"A Midnight Encounter"
October 24, 1993 Message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Ruth 3:1-18
(third in a series)
Our morning's scripture lesson is a troubling one. I'm not sure we know exactly what to do with it. What makes it so uncomfortable is that it involves the possibility of a wrong action. But the "wrongness" of what might've happened is not called into question. What is uplifted is the "rightness" of what did happen. Maybe this will become a bit more clear as we explore the events of that particular night.
But first, for those who haven't been with us for the last two sermons, let me give some background or, if you will, some scenes from previous episodes. The whole thing started out when Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, moved from Bethlehem to the land of Moab. In this foreign country tragedy struck. First, Elimelech died. Then, 10 years later, the two sons died leaving their mother essentially a barren widow. She did have two local girls as daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. But they provided her no grandchildren.
Now, a person's name often says something about them. That's very true in this story. Elimelech, in Hebrew, means "God is my King." In Elimelech's death Naomi experienced more than the loss of a loved one. Increasingly she felt the absence of God's control over her world. "Was God still her King?" Naomi's sons’ name, Mahlon and Chilion, mean "sickness" and "pining away." And that's exactly what happened. They fell sick and "pined" away. After his death, Mahlon's wife wanted to stay with Naomi, but her mother-in-law persuaded her to return to her family. Can you guess what the name "Orpah" means? - "she who turns away." It was Ruth who vowed to stay by Naomi's side forever. Ruth means "the beloved." I might venture to say that, in the New Testament, another is called "the beloved" - someone who remained faithful, even to his death on the cross, and beyond. But we are getting beyond ourselves.
Naomi and Ruth, her committed daughter-in-law, traveled back to Bethlehem. Once there, Naomi was finally able to voice the bitterness and emptiness she held deep within. No longer was she to be known as Naomi, which means "pleasant." From now on, she told everyone, she was to be called "Mara," which means "bitter." Her cry of grief was aimed at God. If God is responsible for what happens to us in life, then, as sovereign king, God is also to blame. Those who wrote the Hebrew Bible were not afraid to let God have it. Funny thing is, God was not afraid of what they let him have it with. Perhaps this was because amid all their complaining, they still loved him. And their complaints were really acts of faith. This is something to remember in a day when we ignore God by not even complaining. But we are straying from our purpose.
Once in Bethlehem, Ruth, the daughter-in-law, puts her hands to work. She takes up her right by the law of Moses to glean in a field at harvest-time - that is, to pick up the leftovers. While doing this, Ruth is noticed by the landowner of the field in which she is gleaning, an older fellow by the name of Boaz. Through the grapevine he has heard of her kindness to Naomi, and so he passes some kindness on to her. Kindness multiplies. People go beyond the letter of the law. Last week, we left Ruth, Naomi and Boaz out in the field during harvest. And things were starting to look up. Most importantly, Naomi recognized the name of Boaz. He was a relative. And when you're a barren widow with no place to go and no where to turn, knowing there is a relative nearby, especially one who shows some kindness, can be real good news.
So we come to today's episode. At this point in the show, most television programs would play their own little jingle and light up the screen with the proper credits. But this is no show, though it is quite dramatic. This episode begins with a mother-daughter chat. Really, it's a one way conversation. Naomi is doing the talking, Ruth the listening. The elder has a plan. As it unfolds, we find ourselves holding it to question. The plan is this, Ruth is to get all decked out - a bath, the best perfume, the best clothes As tonight is a night Boaz will be at the threshing floor working into the wee hours of the morning, that's where things will happen. Ruth is supposed to go there in secret. She is to watch Boaz, to notice where he finally lies down to sleep when work winds down. When she is sure all are asleep, she is to go to him, uncover his feet and lie beside him. "He will tell you what to do next," says Naomi.
Aha! That's what makes this scripture so troubling, so uncomfortable. The plan itself is quite risky, if not risqué. Is it a plan of desperation, or a plan of hope? Certainly, circumstances could lead to a troubling conclusion. The possibility of a wrong action is very real. Hear me right. This is no slick piece of pornography. In porn, the characters are not real people. Anyone can play the part, and the consequences are unreal. But here, this is real life. Things can get worse. After all, the future is at stake, how much of the future we will discover next week. But suffice it to say, that if some of our fantasies were acted out, it would essentially be the end of the road for these two women. But, you know, I think that maybe Naomi's plan was an act of hope, just like her complaint to God was an act of faith.
Let's pick up the action on the threshing room floor at this midnight encounter. Ruth does as she has said she would, and the time comes for her to lay down next to Boaz. She has uncovered his feet.... The air has a slight chill and Boaz is awakened with a shudder. He reaches out to cover himself back up, and his hand touches another person. I imagine his eyes popping wide open. A whiff of the perfume makes it unmistakable. This is certainly not his foreman beside him. That must've been one long moment as he tried to figure out what was going on.
Finally he asks: "who are you?" The plan at this point was for Ruth to be completely submissive. "He will tell you what to do," Naomi said. But Ruth takes a bolder step. "I am Ruth," she says in the dark to this man beside her. "Spread your skirt over your maidservant, for you are next of kin." There must have been another long moment of silence. Here is a woman who is very vulnerable. Her whole life is that way right now. She is poor, a foreigner, a widow, childless herself. She is vulnerable, and she says "spread your skirt over me." Might a woman of the night use similar words to turn a trick?
However she adds: "For you are my next of kin." And in those words, Boaz is included in her vulnerability. He bears a responsibility. No doubt he remembers something he had said not too many days before. "May the Lord God of Israel under whose wings you have come to take refuge," Boaz told her in his field, "May the Lord bless you." The word "wing" and the word "skirt" are one in the same word. "Spread your skirt over your maidservant, she said, "cover me." Sometimes the wings of God are expressed in the hands of men and women.
Within that moment of decision Boaz chooses to act responsibly. He does not take advantage of the situation. After all, two women have placed their trust in him, or is it really that they have placed their trust in someone behind the scenes? Boaz commits himself to these, his next of kin. Though he does not place his literal skirt over her, he does cover her with his "wing," if you will. He promises to take up the matter officially the very next day. She leaves early, before anyone else is awake but not before he has a chance to share with her some grain. "You must not go home to Naomi empty-handed," he says as they part.
And so Ruth returns to her mother-in-law with the grain and those words. Naomi, not long ago bitter and empty, has reason to hope that bitterness and emptiness will soon be at an end... The final chapter of our story awaits us next week. But already we know that tragedy has received an answer from God. Indeed, God was very present in this midnight encounter. A responsible choice was made, within the freedom of God's will, and things turned out right.
By the way, since most names mean something, we ask what does "Boaz" mean? - "strength." Yes, Boaz does indeed have a certain strength of character. But there is more to this strength than "Boaz." If not, wouldn't this book be called "Boaz" instead of "Ruth?" Naomi, Ruth, Boaz - all exhibit a strength which enables them to do the right thing. Naomi doesn't lay down and die with her husbands and sons in a foreign land. Instead, she turns toward home, and in so doing, she turns toward her God, whom she has not experienced as being in control, her King. Even so, she turns toward him and not away.
Ruth, likewise, does the right thing by faithfully standing with her mother-in-law, by going beyond the letter of the law in asking permission to glean Boaz's field and, I suggest, by boldly going beyond Naomi's instructions and calling Boaz to his responsibility as next of kin. Yes, Boaz also does the right thing by not taking advantage of a situation, and by vowing to legally make sure these two women have a home - his own. How he fulfills this promise is the subject of next week's sermon. Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, have all done the right thing. Justice is being lived out. But, behind the scenes is the power, the strength, that has made all this possible.
That threshing floor, where everything could have gone wrong, was, in fact, God's mighty fortress. Isn't this how we experience the real power of God in our lives? We don't find this strength so much in the grandeur of sunlit days, when everything seems to go just right. Rather, it's in the vulnerable moments, when we are weak, that God's strength empowers the right things to be done. God is still King, his invisible wings, his skirt covers us.
(hymn suggestion - "A mighty fortress is our God")
Series on the book of Ruth: message #1, message #2, message #4
©1993 Peter L. Haynes
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