Ancient Stories: "Ruth: A Study In Faithfulness Pt. 1"

This week I'll be continuing the sermon series "Ancient Stories," which is taking our congregation through some of the great stories of the Old Testament.  Each of these studies has taken us deeper into the text than most of ever got when we heard about these stories in Sunday School---if you were a church-going sort of person back in the day.  So that's why we've labelled this series, "Sunday School Remixed."  I hope that like me you've learned something new each week of this series...

Which brings us to the next story we'll be exploring: The Story of Ruth.  I can honestly say that aside from some youth talks back in my old youth ministry days, I have never preached a sermon from the Book of Ruth, so it's high time that I remedied that very series oversight. In fact, we're going to take our time with this story, and break it down into two parts.  The first part of this sermon will cover Ruth 1:1-22:

You can click here to read the whole passage

So let's do a little bit of background on this small, but powerful book from the Old Testament...

The book begins with the line, "In the days when the Judges ruled..." which doesn't tell us a whole lot, but when you take into consideration the other aspects of the story:  the famine, the ability of refugees to return, etc., scholars place the setting of the story around the 12th century B.C. in the time of the judges Jephthah and Samson.

Ruth is one of the Five "Megilloth" books that are read during the major Hebrew feast days, and is, in fact, the book that is read in its entirety during the Feast of Shavuot--the Feast of Harvest.  We just spent some time studying about this feast when we explored the story of Pentecost from Acts chapter 2.  The main theme of the Book of Ruth is chesed or "loving-kindness."  You can also translate chesed as "faithfulness," which I tend to prefer in this particular story.

What is so special about Ruth?  Well, she's one of a handful of heroines in the Bible, and one of only two who have their own book in the Christian canon.  She's particularly significant because she was from the heathen Moabite tribes that plagued the people of Israel throughout their early history, and who often symbolized all that was bad about the pagan world to the ancient Hebrew writers.  And why is this so special?  Well, God chose Ruth to become an ancestor of none other than King David himself.  Her son was named Obed, who had a son named Jesse, who had a son named... David.  She's also included in the genealogy of Jesus on his earthly father's sided in Matthew 1:5.

Not too shabby.

And all of this came about because Ruth was faithful, and trusted God even when she really didn't know all that much about God.  Ruth embraced a future that was uncertain even when she had a past that would have offered her some safety.  She teaches us a valuable lesson in the first part of her story:

Even when the way forward isn't clear, a step toward God is a step in the right direction.  

Let's dig around in the text of Ruth 1:1-22 a bit.  First, we find right at the outset that there's something going on with the names in this story.

Naomi and her family were from Bethlehem, which means "house of bread," but ironically there was a famine in the land, and they felt they were forced to leave.  They settled in the pagan lands of Moab, this group of people that the Bible refers to as Ephrathites, which, loosely translated, means "fruitful people." which is another ironic twist because as we soon discover the whole lot of the men in this group die.  We also learn that Naomi's husband is named Elimalech, which means "My God (Yahweh) is King," which is also ironic because as we know from the book of Judges this was a time in which the people of Israel did what was right "in their own eyes."

It gets more interesting, trust me.  Naomi's sons are named, Mahlon and Chilion.  Mahlon is a word that is similar to the one that is used to describe the 10th Plague that God dropped on the Egyptians that resulted in the death of their firstborn.  Chilion has the same root word as the Hebrew word for "to perish."

So right off the bat, you can tell from the text that these guys are destined for bad things in the story.

But wait, there's more.  Naomi means "pleasant," but once all of these bad things happen to her and she returns home to her people with a very sad tale of loss and grief, she tells everyone that her new name will be Mara which means "bitter."  She seems convinced that for some reason unknown to her, God is punishing her with all of the calamity that has befallen her family.   The daughter-in-law who leaves and returns home is named Orpah (which sounds like the talk show host, but isn't) whose name means "back of the neck" or something to that effect.  She basically does exactly what she's supposed to do according to her culture--she heads back home when things look too bleak for her as a young widow.  Ruth is a name that blends "woman friend" with "full to overflowing," which also tells the reader a whole lot about her character.

So the answer to the question, "What's in a name?" is pretty loaded when it comes to this story, wouldn't you think?

After the death of their husbands, the three women begin to head back to Bethlehem, the hometown of Naomi.  The trip was about 70-100 miles depending on where they started from their location which was east of the Dead Sea.  At some point they stop and Naomi begins to beg them both to return home.  There are really good reasons for her to do this...

First, widows in the Ancient Near East essentially lost all of their social, political and economic status when their husband died.  They were equivalent to the homeless in our society---no property, no prospects and relying on the kindness of family if they had some, or other people who felt compelled to help them.  Widows were afforded a certain status within Hebrew culture because there were so many admonitions in the Mosaic law to care for them, precisely because of the reasons I just stated.

Second, if there had been any brothers back home in Bethlehem, they would have been required to marry them in order to preserve the lineage of their deceased brother.  There were no other brothers, and so the point was essentially moot.  We find later in the story that there were circumstances where male extended family members would have the option of marrying them to purchase family property, but at this point none of that is clear.

Naomi urges her two daughters-in-law to go find husbands, to return home to their families.  They are believed to be in their mid to late twenties, with plenty of years left of child-bearing, so their prospects would be better than average.  The only chance they have for a life, she basically is telling them, is to go back home.  She even offers them a blessing that sounds a bit like the Aaronic blessing that is offered in the book of Numbers.  May God "be kind" to you, she tells them, and may God "give you peace."

What happens next is surprising.  While Orpah makes the decision to return home (living up to her name, right?), Ruth decides to go with Naomi.  We find out later in the story that her father was still alive, and she could have easily gone home to him and started over.  Instead, she chose an uncertain future with Naomi living like a homeless person.  "Your people will be my people," she tells Naomi, which was her way of saying, "I give up my past."  "Your God will be my God," she says, which was a way of saying "I will worship your God."  She also tells Naomi that she will be buried with her and that nothing but death would separate them.  This was a cultural way of telling Naomi, "I am completely setting aside my old life, and throwing all that I am in with you."  Naomi is stunned, and wonders aloud why Ruth would want to go anywhere with someone who is so obviously cursed.  Either Ruth doesn't see things the way that Naomi does, or she doesn't care, because she refuses to be dissuaded.

So why is this so important?  Why would this story be in the Bible, and what purpose does this first part of Ruth serve as a lesson for you and for me?

To begin, it's fascinating that God uses a foreigner to remind the people of Israel what covenant is all about.  The people hearing this story would have paused a bit when they heard that God was favoring a Moabitess, a pagan, an enemy.  And not only was God favoring her, he was using her to teach a lesson on what it meant to be in a relationship with God.  It taught that a person's value is measured in his/her actions and not by their ancestry, which was a hard lesson for those who believed themselves to be favored by birthright.

More importantly this loyalty that Ruth exhibits here in the story is an expression of chesed, which is an attribute given to God repeatedly in the Scripture.   Chesed means "lovingkindness" but more accurately for our purposes means "faithfulness."  When the Psalmist writes, "The steadfast love  (Chesed)of the Lord never fails, His mercy endures forever," this is what he was talking about.

Here's the deal, Ruth had no idea what the future held, and knew very little of what it meant to follow God, but she knew enough to understand that to be in covenant with this God was to be in covenant with those who followed Him.  She would embody this covenant by living out it's promise with her mother-in-law despite what it might cost her.

Which brings us to a really tough question, that takes us all the way back to the beginning of the story where Naomi and her family flee into the pagan world to escape the hardship of their own land:

What kinds of things do we seek out in desperate times that end up making our lives unfruitful?  

Is it the bad relationship we fling ourselves into in order to heal a broken heart? Is it the alcohol we consume in order to cope with a disappointing life?
Or the shopping sprees, the binge eating?
Or maybe it's as simple as chasing after the safety and security of financial "independence" despite what it costs us with our family, or our very souls.

Naomi found herself in a situation at the end of all of her desperation where she felt cursed and abandoned.  She wasn't sure what she had done exactly to merit God's disfavor, but she was sure that she did.

Ruth showed her she wasn't cursed, and that God had never abandoned her.  Ruth's faithfulness affirmed Naomi's worth and the chesed that God had for her.
Ruth was willing to place her entire future into the hands of the God that Naomi was wondering about, and in so doing confirmed the goodness of God's plans.  There was nothing that Naomi could have done that could separate her from God's love.

When he came to the end of his life, John Newton, the pastor and songwriter from the 18th century, who wrote Amazing Grace, recorded in his diary a prayer, asking God to help him meet his end with a faithful spirit.  He wrote:

"Oh for grace to meet the approach of death with a humble, thankful, resigned spirit becoming my profession. That I may not stain my character by impatience, jealousy or any hateful temper but may be prepared and permitted to depart in peace and hope and be enabled, if I can speak, to bear my testimony to thy faithfulness and goodness with my last breath. Amen." 
Newton had spent much of his young adulthood as a slave ship captain, what he called an "African blasphemer."  He reached a point in his life where he knew in his heart of hearts that he was cursed beyond redemption, only God had other ideas for him, as history reveals.

On his deathbed Newton could barely speak what were his final words, "My memory is nearly gone," he said, "but I remember two things.  That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior."  When the London Times reported his death the obituary gushed about his "unblemished life," words Newton would have never used.  He knew far too well what his efforts to stave off desperation had brought him:  nothing but misery and despair.  The tablet on his tomb contains these words, which he wrote:
"Once an Infidel and Libertine, A Servant of Slaves in Africa, was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior JESUS CHRIST, preserved, restored and pardoned And appointed to preach the faith He had long labored to destroy."  

When Newton decided to step away from his old life toward something new, he had no idea what to expect.  He didn't know everything about God, but he knew enough to know that a step toward God was a step in the right direction.

Listen, I don't know where you've been in your life, and I have no idea what you've been through.  Maybe you are like Naomi and you've reached this place where you are wondering what God is up to, and whether you might be undergoing some sort of punishment---or a curse.

And all you have been waiting for is for someone---anyone to tell you that there's hope.

Or maybe you feel a little bit like Ruth right about now.  Your whole world seems to have fallen apart and you have no idea which way to go.  You found yourself in church, or maybe you are reading this blog and you are thinking, "I really don't know that much about God... but there's something about all of this that just hits me right in the middle of my gut."

There's a reason for that.  Some of us church-y types call that the Holy Spirit of God.  But whatever you believe---even if it's not very much---know that you can step toward God and it will be all right.

Even  when the way forward isn't clear, a step toward God is a step in the right direction.
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