Ruth 1 – Dark Times with a Ray of Hope

[This sermon is from a series on Ruth taught at Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth MA where I currently have the privilege of serving as the Intentional Interim Pastor.]

It’s been said that we are all either IN a significant transition, just COMING OUT of a significant transition, or just GOING INTO a significant transition. It is easy to become numb to significant transitions when they happen so often. So, in the midst of (what seems like) never-ending transition and change, HOW do we find and connect with God in the midst?

As we endeavor to study and consider the book of Ruth over the next 4-weeks, I’m hoping (and prayerful) that we will discover how paying attention to (all) of life’s transitions can help us to see the hand of God more clearly and, therefore, know God more intimately.

Why Ruth?

  • The book is about several significant transitions. A major theme is transitioning from emptiness to fullness.
  • We tend to see the Ruth narrative as a traditional fairy tale type of story—much like Sleeping Beauty awaiting her Prince Charming, yet when we dig a little deeper it’s anything but traditional—as we’ll see…
  • Also, we’ll notice is that there is nothing overtly miraculous in Ruth. No miracles, no visions, and no direct words from God.  What we will see is God working in the lives of His people—even in the difficult (and mundane) seasons of life.

Before we make our way to the first chapter of Ruth, I’d like to stop for a moment at Luke 24:27 (Road to Emmaus):

Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” –Luke 24:27 (emphasis added)

What we see in this verse is THE most important Bible study of all time. What Jesus is doing on the Road to Emmaus is opening their hearts and minds to how they are to view the Old Testament Scripture. What we learn from this verse is, the WHOLE Old Testament is actually about Jesus.

When we add the New Testament we begin to see that the WHOLE Bible only tells one story. It’s the story of redemption and reconciliation through Jesus. So, in every passage we are to ask, how does this point us to Jesus Christ?

Illus – The Sixth Sense[1], a 1999 movie with Bruce Willis. You can only see that movie twice.  The first time the ending is quite shocking.  The second time you see it you will become very aware of all the indicators that point to the ending.  In the same way, once our hearts are awakened to the implications that the whole Bible points to Jesus, we will begin to look at every passage in the Bible differently.

We will begin to consistently ask of every passage: How does this passage point to the person and work Jesus Christ? With that said let’s read Ruth, chapter 1: 1In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So, a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites ([2]) from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.  Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons.  The two sons married Moabite women.  One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth.  But about ten years later, both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.  Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again.  So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland.  With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.  But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me.  May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.’ Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.  10 ‘No,’ they said. ‘We want to go with you to your people.’  11 But Naomi replied, ‘Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands?  12 No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again.  And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what?  13 Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else?  No, of course not, my daughters!  Things are far more bitter for me than for you because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.’  14 And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye.  But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 1 5 ‘Look,’ Naomi said to her, ‘your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.’  16 But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live.  Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!’  18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.  19 So the two of them continued on their journey.  When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. ‘Is it really Naomi?’ the women asked.  20 ‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she responded. ‘Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me.  21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty.  Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?’  22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman.  They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest.” –Ruth 1:1-22 [The last verse is the “ray of hope,” from the sermon title]

Today we’ll take some time to wrap our heads and hearts around what we just read. I have four lessons from the first chapter to humbly consider. And then we’ll conclude by asking, how does this first chapter point us to Jesus?  (Please check out the blog on the CCC website where I have posted an overview of our study.

The first lesson involves the first 9 words of chapter 1, which tell us that the time and setting of the Ruth narrative occurred during the time of the judges: “In the days when the judges ruled in Israel…” For those of us who have read the book of Judges, we know that it was a deeply dark and degrading time for the nation of Israel. Consider the last verse of the book of Judges (21:25):

“In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” –Judges 21:25

One commentator wrote: “The book of Judges was teeming with violent invasions, apostate religion, unchecked lawlessness, and tribal civil war.”[3] And if you’ve read Judges, you’ll know that’s putting it mildly! A proper understanding of what’s going on here, as we begin our study of Ruth, leads us to our first lesson, which is also the BIG IDEA for this sermon:

Even in the midst of dark, difficult, and chaotic times God still works on our behalf for His glory and our joy.

As you may have heard, Greenland has been in the news lately. When it came up in the news it, for some reason, reminded me of a science lesson I learned a long time ago…In the sea around Greenland there are lots of icebergs floating and through time-lapsed photography, scientists discovered that the icebergs were moving in different directions. As they sought to determine why that was happening, what they found is that the smaller icebergs were being moved by the trade winds pushing them along and the larger icebergs were being moved by the deeper ocean currents. An important part of this first lesson is that often times imposed transitions or difficult times in our lives are the result of God wanting to capture our attention in order to connect us with the deeper ocean currents of His will instead of being continually tossed about by the surface winds and waves of circumstance.

For the last several years Job’s testimony at the end of the book has been seared into my soul. Look at Job’s declaration:

“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You” –Job 42:5

The second lesson from this first chapter is a bit more consoling. God very clearly told the Jewish people not to associate with the Moabites, let alone go and live there.  (As we’ll see as the Ruth narrative unfolds it wasn’t a racial thing, it was for doctrinal purposes.) Whether it was Elimelech who pressured Naomi to move to Moab or Naomi pressured Elimelech, or it was a mutual decision, we just don’t know. What we DO know is it was NOT God’s will. The second lesson from this chapter is this:

Even when we’re disobedient it does not thwart the sovereignty and the ultimate purpose of God.

“God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” –Romans 8:28 (emphasis added). When we sin there are certainly consequences, yet within the sovereignty of God, He uses those consequences as a means to draw us closer to Himself. What we will see in our study of this book is the unfolding of God’s redemptive grace, even in the midst of sin.

Now is a good time to bring up a word that drives the storyline in Ruth. It’s a Hebrew word that has no English equivalent.  The word is hesed. It’s only used three times in Ruth but as I said, it drives the storyline. Hesed is translated in v. 8 as kindness.  Other translations will use lovingkindness, yet it means so much more…

  • Hesed is the consistent, ever-faithful, relentless, constantly-pursuing, lavish, extravagant, unrestrained, energetic love of God. Several commentators refer to it as “covenant love.”
  • God consistently practices hesed with a people who are continuously disloyal. That is really what the whole OT is all about.
  • One of the beautiful aspects of the book of Ruth is that we will see the 3-main characters are practicing hesed.

For the third lesson I’d like to provide short character sketches of both Naomi and Ruth. This will help us as the plotline unfolds. As we read, Naomi endured some horrific transitions. Some commentators actually refer to her as the female Job. We will be tempted to see Naomi as a bitter and manipulative woman as the narrative unfolds—and, in fact, she does identify herself as bitter when she returns to Bethlehem (v. 20). She employs a play on words to describe her condition.  Naomi means “pleasant” in Heb, so she’s saying, “Don’t call me pleasant anymore call me Mara,” which means “bitter.”

I find Naomi compelling. I like her.  She’s real and she’s honest.  I like being in a church where it’s okay to not be okay.  Where we can be honest and real about our struggles and our doubts. And I find that her theology is pretty good too, especially when we consider what she’s been through. The last thing I’ll say about Naomi, for now, is found in vs. 8-15. Naomi thanks Orpah and Ruth for their hesed toward her and then Naomi demonstrates hesed toward them…I would say that of course Naomi wants Orpah and Ruth to go back to Bethlehem with her. She’s alone and she’s destitute.  The three of them have obviously had a good and strong relationship, but Naomi knows what they will face as young women alien emigrants in a foreign land, where the Moabites are dispised. So, Naomi is willing to go it alone—and this act of selfless hesed catches Ruth’s attention. Most credible theologians agree that Ruth underwent a conversion to the covenant God of Israel in vs. 16-17 as she recognizes Naomi’s unselfish hesed toward her and Orpah.

Ruth may have heard about the covenant God of Israel from her husband and from Naomi, but, all of a sudden, the dots get connected and she understood what Naomi was doing at this moment—seeking to save them from a degrading and difficult life in Bethlehem—and Ruth undergoes a conversion. The dots apparently don’t get connected for Orpah as she does the “sensible” thing and returns to her family and the Moabite gods. But not Ruth, her declaration of commitment to the covenant God of Israel and to Naomi in vs. 16-17 is one of the most powerful statements in the whole OT.

I have officiated at a lot of weddings over the years and none of the vows have been as powerful as Ruth’s commitment to Naomi. Most wedding vows use some variation of “until death do us part.” Not Ruth, she goes several steps further declaring “where you die, I will die.”

Now, let’s talk about emigration for a moment…That’s a big deal right now isn’t it? What is the primary reason for the vast majority of people seeking to emigrate? They’re hoping for a better life, right? Not Ruth though. She knows her life will be MUCH harder if she returns to Bethlehem with Naomi. She will become the caregiver for Naomi. She will become the breadwinner. And there will be repeated racial degradation and regular threats of violence, with the distinct possibility of repeated violence—or worse. And yet Ruth goes. When God awakens our hearts to His hesed love we are changed from the inside out—and then we begin to love others with God’s covenant love.

The fourth lesson is short and sweet: We need to be in community in the same way that Naomi and Ruth needed one another. Naomi and Ruth were beset with significant transitions.  Naomi was feeling empty and bitter, but Ruth was hopeful like many new believers are.  Sometimes we need a Ruth in our lives and sometimes God will want to use us as a Ruth in someone else’s life. I would strongly encourage you to get into a Community Group this Fall.

As we draw to a close, let’s think back to Luke 24, where we began with Jesus telling the two disciples that the whole Old Testament was about Him. So, how does this passage point to Jesus?

Ruth, the emigrant, reciprocates covenant lovingkindness (hesed) to Naomi. Jesus, however, is the better Ruth as the ultimate Emigrant, who left the comfort, perfection, and majesty of Heaven to emigrate into our brokenness with covenant lovingkindness and He also promises to never leave or forsake His called-out ones (Heb 13:15).

So, here are some questions for you:

  1. Are you a “called out one”?
  2. Have the dots been connected for you?
  3. Are you beginning to see that the covenant love of God has been pursuing you and that even in the dark and disturbing seasons of your life, God has been drawing you with lovingkindness?

Here’s a caveat if you’re here today and considering the claims of Christ: The Christian life is not the easier life many hope it will be. In the classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis provides us with an illustration of the Christian life. He writes,

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing…But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts…and does not seem to make any sense [to you].  What on earth is He up to?  The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of…You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”[4]

 

[1] An 8-year-old boy is visited by ghosts and he is too afraid to tell anyone about his anguish, except for Willis who plays a child psychologist. (M. Night Shyamalan)

[2] The word Ephrath in Hebrew means “fruitful,” and Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Most scholars believe that Ephrath and Bethlehem are actually two names for the same place.

[3] Robert L. Hubbard Jr., The Book of Ruth (New International Commentary on the Old Testament (NICOT), Eerdmans 1989: 84.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, MacMillan 1960: 160.

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