Sunday, December 1, 2019

Bethlehem Redemption: Sermon on Judges 17-20 and Ruth 1-4

Doesn't the church look so different today? All festooned with wreaths and baubles, all brightened up with little candles and big flowers. And over there, you'll see – as you would've seen last year, and the year before, and I'd guess the year before that – what? What is that over there? Our nativity scene. Go take a close look at it later. In it, you'll find an infant resting in a feed trough – the baby Jesus. Over him, around him, adoring him, you'll find the Virgin Mary, garbed in her traditional blue, his mother; and Joseph, her husband. You'll see a few shepherds, come to adore the newborn Messiah, perhaps with some sheep in tow, perhaps joining a couple animals already there. You might even spot the angel who makes the announcement to them. And – although they didn't actually arrive the same night – you'll find little statues of the 'wise men' coming from the east. If someone told us to close our eyes and picture a nativity scene, we wouldn't have to wrestle much over whom to include, would we? We know who belongs there. And some years, we even get sermons built around the 'characters of Christmas' or 'cast of Christmas' – like we did here two years ago. The cast is pretty predictable – we know the story well, we dwell on it each year. On occasion, we may extend the cast list to include a few characters who don't make it into the nativity scene – folks like Herod, Simeon, Anna, and others. They have their parts to play, too. I've heard sermons on all of them, and some of the better ones dive into their backstory, try to get into their hearts and heads, figure out what makes them tick and where they fit.

And yet there is one character from the nativity story which we almost universally ignore: Bethlehem itself. This 'little town of Bethlehem,' of whom we sing songs this time of year, has a story all its own, no less than Joseph and Mary do. Joseph has a story, Mary has a story – their stories begin with their parents and their birth, go through their childhood, move toward maturity, set in a particular environment, and yet with everything in God's hand of loving providence, their stories are being shepherded on a trajectory toward the Big Event, the reason behind the telling, the birth of the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. The same is true for the shepherds – they have their backgrounds, lives unfolding normally up to the hour the angel came. Even the angels have an origin story, a history, a perspective that's worth exploring. Each character offers us a different way of entering the Story through their own story leading up to the Big Event. And Bethlehem is no less a character than anybody else who graces the page. We've entered the Story through the eyes of others before. It's high time we gave Bethlehem the same courtesy. So this Advent, this Christmas season, let's step back in time, into the pages of the Old Testament, and join Bethlehem as she hums along, waiting silently for the Big Event.

Much as we could only take rough guesses as to when the shepherds were born or what their parents were like, we don't know the exact year a settlement was founded that would develop into the Bethlehem we later know. But we can guess it was a long time ago. Several sets of Canaanite tombs have been found on nearby hillsides and were already in use before the time of Abraham. Bethlehem's story begins long ago. And as Abraham's grandson Jacob passed through the area, he tearfully buried his late wife Rachel in one of those tombs, while Bethlehem quietly watched from across the field and grieved with him (Genesis 35:19-20). Then Jacob left, and Bethlehem was alone with the Canaanites again, living their Canaanite lives, worshipping their Canaanite idols right in her midst. Centuries would pass until Bethlehem again saw anyone who lived another way. Bethlehem endured through times of turmoil, and as Jacob's descendants, the Israelites, moved back into the neighborhood from Egypt and the desert, they converted Bethlehem into an Israelite town. And Bethlehem was a pleasant city in which to live – the fields were fruitful with grapes, olives, almonds, wheat, and barley.

In those first centuries after Bethlehem's conversion to an Israelite town, the people were governed through a loose system of tribal heroes whom we call 'judges,' who rose up to overthrow oppressors and settle disputes on a rotating basis in different parts of the country. And during this time, the Bible gives us three stories known as the 'Bethlehem Trilogy,' since Bethlehem is a character in all three of them.

Early in the days of the judges, Bethlehem was home to a young man from the tribe of Levi, the tribe set specially apart as religious professionals. They taught in their cities and, if near enough to the tabernacle, cared for its furnishings. This particular Levite was not just any Levite, though. He couldn't be a priest, but he was cousin to all the priests – he was descended from Moses himself! And his name was Jonathan.

Now, Bethlehem had been Jonathan's home since his earliest days. But Jonathan the Levite felt stifled there. It was a big world outside his little town, after all. And there didn't seem to be much room for upward mobility there. In Bethlehem, where people knew him, he was respected as a descendant of Moses, he was cherished as a Levite – but how much, really, was there for a Levite to do? They lived off the tithes. They were dedicated to religious functions. And being a small-town teacher just didn't seem like enough for Jonathan. He didn't think of Bethlehem as anything special. He saw no long-term prospects for himself there. He wanted to get out into the world to seek his fortune and make a name for himself, not unlike the Prodigal Son. And so one day, he said goodbye – Jonathan crossed Bethlehem's threshold for the last time, never to return home again (Judges 19:7-8).

Jonathan traveled north to the hill country, and there he crossed paths with a rich estate owner named Micah. This Micah was a very mixed-up man – having stolen a fortune in silver for his mother, he gave it back only so they could dedicate it to God... by creating an idol to worship. In his house, he made a shrine and pretended one of his sons was a priest, and he used his wealth to make all the ritual trappings – Micah's so ignorant, he can't even tell the difference between Israel's faith and Canaan's folly, he thinks it's all the same thing (Judges 17:1-5). But when Micah meets Jonathan, he offers him a stipend of silver to replace his son and be his personal idol priest. Jonathan – a descendant of the Moses who brought the commandments down the mountain – should have known better. But he sold the truth for ten pieces of silver a year (Judges 17:9-13). Jonathan was no real priest of God – only his cousins, the descendants of Aaron, could be real priests – but he was happy to playact the role if the pay was right, for he only ever saw his 'priesthood' as a money-making scheme (Judges 18:4). He was just as happy – leapt at the chance – when a band of brutish Danite spies, a tribe on the move, wanted him to come be the idol-priest, not just for a single rich household, but for an entire clan, even a tribe on the rise – and for that price, he was willing to betray the Micah to whom he'd been both father and son (Judges 18:19-20).

And so he did. Jonathan made his fortune. Having left Bethlehem, his wildest dreams of success in the world came true. He went with the Danites as they set up Micah's idol (which they'd stolen) in a city they conquered and called Dan, and Jonathan became their priest there – he married and had sons and grandsons who followed in the new family business. They enjoyed prosperity and prominence there. From a worldly point of view, all Jonathan did worked out for him in the end, and he was right: Bethlehem was only holding him back. And yet, from a higher view, Jonathan's life is a tragedy. He disgraced his good family name forever. He sold his fine heritage. He rebelled against the Lord. He cursed his soul. All the silver with which stooges greased his palms – what did it avail when he died and plunged into the darkness of the grave? The family he raised in Dan – what good was it to pass on an evil legacy? Jonathan the Levite damned himself, destroyed his family, and not only that, but the idolatry he introduced to Dan set the stage for the entire history of compromised religion in the northern kingdom – a tribal and ultimately national legacy that would stew for centuries until ultimately bringing a catastrophic downfall (Judges 18:27-30). Jonathan's quest for success proved a massive disaster, no matter what he thought during the short span of a human lifetime. He never should have left Bethlehem.

Many, many years passed. Generations came and went in that little town of Bethlehem. People who'd watched Jonathan grow up had children of their own, and those children had children, and so on, and so on. And one of those families had a daughter. Neither she nor her father have names that we know. But one day, a Levite – no doubt of less august ancestry than Jonathan had been – came to stay in town for a while. He put a gleam in the father's eye, and perhaps the daughter fell for him too. With her father's blessing, this Levite desired her and took her as his own – how much say she had in the matter, we can only guess. But he was only passing through, and as he came, so he went. To be his was to leave Bethlehem behind. And so that daughter of Bethlehem did. She went with the Levite, though he refused to make her a wife – she was only his concubine (Judges 19:1).

In time, having moved north to the same hill country where Micah's house had been, she found the Levite's tents an inhospitable place. She found herself disillusioned, hurt, perhaps abused by the Levite. Without the warmth of a good relationship, she grew tired of his tent in those remote hinterlands, moving from place to place. She was right to long for the stability of her youth, for the village where she grew up. So one day, she left. Walked out on the Levite. She escaped and, though the walk took some time, she made her way alone through the countryside, until she finally came to the little town of Bethlehem again, and went back into her father's house (Judges 19:2). And she settled back in to the home she knew she never should've left.

Months passed. It took four months for the Levite to decide he even wanted her back. And so he packed up and traveled his own way to Bethlehem, intending to persuade her to leave with him again (Judges 19:3). Unwisely, perhaps, when she saw him, she brought him home to her father's house; and her father was very happy to see him (Judges 19:3-4). In the meals the two men had, she was nearly forgotten. The Levite wanted to be sent away with what he'd come for. The father pressed him to stay longer, perhaps hoping to convince him to stay in Bethlehem, perhaps trying to push the Levite to make a deeper commitment, perhaps trying to use his daughter to his own advantage (Judges 19:5-9). In the end, the Levite got what he wanted – the young woman went with him, perhaps of her own volition, perhaps at her father's insistence (Judges 19:10). Bethlehem had welcomed them all in. But now Bethlehem said goodbye to her once more, as she went with the Levite.

Yet this Levite was not a caring man. He took his concubine, his slave, his donkeys, and – having been waylaid too long, and having left late in the day – he was eager to make up for lost time. Rather than seek hospitality among the Jebusites of Jerusalem, they pressed onward into Benjaminite territory, to Gibeah (Judges 19:11-15), but the hospitable reception he expected never materialized except for a fellow Ephraimite stranger's welcome (Judges 19:16-21). Then came the locals banging on the door, trying to break in, re-enacting all the perverse threats of Sodom (Judges 19:22-23). And at the first sign of trouble, the Levite shoved that girl from Bethlehem outside, to be attacked and abused all night while he slept securely (Judges 19:25). In the morning, as the gang left, she crawled to the doorstep, where the Levite found her (Judges 19:26). Indifferent to her suffering and her fate, not caring whether there were any signs of life left in her at the end, he loaded her unconscious or dead body onto his donkey, took her home, and dissected her without a hint of emotion; then he packaged her in twelve bundles and mailed her to each tribe (Judges 19:27-29). It called together a greater assembly than any judge had ever gathered, and one that gave rise to a civil war among the people of God (Judges 20:1-48).

See, leaving Bethlehem spelled nothing but woe for that woman. All she got out of it was a grisly end. And for what? For a so-called 'husband' who never married her, who didn't love her, who treated her as a tool and shed no tears when she was gone – for her father's yearnings to be tied to the prestige of a Levite whose life has not the faintest whiff of anything levitical. Her departure from Bethlehem set in motion the wheels of national fratricide, nearly ripping all Israel apart in the civil war; and for her personally, everything after Bethlehem was only cruelty. If cities could cry, think how Bethlehem should have wept over her leaving! “No,” Bethlehem would have told her – “no, you should not leave, must not leave; stay here in me, stay home where you belong.”

But there were other times. And there was another man who lived in the little town of Bethlehem – a man from a prominent and established local clan. That man's name was Elimelech, and when he was a boy, he ran along the same dirt paths through the village that Jonathan had scorned. And when the boy Elimelech grew to a man, he married a local girl from the village, a girl named Naomi, who'd played in the same fields as he. Perhaps one or both had the concubine's father as a distant uncle. Who can say? But neither Elimelech nor Naomi imagined ever leaving Bethlehem. Bethlehem was where they grew up. Bethlehem saw them get married – the entire village would have celebrated it as a community event, it would have made Bethlehem quite happy. Bethlehem would have been the first to greet each of Elimelech's two sons, Mahlon and Chilion (Ruth 1:2). And the years passed, and the boys grew, and Elimelech and Naomi were both quite happy and quite content to live where they belonged: in Bethlehem. Neither had any apparent inclination to leave.

But they did leave. For there was a famine in the land. The local crops were failing, not yielding what they should have. It was a struggle to get by. And the Bible doesn't tell us how long after the famine started they waited. It doesn't tell us how long they tried to tough it out. But as the famine became more and more apparent, more and more evident, Elimelech made the decision on his family's behalf: they were going to have to leave Bethlehem behind. Just as Jonathan did. Just as the concubine did. But unlike them, the north – the hill country – wasn't the place to go. Perhaps the famine was in those parts, too. So Elimelech made the bold move to abandon the promised land altogether, and instead go to a fruitful land outside the realm of God's blessing. It wasn't so far: looking from Bethlehem across the Dead Sea, on the horizon he could already see the plateaued plains of Moab, golden with wheat – enticing wheat. So Elimelech told his wife and sons to pack up everything – because until Bethlehem was famine-free, they would move in as sojourners with the Moabites (Ruth 1:1).

Absent there, Elimelech and Naomi and Mahlon and Chilion settled in to their new place of residence. I'm sure they told themselves it would be temporary – just a short while, and then they'd go back home and reclaim the family land. Living as strangers, surrounded by no one they'd ever known, a language related but not quite the same, different customs, different religion all around them. Slowly, Elimelech and family got to know the local people. The years go by. Time keeps ticking. They settle in. Mahlon and Chilion grow up, and they marry eligible Moabite bachelorettes – much like the ones who'd tempted Israel to near-destruction in the desert. But alongside these glimmers of domestic bliss in a foreign land, tragedy struck. Elimelech died. Then Mahlon and Chilion died. All the men of the family died. Back in Bethlehem, plenty of people had survived the famine – Bethlehem had bounced right back. It was in Moab that Elimelech and Mahlon and Chilion all died. They had to be buried in foreign soil, never again to see the promised land. Leaving Bethlehem wasn't an act of clinging to life; it was a journey into death for them. It brought the extinction of Elimelech's family. Only three widows survived. Two, the Moabite girls Orpah and Ruth, were young – they were in the land of their birth, they could find nice Moabite men and have a fine Moabite life, albeit in the service of false gods like Chemosh. Naomi was devastated, though – not only devoid of property and family, but all avenues of social remedy were cut off. Naomi is old, Naomi is poor, Naomi is childless, and Naomi can change nothing. It's all left Naomi alone and deeply embittered, hating life, and in deep spiritual pain (Ruth 1:3-21).

Elimelech should never have left Bethlehem. If he hadn't, he likely would've struggled through the famine but come out the other side, and lived a long and happy life in the promised land. Naomi should never have left Bethlehem. Leaving Bethlehem gave her nothing but tragedy. Just like the Levite's concubine. And yet Naomi – like the Levite's concubine – is determined to go back to Bethlehem, to flee home from exile. But – unlike the Levite's concubine – she won't leave again. She'll go and stay. She'll go and bring her pains and griefs with her. She'll go and spread her bitter herbs and salty tears on a Bethlehem table. She'll offer them up in a place she remembers. She knew that at least Bethlehem had food again – that Yahweh her God had shown favor to his people there in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6). And yet when she got there, the entire town was astonished (Ruth 1:19). And it was there that she lamented, “The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and Yahweh has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when Yahweh has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21). When she left, she was full of life – the life she got in Bethlehem. But living in a foreign land, living away from home, had drained her, had emptied her. Only one thing did she bring back with her: a converted Moabite girl named Ruth, the daughter-in-law she couldn't dissuade from evidently frittering away her future, all to join empty Naomi in the little town of Bethlehem.

But we know how those things unfold. By the hidden hand of God, Ruth's late husband Mahlon has some sort of cousin – not his closest, but next to it – still living in Bethlehem. He's a farmer named Boaz (Ruth 2:1). This Boaz owns some farmland, and Boaz has prospered there because he had the good sense not to give up on Bethlehem when the going got a little tough for a season – not even for a long season. Boaz proves his worth, demonstrates his character – he's a devout God-fearing Israelite, who explains his own moral compass by pointing to the generosity of Yahweh, the God of Israel (Ruth 2:11-12). And as Boaz showered Ruth with kindness, Naomi's hope began to return – she knew Elimelech's line was not without relatives who could redeem it, could raise his house from extinction, could give hope where there'd been no hope (Ruth 2:20; 3:1-2).

In time, Boaz redeemed Ruth – and thereby restored the fortunes of Elimelech's house. He acquired Elimelech's old field and married Ruth to perpetuate Mahlon's and Elimelech's names (Ruth 4:9-10). The pair had a son named Obed, and all the women of Bethlehem said to Naomi, “Blessed be Yahweh, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! 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 given birth to him” (Ruth 4:14-15). Naomi herself – who had lamented being too old to welcome any more children – was the one who nursed Obed, and all the town's women called the baby a son born to Naomi (Ruth 4:16-17). No more is she Mara, the bitter woman; pleasantness has returned to her, her life has been restored, she has been nourished – she is Naomi again. She has been redeemed.

What a difference! There was only one way that redemption could take place. There was only one way for all of the bitterness and pain and loss to be resolved. And that was for Naomi to go back to Bethlehem, taking Ruth with her. In Bethlehem, all those sufferings can be made good. In Bethlehem, families can be restored in the aftermath of tragedy. In Bethlehem where she once was born, life can start over again. Redemption.

If you could ask Bethlehem itself, Bethlehem would tell you that. Bethlehem would tell you how much it just loves a good redemption story. Bethlehem loves bringing people back where they forgot they belonged, loves giving them back what once had been lost but now can be found afresh. Bethlehem mourned when Jonathan left – mourned because Jonathan left to go gain the world but lose his soul, and what profit is there in it? Yet if Bethlehem had seen Jonathan again, Bethlehem would've welcomed him with open arms, would've allowed him to start over, renounce his pretenses, and get back to the simpler things, the 'Permanent Things,' and the faith he had been raised with there as a boy. Had Jonathan gone back to Bethlehem, perhaps great heroes could have arisen from the line of Moses; perhaps an entire nation, instead of being destroyed, could have been saved. And Bethlehem mourned when one daughter left it, dragged along by a levitical sociopath. Bethlehem had hopes when she came back, but was sad to see her leave again. Had she refused him altogether, had she been able to resist her father's dealings, had she stayed with him for good, she could have married legitimately and had a fine life in Bethlehem, enjoying the good things. Bethlehem mourned when famine struck, and people struggled, and Elimelech took his family away for a foreign land. For Bethlehem never again saw Elimelech, never again saw Chilion, never again saw Mahlon. They never had to leave. They could have gone back and lived. But they died, and Bethlehem mourned them. Yet when once Naomi came back, and introduced Bethlehem to Ruth, Bethlehem was overjoyed to host their redemption through Boaz, a good son of the village. The redemption Bethlehem was ready to give any of the others, Bethlehem at last got to give.

Time and again, it was a mistake to leave Bethlehem. But going back to Bethlehem and sticking around was all anyone had to do to encounter new hope. For Naomi and Ruth, it came through Boaz and the redemption he brought. Because Bethlehem loves a redemption story. And Bethlehem is looking forward, from Naomi's day, toward being the scene where redemption comes all the more radically to life, when a better redeemer than Boaz would be born. For perhaps it was in the fields where Ruth gleaned, or on Elimelech's old property, or on the site of the mill where Boaz ground his grain, that one day the shepherds would stand outside the town and watch angels light up the sky. And perhaps it was not far from the house where Naomi's grandson Obed was born that a distant descendant of Obed would be born of Mary, there in Bethlehem: Redemption come to Life.

As for us, our lives have oft been afflicted by straying. Maybe like Jonathan, you've felt cramped and stifled by the old things, the simple things, the quiet things, and you wanted to acquire, you wanted to become, you wanted to find yourself, so you strayed. Maybe like the concubine, the complex combination of manipulation and desire led you to go wandering. Maybe like Elimelech, fear of an uncertain future drove you, step by step, away from where you should have been. Maybe like Naomi, you've been following someone who led you the wrong way. Maybe like Ruth, the place you always thought was home turns out not to have been the home God has planned for you, the home where redemption happens. Our lives have often been stories of straying.

But in the aftermath of all our straying, here's what Bethlehem calls out to us: “Come back home.” Go back to Bethlehem. Go back to where redemption calls home, where the Redeemer must be born. Bethlehem is waiting for you. The Savior born there wants to give you again what should've been yours, save that your silly heart gave it up. He's not the concubine's father – he won't turn you back out to an abusive world. He's no levitical grifter who'll tickle your ears with death in exchange for silver. He's our feast in famine's fallow time, he's our welcome at the end of our ropes. He's your Redeemer. And Bethlehem is where Redemption wants to meet you all over again. This Advent, this Christmas season: Reverse your straying. Unwind the steps of Jonathan and the concubine and Elimelech and his house. Go back to where redemption starts. Go back to the only place you can have a Redeemer born for you. Go back to where you await your Savior. Let us go back to Bethlehem!

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