April 28, 2019

The Loyalty of God

Passage: Ruth 1:1-22

Good morning! If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the book of Ruth. And if you don’t have a Bible, there should be a Bible under the row of chairs in front of you. If you can grab a Bible, we’re going to be in Ruth 1, this morning.

Each year, around this time, I try to do a sermon series that leads into Mother’s Day. I think it’s important to highlight, not just the mothers, but the women in the church. And so, for the next four weeks, we will be embarking on a sermon series on the book of Ruth, breaking it down chapter by chapter.

Now, men, this doesn’t give us the OK to just check out over the next four weeks. It’s not like this sermon series is just some chick-flick that your wife has brought you to. This is still church. And don’t get me wrong, the book of Ruth has all the makings of a good love story. You’ve got tragedy, loss, tension, and romance.

But the book of Ruth is also a story within a much larger story, of which we find ourselves. The story of Scripture is the story of God redeeming broken humanity to Himself, bringing them from death to life, from despair to hope.

So, men, this book of the Bible is just as important for us to study, as it is for the women in the church. We need to read about the character of God in this story, how God is woven through the very fabric of this story, and how this story is more than just a love story between a man and a woman, although it is that, it’s also the love story between God and His people.

In other words, this book is for all of us. So, whether you are familiar with this book of the Bible or not, this is what we will be looking at, over the next few weeks. And my prayer is that I will tell this story well, and that we would be drawn all the more to the God who lavishly loves His children.

If you have your Bibles opened to Ruth 1, what I’m going to do is I’m going to read a bit, pause, and then explain what's happening, because the difficulty we are faced with, when we are reading a book that is over three thousand years old, is that we tend to read it through a modern-day lens. So, there are naturally going to be these nuances that we will need to explore and unpack, in order to get the sense of what is taking place.

And the first thing that we need to see is that the book of Ruth is one of two books of the Bible that is named after a woman. The other book is Esther. But what is significant about Ruth’s mention is that she is a non-Jew. So, I want us to keep that in the back of our minds, as we dive into our text for this morning.

Look at Ruth 1:1. “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.”

Now, we’ll just pause here. Two questions that we tend to ask when we begin reading a story are, “When is this?” and “Where are we?” And we get the answers to our questions in verse 1.

1. When is this? Verse 1 says, “In the days when the judges ruled…”

Now, if you turn back in your Bibles, one page, to Judges 21:25, we see what the times were like in the days when the Judges ruled. It says, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

That is an excellent summary of the book of Judges. Throughout the book of Judges, there is this cycle of events that goes like this: God’s people turn away from God into sin, and as a result, they find themselves being attacked by the enemies around them, so they cry out to God for help, God raises up a judge to help deliver them from their enemies, and then there is a period of peace.

But then, the cycle starts over again. Once they’re delivered, they turn away from God into sin, they’re attacked by their enemies, they cry out for help, God raises a judge, and there is a period of peace. And this happens over and over, again.

We don’t know exactly when the story of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges, but what we do know is that it was during a time when everyone did what was right in their own eyes. So, that’s the answer to when this story takes place.

2. The second question is: Where are we? Verse 1 says, “…there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons.”

We see in the text that there is a famine in the land of the people of God, particularly in Bethlehem, which is interesting considering that Bethlehem means, “house of bread.” So, what this means is that the house of bread has no bread.

And what does this man and his wife and their two sons do? They leave God’s promised land, in search of food in the land of Moab. They are doing what is right in their own eyes, turning their backs on the house of bread, in search of bread, elsewhere.

A little history on Moab: In Genesis 19, we read that Lot, Abraham’s nephew, had an incestuous relationship with his daughter. That’s the beginning of the Moabites. And when the Israelites were coming out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the Moabites were the ones who refused to give them bread and water.

So, there was this division between the Moabites and the Israelites. There was a point, in Numbers 25, when Moabite women seduced Israelite men into sexual immorality and all kinds of idolatry. And God brought judgment upon them, and 24,000 people died.

This is a place that is known for its sexual immorality and idolatry, where they are considered enemies of God and of God’s people. Moab is not a good place, and yet, it’s where this Jewish man takes his family. That’s verse 1.

Now, in the next few verses, we don’t have a lot of details. Instead, what we have is the unemotional telling of a series of unfortunate events. But I want us to see how devastating this would have been for this family.

Verse 2: “The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, 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 Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”

So, the man, Elimelech, and his family go from sojourning in Moab to remaining in Moab to now living in Moab for 10 years. And during that time, it’s just one tragedy after another.

First, Elimelech dies, who was the provider for his family and the one who brought them into the land of Moab in the first place. And he leaves behind his wife and two sons to provide for themselves.

And then, their two sons take Moabite wives. And this is a tragedy, because out of all the women in Israel that they could have chosen from, they decide to marry Moabite women, who were known for their sexual immorality. I’m sure this is not what Elimelech and Naomi desired for their sons or prayed for their sons when their sons were little. But it’s what they decide to do.

But then, Naomi’s two sons die. And just like with Elimelech, we aren’t given any details about how they died. This would have been crushing for Naomi. She has lost her family. She has lost her security. She has lost her hope.

The writer of Ruth stresses the gravity of the situation, by stating that the woman “was left without her two sons and her husband.” In Israelite culture, it was imperative to continue on the family line. Without any descendants, this meant that the family name ended with her.

She has lost everything. And it’s in the midst of this despair that we read, in verse 6, “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food.”

What we will see as a recurring theme, throughout the book of Ruth, is that out of the midst of darkness and despair, God is faithful to His covenant people. God has not left His people in famine, but rather, He has “visited His people and given them food.”

Verse 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 Naomi 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 rest, each of you in the house of her husband!’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.”

As the readers of this story, we have seen 10 years of death and despair, and nobody has said a word, until now. This is the first time that we hear from Naomi, herself, and her words are filled with sadness.

These three women have been through a lot together, which, given the cultural implications of Israelite and Moabite relations, says something. Naomi isn’t just dismissing them, as though she just wants to get rid of these women, she is doing them a kindness.

These women have the potential to find another husband, and start another family, and live happily ever after. They could have the life that they always dreamed about as little girls—the life they once had, before it was taken away from them by death. They could have that, again, but it would not include Naomi.

The next few verses give us some insight into this. Verse 10: “And they said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ 11 But 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? 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 Lord has gone out against me.’”

A little background into what Naomi is saying here: In Deuteronomy 25, God had set up a way for widows to be cared for, in the event of the death of her husband. What would happen is that the brother of the dead man would be required to care for his dead brother’s widow.

So, what Naomi is saying here is that even if she was married, even if she was pregnant and about to give birth to another son, and she’s not, but even if she was, these women wouldn’t wait around for him to grow up so that they could exercise their right, as expressed in Deuteronomy 25. Essentially, Naomi is saying, “If you stick with me, you will have nothing and no one to care for you.”

Verse 14: “Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.”

Here, we see two different responses to what Naomi has said: Orpah gives her mother-in-law a kiss and goes home; Ruth, it says, “clung” to Naomi.

Now, that word, clung, is the same word used to describe the one man-one woman marriage relationship, in Genesis 2:24. It says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”

There is significance to the writer using this word that speaks to the devotion of Ruth to Naomi, which sets the stage for verse 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, ‘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.’”

I want us to think about what Ruth the Moabite has just said: She’s leaving behind her family, her land, her religion, her gods, her security, she’s giving all of that up, and she’s committing herself to a life of widowhood and childlessness with Naomi, her mother-in-law.

In other words, Ruth is dedicated to Naomi. She is not leaving her for anything. She is devoted to Naomi to the end. And if she breaks that commitment, then she is expecting the judgment of Naomi’s God to come upon her. That’s loyalty.

Verse 18: “And when Naomi 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 Naomi?’ 20 She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, 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 Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’”

There’s a kind of tension and awkwardness as they enter into the city. If you think about it, Naomi has been gone for 10 years; she initially left the promised land in search of food in the land of Moab—a land of sexual immorality and idolatry—but she returns just as hungry and in need of food; and she comes back from Moab, not with a husband and children, but with a Moabite daughter-in-law. There are some obvious questions as to how all of that came about.

Naomi even changes her name from “Naomi,” which means, “pleasant,” to “Mara,” which means, “bitter.” She says that she has returned empty—that God has brought calamity upon her. And yet, who is standing beside her? Ruth.

And Ruth is dealing with her own issues. Ruth has just left behind everything that was familiar and comfortable to her, in order to come to a foreign land with her mother-in-law. If you are Ruth, there is an immediate prejudice against you, because you are a Moabite; everyone is staring at you and judging you and wondering why you’re here; and it seems like even Naomi doesn’t want her here.

The writer leaves us wondering about what will happen to these two women who are in such desperate need, bringing this first chapter to a close in 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.”

Now, if we aren’t careful, we can leave here feeling very depressed about where things are at for Ruth and Naomi. But I want us to take a closer look at these two women, because there is a promise in this first chapter that the writer gives us.

1. Naomi is a woman dealing with honest hurt. She has lost her husband and her two sons, and she is living in the land of Moab with her two daughters-in-law with no real way to support herself.

She is struggling to make sense of what has happened, and she is wrestling through her view of God. Don’t you just love the honesty that is in Scripture? It shows us that things aren’t always roses and butterflies for the people of God. It’s not like we are exempt from suffering and tragedy, just because we believe in God. You see this kind of honesty all throughout Scripture.

I think of Job, who lost everything—all his possessions, all his children, all his wealth—and he never gets an answer for why it all happened to him in the first place. It’s honest hurt.

And the reality is that there will be times in our life when we will identify with Naomi. We might question what God is doing. We might feel like the weight of our circumstances is too much for us to bear. We might feel like the pain will just never go away. And we will experience honest hurt. And that’s alright.

2. But then, there’s Ruth. And Ruth is a woman with loyal devotion. Right in the middle of the deepest pain, there is a glimmer of hope. Ruth lets go of everything she knows and everything that is comfortable to her, and she commits herself to Naomi, not knowing what the road ahead will look like.

And my prayer is that God would raise up Ruth’s in this church—that He would raise up men and women who forsake worldly pleasure and security and gain, and would commit themselves deeply and fully to God, trusting Him to do what might make no sense to the world around them.

But here’s how we are all like Ruth: We have all been born into a land of idolatry. We are all, by nature, sons of disobedience, children of wrath. We are all rightfully deserving of judgment for our sins against a holy God.

But Ruth gloriously points us to the Person of Jesus Christ, who left behind His Father, His home in heaven, His security, to come to us and to bring us out of the land of sin and death and into everlasting life and hope in Him.

That’s the gospel. God, in His great mercy and grace, sent His only Son to redeem us as sons and daughters. Jesus took the judgment that was coming our way, upon Himself.

You want to know where God is in this story? He is showing loyalty to His children. And if you put your faith and your hope in Jesus, today, then you can be assured that God will be loyal to you.

God showed loyalty to us, even when we were not loyal to Him. He will not leave us in despair and tragedy. We do not worship a God who is shocked and amazed by what goes on in the world. We worship a God who is sovereign and who has all things under His control.

In despair and loneliness and barrenness and pain and grief, and whatever else we might be going through, we think that God is far from us, but in reality, He is very near. And God will show Himself to be loyal to you, in whatever you are facing, because, if you have put your faith in Jesus, He is yours and you are His. And nothing, nothing, will separate you from Him.

Isn’t that good news? Well, here is more good news. The first chapter leaves us with the following words: “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” The writer is giving us hope that the story is not over. This is the beginning of the barley harvest. And God still has something big in store for these two women.

Ray Stedman shares this story: An old missionary couple had been working in Africa for years and were returning to New York to retire. They had no pension; their health was broken; they were defeated, discouraged, and afraid. They discovered they were booked on the same ship as President Teddy Roosevelt, who was returning from one of his big-game hunting expeditions.

No one paid any attention to them. They watched the fanfare that accompanied the President’s entourage, with passengers trying to catch a glimpse of the great man.

As the ship moved across the ocean, the old missionary said to his wife, “Something is wrong. Why should we have given our lives in faithful service for God in Africa all these many years and have no one care a thing about us? Here this man comes back from a hunting trip and everybody makes much over him, but nobody gives two hoots about us.”

“Dear, you shouldn’t feel that way,” his wife said.

“I can’t help it; it doesn’t seem right.”

When the ship docked in New York, a band was waiting to greet the President. The mayor and other dignitaries were there. The papers were full of the President’s arrival, but no one noticed this missionary couple. They slipped off the ship and found a cheap flat on the East Side, hoping the next day to see what they could do to make a living in the city.

That night the man’s spirit broke. He said to his wife, “I can’t take this; God is not treating us fairly.”

His wife replied, “Why don’t you go in the bedroom and tell that to the Lord?”

A short time later he came out from the bedroom, but now his face was completely different. His wife asked, “Dear, what happened?”

“The Lord settled it with me,” he said. “I told him how bitter I was that the President should receive this tremendous homecoming, when no one met us as we returned home. And when I finished, it seemed as though the Lord put his hand on my shoulder and simply said, ‘But you’re not home yet!’”

We aren’t home yet. This is the beginning of the barley harvest, and God still has big plans in store for us. And we can be assured that He will be loyal to us. He will never leave us nor forsake us. He will be our God and we will be His children. If you have never done so, will you commit yourself to Him, today? Let’s pray…

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