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"Faith in Bitter Times": Ruth 1:1-22

Ruth  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  25:13
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“Faith In Bitter Times” Ruth 1:1-22 For the next 4 weeks or so, I’ll be preaching through the book of Ruth. This is a short book with just 4 chapters, but it contains a powerful story. It’s difficult to pin down just one theme to this book, but It’s a story that shows how God works in mysterious ways. It's for people who wonder where God is when one tragedy after another attacks their faith. It's a story for people who wonder whether a life of integrity in tough times is worth it. It's a story for people who can't imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary faithfulness. It’s a story that reminds us that God often puts just the right people in our path who show us kindness at just the right time that we need it. And it’s a story that reminds us that He can bring redemption and healing from hopeless circumstances. Though it’s a story born out of a tragic set of circumstances, it’s a refreshing & encouraging book. But hopeful stories arise out of hopelessness, and this book begins telling us that this was…. A Dark Time Ruth 1:1 says, “In the days when the judges ruled”. The period of the judges was a 400-year period after Israel entered the promised land under Joshua and before there were any kings in Israel. The book of Ruth falls right after the book of Judges in the Old Testament, and you can see from its very last verse what sort of period it was. Judges 21:25 says, "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." It was a very dark time in Israel. The people would turn away from God and fall into sin, God would punish their sin by sending enemies against them, the people would cry for help, and God would mercifully raise up a judge to deliver them. And this cycle continued for 4 centuries, with the people treating the Lord as sort of genie-in-a-bottle, only calling on help for help when they got themselves into trouble, only to turn away from Him again almost as soon as He granted their pleas for help. And from all outward appearances, God's purposes for righteousness and glory in Israel were failing. But the book of Ruth helps us to see that God is at work even during the worst of times. Look at the last verse of Ruth (4:22). The child born to Ruth and Boaz during the period of the judges is Obed. Obed became the father of Jesse and Jesse became the father of David who became one of Israel’s greatest kings. One of the main messages of this little book is that God is at work in the worst of times. Even though His people turn away, God never stops pursuing us in His love. When you think he is farthest from you, or has even turned against you, the truth is that he often is laying the foundation for a work of grace in your life. A Darker Time Verses 1–5 describe how this dark time would only get darker for Naomi. First (1:1), there is a famine in Judah where Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their sons Mahlon and Chilion live. Naomi & Elimelech rightly interpreted this famine as a sign of God’s judgment. Leviticus 26:3–4 says, If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase. So when the rains were withheld under the covenant God had made, it was a sign of his judgment against the people. So Elimelech and Naomi fled Judah for the country of Moab, probably in search of food, or at least fertile land. But this was playing with fire, mostly because we know from the book of Judges and later in this book that Moab was a pagan land with foreign gods (1:15; Judges 10:6). God had called his people to be separate from the surrounding lands. So when Naomi's husband dies (1:13), you can’t blame her for feeling that maybe the judgment of God had followed her and added grief to famine? Then (in 1:4), her two sons take Moabite wives, one named Orpah, the other named Ruth. And again the hand of God falls. Over a period of about ten years, neither of her sons marriages produces grandchildren, and then in verse 5 it says: "Both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband." A famine, a move to pagan Moab, the death of her husband, the marriage of her sons to foreign wives, the death of her sons, and no heirs—blow after blow, tragedy upon tragedy. She & Elimelech had fled the darkness of Judah, but things had only gotten darker. Now what? Naomi decides she’s had enough. However bad things were in Judah, it can’t be as bad as things were in Moab. When Naomi gets word in verse that "the Lord has visited his people and given them food”, she decides to return home to Judah. Verse 7 says, “So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.” Naomi's Attempts to Turn Back Ruth and Orpah Naomi’s two widowed daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, start to go back with her, probably our of love and concern for her. But then in verses 8–13 she tries to persuade them to go back home. John Piper posits at least three reasons why the writer devotes so much space to Naomi's effort to turn Ruth and Orpah back. 1. Naomi's Misery First, the scene emphasizes Naomi's misery. For example, verse 11: "Naomi said, 'Turn back my daughters, why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.'" In other words, Naomi has nothing to offer them. Her condition is worse than theirs. If they try to be faithful to her and to the name of their husbands, they will find nothing but pain. So she concludes at the end of verse 13, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Naomi feared God was against her, and she didn’t want her daughter-in-laws to continue to share in her misery. 2. An Israelite Custom The second reason for verses 8–13 is to set the stage for us by foreshadowing an Israelite custom which is going to turn everything around for Naomi in the following chapters. The custom was that when an Israelite husband died, his brother or near relative was to marry the widow and continue the brother's name (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). This relative was known as a kinsman-redeemer, and Naomi is referring to this custom (in verse 11) when she says she has no sons to marry Ruth and Orpah. She thinks it is hopeless for Ruth and Orpah to remain committed to her family when her family offers no future for them. In the fog of the years that have passed and the pain she’s endured, Naomi apparently doesn't remember that there is another relative named Boaz who might perform the duty of a kinsman-redeemer. There's a lesson here. Often in the midst of difficult circumstances, we exaggerate the hopelessness of our situation. As pain and grief and stress and anxiety and depression close in around us, we get so focused on the storm that we’re in that we fail to see the rays of light peeping out around the clouds. Naomi felt God had left her in a hopeless situation, but he hadn’t. It was God who broke the famine in Judah so she could return home (1:6). It was God who preserved a kinsman to continue Naomi's line (2:20). And it was God who led Ruth to stick by Naomi’s side. But Naomi is so embittered by God's hard providence that she can't see his mercy at work in her life. Sometimes we get that way too. Maybe you feel that way right now. Christian, don’t forget that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us. Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, He is with us. 3. Ruth's Faithfulness The third reason for verses 8–13 is to help us see the amazing faithfulness & kindness that Ruth demonstrated toward Naomi. Verse 14 says that Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye but Ruth clung to her. Even after Naomi insisted Ruth return home in verse 15, Ruth would not leave. Have you ever offered to do something for someone, but really in the back of your mind you only offered because you never they would refuse the offer? Maybe you offered to help your spouse with a chore, thinking they’d say, “No, thanks.” But instead they took you up on your offer for help. And you thought, “If I’d have known they would say yes, I wouldn’t have offered.” That’s not what Ruth was doing. She truly cared for her mother-inlaw and wanted to do all she could to be there for her. This is all the more amazing after Naomi's grim description of their future with her. Ruth stays with her in spite of an apparently hopeless future of widowhood and childlessness. Naomi tried her best to Ruth out of it: Ruth’s amazing answer is found in 1:16–17, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” Ruth: A Picture of Faith The more you ponder Ruth’s answer to Naomi the more astounding it is. First, it means leaving her own family and land. Second, it means, as far as she knows, a life of widowhood and childlessness, because as far as she knows, Naomi’s family offers no prospects there. Third, it means going to an unknown land with a new people and new customs and new language. Fourth, it was a lifetime commitment: "Where you die I will die and there be buried" (v. 17). In other words, she will never return home, not even if Naomi dies. But fifth, the most amazing commitment of all is this: "Your God will be my God" (v. 16). Naomi has just said in verse 13, "The hand of the Lord has gone out against me." Naomi's experience of God was bitterness. But in spite of this, Ruth forsakes the religious heritage of her Moabite upbringing and makes the God of Israel her God. By the way Naomi described Orpah’s decision to return home in verse 15, Ruth may have already made that commitment years before. Perhaps she heard her husband and his family describe the great love of God for Israel, the covenant He had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he’d delivered His people the Red Sea and given them a land to dwell in and communicated His laws and purposes for them. Or perhaps Ruth had been wrestling with her faith commitment for sometime and standing here at the crossroads with Naomi was the point of no turning back. Somehow or other Ruth had come to trust in Naomi's God in spite of the bitter hand Naomi had been dealt. In Ruth, we have a picture of true faith. Faith in God that sees beyond present trials and setbacks. Faith that chooses to follow God even it means missing out on the securities and comforts of the world. Faith that gives us courage to venture into the unknown. Faith that inspires radical commitment to those God has placed in our path. I have to ask you today. Have you placed your faith in Naomi’s God? In Ruth’s God? The God of the Bible? Not a “genie-in-a-bottle”, “God get me out of this jam that I’m in” kind of faith. But have you said, “I have decided follow Jesus, no turning back.” God, I’m going to trust you in good times and bad. I’m going to follow you even when I don’t know what the future holds or what it’s going to cost. I’m going to be faithful even when my marriage gets hard, when my friends make fun of me, when I lose my job, when tragedy strikes. In Luke 14, Jesus warned that we must count the cost of being His disciple, that the Christian life won’t be easy. But it is worth it, no matter the cost. God longs for more men and women like Ruth who count the cost and trust Him by faith & say “Yes, I’m in it for the long haul.” Naomi's Theology: Right and Wrong In the last few verses of chapter 1 we learn a little more about Naomi’s faith. Ruth and Naomi return together to Bethlehem in Judah (verse 19), and there’s a reunion of sorts: “Naomi’s home!?”. But she tells people in verse 20, “Do not call me Naomi (i.e., pleasant or sweet), call me Mara (i.e., bitter), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” Naomi is sure about three things: God exists. God is sovereign. God has afflicted her. Most Christians struggle with that last one, but Naomi had a mature enough faith to say, like Job, “Shall we receive good from God, and not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Naomi’s problem wasn’t that she believed God had afflicted her, but that she given up hope that God could redeem & bless her. She had forgotten the story of Joseph who also went into a foreign country. He was sold as a slave. He was framed by an adulteress and put in prison. He had every reason to say, like Naomi, "The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me." But he kept his faith and God turned it all around for good. And so Joseph was able to say in Genesis 50:20: "As for you, you meant it for evil against me [Joseph says to his brothers]; but God meant it for good." Naomi was right to believe in a sovereign, almighty God who governs the affairs of nations and families and even gives each day its part of pain and pleasure. But in her despair, she had forgotten to look for the signs of God’s good purposes all around her. God had taken away the famine so she could return home. Notice the touch of hope at the end of verse 22. "And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest." If Naomi could only see what this is going to mean. Not just the provision of food for her family, but of a future for her family. Not only that, God had given her Ruth, the daughter-in-law who was a daughter-in-love. What a blessing! All Naomi could say as she returned home in verse 21, was “I am empty and bitter.” What would she have said if she could’ve seen that in Ruth she would gain a grandson, and that this grandson would be the grandfather of the greatest king of Israel, and that this king of Israel would foreshadow the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the universe, who would one day be born from her family tree? I think she would say, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,[h] for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Or maybe she would say what her great-great-grandson would say in Psalm 30:5, “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” What about you? Maybe today you feel like Naomi. Bitter. Empty. Defeated. Hopeless. I want to plead with you to search for the rays of light. No matter how overwhelming the clouds of despair seem, keep on looking for the glimpses of God’s faithfulness peeking through. He is there. Don’t assume that your present circumstances will last forever. No matter how difficult your today seems, know that God has offered us a better tomorrow because of Jesus Christ. Just as Ruth was called by love to leave her home for a strange and country and difficult life, Jesus, the son of God, willingly left the comfort and glory of heaven to live among us. He didn’t have it easy, but He trusted His Father’s will and was faithful to death, even death on a cross. And on the cross the Son of God drank the bitter cup of the Father’s wrathful punishment against our sin, so that you and I may might know that whatever trials we face in this life, they are designed not ultimately to punish our sin but to prepare us for heaven. And because Jesus died and was raised, those who follow Him by faith are promised that nothing we face on this earth can separate us from the love of God. And knowing nothing can separate us from God frees us to live like Ruth. If God calls, you can leave your job and your home, and you follow God in radical ways. We heard a testimony earlier of how DeAnna Deere is doing just that even in the face of a global pandemic. He may not call you to the other side of the world. But He may call you to serve Him in a way that you’d never have expected. Or maybe it’s not the faith to leave, but the faith to stay and be faithful where God has placed you. In a world where people give up on their marriages for greener pastures, or break commitments the second a better offer is on the table, faith in God’s purposes calls us to stick it out and see how God might bring beauty from ashes. When God’s people say to Him, “Where you go, I’ll go, where you stay I’ll stay, you’ll be our God, and we will be your people,” it gives us a joy that doesn’t shrink back in hard times, and a perspective that doesn’t lose its way in times of blessing. If you’ve never trusted Jesus and taken hold of these precious promises from God, I pray you count the cost today and choose to follow Him. From wherever you’re watching, you can say, “Lord, I don’t claim to know and understand all your ways, but I believe that you’re there for me, because Jesus gave His life for me. And I don’t deserve anything God, but you’ve promised you won’t turn your back on your own Son, so I put my faith in Jesus, trusting that His death on the cross took the punishment for my sin, and that His resurrection from the dead gives me life. And I want you to be my God, and I want to be one of your people. Thank you God for saving me.”
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