Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sermon for first mid-week Advent service

                                                                                                            Mid-Advent 1
                                                                                                            Ruth 1:1-22

            Family genealogy has become a topic that people find very interesting. In fact for many people, it is almost a hobby.  They enjoy tracking back their ancestors throughout the time the spouses’ families have been in the United States, and then as far back in the country of origin as possible.  Sometimes trips to foreign countries are used as opportunities to pursue this kind of research using church and city records that are only available at that physical location.
            While there is information that can only be accessed by going to a place, the advent of the internet and digital scanning has meant that more and more of this information is available wherever you live.  It’s available online.  And in fact one company has made this into a rather lucrative business.  You frequently see television ads for This Provo, Utah based business was founded in 1983, and as of 2012 the company had provided access to approximately eleven billion records and had two million paying subscribers.  Its annual revenue is about four hundred million dollars.
            While many of us find our own genealogies to be interesting, we are probably not as excited about those we find in the Bible.  A long list of rather strange sounding names does not make for the most interesting reading.  In fact, we usually skip over them.
            However, while we may not find the biblical genealogies to be interesting, there is in fact some very interesting and important theology embedded in them.  As I have described in this month’s church newsletter, before we get to Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus Christ in chapter one, we first have to get through seventeen verses of genealogy.  In my newsletter article I have described a couple of significant things that we learn from the genealogy.  During the mid-week Advent sermons, I would like to focus on another one.
            When you read through genealogies in the Old Testament, it quickly becomes clear that they are tracking descent through the father.  That is, in fact the reason it is so important that Joseph doesn’t break off the betrothal with Mary when he learns that she is pregnant.  Following the angel’s instruction he takes Mary as his wife, and in so doing her child – for whom he is not the father – is included in his family line.  Matthew tells us that in this way, Jesus becomes part of the line of King David.
            Genealogies in the Old Testament are a long list of men.  But when we arrive at the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel, we are in for a surprise. Most of the time the list says that “X was the father of Y” – so for example, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob.”  Yet four times in this genealogy we find women being mentioned.  So for example: “Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth.” We find four women listed: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah.  And then of course there is a fifth woman mentioned at the end when we read: “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”
            It is a surprise to find them in the genealogy at all.  And when you begin to look at their stories in Scripture, their presence becomes all the more surprising.  They are stories of the kind of people you would not expect to be in the ancestry of the Messiah.  Their presence is unexpected.  Yet as we look at several of these women during Advent we will find that the unexpected character of these women underscores the way God works.  He works in unexpected ways – ways that we do not expect, and frankly wouldn’t have chosen if it was up to us.  Yet in Jesus Christ, whose birth we will celebrate at Christmas, we learn that God’s unexpected ways bring salvation and peace.
            We learn in the genealogy that Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth.  This is a big deal because Obed was the father of Jesse and Jesse was the father of king David.  So when we consider Boaz and Ruth, we are talking about the great grandfather and great grandmother of David, the one to whom God made the promise about the Messiah.
            No doubt you are familiar with Ruth. There is of course a book that bears her name in the Old Testament.  As you heard in our text tonight, it is a heartwarming story of how Ruth was bound to Naomi by love and refused to leave her. 
            We learn that Elimilech was a man from Bethlehem who had a wife named Naomi.  They had two sons: Mahlon and Chilion.  During the time of the judges – that period after Israel entered the promised land and before the first king, King Saul – there was a famine in the land.  Because of the famine, Elimilech and his family went to live in the land of Moab which was east of Judah on the opposite side of the Dead Sea. While there, the two sons married Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth.
            During the time in Moab, the father and the two sons died, leaving Naomi, Orpah and Ruth as widows. Eventually, Naomi heard that Yahweh had visited his people and brought relief.  He had provided food, and so Naomi decided to return to her own land.
            Both Orpah and Ruth expressed the intention to return with Naomi to Israel.  She told them not to, and eventually Orpah was persuaded to leave Naomi. But as we heard in our text, Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
            It’s a touching story … so much so that it is easy to overlook one little detail.  Ruth is a Moabite. She is a foreigner.  She is a pagan.  She is the kind of person God had commanded the Israelites not to marry. They were not to intermarry with the foreign peoples because they would lead the Israelites into the worship of their false gods. And so when Naomi’s son married Ruth, he disobeyed God’s very specific command.
            The story of Ruth is a story of disobedience to God.  And yet, God uses this story of disobedience because in this case, the marriage doesn’t lead to a pagan Israelite husband.  Instead, it leads to a Moabite woman who worships Yahweh, the God of Israel.  And then it leads to far more than that because Boaz shows kindness to Ruth and Naomi.  Eventually he marries Ruth and from them comes forth King David, and finally, Jesus the Christ.
            The story of Ruth challenges our assumptions about the way God should work.  It convicts us of those times when we get upset because God isn’t doing things the way we want them to work. It chides us for the times when we see difficult circumstances and want to give up hope.
            In Ruth we see that God works in surprising ways.  Surprising doesn’t mean the absence of hardship and sorrow. Naomi’s husband died.  Ruth’s husband and Naomi’s husband died.  Ruth left her own land and people behind.  She struggled to survive when she came to Israel, reduced to gleaning the fields – picking up what the harvesters left behind.  In fact Ruth shows us that God remains at work even when there is hardship and sorrow.  His surprising ways continue and we are called to believe and trust in that fact. 
            During Advent we are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.  In Jesus, we find the reason that we can trust that God is still present and at work no matter what is happening.  We see that God worked through what seemed to be weak and unassuming – through a helpless baby in a manger.  We see that God worked through what seemed to be helpless and pitiful – through a man crucified on cross.
            This is surprising.  It is unexpected.  And yet it is God at work to give us forgiveness and salvation because the crucified One rose from the dead on the third day.  Because he did this we have peace with God and eternal life.  And in the present we have hope, for we have seen God do this in unexpected and surprising ways.  Because we have seen this, we are able to walk by faith and trust that God is at work in our life too, as we make our way to the day of Christ’s return.

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