The story behind the sermon (from Steve Mathewson)
Pastors who stay at the same church long enough will eventually wonder what to preach during the Christmas season! After going through the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and after working through some of the classic Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah's birth, what is left to preach? One idea is to take the little book of Ruth and preach on the story behind Christmas. After all, Ruth, the wife of Boaz, appears in Jesus' family tree in Matthew 1:5.
The sermon I preached on Ruth 2 was the second in a four-part series on The Story Behind Christmas. I preached a sermon on each of the four chapters in Ruth on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. Each sermon worked through the story of Ruth and showed how the story points forward to Ruth's most famous descendent—the one who was born in Bethlehem a thousand years or so after she moved there.
One of the challenges I faced was preaching the story in four sermons rather than in one. Previously, I had always preached the entire book in one sermon. Preaching the story in four sermons works great for creating preaching units which are just about the right size. But I felt a bit uncomfortable preaching the earlier chapters by themselves, knowing that the story had not yet been resolved. Until the story is resolved, the theological message communicated by the story has not been fully revealed.
I had two specific worries. One was that I would have to give away the ending in order to share a legitimate message. The second worry was that my sermon ideas and application might sound the same for every sermon. Yet I found that even before the story was fully resolved, major theological constructs appeared. So, even though the entire story teaches that God works through the loyal love of ordinary people to redeem and restore life, the second chapter teaches us how God shows his loyal love. So this is the main preaching idea for my sermon on Ruth 2: God shows his loyal love through those who go the extra mile to help people in need. While this idea is related to the overall message of the book, the idea stands on its own and develops an important aspect of the overall message in more detail.
Another challenge I faced was to build a legitimate bridge from Ruth to her descendent, Christ, without resorting to a forced, artificial connection that can result from an overly aggressive search for typology. Rather than look for typological connections, I determined to proceed along different lines. First, I tried to identify the theological message of the story itself. My next step was to wrestle with how this theological message ties into the Bible's larger story—the story of God redeeming his people from sin's bondage to experience life in his presence. After a bit of reflection, it was not hard to identify how Jesus—the main character of the Bible's story—embodied the kind of person through whom God shows his loyal love! I thought of 2 Corinthians 8:9 which says that Jesus became poor for our sake so that we might become rich. I emphasized that our ability to help others in need flows from what Jesus did for us. By emphasizing this, I was able to point people to the gospel.
Whether you preach it in one message or four messages, the Book of Ruth is a wonderful text to preach during the Christmas season.
For as many years as I can remember one of the images that I have of Christmas shopping is not so much what's inside stores but what you encounter outside the stores, both going in and coming out: the Salvation Army volunteer who's standing there by the door all bundled up, ringing a bell next to that trademark red kettle. Those Salvation Army volunteers are collecting funds to be able to give to people who are in great need.
I can think of a couple of women who would have needed what the Salvation Army provided, but when they were living, the Salvation Army hadn't yet been established. In fact, the first Christmas was a thousand years after these women existed.
These women are Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. We are tracking their story this Christmas season. Their story is told in the Book of Ruth, and today we're looking at Ruth 2. Naomi and Ruth have returned to Bethlehem, but they are in a tough situation. They are in very grim need of food.
Naomi was from this little town of Bethlehem—the same town in which Jesus was born, but about 1,000 years before his birth. Naomi grew up there and was a member of the community of faith, God's people, and she married a man by the name of Elimelech. Elimelech's name means "My God is King," which is ironic since Elimelech chose to turn his back on God by leaving the community of Bethlehem. If you were part of God's people, the nation of Israel, you didn't leave the community, because God had established a covenant with you. You were tied into that land, and God was going to bless you there when you obeyed. When God's people disobeyed him, he would often get their attention by allowing them to go through some tough times, and that's what happens in this story.
There was a famine in Bethlehem, so Elimelech took his wife and two sons and went to the land of Moab. That was a disaster, because Moab was full of people who God had warned the Israelites against. The Moabites had done some awful thing to God's people years before. But Elimelech went there, and things went from bad to worse. Elimelech died, his sons died, and Naomi was left with only her two daughters-in-law.
One of Naomi's daughters-in-law, Ruth, returned to Bethlehem with Naomi. Interestingly, the name Bethlehem means "house of bread." They returned to the house of bread because the famine was over. Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem in hopes of getting food and putting their lives back together as best as they could.
This is where we pick up the story today—Ruth, chapter 2—and I want you to see specifically in this how God cares for people in need. This story may forever change the way we look at and experience Christmas.
Trusting in God's sovereign plan
Before the action even starts, the narrator gives us a little detail that's going to play a big part in this story. Ruth 2:1 says that Naomi had a relative on her husband's side, from the clan of Elimelech—a "man of standing," or "a mighty man of valor." This was the phrase used to describe warriors as well as wealthy people. So this relative, whose name is Boaz, is a man of prominence in the community. This is an important detail. Ruth and Naomi have returned, but they don't have an heir. They don't have husbands, and they don't have sons who can carry on the family line and give them access to their abundance. But they do have this relative. So let's see what happens.
In verse 2 we read that "Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, 'Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain after him in whose sight I shall find favor.' And she said to her, 'Go, my daughter.'" Now gleaning was a common custom. In fact, God even built that into the law of Moses: "And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 23:22). You can clearly see God's heart for people who were in need. And this is exactly what Ruth is telling Naomi she wants to do.
Look at this next little line: "She happened to come to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the clan of Elimelech." Boaz is loaded. He's a very prominent guy in the town. He's related to Naomi. And I love the way the Bible puts it: "She happened to. …" Literally, the Hebrew text says, "Her chance chanced upon the field of Boaz." You might be thinking, Wait a minute. Does this mean it was just luck? But God, through the writer of Ruth, knows that as we read this, we're going to say, Ah, we know what's happening here. … You see, this is a bit like the Book of Esther. That story has bothered a lot of people, because if you read the book, you'll find that God isn't mentioned even once! But I think it's part of the strategy. I think the whole idea of Esther is that even though you can't always see and hear God, he is at work in the details of your life. And I think that's exactly what the writer of Ruth is doing here. This isn't coincidence, because when God is involved, there's no coincidence at play. God is working in all the little details. This is a good reminder to us that we have a sovereign God, and nothing that happens is by accident.
We had one of those moments as a family during our move from Montana to Chicago. We were driving in May of 2006. There were 45-mile-an-hour winds that day as we crossed North Dakota, across a plain of absolute nothingness. We decided to switch drivers; I was driving and Priscilla was going to take over. We pulled off at an exit with a sign that read "No Services." There was literally nothing there. So we pulled off, and I got out and opened the door. The wind was howling, and somehow, when Priscilla came around to my side of the car, I let go of the door before she had grabbed it, and the wind just took that thing and snapped one of the springs in the hinge of the door. I couldn't shut the door again.
I knew what I needed: a pair of water pump pliers and a hammer. And I realized that all of my tools were in the truck headed to Chicago. As luck would have it, over the overpass comes this tow truck (this is the third vehicle we'd seen in 10 minutes), and he's ready to turn onto the interstate right in front of us. He stopped and said, "Do you need any help?" And guess what? He had water pump pliers and a hammer, and we were off. That's exactly what happens in this story of Ruth.
So Ruth ends up in the field of Boaz. Boaz asks the foreman of his harvesters, "Whose young woman is this?" The foreman replies, "She is the young Moabite woman,who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab." This detail keeps being brought up. Moab was not a well-respected place if you were living in Israel, so Ruth has this stigma. But listen to Ruth's bold request: "She said, 'Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves after the reapers.' So she came, and she has continued from early morning until now, except for a short rest."
For most of us, harvesting is not a part of our lives. But if you were part of this community in Bethlehem, you might be taken aback by Ruth's request. She's not just asking to come into the field after the harvesters have done their work and left, which is when the gleaners would usually come in. Instead, Ruth is essentially asking to come into the field while the harvesters are still working, because she knows there would be more grain to pick up then. And remember that all of this is happening during the time of the judges, which was a really dark time morally. I suspect there were a lot of people who wouldn't even want to follow the law, and having experienced famine, they wouldn't want gleaners coming right behind them. They would want to comb the fields as thoroughly as they could to get every last bit of grain. But here comes Ruth, who is really going the extra mile for her mother-in-law Naomi, who has the audacity to say, "Hey, can I work right along with the harvesters?"
Look at verses 8 and 9:
Then Boaz said to Ruth, "Now, listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn."
This is pretty incredible. Boaz is letting Ruth go right along with the servant girls who have been hired for this task. And in this time of chaos, when everyone did what was right in his own eyes, Boaz promises protection to Ruth, who was in a very vulnerable position. Gleaning in the fields as a single woman would be like walking down Chicago streets late at night alone. Not only does Boaz offer protection, but he tells her to drink from the drawn water whenever she needs it.
Boaz is going the extra mile, and Ruth is stunned:
Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, "Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?" But Boaz answered her, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before."
Taking refuge in God's love
Then Boaz offers these wonderful words, this wonderful prayer, in verse 12: "The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!"
When you read those opening words, "The Lord repay you," maybe some little alarm goes off in your head. You've been taught that God gives us his gifts freely, by his grace—that we can never earn what he gives. How could the Lord repay? It's true that when we come to God, we don't come to him and say, "Look at my resume. Look at the good works I've done, God. You owe me." That's not how God operates. God gives us his salvation because of grace. We don't work for it. We can't earn it. But there is a sense still that faith saves us, even though it's a faith without works. The faith that saves us is a faith that will respond and work. When Boaz says, "The Lord repay you," I'm reminded of Hebrews 11:6 which talks about God rewarding those who seek him. When people come to God in faith, knowing that they don't deserve his grace, God rewards those who seek him. Ruth had already turned to the Lord. She's already made Bethlehem her home and the God of Israel her God. On this basis, Boaz can pray that God would repay or reward her as one who is seeking him.
I love the image of God's wings, under which Ruth takes refuge. That picture is used a few times in the Bible. For those of us who have never worked on a farm, it's harder to understand the significance of an image like this.
My friend Ron told me this story about a mother hen who lived on Ron's little hobby farm. They had three hens, and one day one of the hens had baby chicks. This was the first time Ron's family had experienced this, so they were excited. They had read enough about farming in books to know that they really needed to clean out the brooding area where the mother hen was going to be with her chicks, so they kept the baby chicks in the house for the first night, and the next day they went out and cleaned the brooding area. While the chicks were in the house, they put the mother hen back in the chicken coop with the two other hens. Once the chicks were all in place, they went to get the mother but realized that they weren't sure which one of the hens was the mother! They hadn't thought of that problem beforehand. They decided to just see what would happen.
They took one hen and put her with the chicks. This hen just looked bored. They determined that that hen must not be the mother. They got the second hen and put her with the chicks, and the second hen seemed really uncomfortable. She was scratching at the pen like she wanted out. So they brought in the third hen, and Ron said he had never seen anything like it. He said, "It almost happened so fast that we didn't even see it." The hen took her wings and went whit-whoosh and drew in all of those baby chicks. Then she sat there giving Ron a look that said, Don't you even think about touching me, or you're going to be in big trouble. That's the picture we have here in Ruth. The Lord, the God of Israel, is like a mother hen who will gather and protect his children under his wings.
I read a story once about a Minnesota farmer who had chickens in his barn. The barn burned down, and as he walked through the embers and ashes, he came across a mother hen and noticed that she had perished in that fire. Just to make sure, he nudged her carcass. As he did that, two or three little chicks came out running around. They had survived the fire because they were under the wings of that mother hen. That's the picture we have here.
Boaz recognizes that that's the kind of God we serve. When we turn to God, we're turning to a God who is not only sovereign over all the details of our lives, but we're turning to a God who protects us even when we don't see that happening. I'm sure that Ruth and Naomi didn't exactly see how this was all going to turn out.
Responding to God by displaying his sacrificial love
Ruth is in awe of Boaz's words:
Then she said, "I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, for you have comforted me and spoken kindly to your servant, though I am not one of your servants." And at mealtime Boaz said to her, "Come here and eat some bread and dip your morsel in the wine." So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed to her roasted grain. And she ate until she was satisfied, and she had some left over.
This is a women who has come back to the land hungry, not knowing where her next meal was going to come from, and Boaz again goes the extra mile. There's nothing in the law saying that you have to provide a meal for all the gleaners that come through your land. But Boaz invites her to eat with this harvesting crew.
Then we read, "When she rose to glean, Boaz instructed his young men, saying, 'Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her.'" Gleaners were not supposed to be in the fields where the sheaves had not yet been picked up. Not until everything was removed could you come through to scavenge anything that might have accidentally been left behind. But Boaz gives his word of protection to her in that situation. He goes even further: "'And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do not rebuke her.'"
So Ruth gleans in the field until evening. Then she threshes the barley she had gathered, and it amounts to about an ephah, or about three-fifths of a bushel. This might have been food for a week or even two! It was a phenomenal amount. Verse 18 says, "She took it up and went into the city. Her mother-in-law saw what she had gleaned. She also brought out and gave her what food she had left over after being satisfied." Ruth was able to bring an abundance home to her mother-in-law.
And her mother-in-law said to her, "Where did you glean today? And where have you worked? Blessed be the man who took notice of you." So she told her mother-in-law with whom she had worked and said, "The man's name with whom I worked today is Boaz." And Naomi said to her daughter-in-law, "May he be blessed by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!" Naomi also said to her, "The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers."
There's a huge word in verse 20 that I want to look at for a moment. My Bible translates it as kindness. It could also be translated as loyal love, because it really combines the idea of loyalty to a covenant with affection. Naomi is saying that God had not stopped showing his loyal love to the living or to the dead—in other words, to the family of Elimelech. Look how this wraps up:
And Ruth the Moabite said, "Besides, he said to me, 'You shall keep close by my young men until they have finished all my harvest.'" And Naomi said to Ruth, her daughter-in-law, "It is good, my daughter, that you go out with his young women, lest in another field you be assaulted." So she kept close to the young women of Boaz, gleaning until the end of the barley and wheat harvests. And she lived with her mother-in-law.
So we get a little bit of closure. There's short-term provision, and we celebrate that. But, of course, what about the long term? How are they going to be ultimately provided for? We find the answer to that later on in the book.
But I want to go back for a moment to Naomi's statement in verse 20. I think this really captures what this second scene is all about: the Lord's loyal love "has not forsaken the living or the dead." How did God show his loyal love in this story? I think he does it today just like he did it back then. God shows his loyal love through people like Ruth and like Boaz and like you and like me—people who go the extra mile to help out people who are in need. I think that's what the Book of Ruth and, certainly, what this episode is all about.
Let me ask you this question: How is it possible to go the extra mile? Is this just one more duty for us to fulfill? No. I believe this is possible because of what happened in the same little town a thousand years later. You know the story: Jesus Christ came to this earth. He was born in humble circumstances. Second Corinthians 8:9 talks about Jesus, who was rich, becoming poor, so that those of us who are spiritually poor could become rich. Paul uses that to challenge the Corinthian church to give to needy Christians in Jerusalem. Apparently, there was a collection going, and the Corinthian church hadn't followed through. Paul contrasts the Corinthians with the Macedonians. The Macedonians were living in poverty, but out of their poverty welled up generosity, and they gave above and beyond their ability. That's what Ruth did. And that's what we can do as well, because of all that Jesus has done for us. When we wrap our minds and hearts around the fact that Jesus became poor so that we might become rich, we realize we can do that too. What Jesus has done for us enables us to do that.
What is that going to look like in your life? I'm really thankful that in this story are two examples of people who are going the extra mile: Ruth and Boaz. They are on both ends of the social-economic spectrum. Ruth is dirt poor. She has nothing. And yet she knows there's something she can do—something she can give. She works with the laws of the land and the laws of God, and she provides for her mother-in-law. Then we have Boaz, a man of standing in the community. Out of his vast wealth, he gives abundantly.
As you look around you during the Christmas season, and you see the needs of others, what would God have you to do? As I've studied this text, I've thought, We've got to do something! What could our family do? So we're going to take a box and wrap it up like a Christmas gift and put a little slit in the top. Throughout the Christmas season, as we feel like we want to, we're going to put money in the box. Around New Years, we're going to open up that box, and whatever we have in there, we're going to give to someone in need. It's nothing heroic. I just think that each of us has something like that that we can do. Ask yourself: How can I be used to God to share his loyal love with someone in need?
Richard Doster wrote an article called "The Kingdom Work of the Corporate World." I love his vision for the way that God's people can use their influence and even the wealth they have from being in the corporate world to help the poor and needy. He said this: "God has placed his people in business so that they can, in humility and making full use of the talents and resources he's given, serve customers, employees, suppliers and the world at large, looking out for the interest of others and providing for their needs." What a great vision. We don't have to be embarrassed or feel guilty that we're somehow tied into corporate America. We can use that as an opportunity. If you're in corporate America, that means you probably have a "Boaz-like status" of some kind, and you can use that to make a difference.
In Acts 20:28, Paul recalls the words of Jesus when he says, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." As people who have been touched by God's grace, what are we going to do? How are we going to let God use us to share his lovingkindness by going the extra mile for people in need? We've got Ruth as a model for that. We've got Boaz as a model for that. We have Jesus for a model for that as well. So how are we going to show God's loyal love to those in need? What are we going to do this Christmas as a church and as individuals to live out the fact that it is more blessed to give than to receive?
Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.