O Little Town of Bethlehem

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Ruth 1

INTRODUCTION: We are starting a new advent series today called Ruth – A Christmas Story. You might be wondering, what does the book of Ruth have to do with Christmas? Ruth is in the Old Testament. Isn’t the story of Christmas in the New Testament? Well, yes and no. We do turn to the gospels in the New Testament to find the actual details of the Christmas story – Joseph and Mary; the angels, shepherds, and wisemen; and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

But the Christmas story has deep roots. It begins in the Old Testament, because the Old Testament points forward to Christ and his coming. I suppose you could do a message series called “Genesis – A Christmas Story” or “Isaiah – A Christmas Story” or even “Leviticus – A Christmas Story.” You could actually do a message series called “The Old Testament – A Christmas Story,” but that would make for a long advent season!

The book of Ruth is particularly appropriate to read as a Christmas story for a number of reasons. For one thing, it actually is a story. It is 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.

It is also appropriate because the events of Ruth bear directly on the events of Christmas. For example, it is no coincidence that the events of Ruth and the events of Christmas 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 direct connection between Ruth and the Christmas story.

And then finally, as we make our way through the book of Ruth, we will find some remarkable parallels between the story of Ruth and the Christmas story. For example, Christmas 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. The book of Ruth is 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.

We will walk our way through the whole first chapter of Ruth this morning, but let’s begin by reading verses 15-19. (Read Ruth 1:15-19 and pray.)

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I. The flight from Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1-5; Matthew 2:13-18)

The book of Ruth 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. Ruth is an unlikely candidate for such a story. She was not even a Jew. She was from Moab, and the Moabites were long term enemies of Israel. So how did Ruth come to have faith in God, and how did she come to arrive in Bethlehem?

To answer those questions we begin with another person’s story – the story of Naomi. And that is where the book of Ruth begins. So let’s start with Ruth 1:1-2.

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived 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. A Sunday School teacher 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!” “Okay,” said the teacher, “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.” The last verse in the book of Judges tells us the two most important things about these days: “In those days Israel had no king.” And “everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 21:25) This was a time when Israel was not following God’s commands, and so this famine was not a coincidence. It was all part of God’s plan to bring his people back to him.

Naomi and her family left Bethlehem to escape the famine and went to Moab. They probably only intended to live there for a little while, but you know how things go. Once there, they settled in, and Moab became their new home. Sadly, things did not go any better for Naomi in Moab than in Bethlehem. We read in verses 3-5:

Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. (Ruth 1:3-5)

Naomi left Bethlehem to escape trouble, but ended up losing her husband and two sons in Moab instead. And so the book of Ruth opens with a series of terrible losses for Naomi. She left her homeland. She lost her husband. She lost both her sons. Naomi lost everything in her flight from Bethlehem.

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

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
     When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:13-18)

The people in Ruth and the people in the Christmas story were no strangers to loss. Perhaps you are struggling with loss this Christmas season. Please know that God is working in your life even in the midst of difficult circumstances. The Bible tells us: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) God was working in Naomi’s life even though she could not see it at the time. He was going to bring good out of her suffering, and he would do that through a young Moabite woman named Ruth.

II. A young woman’s radical commitment of faith (Ruth 1:6-17; Luke 1:26-38)

Ruth was 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 will see Ruth make a radical commitment of faith that will change everything for Naomi and indeed everything for the world.

In Ruth 1:6 Naomi learns that the famine is over in Israel, and so she prepares to return home to Bethlehem. At first her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, begin the journey with her, but partway there Naomi tells them to go back to Moab. 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 goes back to Moab.

Meanwhile Ruth remains, clinging to Naomi on the road to Bethlehem. Naomi tells her one last time: “Look, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” (Ruth 1:15) And that is when Ruth makes her radical commitment of faith. Look at Ruth 1:16-17:

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (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. We read in the New Testament how the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9), and that is exactly what Ruth does here. Orpah went back to her people and her gods. 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.

Notice this is a life commitment Ruth makes. She commits not simply for the length of Naomi’s life, that is, to take care of Naomi while she is alive. Ruth commits to serving the Lord in Israel for the rest of her own life. “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. 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 am 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, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
     “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
     The angel answered, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God … For nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:30-37)

And then Mary spoke her radical words of faith:

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:38)

Mary not only believed the word God gave her through the angel. She submitted to his word in obedience. 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.

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.

III. The whole town was astir (Ruth 1:18-22; Matthew 2:1-6)

So let’s go back to Ruth now picking the story up in Ruth 1:18-19:

When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” (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:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
     When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of 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, in Judea, for this is what the prophet has written.” Bethlehem was only six miles away, and yet we don’t read that anyone bothered to make the trip to see the newborn king.

When Naomi and Ruth arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:19-20)

The name Naomi means “pleasant,” and the name Mara means “bitter.” Naomi left Bethlehem ten years earlier with a husband and two sons, full of hope for the future. Now she has returned empty-handed. So she tells the people: “Don’t call me Pleasant. Call me Bitter.” She goes on to say: “I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:21)

Naomi was in a dark place when she returned to Bethlehem. She was hurting. She didn’t know 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.

I love how the first chapter of Ruth ends. The last verse of the chapter reads: “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.” (Ruth 1:22)

Naomi said, “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 the barley harvest was beginning, 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.

CONCLUSION: So what are some of the parallels between Ruth and the Christmas story? There are a number in this first chapter alone.

The book of Ruth begins in the time of the Judges when there was no king in Israel. The Christmas story is 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 on Christmas morn.

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 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 at work now in the lives of those who come to him through Jesus for salvation. In closing listen to the third verse of Philips Brooks’ Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

© Ray Fowler

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By Ray Fowler. © Ray Fowler. Website: http://www.rayfowler.org

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