ruth is the hero of this story, we sometimes criticize Orpah for turning back. I don’t think she deserves that. She did the sensible, responsible thing. She showed respect for her mother-in-law’s wisdom and counsel, just as she had shown faithful loyalty to Naomi for many years. She did the right thing, the expected thing, and in context a rather wise thing.

However, when Naomi urged Ruth to do the same, she put her foot down. No way! she said. I’m sticking with you, no matter what happens!

If Orpah takes the expected action, Ruth clearly insists on taking the unexpected way. If Orpah represents the ordinary course of wisdom, Ruth exemplifies something extraordinary. If Orpah’s decision is perfectly understandable, Ruth’s is unimaginable. Risking everything, she casts her lot in with Naomi.

Some have said that Ruth’s faith here surpasses even that of Abraham, the father of our faith. When God called Abraham he gave him a promise and every time Abraham took a new step, he did so on the basis of God’s clear word.

In contrast, Ruth’s future was entirely uncertain — she had no husband, no possessions, no prospects, and no divine promises to hang on to. She was leaving her home and all that had been natural to her. She chose to go live in a community that was not only foreign but also extremely prejudiced against her people. There was no guarantee she would find welcome and every chance she would be marginalized. The only friend she had to accompany her was a sad, bitter, and defeated older woman, and Ruth was not only going to have to try and make a life for herself, but she was taking on the burden of helping her mother-in-law through her discouragement and difficulty. Ruth had no word from God and no comfort or positive prospects on earth. She had only one thing that we will learn about through the rest of this book: Ruth had an extraordinary spirit of faith that works through love.

The decisions Ruth and her sister Orpah take place at turning points that may come to us at certain times in our lives. Something happens, something changes, and now I must ask myself:

What should I do at this point? Should I set out on the safe way? the sensible path? the expected course? Should I do the thing that looks responsible and safe? There may be absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, it may be the best thing to do for you and your loved ones.

Or, on the other hand, should this be an occasion that prompts me to take an extraordinary step of faith? Is it time for me to leave behind what is familiar? Is it time for me to be willing to relinquish a little bit of my security? Is this where I need to recognize and abandon the gods I have been following? Is it time to take a risk, to step out into the darkness, trusting that God will light my path? Is there something or someone who may need me at this time to go beyond ordinary ways of loving to give them a love that goes above and beyond, a love that is extraordinary?

In 1990, Dr. Robertson McQuilkin left the presidency of Columbia Bible College and a worldwide ministry of Bible teaching and missions to care for his wife, who was sinking down into the depths of Alzheimers disease. By 1993, Muriel McQuilkin could no longer recognize her husband. In 1996, Dr. McQuilkin wrote that she was no longer able to contribute any of the relational interaction that most of us consider essential to a happy marriage. He stayed with her and cared for her until she died in September, 2003.

In 1990, he said to Muriel, I’m not going to leave you. I’m not going to turn back. Where you are, I will be. No matter what else happens, there will always be the two of us. Sorry…there will always be the three of us — God in his extraordinary love will light our way through the darkness. His love will carry us and sustain us.

And it did for thirteen years.

Ordinary people, extraordinary love. Energized by a God who says, there is nothing in all creation that can separate you from my love for you in Christ.

Comments

  1. Heather Angus says:

    This true story is such a beautiful one, Chaplain Mike.”Whither thou goest, I will go.”

  2. Pellicano Solitudinis says:

    Susan, I think this one’s for you.

    I am thinking of you often this weekend.

  3. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Hi Pellicano.
    I appreciate your noting this. I have always loved the story of Ruth.
    Would you believe at morning tea, after church this morning there were three wedding anniversaries to celebrate.
    Lots of finger foods and coffee.
    One dear couple who are still reasonably agile were celebrating their 62nd anniversary!!
    Many rounds of “For they are jolly good fellows”.

    I saw John later but did not bring up the topic of our anni. He gave me a slight hug and a whisper kiss as I left.
    That made my day.
    Small blessings but they meant a lot to me.
    Susan

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    Pretty much the nuts and bolts of what a Christian life should be.

  5. senecagriggs says:

    I remember reading Robertson McQuilken’s story. Such a great, great man. I think I heard Mrs. M lived 17 years instead of 13, but Robertson stood as a man should stand.

  6. Two things strike me here. The first is that the small (taking care of his wife) so often gets overlooked for the grandiose (running a giant ministry). As Americans it is built into our psyche that big is more important. God’s country is is not bordered by the Atlantic and the Pacific and His ways are most certainly not defined by the ethos therein! The second is that we often take comfort in knowing that He loves us with that Ruth kind of love but don’t think as often about His desire for that kind of love from us.