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Looking in the Mirror

We return to God's blessings when we embrace our identity as servants of God.

From the editor

Mother's Day is this Sunday (May 10), and should you decide to offer a message for the occasion, you might get a few general ideas from Wayne Brouwer's look at a wonderful woman of the Bible: Naomi. For a more directly-linked sermon for Mother's Day, be sure to check out last week's featured message by Mark Mitchell: What It Takes to Be a Mother. For a batch of fresh illustrations on mothers and motherhood, click here, and for video illustrations concerning Mother's Day, visit Preaching Today's Faith Visuals.


For such a short story, the Book of Ruth has much to teach us. Let me summarize the story:

It's about 1100 BC. Up in the hill country of Judea, times are tough. A famine is in the land. Bread is hard to find. Elimelech and Naomi say, "What are we going to do?" Elimelech says, "I hear things are better across the lake." They go across the lake to Moab, just on the other side of their lake, and they settle down there for a while. Their two sons are with them, and they get involved in the community, date some local women, and the next thing you know, the family has grown by two. So there are three sets of husbands and wives—Elimelech and Naomi, Mahlon and Ruth, and Kilion and Orpah.

Then everything begins to unravel. In short order, Elimelech dies. We don't know exactly why. Both boys then get sickly and pass away before they've had a chance to have children. Suddenly Naomi is left destitute in a land that's not her own, and she decides she's got to go back to Bethlehem because maybe some of the old folks remember her there. Maybe she can beg on the streets. She starts out and her daughters-in-law decide to go with her. She says to them, "You've got to be kidding. You're smarter than that, aren't you?" Orpah says, "You're right." She turns around and goes back to her family home. Ruth says, "I'm going to stick it out with you." "Nah," says Naomi, "you don't want to do that. Even if I get married again, even if I could possibly have babies, it would never work for you to marry any son I might produce." "Nah," says Ruth, "I'm going to stick it out with you."

So they go on together, climbing the hills to Bethlehem. They get there and Naomi says, "Call me Mara. Times have been tough for me." The women settle in, and Ruth starts going to the barley field. The harvesters have come through. Ruth goes with the rest of the gleaners and gathers a few kernels. But Boaz catches the eye of Ruth, and Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, and suddenly there's a spark between them. Suddenly Ruth is getting more than the others in terms of leftover harvest from the fields, and Naomi takes notice. She says to Ruth, "This could be interesting." So she sets up this scenario in which Ruth will tempt Boaz, and Boaz might want to respond. Sure enough, things start going fast and furious. Ruth and Boaz get married, and they have a baby conceived on the honeymoon. Naomi takes this young newborn into her arms, and the women stand around her and bless her. Everybody lives happily ever after.

Ruth is a well-crafted story with Naomi at the center.

But the Book of Ruth is like an iceberg—nine-tenths of it is below the surface. There's more to this story than meets the eye. For one thing, it's probably the most well-crafted story I have read. From a literary point of view, it is well developed. As a professor, I might assign a 30-page paper and get a 50-page paper turned in. You know how long the Book of Ruth is? It's about 3½ pages double-spaced. It's 1,260 words in Hebrew. Most of us speak more words than that in one minute. And this book is so balanced that there are 71 words in the introduction, the first five verses; there are 71 words in the conclusion in chapter four (not the epilogue but the conclusion); and in between are four acts. Each of these dramatic acts has around 250 words and two scenes. One of these scenes is in a public place, and one's in a private place. It's well crafted.

But it's not only crafted well in terms of the way it's written; it's crafted well in terms of characterization. There are pairings all the way through it. You've got Ruth. She stands out, as she has the title of the book, but she's paired up with Boaz. Here's Ruth—young, single, widowed. She's an alien in Israel. She's poor. And here's Boaz, the counterpart—single, older, a firm part of the Israelite community. He's wealthy. The two of them get together.

Another pairing stands behind them as a support cast. The first one we read about is Orpah. She's like Ruth in that she has the same options and opportunities, but she doesn't take them in the same ways. At the end of the story is this other guy. We call him the kinsman-redeemer or the nearer relative. He's the guy who's like Boaz in that he has the same opportunities as Boaz, but he doesn't take them in the same direction. So you've got Ruth and Boaz, front and center, and then you've got Orpah and the kinsman-redeemer standing a little bit behind them.

Then you've got a third pair. You have the women who surround Naomi. She comes back home and all these women come out of the bushes and out of the fields and out of their homes. There they are around Naomi. They talk with her and resonate with her, and they show up again when she has a baby even in her old age. They come around and say, "Wow, you are blessed." Their counterpart is a group of men that glom onto Boaz. When he goes to the field, these men come around him. He dialogues with them, and near the end of the story he's sitting in the gates and whoosh, there they are again. The men surround Boaz.

The cast of characters in the Book of Ruth is balanced.

But there's a problem. One character in the book isn't paired. One person doesn't have a counterpart. Naomi is by herself. The women are close to her, but they're in the background while she's center stage. Ruth is next to her, but Ruth is never her equal. Other people are in the community, but no one is a counterpart to Naomi. This is critical. This is the theological impact of the story. What God wants us to know through this story is that it's not about Ruth or Boaz or the women or men, and it's not even about Orpah or the kinsman-redeemer. It's about Naomi. Naomi alone does not have a twin. She is not paired. She stands alone.

Naomi is a mirror of Israel and of us.

A number of times throughout the Bible God holds a person up and says: look at that person. And when you look at that person what you're seeing is not so much that person but a mirror. Have you ever watched a baby see herself in a mirror for the first time? I remember it distinctly when we first held our daughter, Kristen, up to a mirror. Babies look everywhere, and then finally they see the mirror. Kristen saw herself, and she got this big grin on her face. She realized for the first time that it was her.

With a mirror you realize who you are in a whole new way. Take, for example, Samson in the Book of Judges. Samson was miraculously born and strong as could be. but he was always going after things he shouldn't get into. He was a mirror, a picture of Israel. Israel was miraculously born. Remember Abraham and Sarah, how old they were when they had a baby? And Israel was unusually strong. They tromped over the nations of the Middle East. By their own power? No, because the Spirit of God was on them. Israel was a witness to the other peoples. That's what Samson was supposed to be: a judge or a witness to the other nations around him, including the Philistines.

This is the case for Naomi, too. When you see Naomi, you're supposed to look in a mirror and say, "Oh, that's us." The Israelites were supposed to do that. Where does the story begin? In the days of the judges. What were the days of the judges like? Read the Book of Judges and see this spiral that goes down, down, down, down, down. By the time you get to the last story of the judges it's pretty dark. And then comes the appendix, chapters 17–21. The lights go out completely. It's about as bleak and as black as can be. Why? Because God has taken his people to a world that has forgotten its Maker; to a world that doesn't have a sense of religion; to a world focused on nothing more than how to get by, how to make it through, how to keep the devils away; to a world that has lost its sense of who the Creator is. God had planted Israel in the worst land in the world. Have you been to Israel? For a farm kid from Minnesota, Israel is a horror. It's all hills and rocks.

Here's the owner of all the real estate in the world, and he plunks his people in Palestine. Crazy! This is the worst place of all, except for one thing. This happens to be the one place in the entire world where all the civilizations of that day would have to pass through and would see what was going on. So God plants his community there and says, "If you do it right, everybody is going to see and they'll say, 'What is it that you have that we don't? What's going on with you? We'd like it, too.'" That was the purpose of planting Israel in Palestine.

Then, in the time of the judges, the nation begins slowly and with increasing speed to disintegrate. They're forgetting about God. They're forgetting about the covenant. They're looking for ways to fit in. It is in that context that we have the Book of Ruth.

Naomi mirrors Israel's wandering from God's path.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth Elimelech goes so far as to say, "God may have wanted us to have that land, but who cares. Let's go somewhere else where the gettin's better." He leaves the land of promise, the land of inheritance, to look for his fortune someplace else.

And where does the book end? Did you catch that at the end, in the little epilogue as the credits are rolling on the screen? It goes down the generations, down to Jesse, who's the father of David. It starts in the time of the judges and ends in the time of the kings. It starts in the time of destitution and ends in a Camelot setting. David and Solomon extend and expand the kingdom so far that all the nations of the Middle East are able to fall under its shadow and blessing.

There are clues of God's coming redemption along the way. Elimelech means "Yahweh is king." "Yahweh is king," but Elimelech moves to Moab? You know what God said about Moab? Don't go there. Don't deal with them. Don't marry them. They've done a devious and disastrous thing to my people. You've got to stay away.

But Elimelech, whose name means "Yahweh is king," goes to Moab. Then the curses of the Sinai covenant kick in. It was a covenant that included blessings if you follow the ways of Yahweh and curses if you don't. So what happens while they're in Moab? Mahlon and Kilion get sick and die. Those are not the names they were given at birth. Those are their nicknames. Mahlon means "weakling," and Kilion means "sickly." That happened when they got sick in Moab.

The name Naomi means "sweetie pie," essentially. Maybe Elimelech called her that the first time they had a date: "You are my sweetie pie." But when she comes home to Bethlehem, she says, "Call me Mara." It means "bitter." What was sweet has become bitter.

What about Bethlehem itself? Bethlehem means "house of bread." Is there bread in the house of Israel? No, there's not. There's famine, and it won't be until the end of the story when the harvest comes in again and bread is restored to the shelves.

How does it happen? Well, there's Ruth. Ruth's name means "friend, companion." And there's Boaz. Boaz's name means "in him is strength." These are the people who bring it about.

Naomi mirrors how Israel can return to God's blessing.

In the story you have this question: How will Israel, who sits here in destitution, become Israel once again, the blessed light of God to the nations?

Watch Naomi. You find it in the name of the child who's born, Obed. Obed means "servant." The story of the Book of Ruth shows how you go from destitution to restoration. How do you go from the time of the judges to the time of kings? How do you go from the time of famine to the time of bounty? How do you go from being a nobody to being the person you were meant to be? The answer is service—doing what you ought to do.

Boaz and Ruth go beyond the call of duty. They go beyond the call of duty not because they have something to gain by it, but because somebody else in a situation of distress has no one else to count on.

We return to God's blessings when we embrace our identity as servants of God.

What does it look like to go beyond the call of duty? It looks like people keeping promises to God. It looks like people doing the right thing even though the right thing may cost them personal pleasure and security. It looks like the community of faith living as if it is a community of faith first of all. It looks like staying in a marriage that is coming undone. It looks like sticking it out with kids who are turning their backs on you. If they didn't have you, who would they have to remind them what life is about and where God is?

Fred Craddock, a teacher of preaching, was on an airline flying to Texas. The guy next to him was obviously wealthy. Lots of bling-bling. The guy strikes up a conversation. Fred didn't want a conversation. The guy says to him, "What do you do?" Fred says, "I'm a preacher." "Oh," says the guy, "that's great. I'm just preparing my Sunday school lesson for this Sunday. Maybe you can help me." Just what a preacher wants to hear. So the guy takes out this big yellow pad and says, "Who are you going to vote for in the next election?" And Fred says, "Oh, I don't know. I'm still weighing the options." The man says, "Well, I'm going to vote for so-and-so, because so-and-so is for oil, and I'm from Texas, and Texas is for oil. So I'm for him because he's for oil." Now Fred doesn't know what to do, so he sits quietly for a while, and the guy continues to work on his Sunday school lesson. As the plane's coming down into Texas the guy looks over at Fred and says, "I'm sorry." Fred says, "Why?" He says, "I'm sorry I said I'm for oil. I'm not really for oil. I had to be reminded again in the story for this week that I'm for Jesus and Jesus is for me. It may be that I vote for this person and it may be that I vote for that person, but I'm not for oil, because I was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. I'm for Jesus, and I've got to ask, Who would Jesus want me to vote for, and what does Jesus want for this community, and where are we going, and why are we going there?"

Richard Palmento, a four-year-old boy, was standing in the checkout line of a supermarket. His dad was killed in an accident when he was very young. His mother was mentally challenged, has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals all her life and gave him up for adoption after losing three babies. He lived most of his first years in an orphanage, and then his grandmother came along. She was on welfare and had said she couldn't handle him, but then she decided, "He's flesh and blood of mine. I've got to take him in." So they'd gone to the grocery store, and while they were shopping, they had gone to the cereal aisle. They always got the kind of cereal that doesn't taste good, because that's the kind you can buy with food stamps. But Richard wanted Tony the Tiger, and he started needling and wheedling with his grandmother until finally she gave in and put it in the cart. But they got to the checkout and put it on the belt, and she started doling out her food stamps. The guy behind her said, "Look at that. I'm paying for my own groceries, and I can't afford to give my kids that kind of cereal. And here she is on food stamps, and I'm paying her bill and mine. And look what she's buying! She's buying a sweet cereal. She has no right to do that. It's my money. How is this family going to pay us back?" Richard Palmento says he's never forgotten what his grandmother did: "She placed her hands on my shoulders. She turned to face him head on with me in between, and she said to him, 'I will never be able to pay you back. But he will pay back society every last cent. You can count on it, for I have made it my work in life to make sure he survives and thrives.'"


Do you see yourself this morning? Do you know who are you? Can others count on you for the right reasons? Can God count on you?

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism" and "Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize".

Wayne Brouwer teaches in the religion department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

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Sermon Outline:


The book of Ruth is a whole lot bigger on the inside than the outside.

I. Ruth is a well-crafted story with Naomi at the center.

II. Naomi is a mirror of Israel and of us.

III. Naomi mirrors Israel's wandering from God's path.

IV. Naomi mirrors how Israel can return to God's blessing.

V. We return to God's blessings when we embrace our identity as servants of God.


Do you know and understand yourself, and can God and others count on you?