[This sermon was preached on Ruth chapter 1 on Sunday, April 2, 2017, at Christ Church Paarl by William King. The audio version can be found here.]
I am sure you will all agree that no-one plans a life of hardship. We all hope for a life free of pain and agony. But, likewise, all will agree that where the rubber hits the road, there is the reality that life is not such a smooth journey. In fact, it can sometimes be a very tough journey. And this is what our text shows us.
We meet a family of four, father, mother and two sons. The circumstances in their home country are very difficult. A famine is causing the people to take desperate measures. Elimelech and Naomi take their two sons and move across the border into Moab to find a better life. Initially, all seems a-ok, but this would soon change. This family realized what so many of us do: life is a tough journey!
A journey marked with hardship
We see that life is hard for Naomi and her two daughters-in-law on two levels. First, there is the physical and circumstantial. This is described in different ways. The move to Moab was because of dire circumstances. The time of the Judges was particularly difficult. We see a continual pattern of sin, judgement, repentance, restoration, followed by more sin and judgment. The writer of Judges sums it up:
In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)
It was during one of these judgment periods that Elimelech and Naomi left in search of a better life.
Driven out by hardship, they had to leave their country they loved – a country under God’s judgment to a country that did not have a better standing before God. Her sons even went on to marry women that were not from the people of God! But there was food and the hope of a better life.
Well, the journey was about to get worse. Naomi’s husband died and soon after a double and triple blow as her sons died! This left her in a terrible place. There was no financial supply, but even worse, no offspring for her family, which would become a critical pivot in the history that is being described.
But there was also the spiritual journey. Often this is harder to deal with than the physical. The harshness of Naomi’s experience can be heard in her speech to her two daughters-in-law, as well as her answer to the women when she returns. Her clear message is portrayed in how she changes her name from Naomi to Mara. Her experience is one of a life that changed from sweetness or pleasantness to one of utter bitterness! She is adamant that God turned against her and afflicted her to the extent that she returned empty-handed.
In her mind, she left with much (full), but under the judgment of God, she returned with nothing (empty). This is clearly the testimony of someone who felt the hammer blows of life and was down on the ground. She verbalises the thoughts of so many that lived before and after her. It might be that her words are echoing in your own heart and mind as you are experiencing the harshness of life.
The Turning Point
Verse 6 mentions the turning point:
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 [legem – bread].
God’s hand in this is explicitly mentioned. He is in control and supplies in the needs of His people. There is nothing random about the words used to describe His visitation. Foodwas an important factor why Naomi and her husband initially left. Food was also central to the unfolding of the rest of the story. This is significant, as it signifies God’s direct provision for the immediate need. Physically they needed food, but spiritually the needed to be fed as well. And in Scriptures, bread is an important metaphor for God supplying in the spiritual need of His people. Bethlehem was also known as the house of bread. Elimelech and his family were from Bethlehem. Furthermore, we discover how Boaz, a family member, would supply for Ruth and Naomi.
In John, our Lord Jesus Christ identifies Himself and the significance of His life for humanity as the “Bread of Life”. We celebrate that in the Lord’s Supper. In Christ, God visited humanity and supplied bread, the bread of life, that supplies everything we need to sustain us spiritually.
This change in circumstances prompted Naomi to move back to Israel. And this transpired in a very significant discourse between the three women. Naomi’s plea to her daughters-in-law is to return to their own – back to their country, their own people, and their own gods. Her argument is important in the unfolding of the story and is built on the fact that there will be no offspring for them through her. Orpah decides it is wise to turn back, but Ruth sticks with the most profound testimony [16-17]:
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.
She determined to make this journey back with Naomi. This was Ruth’s turning point!
God always brings the change, the turning point, in His time and with His good purpose in mind.
But where is God in difficult times?
This leads us to ask, where was God then when this woman and her family was going through all this hardship? Was Naomi right in her view and theology? Three things are clear from her testimony:
- She never doubted the existence of God. Not for one second did she attribute what happened to her to the gambling hand of fate. In contrast to the atheistic view that things happen randomly (for which they are angry at God), Naomi emphatically attributed her life and what happened to her to God.
- With this, she also confessed that God is sovereign and in control. There was no random process, no hidden evolutionary selection to sustain the strongest and filter out the weaklings. She also did not attribute it to any demon, foreign god, or Satan, as if God somehow lost control over one of these creatures. This is such a popular argument when it comes to suffering!
- Thirdly, she attributed what happened to her to God. He was responsible! Our modern minds tend to call her, and those who do this, heretics. Although the modern version of God is softened for our liking, Scripture testifies against it.
Ruth’s experience is remarkable. In her mind, through the whole journey with Naomi and her family, she got attached to the God of Israel even to the point of facing death. For Ruth, God is bigger than the sorrows she experienced. No doubt, she came to know God through the life and character of Naomi, even in the way she faced hardship.
When we take these two women’s theology together, we find a powerful tension of God’s role in our human suffering. He is there, He is sovereignly in control, He even allows it, He is ever-present, sustaining, purposefully using even the bad to bring about the good. The same testimony we hear in Joseph’s words to his brothers:
As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Genesis 50:20)
Job testifies to the same:
Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORDgave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil? For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God,
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when it is laid on him; let him put his mouth in the dust- there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults. For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:22-33)
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died-more than that, who was raised-who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39)
In a sense, Naomi failed to acknowledge that God was also causing the good to happen. She did not return empty to her native country. On the contrary, she returned with the ancestor of the Redeemer. She returned as one who’s faith did withstand the test. She never forsook her God, or cursed him, or blasphemed Him. Her missing the goodness of God is a typical human experience in the midst of calamity and hardship. Therefore, it is important to constantly be reminded that God is not oblivious to or absent in your circumstances. He is there, working His good, as He has promised, ever sustaining us through the Bread of Life, always the turning point.