First Congregational Church
December 11, 2015
3rd Sunday in Advent
“God’s Joy Provision”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A boy was sitting on a park bench with one hand resting on his open Bible. He was loudly exclaiming his praise to God. "Hallelujah! Hallelujah! God is great!" He yelled without worrying whether anyone heard him or not.
Pretty soon, a man who had recently completed some studies at a local university, came along. Feeling rather knowledgable in the ways of truth and eager to show this enlightenment, he asked the boy about the source of his joy.
"Don't you have any idea what God is able to do?” he asked. “I just read that God opened up the waves of the Red Sea and led the whole nation of Israel right through the middle."
The enlightened man laughed lightly, sat down next to the boy and began to try to open his eyes to the "realities" of the miracles of the Bible. "That can all be very easily explained,” the man explained. “Modern scholarship has shown that the Red Sea in that area was only 10-inches deep at that time. It was no problem for the Israelites to wade across."
The boy was stymied. His eyes wandered from the man back to the Bible laying open in his lap. The man, content that he had enlightened a poor, naive young person to the finer points of scientific insight, turned to go. Scarcely had he taken two steps when the boy began to rejoice louder than before. The man turned back to ask the reason for this resumed jubilation.
"Wow!" exclaimed the boy happily, "God is greater than I thought! Not only did He lead the whole nation of Israel through the Red Sea, he topped it off by drowning the whole Egyptian army in 10 inches of water!”
Our Advent sermon series this year is based on the Old Testament book of Ruth, mainly because of the connections between it and Jesus - in the town of Bethlehem and in Jesus’ lineage that traces its way back through Ruth. It’s also rather convenient, as there are just four chapters to Ruth, and four Sundays in Advent.
In the first chapter of Ruth, we get the background story of Naomi, husband Elimilech and their two sons as they moved a week’s journey away from Bethlehem to Moab, due to a famine. Finding Moabite wives, the sons and parents do well, until father and sons die, leaving all three women widowed, at the bottom of the social ladder and in instant fear. Naomi tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their families and find new husbands, which one daughter-in-law, Orpah, does. The other daughter-in-law, Ruth, vows to stay with Naomi - for better or for worse.
The first chapter of Ruth is one of hope shining in the darkness, of God’s faithfulness and nearness, and that God’s ways are not our ways. The second chapter of Ruth shines light on God’s timely and unseemly provisions of peace, in people, events and the very life around us. Today’s factoid: the most logical translation estimates that six measures of barley is equal to about 50 pounds.
1 One day Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi said to her, “My daughter, I must find a home for you, where you will be well provided for. 2 Now Boaz, with whose women you have worked, is a relative of ours. Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. 3 Wash, put on perfume, and get dressed in your best clothes. Then go down to the threshing floor, but don’t let him know you are there until he has finished eating and drinking. 4 When he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.”
5 “I will do whatever you say,” Ruth answered. 6 So she went down to the threshing floor and did everything her mother-in-law told her to do.
7 When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. 8 In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!
9 “Who are you?” he asked.
“I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”
10 “The LORD bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. 11 And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. 12 Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. 13 Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the LORD lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”
14 So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.”
15 He also said, “Bring me the shawl you are wearing and hold it out.” When she did so, he poured into it six measures of barley and placed the bundle on her. Then he went back to town.
16 When Ruth came to her mother-in-law, Naomi asked, “How did it go, my daughter?”
Then she told her everything Boaz had done for her 17 and added, “He gave me these six measures of barley, saying, ‘Don’t go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’ ”
18 Then Naomi said, “Wait, my daughter, until you find out what happens. For the man will not rest until the matter is settled today.”
Thank you, Michael. People often say that the Bible is an irrelevant and boring book. But when we come across passages like this one, when we get to understanding what is really being said, it’s hardly anything but boring. For those who may be wondering about that to which I refer, it’s the part about Naomi’s suggestion that Ruth slip in, after he’s had celebrated the harvest with good food and plenty of wine, and “uncover Boaz’s feet.” “Uncovering a man’s feet” in Old Testament days translates to having sex. And now that I have everyone’s attention, how about those Minnesota Vikings?
In this sermon title, and this little tidbit of cultural understanding, we might appreciate “God’s Joy Provision” with a little side smile, except that the joy is deeper than we might see at first and more personal than we might realize.
Mother-in-law Naomi was the Hebrew, one of God’s chosen people, but without God’s indication, suggesting that her daughter-in-law seduce a man is not necessarily a shining example of what it means to be one of God’s chosen. And, according to some experts, it wasn’t merely seduction that Naomi was suggesting, but covert marriage. Marriage is still not consummated by the declaration of a preacher, or elder or even words; as we all know, marriage is consummated in the act of sex.
Maybe some can make a case for Naomi’s behavior being a little off “the mark.” But taking this book at face value, at least to this point, I think an equal argument can be made for Naomi just wishing her daughter-in-law well, and getting Ruth to a place where Naomi didn’t have to be worried about her. And maybe this is one of those examples that could be used in an “end justifying the means” exercise.
A stronger point, in relevance to all of us, is that what may look like manipulation on one person’s part may be an opportunity for another person to rise up in honor. Naomi may have set-up Ruth and Boaz for an unscrupulous night, but the responsibility rested on the two of them. And isn’t that true for so many things in this life? A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips. Just one more episode on this Downton Abbey binge watch. I can’t put the book down now - the pirates might win - or lose! And isn’t that pastor a real jerk, raising these issues of temptation and restraint during the holiday season? (My other personality says, “Yes, she certainly is!”)
But I’m guessing that most of us know that feeling we get when we’ve gone the long-cut, rather than the short-cut. It’s that feeling that we don’t necessarily blast out on a bullhorn, but that sense of character that comes when we have fed our own self-respect. And when we realize that sense of accomplishment of humility, we know how good it feels to stand before God, knowing that we’ve have passed the test for that moment. And that’s when you realize God’s provision of joy - the deep-seated, down to your toenails, overflowing heart sort of joy - is not about anyone or anything else - but between you and God.
As we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth, this is the Sunday that we look forward to that time, when regardless of anything we have done or ever will do, that God’s stands with us, looking into that manger, and there is no regret, no shame, no guilt, nothing but pure, unadulterated joy, that God would send such a gift, for each and everyone one of us.
So when Boaz and Ruth finish their conversation, because it wasn’t safe to send Ruth back into the city unescorted in the middle of the night, he guarded her by keeping her with him, and then sent her home just before dawn with the Old Testament equivalent of an engagement ring - 50 lbs. of barley. That Boaz was certainly a smooth romantic!
As it said over there at bible.org, Godly character is evident in ungodly settings. As it says over there in the book of Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Sometimes there are people and events of this world that seem impossible to reconcile with this idea of God working all things for good. Sometimes we will have to wait until we return to eternity to see what “good” was to found in certain instances. But while we wait, as we prepare, and look for those instances of God’s joy provision on this side of eternity, we can pray.
Gracious God of Hope, Peace and Joy, we come to you this day asking that you help us to take the higher roads in life when at all possible. Help us to believe, no matter how unlikely, that you have a purpose of good for us. For those times when we have taken short-cuts that cheated us - and you - of seeing your provision of joy, we ask for your forgiveness. Help us, too, to share the joy that you provide, in our words, certainly, but even more so by our actions. For the joy that you provide all your people, we all say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.