Sermon: Joy Sunday

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
December 16, 2018

Ruth 1:16-19a, 4:13-22

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is ‘Gaudete’ Sunday – Joy Sunday, the only Sunday in the entire liturgical year whose colour is pink. The name comes in part from a command Paul sometimes gave to his readers as we hear in today’s extract from the letter to the Philippians; in Latin, ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ is Gaudete in Domino semper. In the midst of Advent, which can be rather a sombre liturgical time as we prepare for the Second Coming and are reminded to be ready for the return of the Son of Man, this third Sunday is a time of joy.

Today is also the third week in which we have remembered Jesus’ ancestors in the faith by putting ornaments representing them on the Jesse Tree. In this past week, as you coloured in the pictures, you will have been reminded of God liberating the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt; leading them through the desert to a new land; and providing them with kings to rule them. This morning we have named Moses and Aaron; Rahab and Joshua; David and Solomon. And we have also named Ruth and Naomi, a most unlikely pair of heroes, whose story begins in tragedy and ends in joy.

The story of Ruth and Naomi begins with a man of Israel, Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, leaving Bethlehem for the foreign land of Moab to find food in a time of famine. There is an irony in that, because the word ‘Bethlehem’ means ‘house of bread’. But there is no bread in Bethlehem. The two sons marry Moabite women, foreigners, called Orpah and Ruth. After some years all three men die, and Naomi decides to return to Judah. She tells her daughters-in-law to leave her, saying ‘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.’ Orpah does return to her own home, but Ruth insists on accompanying her mother-in-law in words that have become justly famous, part of the reading we heard today:

‘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!’.

So astonishing are Ruth’s words that they are often read at weddings as an example of the deep commitment that spouses should have to each other.

Naomi and Ruth return to Naomi’s home, and when Naomi is greeted by the people who knew her as a wife and mother she tells them: ‘Call me no longer Naomi [pleasant], call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me’.  Now Naomi needs to find some security for the two widows, herself and her widowed daughter-in-law, and she does this by telling Ruth to approach Naomi’s kinsman Boaz, washed, anointed, and dressed up, and to do whatever he tells her. Ruth, as widows were permitted, has been gleaning among Boaz’s fields, and he has shown her favour and protected her from being harassed by his workers. But the harvest is almost over, and that’s all Boaz has done. So Naomi seeks to encourage Boaz to go further, by sending a prettified Ruth to his bed.

This is one of the adults-only sections of the Bible. Boaz wakes up to find a strange woman in his bed, the author tells us, ‘At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman!’  He asks her who she is and Ruth practically proposes to him by saying: ‘I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.’ Boaz agrees, although there is in fact a closer next-of-kin to Naomi who has first claim on Ruth. Boaz, concerned for Ruth’s reputation, sends her away in the morning ‘before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing-floor.”’ He approaches the true next-of-kin, who relinquishes his claim to Naomi’s property when he finds Ruth is to come with it, Boaz telling him: ‘The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.’ Then the story ends with the rest of today’s reading. Boaz and Ruth are married, and Ruth gives birth to Obed. The women of the city rejoice with Naomi, saying of the baby: ‘He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’

The sting in the tail of this book comes at the very end of the reading: ‘They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ In other words David, one of the greatest kings of Israel, had a Moabite great-grandmother. This contradicted a strong theme in the Hebrew Scriptures. In Deuteronomy the command was given to the people of Israel: ‘Do not intermarry with [gentiles], giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.’ (Deut 7:3-4) Even more specifically, Deuteronomy instructs the Jews: ‘No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord’. (Deut 23:3). And as Israel rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, those who had married foreign wives were commanded to repudiate them, and agreed: ‘So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.’ (Ezra 10:3) In contrast, the Book of Ruth not only shows a Moabite marrying a Jew and becoming the ancestress of King David, it also shows the commitment of this Moabite woman to the God of Israel, Yahweh, in her declaration to Naomi. Ruth not only says that Naomi’s God will be her God, she makes her vow in the name of that God. Ruth is a book that challenges religious, ethnic and cultural prejudice.

Ruth is not only a foreigner, a Moabite; she is also one of only four women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew. The genealogy follows the generations through fathers and sons: ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers’ and so on and so forth, but in four places this pattern changes and mothers are mentioned as well as fathers. Matthew writes that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar; that Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab; that Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth; and that David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. If you have been reading the suggested Jesse Tree passages you’ll remember that Tamar dressed up as a prostitute to convince her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her; that Rahab was a prostitute; that Ruth, as I have already mentioned, snuck into Boaz’s bed; and although you weren’t asked to read the passage about David and the wife of Uriah I hope you remember that she was Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery, a crime he tried to cover up by having Uriah killed. Ruth is one of the four scandalous women whose misbehaviour led to the birth of Jesus.

The story of Ruth and Naomi ends in joy, which makes it a particularly appropriate one for us to hear on Gaudete Sunday, but it only ends in joy because of Ruth’s great sacrifice in leaving her own country and her own people to accompany Naomi to Judah, and her courage in both going gleaming alone and then seeking Boaz out at night in extremely compromising circumstances. As a result of all this, Ruth is first able to feed Naomi, and later able to give Naomi a son to replace the two she lost in Moab and Naomi, who told the people of Bethlehem to call her Mara/Bitter, is able to regain her proper name, Pleasant. Joy comes in a surprising and unusual way, through God doing something scandalous. Next week we will hear the story of Mary, and see again God acting in an outrageous way when a young unmarried girl becomes pregnant. God is not only the One who liberates the captives, God is the One who destroys the dividing walls we human beings build up between ourselves and shows us how ridiculous all our categories are. God is not well-behaved! Thanks be to God. Amen.


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