Sunday, July 22, 2007

Faithfulness in the midst of tragedy: A sermon preached in Annalong on 22nd July 2007. Ruth 1:1-23

How do you deal with tragic circumstances? How do you cope when bad things happen to you? What is your reaction to sad events in your life? As we begin our study in the book of Ruth, we encounter a very tragic story as the life of Naomi unfolds. We’ll look at what happened to Naomi, before seeing how she dealt with those events. Hopefully through all this, we will see the gracious and good hand of God, not only in Naomi’s life, but also in our lives as well.

Look with me at verse two. We’re introduced to Naomi and her husband Elimelech, as well as their sons Mahlon and Kilion. They lived in Bethlehem, which immediately highlights us to the fact that these are Israelites – part of the people of God.

But if you jump down to verse 20, we find Naomi returning to Bethlehem after a long period of absence, and she’s calling for a name change. For the Israelites, names were very important, and meant a lot about who you were. So Naomi (which means pleasant) wants to be called Mara (which means bitter). ‘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 have brought misfortune upon me.’ (Ruth 1:20-21)

How has this change been brought about? Why has Naomi gone from being pleasant to being bitter? Let’s look at the tragedy as it unfolds.

As I said, at the start of the book of Ruth, we encounter Elimelech, Naomi, Mahlon and Kilion. They live in Bethlehem, which means ‘the house of bread.’ But there’s a problem. In the house of bread, there is no food to be had – famine has hit the land. Imagine the distress it would cause – it would be a bit like naming your village ‘nutty krust’ but having no bread to eat.

So what are the family to do? What would you do? Verses one and two both tell us that the family decides to move away from Bethlehem, in search of food. In fact, they move away to the land of Moab. While it might seem like a good move, in the short term, they are actually creating problems.

You see, when Elimelech (‘God is my king’) was faced with his problem, he didn’t consider it in the light of God’s word. Remember, they were living in the promised land, in the first few generations of those living in the land God had given them. Do you not think that if God had went to all the trouble of bringing the people of Israel out of Egypt (with the plagues, signs and wonders), and brought them through the wilderness those forty years, then brought them into the promised land, that he would supply for them to live there?

If Elimelech had only recalled the promises of God given through Moses to his ancestors – promises that if they continued to worship God, they would be blessed in the land; and promises that if they forgot God, then they would face famine and drought and ruin. (Deut 8:6-9, 19-20; 11:13-17; 28:9-14, 45-48). Then he would have recognised the signs of the times, and see what needed to be done.

But rather than this difficult step of humbling himself before God and admitting his faults, he ran off to Moab, taking his family with him for the food of the enemy.

How do you respond to a problem? Do you take it to the Lord, and search the Scriptures for light? It may be easier to run away from God, or take the pragmatic response, but it will not satisfy in the end.

Then, on top of these tragedies, we find that as they settle in the land of Moab, Elimelech dies. Then after the joy of the wedding of her two sons, her sons die as well, leaving her with her two daughters-in-law. Suddenly the three women find themselves without anyone to provide for them – no breadwinner. This was a serious matter, and would lead to their own deaths eventually, unless something was done about it.

No wonder Naomi claims that the Lord has afflicted her – could there have been anything worse happening to her? After all, if God is in control, then is it not his fault when bad things happen? I wonder do you blame God as well? So far, in the midst of all that has happened, we have seen Naomi blame God, despite their disobedience, their lack of faith, their running away from the problem.

Yet the wonderful news of the first chapter of Ruth is that God is in control. God’s purposes are for good, for those who love him, and we see in the chapter how God works for the good of Naomi.

God is in control when he (verse 6) came to the aid of his people again, by providing food for them. God keeps his promise for ever – he is faithful and true. While Naomi and her family fled, the rest of the people of God had remained in the promised land, waiting to receive the promise again.

God is in control when he brings Naomi back home again, back to her town, back to the promised land and the family inheritance. Her townsfolk hadn’t forgotten about her – when she arrived back they were stirred, they were excited or maybe just a bit nosy.

So far we have seen God being in control of the good things – maybe you’re thinking it all would have turned out ok anyway. After all, the rain wouldn’t fail forever, and there would be food again eventually. But even more amazing than these is that even in Naomi’s disobedience and disgust of God, God is in control, working for her good.

When the family fled to Moab, abandoning the promised land, God was in control. He brought them to the right place so that Mahlon and Kilion would meet Orpah and Ruth, the two daughters-in-law who Naomi would be left with. More than that, when Naomi tried to drive them away in her grief, God was in control, so that Ruth would remain with her.

Why is it that at the times we need family and friends the most, we seem to drive them away? The very times when we need help the most, we tend to be stubborn, and not to want any help. [We see it in suicide – those who would most benefit from sharing problems and lightening the load are those who withdraw and try to face up to things on their own – which overwhelm them. If you should be thinking about suicide – don’t keep it to yourself – talk to someone about it and get help for whatever problems you are facing.]

So we see it here – as Naomi sets off back for Bethlehem, she tries to get rid of her daughters-in-law. Oh, there’s probably good reason for it, as she tells them to go and marry someone else and enjoy their life as there’s no chance of her having a new husband and having sons for them to marry (to keep the family name and land inheritance rights). Look at verse 13 – Naomi again laments that God’s hand is against her, that it is more bitter for her than for the girls.

Orpah leaves and goes back home. She’ll be on the look out for another husband, but Ruth refuses to leave. God is working in her life to bind Ruth to Naomi in her time of need, yes, but more than that, to bind Ruth to God himself.

Let’s read those words again we thought about with the children – ‘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. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.’

Remember that these are words from a daughter-in-law to a mother-in-law. How many of you daughters-in-law would think of saying this to your mother-in-law?! Or sons-in-law to your mother-in-law? Do you see how radical these words are? Can you also see that they are the outworking of God’s in-working in the lives of the family, even in the midst of the bad times, even in the midst of the sad times, even in the midst of their disobedience and denial?

Naomi needed a companion on the road home and as they set up life again in Bethlehem, yes. But more than that, God was drawing this foreigner to himself, bringing her into the people of God, including her in his family, as the grand plan of salvation rolled forward. ‘Your people will be my people, and your God my God.’ And he was doing it through the poor witness of Naomi, who had tried to send Ruth back to her pagan parents.

Even in the bad times, God is present in the situation, and working for our good. Maybe you were thinking of a specific problem or tragedy or situation that you have recently gone through, or you’re going through right now – be assured that God is with you.

On preparing for this morning, I was struck that verses 17 and 18 point beyond the faithfulness of Ruth to Naomi, to the truly Faithful One, to the Lord Jesus. Firstly, to that verse in Romans 8 which I have been hinting at, which tells us that ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28) But also to the wonderful promise we have from the end of Matthew’s gospel – ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matt 28:20) and confirmed in Hebrews 13:5: ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.’

So Naomi (Mara) returns to Bethlehem, with Ruth in tow. Look at verse 21. ‘I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.’ Even as she returns with Ruth, she fails to realise just how much grace God has given to her, in his care for her while absent in Moab, and in providing her with Ruth.

If you’re in the midst of the crisis, be assured that God is with you, and that God is working for your ultimate good, in ways you may not be able to see right now. That really is the grace of God that we have in Jesus Christ.

[Verse 23 tells us that they arrive back at the time of the barley harvest, which will lead us into chapter two. We’ll be looking at it tonight at 6pm, if you want to see how the story develops!]

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