A sermon on Ruth 1 and 2 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 21 June 2020
Although our Bible readings today and next week come from the book of Ruth, the first part of Ruth’s story is about her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi was a woman, a wife and a mother, who lived in a man’s world. She lived roughly 3000 years ago in Israel in the time of the judges. It was a time after God had brought the Israelites out of Egypt through Moses and into their own land through Joshua. But it was before the time of the kings of Israel, of Saul and David and Solomon.
In this in between time, God raised up charismatic leaders called judges, men like Gideon and Sampson, women like Deborah, who would rescues the Israelites from their enemies and lead them during their own lifetime. What we call Israel in this in between time, was not really a country. It was a loose federation of related tribes which shared the same religion and culture. But they didn’t have kings or government or a capital city or an army. What they had was God as their king and God had given them his laws and commandments by which they were meant to live.
The Lord will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. If you pay attention to the commands of the Lord your God and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom. However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands, the crops of your land will be cursed, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.
The message was clear: God was the king and if they wanted to be his people, living in his land, they had to live by his commands.
But from time to time their faith wavered. They forgot the Lord. They built and worshipped idols. The Lord brought upon them the curses he had threatened to humble them, to discipline them, to lead them back to himself, so that when they repented, when they had mended their ways, he could shower them again with his blessings.
It was during this time that Israel suffered from a famine. And what do you think God wanted them to do? Did he want them to worry? Did he want them to feel sorry for themselves? Did he want them to run away and hide? No, he simply wanted them to repent, to change their ways and return to him o that he could bless them. But one man, Naomi’s husband Elimelech, took his family and emigrated from Israel to Moab where there was plenty of food. Ironically, his name, Elimelech, means My God is King. But he walked out on God’s land. He turned his back on his people. He took his family to a nation that did not know God, did not recognise the Lord as king, and in the end his whole family suffered.
Elimelech was the first to die in that foreign land, leaving his wife, Naomi, to raise their two boys on her own. The boys grew up and married women of that country. Then they died too, leaving Naomi all alone in a man’s world without a provider, without a protector, far from family and friends. Elimelech, her husband, had turned his back on the discipline of the Lord in search of food. But that decision ultimately brought Naomi to the brink of death. As a foreign widow in a man’s world, Naomi’s hold on life was fragile. And so she decided to make the dangerous journey home on her own.
Whether we really do live in a man’s world or not, we all have decisions to make, decisions that will affect the lives of others. And if we want what is really best for ourselves, if we want what is really best for our family and friends, then God must be our king. It sounds like a paradox but if we want our families to be number 1, then they must be number 2. We must put God first. Because if we turn our back on God like Elimelech did for what we think will be good for us or for our families, then our good intentions will come to nothing. God must be our number 1. We must let the true and living God to be king in our lives.
Now, I don’t want to sound insensitive. I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to minimise Naomi’s problems. She has lost her husband and her two sons. She has no one to provide for her and she is living in a foreign land far from home. But if she thought she was the only one suffering, if she thought she was alone in her pain, she was wrong. For the death of her sons had left two young widows, her daughters-in-law Orpah and Ruth, and in her determination to return home without them, Naomi was taking away from them the only family they’d known for the last ten years.
Naomi sat them down and said to them, “Go home. Go back to your mum and dad.”
The two young girls were distraught. They hugged Naomi and kissed her and wept aloud. But Naomi insisted. “Go home,” she said. “It wouldn’t be right for you to come with me. It wouldn’t be fair. What kind of life can I offer you? I can’t give you husbands. I’m too old to marry again, and if I did and had sons, would you wait for them to grow up for you? Go home, marry again from your own people and be happy. May the Lord bless you with fine new husbands as good as the ones you lost, but the Lord’s hand has attacked me and my suffering is more bitter than yours.”
Naomi’s impassioned plea got the better of Orpah. She wept and kissed her mother-in-law good-bye and left to pick up the pieces of her life. But Ruth clung to Naomi tighter than a ship wrecked man clings to the floating wreckage. She said to Naomi, “Don’t make me go. Don’t make me leave you. Don’t push me away like this. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. And when I die they will bury me beside you. Only death will keep us apart.”
Ruth is a stark contrast to Naomi’s dead husband. Elimelech had been willing to turn his back on God for the sake of his family. But Ruth here shows that she was willing to leave all she knew to find the true and living God for the sake of her mother-in-law.
Naomi gave in and the two women eventually arrived safely in Bethlehem, Naomi’s home town. The whole town came out to watch them arrive and the womenfolk thought they recognised Naomi. But in an extraordinary outburst, Naomi refused to acknowledge her own name, which meant pleasant. Naomi had little to feel pleasant about. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she said. “Don’t call me Pleasant. Call me Mara, call me Bitter, because God has made my life bitter. I left this place full. I left this place with a husband and two sons. God has brought me back empty. God has attacked me. God has cursed my life.”
Naomi’s pain was real. But she wasn’t telling herself the truth. She was telling herself a lie and making her pain worse. Had God cursed her? The only curse was the famine which was meant to bring his people to repentance so he could bless them. Was she empty? Was there no one who stood beside her? Naomi’s pain was real, but she let that pain consume her until it left her bitter and empty. She had, in fact, treasured the pain so close to her heart, had cherished her suffering and despair so dearly, that it blinded her blind to the fact that the God she blamed had given her something better than a husband or a family. God had given her a friend, Ruth, who had left all she’d known, who had walked into the unknown, who would cling to her side no matter what.
Like Naomi, we have all experienced pain and disappointment. And that kind of grief can isolate us, making us blind to the blessings of God, closing our hearts to the possibility of fellowship and love. But we can’t afford to make the same mistake as Naomi. Suffering is bad enough without letting it consume us. Whatever we have gone through, we need the wisdom to see the truth of God’s goodness, and we need the courage to open our hearts to the possibility of love, and true, genuine fellowship.
The Book of Ruth is nothing less than a 3000 year old love story. The age old story of boy meets girl, of the love that blossomed between Ruth and Boaz. But the book of Ruth also reveals a love that comes before boy meets girl. It is about the love of God, his grace that fills the empty and the bitter.
You can see it in how God provided Naomi with a daughter-in-law, with a friend like Ruth. What could have drawn a woman like Ruth to leave home and family, to make the dangerous journey with her mother-in-law, if God had not shone his love into Ruth’s heart, for her to risk all for the sake of a friend? When Naomi begged Ruth to leave her alone, Ruth said, “Your God will be my God, your people will be my people, and only death will keep us apart.” Only God could have brought them together.
And on whose farm should Ruth find herself working in Bethlehem? A foreign girl with no provider or protector could have been at the mercy of any man. But instead, on her very first day, she stumbled into the farm of Boaz. Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s husband Elimelech, was drawn to help the two women not only out of pity for Naomi, but also out of love for Ruth. Is this just coincidence, or is it the love of God at work?
But nowhere do we see the love of God, his grace for the poor and empty more clearly than in his law that said:
When you harvest your crop, do not harvest to the edge of the field and do not pick up what falls to the ground. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigners. For I am the Lord your God.
Long before social security, long before the widow’s pension, God provided food for the poor and needy in the laws he gave to Moses. And this is the work that Ruth set herself to do. Each day she would go and follow the harvesters through the field and pick up what they dropped to take it home and thresh it and mill it and knead it and bake it to make bread for herself and for Naomi. Because long before Boaz set his eyes on Ruth, long before he started to love her, God loved Ruth. And long before Naomi gave up her bitterness and stopped blaming God for all her problems, God loved Naomi and began to fill the emptiness in her life.
A fact which the New Testament brings into sharp focus in 1 John chapter 4.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
This is the love, the grace of God. None of us is perfect. None of us have done everything that our Heavenly Father expects from us. But before we ever loved him, before we ever said sorry, before we ever stopped blaming him for all our problems, God loved us and sent Jesus into the world to feel our pain, to suffer our emptiness, so that in his cross, we might see the grace of God to take away our sin and shame and to fill our emptiness with his love.
We are only half way through the book of Ruth and we’ve got a long way to go before we can say they lived happily ever after. But we can already see the grace of God at work to fill the emptiness in the lives of these two women. And in this world of troubles, we too are a long way from happy ever after. But don’t blind yourselves to the grace of God already at work in your lives. Providing you with friends just as good as Ruth. And loving you before you ever loved him by sending Jesus. Let the love of God fill the emptiness of your lives and you will full indeed.