December 11, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Introduction to Scripture:
The gospel of Matthew opens with the genealogy of Jesus in order to establish that Jesus will be born of the house of the great King David. Jesus will be the son of David, the King of Kings. In order to show this line of descent, the gospel lists 42 generations of fathers and sons. Now obviously if there were 42 fathers and sons, there must have been 42 mothers as well but Matthew only mentions four of them — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba — and actually, if we are to be literal about it, he names only three women. If you are looking for Bathsheba in the genealogy, you will find her listed only as “the wife of Uriah.” Matthew lists these women because, while his lineage of the grandfathers tells us that Jesus will be a King, the four grandmothers tell us something about the character of Jesus’ rule. In my sermons on Tamar and Rahab, I talked about how their presence in the genealogy warned the reader that just as Jesus’ ancestry is tainted with scandal, so too Jesus’ ministry will be scandalous. He will consort with sinners and die a shameful death. I’m not going to preach on Bathsheba because next week is the Children’s Pageant so this is the last sermon of the series but Bathsheba is there to hammer home the point that Matthew already made when he included Tamar and Rahab, which is why he lists her as “Uriah’s wife,” to remind the reader of the sins that David committed when he took Bathsheba — Uriah’s wife — into his bed. If you want to read that scandalous story, you can find it in II Samuel 11 and 12.
There is one of the four women, however, who is included in the genealogy to tell us something else about the baby about to be born besides the fact that he will welcome the sinners and be rejected by the religiously pure. Matthew mentions the grandmother Ruth because her life foreshadowed the Savior who would be called Emmanuel, God with us.
Matthew 1:1-6 says, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth.”
There are some stories in the Bible that are so poignant and so beautifully written that to preach on these stories feels superfluous at best, a desecration at worst. It’s like sitting in a classroom lecturing on the beauty of a sunset instead of just encouraging you to go out and look at it for yourself. Ruth is one of these stories, and so I will begin this sermon by saying that if you have never read the book of Ruth, take a few minutes some time to read it and linger over its skillful story-telling. Read it slowly and pay attention to the way the story-teller builds the plot, and constantly uses plays on words to develop the themes of reversal and redemption. Or if you are listening to this sermon by podcast, pause the recording, go find a Bible and read Ruth for yourself — it’s only four chapters. If you still feel the need for this sermon, you can come back and resume the podcast, but maybe you will discover that you just want to savor the story for a while, because it is that kind of book.
The book of Ruth, nestled between the bloody descriptions of conquest in the book of Judges and the political intrigues of the monarchy in I Samuel, is a most human story about one family and about a love so steadfast that it has the power to bring life where there was once death, and hope where there was only despair. This is a story about kindness so persistent that it changes not only the life of the person to whom that kindness is offered but ultimately changes the entire world as we know it because without this kindness, Christ would not have been born. The story of Ruth, a woman of steadfast love, and of Naomi, the grief stricken widow upon whom Ruth’s kindness is bestowed, is a story about the power of presence. And so it is the perfect story to point our way to Ruth’s great-great-many-times-over grandson who will be born to us at Christmas and who be called “Emmanuel, God with us.”
Ruth and Naomi’s story begins — as does Jesus’ story — in Bethlehem, a city whose name literally means, “house of bread,” yet at the beginning of this story, the name is a mockery because famine covers the land, and there is no bread in Bethlehem. Fearful that his family will starve, a man named Elimelech decides to takes his wife Naomi and their two sons east to the country of Moab hoping that there he can find food and a future for his family. Soon after their move, his two sons marry Moabite women, and for a brief moment — for one short verse in the story — things look bright for Elimelech’s family, but it is only a tease. There is no life for this family in the country of Moab; there is only death because first Elimelech dies, and then, before they can even sire children, his two sons follow their father to the grave. Elimelech’s wife Naomi survives whatever disease killed her husband and her two sons but in those days, a widowed childless old woman is only slighter better off than the dead. Naomi came to Moab seeking life for her family but receives only death. Those listening to the story would not have been surprised by this tragic turn of events because the Israelites had no love for Moab. It was, they thought, an uncouth country full of rough ignorant people, a place of little account.
“Can anything good come out of Moab?” they must have scoffed, and then shook their heads at the foolishness of Elimelech and Naomi for expecting to receive anything from the land of the Moabites.
Naomi comes to the same conclusion. Without support and far from home, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem where, it is reported, the famine has abated. When she announces her decision, her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, offer to go with her, but Naomi has nothing to give them in return. She sees nothing for them back in Bethlehem. In a rush of self-pity, she says, “Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
Naomi doesn’t want these two young women to be mistaken in her intent: she is not returning to Bethlehem because she believes that she will find life again there; she is going to Bethlehem to die. She believes that her life is over and she decides to return home in the way an old dog might seek out its familiar bed where it can lay its head down before taking its last breath. Her daughters-in-law, however, have their whole lives ahead of them and so she tells them to stay, find new husbands, put this tearful past behind them and move on. Orpah is convinced by Naomi’s argument — it is after all, a good argument. They are young and they are more likely to find husbands if they stay in Moab among their own people, so Orpah does the most reasonable thing and tearfully bids Naomi goodbye and departs, but Ruth, in a most unreasonable, illogical, even ridiculous way, refuses to leave. Naomi tries again to persuade Ruth to go home but Ruth declares her commitment to the old woman with words that have cascaded down through history, words so poignant that even those who have never heard of Ruth or Naomi and the story of their tragedy, have probably heard these words:
“Do not press me to leave you,” Ruth says, “or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge,” and at this point, Ruth becomes so emphatic in the declaration of her friendship to Naomi that she begins to drop her verbs saying literally: “Your people/my people! Your God/my God!”
And maybe Ruth isn’t as blind to Naomi’s mood as Naomi thinks because Ruth concludes her declaration by saying to the old woman, “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!”
“This is a done deal,” Ruth says to Naomi. “No matter how much you may argue with me, I have already given myself to you and to your future because your people are my people and your God is my God. That’s who I have become for you, and you can accept it, or you can reject it,” she says to Naomi, “but the one thing you cannot do is change it. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Many centuries later, Ruth’s words echo in Paul’s description of her great great to the many times great grandson, Jesus of whom Paul said, “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Ruth offered Naomi the greatest gift she could give her in her grief; she offered her presence, and the promise to stay with Naomi even to the end of time.
There is great power in presence. Debbie Hall is a psychologist who volunteers for the Disaster Mental Health Team of her local Red Cross. After Hurricane Katrina, her team went to one of the shelters to meet with the evacuees and offer “psychological first aid.” She remembers that as she walked through the gate to the shelter, one of the evacuees rushed to greet her and poured out words of gratitude for her presence. Hall said, “I felt appreciated, but vaguely guilty, because I hadn’t really done anything yet…. but [such is the power of presence. There is a… ] healing power of connection created by being fully there in the quiet understanding of another. In it, none of us are truly alone.” 1
Ruth told Naomi that nothing would separate her from the old woman, not even Naomi herself, and if this were a “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” kind of story, Naomi would have been instantly healed by such a show of commitment, but the Bible is more honest about our humanity. Naomi gives in to Ruth but she also stops talking to her. It is a silent trip back to Bethlehem. And when the two arrive finally in the city, Naomi doesn’t even acknowledge Ruth’s loyalty. She tells the townspeople, “Don’t call me Naomi anymore; call me Mara which means Bitter, for God has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.”
The Lord has brought me back empty. Empty, even though Ruth is standing there right at her side. Empty even though Ruth has given up her home for Naomi. Empty even though Ruth has declared that she will remain with Naomi no matter where she goes, no matter what the future holds, even to the grave and beyond. Empty, even though this young woman who could have stayed in Moab and made a life for herself has chosen to give up her life for her friend.
“The Lord has brought me back empty,” Naomi says.
I imagine a cock crowing at the sound of those words.
But it would be wrong of us to judge Naomi too harshly, because Naomi’s pain was so all consuming that she couldn’t see anything except her pain. The Bible knows that this is the way of grief and loss: when we lose people we love, or when we lose the things that make us who we are — our job, our reputation, our perfect health, our marriage — our fear over an unknown future can consume us. Maybe you have felt that kind of deep pain, and you know that while you might be able to distract yourself from it for a moment, it lurks at the periphery of your attention waiting for you to lower your guard, waiting to pounce and consume you again. And so you become blind to anything else because you are always watching and waiting for it to strike you down again.
When we read this story, we want Ruth’s declaration of fidelity to heal Naomi instantaneously because we can see what it costs Ruth to make that promise and we want Naomi to see it as well, but the Bible is too honest to pretend that there is a quick fix for grief. When the heart is torn apart, it will bleed, and no words — even words that are as astonishingly kind as Ruth’s — can make that pain instantly go away. Naomi is blind to Ruth’s presence because Naomi can only see her own pain, but Ruth doesn’t judge her for that, or remove her offer of presence. She will continue to be with Naomi no matter how long it takes, and no matter what stands in the way of her kindness, even if the thing that stands in the way is Naomi herself. In fact, immediately after the conversation with the townspeople where Naomi treats Ruth as little more than luggage, Ruth says to Naomi, “Why don’t I go down to the fields and walk with the other beggars collecting the grain left behind from the harvest so that we will have food to eat?”
Naomi can only nod and say, “Go, my daughter,” because Naomi doesn’t care much whether she has food to eat — she has come back, after all, to die — but we see a glimmer of light in her darkness. She did, after all, just call Ruth, “My daughter.”
Eventually as the story unfolds, Ruth’s quiet presence begins to mend Naomi’s heart. When Ruth refuses the attentions of the men harvesting the barley because marrying one of them would leave Naomi once again alone, Naomi begins to really believe that Ruth means what she says. The truth of Ruth’s commitment penetrates her pain at last and lets just enough light into her darkness that Naomi is able to begin to think about something else, someone else. Naomi begins to think about Ruth and her future and realizes that maybe she does have something to offer the young woman after all — she has a kinsman, Boaz, who would make a good husband for Ruth and a marriage between the two would keep Ruth in Naomi’s family. At the end of the story, through the planning of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz come together, marry, and have a son, and when the baby is placed in Naomi’s arms, the women of the town say, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! [This baby] 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.”
Naomi came home to Bethlehem, expecting only death, but instead received life again. Although our Bible names this story, “The Book of Ruth,” it could just as well be called, “The story of Naomi,” because it is Naomi who is broken and restored to life once again through the power of a steadfast presence, through a persistent kindness full of grace.
No wonder Matthew wanted to include Ruth’s name in the lineage of Jesus because we are the Naomi’s of the world, need someone like Ruth who, when we are at our muttering, self-pitying worst, will not hold our brokenness against us, but will stay with us offering a patient presence. We need a Savior who forgives us seven times seventy times, who offers us his strength so that we may stand when we have no strength of our own to lift us from our knees. We need a Savior who refuses to accept our pessimistic belief that there is no future for us or for our world but who instead persists in working for a new tomorrow. We need a Savior who can see beyond the death of this moment to a resurrection that awaits us and who will stay with us as long as it takes for us too to see.
We need Jesus, son of David, who was the son of Jesse, who was the son of Obed, who was the son of Ruth: Ruth whose love healed Naomi and restored life to her when she thought there was nothing left for her but death. We need that Jesus, the great-great-many times over great – grandson of Ruth.
He shall be called Emmanuel, God with us. May he come into our hearts this Christmas and restore us to life.