If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth chapter 4, verses 9 through 15.
Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses today that I am buying from Naomi everything that belonged to Elimelech, Chilion, and Mahlon. 10 I will also acquire Ruth the Moabitess, Mahlon’s widow, as my wife, to perpetuate the deceased man’s name on his property, so that his name will not disappear among his relatives or from the gate of his home. You are witnesses today.”
11 The elders and all the people who were at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is entering your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built the house of Israel. May you be powerful in Ephrathah and famous in Bethlehem. 12 May your house become like the house of Perez, the son Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring the Lord will give you by this young woman.”
13 Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When he was intimate with her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. 14 Then the women said to Naomi, “Praise the Lord, who has not left you without a family redeemer today. May his name become well known in Israel. 15 He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. Indeed, your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
If you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah – it’s in the Bible, you knew we had to talk about it eventually, for any visitors, congrats on being here the one Sunday it comes up – Abraham had a nephew named Lot, and he was an idiot. As Abraham and Lot were spreading out over the land that God had promised to them, Lot realized that the land of Sodom was economically prosperous, so he brought his tribe to settle there.
Now, the problem is that Sodom was economically prosperous for a reason: Ezekiel chapter 16, verses 49 and 50 say, “Now this was the sin of your sister, Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. They neglected the poor and needy. Therefore, they were prideful and committed abominations before me.”
We see in Genesis chapter 18 that when God sends angels to scope out Sodom and see if the rumors about their cruelty were true, they stayed at Lot’s house. And it says that the men of Sodom gathered around Lot’s door demanding that he send his two guests out to them, because they want to “know” them. They are using a euphemism there, and you probably know the story.
Believe it or not, this was fairly common practice. If you were a newcomer, or an immigrant, and so on, you had to, kind of, earn your keep. If you wanted to be assimilated into the community, you had to come outside and let the men of the city do whatever they wanted with you. This was part of their “naturalization” process.
Like Ezekiel said, they were cruel and prideful, and therefore they committed abominations before the Lord. But the surprising thing about the Genesis passage is that Lot fits in remarkably well with the men of Sodom. He tries to save the two angels from the mob by offering them his two young, virgin daughters. We are just hittin’ everything today. But before he gets a chance to gift his daughters to the sex-mob, the angels strike the whole mob blind, and the whole family flees. God sends fire and brimstone to destroy Sodom, but Lot’s wife looks back while they’re running away and she turns into a pillar of salt. Which is strange.
The story gets even darker after that. Lot and his daughters end up stranded in a cave in the mountains nearby and have a nervous breakdown, as you would. As far as they know, the whole world’s been destroyed and it’s just them. Lot is basically comatose because he just watched every vestige of security vanish before his eyes.
And his daughters get it in their heads that they need to “repopulate the earth.” So it gets exactly as sketchy as that sounds. They get him so drunk he doesn’t know what’s going on and then they both impregnate themselves. So immediately after God destroys a whole city filed will sexually immoral people, the one family that he saves heads off to a cave to commit sexual immorality. Lot and his family belonged in Sodom. The fact that they escaped was pure mercy.
Lot’s two daughters give birth to his children and they settle on the land. Those children have children, and those children have children, and eventually they fill up the land and become a nation of their own called Moab./ The land of Moab, quite literally, is “Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0.”
Fast forward to the Book of Ruth, the Moabite: Over the past 10 years, Naomi has been dragged away from the land that God had promised to them, her husband, Elimelech, has died, her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, have married pagan women from Moab, and then her sons have died. All without producing any children, meaning that whatever property they had acquired, whatever degree of security they have been able to amass in Moab vanished in an instant. When Ruth, Orpah, and Naomi lost Mahon and Chilion, they lost everything else, too.
Right about that time, the famine in Israel came to an end, so Naomi decided to head back to Israel and see how she’d fare there. She tries to talk both of her daughters-in-law into abandoning her to go find husbands in Moab who can protect them, but her daughter-in-law Ruth absolutely refuses, to the point that she makes a binding and irreversible covenant to “follow Naomi wherever she goes,” and to do everything in her power to protect her.
This is Ruth, the Moabite – this is Ruth, citizen of “Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0,” but instead of abusing her foreign mother-in-law, like the old inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah did, she vows herself to her. Instead of being prideful and arrogant, like the old inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah 1.0, she is humble and faithful, more faithful to Naomi than Naomi is to herself.
Instead of being predatory like the “sex mob” in Sodom and Gomorrah 1.0, Ruth is the opposite of predatory. Ruth looks for ways that she can protect the ones around her, not ways she can use them. So she covenants herself to Naomi, and they head back to the promised land.
When they arrive in Bethlehem, Bethlehem has changed. According to the Book of Judges, Israel had a bad couple of centuries. During what the author calls “the time of the Judges,” Israel became like Moab. Israel became like the Egypt that God had rescued them from. Israel put away the good laws that God had given them and instead, according to Judges chapter 17, “Everyone began to do whatever was right in their own eyes.”
People like Elimelech, who abandoned the land that God had given them to settle on the moment that adversity hit; people like the Benjaminites in Judges chapter 19, in which the story of Sodom and Gomorrah literally replays, beat for beat, but in Israel rather than Sodom.
So in Judges chapter 19, there is a prominent Levite – that’s like a priest – and he goes on a trip with his concubine – which is its own problem – and when the Levite arrives in Benjaminite territory, an old man invites him into his house, they have dinner there, and while they’re eating dinner, a sex mob shows up, pounds on the door, and demands that they send out his guest so that they may “know” him.
“Sodom and Gomorrah,” beat for beat, but this time it’s not “out there,” it’s in here. It’s not in the backyard, it’s on the front porch. It’s not “those bad people over there,” it’s you. It’s me. It’s all of us.
So if you’re an Israelite gathered at the “City Gate,” listening to one of the elders in your tribe tell the “stories of Israel,” you hear this story, you remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it would click, in a way that maybe it’s never clicked before, that the difference between the pagan nations and Israel is not that “Israel is good” so God rescued you, while “the pagan nations are bad” so God annihilates them.
The difference between Israel and the pagan nations surrounding you is that God has poured out an unmerited mercy onto you; that you are Sodom and that the mercy God has shown you has absolutely nothing to do with your goodness, or even your okayness, but has everything to do with God’s goodness in spite of your badness.
Remember the bizzarro slam poetry session that Paul dives into in Romans chapter 3? He says “There is no one righteous, not even one,” so on and so forth. Sodom and Gomorrah is everybody. I mean everybody. We are all Sodom and Gomorrah. Everyone you know is Sodom and Gomorrah.
The next time you get to Genesis Chapter 18, keep in mind that you’re not reading about some special group of people whose sin was unique and uniquely reprehensible, you’re reading about you. When Lot’s wife looked back and got turned into a pillar of salt, she wasn’t uniquely jacked up, she was you. When you see fire and brimstone raining from the sky, you see God purging the world of just a little bit more of the darkness that has overtaken it and broken everything to bits, you’re watching what God would rightly do to you if he hadn’t redeemed you.
Not everybody sins the same, but everybody’s sin is predatory. Everybody’s sin is stomach-churning. Everybody’s sin is wicked beyond capacity for words. We see ourselves in everything that’s crooked, everything that’s broken, everything that’s wicked. The folks that you are terrified of, the folks you hate, the things that scare and infuriate you about them, they are in you as well, and you know that, and it scares you even more, and it should.
But a few chapters after Paul goes on a tirade in Romans 3, he says in chapter 5, quote: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” unquote. Christ died for us while we were still Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis Chapter 18, He rains fire and brimstone because of our transgressions, but in Jesus Christ, he takes his own fire-and-brimstone onto himself. God punishes himself for our wickedness. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Colossians chapter 2 says he “nailed our sin to the cross” and Romans chapter 4 says he “credited us with his righteousness.” Take comfort in that.
Because that means that God is pleased with you. Right now. God is pleased with you now. I’m not talking about some undefined future period in which God likes you more than he likes right now because you’re holier than you are right now. I’m talking about today. He is every bit as pleased with you as he will be at the end of everything, when you are every bit as holy as Jesus is holy. God is already pleased with you. I can assure you that God is more pleased with you this instant than you have ever been pleased with yourself.
All of God’s pleasure is already on you. All of God’s approval is already on you. All of God’s love is already on you. God has withheld nothing from you. God is pleased with you with all of the pleasure that he will have towards you once you are perfectly holy, once every last vestige of sin has been purged from you. God is pleased with you with all of the pleasure that he has in his son Jesus Christ. God loves you like you’re Jesus.
And you can see that even in the, kind of, terrifying stories we’ve been sprinting through this morning: Because if you were an Israelite hearing these stories at the City Gate, it might dawn on you that the reason God hasn’t rained fire and brimstone on you is because God has decided to show mercy to you. This is the kind of thing that we see all throughout the Old and New Testaments. That God pulls us out of the pit, not because we are already awesome, but because we aren’t. That God calls us out of Egypt, not because we are already holy, but because God is Holy and it pleases God to make things that aren’t holy, holy.
God rescues us not because we’re already merciful, not because we already reflect his glory, but because God takes pleasure in turning crooked things straight, he takes pleasure in turning broken things into glorious things, God takes pleasure in healing every sickness in our souls – and, one day, our bodies. God takes profound pleasure in ironing out every wicked spot in you. God takes pleasure in renewing you.
So if you were an Israelite, hearing this story at the City Gate, you might allow the utterly unmerited mercy that God has poured out onto you by his own unnecessary kindness to mold you into someone who looks like Ruth, the inexplicably Christ-like citizen of Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0.
You might really resonate with the Israelite who hears the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then hears the story of how Israel becomes Sodom and Gomorrah, and recognizes that he is what he’s afraid of, that he is what he hates; you might resonate with that. That’s good.
But that’s also dangerous. Recognizing the depths of your sinfulness can be dangerous. So it’s very important to understand that this is not a call to hate yourself. It’s the opposite. That’s not a call to go insane, to get eaten alive by guilt. That’s a call to rejoice in the fact that God’s great pleasure is in turning you into something different than the Fall has warped you into – that God’s deep, abiding pleasure is to turn crooked mobs of sinner’s into Ruths.
Because every Ruth that you know used to be part of the mob in Sodom. Every Ruth you know used to be part of that mob of Benjaminites in Judges chapter 19. We are very much our own fire and brimstone, but it is God’s abiding pleasure to make us holy like he is holy. And so in our story today, we see God using a citizen of Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0 as an indispensable tool for carrying out his mission.
Because like every single one of us, Ruth starts out her journey as a citizen of Sodom, Ruth’s sin nailed Jesus to the cross just like our sin nailed Jesus to the cross, but the cross pulled Ruth out of the pit. The same Jesus that Ruth nailed to the cross by her sin redeemed Ruth and made her into a “new creation” just like he redeems us and makes us into new creations. God does not leave you in Sodom as he rains fire and brimstone, he redeems you by his blood and then transforms you. God will make you every bit as holy as he has declared you to be in Jesus Christ.
We don’t know much of anything about Ruth’s past, but we know about her present, and her present is that God has radically changed her from whatever she was and turned her into a vessel by which he intervenes on behalf of Naomi. When she marries Boaz, God “opens up her womb,” she conceives and gives birth to a son. As verse 11 says, she becomes “like Rachel and Leah,” who “together built the house of Israel.”
God “opens up the womb” of a woman who is either barren or past her childbearing years no matter which way you slice it. He does quite literally everything that is necessary to prepare her for her role in his mission, right down to overcoming her infertility. God takes a woman from the depths of Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0, sanctifies her into a worthy vessel for his mission, and then overcomes every handicap that she has to make her holy, fruitful, glorious. Ruth reflects God’s glory just by existing.
And God will make you “like Ruth,” but he won’t stop at making you like Ruth. He will make you like the Jesus that he made Ruth like. It’s like how Paul says, “Follow me as I follow Christ,” right? We imitate Christ as we imitate Ruth. God makes us like Christ as he makes us like Ruth.
I have exactly one sermon and I’ve preached it to you every single week since I got here, and the thesis of that sermon is that God will make you look like Jesus. God will make you holy like Jesus. He will make you obedient like Jesus. He will make you every bit as compassionate as Jesus, every bit as honest as Jesus, every bit as peaceable as Jesus, every bit as vigilant against the sin that plagues you as Jesus would have you be.
And we know that because we’ve seen what’s happened to the folks God’s gotten ahold of before us. What happens to Ruth will happen to you. The godliness we see in Ruth will be your godliness, because the same Jesus who imparted it onto Ruth will impart it onto us, because the same Jesus who redeemed Ruth by his blood has redeemed us, the same Jesus who purchased Ruth from the pit has purchased us.
So, the sin that plagues you will not plague you forever. The things that make you ashamed – as they should – will not make you ashamed forever, because you will kill your sin, because God will kill the sin that’s in you.
You will go home, you will refuse to give in to the sin that plagues you anymore, and you will fail. But instead of falling into despair at your inadequacy, you’ll grab hold of Christ, he’ll pull you up, and you’ll keep going. And you’ll fail again. But instead of falling into despair you will grab hold of Christ, he’ll come to pull you up, and you’ll keep going.
And you will live out the rest of your life wildly inadequate, wildly unqualified for your role in God’s mission, your struggle against sin’ll get harder, not easier, your life will get more difficult, not less difficult, you will continue to fail, Christ will continue to pull you up, and with each passing year you will wonder if you’re ever really going to be free from your sin, you’ll be tempted to fall into despair.
But 10 years from now, you’ll look back, and it will occur to you for the first time how significantly Christ has changed you. There are occasional moments where it hits you exactly how much Christ has changed you. How different Christ has made you even in the short time that you’ve known him. Today, our crookedness still haunts us – and it should – but day is coming when Jesus will straighten out every bit of crookedness left in us.
So as we begin to worship the Lord through song, I’ll be standing at the altar. I’d love to pray with you. The Bible teaches us that I am filled with crookedness and you are filled with crookedness, and I’d love to lift up our crookedness together and turn over the keys to the Jesus that we’ve been talking about this morning, to make us holy like he is holy – to change our hearts, to change our desires, to cause us to want what he wants, to love what he loves, to run towards the holiness that he offers us.
Or, if you’re someone who’s lived your whole life in rebellion against this God, if you are like Naomi’s husband Elimelech, if you are like Lot and his family, if you’ve kept God at arm’s-length from the time you were born to this very moment, I’d love to walk you through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus, to be redeemed from your sin, to be rescued – not only from the “fire and brimstone” you’ve brought onto yourself – but rescued into the family of God. At Mt. Zion we believe that our role in God’s mission is to “spread the gospel into every corner of the earth” by spreading the gospel into every corner of our city, and you may very well be one of the corners that we’ve been commissioned to spread the gospel into. So as I’m awkwardly standing at the altar, come talk to me.