Sermon manuscript for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists
Sabbath, November 22, 2014
(Credit: As usual, I accessed the Bible through Blue Letter Bible.com.)
Text: The Book of Ruth
Once upon a time there were two young lovers—Eli (Elimelech) and Naomi. They lived on a farm near the town of Bethlehem. They had two boys, Mahlon and Chilion. Life was good.
But as you already know, from the way this story begins, something bad is going to happen. You don't know what's going to happen, but if the story begins with everything wonderful, you know something bad is going to happen. Because wonderful does not last forever, not in this world.
The boys were still toddlers when the drought started. Crops failed. It became a hungry country. Eli and Naomi had enough stored grain to make it for another year, but then . . .? Well, if rain came, everything would be okay. Otherwise . . .
Eli proposed they sell their surplus, take the money and emigrate to Moab. Eli had heard things were better there.
So Eli and Naomi emptied their storehouses. They sold everthing, and given the elevated prices because of the famine, they made a good profit. They took their cash and headed southeast toward Moab.
In Moab, things were better. Perhaps Eli was a trader, a born salesman? However he made his living, it appears the family prospered. The boys grew up. Life was good.
But you it can't last. It's too early in the story. “Life is good” doesn't last forever, not in this world.
Then the great horror happened. Eli died. The prosperous trader, the head of the household, the pillar of the family died. Naomi was devastated. Eli was the light of her life, her protector, her economic security. Now what? She couldn't just quit living. She was a mother. She had two boys who needed her. She pulled the family together. They continued the family business. The boys were old enough to be real help, to act as the public front of the family. The boys got married. Local girls. Moabite girls, not Jewish girls. But they were good girls. Naomi loved them. They loved her.
Naomi looked forward to a houseful of grandkids. She was beginning to fill the void left by Eli with new joys, new anticipations. Life was good.
But you know what's coming. “Life is good” doesn't last forever. Not in this world.
The boys died. Before either of them had children.
This was the bottom, the bottomless abyss, the black chasm. When Eli died, Naomi still had her sons. They needed her. And she could count on them. They were still a family. And when she looked at her sons, she saw their sons and their daughters. She saw a future worth staying alive for. But now?
Naomi looked at her daughters-in-law and didn't see a family. She did not see a future worth staying alive for. She saw young women who needed husbands and families—something Naomi could never provide. She saw young women who would never have Naomi's grandchildren. Naomi could no longer take care of people she loved. In fact, she was now a burden, an impediment. Whatever chances these girls might have of getting married again—Naomi's existence in their lives would be a problem. What man in his right mind would want to marry a girl who came equipped with an ex-mother-in-law?
It was time to split up. “You girls need to go back home. Maybe your fathers can find you another husband. You are both beautiful and good. I love you. You have been the best daughters-in-law a mother could ever hope for. Now, go back home. And may God be as kind to you as you have been to me.”
She hugged the girls. They all clung to one another crying and crying. This was not the way life was supposed to go. But what could they do?
Orpah was the first to speak. “Naomi, I'm not leaving. You are my home. Who will take care of you you if we leave? You are my mother. I love you. I'm not going to leave you.”
Naomi argued. “Look, I have no more sons. I cannot fix you up with a husband. What are three women going to do? How will we manage? You've got to go back to your father's house. I'm headed back to Bethlehem—back to my father's house, I guess you'd say. You should do the same.”
Orpah cried some more. Protested. Cried. Finally, she gave Naomi a last hug. “Okay. I guess you're right.” She pulled herself away and headed down the road toward her father's house.
Naomi turned to Ruth. “Okay, Orpah went home. It's time now for you to go.”
“Don't even say it,” Ruth said. “I'm not leaving. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!
Naomi knew Ruth. She could see the fierceness in her eyes. Naomi capitulated. What else could she do?
The two women headed down the highway toward Bethlehem.
Imagine for a minute watching this as a scene in a movie. We watch Naomi face the reality that her life is over. She has lost everything—her husband, her sons, her livelihood. Her two daughters-in-law are all that is left of sweetness and light and she cannot allow them to stay. The only way to give any shot at all at a future is to send them home.
Watch her arguing with Orpah. Finally Orpah goes. Now she turns to Ruth. Once Ruth is gone, Naomi is going trudge down the road back toward Bethlehem, going home to die. It is a sadness beyond endurance. We feel the length of the road, the hopelessness, the loneliness.
Then we watch the happy fierceness in Ruth's voice. We realize there's a chance Naomi will not be left alone. We hear the words of Ruth's adamant refusal: Don't even think of asking me to leave you. I'm not going away. Wherever you go, I will go. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. In the cemetery, my plot will be right next to yours.
The camera follows as the two women together start down the long road. And the tightness in our gut relaxes just a bit. Ruth is the daughter-in-law from heaven. Naomi is not going home alone. Even without the rest of the book, the story is transformed from abject tragedy into a heroic tale.
19 So they two went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came to pass, when they were come to Bethlehem, that all the city was moved about them, and they said, Is this Naomi? 20 And she said unto them, Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went out full, and the LORD hath brought me home again empty: why then call ye me Naomi, seeing the LORD hath testified against me, and the Almighty hath afflicted me? [Ruth 1:19-21 KJV]
Bethlehem was a small town. When the two women showed up, the entire town was abuzz with the news. Naomi is back. And did you hear, Elimelech died. And Mahlon and Chilion, too. Terrible! All she has left is her Moabite daughter-in-law.
The way Naomi saw it, she was the target of some pique in heaven. God had gotten ticked off at her. It was God who soured her fortunes, who turned her blessings upside down and cursed her. Naomi knew this for sure. She was wrong. But still that's what she knew. Hard times were proof God was against her. Naomi believed this with all her heart.
And she was wrong. And we are wrong when we interpret our hard times this way. But it's so natural to do. Why me? We shout at the sky when things go terribly wrong.
God was not mad at Naomi because she was a woman. She and Ruth are the principal characters, the heroes in this book.
God was not mad at her because she had gone to Moab. There is no hint in this book that Eli and Naomi were wrong to move to Moab. To contrary, the grand climax of the book is that God makes Ruth the Moabitess, the great grandmother of David, the archetypal ancestor of the Messiah.
Ruth and Naomi got settled in on the old farmstead. It was barley harvest and within a few days of arriving back in Bethlehem, Ruth proposed that she go and glean. Naomi approved, and Ruth set out.
In the first field she approaches, the foreman welcomes her. She went to work, carefully staying out of the way of the workers.
Sometime during the morning, the property owner came by to check on the progress of the harvest. He noticed the stranger gleaning. Remember this was a small town. Everyone knew everyone. A stranger stood out.
“Who's that?” Boaz asked the foreman. Actually, what Boaz said was, “Who does she belong to?” In that society, every woman belonged to man—either as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a servant.
But Ruth did not belong to a man. And the foreman, honoring that reality answered by telling Boaz who she was instead of who she belonged to.
“Oh, that's Ruth, the Moabite girl who came back with Naomi. She' s been hard at work all morning.
Boaz had heard the story of Ruth's loyalty to Naomi. Loyalty inspires admiration. Boaz went over to talk with her. “Listen,” he said, “I've heard about your kindness to Naomi. Don't go to any other field. Work here near my servant woman. I have commanded the men not to touch you. You'll be safe here. And feel free to help yourself to water from the jars the men have drawn from the well. Don't go to any other field.”
Ruth blushed. She was amazed that an important person like Boaz would take notice of her. I think it's clear already there is chemistry between these two. Sparks. This is love at first sight, supported, of course, by Ruth's reputation, which had already spread through the entire town.
At lunch time, Boaz was back at the field and pointedly gave treats to Naomi.
When Ruth got home that evening, she told Naomi about her day. Naomi's eye's widened. “Boaz is one of our close relatives. He is qualified to redeem our property. You do what he says. You work only in his fields.”
Ruth worked all through the harvest. First the barley harvest, then the wheat harvest. I imagine there were other evenings when Ruth came home with stories about conversations with Boaz.
Near the end of the harvest, Naomi figured it was time for a strategic intervention.
She instructed Ruth, “Tonight, get yourself all dolled up. After sundown, go down to the threshing floor. Wait until Boaz has finished eating and drinking. When he's good and happy and lies down to sleep, sneak over, lie at his feet and ask him to spread his cloak over you.”
Ruth does as Naomi says. Boaz was not just sleepy when Ruth lay down at his feet, he was asleep. Sometime in the night he woke up enough to realize there was someone lying at his feet. He startled and sat up. “Who's there?”
“It's me, Ruth. Spread you cloak over me.” If this were a modern movie, she'd say, “Kiss me.”
“Ruth! Really?” Boaz was flustered. What do you say when a beautiful woman who've been watching all summer suddenly wakes you up in the middle of the night and proposes to you? Boaz goes all formal. “The LORD bless you, my dear girl! You are showing even more family loyalty now than you did before, for you have not gone after a younger man, whether rich or poor. Now don’t worry about a thing. I will do what is necessary, for everyone in town knows you are an amazing woman.”
There was one possible complication, Boaz said. There was another man, another relative, who had a higher claim on the family property than Boaz. “I'll talk to him.” Boaz said. “If he exercises his right, I'll have to step aside, but if he doesn't I will gladly make you my own.
“Stay here with me tonight. In the morning, I'll send you home before first light. Don't tell anyone you've been here, but you can count on me. If that other guy doesn't exercise his prior claim, I will certainly marry you.”
Ruth stayed with him through the night. I imagine both of them trembling with eagerness and fear. They both wanted this marriage. They were in love. But in that society love did not trump other considerations, like property rights. Ruth belonged to Naomi's property. Whoever owned the property would own Ruth. Ruth wanted to belong to Boaz. Boaz wanted Ruth to be his.
Just as the blackness of the eastern horizon began to touched with light, Ruth headed home. When she got home she bubbled over telling Naomi all about her night. Naomi said, “Don't worry, he will not let any grass grow under his feet. He'll take care of it today.”
And he did.
There was a wedding. Nine months later there was a baby boy.
At the shower after the birth, the women gathered around Naomi who was holding the baby.
Then the women of the town said to Naomi, “Praise the LORD, who has now provided a redeemer for your family! May this child be famous in Israel. May he restore your youth and care for you in your old age. For he is the son of your daughter-in-law who loves you and has been better to you than seven sons!”
This son was Obed, the grandfather of David, the archetypal king of Israel, the model of Israel's vision of the Messiah. The movie ends with this scene of Naomi cuddling her grandson. In the background, her daughter-in-law from heaven and her new son-in-law.
But did you catch that last line spoken by the women gathered around Naomi and baby Obed? “Ruth, your daughter-in-law is better than seven sons! What a celebration! What an affirmation!
In a society where every women was the property of a man and sons were the names recorded in genealogies, Ruth is declared to be more precious to Naomi than seven sons.
And it was true.
Early in the story, we saw dramatic evidence of Naomi's goodness. Her daughters-in-law, even after their husbands have died, even when it was clear their mother-in-law had absolutely nothing of this world's goods to give them, both Ruth and Orpah clung to her. Naomi must have been the mother-in-law from heaven. What Ruth saw of God in the face and life of Naomi must have been glorious, indeed.
Then the tables turned. Ruth saved Naomi. When Naomi thought all that was left to her was to trudge home and die. Alone. Ruth fiercely refused. I will not leave you. I will go with you.
Then through her family connections Naomi is able to provide for Ruth the husband Naomi had thought it utterly impossible to provide.
And Ruth—the charming, hard-working, winsome lass—won Boaz's affection and now provided Naomi the grandson she knew she would never have, and a home where she will be loved and sustained in her old age.
It was the perfect Thanksgiving scene, a family at peace. Connected across the generations, in spite of the losses and tragedies, in spite of the chaos of life.
Who has been a Naomi in your life? Representing the very face of God? Who has shown you that God is love? Who has given you hope and affection and love?
Who has been a Ruth in your life? Refusing to accept your own capitulation to defeat? Has someone given you back your life when you did not think living was possible?
This week as we approach Thanksgiving, I invite you to search your memory for the people who have blessed your life, people who have been the goodness of God for you. And I invite you to spend some time in prayer, asking God to help you find ways to be the face of God, the goodness of God, for someone else. Complete the circle of beneficence that flows from heaven in blessings and returns in thanksgiving.