This Sunday is the second Sunday in Advent, and as such I wanted to speak on something related to Advent. Advent is the time in the Christian calendar when we anticipate the birth of Jesus. It’s a time of waiting, of reflection, of preparation, of excitement. As I prepared this week, I expected to find myself drawn to stories of Jesus’ birth, but in fact, I found myself completely distracted by the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. Ruth is a book that I love, and it’s a story I’ve read many times. But I wasn’t sure what God might want to pick out to say to us today – I was so familiar with the story that I couldn’t initially get a hold on which aspect I should focus in on. As I read and re-read, one aspect stuck out more than most: redemption. Brilliantly, this ties perfectly into the season of Advent – after all, Jesus is our Redeemer.
Let me recap the story of Ruth (although if you haven’t read it, please do!). An Israelite man, his wife Naomi and their two sons flee Israel during a time of famine to live in Moab, a neighbouring foreign country. They settle and the sons marry two Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth. Sadly, the man and his sons die, leaving Naomi and her daughters in law on their own. Naomi hears that the Lord has provided food for the people of Israel so she decides to head home, and tells her daughters in law they don’t have to come with her, especially as she has no more sons for them to marry. So Orpah returns to her family, but Ruth is determined not to leave her mother in law.
Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem at the time of harvest, and so Ruth tells Naomi that she’ll go out into the fields to glean. This was a common charitable practice – the poor could follow the harvesters and gather up any grain that they missed. She ends up in the field of a wealthy man named Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi. Boaz notices her and invites her to continue to gather grain in his fields, and tells his harvest workers to keep an eye on her and make sure she comes to no harm. A woman out on her own in the fields was quite a stark sight – all would have known that she had no male family, since the dangers of being out and about alone were high enough that no woman would risk it unless she had to. Boaz had heard about her – how she had taken good care of her mother in law, at the expense of leaving her own family, friends, gods, country behind.
Ruth tells Naomi about Boaz and his protection as she worked in the fields, and Naomi comes up with a plan. Traditionally parents would arrange marriage for their children, and so Naomi, keen to make sure that Ruth would be well-provided for and looked after, was determined to find her a suitable husband. Knowing that Boaz was a relative, someone considered a Kinsman-Redeemer, she tells Ruth to go and meet him at the threshing floor and to seek his protection as his wife.
So Ruth does as she’s told and goes to the threshing floor, and approaches Boaz. Now, this is quite risky – again, she is a young woman on her own, so quite vulnerable. She doesn’t know how Boaz will respond. And the whole thing – a young woman approaching a wealthy man in the middle of the night – could look pretty suspicious to anyone who saw or found out about it. But Boaz is a gentleman. He knows that Ruth is a woman of integrity, and, he recognises that he is probably not her first choice as a marriage partner – he is quite a lot older than her, no longer a dashing youth. He realises that she is asking because she loves and trusts her mother-in-law, and so he says he will indeed marry her. However, he knows of another kinsman-redeemer who is a closer relative, so tells her that they’ll first have to approach him in the courts, because he has more rights than Boaz to marry Ruth and take on her land. Before she leaves, he gives her six measures of barley to take home to Naomi, and he tells her not to tell anyone about their encounter – even though they have both acted with integrity, he doesn’t want tongues to wag or gossip to spread.
The next morning, they go to the courts to speak with the other kinsman-redeemer. Boaz tells this man that Naomi wants to sell her husband’s family land, and he accepts. But then when he adds that this includes Ruth as a wife, so that she can bear an heir to the land and maintain the family name, the kinsman-redeemer changes his mind and declines: he cannot afford to take on the responsibility of the land if it’s not going to directly benefit him. This leaves Boaz free to fulfil his agreement with Ruth – he takes on the land and marries her. And Ruth bears a son, to carry on the family name.
But the story doesn’t end there. No, it has this brilliant footnote: the son they bore was called Obed, and he had a son named Jesse. And Jesse had a son named David. Who grew up to be David, King of Israel, a man after God’s own heart, ancestor of the King of Kings, Jesus.
If you’re anything like me, this term, “kinsman-redeemer” would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb as you heard the story. I’ve never heard this term before, and given the somewhat clunky translation, I’m guessing there’s not really an English or modern equivalent. In Hebrew, the term is goel. Goels fulfilled a legal role in Jewish culture – if a man died, his kinsman-redeemer would step in and take on his rights and avenge any enemies, which could involve taking on the dead man’s land and property, marrying his widow so that she could bear an heir to continue her dead husband’s name, and bringing any wrong-doers to justice. This was not just a role for death – if a relative had been forced to sell their property due to poverty, the goel should buy it back, and if someone had had to sell themselves into slavery, then a goel was bound to redeem them.
We see this play out in the story of Ruth. Boaz is a relative of Naomi, a kinsman-redeemer. When he is approached by Ruth, he fulfils his duty, purchasing the land from Naomi and marrying Ruth so that she could bear a child.
The book of Isaiah refers to the Messiah throughout as “the Redeemer”. The context in Isaiah is of promise – the Redeemer will rescue the Israelites from captivity; He will strengthen and uphold them; He will bring those who harm them to justice; He will provide for them; He will protect them. When we look back to the book of Ruth, we see this played out by Boaz in the lives of Ruth and Naomi – when he agrees to act as goel, Kinsman-Redeemer, he promises to take good care of them. Defend them, protect them, provide for them, uphold them, give them good standing.
And yet, Boaz is full of love – he does not begrudge this choice, this is no act of formal act of duty, done under sufferance. He shows care and consideration for Ruth, for her mother in law, for their future offspring. Isaiah 43 describes the Messiah, the Redeemer, as being full of love:
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your stead.
and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
I love the sense of intimacy here. Jesus knows our names when He calls us. He calls us his. He walks through things alongside us, and He protects us and looks after us by being right there with us. He calls us precious and honoured, He tells us we don’t need to be afraid, He tells us He loves us.
RESCUE – SOMETHING NEW, SOMETHING BETTER
Have you noticed too, how redemption appears to be a trade up? When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem, they are without close family, with no one to carry their name, they are poor, they are vulnerable. When they encounter Boaz, their whole situation changes: they find family, their family name is restored, they are provided for, they are protected. Redemption doesn’t just settle a debt and then leave them where they are. Redemption is full of hope, it brings them into an entirely new situation.
Looking back to the passage in Isaiah, we see that God doesn’t just tell us that we’ll get through hard times but that we’ll be bedraggled and burnt and breathless by the end. No, the act of Him walking with us means that we’ll be able to rise above what we face. We will still have to walk through the flame, and it will flicker and blaze around us – but it won’t burn us. We may have to cross surging rivers, pushing against the waters – but we are not going to be overcome. Isaiah talks about freedom from captivity – literal, for Israel at the hands of the Babylonians – but also eternal – salvation, freedom from sin and death. Isaiah’s talk of the Messiah who is our Redeemer is full of hope – Isaiah 49 says:
and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land
and to reassign its desolate inheritances,
and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’
The Redeemer promises salvation. For those of us aware of our sin, of the ways we’ve acted against God, against other people, this redemption is worthy of celebrating! The promise not only of forgiveness, but of grace and salvation at the hands of our Redeemer – no wonder we look forward to Christmas and the birth of Jesus!
A CHOICE, A SACRIFICE
It’s worth noting that redemption is a choice made by the redeemer. Going back to Ruth, we learn that Boaz didn’t need to do this – after all, the other kinsman-redeemer mentioned, the one who was a closer relative, could not afford to fulfil the role and so had to decline. And I think it’s important for us to consider what a huge thing it was for Boaz to say yes to this. In saying yes:
He agreed to pay money for the land of Naomi’s husband. Maybe he wasn’t looking for new land at this time – after all, buying land means you have to take care of it, farm it, provide workers to plant and tend and harvest. You have to protect it, make sure people do not steal from it.
He agreed to marry Ruth. More expense – husbands were expected to provide for their wives, take good care of them, give them a home. Additionally, Ruth wasn’t an Israelite. She was from the country of Moab, of a pagan religion, considered a gentile by those in Bethlehem.
Not only that, but they had a child together – another mouth to feed, but also the heir to the land that he is spending his resources to take care of. The land is the male heir’s in name, and would be his once he came of age.
And of course, Ruth came with Naomi, her mother in law. So here was another dependent for Boaz to take care of.
Redemption costs – the redeemer has to spend something on behalf of the thing or person they choose to redeem. Boaz has to sacrifice in order to redeem Naomi, Ruth and their land. And yet he does so willingly.
When we consider Christ as our Redeemer, we rejoice at the salvation, the forgiveness, the grace and mercy He buys for us when He redeems us. But we also consider the cost: Jesus, who was without sin, died on the cross to take on the punishment we deserved. Jesus took on death, the ultimate cost, to redeem our lives. And He chose to do this – He, as the son of God, could have summoned armies of angels to fight those about to execute Him. But no, He chose to go through with it, faithful to God the Father, willing to redeem those He loves.
OURS TO RECEIVE…IF WE ACCEPT
This Advent, I want to encourage you as you anticipate Christmas day and your celebrations of the birth of Jesus, to remember that He is our redeemer. But that’s not all, because, redemption is something that has to be sought, has to be received. A redeemer does something that the redeemed cannot do themselves. Ruth, although she worked hard to take care of Naomi, could not provide her with a family and a home and a heritage on her own. She seeks Boaz, and accepts his help as a goel.
Do you realise that you are in need of a redeemer?
Maybe you don’t – perhaps you think you are fine as you are, that you do your best and that that’s enough. If you do, then I want to ask a little question – do you feel free? Is there anything in your life that you feel traps you, binds you, holds you? Maybe it’s worries about money, or family, or work. Or maybe it’s an addiction. Perhaps it’s a sense of worthlessness, or hopelessness, or helplessness. Is there anything like this, that no matter what you do, just won’t go away? If so, then perhaps you do need a redeemer after all.
Maybe you do – perhaps you are aware that no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, or don’t do, you sin: you hurt people, you hurt yourself, you hurt God. That there are things in life that you can’t fix yourself, that you can’t free yourself from, that you can’t make right on your own.
Or, maybe you believe that your situation is beyond redemption. Perhaps you believe that this is all very nice, but actually, there is no way anyone could redeem the circumstances you’ve experienced, the situation you find yourself in. To you, I’d like to say that nothing, NOTHING, is beyond redemption. Boaz redeemed Ruth – a foreign, pagan, widowed, poor woman with a mother-in-law to care for. Not, perhaps, a hugely attractive prospect to many upstanding, wealthy Israelites, and yet he showed love and kindness through his redemption. Not a great stretch you might think. How about this? God has redeemed murderers (Moses), adulterers (David), cowards (Jonah), persecutors (Paul) and betrayers (Peter). Jesus died on the cross and took on the punishment for our sins once and for all – His death covers all sin, past, present future, and his resurrection promises new life to all who believe. We read in 1 John, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” All unrighteousness. So, don’t write yourself off – this redemption is there for you too.
When we grasp that Jesus can redeem anything – anything that’s happened in our lives, any thing that we’ve done, anything that’s going on – then this changes the way we view the world. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to pray – sometimes circumstances seem so rotten, or people so lost, that we don’t know where to begin. But if we begin at a place where we acknowledge that Jesus came to redeem everyone, then glimmers of hope appear. Even if we don’t have quite the words, we can at least start asking that Jesus would redeem – lead people out of darkness and into hope, forgiveness, healing, restoration, provision, peace. When we accept God’s redemption on our lives, that’s not where redemption stops – we can look around us and start praying into any situation we encounter, any person we meet, in the knowledge that they are not beyond God’s reach, that God is completely able to redeem what is going on.