Preaching through Ruth during Advent

A few people have asked for a bit more detail on my suggestion of an Advent preaching series in the book of Ruth, particularly if you wanted to also use the daily Advent devotional, Finding Hope Under Bethlehem Skies, that I’ve written.

You pick up a copy of the devotional super cheap here.

As indicated here, a rough outline of an accompanying preaching series could look like this:

  • Sun 28th Nov: Ruth 1 – An Advent Journey
  • Sun 5th Dec: Ruth 2 – Grace Upon Grace
  • Sun 12th Dec: Ruth 3 – Approaching the Redeemer: I Will Do It
  • Sun 19th Dec: Ruth 4:1-12 – The Cost of Christmas
  • Sat 25th Dec: Ruth 4:13-22; Matthew 1 – Who Would Have Dreamed?

But to give you a rough sense of where I’d go week-by-week in the sermon series, I’ve used the popular Hook-Book-Look-Took four preaching steps as a skeleton for your own honing:

  1. Hook (Grabbing attention);
  2. Book (Unpacking the Scriptural truth);
  3. Look (Grapple deeply with how it connects to life);
  4. Took (Taking away God’s word applied).

Ruth chapter 1: An Advent Journey (see Finding Hope Under Bethlehem Skies days 1-7)

Summary of chapter 1: Our story begins in dire strait – not just for our characters, but for the people of God. In many ways, Naomi’s fate represents that of God’s people. This is the time when the judges ruled (1:1), in other words, a time where God’s sin-spiralling people were in desperate need for a king (Judges 21:25). But in the midst of her brokenness, there is hope. Though she has left God’s land for Moab, the narrative of the chapter focuses on a stunning encounter between Naomi and her Moabite daughter, Ruth, as Naomi turns back to Bethlehem. Whilst Naomi feels God has dealt with her bitterly, Ruth embodies to her God’s strong and faithful love, pledging to stay with her even beyond the grave. And so the chapter ends with a resounding note of hope; just as Naomi comes back to Bethlehem, so the famine ends and a harvest begins.

Hook: Do you know the story behind the Christmas story? What if seeing this ‘back story’ actually made the familiar Christmas story even better? More richer, more meaningful, more real, because it was rooted in the real world, and showed that ultimately God’s promises are for the real world. And so the book of Ruth invites us on a journey – a journey where we face up to life in that real world – a journey that begins with tears and sadness, but where we discover hope in the darkest of places.

Book: Ruth begins in a time of crisis and famine (1:1), which is indicative of a people who have turned away from God (see Judges 21:25). Life was marked by death and tears for dear Naomi. The places are critical in this chapter. Naomi left the land of God’s blessing, Bethlehem (‘house of bread’) for the land of her enemies, Moab. And yet the chapter is all about a journey home. Back home to Bethlehem. Back home to the LORD. Back home to the kindness of God, embodied in the faithfulness of the foreign woman God has brought into Naomi’s life.

Look: The language of turning occurs repeatedly throughout this chapter – although not all of them are obvious in our English translations. We’re meant to consider Naomi’s direction of travel – and so our own direction of travel too. And we’re meant to see that when we ‘turn’ back to the LORD, he is kind and full of goodness (1:22). The story of Ruth, as we’ll see, is really the story of Naomi. Her life looks so hopeless when we first meet her, but again and again she will encounter the kindness of God in this story. And the stunning declaration of 1:16-17 capture God’s ‘hesed’ – his steadfast loving kindness. Though a Moabite, Ruth has come to know ‘the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34:6). The surprise is that Naomi seems less aware of the character of this God, despite being the Israelite. But she’s enrolled in a lesson in the school of grace…

Took: Which way is your life faced at present? Which way are you turned as you come into this Christmas season? This has been another disorientating year. And circumstances can do strange things to our hearts. So which way are you facing? Are you walking by faith towards Bethlehem, towards Christ. Or is your heart turned away, believing life can be found elsewhere, away from Christ?

– – –

Ruth chapter 2: Grace Upon Grace (see FHUBS days 8-14)

Summary of chapter 2: As we journey further into the story, this chapter makes crystal clear the stunning hand of God providentially providing for his people. As readers we’re told that Naomi does indeed have a relative in Bethlehem who may be able to provide for her & Ruth, but it’s only God’s sovereign kindness that means Ruth stumbles into the field of this relative, Boaz. And what a guy he turns out to be! The chapter focuses in on the dialogue between Boaz, Ruth, and Boaz’s workers, emphasising his extraordinary generosity and protection for Ruth. Being overwhelmed by his kindness, we see that it comes as Ruth has turned to the refuge/wings of the LORD (2:12). When Naomi finally makes the connection and discovers this man is her relative, we see that she is ‘warming up’ to the kindness of God.

Hook: The gospel versus Santa! A couple of years ago, a video did the rounds on social media of a boy getting warned by his dad that his bad behaviour might put him on Santa’s naughty list. The lad responds with visible indignation: ‘Well, Father Christmas isn’t being very nice to me!’ But often our understanding of God isn’t too dissimilar to the popular portrayal of Santa as someone who we need to be on our best behaviour around, in case he actually discovers that we’re rather more ‘naughty than nice’. In today’s chapter, however, we see that the gospel – which reveals the character of God – is much better than Santa!

Book: Hope is on the horizon in Bethlehem and we’re quickly introduced to the news that Naomi has a relative here that may be able to provide for her. Remember, widows were to be looked after by their dead husband’s extended family (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). In the meantime, Ruth goes off the glean for food to provide for her and her mother-in-law. Landowners were commanded to leave the edges of their fields for the likes of widows (Deuteronomy 24:19-21), though it was a humbling and dangerous prospect for a vulnerable young woman to go foraging alone. And yet we’re in for a remarkable lesson in the character of God. Verse 3 should make our eyes widen: ‘As it turned out…’. Of all the fields in Bethlehem, Ruth has wandered into Boaz’s field. God’s sovereign kindness – his hesed – is one of the great themes of this book. And that kindness is them embodied in the stunning generosity of Boaz. The narrative is littered with displays of his provision and protection (v4, v5, v8-9, v14, v15-16, 18). Why would Ruth go anywhere else?

Look: The centre point of the chapter is Ruth and Boaz’s interchange in 2:10-12. Ruth has encountered Boaz’s stunning generosity and it leads her to ask a question full of humble disbelief (v10). There’s no entitlement or assumption here. Often at Christmas-time we see that entitlement spill out of our hearts into our lives: Christmas lists turn into Christmas demands; festive gatherings boil over as someone takes offence at the slightest remark or action. And entitlement can show up in how we relate to God. But not so with Ruth. And yet Boaz’s answer is revealing too (v11-12). At first glance it may seem that he’s suggesting Ruth has earned his kindness – like with Santa! But actually he’s highlighting that Ruth has received blessing because she has turned and trusted in the Lord. In a sense, Ruth’s actions are a bit like Abraham’s in Genesis. She has come to seek protection ‘under the wings’ of the LORD. We don’t praise the ingenuity of the baby bird for coming under the wings of their parent! Rather, we praise God for his kindness – that he is a God who offers a safe and secure place – even amidst the craziness of Christmas.

Took: In times of suffering, we can struggle to get our heads around God’s providence. But God is kind to his people – and he has ultimately shown that kindness in our Saviour. It’s as if Boaz’s character here gives us an outline of that kindness – and then Jesus Christ perfectly ‘colours it in’. Spend some time marvelling at Boaz’s character and ‘look through’ Boaz to Jesus Christ. Rather than try and prove our worthiness, true refuge is found in resting in Jesus Christ.

– – –

Ruth chapter 3: Approaching the Redeemer: I Will Do It (see FHUBS days 15-18)

Summary of chapter 3: As we journey into the second half of Ruth, the spotlight falls upon an intimate encounter between Ruth and Boaz. All three of our main characters have a crucial involvement: Naomi shows bold faith to encourage Ruth to essentially propose to Boaz; Ruth displays great love for Naomi and her family by putting herself forward to help ‘redeem’ them; Boaz shows his gracious willingness to be that redeemer.

Hook: What’s your biggest Christmas risk? Perhaps a rather unusual present choice which you weren’t quite sure would be received well? Perhaps a decision about which relatives to sit next to each other at the Christmas meal? Perhaps choosing who will be responsible for each element of the Christmas Day meal? But how do you feel about risks more generally? Has this year felt risky? Perhaps as we’ve weighed up COVID decisions? But as we think about our Christian faith, what is ‘risky’? Do you feel that prioritising Jesus and his kingdom feels risky? What will grow real faith in you in the year ahead?

Book: The drama of this chapter is just fantastic. There’s a real cycle of anticipation and then relief, followed by more anticipation as the chapter ends. Take a read through the devotional sections to get a sense of some of the significance of the language used, particularly as to why Naomi tells Ruth to prepare as she does (3:1-5), and then as Ruth approaches Boaz and uses the very language he has used previously, i.e. wings/covering (3:6-9; 2:12). It’s important to help people feel the tension in this narrative – because that then highlights the bold and audacious faith shown by the characters.

Look: It’s worth homing in on the interaction between Ruth and Boaz. Ruth’s request is so much more than asking Boaz to keep her warm. It’s a bold approach for Boaz to confirm that he is willing to be the Redeemer he has repeatedly suggested he is able to be. But Ruth’s confidence doesn’t lie in herself or the way Naomi has got her ‘all dressed up’. Instead it lies in a confidence in God’s own character, embodied in Boaz himself. We then see that such faith is well deserved as Boaz affirms his beautiful willingness to redeem: ”I will do it” (3:13). As in the devotional for 18th December, this stunningly hints at the willingness of Christ, as expressed in R.S. Thomas’ poem, The Coming. Of course, the chapter ends on the cliff-hanger of the news of a closer relative who has the right to redeem (3:12), and yet this doesn’t take-away from the chapter’s focus on Ruth’s boldness and Boaz’s willingness.

Took: There are different emphases you may want to make in application for this chapter. One may be regarding how we often turn to other things to ‘cover us’? What do you turn to ‘cover yourself’, perhaps to avoid facing up to God or even to yourself? Perhaps even in the way we approach Christmas, we can be seeking to create an identity or prove ourselves? We all can seek to cover ourselves in different ways – and in many ways this has been the story of humanity since Eden. And yet in Christ, God covers us in his grace-filled wings of refuge. But secondly, when we are confident of God’s love, this then frees us to live lives of radical and bold faith. Like Naomi and Ruth, we are held fast in the sure harness of God’s love. What risks could you take for the sake of the gospel – perhaps even in the next few days and week, as we approach Christmas and invite people to hear more of Christ?

– – –

Ruth chapter 4: The Cost of Christmas (see FHUBS days 19-24)

Summary of chapter 4: After the intense intimacy of chapter 3, we find ourselves in a very different scene to close the book. Compassionate and resolute, Boaz seeks to find Naomi’s closer relative and call him to redeem her family. But this is about redemption not as a feeling or nice intent but a covenantal commitment – and one that is costly. Of course, the legal detail of this needs unpacking here, as the devotional seeks to do: including the nature of family redeemers, plots of land and sandals! Once the nameless redeemer steps back and Boaz steps up, the community unite in praising God for what has occurred and praying for those involved. As we look back and see from where we’ve come from, we realise just how astonishing a set of prayers it is. The story then runs forward and the spotlight falls not so much on the marriage of Ruth and Boaz but on the real redeemer. The cry of praise from the women gathered around Naomi highlights this very clearly, as they focus not on Boaz but on baby Obed. But of course, the story doesn’t stop there and the narrator takes us forward by tracing the line from Obed to David. Depending on whether you have a popular service on Christmas Day, you may want to go light on the last few verses and save that for a few days time!

Hook: In a sense, this is a chapter of two halves, so where you place your emphasis will probably determine how you open your sermon. If you were wanting to underline the legal certainty of God’s redemption, then you could riff off the theme of the ‘cost of Christmas’ (like December 20th’s devotion), or perhaps you could reference the Christmas film ‘Love Actually’, and the way it portrays many different ‘kinds’ of love, setting up the question how do we actually know this Christmas that God loves us? Alternatively, if you want to focus on the way God has provided a surprising redeemer in Obed, then you could begin on the theme of birth announcements or God stepping into our ‘ordinary lives’ to bring about his extraordinary rescue.

Book: Like the rest of the book, the narrative is rich in tension during this chapter. We have the heart-in-the-mouth moment when the nameless redeemer says he will indeed redeem (4:4) – and then the way Boaz steps up and explains what the cost that this involves, before Boaz then steps into the relatives shoes, literally, and takes upon himself that cost (4:8). The community witnesses then gather around and set this scene within the context of God’s promises to his people (4:9-12). Some of these famous names from Israel’s history will need unpacking. And then we have the remarkable final scene as the book comes full circle and we see the book’s main character, Naomi, with a ‘child’ in her arms. The Lord has provided.

Look: Ultimately we see that the love-story of the book is not Ruth and Boaz, but much more so, Ruth’s love for Naomi (4:15b) – which in actual fact displays another love, the LORD’s love for Naomi. He provides a son (4:13) just as he had provided food (1:6). The woman who was empty and alone now has her lap full once again – but unlike chapters 2 & 3, this time it is not with grain and food, but with a child again. And this child will renew her life. The scope of this baby’s redemption here is great – to the extent, that we might even be tempted to think, ‘Really?!”. In part, that’s probably because we are unfamiliar with the need for a male heir to redeem the family, provide for them, and connect them back into the promised land – but I think it’s also fair to say that we are meant to have our eyes lifted beyond this one child. Hence, the narrator takes us to this child’s dynasty, which of course leads us to king David. Who would have dreamed or ever conceived at the start of this story, that this is where things would end up?

Took: Again, depending on whether you are going to have a Christmas Day service, as per below, you may want to hold back on the genealogy and the greater Redeemer who includes our ordinary lives in his greater purpose, and instead focus on the nature of Christ’s redemption, which we glimpse in part in Boaz. As Luke 1:68 says, God has come to his people and redeemed them – and in a remarkable way. God the Son ‘steps into our shoes’, taking on human nature and taking upon himself our sin, and thus paying the real ‘cost of Christmas’. Our hearts are warmed as we bask in the wonder of just what Christ has done.

– – –

Christmas Day Matthew 1:1-16: Merry Christmas! (see day 25)

Hook: Today is a day of breakneck-speed… how are you doing?! And the story of Ruth has raced at breakneck speed at moments. Today we race forward and connect our journey through Ruth with Matthew’s gospel.

Book: We ended Ruth with a ‘family tree’, with the shocking and wonderful discovery that the boy born to ‘redeem’ Naomi’s family was no less the great great grandfather of a greater Redeemer, King David. As we come to the New Testament we see that David isn’t the end of the story – the line continues until we reach ‘Jesus, who is called the Messiah’ (Matthew 1:16). By the way, Andrew Peterson’s delightful song, ‘Matthew’s Begats’, has a number of creatively illustrated videos on YouTube, which may be fun to play before or as part of the talk.

Look: Take some time to reflect upon the types of people included in this list of ‘ancestors’. As the devotional notes, we have some very unusual choices for the culture at the time, including five women – one of whom is Ruth, a Moabite! Ultimately, this shows us the powerful truth that God includes people like us in his purpose and people.

Took: Christmas Day is always a crazy day. For starters, people have got their eyes on getting lunch ready and eaten! That means, whilst we want to give people the truth of God’s word on this most special of days, we are also mindful of people’s capacity to take things in! But Christmas Day is also a day full of pressure and expectations, and so there’s a real pastoral need to give people something that they can take into the reality of their lives. I wonder if a lot of people end Christmas Day with a sense of guilt or discouragement – maybe the day didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe in part that’s because of our own emotions and interactions. The story of Ruth and the story of Christmas shows us that it’s a story for people like us:- outsiders and outballs; sinners and sufferers and strangers; heartbroken widows and hopeful daughters-in-law. Let the reality of the line of this family tree – for the ‘poor, meekly and lowly’ – descend into the reality of your Christmas Day. This is Ruth’s story and it’s our story too.

Written by Robin Ham