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A happy ending

A sermon by Rod Benson

Ruth 4:1-22

Call me David. And let me tell you a story from the time before my birth, in the days when the judges ruled Israel.

Life is closing in for me, and I’m not long for this world. As you know, I am the second King of Israel, the son of Jesse of Bethlehem, a shepherd boy whom God preserved and prepared to lead his people in unprecedented ways.

Anointed king by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16:10f), set apart by the Spirit of God (16:13), driven into exile (19:11), and finally acknowledged king by all Israel at the age of 37.

I captured the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem and established it first as our political capital, then as our religious capital when I had the Ark of the Covenant installed in a tent on Mt Zion (2 Sam 6).

The next eight years I spent at war with the Philistines to the west, Edom to the south, Syria to the north, and the Moabites to the east. Then there was rest, and my thoughts turned to building a temple.

But it was not to be my responsibility. The prophet Nathan revealed that my son Solomon would build the temple. But he also revealed that God had renewed the covenant he made with my ancestors, fulfilling through me the promises he made to our first parents (Gen 3:15), ad mediating salvation for all (Isa 55:3), climaxing in the arrival of the true Messiah, in whom the hopes and fears of all the years will be met.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you how all this came to be – how God moved in mysterious ways, long before all the battles and bling, long before I was born, in the days when the judges ruled Israel.

You’ve heard part of the story I want to share with you – from Boaz, and Ruth and Naomi. You’ve heard how Ruth followed Naomi’s plan, and Boaz discovered that Ruth was a suitable marriage partner, and things were going smoothly until Ruth discovered that someone other than Boaz had a prior claim to her (3:12).

The next day was a momentous day for Boaz. Instead of going out to the fields, he went up to the town gate and sat there (4:1a). I sat there occasionally myself as a young man, listening to the talk of my elders. The Bethlehem gate was where serious gossip took place, and serious business too, and where legal affairs were settled.

The story of Ruth is a series of unlikely but serendipitous coincidences, and this day was no exception. Who should wander past Boaz at the gate but the man identified as Ruth’s closer guardian-redeemer (1b)!

Boaz called him over, and they sat together. But it was more than a relaxed social meeting. Boaz seemed in a hurry, and quickly outlined three concerns. First, given that Elimelek had walked off his land and then died in Moab, the question of land ownership needed to be resolved.

Second, there was a cultural duty to preserve Elimelek’s family name, through marriage to Naomi resulting in children – a commitment to work with God in bearing descendants of Abraham and, through them, to bless the nations.

Third, there was the matter of redeeming Naomi and Ruth from poverty. Allowing them gleaning rights was not a permanent solution: the family had a responsibility to effect something more substantial.

What had happened to Elimelek’s land? Facing poverty, and threatened with starvation from the famine, Elimelek had two choices: sell up and live from the proceeds of sale, or move to a place where there was better access to food. Both choices entailed shame. Perhaps he tried unsuccessfully to sell the land to someone outside the clan, and then spent all his money, and had a new choice: move to a place where there was better access to food, or sell himself as an indentured labourer. So he moved to Moab, and ten years passed, and he died, along with his two sons, leaving behind the three widows: Naomi, Orpah and Ruth.

That was ten years ago. Now, sitting at the town gate, aware that Naomi is under pressure to sell Elimelek’s land, Boaz challenges his close relative to take responsibility for the situation, and act in the best interests of Naomi and Ruth, and the clan (vv. 3-5).

There’s the fine print. But the decision to include “Ruth the Moabite” goes well beyond the traditions of our Mosaic law. Has Boaz fallen in love with Ruth, and this is his way to protect her? Or does Boaz know that Naomi is now unable to bear children, and therefore it is up to Ruth to save the day?

As with every aspect of this story, it’s more than fine print: the fingerprints of a just and compassionate God are all over it. “God determined to save the landless as well as the landed, foreigners as well as Israelites, women as well as men.”[1]

On hearing the preconditions to the sale, the closer guardian-redeemer backs off, much to Boaz’s relief and delight. Hands were shaken, papers were signed, and in time-honoured tradition a sandal was passed from one to the other, signifying the redemption and transfer of property (vv. 7f).

Everyone loves a happy ending, and the people of Bethlehem, my home town, are no exception. God knows, they were ready for some good news (vv. 9-12). Boaz has acquired new and productive land; Naomi has the cash from the sale; Ruth formally comes under the wings of Boaz; and the name of Elimelek will no longer disappear from among his extended family or from the town records.

Through the providence of God, and the shrewdness of the unnamed redeemer, and the tenacity of Naomi, and the courage of Ruth, and the wisdom of Boaz, everyone wins.

The elders, and all those gathered at the town gate, declare their role as witnesses to the agreement, and pronounce three solemn blessings (vv. 11-12): for Ruth, many children (the prayer of every Israelite); for Boaz, that he may be granted honour and fame in Bethlehem; and through their offspring, that the family may be like that of Boaz’s ancestor Perez – a reference to the harrowing story in Genesis 38, where God turned evil to good and ensured that his sovereign purposes were fulfilled.

What a prayer! Had those who gathered at the town gate that day lived to see the fulfilment of their petition, they would have seen God answer in extraordinary ways, with the establishment of a house far greater than Perez – my house, the House of David, commemorated in your day in the flag of the state of Israel, which bears the blue “Star of David” at its centre, and far greater still, the ultimate answer to their prayer in the arrival of the Messiah, the greatest of all my descendants, in whom all the promises and hopes for peace and blessing come together.

And so Boaz married Ruth, and in God’s good time the formerly childless widow gave birth to a son named Obed, the father of Jesse, my father (v. 17). Not the last unlikely birth in the little town of Bethlehem!

Ruth is undoubtedly the hero of the story: she gave Bethlehem, and Israel, and ultimately the world, a fertile womb – but much more as well: Ruth shows how order can emerge out of chaos, and meaning out of despair, and hope out of disaster.

She shows that there is goodness in this world, and in the hearts and minds of people all around us; and there is justice, and unexpected grace, and above all hope.

In Leviticus 19:34, Moses counselled his people to love the stranger as they love themselves. Here, ironically, in the story of Ruth, the stranger from Moab shows how it is done (vv. 14f).

God loves to turn unproductive but cherished beliefs on their heads. God loves to demonstrate the wideness of his mercy. Of all the people in Bethlehem, it is the foreigner Ruth who embodies true covenant faithfulness. As one of your Christian commentators has said:

With her immortal declaration in Ruth 1:16-17, this Moabite serves as a model for all ethnic non-Israelites: if they will cast their lot with the people of Israel and commit themselves to Yahweh their God, they too may find a home in the covenant community.[2]

And again:

This book and this genealogy demonstrate that in the dark days of the judges the chosen line is preserved not by heroic exploits by deliverers or kings but by the good hand of God, who rewards good people with a fulness beyond all imagination. These characters could not know what long-range fruit their compassionate and loyal conduct toward each other would bear.[3]

Ruth’s story is my story, but it is also your story. Drink it in, witness God’s grace in action, see the plan of salvation unfold, and take your place as one of the characters. 


Sermon 649 copyright © 2015 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 20 December 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. 363.

[2] Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 1999), p. 598.

[3] Ibid., p. 737.

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Rod Benson

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

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