Naomi - My Story in God's Story
Judges Naomi Ruth 1, 4:13-22 Pastor Pat Damiani July 9, 2017 When Mary and I went to Maui this summer, we spent a lot of time at this beach at Kapalua Bay [show picture]. As you can see, this is a beautiful beach on a nice calm bay. But if all we had done was to sit on the beach and enjoy the view, as great as it is, we would have missed out on the amazing life that exists just below the surface. So, in order for us to experience all that bay had to offer, we actually had to get up off the beach, put on our snorkeling gear and get into the water. And once we did that, we entered into a whole different world that we couldn’t see from the beach. [Show video]. I think this is a pretty good illustration of the way that many, if not most, people live their lives. Although God is weaving this incredible story all around us, we don’t take the time or make the effort to move beyond our own little world and see what God is doing under the surface. And when we live life like that we find that it can be empty, disappointing, purposeless and lacking in joy. But if we’ll go below the surface, we soon discover that… God is constantly weaving my story into His story And once we figure that out, we enter into a world that brings fullness, purpose and joy to our lives. Wouldn’t you like to live a life like that – a life in which you see how your story fits in to the much greater story that God is constantly developing and carrying out? Today we’re going to see if we can’t get some insight about how to live life like that. And we’re going to do that by looking at the account of someone who didn’t do that particularly well, so that hopefully we can learn from her mistakes so we don’t have to make them ourselves. While many of us are familiar to some degree with her story, what is really interesting to me is that her story is actually a part of a book of the Bible that is named after another woman. But in spite of that, what I hope to show you this morning is that this woman, and not Ruth, is actually the main focus of the book of Ruth. Many of you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the book of Ruth, especially as it relates to two of the main characters – Ruth and Boaz. But I think that it is actually more the story of Naomi than it is the story of Ruth, since the book begins and ends with the focus on Naomi and Naomi is such an integral part of the story in between. As we read some of that story together this morning, I want you to think about how God is weaving Naomi’s story into His story and I also want you to think about why it seems that Naomi misses out on the joy that could have been hers had she just recognized that her story was a part of God’s story. So with that in mind, follow along as I read beginning in Ruth 1: [Read Ruth 1:1-5] The first important piece of information that we’re given is that this story takes place during the time of the judges. As we talked about last week, that was a transitional time for the nation of Israel where they lived as a loose association of tribes rather than a united commonwealth. It was a time in which Israel continually goes through a cycle of doing evil, being placed into bondage, crying out to God, being delivered by God and then experiencing a period of peace. Based on the genealogy at the end of the book, we can determine that this story takes place near the end of that period. We also learn right away that the story of Ruth is a story filled with setbacks. We see the first setback right off the bat. A famine comes to Judah, so even though there is no evidence that God called them to do so, Elimelech and his wife, Naomi go to Moab to find food. While they are there, Elimelech dies and the two sons – Mahlon, whose name means “sickly”, and Chilion, whose name means “failing” – marry Moabite wives. This is in clear violation of the commands that God had given His people before they entered the Promised Land. For ten years their wives prove to be barren and then, while they are still in Moab, both sons die and leave widows – Ruth and Orpah. Without a doubt, on the surface, things look pretty bleak for Naomi. But God is just beginning to weave an unbelievable story with Naomi right at the center. [Read Ruth 1:6-18] Naomi begins her journey back to Bethlehem with her two daughters-in-law in tow. But shortly after they began the journey, Naomi urges them to return to Moab where they can find a husband who will provide for them. At first they both decline to return, but after some additional prodding, Orpah heads back to Moab. But Ruth refuses to return and makes her famous promise to go wherever Naomi goes and to make Naomi’s people her people and to make Naomi’s God her God. It seems much of the preaching and commentary on the book of Ruth tends to ignore, or at least minimize, the role of Naomi. But, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve come to the conclusion that she is actually the main character in this story. I also find that most commentators tend to be pretty kind to Naomi and to paint her in a favorable light. But there are some things in this section that lead me to believe that for most of the story Naomi failed to look beyond her own life and see the larger story that God was weaving all around her. From the very beginning, I think Naomi had some serious reservations about bringing her daughters-in-law with her back to Bethlehem. After all, it wasn’t like all of the people she knew in Bethlehem had been following her on Facebook or Twitter and knew all the details of what had happened to her. In, particular, it’s unlikely they would have known that her sons had married Moabite women, in direct violation of God’s commands. So if she showed up in Bethlehem with these two Moabite daughters-in-law, she was going to have a lot of explaining to do. It’s also not unreasonable to think that perhaps Naomi actually harbored some resentment toward these two Moabite women. The word translated “sons” in verse 5 is actually a different word that the one used in the rest of this chapter and it conveys the idea that Naomi still regarded her sons as her “little boys” and maybe she felt like they had been enticed into marriage by these Moabite women. Perhaps she reasoned that if that had not happened her precious sons might still be alive. That would certainly explain the very unusual directives that Naomi gave to Orpah and Ruth. First, she instructs them to return to the house of their mothers. In that culture, widowed women were sent back to their fathers, who would provide protection until they remarried. So is Naomi secretly wishing that they would remain unprotected? We don’t know for sure, but it’s sure an interesting possibility. But want is even more surprising is the fact that Naomi would encourage the women to return to their pagan gods. If Naomi really had their best interests in mind, why would she want Orpah and Ruth to go back to the pagan practices that included child sacrifice? It is also important to note here, that Naomi doesn’t tell her daughters-in-law the whole truth. She leaves out a lot of crucial information when encouraging Orpah and Ruth to return to Moab. Among the information that she conveniently fails to mention is that her late husband has property in Bethlehem and that there is a kinsman- redeemer there. Finally, before we move on, I want to call your attention to verse 13 where Naomi claims that the hand of the Lord has gone out against her. It is certainly easy to understand why Naomi felt like that. The fact that she had lost her husband and her two sons in a relatively short period of time, sure made it feel like that to her, even though, as we’re going to see, that was not true at all. [Read Ruth 1:19-22] When Naomi and Ruth come to Bethlehem, the women can hardly believe this is Naomi. I can only imagine what the years and the trials she had been through had done to both her physical appearance and her countenance. And once again, Naomi complains that God has dealt bitterly with her. She even tells them to call her Mara, which means “bitter”, rather than Naomi, which means “pleasant”. And then in verse 22, she makes the kind of claim that we might be tempted to make when we’re going through trials: I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. While I think we can all empathize with Naomi and understand why she felt that way, we can already see this just isn’t true. At a very minimum, she is accompanied by a faithful daughter-in-law, Ruth, who is going to take care of her in the near term and be the conduit through which God provides for her long term needs as well. And, as we’ll see later, that is not the only blessing waiting for her there in Bethlehem. The next two and a half chapters of the book of Ruth alternate between setbacks and hope. In chapter 2, Ruth learns that there is a relative of Elimelech, a man named Boaz, raising the possibility that he might become Ruth’s husband. But while Boaz is kind to Ruth and Naomi, he makes no move to make Ruth his wife. In chapter 3, Naomi decides to take things into her own hands and devises a risky plan where Ruth goes to Boaz in the middle of the night and essentially asks him to marry her. But right when it seems that everyone is going to live happily ever after, another obstacle is thrown into the mix. There is another relative, who according to the Jewish law, has the first right to redeem Ruth and make her his wife. In the first half of chapter 4, that potential roadblock is removed, when the other man refuses to redeem Ruth because he is afraid it is going to jeopardize his ability to pass his inheritance down to his existing family. That brings us to chapter 4, verse 13. Let’s pick up the story there and take it to its conclusion. [Read Ruth 4:13-22] Now do you see why I suggested earlier that Naomi, and not Ruth, is really the main character in this book? As the book ends, all the attention is on Naomi, not Ruth. The women praise God because He has provided a redeemer for Naomi and claim that a son has been born to Naomi, not to Ruth. And it is the women, not Ruth and Boaz, who name the baby Obed, which means “servant” – probably in anticipation of the fact that this baby would grow up to serve and take care of Naomi in her old age. Now if this story ended with an elderly grandmother hugging a new grandson in a small Judean village, I’m not sure it would have ever been included the Bible. But through that grandson, God was not only providing a redeemer for Naomi, but moving along the larger story in which he was going to provide a Redeemer for the entire world. Obed would become the grandfather of David, who would not only become the king of Israel, but through whose lineage God would bring the ultimate Redeemer – Jesus. It is certainly Naomi’s story, more than that of any other character in the book of Ruth, that reveals that… God is constantly weaving my story into His story And doesn’t God do that in the most incredibly gracious way? Even though Naomi complained about God and was a reluctant participant, God still includes her story as an integral part of His much greater story. That is grace, pure and simple! It is a reminder that God is in the business of taking messes and turning them into something beautiful. In the end, Naomi didn’t miss out on being a part of God’s story, even though she entered into that story so reluctantly. But what Naomi did miss out on and what so many of us miss out on so often is the joy of being part of His story. Ultimately Naomi certainly found that joy, but for much of the journey, she failed to experience it because of her own actions. So, as I mentioned earlier, we’re going to see what we can learn from her mistakes so that we don’t have to make them ourselves. But rather than focus on what not to do, I’m going to frame these ideas in a more positive way and focus on what we should do. HOW TO HAVE JOY IN THE MIDST OF GOD’S STORY 1. Take responsibility for my own actions Naomi, like most of us, was great at blaming others for her problems. We’ve already seen that there is some pretty good evidence in the text that she may have blamed Orpah and Ruth for what happened to her sons. And we’ve also seen that on more than one occasion she blames God for her problems. But in reality, at least to some extent, Naomi has brought many of her problems on herself. From the text, it appears that Mahlon and Chilion took their Moabite wives after Elimelech had died in Moab. That means that even if Naomi had first gone to Moab at her husband’s insistence, once Elimelech died, she could have taken her family back to Judah at that time. And she could have done more to keep her sons from violating God’s commands and marrying Moabite women. At a minimum, Naomi had played some role in disobeying God and therefore was at least partially responsible from the consequences of those sins. But she was so busy blaming everyone else, that we see no evidence at all that Naomi ever took time to ask God to reveal her own sin or to confess and repent once she was aware of that sin. As a result, even though the text doesn’t specifically say so, I have to believe that Naomi couldn’t experience joy in the midst of the story because she was so ridden with the guilt that she had failed to deal with. Far more often than we would like to admit, the problems we encounter in life are a result of our own sin. Perhaps some of you here this morning are experiencing problems in your marriage because you’ve failed to build your marriage around Jesus or because of some sin like lust. Perhaps some of you are having financial difficulties that are a direct result of failing to apply Biblical principles, like giving God the firstfruits or not going into debt to buy things you don’t really need. Maybe some of you hate going to work every day, but that is a direct result of the fact that you aren’t obeying the command to work for God and not for men and to be a faithful, hard-working employee regardless of how your employer treats you. And when those kinds of things happen, we often resort to blaming other people or our circumstances or even God. But until we’re honest with ourselves and admit our sin and seek God’s forgiveness, the underlying guilt is going to rob us of the joy of being part of God’s story. 2. Look beyond my own problems I think things began to turn around for Naomi when she finally got her focus off of her own problems and she took an interest in helping out Ruth. As I’m going to discuss more in a moment, I’m not sure that all of the advice she gave to Ruth was wise, Biblical counsel, but just the fact that she was willing to move beyond her own problems and begin to focus on others was an important step in bringing her to a place where she could begin to regain some of the joy she had lost. When I’m only focused on my own problems, it’s really hard to see that God is writing a much larger story all around me, because I won’t take my eyes off of myself long enough to look around and see that there is far more to life that just what affects me. And one of the best ways I know of to leave that pity party is to find someone else that I can serve in some way. Regardless of how bad things are for me, I can always find someone who is also in a bind and could use my help. And when I do that, it takes my attention off of my own problems long enough to let me see that all around me God is taking messes and turning them into something beautiful. And I can guarantee once I see that, I’m going to have a lot more joy in my life. 3. Be grateful Naomi was so focused on what she had lost that she failed to see the blessings that were right in front of her nose. Although she claimed that God’s hand had been bitter against her and that He had brought her back empty, that was not true at all. As she returned home to Bethlehem, she had a whole group of women who obviously didn’t just remember her, but who really cared for her. Not only that, but there in Bethlehem she had relatives who could help provide support for her. And of course, most important of all, she had a daughter-in-law who was totally devoted to her and who had promised to stay with her until one of them died. But Naomi was so focused on what she had lost and on what she didn’t have that she failed to be grateful for the blessings that God had given her. Perhaps Naomi had done as many of us are prone to do. She began to look around at other people and notice all the things they had that she didn’t. The problem is that every time we do that, there are always going to be people who have things that we don’t. And the more we focus on those things, the harder it is for us to thank God for those blessings that are right in front of our face. 4. Wait on God At some point, Naomi decides that the solution to all her problems is for Boaz to take Ruth as his wife. And when we step back and look at this entire account, it is clear that was also God’s plan, although God wanted to do something far bigger and more important than just take care of Naomi through that marriage. So when Naomi doesn’t see Boaz taking any steps to bring that marriage about, she decides to take things into her own hands. She develops this elaborate plan to have Ruth go to Boaz after he has finished eating and drinking after a long day of winnowing barley at the threshing floor. There is some disagreement among commentators about the exact nature of Ruth’s encounter with Boaz on the threshing floor that night, but there is little doubt that at least some of what Naomi instructed Ruth to do that night would have been inappropriate in that culture. So at a minimum, in an attempt to get things moving rather than waiting on God to move the story along, Naomi really pushed the envelope here. Without a doubt, this is the most difficult of the four principles that we’ve talked about this morning to apply in real life. After all, who is to say that God wasn’t actually using Naomi’s plan to accomplish what He wanted to do to in providing a redeemer for both Naomi and ultimately for us as well? How do we know when to act and when to wait? Frankly, I can’t give you any easy answers to those questions. But what I think I can say with confidence is that if we have to resort to things like not telling the truth and manipulating people to get what we want, we are not acting in a way that is part of God’s plan. Remember last week I said that we need to be careful when we say “God never…” Well, one of the things that we can say confidently is that God never asks His children to act in a way that violates His commands or is contrary to His character. In general, we’re going to be much better off, waiting on God’s direction by spending time in His Word and in prayer, than we are going to be by just taking things into our own hands and trying to move the story along ourselves instead of looking to see how… God is constantly weaving my story into His story As we’ve already mentioned, what God was doing here went far beyond the lives of Naomi, Ruth and Boaz. Their story was just one small scene in the bigger story of God preparing to send a redeemer for all of mankind. Ruth and Boaz’s great grandson would become king of Israel and God would make a covenant with him that the Messiah, the Redeemer of all mankind would come from his lineage and establish a kingdom that would endure forever. And God fulfilled that promise roughly 1,000 years later when He sent His Son, Jesus, to this earth to live a sinless life and die on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and then to rise from the grave to prove His power over sin and death. And if you’ve never entered into that story by placing your faith in Jesus alone, we want to invite you to do that today. In a moment, I’ll give you some more specifics about how you can do that. God is constantly weaving my story into His story And I don’t want to miss out on the joy that comes from that and my prayer is that you won’t miss out on that joy either. If I’ll just move my gaze beyond this little tiny part of the world that revolves around me and look beneath the surface so I can see all that God is doing all around me, that joy is not only possible, it is inevitable. Discussion Questions for Bible Roundtable 1. Why is it so hard to see beyond our own lives when we’re going through difficulties? What are some things we can do to “break out of that bubble”? 2. Why do we have a tendency to blame others for our problems? How do we avoid falling into that trap? 3. Not all of my problems are a result of sin in my life. So how do I distinguish between problems that are a consequence of my sin and those that are not? How do I approach my trials differently based on their origin? 4. Give some examples from your own life of times when God was weaving your story into His.