(Re)telling the Old, Old Story

Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you insect Israel! I will help you, says the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. Now, I will make you a threshing sledge, sharp, new and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff.
Isaiah 41:14-15

Isaiah 41 is rooted in an oft-told story of redemption. The word redeemer here–goel–is also translated as “kinsman-redeemer.” Isaiah’s audience knew who had played that role before: Boaz, in the book of Ruth. Where did the key exchange between Ruth and Boaz take place? On the threshing floor. What had Boaz been doing before this encounter? Winnowing. And what did Ruth ask of him? To fulfill the demands of the covenant and serve as her kinsman-redeemer.

Now the prophet takes up that image and turns it. But not that image alone. Isaiah 41 also talks of the hand of God, a hand that had been turned against these people, a hand that Ruth’s mother-inlaw Naomi said had been turned against her: “It is more bitter for me than for you because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me” (Ruth 1:13). Now the prophet tells of God’s promises to uphold his people by his victorious right hand. Instead of turning his hand against them, God will take their hand in his.

Then there’s the promise of water. Isaiah 41:17-20 talks of great flowing streams of water to quench the thirst of God’s poor people. In the book of Ruth, water is a great kindness extended by the kinsman-redeemer to the one in need. “Whenever you are thirsty,” Boaz tells Ruth, “go and get a drink from the water jars the men have filled” (Ruth 2:9).

“You are my servant,” we hear Isaiah say. “You are my Obed,” the exiles would have heard, for the name of Ruth’s child was servant. “You are my servant, my Obed, my promised child. I have chosen you and not cast you off, do not fear, for I am with you” (41:9,10).

Addressing Israel in exile as their mothers Naomi and Ruth had been in exile, Isaiah is not waxing eloquent about a God these people do not know. He is not promising things this God cannot deliver. He is taking a story that they know well and tucking it between his own lines of promised redemption so that they know he is speaking truth.

This is your story, Isaiah is saying to them. This is who you are: a people descended from a Moabitess turned Jew who staked her life on the truth of this covenant. This is who you are: a people treasured by a God who has not forgotten you, who has not cast you off. People taken from the ends of the earth and called from its farthest corners, corners like Moab, and corners like Babylon. This is who you are, Judah.

Exile does not mean the end of the story. Suffering does not mean the end of the story. Your story reaches back to Ruth, back to Egypt, back to Abraham; and just as God took Abraham from Mesopotamia, and the children of Jacob out of Egypt, and Ruth out of Moab, he can take you out of Babylon. Your story does not end in suffering. So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God.

This is our story as well. Ruth is our grandmother, Boaz our grandpa. In the grand narrative of faith these people are our ancestors, these people are our people, and this God is our God. Their courage we inherit.

Because of this great truth, because the narrative of redemption is not over, because there are more chapters to be written, more stories to be told, we have a grand privilege as worship planners, worship leaders, preachers, musicians, artists; as friends; as brothers and sisters who bear each other’s pain and celebrate each other’s redemptions. We take the old, old story and we weave our stories into it, the stories of our parents and grandparents, the stories of our church and of our children, the stories of ourselves. It is our privilege to take the prose of everyday living and shape it into the poem of redemption. To say to each other, to say to ourselves, Do not fear, for this is your God.

Mary S. Hulst is a doctoral candidate in communication ethics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is an excerpt from a sermon preached at the 2006 Symposium on Worship at Calvin College. The full sermon can be heard online at www.calvin.edu/worship/sympos/2006/audio.html