Neil Quinn / Apr 23, 2017 / Ruth 1
DownloadMP3 Audio File
Sermon Summary / Transcript
Our Father, we’ve gathered here this morning because we’re desperate to hear you speak. We cannot live by bread alone, but only by every word that comes from your mouth. We ask you to speak to us through your word this morning, that we may have life and live in Christ. Incline our hearts to your testimonies, not to selfish gain. Open the eyes of our hearts, that we may behold wondrous things out of your word. Unite our hearts to fear your name, and satisfy us with your steadfast love and faithfulness, that we may rejoice and be glad. We pray these things in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pastor Kevin called me late last week and asked if I would fill in for him this morning, as he needed to go to Colorado to be with Trisha and her family. I decided that I wanted to spend some time with you in the book of Ruth—a little book that has come to have a big impact on my life as I’ve preached through it. I wish I could preach through this whole book with you, but I’ll have to content myself with Ruth 1. Hear the word of the Lord:
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. 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. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
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. 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. 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. 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. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 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? 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, 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.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 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. 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.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
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?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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?”
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. Ruth 1
It’s not easy to follow a transcendent God—one whose ways and thoughts are so far above our own. As the Lord said through the prophet Isaiah,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9
In other words, as William Cowper wrote in his hymn, to us “God moves in a mysterious way.”
At times, God’s movements perplex us, for we don’t understand what he is doing. At other times, his movements seem completely hidden from us. When we look around, we can’t see evidence of his hand at work. This reality not only confuses us (at times), but often causes us great pain. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose experiences have sometimes left me bewildered, staggering and dazed. Something happens, and it feels like I’ve been hit across the head with a 2×4. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose circumstances have left me grasping for answers, as one gropes around in the dark to find a light switch. God’s ways are not our ways, and his movements can remain mysteriously veiled to us.
But God has not left us completely blind to the nature and manner of his movements. In his mercy, he has given us his Spirit and his word. As the Psalmist says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” His word is like a corrective lens when our eyes grow weak. It’s like a guide who brings us home when we wander away from the path. It’s like an anchor for our hearts when we’re tossed about in the storms of life. It’s like a soothing voice of encouragement when we begin to sink into the pit of misery. God’s word is meant to sustain us when his movement confuses us. That’s why Paul said to the Romans,
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Romans 15:4
Of course, that applies to all of Scripture, but Paul was thinking of the Old Testament specifically in this passage. One of the books in the Old Testament that has encouraged me to endure in that exact way is the book of Ruth. This story is for people who struggle to see God’s hand in their everyday lives, who wonder if their everyday faithfulness makes any difference at all in the grand scheme of things, and who feel hopeless as circumstances appear to go from bad to worse. In this story, we see God bring profound suffering to the life of a woman named Naomi, as he empties her of everything that gives her hope.
What I want us to see, as we spend a few moments in this chapter, is that one of the ways that God mysteriously moves in our lives is by emptying us in order to fill us. Along the way, I also want to offer you three reminders, which I pray will enable you to better endure the suffering you might be facing now, or prepare you for the day when suffering will inevitably come.
Barrow, Alaska enjoys the distinction of being the northernmost town in the US. It’s located 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle—so far north that this town is in complete darkness, 24/7, from November to mid-January. Its citizens can go up to 67 days a year without any sunlight (and you thought winter in Michigan was bad!).
Christian life can feel like this sometimes: a life without the sun. We can experience a similar spiritual reality, where we feel like life is one long winter of perpetual night, and night and day are indistinguishable. But unlike in Barrow, where they roughly know when this season will begin and end, these spiritual seasons of darkness are unpredictable. We don’t know when they will come or how long they will last. We don’t know when tragedy will strike. They may come suddenly and violently through sickness or other loss. They may sneak up up on us gradually, for no apparent reason at all.
Because we cannot anticipate or explain them, we begin to wonder if we will ever see the sun again. Sometimes, things are so bad that we convince ourselves that there is no more sun—that the light is gone. The story of Ruth begins with such a season in the life of a woman named Naomi. While this book is called “Ruth,” it’s really about Naomi. In the first five verses, her life moving from bad to worse.
In verse 1, we learn that this takes place in the days of the judges. If you know anything about the book of Judges, you know that this is a low point in Israel’s history. It’s a time of social, religious, and political chaos, where Israel repeatedly disobeys the Lord, breaks the covenant, and finds themselves under God’s judgment and the oppression of enemies, and continually increases in their depravity. The final verse of Judges poignantly summarizes this period: “In those days, there was no king in the land. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This is the chaotic scenery for our story.
To add to this chaos, verse 1 also tells us that there was a famine in the land. This was probably another indication of God’s judgment upon Israel. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 tell us that famine was one of the curses for breaking the covenant. It was meant to signal to God’s people that they needed to turn and repent.
Life was not good in Israel—so (understandably) a man named Elimelech, from the town of Bethlehem (which, ironically, means “house of bread”) took his wife and two sons and left town. Because there was no bread in the house of bread, they journeyed to Moab.
After they got there, Elimelech died, leaving Naomi as a widow in a foreign land, and with virtually no hope of finding another husband. However, there was still hope that Elimelech’s line could continue, and that she would be provided for. She had two sons, each of whom had found a wife among the Moabites, so there was hope for offspring, and that Naomi would be provided for. But, after ten years, Naomi’s sons still had no children. To make matters worse, both of her sons also die. She was now a childless widow, living in a foreign land.
It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless circumstance in the ancient world. To be a childless widow was not just precarious, but perilous. It was a death warrant. From every earthly point of view, Naomi’s situation was hopeless: Elimelech’s line is doomed to die out, and she is doomed to a life of hardship and misery. Her life had to feel like a dark winter, where it was night even in the daytime.
Here’s where I want to pause and offer you the first reminder. It’s obvious, but extremely helpful: Christian, you will suffer, so you must prepare for the spiritual winters of darkness and famine. When we look at the world through the lens of Scripture, we see that God’s movements often involve allowing his people to suffer, sometimes profoundly, in such a way that it permeates every aspect of their lives. Naomi is just one example among many in Scripture.
The gospel doesn’t promise a pain-free life. In fact, it promises quite the opposite: to follow after Christ is to share in his sufferings. That usually means that in following Christ, you will suffer more than if you had rejected him. Remembering this should help us prepare for the days of spiritual want, when they inevitably come. A lot of times, when something happens and we experience the initial pain of suffering, sorrow, and tragedy, it’s like a punch in the gut. It knocks the wind out of you. But there’s a difference between when you know a blow is coming and you can brace yourself, and when you’re punched unexpectedly, looking another way as the blow comes. Both will hurt. Both may even crumple you to the floor, but the unexpected blow will cause much more damage than the one you’re prepared for. This is why Peter tells the exiles of the Dispersion,
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 1 Peter 4:12
The most effective military strike is a surprise attack. We need to be constantly alert, so we’re not caught by surprise. Again, it’s not that it will necessarily hurt less, but that you’ll be better equipped to stand and survive it. If we do not have a biblical theology of suffering, we will be undone by it.
One of the first temptations that the Devil will go after you with when suffering comes is to doubt God’s presence and love for you. We need to have the understanding that pain and suffering aren’t mutually exclusive with God’s presence and love, for when we lose confidence in God’s presence and love, it makes the suffering that much more difficult to deal with. There’s a big difference between being lost in a dark wood, having a voice or a hand to help guide you through, and being lost in the wood while all alone.
This is why so many of the New Testament epistles stress that God’s presence and love aren’t discounted by the fact that we face hardships. Both can be true together. God ordains suffering for his people; therefore, you must prepare.
This doesn’t mean that you have to live life as a pessimist, always expecting the worst (although that’s how I survive being a Michigan State fan). That’s not how we survive suffering in the Christian life. No, we prepare by daily filling the storehouses of our lives with the gospel, allowing it to create the categories through which we can understand our life and experiences.
Think of Joseph in Egypt. When Pharaoh had that dream, Joseph said, “There will be seven years of plenty and seven years of want.” So what did he do? In the seven years of plenty, he stored up the grain, so that they could survive when those seven years of want came. They saved up the resources to endure the hardship.
Likewise, you and I must be diligent to daily fill the storehouses of our hearts with the gospel. We never know when there may be days, months, or even years of winter and famine. We must be prepared, for when suffering comes, you will be tempted to doubt God’s promises. Reading Scripture may not always be comforting to you. God will feel far away and silent, and your physical and spiritual strength will be diminished. If you haven’t been storing the truth of the gospel in your heart, you will starve and die. Suffering will come, so you must prepare for the spiritual winters of darkness and famine.
But even with your faithful gospel preparation, you’ll still face seasons that may feel hopeless to you. That’s how it felt for Naomi. Like the land she had left in Israel, her life felt empty and dry. She was a childless widow, devoid of earthly hope: no food, no husband, and no offspring. She clearly understood her situation to be hopeless. On her way back to Bethlehem, she incessantly urged her two daughters-in-law to turn back. Verse 8: “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house.” When they refuse, she tells them twice more (verses 11 and 12): “Turn back, my daughters…”
She tries to reason with them—to explain to them just how dire her situation is, and how dire their situation will be if they choose to stay with her. She was too old to have another husband, and even if (by some miracle) she did find a husband and (by another miracle) got pregnant that very night and had multiple sons, they would still be years away from a marriageable age for Ruth and Orpah. She’s essentially telling them, “Ruth, Orpah: I love you, and because of that, you need to know that I’m a sinking ship. If you don’t jump overboard right now and swim to shore, you’re going down with me.” God had emptied her. She couldn’t see even the smallest thread of hope, and she was convinced that he would never fill her again.
The climax of chapter 1 comes in verses 20-21, with Naomi’s cry when she returned to Bethlehem. The women of the town could barely recognize her, and I wonder if she had suffered so greatly that she was physically altered. Anyway, they wondered: “Is this Naomi? Is this the one who left years ago?” And she replied,
Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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? Ruth 1:20b-21
The name “Naomi” means “pleasant,” but Naomi believed that she would never know pleasantness again. She asked to be called “Mara,” which means “bitter,” because she believed that her life would now be forever marked by bitterness. Because her present situation looked so empty, she concluded that her future would be empty as well.
This brings us to my second reminder: The pain of your suffering will blur the eyes of your heart, so you cannot trust your own vision.
A couple of years ago, my family and I were serving at a church in the Chicago area, and things were not going very well. I remember coming home one day after work. I walked in the door, and just started to weep. I was just crying and crying. When we’re overwhelmed, afraid, and despairing, we start to frantically try to find one thought that can give us hope—something that we can cling onto so that we don’t feel completely doomed. I started to do that, and I couldn’t find anything. There wasn’t one thought that I could think of which gave me hope. So I started to panic and cry even harder. Even with my eyes open, I could barely see two inches in front of me, because the tears blurred everything in front of me.
Think of someone who can barely see two inches in front of them. Are they reliable at seeing something 50 miles down the road? Of course not, yet that’s often what we try to do when we peer into our hypothetical futures in the midst of our sorrows and pain. The pain and sorrow of suffering blurs the eyes of our hearts as much as tears blur our physical eyes, if not more so. When our hearts are weeping, we aren’t in a fit condition to assess our present situation, let alone what the future will look like. We need to understand that we aren’t in a right frame of mind when we’re experiencing calamity, and thus not the best judges of our circumstances.
The nature of suffering is such that when we’re suffering, it’s hard to see anything other than the fact that we’re suffering. Our suffering becomes a microscope that magnifies our pain and fears. They become more and more ominous and pervasive, and our suffering soon fills our entire field of vision. As finite creatures, our perspective is always limited, but when we’re suffering, it’s also distorted. It’s important to remember this when we begin to spiral toward despair. Remember that you cannot see everything, and that what you can see isn’t always reliable, even if some of it is true.
We learn this when we look at Naomi. She wasn’t wrong to attribute her calamity to God’s hand. She said, “The Almighty has done this,” and she was right! Remember how Job said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” The author of the book immediately adds, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Naomi was right. God was the one who was emptying her.
However, as the rest of the story makes clear, she was wrong in proclaiming her situation to be hopeless. As logical and rational as her argument to Orpah and Ruth sounded, it wasn’t entirely accurate. There were other factors she had forgotten, such as the fact that she still had a relative in Bethlehem named Boaz. Furthermore, she failed to see the present signals of hope shining like small shafts of moonlight in her season of night. The Lord was giving her glimpses of hope, but she couldn’t see it. Her perception didn’t equal reality.
That’s one of the encouragements that I find in the book of Ruth. It reminds me that perception isn’t always reality. Your perception of hopelessness doesn’t automatically mean your situation is hopeless. The fact that you can’t see God’s positive activity in your life doesn’t mean that he’s failing to positively act. It’s often the case that he is giving you a glimpse of how he’s working, but you’ve become so preoccupied with your pain that you miss it.
The author of Ruth is a masterful storyteller. Throughout the story, he subtly inserts significant details that we might gloss over if we aren’t careful. I believe this subtlety is intentional, because it shows that Naomi didn’t see these details as significant at the time. Her pain-distorted perspective blinded her to the shafts of moonlight whispering of better things to come.
The same could be true of you and me. In the midst of suffering, we often speak as if we’re in utter darkness, because that’s what it feels like—but the reality is that God has given us the moon to light our way by night, even as he has given us the sun by day. It is only in hindsight that we can see how God was already working to answer our prayers and fill us once again while we thought he was silent or idle. The night is not as dark as we think it is.
Again, we see this with Naomi. As God empties Naomi—taking away her home, family, and provision—he also gives her an important addition to her life. This seemingly insignificant addition is a young Moabitess named Ruth. Ruth is a shaft of moonlight in the darkness, whom God will use to fill her once again, but Naomi has no idea. Even when Ruth, shockingly and contrary to all reason, abandons everything she has known to follow Naomi and Naomi’s God, Naomi still fails to see any hope or significance to this. She returns to Bethlehem and says, “God has brought me back empty,” while Ruth is probably standing right next to her.
A second shaft of moonlight is found in verse 6. You may wonder, “Why was Naomi coming back to Bethlehem in the first place?” Well, it was because she heard that God was giving food again. This is one of only two places in Ruth were God is said to directly act (the second is in Ruth 4, where God causes Ruth to conceive and bear a son). This should have encouraged Naomi to find hope. The first problem she faced was no food, and God was addressing that emptiness.
A third shaft of moonlight is seen in the words that close the first chapter: “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” If I was able to preach through the rest of the book, you’d see how that’s quite significant. God was bringing Naomi and Ruth back to Bethlehem at the exact right moment to meet Boaz and have food provided for them.
So, the third reminder is: When you’re in the midst of suffering, you need to actively look for the shafts of moonlight that God is providing for you; and when you see them, stop and give thanks. Let them encourage you, for God will indeed fill you one day, whether in this life or the next. The shafts of moonlight should encourage us that, even at our lowest point, the feeling of hopelessness does not mean you’re hopeless. The book of Ruth teaches us that God is still at work even in the worst of times. As John Piper says, “When you think he is farthest from you, or has even turned against you [as Naomi did], the truth is that he is laying foundation stones of greater happiness in your life.”
One word of clarification: as I’ve said, it’s very hard for one who is suffering to be able to see these shafts of moonlight. That’s why it’s so important that we suffer in fellowship, so other faithful brothers and sisters (who can see more clearly than we can) can point them out to us. We need to come alongside one another, because when you’re in the darkness, it’s really hard to see. You need someone else to come alongside you and say, “I know it’s hard, but I can see hope. The shafts of moonlight are there. Trust me, even if you can’t see them.” We cannot endure on our own, and God has not called us to do so.
Brothers and sisters, you will suffer. Suffering is an essential part of the Christian life. Christ’s path to glory went through the cross, and if we are to share in his glory, we must also share in his suffering. There can be no resurrection to new life without death. To fill you, God must first empty you. You must prepare by daily filling the storehouses of your heart with the truth of the gospel. You must remember that your vision will be blurred and distorted by your sorrow and pain. You must look for the shafts of moonlight that God is providing for you as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Too often, our reaction to suffering is to become angry with God. We cry out in our pain and sorrow, and it seems as if he’s not answering us at all. I’ve noticed for myself that part of this stems from the fact that I’m not always crying out for the right thing. See, when I’m lost by darkness and blinded by pain, I want God to give me sight: “Help me understand exactly why this is happening and how you’re going to bring me out of this! I need to see, God, if I’m to have any hope.” But while I want sight, I need faith.
God brought Naomi from pleasantness to bitterness, from fullness to emptiness. But contrary to what she could see, this wasn’t God’s movement to destroy her, but to save her, as well as all mankind. God was emptying her for the purpose of filling her, and it was through these events that he would eventually provide her with an offspring who would lead the way for our great Redeemer Jesus Christ. The child who would eventually be born to Ruth and Boaz would be the grandfather of King David, and it’s through the line of King David that our Messiah, Jesus Christ, was delivered to us.
But God didn’t tell Naomi any of this. He didn’t explain what he was doing to her, so she simply had to have faith. What a wonderful example of this Ruth is. She had no more idea than Naomi of how things would work out. The Lord hadn’t given her a direct word, that promised that she would find a husband and have a child. By earthly standards, Orpah was the smart one and Ruth was the fool—but Orpah’s choice brought her out of God’s story, while Ruth’s faith brought her right to heart of it. You want sight, but you need faith.
We want God to tell you how it will all work out: “How will I survive when I’ve lost my job? How can I go on after the death of my spouse? How will my marriage get any better? How will I live with this chronic pain in my body? How will I emerge out of this depression? How will I face my fears? How will I raise all of my support for a church plant in Kalamazoo? How will I make it through a pastoral transition in my church?” And yet, the Lord says what he said to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “That’s what you need to know, and that’s what I can promise you.”
I thank God that my hope doesn’t depend on the strength of my faith, for my faith is often very weak. No, it isn’t the strength of your faith that will save you, but the object of your faith. You must set your faith on Christ. You must hold onto him, even when you cannot see in the darkness. As you cling to him by faith, think of the cross, which looked like a journey to utter despair and hopelessness, and remember that God empties to fill. He had his Son empty himself, taking the form of a servant and being humble to the point of death on a cross, and that led to the great exaltation of our Lord and Savior. It’s the same path that will lead to your joy in heaven for eternity. You will see that every moment of pain, sorrow, and loss was preparing for you an eternal weight of glory, but you won’t always see it now.
Brothers and sisters, have faith. As Cowper writes, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace. Behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.”
Pray with me. Father, it’s so hard sometimes to see what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Lord, we confess that our faith is weak, but we thank you that the object of our faith is not. He is a sure and a steadfast anchor for our souls. I pray that you would help us to fix our eyes on our crucified and risen Lord, and to help each other to do so—that as the storm of life swirls around us, we would not be distracted and begin to sink, but instead look to our Lord and Savior, and (by his grace) walk upon the water to him. Help us, we pray, by your Spirit, your word, and the fellowship that you have given us at this church. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.