Sermon for Sept 16, 2012, 16th Sunday after Pentecost
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name
of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.
At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”
Living the Kingdom of God
Don’t you hate it when somebody says, “I’ve got good news and bad news: which do you want to hear first?” Which do you choose? I usually want the bad news first.
The bible: good news gone bad
The bible gives us the good news first: God created a good world with good people in it. But it didn’t last long, did it? The bad news quickly followed. First the snake and the “apple” in the garden, then brother kills brother, then Lamech kills the guy who insulted him, and on and on. By the time of Noah, it says
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6)
“God” as a Character in the story
Who is this God we read about in the bible? I am first going to say something about the God we meet in the bible, and then get into the specifics of the texts before us.
God is God, but when you read the bible you are reading a story in which God is a character. Sometimes the bible makes him very human-like, as we just heard. Like a human character, God has regrets. He has to deal with unforeseen consequences. He gets sad – maybe depressed.
At other times we see him change his mind – especially after hearing people crying out in pain, as the Hebrew slaves do in Egypt, or after prayerful
begging, as Moses often did.
Sometimes he gets jealous; he even calls himself jealous. Sometimes the character, “God” seems petty and vengeful, like when he sent poisonous snakes that bit and killed people, just for complaining about living in harsh desert conditions. I’m glad I wasn’t there; complaining is what I do best. (Numb. 21)
“God” as a familiar king
The kind of character that God is, in the bible, ends up looking a lot like the way an ancient middle eastern king looked. He’s powerful. He must be obeyed, or else consequences follow. But he constantly has to deal with people trying to subvert his authority.
We must never ever confuse the God that is God, with the character called God in the bible. The character in the bible, who looks like an ancient king, has a lot of character flaws – but what can we expect? The character that the biblical writers wrote about had to be one that they had the possibility of conceiving – and a big powerful king was the best they could do.
But it’s not that those writers were blundering fools. They were on to something powerfully true about God, even though they described in ways far different than the Heavenly Father whose Kingdom had come on earth, as Jesus put it, many years later.
The insight that the ancient writers got right is that God is indeed King, and his people should honor and respect him as king – even if he is not exactly like an ancient Near Eastern monarch. What does it mean that God is king?
Many of us have embarked on the project of “reading the bible in 90 days.” We have just recently read of how Samuel, the prophet-judge, reacted when the people came to him and wanted him to anoint a person to be their first king. He was scandalized. They didn’t need a king; God was supposed to be king! In the story, the character God said as much to Samuel:
“they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” I Sam. 8:7
What was the Israelite’s political arrangement like before they had kings? The were a loosely organized set of tribes. There was no central organization. They were led by charismatic leaders called “judges” who came along from time to time, mainly to muster the tribes into battle against one of the surrounding nations who were threatening their security. Sometimes the tribes went to war against each other.
How was that time, the time of the judges when there was not yet a king? It was a bad-news story. Even some of the judges themselves were really awful people – remember Samson? (His story is not at all fit for children! It certainly isn’t a ‘family values’ story either!)
The period of the judges finally comes to an end when the people demand that Samuel anoint their first king, which he reluctantly does. Towards the end of the book of Judges we read a phrase which is repeated several times:
“in those days, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
By means of this phrase, we who have been reading of this terrible period of time, get the impression that a human king would probably be a good idea. But this is irony. The writer knows that his next book will be Kings (all the books, Joshua through Kings have a common author, with the exception of Ruth), and instead of getting better, things get even worse.
The whole story eventually ends with Jerusalem destroyed; a pile of smoking rubble, the temple crushed, the king and all the surviving people hauled off to Babylon in chains. It is a bad-news story, start to finish! It does not look at all like God is king.
Ruth: A Different Story
This brings us to our main texts for this morning. Remarkably, in the middle of all of this badness during the time of the judges when things seemed out of control, “and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” we get the story called the book of Ruth.
Some of you will know that this story is not part of the original sequence, but it was later added, and put into this location, because it tells a story that took place during the period of the judges. (That decision was made by the ones who translated the Hebrew bible into Greek – the ‘Septuagint;’ our English versions now follows that order.)
Ruth begins, “In the days when the judges ruled…” and proceeds to tell quite a different story. Ruth is a story about people who are not living according to the phrase:
“in those days, there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Living as if God is King
Rather, the people in the book of Ruth live as if the Lord God is King. The author tips us off in several ways to let us know that this story is going to be different from the stories in the book of Judges.
Did you notice that off-handed greeting that Boaz and his workers exchange?
“Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you.” They answered, “The LORD bless you.”
These people are living in a world that is consciously present to God. God is king here, and his presence is acknowledged in every greeting.
The author has actually sets us up to expect a world different from the world of the book of Judges during which “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes” by noting several times that Naomi had married into the line of Elimelech. That name, Elimelech literally means “my God is King.”
So what does it mean then to live as if God is indeed King? This is why this book is here, and why it is so important to us. What does it mean for us to pray, as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth”? What does it mean to us that the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was, as he said,
“I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God…; for I was sent for this purpose.”
But Look at the World
Here’s the trouble: look around. It does not look at all as though God is King of anything. Look at Syria or Libya, or Iran, or Israel. Look at Sudan and Somalia. Look at Detroit and at every major city’s inner-city urban area. Look at the way greed and corruption seem to be the norm, not the exception. Look at the way poverty persists. Look at the state of family life. It seems as though our times too are times in which everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Where is God in all of this? In the book of Ruth, we read that Naomi married Elimelech, but it did not look to her as though God was king. At the outset of the story they have to leave Bethlehem (which means “house of bread”) because of a famine; no bread. They become immigrants.
They end up in neighboring Moab where their two sons marry local women, but then Elimelech the father and his two sons die, leaving Naomi with two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. The life that three widows can expect to live, when “there is no king and when everyone does what is right in their own eyes” is not pretty. It would not be a story for children.
Naomi herself assumes the worst. She says, on her return trip from Moab, “Call me no longer Naomi, (which means pleasantness) call me Mara, (meaning bitter) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”
Bitter or Blessed?
Life lived without God as King may indeed be bitter. But appearances aside, when people choose to live as though God is indeed king, everything is different. In what way? In every way! Unprotected single women are safe, even in the field of a stranger. Widows are looked after. Bounty is shared without grudging, even abundantly.
Boaz chose to live as though God is King. He lived into the truth of the Kingdom of God. His story – which became part of Ruth’s story – was not a common one in the period of the judges, but it was a possible one.
Boaz ended up marrying Ruth so that the family line of Elimelech could continue. David came from this line, which means also that Jesus came from this family line.
Jesus’ Purpose: announcing that God is King
Jesus came announcing that the climax to this long, often dark, bad-news story of Israel, had finally come. He came announcing the good news that God is King; the kingdom of God is at hand.
What does this mean for us? Right now, Jesus as risen Lord and king is inviting all of us to live into the reality of the Kingdom of God. We are called to swear our allegiance to God as king; not as a petty, brutish ancient Near-Eastern monarch, but as the caring King who, as Jesus taught us, has his eye on the lilies of the field and the bird of the air.
We can look at the world as it is, and be bitter, like Naomi expected to be. Or we can look past the surface and see the reality of God’s Kingdom all around us. We can, in fact, “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, his justice” (the word means both).
Seek – and keep seeking; because it’s not obvious. Search – it’s not there on the surface where everyone is doing what suits them still today, as in the days of the judges. Search, look for, watch for signs that God is King, that God is at work – the signs are all around. And instead of being bitter, know that you are blessed. This may not be the common way to live, but it is a possible way.
So then, as blessed people of the kingdom, live into the kingdom; be a blessing. Be a Ruth to a Naomi in need; be a Boaz to a Ruth at risk; be a citizen of the Kingdom of God to the least of these.” This is the good news: God is King! May we all do God’s will as readily on earth as it is done in heaven.