First Congregational Church
November 27, 2015
First Sunday in Advent
“The Long View”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
For years, scientists have been studying noise in space, both intelligent noise - as in communication - and natural noise, as it explosions, moving objects and the like. They have made a pretty positive discovery that planets have a type of song called Nep-tunes. With the same idea of communication, they have also discovered that Mars told Saturn to give it a ring sometime. And for the younger folks in your life, what do you get if you cross Santa Claus with a space ship? A u-f-ho-ho-ho! As an aside, it is interesting that while there are many jokes about space, there are relatively few about stars.
When I thought about a possible series for this new church season of Advent, I came across one by a pastor and choir director from Hope Christian Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan, called “Under the Bethlehem Star.” As I read through a little of their idea of using the book of Ruth, realized that I had sort of forgotten about the link between Ruth and Jesus, there being a direct, traceable line between them that covered roughly 1,300 years. And I had totally forgotten or even completely overlooked the common link between them and Bethlehem.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
Thank you, Phil. We sing the song, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and we think about that night that Jesus was born. But 2,000 years before Christ’s birth, Bethlehem became the final resting place for Rachel, the wife of Jacob - many-colored coat fame. Then Naomi came, as I mentioned, 700 years after Rachel, and 700 years before the famous birth, the prophet Micah predicted Christ’s birth and rule would come from Bethlehem.
Back to Naomi, I’m hoping that we all saw the sad state of Bethlehem at the beginning of this morning’s passage. The famine at the time was so bad, that Elimelek moved his family 7-10 days away from home, across the Jordan River and up a 2,000 foot incline to be able to provide for them. And people today are still trying to provide for their families, even when to do so risks life and limb. And by the way, nearly half the countries in Africa in a famine state, and that’s just one continent. We English speaking Americans miss the irony of Naomi’s situation, because the name Elimelech means “God is king” – but it looks like he wasn’t ready to live as if God was his king - least-wise when it came to putting bread on the table in Bethlehem.
Or maybe he was doing what he thought his part was, God doing God’s part in providing food - in a different place than home. And there, too, lies another irony, that the name Bethlehem means “house of bread,” irony because there was no bread in any of the houses. Long before Jesus even entered the picture, Bethlehem didn’t have such a great reputation.
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most people, when they move, have an expectation that things will be better than they were in their previous abode. I know that’s not true for everyone, but even a temporary move would be better for their sons than staying in Bethlehem. Except that that they didn’t live happily ever after - in the long run.
One more detail before moving on to subsequent verses from our passage for today has to do with the mention of this family being Ephrathites. Ephratha was the old name of Bethlehem, maybe something like South Frankfort being the old name of Elberta. It’s an important inclusion, because it references an established family within their community, like the name Smeltzer or Classens, Oliver or Slyfield. When the old names move away, you know life is not good.
In a time and culture that depended on men for status and survival, Naomi and both her daughter-in-laws lost all their means for a dignified existence. At least Orpah and Naomi had the potential of a second chance at life. But Naomi was convinced she was “done for.” That kind of hopelessness leads to depression, and then the situation becomes an ever downward spiral. What reasonable person could expect anything good to come from such circumstances?
But here’s the thing; if our text tells us anything about God, it is that God’s ways are not our ways.
Perhaps deserted, definitely needing an economic boost and a few good, long slow rains, Bethlehem had stars above it, that shone day and night, just like they do now, just like they have always done - at least always in earthly terms. That Bethlehem star that brought shepherds to a stable was up there shining on Naomi and her family, Rachel and her family, and all those who lived there from the time it was settled. That star maybe shined brighter that famous night when Christ as born, but it’s been there, like God, a steady light to our world, to our darkness. We sort of forget that sometimes.
Naomi, old, perhaps, cynical? That’s what I make of her changing her name to Mara, to reflect what she understood as bitterness in her life. I wonder what she would have thought, had she been able to look into the future, to look down her lineage, in that long view, not only to see Jesus, but how their relationship changed the world and continues to do so to this very day, in seeing how God’s ways are not our ways.
And then there is Ruth, whose name means friendship, and who would have thought, way back then, of seeing Christ in a youngish woman, much less a foreigner to Naomi, or even as an out-law relative? Such vision is much easier for us looking backward, but I’m guessing it never even crossed Ruth’s mind that she would remind us of God’s presence with us, who goes beside us to be our friend, and reminds us again, that God’s ways are not our ways.
As a gentleman named Bob Deffinbaugh pointed out, in Ruth and Naomi, “we find two individuals whose lives are truly lights in the darkness.” Despite Bethlehem’s long, rather sad history, in our long reverse view, we can see how they were lights in the darkness for much of history, however small the flames, whether we see them or not.
So the point is that sometimes we need to take the long view in order to see the good in a situation, which is still true today, in our personal lives as well as in our corporate lives, as a congregational family, members of our county, our state and our nation.
Sometimes we can feel what it may have looked like in Naomi’s day - desolate, forlorn, hopeless, depressing, and any other kind of negative that we can think of. Sometimes, in our despair, we are apt to say, “to heck with this,” wanting to give up. Those are the times when we have to look for what is true in this life; what we can stand on, so that we can see a little further.
Today’s is a story that not only warm hearts, it encourages our faith by unveiling the providential hand of God in bringing salvation and blessing during one of the darkest periods in history. We are reminded, too, of God’s faithful provision of light, that has been lighting our way longer than we may realize, maybe not as bright as we’d like it to be, but there none-the-less. Long before Jesus even came, God has been trying to show us that nothing we can say or do will ever change God’s ‘light-in-the-dark’ faithfulness to us. And we are reminded today that God’s presence is nearer than the person that sits next to us, because God’s friendship now comes to us in the Holy Spirit. For such promise and truth, so should we pray.
Gracious and loving God, we thank you for being a God of integrity, and that you have been true to your word longer than we can imagine. Remind us, when we feel like life is desolate or desperate, that you have already seen through all the obstacles, and you still stand, with us, beside us, in us, that we can take another step in faith and trust that you have us and hold us together. Help us, in our yet long view of the celebration of Christ’s coming, that his birth and all that leads up to it - is so much more than a mere human birth. Help us to be open to the nuances and shades of meaning that can come from following you. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.