Preparing for Christmas with Ruth
I like to think of the Old Testament book of Ruth as ‘the story behind the Christmas story’…
If we’re half familiar with this little book, we’ll know that it culminates in the arrival of a baby, also born in Bethlehem, and who incredibly ends up being the great, great, great (add a few more!) grand-father of Jesus.
But there’s so much more to Ruth than its famous ending. So much more that will help us prepare for Christmas.
For a start, it all begins with famine.
The Cupboards Are Bare
Now, I know that’s a bit of a gear-change at this time of year.
We tend to think of Christmas as a time of feasting: platefuls of mince pies, chocolate stashed in every room of the house, marzipan-lined cake, and turkey with all the trimmings (don’t tell me it’s an overrated bird – haters gonna hate…).
And so the opening verse of Ruth can feel like a contrast: ‘…there was a famine in the land.’ (1:1)
But if we linger here, we’ll see that this prelude has an important, and even refreshing, word for us today.
The ‘land’ here refers to ‘the promised land’, Israel, a haven of blessing, provision and security that God had promised to Abraham and his descendants. It was the place into which God’s people had finally staggered during the book of Joshua, but only after forty years of wandering in the desert, a punishment for their disobedience.
So if this was meant to be a land of blessing, why on earth was there a famine?
We need to read between the lines here. We’ve already been told that Ruth is set in the time ‘when the Judges ruled’ (1:1). As a quick glance at the final verse in Judges will indicate (21:25), this was short-hand for God’s people being on a downward spiral of disobedience and idolatry.
But we also need to know that in the Old Testament, a famine represented something very specific.
When God outlined the nature of his covenant relationship with his people, he gave them the Old Testament law to set out what that relationship looked like. Within the law were clear consequences if God’s people disobeyed him and turned after false gods. Crucially for us here, one of these consequences was famine (take a look at Deuteronomy 28:15-29 to see this explicitly).
In other words, God’s people experiencing national widespread hunger was like a warning light flashing on the dashboard. It was a visible sign alerting God’s people to the reality that all was not well with their relationship with God.
And like all warning lights, it was meant to evoke a response…
Meet the Family?
Now, as we’re introduced to the initial characters, it’s notable that the very first thing we’re told about this family is not their names or characters or occupations, but rather where they’re from and where they go. In other words, we’re told their response to the famine. And we’re meant to see it’s not a particularly wise response.
Bethlehem was a small town within Judah, the promised land. In fact its name literally meant ‘house of bread’. But Moab on the other hand was one of the enemies of God’s people. We might rush past these place names as if they were irrelevant details, but the very first readers of Ruth would have raised their eyebrows at this family’s choice of destination: ‘You’re going where?! Moab?!’
And just to emphasise their decision, the narrator repeats it in verse 3, sandwiching it around the family’s names: ‘They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.’ (1:3)
Of course, we might think, ‘But aren’t they just doing what any reasonable people would have done in the face of famine?’
But, remember, this wasn’t any normal famine. It was a God-given warning light indicating that Israel needed to turn back to him in confession and repentance. It certainly wasn’t an invitation to flee further away.
But isn’t that what we do? When faced with the cold reality of our brokenness and corruption, it’s all too easy to turn away. To escape, rather than face the truth.
The narrator doesn’t dwell for long on the folly of this one family’s decision, although as we’ll see if we read to 1:5, it hardly leads to life-giving blessing. Given the context of Judges, you could say that Elimelek and Naomi’s move was just one lived-out example of a whole nation’s systemic denial of their real problem: a broken relationship with God and their desperate need for forgiveness.
All this might not seem very ‘Christmassy’, but that’s exactly why Christians have traditionally valued the period of Advent.
Remember, Christmas was the twelve days of celebration that began on December 25th – hence the song! In contrast, Advent is about preparing for Christmas by facing up to the darkness. The darkness of a broken world and the desperate news that without Jesus all cannot be well with our relationship with God.
Of course, we don’t need to be legalistic about this. Marking Advent isn’t in the Bible. But it is biblical to face reality and see our personal and corporate need for a Saviour.
So what if the way that our culture rushes past Advent, or at least is so eager to bring Christmas in early, is symptomatic of trying to escape the reality of our brokenness? We turn away, rather than face the truth.
Tish Harrison Warren speaks of this ‘unhealthy escapism’, where we ‘run at breathless pace from sugar-laced celebration to celebration’:
“We suffer from a collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny, happy and having fun, fun, fun.
But life isn’t a Disney Cruise. The tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration leaves us exhausted and often, ironically, feeling emptier. Many of us suffer from “holiday blues,” and I wonder whether this phenomenon is made worse by the incessant demand for cheer — the collective lie that through enough work and positivity, we can perfect our lives and our world.”
Look Hard at the Cracks
But who can do that for long? In a world that aches with sin, pretending everything is ‘endless cheer’ is both deceptive and exhausting.
As Warren puts it, instead we need the opportunity to ‘look long and hard at what is cracked and fractured in our world and in our lives.’
Things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. The very fact that there was a famine in the ‘house of bread’ should have been a clear wake-up call to this truth.
And so Advent presents us with a choice: will we face up to that reality, or will we try and escape past it?
Why not take some time to reflect upon the ways you feel the world’s brokenness today. Acknowledge that things aren’t as they should be. This might be at a global, national and personal level.
Confess your own sin as part of this – are there ways in which you’re seeking to ‘escape’ from this truth?
Give thanks that the Bible faces the reality of an aching world head-on, rather than pretending ‘all is fine’. How could this inspire conversations you have today?
This post was adapted from a daily email Bible reflection for Advent from the book of Ruth, ‘Finding Hope under Bethlehem Skies’. You can sign up for these here. Each reflection will also include links to previous reflections.