This morning we wrap up our study of the book of Ruth, a story about God's faithful loving-kindness and redemption, set in ancient Israel when chieftains ruled the 12 tribes. This book is like an ancient Jane Austen novel that starts with tragedy and, as you'll hear in just a minute, ends with a wedding and a baby. Remember that last week Ruth went to meet Boaz in the middle of the night and asked him to act as kinsmen-redeemer for her and Naomi, to protect and provide for them as members of his family. And Boaz promised to do so, but first had to offer the opportunity to another family member. This year we are following the Jewish tradition of studying this book during the season of Pentecost when the story took place. From the time of ancient Israel to the early church, God's people recognized that new things seem to happen during Pentecost. Harvest, God's giving of the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai, the birth of King David, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus. And this Pentecost season, new things are happening for us too here at Zion. God's Spirit is moving among us and we are looking for new ways to experience and express God's faithful loving-kindness and redemption. This final chapter of Ruth helps us envision what is possible when we accept our Pentecost invitation to live with boldness and practice extravagant welcome.
Scripture Reading Ruth 4:1-22
Narrator: No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin he told Ruth about came by.
So Boaz said,
Boaz: ‘Come over, friend; and sit down here.’
Narrator: And the kinsman went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said,
Boaz: ‘Sit down here’;
Narrator: So they sat down. He then said to the next-of-kin:
Boaz: “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the piece of land that belonged to our relative Elimelech.
I thought I should bring the matter to your attention and suggest that you buy it in the presence of these seated here and in the presence of the elders of our people.
If you will redeem it, do so; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for no one has the right to redeem it before you do and I am next in line.’
Kinsman: ‘I will redeem it.’
Boaz: ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth* the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’
Kinsman: ‘Then I cannot redeem it because I might endanger my own estate. You redeem it yourself. I cannot do it.’
Narrator: Now in earlier times in Israel, in order for the redemption and transfer of property to become final, one party took off his sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of legalizing transactions in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, ‘Redeem it yourself’, he took off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people,
Boaz: ‘Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech, Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, Mahlon's widow, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, so that the name of the dead will not disappear from among his family and his hometown; today you are witnesses.’
Narrator: Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, ‘We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you do something mighty in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem. Through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.’
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a kinsman-redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel!
He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his caregiver. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Now these are the descendants of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron of Ram, Ram of Amminadab, Amminadab of Nahshon, Nahshon of Salmon, Salmon of Boaz, Boaz of Obed, Obed of Jesse, and Jesse of David.
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Finish this verse with me: Romans 8:28, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God's purpose."
This is a verse about redemption, about God's ability to bring beauty out of chaos and blessing out of tragedy. It's a verse we quote when we are searching for meaning in our pain. We say things like, "Everything happens for a reason." Because we often think of God as a bigger and better human, we assume that with ultimate power, God is exercising ultimate choice. And since we want to believe that God is loving and good, we assume God must have a purpose for the painful things we experience.
This morning I'd like to push on that assumption just a little bit. I feel OK about doing this because, like I said a few weeks ago, the Scripture pushes on that belief. Sometimes it seems like God is behind everything and has a purpose for everything. And sometimes it seems like things are just happening. And then sometimes it seems like maybe God has some intention that may or may not be related to your individual health and wealth but it doesn't matter because you don't get to know what it is!
This morning, I want to show you one way we can think about this based on what we see in the story of Ruth. First of all, remember that the Bible is the record of many different people's interpretation of their experience of the holy over thousands of years. Although we can find consistent themes, by design our sacred text contains conflicting testimonies about God. AND I personally accept it as the inspired Word of God. I think these conflicting testimonies are by design so that each person and each culture throughout history can find ourselves in the text, an example of where we are now and a vision of what it would look like for us to grow in faith and trust. So. The book of Ruth.
Ruth chapter 1 starts with tragedy. It starts with famine and emigration and death. It starts with a vulnerable older women who feels helpless and hopeless. God is not named in this. There's no statement of purpose, of why these tragedies happened. But more importantly I want to point out that there is no statement of blame. The famine is not described as a punishment on Israel, and Elimelech and his sons do not die because they sinned. So contrary to our persistent human obsession with health and wealth, this story testifies that it is possible for awful things to just happen to you. Sometimes bad experiences are the natural consequence of immoral or unhealthy actions. But the fact that you are sick or suffering does not have to mean that God is punishing you for something, so you don't have to spend time trying to figure out what you did. The story of Ruth says sometimes tragedy just happens.
In chapter 2, events begin to occur by chance. Ruth happens to wind up gleaning in the field belonging to one of the men with the power to change her situation for the better by acting as her kinsmen-redeemer. And wouldn't you know it, that guy just happens to show up while she's working and he happens to notices her! And once he finds out who she is, he singles her out for favor and blessing, doing this because she has been a blessing to Naomi. Ruth's deliberate actions of faithful loving-kindness to Naomi are the talk of the town and Boaz wants to reward her for that. He SAYS, "May God reward you," but then he personally carries out the actions of rewarding her. In the book of Ruth we see human beings acting as we expect God to act. So who is the one making all things work together for good?
In chapter 3, it gets even more complicated. As Lisa mentioned last week, this encounter at night between Ruth and Boaz is ... sketchy. One of my parents' most common instructions to me when I was a kid was 1 Thessalonians 5:22, which the King James translates as "Avoid the appearance of evil." At the very least, this encounter between Ruth and Boaz is not avoiding the appearance of evil! At the very least, we can raise our eyebrows and wonder what might have happened under cover of darkness between two people who were attracted to each other. Maybe nothing happened. Maybe God made the best of a sketchy situation. Or maybe something outside our standards of what is acceptable was totally inside God's plan.
But finally in chapter 4, God decisively acts. Verse 13 says, "So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord made her conceive and she bore a son." And that's the only place in the whole Bible where pregnancy is described that way. Not with Sarah or Hannah or Rachel or any other barren women. Here with Ruth, "God made her conceive."
The story of Ruth testifies that regardless of what you believe about chance, there are some times in our lives when God decisively acts, when we have no other explanation for how something happened. The other thing this story asserts is that God's activity follows after human activity. One of the ancient Jewish discussions of Ruth says at this point, "Boaz did his part, and Ruth did hers, and Naomi did hers; [then] the Holy One said, 'I too will do mine!'" This story takes the perspective that God's miracles happen after humans have done all they can. Not that a miracle will happen every time human effort runs out, but that it may not happen until humans have done what they can.
The story that began with tragedy ends with King David. Israel's greatest king and the forerunner of the Messiah is the great-grandson of an immigrant, a foreign woman, from one of Israel's most despised enemies. Which brings us back to the question we asked at the beginning: does everything happen for a reason? Maybe. You could choose to see it that way. Bethlehem had to suffer a famine and three men had to die and three women had to be widowed so that King David could be born. OR you could choose to see it this way: Famine happens. People die. We suffer grief and loneliness and exclusion and hunger. But God's desire for redemption cannot and will not be thwarted, and even out of all that suffering, God raises up a savior.
But as this story reminds us, God doesn't do it alone. Remember Romans 8:28 that we quoted at the beginning? "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God." Well, that is a very fair translation of that verse. But ancient Greek is different enough from English that we have a few other options. What I'm about to share with you are interpretations you can find in the footnotes of your Bibles. I did not come up with them myself. Let's hear the most common translation again: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God."
Now see how this strikes you: "We know that IN ALL THINGS, God works for the good of those who love God." Not that all things must necessarily have some good purpose, but that in all things God is at work for good. However, still both of these verses say the good is happening only for those who love God.
So here's one more faithful translation. It's more radical and I think it best represents what we see in Ruth: "In all things / God works / together with those who love God / to bring about what is good." Listen to that again. "In all things God works together with those who love God to bring about what is good." All three translations share the assertion that something good is always possible and that God is at work. The only question is, "Are we going to get on board with the good God wants to do in the world?" Ruth and Boaz worked together with God for good, and we are invited to do the same. Amen.