Narrative Lectionary Text: Ruth 1:1-22
It is good to be back.
I’ve been on a sabbatical for the past six weeks so that I can focus on writing my dissertation. First, let me officially say thank you to Pastor Mark, the vision board, and all of you for allowing me the space to do this. Second, let me give you a quick update. I got over the big hump of figuring out how to start writing this thing. I wrote a solid rough draft of the first two chapters. Now, I have to finish the research, which ends in November. Then, in December and January I will write the next three chapters and, my goal is to turn in the final draft by January 30. We are on the last lap of this journey, so I ask that you continue to pray for me and my family as we get this done.
My time away was good. My head is clearer now. We spent the first couple weeks of the sabbatical in Denver with family. I love Denver and I love the mountains. I got to go on some really beautiful hikes up in the mountains.
I have to tell you about this one hike to Mt. Falcon.
It started out as a beautiful day. The trail wasn’t too strenuous. It circled around the mountain rather than going straight up the mountain. I was with my daughter, my sister-in-law, my niece and her little baby girl who was strapped into one of those baby backpack-carrier thingies.
We started walking and it was awesome. Just after we passed the half way point, on the other side of the mountain from the car, the sprinkles started. At first it was like, “Oh this is nice. The little sprinkles are refreshing.”
Then we came to a fork in the path. If we go to the right it would be a very short walk to the car. If we go to the left it goes straight up the mountain to the peak and then down the other side to meet up with the path to the right. right, left, right, left?
We chose left and up we went.
That’s when the skies decided to open up. The rain started pouring down in sheets of water. Thunder rumbled across the sky. Lightning cracked right above our heads.
Did I mention the baby? Yeah, she was not very happy.
So, there we are. The water is pouring, the thunder is roaring, and the baby is screaming. What do we do? We can’t turn back, because that would be further than moving forward.
All we could do was walk, in the freezing, pouring rain.
I’m not gonna lie. That wasn’t all that fun. I was a little bitter. I’m like, “seriously, I get how many chances a year to hike in the mountains, and I get this?!?”
I wonder if you’ve ever felt that way in life.
Do you ever have moments in your life when you look around and it seems like no matter where you look things are going crazy and are out of control?
[level-free]We turn on the news and see commercial airliners getting shot out of the sky, Jews and Palestinians constantly bombing each other, ISIS bombing Christians and Americans bombing ISIS, craters in Siberia belching methane, aaaahhhh!
Then we look away from the global picture and things are just as bad in our own homes. People are fighting, loved ones are dying of cancer, the bills keep piling up.
To quote the great theologian Ozzy Ozborne, it’s like we’re “going off the rails on a crazy train.”
I think that is how Naomi felt in the opening scene of the book of Ruth.
For the next three weeks we are going to finish off our summer with a look at this wonderful little story called Ruth. I think, if we pay close attention to it, we’ll find that there is hope, even in the most confusing times.
Open your Bibles to Ruth and lets’ set the stage.
Like any good movie, the opening scene frames the story and sets us up for the plot. Let’s look at four frames.
The first frame is the big picture of politics.
Look at verse 1. It says,
“In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land,”
If we really want to understand the story of Ruth, we have to go back and remember that this story takes place in the bigger picture of the book of Judges.
Remember that this whole story begins when God makes a big promise to Abraham back in Genesis 12. God says, “Abraham, I am going to bless you and through your offspring I will bless the whole world.” You are blessed to be a blessing.
Then Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, has twelve sons and their children become the twelve tribes of Israel. These twelve tribes were supposed to be the physical example of God’s love and peace on earth. But things didn’t work out that way. Instead the tribes chose to follow the idols of the Canaanite people. They turned away from God and they turned on each other.
Here’s my picture of Judges. Each generation got progressively worse as they went off the rails on a crazy train. The very last story in Judges tells of a man whose concubine was raped and murdered by a neighboring tribe, so he cut up her body into twelve pieces and mailed them to each of the twelve tribes.
And you thought TV was bad today.
Then look at the last line of Judges. “all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
The big frame shows a world that is out of control.
Then we come to the second frame. Here we bring it down from the big picture and look into the life of one woman and her family.
Naomi was a Jewish woman married to Elimelech. They lived in Bethlehem with their two sons. The famine forced them to leave their home and go to a foreign country called Moab. They were there for ten years. Her sons married Moabite wives. But then her husband and her two sons died.
The gravity of this scene escapes us in our culture. In those days, if a woman had no husband and no sons, that meant she had nothing.
Naomi returns home, ten years later, as a completely destitute woman. Try to imagine the scene. She stumbles into Bethlehem. The people squint and do a double take. “Wait! Naomi? Is that you?”
“Don’t call me that!” she screams. “Naomi means pleasant. I am anything but pleasant. God has turned his back on me. Call me Mara! Mara means bitter!”
Have you ever wanted to be called Mara? Honestly? I know I have.
We have to let ourselves go to this place if we are going to catch the depth of the next two frames.
The third frame zooms in on this young woman named Ruth.
Ruth is a Moabite, not a Jew. The Moabites started back in Genesis. Do you remember the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? Lot escaped from their destruction with his two daughters. While the three of them were hiding out in a cave the daughters got Lot drunk and made him get them pregnant. One of the children from that union was named Moab.
Hey, I’m not making this stuff up.
So, as you can imagine, the Moabites were not that highly esteemed by the Jewish people. And yet, here is this young woman named Ruth, the Moabitess. She is a widow and her mother-in-law wants to leave Moab, Ruth’s home, and go back to Bethlehem.
Naomi looks at her daughters-in-law and gives them really sound advice. She says, “why would you want to follow a poor old woman back to a foreign country. Go home. Start over, while you’re still young.
Orpah, the other widow daughter-in-law, agrees and returns home. But Ruth completely surprises us. She looks at Naomi and says, in verses 16 and 17,
Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
In other words, “Naomi, I am completely committed to you. I am all in.”
What we see in Ruth is a common theme throughout the Bible. The example of God’s promise to the world is best exemplified, not in the chosen people of Israel, but in the most unlikely person from a foreign country, like Ruth.
We saw it back in the story of Joshua, when God worked through a prostitute from Jericho. Now God works through a widow from Moab. The interesting thing is that both of these women are in the line of generations that leads to….who? to Jesus.
So, we have this big crazy political frame, and this bitter widow frame, and this amazing contrast of a faithful foreigner.
The stage is set and there is one more frame.
Look at the last line of chapter one. It says, “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”
If I were a film maker I would move from this picture of a bitter woman and a faithful foreigner, returning from a decade of despair, and I would move the camera down to a ripe head of barley, gently blowing in the wind, and then I would fade to black.
It is harvest time. The long, hot summer of waiting is over and it time for something good to happen.
This is the frame of hope.
That’s what this little book is all about.
No matter how out of control your life might be right now, we must remember that there is always hope.
Even though the nations have turned from God to chase after idols of power and wealth and self-indulgence, God’s promise can be found in the most unlikely places and through the most unlikely people.
Ruth was committed to Naomi. God is committed to the promise God made to us. We’ll discover in the story of Ruth that true faithfulness–the true way of God–is a commitment to the other person that is made when it is truly for the other person and not for ourself.
That’s the kind of commitment God has made to us. When Jesus died on the cross, that was God saying to us, “I’m all in.”
Let us cling to that hope today.