I've never been one to read romance novels, but lately I've been reading one. It's been a good one, too. Believe it or not, it's a book I found in the Bible—the Book of Ruth. Ruth may be the original romance novel, and the great thing about it is, it's just as appealing to men as it is to women. The other great thing about the Book of Ruth is that it's true. It happened at a real time and in a real place.
The setting of Ruth is the Promised Land during the period of the judges. It was a time when, as Scripture says, "every man did what was right in his own eyes." The result of such rebellion was utter chaos. The story of Ruth serves as a ray of light in a sea of darkness. It gives us a snapshot of an ordinary life that radiates with hope, because we see God at work not in necessarily supernatural, miraculous, out-of-the-box ways, but in the course of common life, in the midst of ordinary people.
I want us to look at the dramatic opening of this great book. The beginning of this story grabs you and won't let go. From the very beginning, the main characters are plunged into tragedy and loss of unusual proportion.
A man named Elimelech dies, leaving his wife, Naomi, a single mother in a foreign land. As a widow, she has no way of providing for herself. She can only wait until her two sons grow up and can help take care of her. We don't know how much time passed, but eventually her two sons took for themselves Moabite wives—Ruth and Orpah. But then, as if one tragedy were not enough, Naomi's two sons died.
I can't imagine the devastation of losing one child, much less two. Beside the deep emotional toll this must have taken on her, there was a practical side to this as well. Naomi was now totally helpless. There was no social security system or life insurance policy that she could fall back on. When we read her story, our hearts go out to her. She's probably too old to marry, doesn't have any grandchildren, and she must be overwhelmed with grief, loneliness, fear, and an utter sense of hopelessness. What would she do? What was there to live for? Naomi must have thought, I may as well just cash it in. I really don't have anything to live for. I'd just as soon die.
We have important choices to make in the wake of great loss.
Sooner or later we all have to deal with loss on some level. Even God's people are not exempt from loss and pain. Sometimes it all seems to come at once, just like it did with Naomi. We get hit with one thing, and just when we think we're getting our head above water and we're going to survive, something else hits us, and then something else on top of that. Wave upon wave threatens to undo us, and we're not sure we're going to make it.
Gerald Sittser is a professor at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. About ten years ago, his minivan was struck by a drunk driver. In a moment's time, he lost three generations. In the car with him were his mother, his wife, and his small daughter. They were all killed. He later wrote a book called A Grace Disguised. In it he tells of his loss and experience of grief. He describes the initial experience of living with the loss in a very poignant way. He writes:
I felt like I was staring at the stump of a huge tree that had just been cut down in my backyard. That stump, which sat all alone, kept reminding me of the beloved tree I had lost. I could think of nothing but that tree. Every time I looked out the window, all I could see was that stump.
I know there are some of you here who, when you look out the window of your life, can only see that bare stump. That is such a difficult thing to go through. Yet Sittser later says he discovered that "the experience of loss does not need to be the defining moment of our life." Instead, he says, "The defining moment can be our response to the loss." In other words, he says this: We do not have the freedom to choose the roles we must play in life, but we can choose how we are going to play the roles that we have been given.
I would ask you this question this morning: How do you deal with loss like this? What kind of choices do you have to make in order to survive and even thrive through something like this?
As we read the rest of chapter 1, we see that Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah had important choices to make in the face of their loss. Each of these women had to learn some things, and in their initial responses to the loss, they teach us of the choices we have to make to not just survive our losses, but to actually grow and deepen through them. As a matter of fact, the first thing that Naomi does is make a choice. Look at verse 6: "Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited his people in giving them food."
Naomi decides to return home. Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in the midst of loss and grief and hopelessness, the hardest thing to do is anything at all that might be a step in the direction of starting over? Just a step is hard—a step in the direction of receiving life and blessing again from God. Sometimes we're paralyzed by our need to hang on to the last remnants of our past and what we have lost. In our depression we sometimes lack the energy or will to do anything at all. We want to give up; we want to keep counting our losses; we want to wallow in self-pity.
I'm not saying we should run away from the pain. We're going to see in a moment how Naomi took the pain with her back to Bethlehem. But she made a decision, and it was an important one. She decided to live and to receive again from God. We have to do the same thing. For you, it might be a decision to see a Christian counselor. It might be a decision to come to church or to join a small group where you can begin to unravel your pain. It might be a decision just to get out of bed in the morning, because sometimes that's all we can do. It might be a decision to go out and look for a job. Whatever it is, God will give you the strength to make the choice that is in the direction of life.
Our joy can be restored through loyal commitment to each other.
The second thing we can learn from these women has to do with their relationship with one another. There's something about shared suffering that actually knits our hearts together with other people. That's exactly what we see in the first chapter of the Book of Ruth.
When Naomi heads off for the Promised Land again, Ruth and Orpah leave with her. Naomi wants them to stay in Moab because life would be better for them there. They could still find husbands. She says to them, "Return each of you to her mother's house" (for it was in a daughter's mother's house that a marriage was arranged). Naomi seems to have a genuine concern for her daughters-in-law. She prays for them: "May the Lord deal kindly with you." That word kindly is a Hebrew word pregnant with great meaning. It's the word hesed, and it speaks of God's loyal, steadfast, committed love for his people. That's what Naomi wants her daughters-in-law to experience as they go back and start over.
Despite Naomi's request, Ruth and Orpah refuse to go back to their mothers' homes. Naomi then heightens her argument, saying, "Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?" Then she says something kind of funny: Even if I got married and conceived tonight—fat chance—would you wait for him to grow up to marry him?
It's a rather cynical, sarcastic way of speaking, but she has an airtight argument. Orpah buys it. She goes back to Moab. She did what was expected. But Ruth didn't buy it. She did the unexpected and clung to Naomi like a two-year-old clings to her mother's neck. She would not be pulled away from her.
Ruth's expression of loyal, faithful love to Naomi consists of some of the most beautiful words in the Bible: "Where you go, I will go." You know those words. You've probably heard them in wedding vows. But they didn't start as wedding vows. They have to do with friendship between two women. Ruth is expressing her undying loyalty to her mother-in-law as a friend. She says she will even be buried with her, which was a big deal in that culture. She could have just said: I'll go back there with you, and as long as you're alive, I'll stick with you. Once you die, then I'll go back to my people.
In this opening chapter, Ruth is making a permanent break with her past. Why would she do that? I believe this was an expression of Ruth's loyalty to God. She says, "Your God will be my God." Literally, the text reads: Your God, my God.
Ruth has learned of God from Naomi. Funny thing is, if I were Ruth, I would have said, "You know what, if this is how your God treats you, I'd rather not have your God!" Instead, Ruth has come to trust this God she's gotten to know through Naomi, and her faith is being expressed in her willingness to leave everything behind. Don't forget, Ruth had taken some hard shots, too. She had lost a husband. She had gone ten years without bearing a child. Even still, she expresses unusual faith and loyalty.
If we're going to survive times of loss and tragedy, we have to learn to have this kind of loyalty and commitment to each other, this kind of hesed. We have to make a choice to look out for other people's interests. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we have to make a choice to cling to one another as Ruth clings to Naomi. Our tendency in these times is to isolate ourselves, but we need to extend ourselves to each other. The church of Jesus Christ ought to be a place where we demonstrate that it is possible to have non-sexual, non-romantic relationships of great depth and commitment.
We live in a rootless, mobile, transient society. Neighborhoods and workplaces are in constant flux. We rarely get to know our neighbors, because they're going to move next year anyway—or we will. Our workplaces become arenas of cutthroat competition, and there are few arenas where deep friendships can really blossom. Sex offers a momentary sense of deep connection without the commitment, so oftentimes people exchange that for genuine relationships. The Book of Ruth offers a non-sexual relationship of extraordinary commitment between two single women.
Ruth and Naomi, arm-in-arm, make the treacherous journey across the mountains to the little town of Bethlehem. We read of their arrival in verse 19. We can imagine that news of Naomi's arrival passed from house to house, and that the whole town buzzed with excitement. This was probably a town of 100-200 people, and word travels quickly in small towns. The women of the town began to whisper to one another, "Is this Naomi?" They weren't mocking her—I'm sure they were glad to see Naomi after what had been about 20 years—but we can hear the disbelief in their voices. We can only guess the story that Naomi's face alone would have told after all she had been through. She had left with a full life—with a husband and two sons. Now she returns with nothing but a Moabite woman. To give you an idea of how the Israelites felt about Moabites, Moabites were banned from the Israelites' area of worship!
Our joy can be restored by honestly lamenting our pain.
Naomi responds with a bitter complaint. "Naomi" means pleasant. She says to the people of Bethlehem: That name doesn't fit anymore. Call me Mara (which means "bitter").
We might feel that Naomi was a very unspiritual, unfaithful woman to talk this way. But this was not the first time, nor the last, that one of God's people had lodged a complaint. She's in pretty good company: Jeremiah, Job, Moses, and David all expressed their laments to God. I think God actually appreciated their honesty.
We often think God will be offended by our questions and complaints. But when you're intimate with someone, it's normal to express all your feelings, even if they are of betrayal. This only crosses over into sin when we become resentful towards God, when we no longer trust him with our lives. In an almost paradoxical way, our choice to face and lament the pain, as Naomi does, is necessary before we can actually experience true joy again.
Naomi complained to God because she had a strong conviction that God was in charge of all of life. As theologians like to say, God is sovereign. She says, "The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me … The Lord has brought me back empty." She believes what happened to her was not random. She does not think, Why me? She thinks, Why not me?
Naomi believed God was in charge. What she had a hard time seeing was that God was at work in all of these things for her good and blessing. The hand of the Lord wasn't really against her, though it may have seemed that way. The hand of the Lord loved her, and God was working for her greater blessing. That's what Naomi had yet to learn, so she says, "I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty." But look at verse 22: "So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest."
Had Naomi come back empty handed? What did she have? She had this stubbornly loyal daughter-in-law named Ruth, who stuck by her. She wasn't empty-handed. What else did she have? She was coming back at the time of the barley harvest. That's worth something! God was providing for his people.
In the midst of our losses, it is an act of faith to believe God is still at work and his ultimate aim is to bless us. If we open our eyes—if we can at least wipe the tears away and look around us—we can begin to think, Maybe there's a blessing in all of this. Maybe I have something I didn't even know I have. Sometimes all we can see is the loss, and all we can feel is the pain. But if we open our eyes, there may be a loyal friend like Ruth or even a barley harvest.
The most important choice we can make in difficult times is to believe that life is like the tangled threads on the back of a tapestry. It seems like an unrelated tangle with colors, loose ends, and unraveled knots. It's only when you turn the tapestry over and look at the other side that the exact same threads clearly spell out the words, "God loves you." You find that it is the black thread that causes the lighter thread to stand out in greater distinction. Most of the time, we cannot see the other side. But faith in God's Word assures us there is another side, and that even in our loss and pain, God is at work for our good.
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?
Mark Mitchell is the lead pastor of Central Peninsula Church in Foster City, California.