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An odd couple

A sermon by Rod Benson

Call me Boaz. And let me tell you a story from long ago, in the time when the judges ruled Israel…

But first, a little about me. You’ll find my story in the little Book of Ruth in the Old Testament, tucked away between Judges and 1 Samuel. My dad’s name was Salmon. I was born in the little town of Bethlehem, in the tribeal lands of Judah, a town founded by our great military general Caleb, who with Joshua led our armies in the conquest of the land of Canaan.

God has been so good. He has been utterly faithful in keeping the promises he made to our ancestors, and in blessing us far beyond what we deserve.

I’ve lived a long and prosperous life, I have a comfortable home, fields and herds and olive trees in abundance, the finest of friends, and above all the best family one could wish for. Our God is gracious.

The story I want to tell you today is about how my family came to be, and how I came to be the great-grandfather of King David.

In those days, around the time of my birth, Israel had no king, no clear national boundaries, no capital, no central administration. We were a loose confederacy of tribes bound by ethnic origin and the story of the astonishing faith of our distant ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the more recent momentous events when our great leader Moses emancipated our people from slavery in Egypt and we finally settled here, in the land our God promised to Abraham.

The work of conquest is not finished: shamefully, contrary to God’s will, our Israelite communities are still separated by established settlements of Canaanites, with their own languages and culture, their economic networks, and their abominable religion.

Worse, many of our people have begun using Canaanite languages, adopting their customs, and mixing the true worship of God with the idolatrous worship of their fertility gods – in the hope of better economic opportunities, more productive harvests, and protection from disaster.

It breaks my old heart to visit people I’ve known all my life, even right here in Bethlehem, and see pork on the stove, shellfish on the midden, and house idols on the mantle piece.

I wish all of us were more faithful to the one true God of grace.

Anyway, back to my story! I was just a young man when the famine hit. Ironic to be living in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” I stayed where I was, but many of my people left the land and wandered near and far, in search of food, and work. Among them was a man named Elimelek, together with his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Kilion (vv. 1-2).

The family wandered for a time, and finally settled as resident aliens in Moab, east of the Dead Sea, where Jordan is on your maps today. In the early days it was often awkward for Elimelek, whose name means “My God is King,” and the family depended on the goodwill of former enemies, which wasn’t always forthcoming.

And then Elimelek the family patriarch died (v. 3), and Naomi’s heart filled with fear. There was no going back: the famine had not abated. There was no hope of remarriage to a Moabite: she was past child-bearing age, and she couldn’t see herself marrying outside her clan.

So she did what she could to survive in Moab as a poor widow, and in order to survive she saw her two sons marry Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth (v. 4).

Life went on from one day to the next, and ten years passed. And then both Mahlon and Kilion died (v. 5), childless, and Naomi almost gave up out of exhaustion, despair and loneliness, with no prospect of further children, or grandchildren. Her fate was sealed. God had turned his hand against her (v. 13).

Or so she thought.

Then Naomi heard a rumour that the famine was abating, and there was food again in Bethlehem. And the rumour was confirmed: there was indeed bread again in Bethlehem, and in the surrounding towns and villages.

So she conceived a second survival plan: to do the unthinkable, and return to Judah with her two beautiful Moabite daughters-in-law (vv. 6-7), and seek her fortune there. They said their farewells, gathered their few possessions, and set off on the dusty road to Bethlehem.

It’s a big deal for the young women – leaving their own families, and their homeland, and heading off to a foreign country filled with uncertainty and insecurity as single women (see 2:11). Now it was Orpah and Ruth’s turn to know what it felt like to be wanderers, virtual exiles, and to ask: “Is it my fate to be labelled a foreigner, a refugee? Will I ever find my way home again?”

And Naomi realised she was asking too much of Orpah and Ruth, so she gave them the opportunity to stay behind in Moab to marry their own people (vv. 8-13). Naomi counsels her daughters-in-law to be strong, to trust God to be gracious, to seek the dawn of a new hope, and to “find rest in the home of another husband.” That’s grace under pressure. She knows they stand a far greater chance of finding husbands among their own people than in Judah (cf Deut 25:5-10).

But Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave Naomi (v. 10). For some time they discuss the options and consequences of going or staying. Eventually, Orpah recognises the logic of the painful choices before her, and agrees to return to her family in Moab (vv. 14-15).

But not so Ruth (vv. 16-18). Nothing but death can separate Ruth from Naomi’s side. Having counted the cost, Ruth is prepared to walk away from everything that holds her world together and delivers security and tranquillity.

Verses 16-17 is a beautiful description of ideal interdependence, sometimes used at weddings. To promise “where you die I will die, and there I will be buried” was a supreme cultural challenge for Ruth, going against everything that defined her as a Moabite.

That’s the beauty of a rich and long friendship. That’s the fruit of sacrificial love between two people. We so easily gloss over the profound significance of deep or lasting friendships. Cherish your friends. Good friends are a gift from God. Good friends fill your life with colour and meaning.

And so the odd couple farewells Orpah, and sets out on their journey, and finally the long-departed Israelite widow returns from Moab, accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her beautiful daughter-in-law, arriving footsore and tired in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning (v. 19a, 22).

Their arrival is greeted with shock and disbelief, and generates significant social upheaval (vv. 19b-21). I can hear their voices now: “The ‘prodigal daughter’ has returned, bringing a destitute alien with her! Stealing our food! Taking our jobs! Tempting our sons!”

But that’s not the end of my story, and we shall continue next week.

What should we learn, you and me, from the story of Elimelek and his family? God is always at work, through good and bad circumstances, to bring about ultimate blessing and peace to his people. God often surprises us, doing the unthinkable, enabling us to do the unpalatable, bringing light from darkness, hope from despair.

As one of your Christian commentators has observed, “Ruth is a sharp chisel in the hands of a master sculptor, chipping away at Israel’s hopelessness until a marvelous theology of hope begins to emerge.”[1]

Hold on to hope. Pray for wisdom to discern the good in what seems like a bad situation. Know that God is here, and personal, and active, and full of grace, and God knows what is best for you.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Come home to him today. Join the story he is weaving. Rest in his grace and mercy. Let him fill your life with new meaning, deep compassion, and certain hope.

Amen.


Sermon 646 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 29 November 2015. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Michael S. Moore, “Ruth,” in J. Gordon Harris, Cheryl A. Brown & Michael S. Moore, Joshua, Judges, Ruth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 300.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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