Readings: Ruth 1: 1 – 18 and Luke 15: 1 – 10
“Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Often when we read Scripture there are times when some words just seem to leap off the page. And for me these words from our reading this morning in the book of Ruth do just that. And they are spoken by Ruth, a foreigner and an outsider to the Hebrew faith, to her mother in law, called Naomi.
And so what I want to do this morning is offer a few reflections on this story of a relationship between a daughter in law and mother in law and look at how God is at work within it
And something that occurs to me in the book of Ruth is that the author intends us to understand that the names of the various people in the story have a special significance. And names in the Bible are often meant to express something of a person’s being and character.
And so let’s start by looking at Naomi. In Hebrew her name means ‘Sweet or Pleasant’ but when we are introduced to her in this first chapter her life seems anything but pleasant. She is a woman who is hurting – everything has gone wrong for her – she has lost everything that meant anything to her – the very bottom has fallen out of her life. And what’s more she’s living in a place where she doesn’t belong. She’s living in the land of Moab where she’s a foreigner.
In fact, if we go beyond our reading to verse 20 she says I don’t want to be called pleasant anymore because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. The actual text says: “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” And I’m sure it’s a feeling many can identify with; and how life can very easily lose its sweetness when everything seems to be going wrong and is falling apart. Those times when we might begin to wonder whether God is real or whether he cares – even though he is real and he does care and feels our pain.
Let’s turn now to Naomi’s husband. His name is Elimilek. In Hebrew it means ‘God is my King’ but sadly he’s a man who fails to live up to his name. The text tells us that when there was a famine in the land of Israel, Elimilek flees with his family and goes to live in the land of Moab – a land riddled with idolatry and the worship of false gods.
And I think what the author wants us to understand is that Elimilek’s decision was not only an unwise one but also a disobedient one as far as God is concerned.
It’s like saying “God is my King but when the heat is on I run to Moab.” His name might mean: ‘God is my King’ but in reality what we see is someone who is prepared to compromise his faith and throw in his lot with those who worship idols rather than count on the grace and generosity of the true and living God
And for us today, as followers of Jesus, what God is still looking for is those who are wholehearted in their devotion to him and remain committed to him even when the going gets tough.
And it’s in this move to Moab where things start to go wrong for Naomi. She’s away from her home in Bethlehem in a strange land – away from the Promised Land of Israel. And it gets worse. Her husband dies in Moab and Elimilek leaves her with two sons to raise, Mahlon and Kilion. And as they grow up in Moab, they get to know the Moabite girls and each one marries a foreigner.
And just when you begin think things cannot get any worse, they do. You lose your homeland, you lose your husband and then you lose your children. And the bitterness in Naomi’s life reaches its peak when the boys who would carry on the family name both die without having any children. And what it means is that Naomi will have no one to look after and support her as she grows older. It also means the family line will die out which was quite a significant thing in Old Testament times.
But what Naomi doesn’t see is the way God is at work in her life in the background and which only becomes evident to her later on. And that’s often the case with us when we are going through difficult times we can become so distracted by the circumstances around us we fail to see how God is at work in the background. And this for me brings to mind something what the Apostle Paul says in one of his New Testament letters. He says this:
‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose’.
And something very touching in the book of Ruth is the way we get a sense of God’s intimate concern for the affairs of very ordinary people and their circumstances of daily life. In fact, one of the main messages of the book of is that, whether we are aware of it or not, God is continuously at work within us through the worst of times, even in tragedy.
Well Naomi decides to return home and so she and her two daughters in law, Ruth and Orpah head back on the road to Bethlehem. But before she gets too far Naomi says to the girls: “Look, go back home, find a new husband, and have a family. I‘ve nothing I can offer you that will give you any hope. It will be better for you both if you go back home.” And Naomi says this out of love for the girls but it causes floods of tears as the three of them have experienced so much pain together. And after reflection, Orpah finally decides that it would be best for her to go back to her family and so with sadness she kisses Naomi goodbye.
But the reaction in Ruth is very different, she embraces Naomi and clings to her and won’t let her go and we get these amazing words. And I’m reading them this time from the Message translation – she says this:
“Look, don’t force me to leave you; don’t make me go home. Where you go, I will go and where you live, I’ll live. Your people are my people, your God is my God; where you die. I’ll die, and that’s where I’ll be buried, so help me God – not even death itself is going to come between us.
And to me the more you reflect on these words the more amazing they become. Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in –law is simply astonishing. Firstly, it means leaving her own family and land. Secondly, it means for her, as far as she knows, a life of widowhood and then it means going to an unknown land with a new people and a new language. And then she says “where you die, I’ll die and that’s where I’ll be buried.” In other words, she will never return home even if Naomi dies.
But the most amazing commitment of all is this – when she says: “Your God will be my God” or “Your God is my God” as it says in the Message translation. Somehow or other Ruth has come trust in Naomi’s God, the Living God we worship, in spite of all Naomi’s bitter experiences.
And so what Ruth is saying is: “I’m sticking to you in all the activities of life and I’m sticking to you in every important relationship of your life. And what’s more I’m also making this commitment to God as well.”
And once Naomi realises that Ruth has her heart set on staying with her, she gives in from trying to stop her, and the two travel on together to Bethlehem. And it’s at this point, as God inspires this foreign girl from Moab to show her mother-in-Law such love and grace that we see Naomi’s life beginning to change. And what was once bitterness is starting to become sweet again.
And it’s in Ruth, whose name in Hebrew means something like ‘friend’ or ‘friendship’ that we see what Naomi couldn’t see – and that was God working things through in her life, even when everything seemed to be going wrong and falling apart.
You know love is more than a feeling – it’s a commitment – and for us, as followers of Jesus -the love and commitment Ruth shows to her mother-in-law is the sort of commitment God is looking for in us – commitment – both to him and to one another. Commitment can, of course, be costly but we know it is worth more than anything in this world because of God’s commitment to us. And it’s through what Jesus did for us on the cross we can enter a relationship with the living God who promises never to leave us nor forsake us. And it’s in Jesus we can find forgiveness and newness of life.
Well there’s a lot more of the story of Ruth which we have not time to go into today – and which you will have to read when you get home. But as a bit of a spoiler let me say something about the end of the story. Ruth marries a man called Boaz (a relative of Naomi’s on her husband’s side) and they have a son.
Now let me read you what it says from the Message translation. It says this:
‘The town women said to Naomi, “Blessed be God! – He didn’t leave you without a family to carry on your life. May this baby grow up to be famous in Israel! He’ll make you young again! He’ll take care of you in old age. And this daughter-in-law who has brought him into the world and loves you so much, why, she’s worth more to you than seven sons!’
And that baby, of course, became the grandfather of the great King David and if you turn to Matthew chapter 1 you will see that Ruth became the great, great (many times great) grandmother of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And speaking of grandparents I can say that Janet and I know just how excited and joyful Ruth must have been feeling at these events as we too are looking forward to soon becoming first-time grandparents. And with that perhaps I should finish. Amen
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s on Sunday 31st March 2019