Ruth 1:1-22 (RSV)
1 In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elim′elech and the name of his wife Na′omi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chil′ion; they were Eph′rathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elim′elech, the husband of Na′omi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years; 5 and both Mahlon and Chil′ion died, so that the woman was bereft of her two sons and her husband. 6 Then she started with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 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. 8 But Na′omi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find a home, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Na′omi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lordhas gone forth against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Entreat me not 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 even death parts me from you.” 18 And when Na′omi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Na′omi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Na′omi,[a] call me Mara,[b] for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Na′omi, when the Lord has afflicted[c] me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22 So Na′omi returned, and Ruth the Moabitess her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
One of my favorite movies is called The Family Man, starring Nicolas Cage. It’s not a good movie in any objective sense and Rotten Tomatoes, the famous movie review website will tell you it’s subpar in just about every way as most all Nicolas Cage movies are. But I love it. And what I find compelling and thought provoking about it is that it’s really a movie about how the choices that we make in the fork in the road moments in life can end up making all the difference.
And so the movie is really about this man getting to see the alternate version of his life, the one that would have played out if he had chosen to stay with his longtime girlfriend, where together they would go on to live the classic suburban life, married, two kids, working as a tire salesman, driving a minivan, rich friendships, living a basic middle class life. And all of this is contrasted against the life he actually has, where he and this woman break up – where he’s single, an incredibly rich guy working in finance, living in a high rise apartment in the middle of New York City, living a lavish lifestyle, but yet no real friendships or meaningful connections in his life. And by the end of the movie he realizes that the life where he’s married with two kids, the one that’s harder, messier and ultimately more difficult is actually the life he really wants. And I’ll come back to this story later on in the sermon.
Ruth for Advent?
This morning we’re starting a new sermon series on the book of Ruth that will carry us through the Advent season, and I realize that there are a couple things that are odd about that, one, it’s not Advent yet, officially that season starts next week, after all, we haven’t even sat down for the Thanksgiving meal yet, and two, my guess is you probably don’t associate Ruth with the Advent/Christmas season, which is understandable. After all, Ruth is small Old Testament book, set at a time 1,000 years before Jesus arrives on the scene. Even more, it doesn’t mention Jesus or prophesy about a coming Messiah whatsoever.
So at first glance, there seems to be no connection whatsoever. But yet, in Matthew’s gospel, on the very first page of the New Testament, before he says anything about Jesus, Matthew begins with a genealogy, that is, a long list of names, that is basically Matthew’s way of quickly summarizing the Old Testament story by naming the key people and figures from Jesus’s family tree. And in that genealogy, unexpectedly, is none other than Ruth. You see, it’s Matthew’s way of telling us as a reader, that you can’t tell the story about Jesus without first talking about people like Ruth.
But even beyond that, here’s another, clearer way in which Ruth points to Advent and the coming of Christ, and that is, from a big picture standpoint, here’s what the book of Ruth is all about. It’s a story that begins with tragedy & death and ends with joy & birth, the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem. I mean, c’mon now, how can something possible echo Advent more than that?! After all, Jesus even tells his disciples that all the Old Testament scriptures ultimately point to him, that they in the end, find their true fulfillment in and through Jesus. And Ruth, this short little book, so small that if you were to thumb through your bible you’d probably miss it, is no different. It’s all pointing to Jesus.
So those are a couple biblical reasons in studying Ruth for Advent. But yet, here is another, and one that you may find a bit more compelling as they relate to your own day to day life.
And that is, Ruth is a book filled with hope and promise for people who are experiencing tragedy, or for those who find themselves walking through a difficult or trying season. And my sense is, this is particularly relevant during Advent, since every type of loss we feel throughout the year often feels magnified ten-fold during this holiday season.
You see, the book of Ruth forces us to ask, “Does God really care about his people, and ultimately you and me? And if so, is he involved in our ordinary lives in any meaningful way?” This book brings us hope by answering these questions with a resounding, yes. Yes, God does care for and provide for his people and is actively involved in our day to day lives, and in fact, this story again and again is a testament to God’s faithfulness and loyal love for his people. And even more, the book of Ruth also gives us pointers and instruction as to ways in which we can respond and move forward in faith in all things, just like Ruth herself.
So there you go, a few words about Ruth and Advent. Now, let’s get to the story itself.
In many ways, the central character of the story is Naomi, and by the time we reach verse 5 we see that her life has hit absolute rock bottom, and that is, not only has her husband died, but her two sons have died as well. And so she’s left all alone, no longer surrounded by her family and ones she loved so dearly. But yet, in a way, it’s even worse than that. You see, not only have her sons died, but her sons didn’t have any sons of their own. In fact, in verse 4 were to assume that Naomi’s sons and daughter in laws experienced 10 years of infertility. And the reason why that is so crucially important to the story is that men, or sons in this case, in this culture and society so many, many years ago, were the ones that would provide families any sense of economic security. And so not only has she lost the family that she loved, she also has no financial parachute to fall back on. You see, in so many ways, she’s lost everything. And believe it or not, it’s even worse. She’s in a foreign land. She’s in enemy territory. After all, she’s an Israelite in Moab, her family went there because there was a famine in Bethlehem and heard there was food there. And the Moabites were enemies of the Israelites, God’s people. You can see just how bad this all is. Naomi has hit absolute rock bottom.
And in verse 6, we see our first glimpse of hope. It says, “the Lord has considered his people and given them food.” And so Naomi decides to make the long trek home. In many ways, it’s her least bad option. And with her are her two daughter in laws, Orpah and Ruth, both of whom are Moabites, and who have both suffered their own incredible loss in losing their husbands. And at some point during the long walk home, Naomi’s motherly instincts kick in and she realizes the painful, difficult thing that she has to do. She has to send Orpah and Ruth back to Moab, which again, is their home country. Now, in many ways, she doesn’t want to do this, after all, she would love to have the companionship and friendship and keep some semblance of family in her life, but yet you can see her rationale in verse 9,
“May the Lord deal with you kindly … may the Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of their husband.”
She’s essentially to her daughters in law, “Look, you girls are still young enough to get remarried and have kids and your best chance of finding a husband and ultimately economic security is by going back to your home country.” After all, Naomi doesn’t have any other sons that the girls could marry (which was customary practice for widows in that day). In so many ways, it’s an incredibly kind and selfless thing that Naomi is doing.
All this to say, the two daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth, each find themselves with a decision to make. In a way it’s their own Nicolas Cage, Family Man moment.
They can either go back to Moab, their homeland, where they know the customs, the culture, the language, all the familiar things, and more importantly it’s a place where they can almost surely find security and stability in every way.
Or they can continue, against Naomi’s wishes, back to Bethlehem, a place and culture and people they do not know, and more importantly it’s a place where they may never find security and stability the rest of their life. Pastor Iain Duguid makes the joke that ‘these women would be about as welcome in Bethlehem as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah.’
On paper, the decision seems easy. Go back to Moab. At least they’ll have a chance there.
But yet after a bit of back and forth, in the end, we read this,
Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
And so while Orpah goes back to Moab, Ruth won’t take no for an answer. She’s going back to Bethlehem with Naomi no matter how hard she tries to convince her otherwise. And so, in short, Ruth chooses the path of faith.
And when I say the path of faith, I don’t mean simply choosing between two places to live, with one being the riskier proposition, as if Ruth were choosing between Door #1 and Door #2. No, when I say Ruth chose the path of faith, I’m actually talking about something much deeper than that.
Here’s what I mean:
Remember what Ruth says to Naomi. She says,
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Do you see what Ruth is saying here? She’s saying so much more than, “I’m going with you.” She’s saying, “Out of my loyalty to you, Naomi, I’m making your home, my home, I’m making your people, my people, and most importantly, I’m making your God, my God.”
This is faith in the deepest sense. Ruth is choosing to follow Naomi’s God, the God of Israel.
And not only do we see this in Ruth’s words to Naomi, we also see this embodied in the choice she was making between Bethlehem and Moab, since Bethlehem, which is part of Israel, was the promised land, the place where God made promises to his people, that’s what the Promised Land symbolized.
Ruth is not only choosing to follow Naomi, no she’s doing something even more powerful, she’s choosing to follow Naomi’s God.
So with this in mind, you can see how Ruth’s decision much than thoughts on how you and I better care for our mother in laws – sure, maybe there’s something to be said there, but not much.
Rather, what we see and learn from Ruth is that in our lives we have these choices, these turning points, these fork in the road moments, whether it’s in response to tragedy in our lives, or any host of circumstances, and that you and I are called and invited to choose the path of faith, the road untested and unseen, to turn towards God, and even at times, or even often at times, when it’s the unpredictable, irrational, unexplainable path to take.
As I’ve told you recently, one of my favorite parts of my job is getting together with you all, whether it’s for a coffee or in your homes, and get to know you all better and catch up on things life. And not too long ago, I had coffee with Russ Richardson, one of our newest members as of this past Sunday, and he shared with me part of his story and the leap of faith he and his wife Debi took some 8+ years ago (By the way, Russ gave me the green light to share this story).
For 23 years, Russ was a professor at Whitworth University in Spokane working for one of the nation’s top sports medicine programs in the country. And in so many ways, life was great. A great church, great community, a great salary, and even more, a tenured position as professor, (tenure!) there’s no greater security that than in academia.
But yet, something was stirring inside Russ and Debi, they were both experience a sense of discontentment in their jobs, and they were sensing that it was time for something new. So they each resigned, unsure of what was next, which was crazy, knowing that they were giving up status and prestige and security and comfort, for the unknown ahead of them. But yet they went ahead with the plan, put the house on the market, sensing that this was what God was calling them to do, sensing that this is what it would like to be obedient in following Jesus.
Shortly after, Russ found a 1yr professorship in Pocatello, Idaho, which might as well have been their Moab. (I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison, I’ve never been to Pocatello, or Moab for that matter J) Anyway, Russ goes through the 1yr professorship, hoping that it would become something more, something long term. But no, instead the position he wanted went to someone else. Days after that door closed, a door opened, guess where of all places, Dillon, Montana, right here at Western, right where Russ grew up, where his parents still lived at the time. And while the path didn’t seem clear to them at the time, and while there were bumps along the road, Russ and Debi have experienced a sense of peace in their time here in Dillon and in their current jobs. And even more, it provided Russ and opportunity to care for his parents living here in Dillon, and for Deb with her mom, and even for Russ to be near his father in the months leading up to his father’s passing a couple years ago.
Friends, Russ and Debi, like Ruth, took the path of faith, obediently following Jesus, trusting Him to provide and guide them each step of the way.
Now I realize that’s a pretty big example, and for what’s worth, not everyone is called to quit their job and move to another state. Sure that could be the case, but many times the choice of choosing the path of faith and following Jesus is in the more ordinary moments of life.
Maybe this looks like how you respond to difficult situations in your life or times when you’re trying to discern what’s best or how to move forward in a given situation. Who do you go to?
There have been a handful of times recently where I’ve been chatting with Callie, and I’ve told her, ‘I’m not sure what to do about this, or ‘I’m frustrated with that,’ or ‘I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong here’ or so on and so forth, and she’ll just look at me and listen, and then sweetly ask, ‘have you prayed about it?’ and I’ll say, ‘well, sort of, a little bit, not really.’ And I’ll just look at her and say ‘you’re right’ and go pray about it. This how many of the conversations end at our house – with me, looking at Callie and saying, ‘you’re right.’
Whether it’s big stuff or small stuff, ordinary every day or life changing type stuff, what might it look like in your life to be like Ruth and choose the path of faith? Everyday you and I have opportunities to choose between right and wrong, faithful and unfaithful, joy or bitterness, turning towards Jesus and following him or choosing to go our own way.
Friends, here’s the last thing I want you to see in our passage this morning. And that is, when it comes to following Jesus and choosing the path of faith, it’s important that you and I look around and trust that God is working behind the scenes, and this is especially important in difficult, painful seasons in our lives.
You see, there’s an ironic moment at the end of this chapter. Naomi, who we’ve seen in this first chapter as a beloved figure and a person of high and noble character, seems to lose hope or lose sight of God working behind the scenes.
Here’s what she says as she reenters her hometown and sees some of the people that’s she’s grown up with.
“Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty …
Of course, when Naomi says she’s come home empty, she’s right in many ways. She’s come home with no husband or sons and unsure where her next meal will come from. But yet, standing right beside her, is Ruth - the woman who faithfully came home with her, who risked everything for her, who sacrificed it all for Naomi. Ruth, as we will see in the weeks to come, will be the key, the central figure, to all the blessings that lie in store. Sure, she’s lost a lot, but she’s got Ruth right by her side. She hasn’t come home empty at all.
You all, even when stuff hits the fan, even when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, there’s always someone or something to be thankful for. There’s always something to be thankful to God for. This Thursday afternoon, when you sit down for dinner, you may be find yourself thinking of the things you don’t have or the people who aren’t around your dinner table that you wish were, but yet, don’t miss the joy and gratitude we find in what we do have and through the people who actually sitting around the table with you.
And even more, did you see that last line in chapter 1. It says,
They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
C’mon now. That’s not by accident. Somehow they just happened to come back at the one time of the year where there will be an abundance of food, it’s the annual barley harvest. It’s a glimmer of hope that God is on the move, that God might be up to something, even when we can’t see it initially.
Now, here’s the thing – is that coincidence or is that God himself working behind the scenes? Well, the truth is, the two really aren’t that different. I’m not sure who this quote is attributed to, but it’s been said that coincidence is really just God choosing to remain anonymous. Coincidence is really just God choosing to remain anonymous.
Friends, even when you feel like you’ve hit rock bottom, even when you feel like you have no other cards to play, when you lost all hope, there’s a very good chance that God is working behind the scenes, choosing to remain anonymous, working all things together for your good.
Jesus: Ruth 2.0
I’ll finish with this. As I said earlier, Jesus said that all the Old Testament Scriptures are pointing to him, they all find their fulfillment in Jesus. And that’s true here in Ruth as well. In Ruth, you have three main characters, Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, who we’ll meet next week in chapter 2. And each, in their own way, they each give us a picture of and point to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
That is, Jesus in so many ways, was a foreigner, just like Ruth, who sacrificed the comfort and security of his own heavenly home, to go to a new land, who came down to earth, for the sake of another, and not just Naomi, but rather for the entire world. Jesus himself, who traded had a first class seat up in heaven for a cramped middle seat in coach with you and me. Friends, that the story of Advent. Ruth is a picture of God’s loyal, tenatious, costly love for us in Jesus Christ. Remember the words Ruth spoke to Naomi, where you go I go, where you die I’ll die, that’s marriage covenant language type stuff, that the kind of for better or worse, sickness or health kind of stuff, where you say I’m all in, every step of the way, no matter what. Friends, it’s a picture of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Who was with us to the very end, even death itself.
God’s not done with you and I, and he’s not done with Ruth and Naomi either, as we’ll continue to see over the next few weeks.