Bob Carr, former Premier of NSW, has had a number of achievements. He’s the longest serving NSW Premier. He delivered the 2000 Olympics. But it was actually in 1999, the year before the 2000 Olympics, when he had, in his words, one of his proudest achievements. In 1999 he called a drug summit. And the result, many people believe, was that Sydney was saved from a heroin epidemic.
See it was personal for Bob Carr. His own brother had died from a heroin overdose. And during the Summit, Carr was quoted as saying this. “The view I reached is that life is an inherently disappointing experience for most human beings” His experience of why people die of drug addictions, well, it’s to numb life’s disappointments.
Life doesn’t always work out the way we think it will or should.
You only need to scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see that we’ve all had our dreams get shattered. Our hopes have never materialised, disappointments have come our way. Health challenges both physical and mental, get in the way.
Someone else gets the job, you’re always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
I know a dad who, after discovering their kid had autism, has never really been the same. His own career had to be put on hold and he was crushed under the weight of family expectations.
Well someone who felt despair and devastation, hopelessness and hurt, pain and suffering, was the family we meet in Ruth 1. And what we discover from this story is that Yes, life is unfair. I think we’ve all felt and tasted that.
Life is unfair, but God is not.
Here in Chapter 1, there’s really two movements in the story.
There’s the story of Naomi going away. Verses 1-5.
Then there’s story of Naomi returning home. Verses 6-22.
So first, going away. This story opens, as you’d expect, under tragic circumstances, Ruth 1:1
In the days when the judges ruled… (NIV)
That’s code for, these were NOT good days. You only need to flip one page back in your Bible. To the very last sentence in the book of Judges. It closes with these words:
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit (NIV)
In other words: chaos and anarchy. As if that wasn’t bad enough. Next part of verse 1 “there was famine in the land” Between a drought and bushfires around us right now, it’s not too hard to imagine what life was like for these guys. Here’s Israel, with no one calling the shots, and a whole heap of angry people walking around! Famine in the land in the time of the judges meant one thing, and one thing only.
Israel had only themselves to blame.
Why do I say that? Well, a key part of the Old Testament story, in fact the entire story of the Bible, is the fact that God is a God who makes promises. God had promised, way back in Genesis 12. He promised an Iraqi pensioner named Abraham three things: Land, Offspring and Blessing.
And so you fast forward to Ruth.
Offspring, tick. Abraham was about 90 when God made the promise to him. Sarah, his wife was even older. Guess how many children they already had? Zero. But God opened Sarah’s womb so that Isaac would be born. And from Isaac, came more children who produced more children. Here they are now, a great nation - Israel - thousands upon thousands.
What about land? After a couple of false starts, plenty of doubting and wandering in the desert, Israel’s now home. Living in the land God had promised them.
And finally blessing. Well, not exactly. See God had given this land for Israel to enjoy. He’d given it to bless them! But instead, the people had turned their backs on God. They’d ignored God’s laws. They’d chosen to do what was right - not in God’s eyes, but in their own eyes. And so this land - with every potential to be a land flowing with milk and honey became a land with - well nothing. Literally. Israel was reaping what it had sown. Pun intended. It’s not as if they weren’t warned this would happen! Look at Leviticus 26:18-20
‘If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you for your sins seven times over. I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze. Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of your land yield their fruit. (NIV)
Come the second half of verse 1, there’s a mistake. Not a spelling mistake. Not a grammar mistake. But a mistake made by a man named Elimelek, this was the biggest mistake of his life. Ruth 1:1
…So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons went to live for a while in the country of Moab. (NIV)
Moving house, as so many of you know, is no easy task. There’s the culling, the packing boxes. But it’s more than that isn’t it? There’s pulling up roots, leaving friends. There’s uncertainty. This wasn’t a decision to move to Melbourne coz the coffee and culture’s better. Or to Brisbane coz the houses are cheaper. No, this was a deliberate move, on foot mind you, to Moab!
Of all places why Moab?! Moab was a nation literally birthed out of an incestuous relationship! Between Lot and his own daughter! She wants a child to preserve the family line. There’s no other men. She gets dad drunk, sleeps with him, and out pops Moab. Not only that, Moab had a reputation. So much so they weren’t allowed to enter any Israelite temple. And then speaking of Judges, in Judges 3, you can read about Eglon. He’s a, yes, you guessed it, King of Moab, who invades Israel.
Most people don’t go and set up home in the fields of their enemies. And yet, here’s one family who abandons the land God’s handed to them. Who move away from the people God’s surrounded them with. And cut themselves off from the blessing God was prepared to give them. The solution wasn’t to take matters into their own hands and run away. It was to fall on their knees and repent! To turn back to God!
So off goes Elimelek. Whose name by the way means “God is my king”. Boy, he’s done a terrible job of living up to his name! Elimelek is married to Naomi. Her name means sweet or pleasant. Along with their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. Their names mean ‘sick’ and ‘had it’. Bizarre. Don’t know why you’d name your kids ‘sick’ and ‘had it’
Together, they leave Bethlehem, literally “the house of Bread” to find some actual bread! Can you see the irony here! Well, how did things work out for them? Not good as you can imagine. Not good at all. Elimelek escapes death only to meet death in Moab. The two sons marry Moabite women. Orpah and Ruth. But then 10 years later both the sons die.
Naomi sets out from Bethlehem with her family. In the space of 5 verses, she’s left with nothing. She’s lost it all. Imagine how Naomi must have felt! One minute she’s got three men in her life. Next minute, they’re all dead. And now she’s stuck in a foreign country, with no income. No Centrelink system. No support structures. She’s broken, downcast and it seems, with no prospects on the horizon. She’s utterly hopeless. She has had the unimaginable grief of burying not only her husband.
And not just 1 son as if that’s not horrible enough. But both sons.
As someone who went through that last year when I buried my own daughter. I can get a glimpse of it. But not as much as my own mother-in-law. She probably comes the closest to Naomi here. She’s buried not only her own husband, but her own son and her grand-daughter.
I know many of you have endured some horrible things in your life. Utterly devastating. My experience is different to your experience. But it still hurts just the same. It still kicks us in the guts. And so, just as I said at the start, life’s unfair. Pain, suffering, disappointment, it’s not a question of if those things will come your way, but when.
What’s the solution? Become a Christian! Coz Jesus will fix everything. You’ll become bulletproof and nothing bad will ever happen again in your life. Right? WRONG!
In fact, I reckon being a follower of Jesus can make it even harder. See I’ve been following Jesus for about just over half my life. I believe that Jesus is calling the shots. He’s the boss. And if that’s the case, well then, why doesn’t God just click his fingers and fix it. If God’s all powerful, why doesn’t he bring an end to all the suffering, the hurt, the pain? Why does he make me go through the heartache of losing a child. Or why does your mental health get the better of you?
And so, the question that Ruth 1 answers is this. Is it worth following Jesus if you’re going to be disappointed? How are you gonna deal with the hard things in life when they come. Coz they’ll come!
One option would be to take the atheist position. “There’s no God anyway, so I won’t give a stuff. Life is just a series of random events, and these are the cards you get dealt”
Now, I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t seem like a satisfying answer. It just seems a bit cold. We’re not robots, we’re humans, with the full range of emotions, and questions that we search for answers for. Well, the God of the Bible presents a different option. Look at Ruth 1:6
When Naomi heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. (NIV)
Where there had once been famine, God now steps in, He comes to the aid of his people. Not that he was ever absent. But here’s just another sign of how God acts for his people.
Friends, if you’re here today and you’re someone who’s not saved, then please understand this. That the Bible doesn’t see you as being in control of your life. Yes, you have responsibility. Yes, you have power. But there’s another being who has all power. There’s another being who has all control. He’s in control during Naomi’s time. And he’s certainly in control in ours. Both famine and feast come from the same God.
Let’s get back to our story. Whilst Naomi and the two girls are on the road, she gives the option to her two daughters-in-law to turn back. Not just once, but twice, verses 8-9
Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” (NIV)
Then again in verse 13, Naomi tries again. Basically saying: “Think about it girls. Number 1 - I’m too old to get remarried. And second, even if I got a husband tonight. Then I’d have to have a son, and that’s a big if. Would you really wait till you could marry him?
Maybe Naomi’s realised: “Hang on a sec. Two Moabite women, two foreigners entering Judah with me. Maybe that’s not a good idea, maybe I should protect these women from the racism, from the prejudice. And besides, there’s better marriage prospects if they stay in Moab”
But Ruth won’t have a bar of it. She’ll dig her heels in. Ruth speaks only three times in this entire book, so pay attention. Verse 16 and 17.
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (NIV)
I reckon these have gotta be some of the most beautiful words you’ll read in all the Bible. Some people use these words as their marriage vows. But they’re even stronger than marriage! Whereas marriage vows go: For richer, for poor, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.
Ruth insists: “Naomi, not even death’s gonna separate us. I’m going to the grave with you” This is faithfulness in life and for life. Indeed it’s beyond life. Oh, and did you realise there’s absolutely no logical, no human reason for Ruth to say these words. Remember, she’s still going through her own grief, of losing a husband and of infertility. So why does she? Well I reckon she steps out in faith.
What prompts Ruth to turn from the god of Moab? A god called Chemosh, who by the way was a nasty piece of work. Chemosh required children and babies to be sacrificed to it. What prompts Ruth to turn to Naomi’s God, to Yahweh, the God of Abraham? Surely, it’s the fact that she has come to know this God for herself. Whether it was through Naomi. Whether it was through her husband when he was alive. Their testimony, their witness, their words. Even in trials and dark times. All that has led to Ruth now stepping out in faith. Hers is a faith that’s expressed. That’s lived out.
Well, Ruth and Naomi eventually arrive in Bethlehem. There’s quite a commotion. The other women barely recognise her. Word gets out: “Could this be Naomi?” Yes! Yes it is the women say. Naomi responds begins in verse 20.
“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” (NIV)
My goodness: Naomi does not do pretend. That’s one of the things you’ve gotta love about her! She knows she’s made poor choices. She’s not afraid to name how she’s feeling. Whereas you and I would be tempted to question God, to blame God, or at worst, to run away from God. Naomi hasn’t given up on God. She knows the same God is the author of the good, the bad and the ugly in life.
But here’s the thing, God has emptied Naomi. But he’s done it, I reckon to fill her up with something better. Naomi’s bitter, no doubt about it. But let me ask you this. If you were there, next to Naomi, how would you respond to her? Here’s how I’d respond: “Naomi, this is only chapter 1! You don’t know what’s gonna happen in Chapter 2 or Chapter 3. Chapter 4…….But God does. In fact, God knows all of your story.
In fact, we nearly missed it, but did you see it there even in the last verse of chapter 1? God is chipping away at Naomi’s bitterness. Verse 22
So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. (NIV)
How did Chapter 1 begin? In famine. Now, there’s about to be food, food and more food. It’s harvest time! God has well and truly come to the aid of his people! God’s timing is impeccable.
Second, up until now, we’ve known Ruth as just Ruth. But now, at the very end of the chapter, now is when the author tells us that Ruth is a Moabite. I reckon the author’s underlining it for us, putting it in bold. To say, Ruth, remember, she’s a foreigner. God’s kindness isn’t just limited to Israelites. It extends to strangers, foreigners, outsiders. In fact, through this Moabite, blessing comes to not only Naomi, but blessing comes to the entire world. Including you and I here today.
Spoiler alert. Ruth will meet a guy who she ends up marrying. She’ll have a child. Fast forward to the end of the book: Ruth 4:16-17
Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. (NIV)
That same David would end up being the father of Jesus, the Son of David. Naomi was right, God may have emptied her by taking away her husband and her children. But God did it to give her something better, the blessing of a grandson. Naomi ended up getting something far greater than if she stayed in Moab.She had a hand in blessing the entire world.
At the beginning of this talk. Remember how I asked: Is it worth following Jesus in the midst of all the disappointments in life? Well the difference being a follower of Jesus makes is this. Sure the disappointments will continue to come. Yes, there’ll be suffering and setbacks. But what stops us becoming bitter? And instead makes us better is this wonderful promise from Jesus. That it’ll be OK in the end. And if it’s not OK, it’s not the end. That’s what Jesus guarantees to those who trust in him. Those who let Jesus call the shots.
This book of Ruth just puts flesh on that promise. As God uses Naomi and Ruth, people who’ve had disappointments come their way just like you and I, people who’ve tasted all the muck and yuck life throws our way. There’s no miracles in the book of Ruth. Just the mess of life. Ruth is a beautiful example of how God uses messy people to put flesh on these very great and precious promises.
Friends, maybe you’re here today and you’re like Elimelek. You’ve wandered away from God. Maybe like him, you tried living life with him in the picture, but that didn’t work out. So you’ve taken matters into your own hand. If that’s you. Then hear the call to return. Respond like Naomi did. Don’t keep running away. Instead. Return. Return back to the fold of God. Move from being bitter, to being better.
Or maybe you’re someone who’s doing it tough. It doesn’t take much to scratch beneath the surface. We’ve all tasted bitterness. All endured disappointments. From the everyday to the enduring. Well, take a look at Hebrews 12: 7, 10-11
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (NIV)
Hebrews says: don’t be short-sighted. Take the long view when it comes to your hardships. See it from God’s eyes, see it as a loving heavenly Father disciplining you. Resist the urge to see hardship as a problem to be solved or a disaster without purpose. But instead, receive it as a gift from God, an opportunity to grow. An opportunity to bear fruit!
So the next time you’re stuck in traffic jams, think: perhaps God is teaching me patience, or giving me time to reflect on the song we sang at church. Next time, there’s screaming babies or sleepless nights tell yourself: “Father, even though things haven’t gone as well as I hoped. Give me the strength to remain calm.” Over time, the wonderful promise of Hebrews is that all those little moments will produce a bumper crop! Truckloads of righteous and peace that we may share in God’s holiness.
Lets face it, sometimes life can look messy, it’s all over the place. When you stand back, you see it as it truly is, a work of art. You admire it for all it’s worth. That’s the same here in Ruth 1. For when you and I stand back, we’re in awe that God’s kindness is way bigger than human mistakes. God’s kindness isn’t bound by our short-sightedness.