O Little Town of Bethlehem

Most of you are probably aware that our country is deeply divided, and I don’t know if there is any hope of reconciliation.  I’m not talking about the division between Republicans and Democrats.  I’m not talking about the ways that different races are divided in our country today.  I’m talking about something much deeper than that.

            Our country is deeply divided over when it’s appropriate to put up a Christmas tree.  How many of you here this morning believe that you should wait until after Thanksgiving to put up your tree?  How many of you mistakenly believe that it’s OK to put up a Christmas tree before Thanksgiving?  I saw a disturbing poll this past week that said that 43 percent of Americans believe it’s OK to start decorating for Christmas before November 1!

            Whenever you choose to decorate or even if you don’t decorate at all, we all tend to look forward to Christmas.  And, as we draw closer and closer to Christmas, much of the world will be thinking about the birth of Jesus, which many refer to as the Christmas story.

            This morning, I want to begin a series of lessons that will take us through the next several weeks as we look at the Christmas story in the book of Ruth.  You may be wondering, what does the book of Ruth have to do with Christmas?  Ruth is in the Old Testament. Isn’t the story of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament?  Well, yes and no.

            We do look to the gospels in the New Testament to find the actual details of the story of the birth of Jesus – Joseph and Mary; the angels, shepherds, and wise men; and Jesus’ birth in the town of Bethlehem.

            But the Christmas story has deep roots.  It actually begins in the Old Testament, because the Old Testament points forward to Christ and his coming.  I suppose I could preach a series of lessons on the Christmas story in the book of Genesis, or the Christmas story in the book of Isaiah, or even the Christmas story in the book of Leviticus

            But the book of Ruth is especially appropriate to read as a Christmas story for a number of reasons.  For one thing, it actually is a story.  It’s a short story contained in four brief chapters, focusing on a few main characters and the part they played in God’s amazing plan to save the world through Jesus.

            But it’s also appropriate because the events in the book of Ruth are very similar to some of the events that surrounded Jesus’ birth.  For example, it’s no coincidence that the events of Ruth and Jesus’ birth both take place in the town of Bethlehem.  In fact, the whole reason Jesus was born in Bethlehem is specifically because of what takes place in the book of Ruth.  And so, there is a very direct connection between the book of Ruth and the Christmas story.

            And as we make our way through the book of Ruth, we’re going to find some very interesting parallels between the story of Ruth and the Christmas story.  For example, the Christmas story is the story of a young woman who made a radical commitment of faith to God and then journeyed to Bethlehem where she gave birth to a child who would change the world.

            And, in the book of Ruth, we find the story of – wait for it – a young woman who made a radical commitment of faith to God and then journeyed to Bethlehem where she gave birth to a child who would change the world.

            Ruth is an unlikely candidate for such a story.  For starters, she wasn’t even a Jew.  She was from Moab, and the Moabites were long term enemies of Israel.  So how did Ruth come to have a faith in God, and what brought her to the town of Bethlehem?

            To answer those questions, we need to begin with another person’s story – the story of Naomi. And that’s where the book of Ruth begins.  So, let’s pick up with the first verse:

            “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his 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.” (Ruth 1:1-2)

            So, the book of Ruth begins with a flight from Bethlehem, which is interesting, because the Christmas story also contains a flight from Bethlehem.  I heard about a Sunday School teacher who asked the kids in her class to draw a picture of their favorite Bible stories. One little boy drew a picture of four people in an airplane. The teacher was confused, so she asked him, “Which story is that?” He replied, “That’s the flight from Bethlehem!”

            The teacher said, “I guess this must be Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus, but who’s the fourth person up front?” And the little boy replied, “That’s Pontius the Pilot!”

            Back to Ruth and the flight from Bethlehem.  Verse one tells us that this story took place “in the days when the judges ruled.”  Now, the last verse in the book of Judges tells us two very important things about these days.  First of all, “In those days there was no king in Israel.” And “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)  In other words,this was a time when Israel was not following God’s commands.

            Now the scriptures don’t tell us this, but it seems very likely that the famine in the book of Ruth was God’s judgment upon his people.  Because famine, if not every time, almost every time that famine is mentioned in scripture, it is in connection with God’s judgment against his people, because if God made it clear that if his people refuse to obey him, then he will refuse to feed them.

            So, Naomi and her family left Bethlehem to escape the famine and they went to the country of Moab. They probably only intended to live there for a little while, but you know how things go. Once they got there, they settled in, and Moab became their new home.  But, sadly, things didn’t go any better for Naomi in Moab than they did back in Bethlehem.

            We read in verse 3, “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. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.” (Ruth 1:3-5)

            It’s ironic that Elimelech moved to Moab so that he and his sons wouldn’t die.  But then what happened?  They all died.  In Moab.  And I can’t imagine anything worse that could have happened to Naomi.

            Naomi buried her husband, and then she buried her only two sons before she even got grandchildren.  She attended three funerals, and her whole family was gone. And there she was left in Moab. No church around to comfort her, no women who loved God to pray for her and to walk with her and to encourage her. She is left penniless; she is left broke; she is left destitute.

            This is a picture of absolute devastation, desolation, and desperation.  And I appreciate the brutal honesty of scripture. I love the fact that when scripture talks about life, it does so with the same degree of pain that we experience it.    Naomi left Bethlehem to escape trouble, but she ended up losing everything.

            The flight from Bethlehem in the Christmas story also involved terrible loss. After Jesus was born and the wise men came and worshiped him, we read in the gospel of Matthew:

            “Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’  And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’

 

            “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

            ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation,
            Rachel weeping for her children;

            she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’” (Matthew 2:13-18)

            The people in the story of Ruth and the people in the Christmas story were both devastated by loss.  And it may be that some of you here this morning are struggling with loss this Christmas season.  If that’s the case, please know that God is working in your life even in the midst of some difficult circumstances.  God was working in Naomi’s life even though she couldn’t see it at the time.  God’s plan was to bring something good out of her suffering, and he intended to do that through a young Moabite woman named Ruth.

            Ruth is mentioned briefly in verse four as the woman who married one of Naomi’s sons before they died.  Now, as we move into the next section of the story, we’re going to see Ruth make a radical commitment of faith that will change everything for Naomi and, in fact, everything for the world.

            In verse 6, Naomi learns that there is no longer a famine in Israel, and so she prepares to return home to Bethlehem.  Verse 6, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.” (Ruth 1:6)

            The Lord visited his people.  The word “visit” here doesn’t mean God dropped by to see somebody.  The word “visit” means to pay attention to, to care about, to do something for someone.  When James says in James 1:27 that “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this:  to visit orphans and widows in their trouble”, he’s not saying we need to drop by and say “hello”.  No — see what they need, take care of their needs.

            So, the Lord visited his people in Bethlehem.  He brought bread to his people.  And this is one of the main themes in the book of Ruth – God is working in this world. Scriptures make it clear that God has always done his work in this world in two ways.  One is through miracles.

            But God also works through his hand of providence. God’s providence is the acknowledgement and the belief that God is at work, not just through miraculous events.  But that God is also at work in the everyday lives of normal people, like Naomi and Ruth.

            And here we see that God shows up through his hand of providence and all of a sudden, what had been famine in Bethlehem turns around, because now food is on the table, and crops are in the field, and there’s hope once again.

            And the author of Ruth says, “It was God who did that.”  It wasn’t coincidence, it wasn’t chance, it wasn’t global warming that brought the rain. It was God that put food on the table.

            And so, Naomi headed back to Bethlehem.  At first her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, began the journey with her, but somewhere along the way, Naomi tells them to turn around and go back to Moab.  

            Naomi says, “You girls go home. I’ve got nothing. I’m broke. I’ve got no more kids. Got no money.  Got no future. Go home. I love you girls, I appreciate that you’re willing to go with me, but this is not a good idea. You go home.” And then she prays.   She says, “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.” (Ruth 1:8)

            There is some back and forth where the daughters-in-law tell her, “No, we will go with you,” and Naomi keeps telling them, “No, go back,” but finally Orpah does go back to Moab.

            Meanwhile Ruth remains, refusing to leave Naomi on the road to Bethlehem. Naomi tells her one last time: “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” (Ruth 1:15)

            And this is where Ruth makes a radical commitment of faith.  “But 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.’” (Ruth 1:16-17)

            Ruth pledges herself to Naomi and to Naomi’s people, but most important of all, she pledges herself to Naomi’s God.  She pledges herself to the Lord Jehovah.  We read in the New Testament how the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God(I Thessalonians 1:9), and that’s exactly what Ruth does here.  Orpah went back to her people and to her gods.  But Ruth makes a radical break from her people and their false gods, and she commits herself in faith to the Lord, the God of Israel.

            And I want you to see that was a lifetime commitment that Ruth made.  She didn’t just commit herself to take care of Naomi as long as she lived.  Ruth commits to serving the Lord in Israel for the rest of her own life.  She says, “Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” Ruth chose to be buried with God’s people rather than with her own ancestors.  And to be buried in Israel meant complete separation from her own people and gods forever.  This was a radical faith commitment to the Lord, which would not only change Ruth’s and Naomi’s lives but would have repercussions that would change the world.

            When I read about Ruth’s faith in God, I’m reminded of another young woman’s radical commitment of faith that changed the world. I think about Mary in the New Testament.  Mary was just a young woman when God sent the angel Gabriel to her with some startling news. The angel told her:

            “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

            “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ 

            “And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:30-36)

            And then Mary spoke these radical words of faith:

             “‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:38)

            Mary not only believed the word of God that was given to her through the angel.  She submitted to his word in obedience.  And I want you to keep in mind that this was a difficult obedience.  This was an obedience that would endanger her life, tarnish her reputation, and risk losing her relationship with Joseph to whom she was engaged to be married.  But like Ruth, Mary laid it all on the line.  She made a radical commitment of faith that changed the world.

            I want you to understand that if you want to make a difference in this world, you need to be a person of faith. You cannot accomplish anything of lasting significance without faith in God. Now you may not change the world.  Mary and Ruth were major players in God’s plan for the ages, but I guarantee when you put your faith in God, it will change your world.  Like Mary and Ruth, we need to be people who make a radical commitment of faith to God.

            Back to the story of Ruth.  We pick up in verse 18:

            “And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.  So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem.  And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them.” (Ruth 1:18-19)

            When Naomi arrived in Bethlehem with Ruth, the whole town was astir because of them. They couldn’t believe it.  Could this really be Naomi, back again after all these years?

            The Christmas story also describes a town that was all astir.  We read in Matthew 2:

            “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’

            “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

            “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:  “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”’” (Matthew 2:1-6)

            The whole city of Jerusalem was astir at the news that the Messiah had been born. They even knew the location: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet”.  Less than six miles away.  No wonder the city of Jerusalem was all abuzz.

            When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, “the whole town was stirred because of them.  And the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’  She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’” (Ruth 1:19-20)

            The word Naomi means “pleasant,” and the word Mara means “bitter.”  Naomi left Bethlehem ten years earlier with a husband and two sons, full of hope for the future.  Now she returns empty-handed.  And so, she tells the people: “Don’t call me Pleasant. Call me Bitter.”

            She goes on to say, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:21)

            Naomi was in a dark place when she returned to Bethlehem. She was hurting. She didn’t know that God was working to bring good out of her situation.  And yet God was there working all the time.  She just couldn’t see it.

            There are times when we all arrive at this place where Naomi finds herself, where life is hard, and it feels like God is against us, and we have lots of questions and no answers.   But the one question that God wants us to ask is this, “How can this be used by God to accomplish his good?”  Because, for a child of God, there is no suffering, no affliction, no weeping or mourning that is pointless and purposeless.

            It’s important that we understand that.  Because it will change how we suffer.  Now I’m not saying that every evil and injustice in this world is something that God intended.  But it does mean that every hardship and affliction can be used by God for his glory and for our good.

            Now, at this point in her journey, Naomi doesn’t see this.  But in the weeks ahead, we’re going to see what God does with this, so make sure you keep coming back.

            But I love how the first chapter of Ruth ends.  The last verse of the chapter reads: “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” (Ruth 1:22)

            Remember, Naomi told everybody, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara.”  But God continues to call her Naomi anyway.  God has good plans for her, and he continues to call her by her name. We also learn that this was the start of the barley harvest, a sign of God’s grace and new beginnings.  After a dark opening chapter, there is a break of light, and you get the sense that things are about to change for Ruth and Naomi.

            So, what are some of the parallels between the story of Ruth and the Christmas story?  There are several here in this first chapter.  But there are also some differences.

            The book of Ruth begins in the time of the Judges when there was no king in Israel. The Christmas story is a story about Jesus who was born king of the Jews and worshiped by kings from afar.

            The book of Ruth begins with a famine in Bethlehem, which is ironic, because the name Bethlehem means “house of bread.” There was no bread in Bethlehem. But in the Christmas story there is bread in Bethlehem. Jesus, the Bread of life, came down from heaven and was born in Bethlehem.

            The book of Ruth is about a young woman who made a radical commitment of faith to God and then journeyed to Bethlehem where she gave birth to a child who would change the world. The Christmas story is a story about a young woman who made a radical commitment of faith to God and then journeyed to Bethlehem where she gave birth to a child who would change the world.

            God was at work in Bethlehem in the days of Ruth and Naomi. God was at work in Bethlehem in the days of Joseph and Mary. And God is still at work even now in the lives of those who come to him through Jesus for salvation.

            This morning, are you willing to make the commitment of faith that Ruth did, to say like Ruth that you will follow God for the rest of your life?

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