Passage: Ruth 1:1–1:22
God will empty us of lesser things to fill us with better things.
[Audio is not available for this sermon.]
On June 8th, 2021, an episode of America’s Got Talent aired where a woman named Jane, who uses Nightbirde as her stage name, performed a song for her audition. She was thirty years old. She told the judges she’d be singing an original song called “It’s OK”. One judge asked what it’s about and she said it’s about the last year of her life. When asked what she does for a living, she said she hasn’t been working for quite a few years because she has been dealing with cancer. Simon Cowell then asked how she is now. She shared, “Last time I checked, I had some cancer in my spine and my lungs and my liver.”
With her song title of “It’s OK” in mind, one judged said, “So... you’re not ok.” She replied, “Well, not in every way, no.” The judge then said, “You’ve got a beautiful smile and a beautiful glow and nobody would know.” Jane told them, “It’s important that everyone knows I’m so much more than the bad things that happen to me.”
Then she sang. Her song was moving. It was authentic. It was real. The judges and the crowd gave her a standing ovation. Simon Cowell was brought to tears. They were amazed at her spirit and attitude. She told them, “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” The video of this audition has been watched over 35 million times as people find encouragement in their own pain.
Today we are beginning a four week sermon series called Redeeming Love in the Old Testament book of Ruth. This little book is only four chapters long but it has so many layers to it and it connects with so many other parts of the Bible.
The backdrop for this story is dark. It’s a story about one woman’s tragic loss and devastating suffering. Her feelings in the midst of her suffering are ones we can relate to. She feels God is against her. In our suffering we might ask, “God, why is this happening? How can you allow this? Where are you? Don’t you care?”
This is a typical response to suffering and that is why people are so drawn to Jane’s response to suffering. Her attitude is so abnormal, so out of the ordinary, and so untypical. In an interview backstage, she shared, “I have a two percent chance of survival but two percent is not zero percent. Two percent is something and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” We are inspired by Jane’s response to her suffering because it is so unique compared to the typical response.
But while the story is about how God works in one woman’s life, this story points beyond her story. At the end of the book, there is a genealogy showing us that Ruth is the great grandmother of king David. David was the greatest king of Israel in the Old Testament. He set the standard for every king after him. While king after king who came after David failed, through the prophets, God promised a King in the family of David who would remain faithful to him and bring God’s kingdom to earth. Then Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew chapter 1 show us that Jesus is born into the family of David and Ruth is his far-off great grandmother (Mt 1:5; cf. Lk 3:32). So this book goes far beyond one woman’s tragic suffering a long time ago. This book is about God’s response to all human suffering, all evil, and all darkness in the world.
This first chapter has three parts: an introduction, then two scenes. Let’s begin looking at the introduction.
Introduction (Ruth 1:1-5)
Verse 1 places this story “in the days when the judges ruled.” The book of Judges tells us that this was a chaotic time in the history of Israel. The nation went through the same cycle over and over again: they turned away from God so God allowed other nations to invade them, then they cried out to God and God raised up a leader called a “judge” to rescue them. Then the cycle repeats. Two times the book of Judges gives a summarizing description of this time in Israel’s history: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). “No king” refers both to the future Davidi king and to their ultimate King, God. The nation had abandoned God and wasn’t living in line with God’s commands and values. This was a time of moral and spiritual decline and political chaos (Does that sound familiar?). This rough and violent era is part of the dark backdrop against which this story takes place.
Verse 1 also tells us there was a famine in the land. In the book of Deuteronomy, God said that if the nation turned from him, there wouldn’t be any rain to grow their crops so this famine is possibly the result of turning from God.
Then we are introduced to a man named Elimelech who lives in the town of Bethlehem in Israel and is part of the tribe of Judah. Both Bethlehem and Judah should ring bells for us because Bethlehem is where both David and Jesus were born and both David and Jesus are from the tribe of Judah, the tribe God chose to be the royal tribe from which kings come.
In order to survive the famine, Elimelech packs up his family - his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion - and moves to the neighboring country of Moab. Then in verse 3 we are told:
3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. (Ruth 1:3)
We just met this guy and now he’s dead! Verse 4 tells us that Naomi’s sons each marry a Moabite woman, Orpah and Ruth. But both of them also die in verse 5. And so Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. This introduction covers a ten-year time period to introduce us to Naomi’s tragic situation. The rest of the chapter tells us what she does in response through two scenes. Let’s look at the first scene that takes place on the road from Moab back to Bethlehem.
Scene 1: On the Road to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6-18)
Verse 6 says that Naomi sets out from Moab with her two daughters-in-law because she heard that God had provided food for his people back in Israel. Ruth and Orpah start the journey with her back to Bethlehem but somewhere along the way, perhaps at the edge of Moab, Naomi stops and says to them:
“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!” (Ruth 1:8b-9a)
Instead of continuing with their mother-in-law, Naomi urges them to return to their own mothers. They have honored her and their dead husbands through their love and kindness. Naomi prays a blessing over them, asking God to deal kindly with them and to grant them new husbands. Then she kisses them and all three lift up their voices and weep.
Both Ruth and Orpah have the same reply to Naomi:
“No, we will return with you to your people” (Ruth 1:10).
Naomi doesn’t accept this. She says:
“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.” (Ruth 1:11-13)
Naomi presents a rational, logical argument. It doesn’t benefit her daughters-in-law in any way to go with her. She is too old to marry a new husband and have sons for them to marry. And even if that did happen, would they really wait until those sons were old enough to be married? The best case scenario is that she would be married tonight and become pregnant, but would they really remain unmarried while these sons grew up so they could marry them?
The last sentence brings us into Naomi’s perspective on this whole situation:
“No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:13)
In other words, you really don’t want to link your future to mine. You are putting your eggs in the wrong basket. You don’t want to set sail with this ship because it’s sinking. God is against me, so you don’t want to be anywhere near me.
Again they lift up their voices and weep. Then Orpah kisses her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clings to Naomi. Orpah accepted Naomi’s logic. But Ruth doesn’t. So Naomi tries again to convince her:
“See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” (Ruth 1:15)
It’s almost like Naomi has given up on her God. “Why would you want to come with me? God is against me. Go back to your gods. They’ll treat you better than mine has treated me.”
Ruth is adamant though. She says:
“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.” (Ruth 1:16-17)
These beautiful words express deep commitment. In fact, sometimes people will have this read during wedding ceremonies because of the commitment it expresses. Naomi has made a rational argument to both her daughters-in-law about why they should not go with her. It makes sense why Orpah returns to Moab. She doesn’t do anything wrong in doing so. The logic of Naomi’s advice and Orpah’s following of it highlights even more the radical commitment Ruth makes to Naomi. Naomi convinces Orpah to make a rational decision, but Ruth makes a relational decision. Ruth has already shown steadfast love to Naomi and she will continue to do so. Ruth shows us a love that doesn’t make logical sense. Ruth shows us a love that is self-sacrificing, that puts another person’s well-being above self. Ruth lays down her life for Naomi’s benefit. She leaves all that is comfortable and familiar for an unknown people and an unknown place. She leaves behind her prospects of having a new life in order to accompany Naomi. She commits to Naomi “till death do us part”. This is a pledge of allegiance to Naomi and her God, expressing a faith that probably already existed in Ruth.
Naomi sees Ruth’s determination and says no more. So now we move into scene two where these two women arrive in Bethlehem.
Scene 2: Arriving in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:19-22)
Ten years ago, Naomi left Bethlehem with a husband and two sons. When Naomi walks into town with only Ruth the Moabite, the small town is stirred up. And perhaps they can see in Naomi’s face and demeanor that time has not been good to her. The women of the town ask one another, “Is this Naomi?”
Naomi’s response reveals how she feels about it all:
“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?” (Ruth 1:20-21)
The name “Naomi” means “pleasant” and she feels far from pleasant and she feels that God’s treatment of her has been far from pleasant. The word “Mara” means “bitter”, and this is how she believes God has treated her. She left Bethlehem full and now she returns empty. This chapter tells the story of Naomi’s emptying.
Should we agree with Naomi’s assessment of her life? Is God to blame for what has happened to her? The existence of evil and suffering in our world is a huge barrier for many people to believe in God. They will say: if God is both good and powerful, then evil should not exist. Suffering and pain should not exist. If God really is both good and powerful, he would do something about all the evil, pain, and suffering in the world. But since our world is filled with evil, pain, and suffering, that means God can’t be both good and powerful. He’s one or the other. Maybe he really is good and hates all the suffering in our world, but he doesn’t have the power to do anything about it. Or maybe he really is powerful enough to do something about it, but because he isn’t good, he lets suffering continue to exist. Or perhaps the world is the way it is because God doesn’t exist at all.
The entire Bible assumes that God is powerful and in control of everything that happens in his world. This is referred to as God’s sovereignty. Naomi clearly believes God is in control of her life and is responsible for what has happened to her. She said that the hand of the LORD had gone out against her (v 13), that the Almighty had dealt very bitterly with her (v 20), that she went away full and the Lord brought her back empty (v 21), and that the Lord had testified against her and brought this calamity upon her (v 21). And she’s right. God is in control.
The Bible also clearly teaches that God is absolutely good, loving, and kind. So how do we make sense of this? If God is both powerful and good, why is there suffering and evil in the world? Why was there such suffering and pain in Naomi’s life? Why is there suffering and pain in our lives?
While it is true that God is in control of everything, it’s also true that God is not in control over good and over evil in exactly the same way. God stands sovereignly over both good and evil, but he stands directly behind every good (Jas 1:17) and indirectly behind every evil (Jas 1:13). This is how Joseph’s statement in the book of Genesis to his brothers about the evil they did to him can make sense: “You intended it for evil; but God intended it for good” (Gen 50:20). Joseph’s brothers did evil things to Joseph and they are responsible for that. At the same time, their actions were not a deviation from God’s good plans and purposes. God didn’t do evil, but he used evil for good.
Joni Erickson Tada is a Christian woman who founded an organization to share hope through hardship. When she was young, she broke her neck diving and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. During her physical rehabilitation, she struggled with deep depression. Her friend Steve told her something that has stuck with her: “Joni, sometimes God permits what He hates to accomplish that which He loves.” The point is that God did not design a world of evil, suffering, and death. Those elements entered our world through human sin. One day God will cleanse this world of evil, suffering, and death and wipe away every tear from our eyes. But for now, God permits what he hates to accomplish that which he loves.
We don’t have to choose between God being powerful and God being good. The truth is that God is powerful enough to use bad for good. It’s good news that God is in control of everything, including the suffering in our lives. This means nothing is purposeless. This means that there is not some force, event, or person that can derail God’s purposeful, loving, and good plans for us or for this world. There is nothing that can grab the wheel from God and steer things off course. And this also means that nothing is wasted. When we say to God, “Why did that happen to me? Where were you?” his answer isn’t, “Yeah..sorry about that. I was dealing with something else when that happened.” He doesn’t say, “Yeah, that was totally unexpected. I didn’t see that coming.” He doesn’t say, “I wish I could have stopped that but it was just too much for me to handle.” No, God is writing your story and there aren’t moments when someone or something else pushes him out of the way and takes over for a couple pages or a couple chapters.
Naomi believes God is powerful, but she is struggling to believe God is good and loving, or more accurately, she is struggling to believe God is good and loving toward her. She prays God’s blessing on Orpah and Ruth, believing God can use his power to do good for them. But she doesn’t believe God will do that for her or is doing that for her. When we express sadness, disappointment, anger, and grief in this way it’s called lament. Many people do it in the Bible and many Psalms are lament psalms. The inclusion of lament in the Bible is God’s invitation to us to bring all of our emotions to him as a valid way to interact with and even worship him, even if they are angry emotions toward him.
However, there are a few ways that Naomi expresses herself that we don't want to imitate. First, biblical lament is addressed to God. Naomi talks about God instead of to God. Lament is a tool to stay in conversation with God, not a way to complain about him. Second, biblical lament typically moves from complaint about a situation to confidence in God. Naomi only complains. She doesn’t believe in God’s goodness, faithfulness, and love for her in the midst of the pain.
When Job loses everything, he says, “The LORD gives and the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” This is a mature faith. But getting there is a process. Job eventually complains for a looooong time. I don't think we should be too hard on Naomi. She’s in the raw feelings of grief and anguish. We don't need to get to the end right away.
Are you where Naomi was? Are you thinking or asking, “Why is God against me? Why is God making life so bitter for me? Why is God making things so painful, so difficult, so heart-breaking? Why won’t God take this thing away?” If you are asking these questions, then the place to go with them is to God. Are you angry with God? If so, you need to work through that with him.
A knife in the hands of an evil person is used to kill. But a knife in the hands of a doctor is used to heal. It’s the same instrument used for different purposes. Both will cause pain. But with one the pain is a path to death and with the other pain is the path to healing and life.
We need to submit ourselves to the surgery God wants to do in our lives. We need to surrender ourselves to his goodness and his love. If we continue in anger with God, we are continuing in a heart state that says to him, “I don’t believe you are good. I don’t believe you are loving. I don’t believe you are doing what is best for me. I want something besides you and your purpose for my life.”
This book is a story about how God loves Israel even in her darkest hour. During the time of the judges when Israel turned from God as their King, God was still working for their benefit, preparing for a king after his own heart, king David.
This is also a story about how God loves Naomi even in her darkest hour. She loses her sons, but then God works to make her the great, great grandmother of king David. Ruth ends up marrying a man named Boaz and they have a son named Obed who is later the grandfather of king David. In Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, God is shaping a family who know his heart of love for them so that they become a family after God’s own heart so that they can pass that down to other generations, to David’s grandfather, his father, and David himself.
Finally, this is a story about how God loves the whole human race in our darkest hour. King David is the ancestor of the ultimate King: Jesus, the Son of God. Ruth attaches herself to Naomi in her pain, clings to her, and says, “I am with you. I’m not going anywhere. I will not leave you or forsake you.” Ruth left Moab to love Naomi. Jesus left heaven to love us. At the cross when we killed the only Son of God, God himself was laying down his life for his to love us in our darkest hour, working for our good. Love isn’t always logical and rational. Love commits. Love lays down its life. Love is self-sacrificing, giving for the benefit of the other. Love doesn’t explain; love embraces. Through Jesus God embraces us. God’s primary response to suffering is not to give us an explanation but to give us himself. We might now know the “why”, but we can trust the “who”.
Jane, who sang her original song “It’s OK” on America’s Got Talent and has captivated millions, wrote this on her blog:
“I haven’t come as far as I’d like, in understanding the things that have happened this year. But here’s one thing I do know: when it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. So why do we believe that when we are in pain, it must mean God is far?”
We need to believe that God is a better author of our story than we are. In our anger and bitterness, we tend to believe “God, I think I could write a better story for my life than you are writing.” The reality is that God loves you no matter what so you can trust him no matter what.
Many of you know that in September of 2017, Katie and I held a newborn baby girl in our arms that we hoped to adopt. We had her ultrasound on our nightstand, we prayed for her, we named her, we took care of her in the hospital. But in the end, the birth father fought the adoption so we did not get to take her home. It was heart-breaking. We felt God had led us to adoption and our hearts had become attached to this little girl. Why would God do this?
Katie’s sister sent us a song “Thy Will” to encourage us. For both of us this is an emotional song and I still often cry when I hear it.
I’m so confused
I know I heard You loud and clear
So, I followed through
Somehow I ended up here
I don’t wanna think
I may never understand
That my broken heart is a part of Your plan
When I try to pray
All I’ve got is hurt and these four words
Thy will be done
Thy will be done
Thy will be done
I know You’re good
But this don’t feel good right now
And I know You think
Of things I could never think about
It’s hard to count it all joy
Distracted by the noise
Just trying to make sense
Of all Your promises
Sometimes I gotta stop
Remember that You’re God
And I am not
Thy will be done
Thy will be done
Thy will be done
The hardest prayer for our self-centered, prideful human hearts to pray is: “Your will be done.” But this is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer and it’s the prayer he prayed himself in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed. As he faced death on the cross, Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). One of the moments we are most like Jesus is when we can pray this as we face our own suffering, as we bear our own cross. “God, please take this away from me, but your will be done, not mine.” We trust that in dying to ourselves, to our own plans, to our own comfort, God will bring life.
The story of Ruth starts with emptying. It starts with losing. It starts with lament. It starts with death. But it will end with filling, it will end with gaining, it will end with praise, and it will end with new life from the grave. God empties Naomi to put her in a position to be truly filled. God will empty us of lesser things to fill us with better things. God calls us to be people who respond to suffering differently.
More in Ruth: Redeeming Love
November 21, 2021Witnesses of Redeeming Love
November 14, 2021“Cover Me”: The Interactions of Three Normal, Godly People
November 7, 2021Under His Wings