(Sermon 1 of 4 in a series on Ruth.)
Scripture: Ruth 1:1-22
We All Struggle With Pain
I don’t think that I would be betraying any secrets if I were to tell you that the world in which we live is a mess. Every time we turn on the TV, every time we open a newspaper, every time we listens to the radio, we come face to face with the reality that our world is filled with pain, and brokenness, and tragedy and disease and death. And sometimes the images and the stories we hear come to us with such regularity that we almost become immune to them. We shut off the images without thought and then carry on with our daily activities.
But while we can shut off the images in the media, we cannot shut them off in our own lives as each of us carries around some kind of burden or pain.
- Some of us carry the burden of depression.
- Some of us carry the burden of disease or sickness
- For some it is the constant demands of caring for a loved one who is ill
- For some it is the burden of guilt
- Some carry the pain of childlessness
- For some it is singleness
- For some it is betrayal
- For some it is single-parenthood
- For some it is divorce
- For some it is grief
- For some it is worrying about a child who has made poor choices.
And so each of us carries our share of the burden of the world. And the question is this: is it possible to hope for anything better? That is, is it possible to hope for a world that is free from emptiness, free from brokenness, free from pain?
That was the question on the mind of one family living in Israel, thousands of years ago. And we read about them in the book of Ruth.
When the Judges Ruled
The book of Ruth begins with the tag line In the days when the judges ruled . . . (Ruth 1:1). And in case you are wondering, the time when the judges ruled was not a highlight in Israel’s history. If you were to read through the book of Judges you would be horrified by what you find there because the story includes murders, mutilations, and rapes, so grotesque that you’re left wondering, why is this in the Bible? How can the human community become so corrupt?
And if you have ever wondered this, then the answer comes in a one sentence commentary that says, In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. (Judges 21:25) In other words, instead of living God’s way and letting his grace and love rule their lives, they chose to do things their own way.
Pianos and Hockey Teams
Try to imagine an orchestra that refuses to listen to the conductor, and everyone does as he sees fit. That orchestra would be hopeless. Or try to imagine a hockey team that refuses to listen to the coach and everyone does as he sees fit. That team would be hopeless. (Actually they’d be the Toronto Maple Leafs.)
But this is what happens to a society that continually turns its back on God and no longer chooses things like forgiveness, and patience and humility, and generosity, and instead chooses greed, and unforgiveness, and selfishness and pride. Eventually, it spirals downward to the point where the human community can only be described as hopeless. And this is where we pick up the story in Ruth.
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. (Ruth 1:1-2)
What’s In A Name
Now I just want to stop here for a moment because I think it would be helpful for us to understand a few things here. You see in the book of Ruth, names are quite significant.
The name Elimilech means “My God Is King.
His wife’s name, Ruth, means “Beautiful”
And they are from Bethlehem which means, “The House of Bread”
Now you would think that in the time of famine, when Israel has no king, if anyone in Bethlehem would have hope it would be this family. His name testifies, “We have a king. It is God. And he’s the one who provides for us and makes us beautiful. If only we just listen to him.”
But this isn’t how the family lives. They seemed to have forgotten the meaning of their names. They’ve lost hope. The famine has taken its toll on the family.
Elimilech and Naomi have two sons: Mahlon and Kilion. Their name’s mean “Sick” and “Pining”. In other words, these are two boys whose stomach’s are empty because of the famine, and they cry out in their sickness.
So Elimelech sizes up the situation and he decides to do something about it. He decides to do as he sees fit. And so he moves his family to Moab. Now obviously Elimilech’s motives are good. All he wants to do is provide for his family. But if you know anything about Moab, then you might question Elimelech’s wisdom, kind of like you might question the wisdom of someone who buys lottery tickets as a way of providing for his family.
You see in the Bible Moab was known for several things--none of them good.
- They started out of an incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter.
- Balaak the King of Moab tried to curse Israel through Balaam in order to destroy them.
- The women of Moab seduced the men of Israel to leave God and worship false gods (Numbers 25).
- Just recently King Eglon of Moab used his power to oppress Israel.
So Moab doesn’t seem like the wisest place to go. But Elimelech figures it’s worth the gamble. He thinks it is worth it to betray his own name, “My God is King” and to leave the “house of bread” the place of provision and go to Moab, the place of oppression and disgrace to find food for his family.
And for a while the gamble pays off and things go pretty well. So well in fact that Mahlon and Kilion decide to do as they see fit and they marry Moabite women. And they did this even though God, their king said, “ Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons… (Deuteronomy 7:3)
But that didn’t matter because their family was growing. You see, you don’t need God to live. You do as you see fit. After all, you gotta look out for number one. And if it feels good, do it, as long as you come out on top. And if you come out on top, who’s laughing now?
But then tragedy strikes. We are told Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. (Ruth 1:3-5 )
Everyone is dead. Naomi’s husband and two sons, gone. Now what? What is an old childless widow to do in Moab? Where do you go for help? It’s not like they had government sponsored programs for these kinds of people. Least of all in Moab.
And you have to wonder if the thought ever crossed Naomi’s mind whether or not this was all worth it.
You have to wonder if she ever thought, “If only we had never come to this God forsaken place. If only we had stayed in Bethlehem. If only we had waited on God, even in the midst of famine, even in the midst of hardship. If only we’d have stayed committed to him we would have seen the pattern that as soon as God’s people are turned toward him, he gives them enough grace to get through the hardship.
If only. . . If only
Bread At Home
Well, while Naomi ponders her options, she hears that things are changing at home. She heard in Moab... that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. (Ruth 1:6)
So Naomi and her daughters-in-law, pack what little provisions they have and they set out toward Bethlehem, the house of bread, the place where the Lord provides.
Now we’re not told about all that transpired in the conversation as the women traveled along the road, but we are told that somewhere along the way Naomi turns to Ruth and Orpah and tries to persuade them to turn back. She basically says, “Listen, go back to your homeland, girls. Have a good life with new husbands and new families, and may God bless you like you’ve blessed me.”
And then they hug and kiss and weep. But Orpah and Ruth are not persuaded; they still want to follow Naomi.
So Naomi becomes a bit more firm and she says. “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”
At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:11-16)
So basically here’s what’s going on. Naomi wants to go home alone. She doesn’t want her daughters-in-law with her.
And maybe she doesn’t want them there because they remind her about the pain of what she’s lost. Or maybe she doesn’t want them there because she doesn’t want to risk loving another person again only to have them die too. Or maybe she doesn’t want to have another mouth to feed. Or maybe she doesn’t want to deal with the shame of having two Moabite daughters-in-law.
Whatever the reason, she wants to be alone. And Orpah is convinced. But Ruth clings to her. And the question is, why? Why would Ruth cling to this crusty, bitter, old woman?
Ruth Clung to Her
I think that when you look at the story as a whole, it is clear why Ruth clings to Naomi. It is simply this: she loves her. She looks at Naomi and she sizes up her life and she sees that Naomi’s life has been nothing but pain and hardship--living though a famine, and trying to raise two sickly little boys; relocating to a new land, then losing a husband and both sons; and then having no choice but to uproot again and return home empty.
Ruth adds all of this up and she determines to do what she sees fit. She determines to leave her homeland, her family, her gods, her future, and commits herself to Naomi and show this bitter broken woman love.
Somehow Ruth is hoping beyond hope that love and grace and mercy are still more powerful than grief and shame and bitterness and loneliness. And somehow she determines that this power is somehow connected to Naomi’s God.
Arrival In Bethlehem
Well when Naomi realizes that there is no changing Ruth’s mind, she stops urging her and the two continue on to Bethlehem.
When they arrive, the whole town is stirred because of them. And the people of the town look at Naomi and the see a woman who has aged considerably. Her once radiant face is now somber and downcast. The light has all but gone out of her eyes, her shoulders are slumped. And they are astonished. “Can this be Naomi?” they ask.
Call Me Mara
And Naomi responds. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (Ruth 1:20-21)
Do you hear what Naomi is saying? “Don’t call me beautiful. There is nothing beautiful about me. If there was something even remotely beautiful about me, maybe God would have loved me a little bit more. But he doesn’t love me. He took away everything I had. I left this place full. I had a husband and two beautiful boys. And now they are gone. I left this place full; I had it all, but now... now my life is just empty. Don’t you dare call me beautiful, if God won’t even think I’m beautiful; instead call me bitter, because God did this to me.
The Bitterness of Loss
Well, if there is one thing that can be said about Naomi, she is not in denial about her sorrow. She does not hide the fact the she is angry at God. She is bitter. She does not have an ounce of joy left in her heart. Grief has robbed her of any capacity to love.
And if you have experienced any kind of loss in your life, then you understand where Naomi is coming from, because you know how much it hurts. You know her anger. You know her sorrow. You know the bitterness of her pain. If you have known loss, then you have lingered for a while in bitterness, and maybe for some of you a very long while.
A spouse dies… and you are bitter. A loved one is diagnosed with cancer… and you are bitter. You experience yet another miscarriage… and you are bitter. You lose your business and you are bitter.
Loss can bring about a sorrow so deep words cannot describe it. And sometimes it can make us bitter against God.
Wrestling With God
You see, when you go through a loss, no matter what it is, then some of the biggest wrestling matches we have are with God.
God why are you doing this? How does my suffering fit in with your sovereignty? Are you just standing back allowing the devil to wreak havoc in my life like you did to Job? Is this suffering some kind of a test? If so, when is it over and when do I know when I’ve passed?
The bitterness of loss can creep in pretty easily and Naomi says out loud what so many have whispered in the dark. She points her finger at God and she allows her bitterness to define her. Don’t call me Naomi! Call me Mara for I am bitter.
Danger of Bitterness
Now while it is understandable, there is a danger in letting our bitterness define us. Because when we view God only through the lenses of our loss and when we choose to see him only as our adversary, we miss out on seeing him as our King, our Redeemer and our Friend.
You see we must never forget that the reason why suffering is in this world in the first place is not because God turned his back on us but that we turned our back on him.
And in spite of this, God continues to pursue us. God continues to enter our world giving us glimpses of his power and grace.
And if we allow our bitterness to define us and we choose to only focus on what is wrong with this world than we will miss out on seeing what is still good in this world. Like seeing the goodness of two widowed young women who were willing to leave their homeland in order to provide companionship. Or in one daughter who would not give up on showing unconditional love, or in the people of a village who still recognize a face and still remember a name.
These are gifts worth thanking God for.
Now do these gifts replace the loss of Naomi? Absolutely not. But they are sign posts that beg us to keep on hoping. They are sign posts that tell us that God is not finished the story yet and that the best is yet to come. So keep on hoping.
You see, the question of faith is that in the midst of sorrow and in the midst of grief, are you still willing to hold on? Do you still believe that no matter how bad life gets, the grace of God will still have the last word?
The Barley Harvest
The writer of the book of Ruth seems to think so, because when you get to the very last line of chapter 1 you read these words.
So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. (Ruth 1:22)
Now when you read this line, what you are supposed to hear is “Listen, the story is not over yet. There is more to come. You may have experienced devastating loss, but the story is not over yet. Keep on reading, keep on hoping. But, for God’s sake, don’t stop in your grief.”
This is how Ruth 1 ends, and the question is, will Naomi put her hope in God or will she continue to point an accusing finger at him? Will she remain bitter or will she let the healing grace of God restore sweetness to her soul once again.
It is a question we all must ask. In our times of loss will we let God be our king? Will we put our hope in him? Will we let him lead us?
If we let his grace, his forgiveness, his mercy, and his love define us--instead of our bitterness--then we will discover a God who loves us so much that he was willing to enter our suffering and our pain by becoming a baby born in Bethlehem. And thirty three years later this same God would absorb all of the pain and all of the consequence for all human suffering in his own body. And three days later, by his grace, he would conquer death and blow the doors off of the grave so that you and I can have hope..
So keep on hoping.... Keep on hoping.... Keep on hoping.
While the story may not be over, we know how the story is going to end.
One day Jesus will return, and all who put their hope in him will be taken out of this pain filled world and we will be brought into a new heaven and a new earth where God himself will wipe away every tear from our eyes. And there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things will have passed away.
That’s how the story ends because my God is King. So keep on hoping, keep on hoping, keep on hoping.
Let us pray.
Order of Worship
Call to Worship: Psalm 100
Silent Prayer: Concluded with #624 Hear Our Prayer O Lord
God’s Greeting: Heavenly Father. We thank you that today you welcome us into your presence, and that that we are received into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Opening Song of Praise: #556 Great Is Thy Faithfulness
God’s Will For Our Lives: Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 22:37-40
Song of Dependence: #573 O Master Let Me Walk With Thee
Song of Preparation: #499 My God How Wonderful You Are
Prayer of Illumination
Scripture Reading: Ruth 1
Message: My God Is King
Prayer of Application
Closing Hymn: #577 Beams of Heaven
God’s Parting Blessing: God may we go in your grace and may we live for the one who is able to keep us from falling . . .Jude 24-25
Doxology: #638 Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow