Ruth 1 (Jn 6.25-40, 1 Te 1.2-9)
In whom do you trust? Don’t you find that it is difficult at times to trust people? Especially politicians! When we came back last time from Chile it was in the months running up to the Referendum. Should we stay or should we leave the European Community? I left before it happened and so couldn’t vote but followed all the debate. When we returned this year there was a bit of deja vu - we seemed to be in the same place. And with the events this week it appears as if we are stuck in a political crisis where there is no easy way out and not many leaders in which we can whole heartedly trust.
But trust in all public figures has been changing over the years. According to the 2017 Ipsos Morí Veracity Index - clergy and priests have seen a large drop in public trust from the first survey in 1983 when they were top. At least, at 65% they are just above the trust placed in the ‘average person on the street’ and also above journalists (sorry dear). The most trusted are nurses at 94% (you should trust my sister & Gemma-Lou more than me apparently) and then doctors and teachers. Professional footballers are at 26% which puts them on a par with estate agents. Bottom - you have guessed it - politicians at 17% with government ministers just ahead at 19%.
Who we trust and what we trust in, has important consequences in how we act and behave. It would be interesting to see what is trusted more today - the bible or horoscopes or the news shown on TV, in the papers or Internet. Today’s passage from Ruth 1 is a story of trust, or I should say mistrust at the beginning and then trust at the end. It is also a story of paths and journeys.
Many years ago I read a best seller by Scott Peck called: ‘The Road Less Travelled’. Has anyone read it? The title comes from a poem by Robert Frost which starts:
‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
and looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
And it finishes:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Ruth chapter one starts with a problem which is seen in a journey eastwards from Israel to Moab (1-5). In verses 6-18 we see the unravelling of the problem and the scene is now set at the crossroads between Moab and Israel. And in verses 19-22 the road leads home to Bethlehem and we see a glimmer of hope at the end of an otherwise tragic story. The passage also asks of us: which path will we choose in life? Who will we trust in?
The American pastor John Piper says of Ruth:
‘It’s a story for people who wonder where God is when there are no dreams or visions or prophets. 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. And it’s a story for people who can’t imagine that anything great could ever come of their ordinary lives of faith’.
I hope that you have had a chance to read through the book this week - it takes about 25 minutes. Well worth reading through each week this month to absorb the wonderful truths in this story. Please make sure that you have your bibles open in front of you so you can check what I say with Holy Scriptures - I would like you to trust in them rather than in me..
Cold Feet (1-5)
I have titled the first five verses Cold Feet. Someone was telling me the other day about a bride who arrived four hours late for her wedding! I had a friend who on the day of his wedding got cold feet and thought he was making a big mistake and so never got to the church. Can you imagine how the bride and the families and the other guests felt?! Well they did eventually get married - but what was going through the groom’s mind? Did he feel he wasn’t ready to make a commitment.
Or did he not trust that he had found the right woman? He obviously didn’t trust that he was making the right decision and so he got cold feet. We could say that Elimelech from Bethlehem got cold feet at the beginning of chp 1.
It doesn’t seem that way. If we just read off the top of the text it says, verse 1, that there was a famine in the land and so it seems perfectly reasonable to us that he would take his wife, Naomi and their two sons, to neighbouring Moab where presumably there was more food. What a responsible man we might think. However, if we explore the context we realise that perhaps it wasn’t such a good decision. Who were the Moabites?
Well in the time of the book of Ruth the Moabites were known for several things by the Jews and none of them were good!
• The Moabites had originated out of an incestuous relationship between Noah and one of his daughters
• Their King Barack had hired Balaam to curse Israel when they came out of Egy
• Their women had been a stumbling block to Israel in the wilderness, seducing them to the worship of false gods
• They had recently oppressed the Israelites in the days of Eglon.
Taking all this into consideration: does this sound a good place to go in order to raise a godly family? Of course nowadays we can serve G anywhere, whether in London or Lima, Santiago or Seoul, Ghana or Gidea Park. But God had delivered his people from Egypt and with considerable trouble lead them to Cannan, a special place called the ‘Promised Land- one that ‘flowed with milk and honey’. But there seems to be no milk or honey, no bread or cake there - what is going on?
Well if we dig a bit deeper we discover something important about the context of the book of Ruth, which is set in the time of the Judges. And if you look back a page to the last verse of the book of Judges you find the following summary: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit’. That almost seems an apt summary of society today, doesn’t it?
Well, after the mighty leader and warrior Joshua, Israel had a period of about two hundred years where there was a constant cycle with the people forgetting God and going their own way until there was oppression by a neighbouring nation. Finally they would call out to God who would raise up a Saviour to rescue them and then they would have peace for awhile before the pattern was repeated.
But the cycles of peace got shorter and shorter as Israel abandoned God more and more regularly. When God previously made a covenant with Moses and Israel after liberating them from Egypt - they were wonderful blessings for those who followed God’s law faithfully but terrible judgments would result from any unfaithfulness from the Israelites. So the famine was an outworking of God’s covenant promise - a way of saying: ‘Turn away from me and I will send physical deprivation to make you face up to your sin and your hardness of heart. Trust & obey me again and I will bless you & your harvests will be bountiful’.
With the famine God switched on the amber warning light. It is a clear signal that his people were drifting from Him and needed to repent. Elimelech had two choices 1. Stay in Bethlehem (which ironically means ‘House of Bread’ but was now the empty breadbasket of Judah) & Mourn for the sin that surrounded him & trust God to provide for him. Or 2. Leave the Promised Land behind in search of greener fields, in this case the fields of Moab, where food was more abundant.
Elimelech ignored the warning light and chose the second option. He chose the Road to Moab. The name Elimelech actually meant: My God is King. But it appears that God was no more king in Elimelech’s heart than he was in the hearts of his fellow countrymen. He chose the Road to Nowhere. // When we hit difficult patches - which road will each of us choose? Are we tempted to choose our own path and forget God’s? Do we choose the path of comfort and security rather than of repentance and trust in God?
When I studied this passage recently I had to ask myself: How am I leading my family? Am I taking them along the easy route away from the promised land (where Jesus is King) or towards it? Do I at times put financial necessity above spiritual obedience? How about you, which path do you take, when there are temptations to act in an ungodly way?
Note another interesting thing about these first verses - in the beginning v.1 they ‘went to M to live for a short while’. V.2 says they ‘remained there’ and in v.4 that ‘they lived there about 10 years.’ When you decide to leave G’s ways or to com-promise in one area of life it is rarely a decision to leave for a long time. However it is easy to to keep moving in the wrong direction until one finds oneself years later far from the promised land wandering in the desert or in the middle of Moab.
One young lady we knew in Chile made a commitment of faith after doing an Alpha course and was a keen participant in our church for about a year afterwards. She then had a big car crash in which she hit a pedestrian and stopped coming to church. I later discovered that she had decided to lie about her actions during the case with the view to coming back to church and God when the situation was sorted out. It dragged on for over two years and she never returned.
Who knows whether Naomi agreed with her husband’s plan to go to Moab but it appears that she then stayed after Elimelech’s death (v.4) instead of returning home. They let their sons marry Moabites which was prohibited in Mosaic Law. Not because they were foreigners I hasten to add (or I would have been in trouble marrying Ellelein!) but because they worshipped different gods. Then comes the terrible verse v.5: ‘both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband’.
Naomi like the prodigal son in the parable Jesus tells in Lu 15 reaches rock bottom. I worked for a number of years with a charity called LL and time and time again I came across young folk who had been bought up as Christians. Who when they left home or when they went to university abandoned the Christian path that they had been brought up in and in their words ‘returned to Egypt’. They forgot the goodness of our God and returned to the place where they had been in slavery.
We could say they went to Moab. But after a time in Egypt or Moab, they realised that the grass wasn’t greener there, that total freedom from God’s rules didn’t lead to spiritual freedom or real joy. Eventually like the prodigal son who realised that even his Father’s workers had more and better food than him, they came to their senses and turned around (the definition of repentance) and began the journey back to God. Maybe that has been your experience too?
I have asked one of our church wardens Sam if he could share a brief testimony about a similar experience that he had. // The amazing thing is that God doesn’t give up on us. He pursues us even when we have ended up in a terribly dark place. Naomi is left (in the words of the Scottish pastor Sinclair Ferguson) ‘in the position of someone experiencing one of the most painful of curses. There is no living fruit from her womb. She is bereft, alienated and lonely.’ Look ahead at v.13 ‘the Lord’s hand has gone against me!’ And v.20-21 ‘Don’t call me N (which means pleasant) but Mara, because the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me’.
Have you ever been in such a place where the floor fell out from under you? Where there seemed no way out of a terrible situation? Where going forward seemed impossible but going back would be humiliating. When a loved one dies and it seems that you will never smile or be happy again. Well that is where Naomi finds herself. But at her deepest and darkest point we begin to see God’s gracious hand at work. She hears that God has given food to her people & leaves M with her two daughter-in-laws and arrives at a geographical and spiritual crossroads.
2. Crossroads conversion (6-18)
I don’t usually go into Hebrew or Greek words because we can understand the bible as it is written in plain English. But there are two important Hebrew words in the book of Ruth that are worth commenting on. The first is shub - SHUB. It is used almost a dozen times in this chapter but is translated with different phrases to make the passage more readable but perhaps some of the impact that the first listeners would have heard is lost. Shub is translated return in v.6, 11, 12 and 22. Take back in v.7. Go… back in v. 8, 10 and 15. Turn back in v.16 and brought back in v.21.
Shub is not only the only Hebrew word for ‘return’ (there are others) but it is the main OT word for ‘turning back to God’s covenant grace and mercy - it is a word used for repentance, for conversion. This story is all about turning back to God. It is about returning to his grace.
In verse 6, Naomi hears that the Lord has come to the aid of his people by providing food for them. Bethlehem is living up to its name again: The house of bread. So v.7 Naomi leaves the place she had been living in and sets out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. In v.8 Naomi thanks her two daughter-in-laws for the kindness they have shown to her and her dead sons. And there at the crossroads between Moab and Israel she urges them to return home as she has nothing to provide them with back in Bethlehem.
She has no more sons to offer them - they are probably still young women in their twenties who could marry again. In Israel, in the words of the Malawian theologian Isabel Apawo Phiri: their cultural oppression would be tripled: ‘there they would not only be widows who were childless but also foreigners’. Anyone who has been an immigrant in another country knows how difficult that can be as the Windrush generation discovered coming to England. The Moabites were probably hated in Israel so the choice for Orpah and Ruth was very difficult.
So Naomi who has repented of her decision to leave the promised land, has turned back to leave Moab. She is now inviting her daughters-in-law to count the cost of belonging to the Lord. It might well mean: no husband, no guaranteed provision or security, no children, no human hope & no friends as a member of a despised foreign race.
Orpah, probably with the maternal instinct to bear children and who has the whole of her life before her, cracks first. The equation must have seemed stark:
‘Jehovah plus nothing in Bethlehem or everything minus Jehovah in Moab’. Orpah chooses the familiar, the temporal and the visible. Who knows if there is anything more anyway? She opts for this world’s wisdom and turns away from the wisdom of God. V.14 ‘Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye’.
There is the added issue of Ruth choosing to stay with her mother-in-law. Isabel Apawo Phiri again: ‘In Africa the relationship between a DIL and MIL is generally sour, especially in patrilineal societies. The young woman is overworked and is treated like an outsider’. As my mother is here I asked Ellelein if she would like to share a MIL joke with you but she wisely desisted. So I dug up a couple for you.
What is the punishment for bigamy? Two MILs. One man to another: ‘my MIL is an angel. His friend: ‘You are a lucky fella, mine’s still alive’. Of course there are no stereotypical MIL’s here in StM & I myself have a perfect MIL… she lives 4,000 miles away! Ruth, despite her MIL Naomi urging her ‘Go back, go back’ replies in v.16-17: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.””
This is one of the most incredible statements in scripture. This is covenant language. It echoes God’s words in Gen 17, Ex 6 and Lev 26: ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’. Ruth is saying: ‘This God, who made his covenant with Abraham, who brought his people out of Egypt in the Exodus, who has promised to provide us with grace and salvation - Naomi, this is my God!’ In the NT language that we heard in 1 Thessalonians 1.9 Ruth ‘turned from idols to serve the living and true God’. This woman has been converted.
How about us? How do we react when faced with a decision to turn whole heartedly to God? To accept the claims of Jesus Christ to be our Saviour and our Boss? Some of you might be visiting today but don’t consider yourselves Christians - you are most welcome! Others might have been coming here for awhile, it is part of your weekly routine. But perhaps you haven’t considered the full implications of coming to Christ, seeking his forgiveness for a life lived for yourself instead of for him.
In our Gospel passage Jesus said: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35 Jesus had just fed the 5,000 with bread and fish and then he promised spiritual food too to those who came to him. Do you see what the condition is? ‘Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. The word belief has become a bit of spiritual jargon. & ‘Having faith’ sounds a bit mystical or implies an irrational decision. But faith is really just trust. Can we trust in who J is? That he is the way, the truth and the life & that no one gets to God the Father except through him? Ruth trusted in God despite all the obstacles that would be involved making Naomi’s God her G and entering a strange land. That is trust, that is faith.
So how do we respond to these words? Like Orpah, counting the cost and finding it too dear? Turning away from God because we are too enamoured with our paths, our own ways? The sad thing about Orpah is that we never hear of her again in the pages of Scripture. // Or do we respond like Ruth did? Embracing God even at the crossroads. Turning her back on her past, on her people, on all of Moab and stepping forward to trust in Naomi’s God. I urge any of you who haven’t made the decision to follow Christ wholeheartedly to do so. To respond to God’s great mercy shown in Christ Jesus. To accept that on the cross Jesus takes your place and your sins and gives you new life. If you want to take that step today, do come and chat to me or give me a ring during the week to talk about that more. If you feel that you don’t know Jesus well enough yet to trust in him - do sign up for the Christianity Explored course which aims to show us more about Jesus Christ and what it means to be his disciple.
If you have taken that step be encouraged and comforted, even when you are living difficult times like Naomi did, with these words of Jesus: ““Truly I tell you, no one who has left home or wife/ or brothers or sisters/ or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”” Luke 18:29-30
C. Coming Home
I will finish looking briefly at the last few verses 19-22 which I have entitled ‘Coming Home’. Even over in Chile we got caught up in the excitement of England’s run in the World Cup and repeatedly heard the song: It’s Coming Home. Unfortunately the football World Cup didn’t come home last year or even this year with the women’s football team. But we did win the Cricket One day Cup for the first time this year and what an exciting final that was!
Naomi in these verses is finally coming home. She is older, sadder but perhaps wiser. ‘I went away full, but the Lord has bought me back empty’ (21). I have always thought these words were rather insensitive with Ruth standing right next to her. She hadn’t gone away full in the material sense because she was fleeing a famine but she had been full relationally - with a husband and two sons. She had lost all of them so now she had nothing except for Ruth. And we will see how through Ruth, God will fully restore her over the coming chapters.
The final verse shows the silver lining in the clouds. That it is always darkest just before dawn: they arrived ‘in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning’ (22). Our story today started with a famine but ends with a harvest. The people had returned to God and he was blessing them again. Even though God doesn’t speak in this book we see here God’s sovereign rule amongst his people. We see God’s mysterious providence in continually providing for those who trust in him - and this will be even more evident in the chapters that follow. We see God’s good purposes that even in the suffering of Naomi she was used to reach Ruth and include her in God’s family. And finally we will begin to see that true freedom is found in living a godly life as Ruth will do.
We can see that our God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever is a God who we can trust in even we struggle to trust our leaders today - politicians, estate agents and even vicars! Sometimes we can think in difficult situations: ‘how can a God of love and grace let this happen to me?’ Yesterday my new sister-in-law was with us. She is a hand surgeon. It reminded me that a sharp knife can be a destructive weapon in the hands of a murderer, but it can also be an instrument of healing in the hands of a skilled surgeon. (Slow down).
In this story God is working like a skilled surgeon and the painful surgery is part of the healing process in Naomi’s life. Have you seen the hand of God operating skilfully in your life? Does seeing God’s faithfulness to his covenant people help us to place more trust in him? I hope that each of us would not take the path of Elimelech or Orpah but the path of Naomi and Ruth and that each of us would be able to trust in Jesus to help us come safely home to God’s promised land. (Pause). Let us pray.
I would like to finish with a prayer of Horatius Bonar taken from yesterday’s New Daylight notes. Prayer: O love of God, our shield and stay through all the perils of our way; Eternal love, in thee we rest, for ever safe, for ever blest. Amen