“A Bethlehem Story”

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | November 28, 2021

The Book of Ruth

Today is the first Sunday in Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We use this time to reflect on the meaning of God entering the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We begin today with a story from ancient times. In the bible, these times are described in the book of Judges, as when, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

There was a man named Elimelech, of the tribe of Judah, who lived in the village of Bethlehem. Because there was a famine in the land, he and his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chileon decided to leave Bethlehem and search for greener pastures. They journeyed from their village to a land called Moab. It was a journey of around 75 miles. There they settled and the two sons married local Moabite women named Orpah and Ruth.

In those days a person’s name was a reflection of personality or character. A name sometimes signified parent’s hope for their children. The name “Elimelech” meant “God is king.” Naomi meant “pleasant.” Their sons were not so fortunate in their names, as Mahlon meant “sickly” and Chileon meant “wasting away.” In time, Elimelech died. With names like “sickly” and “wasting away,” the two boys had little chance, and they soon fulfilled their names and passed from the scene.

Naomi and her daughters-in-law were left widowed. She decided to return to her native village of Bethlehem, and she told Orpah and Ruth of her plans. It was a sad occasion, for the women had grown close. Naomi was like a mother to the two younger women. There were many tears. The two young women cried, and they didn’t want to leave Naomi. “We will go with you,” they insisted. But Naomi told them, “You should go back to your own people and find husbands. I have no more sons for you to marry. You are both young women and you can still make the best of your life. As for me, the rest of my life will be bitter indeed.”

Orpah saw the sense of it all. She said her sad good-byes and went home. But Ruth was not persuaded. She clung to Naomi and said, “I am going with you. Your God will be my God and your people will be my people. Where you die, I will die also and there will I be buried.”

Naomi could see the young woman was determined to stay with her, true to the essence of her name, which meant “friend.” So the two women journeyed to Bethlehem; Naomi back to her home and family, Ruth to a new and foreign land.

There was rejoicing in the village when Naomi returned. But Naomi was in no mood to rejoice. She told the people of the village, “Do not call me pleasant as my name implies, rather, call me bitter. For God has seen fit to ruin my life. I went away full, but I return empty.”

Custom had it that widows and orphans were to be cared for by the community, and that relatives were primarily responsible for their own. Times were better now than when Naomi went away, so at least she would not have beg or starve. Family-wise, it just so happened that there was a cousin Naomi’s late husband, whose name was Boaz.

Boaz was a man of integrity and respect. What else would you expect from a man whose name meant “pillar?” He was one of the pillars of the village and it was to his charity that the two women turned. It was a custom that widows and orphans could go into the fields and follow the people harvesting the crops and pick up the leftovers.

When Boaz came to check on his fields, he saw young Ruth following the workers. Word of Ruth’s kindness to Naomi was known the village. Boaz was at least intrigued, and perhaps even a little smitten at the sight of her working in his fields.

He said to Ruth, “It is not necessary for you to follow my workers in order to pick up the scraps. Just work along with them and pick what you need. You’ve been kind to Naomi and so we’ll be kind to you. I’ve instructed my men to leave you alone, so as long as you stay in my fields, you’ll be safe.”

Later on, Boaz happened by at lunch time and he invited Ruth to share his lunch. When she returned to the fields, he told his workers, “See that she gets a little extra grain in her bag.”

That night Ruth went home to Naomi not with a few meager gleanings of grain, but with a half-bushel of grain. When Naomi learned that it was the generosity of Boaz that provided the bounty, Boaz the eligible bachelor, Naomi began to work on an idea. A plan began to take shape.

Every day up until the end of the harvest, Ruth returned to the fields Boaz owned. She worked along side the harvesters. To Boaz she became a welcome sight.

One day after work, Naomi sat Ruth down and laid out her plan. This is what happened: The grain had been harvested. There was a harvest celebration and Boaz had a little too much to drink. He was sleeping in the threshing barn in order to guard his grain.

While Boaz slept, Ruth quietly entered the threshing barn and lay down at his feet. Boaz awoke in the pitch dark, suddenly aware that something was different from when he went to sleep. There was another person in the room, a warm female person lying at his feet.

“Who are you?” he cried. “I am Ruth, your maidservant,” came the answer. It’s cold in here, so cover me with your blanket.” Boaz could not mistake her meaning. She was proposing marriage to him. Ruth was a fine young woman and she could have any man she chose. But of all the men in the village, including much younger men, she chose him, Boaz. That alone probably made him feel younger than his years.

There was just one catch. Here we need to take a little side trip in our story. Back in the days when the Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, God made them a promise. The promise was, “I will free you from slavery and will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with might acts of judgment. You will be my people and I will be your God.” God freed the people and after many years brought them to the land they now occupied. It was an act of redemption.

From that experience of redemption, a custom arose. A person could be sold into slavery for many reasons. Failure to pay a debt, punishment for a crime, or even to seek a kind of economic security. But anyone could buy a person out of slavery and set them free. It was an act of kindness. Kindness intended to reflect the kindness God showed the people in setting them free. There were many customs intended to show kindness to strangers, as the people once knew what it was to be strangers and captives in a foreign land. It was these customs which were at work in the kindness people showed Ruth as a foreigner in their midst.

Now Ruth was proposing marriage to Boaz. As a cousin of her late father-in-law, he had every right to marry her. But if he did, any children born of the marriage would carry the name of her late husband. That was how they maintained continuity in their lineage. But the one catch was that there was another relative who was a closer cousin than Boaz to the late Elimelech.

Boaz had to clear it with this other cousin before he could marry Ruth. If he were to come out and say the obvious, “I want to marry Ruth, the beautiful young Moabite widow of my late cousin Elimelech’s family,” the obvious result would be that her stock would rise, and her price might become too expensive for Boaz.

Like any good wheeler and dealer, and following the lines of this story, Boaz did not state the obvious. Instead, he gathered the village elders at the village gate where all the official business happened, and he proposed a deal to his next of kin. Boaz announced: “Naomi wishes to sell a parcel of land belonging to her late husband. If you, being his closest relative, wish to purchase it, please say so, otherwise I would like to buy it.”

The relative said, “I’ll buy it.”

Then Boaz said, “Fine, when will the wedding take place?”

“Wedding? What wedding?”

“The wedding between you and the Moabite widow Ruth. Of course, you know that she comes with the property. And since she is a widow, when you marry her your children will bear the name of her late husband.”

At this information the next of kin backed off. “That would complicate my own inheritance, so I’ll have to pass on this one.”

“In that case,” said Boaz. “I will buy the land.”

There in presence of the elders, Boaz bought the land. They sealed the contract in the manner of the times by exchanging sandals. Boaz and Ruth were soon thereafter married. We might say they lived happily ever after, but that isn’t the way stories in the Bible are told. Like the manner in which Boaz secured his new wife, the point or moral of stories in the Middle East are not stated in point blank, obvious ways. Truth tends to be subtle. Like a finely woven fabric, the tale is woven so that a pattern begins to emerge. Only later does one see the whole pattern.

One pattern we see in this Bethlehem story is that God is mentioned only indirectly; once where it says, “And the Lord enabled Ruth to conceive.” Afterward she gave birth to a son. They named the infant Obed and women of the village said to Naomi, “The Lord has restored your life. Ruth gave her son to Naomi and Naomi nursed him as she would her own child. Naomi’s happiness was profound. Her life had come full circle and she lived knowing that as God would never abandon his people, God would never abandon her. And that in itself is a good moral to the story.

That would make a nice ending. A happy ending, but for one brief epilogue, the mention of what happened later. Like a reminder of how God always keeps a promise, in this case the promise, “I will redeem you.” the ending of the story is that Ruth’s great-grandson was David, the great king of Israel. One wonders if perhaps the great Psalm of David, the Lord is my shepherd, is not a reflection of his grandmother’s story and the stories of all the other women in his family; stories of women who walked through the valley of the shadow of death; who feared no evil; who sat at God’s table to a feast prepared in the presence of their enemies.

Then 26 generations after David, a descendant of Ruth the one-time Moabite widow, also returned to the village of Bethlehem, his ancestral home. His name was Joseph and with him was his wife Mary. That, of course, begins a different Bethlehem story. The one we are living out today. Amen.

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