Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Surprise of Love

Ruth 4; Luke 2: 8-16
December 21, 2014, Fourth Sunday of Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Ruth 4
1 Meanwhile, Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there. Just then, the redeemer about whom Boaz had spoken was passing by. He said, "Sir, come over here and sit down." So he turned aside and sat down. 2 Then he took ten men from the town's elders and said, "Sit down here." And they sat down. 3 Boaz said to the redeemer, "Naomi, who has returned from the field of Moab, is selling the portion of the field that belonged to our brother Elimelech. 4 I thought that I should let you know and say, ‘Buy it, in the presence of those sitting here and in the presence of the elders of my people.' If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you won't redeem it, tell me so that I may know. There isn't anyone to redeem it except you, and I'm next in line after you." He replied, "I will redeem it." 5 Then Boaz said, "On the day when you buy the field from Naomi, you also buy Ruth the Moabite, the wife of the dead man, in order to preserve the dead man's name for his inheritance." 6 But the redeemer replied, "Then I can't redeem it for myself, without risking damage to my own inheritance. Redeem it for yourself. You can have my right of redemption, because I'm unable to act as redeemer." 7 In Israel, in former times, this was the practice regarding redemption and exchange to confirm any such matter: a man would take off his sandal and give it to the other person. This was the process of making a transaction binding in Israel.
8 Then the redeemer said to Boaz, "Buy it for yourself," and he took off his sandal. 9 Boaz announced to the elders and all the people, "Today you are witnesses that I've bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. 10 And also Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, I've bought to be my wife, to preserve the dead man's name for his inheritance so that the name of the dead man might not be cut off from his brothers or from the gate of his hometown—today you are witnesses." 11 Then all the people who were at the gate and the elders said, "We are witnesses. May the LORD grant that the woman who is coming into your household be like Rachel and like Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel. May you be fertile in Ephrathah and may you preserve a name in Bethlehem. 12 And may your household be like the household of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah—through the children that the LORD will give you from this young woman."
13 So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. He was intimate with her, the LORD let her become pregnant, and she gave birth to a son. 14 The women said to Naomi, "May the LORD be blessed, who today hasn't left you without a redeemer. May his name be proclaimed in Israel. 15 He will restore your life and sustain you in your old age. Your daughter-in-law who loves you has given birth to him. She's better for you than seven sons." 16 Naomi took the child and held him to her breast, and she became his guardian. 17 The neighborhood women gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They called his name Obed. He became Jesse's father and David's grandfather. 18 These are the generations of Perez: Perez became the father of Hezron,
19 Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, 20 Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 21 Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, 22 Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

Luke 2:8-16
8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

Friday night, the worship team had our annual Christmas celebration. It’s a wonderful time that we share – the opportunity to be together just for the purpose of being together – no rehearsal, or planning, or work of any sort – just sharing in good food and fun and conversation. Well, okay, we also have some good wine.

Anyway, this year Bob and I had the fun of hosting, and it was a great time. After everyone had gotten something to eat, we had a music exchange, which was fun, and then we got to visiting. Somehow, we started sharing how the various couples in the group had met. It was fun, and often funny, to hear those stories. And one thing that struck me was how often the stories involved something unexpected.

Not one couple who shared their story that night expected that they would end up married to each other! Not that it doesn’t happen – I know there are some of you who were meant for each other, who met and knew this person was the one even as children. But so often, there is a surprising or unexpected aspect to love stories.

The love story in Ruth is that way. Certainly, nobody in the first three chapters of this book thought that the return to Bethlehem would result in a marriage. Nobody could have imagined that Ruth would marry Boaz, Naomi’s distant relative, or that they would have a son who would be the grandfather of King David. Nobody would have imagined that Ruth, this foreigner, would be named in the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. It’s the stuff of novels and romantic movies! Who’d have thought that this bitter hunger that Naomi had would be fed with such generosity and love? Who’d have believed it? It all came about in the most unexpected way.

The first chapter, the first Sunday of Advent, we met Naomi, a widow from Bethlehem, living in Moab with her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, both also widowed after Naomi’s two sons had died. Naomi sets out to return to Bethlehem and tries to turn Ruth and Orpah back to their homes. But Ruth won’t go. She returns to a place she has never been, and provides a sense of hope to the despairing Naomi. In the second chapter, Ruth gathers grain in the fields, following the reapers, and does so in peace, thanks to Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. In addition to hope, she brings peace and plenty to Naomi. In the third chapter, Ruth seeks out Boaz on the threshing floor, and there he promises, before the morning breaks, to find Naomi’s nearest kinsman, and redeem the family farm.

In this fourth chapter, Boaz, observant of custom and law, seeks out the kinsman and makes the formal offer – there is a piece of land to be redeemed, and this relative has first right of refusal. At first the kinsman says he will take the property, redeem it in the family name. But then Boaz tells him, “Oh, by the way, Ruth comes with the deal. You’d need to marry her.” It isn’t really explicit in the text, but certainly Boaz knew exactly what he was doing, making this kinsman an offer he was sure to refuse!

Every chapter of this story contained a plot twist, and this chapter is no different, for at the end of the tale we find out that this marriage generated not only hope and peace and joy and love, it also results in a child, Obed, the joy of Naomi’s old age, the grandfather of David, the king of all Israel, and the ancestor of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem, of the house of David. It is a story filled with word play, with reversals and surprises – turning and returning, covering and uncovering, loss and redemption, bitterness turned to sweetness.

Through it all, God’s lovingkindness and steadfast love endure.

Similarly, the appearance of the angel to shepherds, for any reason, was a complete surprise to everyone. It was particularly surprising that the angel was announcing the birth of the Messiah – to shepherds! The children’s program had it right – they weren’t expecting that!

One of the favorite lines in that script last week, according what I overheard from certain small people, was when the angels heard that the Prince of Heaven was to be born in a stable. They were shocked! They answered: “In A STABLE? Surrounded by animals? Filled with hay? Filled with poop?”[Shout out here to the boys who joined in on this line during the actual sermon!]

What on earth could God be thinking? And then, if you recall, just like the account in the Bible, the angels came to sing of Christ’s birth, not to kings and presidents, but to shepherds, because, like the script said, “Those dudes could do with some cheering up."

Our beloved nativity scenes show Baby Jesus surrounded by clean respectable people. Mary is all tidied up so you’d hardly know that she’d just been in labor. The shepherds and sheep look freshly washed, the barn and manger like someone came through with a broom and a liberal dose of Murphy’s Oil Soap. You’d think that Jesus just appeared there, all swaddled up and fragrant with that sweet milky baby aroma, placed gently in the manger after everything was cleaned up.

But God doesn’t work like that, waiting to enter into our lives once we have everything all tidied up. God doesn’t postpone loving us until after we’ve done the right thing, as Ruth did, or after we’ve come to adore Jesus like the shepherds. No, the surprise of God’s love is that we aren’t expecting it, and, if we are honest, we sometimes have a little trouble believing it.

It isn’t that we don’t want to believe it – after all, what a great thing, that someone loves us just because we are alive! But our experience teaches us that this really isn’t very probable.

We can talk about loving each other unconditionally, but truly, most of us can think of SOME condition in which we could stop loving another human being.

But God’s love isn’t like that. It isn’t based on what we do, or who we are, or where we live. God’s love story with us is all about the unexpected. The birth of Jesus breaks into our worlds, messy and disorganized, unprepared as we may be. Jesus comes to us in an unexpected way, to unexpected places, Jesus shows up among the lowly, the humble and the outcast.

Jesus shows up in places that are, well, filled with straw and poop and disrespectable people. Maybe we’d rather not think it about it quite that way. We are, after all, nice folks.

We clean up our houses before company comes over. We get out the good china and put clean sheets on the guest bed. We would rather not have anyone see or know about the disreputable or untidy parts of our lives, or even of our past. When Jesus shows up, we would prefer that he not see the grime, not smell anything stinky.

But God doesn’t usually come by way of the front door. God shows up in our lives in surprising ways in unexpected places and circumstances. The grandmother of King David was a Moabite woman. Her husband was the son of a Canaanite woman, a prostitute. From the House of David came Jesus, who was born to a peasant woman in an obscure village, and whose birth was announced to men who were literally outside – outside of the socially acceptable world, outside of the norm, outsiders in every way.

It may be surprising, the way God turns up, not at the center to tidy up the living room, but at the fringes, to disrupt our comfortable lives. Jesus comes, Immanuel, God with us, comes to uncover what is least acceptable about us and then redeem it through love, love that is surprising, unexpected and undeserved.

There’s an old Christmas carol, written by the same poet who wrote “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Christina Rossetti describes that unexpected love –

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

In a few days, we’ll gather here again to hear once again how love came down at Christmas.
May we once again be delighted and surprised, in reverent awe and unspeakable joy at the surprise and wonder of this love which comes, and may it be born anew in each of us.


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