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When the economy crashes - Ruth 1

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 22nd April 2007.

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As you would expect, I go to a lot of funerals.  Indeed, I’m officiating at most of the funerals I go to.  And sometimes, people can suffer multiple bereavements in a short space of time.   I took a funeral in week for a man whose wife had died unexpectedly.  Only a few weeks earlier, his Father had died.  And a couple of days after his wife had died, his immediate next door neighbour died.   3 funerals in quick succession.  And each one adding to the sense of loss and emptiness. 

1.  The Economy Crashes and Naomi is emptied   [v1-5]

And it’s the same story at the beginning Ruth;  the little book we’ll be looking at over the next few weeks.  So it would be a great help if you could turn back to Ruth 1 on p [248/  411] of the church Bibles. 

And you can see from v1 that there was an economic crash.  We’re in the time of the Judges.  So it’s after Joshua and the conquest of the Promised Land.  God’s people were now living in the Promised Land.  The land that was meant to be flowing with Milk and Honey.  A land of economic prosperity that is.  And within the Promised Land, Judah was the grain belt;  the most fertile land.  The place where the cereal crops were grown.  And that’s why, in the middle of Judah, the town of Bethlehem was called Bethlehem.  Because, literally, Bethlehem means “house of bread”. 

And that’s were the man and his family in v 1 were living.  We’re not even told their names until v2.  They weren’t famous.  Just an average family, living average lives.  And that’s what makes the book of Ruth so compelling for average people like me and you.  Most of the OT is dealing with kings, prophets and world superpowers.  But in Ruth, we’ve got a window into the everyday lives of an average Bible-believing family.  A window into 892 Beverley Road or wherever it is you live.  

But then the economy crashes.  V1 tells us that there was a famine in the land.   A famine in the land of Judah;  a famine in the house of Bread.   And so in v2, Elimelech had a choice;  a difficult choice:  do we stay and then work and pray for an improvement, or do we go and hope things are better somewhere else?  And if we go, where do we go?  Because you don’t just move from something;  no a wise move is always towards something better.  But how do we define better?

Maybe you’re praying about a move in your life at the moment.  Maybe your job isn’t going too well.  Or you might be thinking about a change in some other area of your life.  And the question is why?  What are your motives?  Are they right?  And even if they’re not wrong, are they wise? 

Because in Elimelech's case, he chose to take his family to Moab.  That’s about 100 miles by road.    Half the distance we moved last year.  But in those days, there was no Pickfords, no motorways.  Just a long dusty road, with maybe a couple of donkeys.    Imagine moving your family about 100 miles on foot.   

Lots of people have asked me about the differences between living in Essex and Hull.  But Moab really was a different world to the Land of Judah.    The economy might have been doing OK, but the churches were dire.  In the land of Moab, they worshipped a god called Chemosh.    And part of the liturgy for worshiping Chemosh, involved human sacrifice.    Imagine moving your family to a spiritual desert like that. 

But that’s what Elimelech did.  The economy crashed and he became an economic migrant.  But it didn’t last.  Because in v3, we learn that Elimelech died.    And then in v4, his sons marry Moabite women.  10 years later, Naomi still had no grandchildren.  And then in v5, both her sons, Mahlon and Chilion died. 

All funerals are sad.   But the saddest one I’ve taken was for a 42-year old man.  He had Parkinson’s disease and he left a widow and 2 young sons.  The grief at that funeral was intense. Elimelech couldn’t have been that old. But Mahlon and Chilion were certainly in the prime of their life. A tragedy. A triple tragedy in fact. 

But at that time, it was even worse than such a triple tragedy would be today.  There was no social security.  No equal opportunities legislation.  Women had no independent means of earning a living.  And widows were especially vulnerable if they had no other family to help them. 

So what about Naomi?  She’s lost her husband.  She’s lost her 2 sons.   And she’s living in a foreign country.  A country where they worship a false God called Chemosh.  A god who doesn’t care about widows, but who does want human sacrifice.    Naomi the widow.  The widow in dire straits.    That’s who the book is about.  Yes her daughter-in-law Ruth plays an important role as we’ll see later.  But Naomi is the central character.    And at the beginning of the book, Naomi’s in dire straits.   No wonder she says at the end of v13:

Ruth 1:13c:  “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD's hand has gone out against me!"

And over the page in v20 she says: 

Don't call me Naomi, [b] " she told them. "Call me Mara, [c] because the Almighty [d] has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted [e] me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me."

Like some of the Psalmists, she’s venting her frustration with God.  She’s angry with her God.  The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  He’s emptied me of my husband, my children, and my material security.  He has brought calamity on me.  “Why?” you can almost feel her screaming.  Why me?    Are you punishing me?  What have I done to deserve this?   Why why why.    Maybe it’s a question you’ve been asking God.  Maybe it’s a question you’ve asked God many times.   

2  Excursus on Naomi’s assumptions about God

 

a.  Naomi Believed in God

 

But notice Naomi’s assumptions.  There are 3 of them.   First of all, she believes in God.  Now you might be thinking:  well that’s a statement of the blindingly obvious.  But it’s important. Because, only believers in God have a right to ask the question why?  For the atheist, there is no problem of pain and suffering.  Why?  Because there is no meaning.  As the celebrated atheist Richard  Dawkins puts it:

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and we won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.  …. [there is]  no purpose, no evil, no good; nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” 

Most atheists don’t spell out the implications that clearly.  But being a consistent atheist is bleak.  That’s why some of them go clinically mad.    Life is just a giant cosmic accident.  There is no meaning to life.  No meaning in death.  No purpose or reason for suffering.  There is no good, no evil, no love, no justice.  Just random meaninglessness.

But the question is:  does anybody really live like that?    

Certainly Naomi didn’t.  Naomi believed in God.  There’s a reason for the world being here.  There’s a reason for her life.  And there was a reason for the mess her life had become.  She didn’t have all the answers, but she knew who did.  God.   

2.  Naomi believed in Yahweh

And that brings us to Naomi’s next assumption.  Yes she believed in God, but what kind of God?   Very few people are actually atheists, especially when they’re facing death and bereavement.  As a surgeon once told me:  there aren’t many atheists on the operating table.  Most people have some kind of faith in something spiritual, even if they don’t call it God.  Naomi lived among a people who worshipped the false God Chemosh. 

But Naomi was an Israelite.  A true Israelite.  A worshipper of the Lord.  

Notice that nearly every time Naomi refers to God, she calls Him ‘the Lord’.   And wherever we see the Lord in capital letters in our OTs, it’s translating the name: Yahweh.     The special name God had revealed to His people.    The name which is meant to remind us that our God is a covenant-faithful God.  He makes and keeps His promises.  Promises he made to Abraham and the nation of Israelites that came from Him.    And it’s on the basis of Yahweh’s character and promises that Naomi can ask why?    You promised to bless your people Israel.  Why have you brought this calamity on me?  What have you emptied me of every blessing?

3.  Naomi trusted in Yahweh’s complete sovereignty

And that brings us to Naomi’s final assumption.  Yes there must have been a scientific explanation for Judah’s famine back in v1.  Yes there were biological reasons why Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion all died.    Just like there are natural causes and reasons for the state of your health, job, neighbours, marriage or whatever is troubling you at the moment.    But Naomi’s assumption is that behind all these natural causes is Yahweh:  the LORD's hand has gone out against me!"  she said.

Naomi believed and trusted in an all-powerful totally sovereign God.  A powerful God who was working in and behind the everyday events of our lives.  A God who works through the apparently free choices of human beings to achieve His sovereign purposes.  And He’s not just interested in Kings and superpowers.  He’s interested and in control of the tiniest details of our lives. As J put it:  he knows and controls even the number of hairs on your head.    Even when bad things happen, whether it’s a so-called natural disaster or when someone sins against you, Yahweh’s still in control.  Nothing happens in His world without Yahweh at the very least permitting it.  There’s a reason for everything in the world and everything in our lives. 

Naomi believed and trusted in that kind of God.  Not in any old god.  Not in fate or chance or the spirit in the sky.  But the sovereign God of the Bible, Yahweh, the Lord.    And even when she felt the Lord had dealt her a bad hand, even when she was bitter about the Lord bringing calamity upon her, she still trusted in the Lord.  She never let her unanswered questions about what He was up to shake the foundations of what she did know.  Naomi was a model of faith under pressure. 

3.  Yahweh begins to bless and refill Naomi  [v6-22]

And the rest of the book is about how the Lord refills Naomi.  How he brings blessing back to her life.  How he provides a Redeemer to sort out the mess she was in.   And that restoration, that refilling, begins in v6:

 6 When [Naomi] heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi [… ] prepared to return home from there.

Naomi decides to go back to Judah.  Why?  Because in His sovereignty, the Lord had worked through the forces of nature to end the famine.  The Lord had visited His people and given them food.  Once again, the Promised Land was flowing with Milk and honey.   And Naomi was one of the Lord’s people.  
But the Lord had already provided for Naomi in anther way.  Look at v7 again: 

With her two daughters-in-law [Naomi left Moab] and set out for Judah.

Orpah and Ruth had stuck with Naomi after their husbands had died back in Moab.  They hadn’t gone home.  And now they’d set out with Naomi on a journey to a foreign land.  As Naomi puts it in v8:  they had shown loving kindness both to their dead husbands and to Naomi by their actions. 

No doubt Naomi would have appreciated the company on the long and potentially dangerous journey.  From a human perspective, Naomi’s main hope was if her daughter-in-laws were to remarry, have children and then support her in old age. 

So what Naomi does in v8&9 is an act of loving kindness on a huge scale.  She’s putting other people first.  Because Naomi recognised that the greatest chance for Orpah and Ruth to rebuild their lives would be to return home;  to go home and find new husbands from among their own people.  And so she prays for the Lord’s blessing on them as she urges them to do exactly that.    And so they all wept together. 

Naomi’s modelling the love she knows the Lord has for her.  And she’s putting her own future in the Lord’s hands.  Her faith in the Lord is one that affects her behaviour.  And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.  In v10, Ruth and Orpah both say: 
"We will go back with you to your people."

They’re both committed to Naomi.  They obviously had a deep love for her.  So in v11-13, Naomi seeks to persuade them.    Not because it’s in her interest, but because it would be best for them.

So in v14, Orpah’s persuaded.  But at then end of v14, we see that Ruth clung to her.  The word clung is the same word for cleave back in Gen [2:24] where the covenant relationship of marriage is established.    Ruth’s commitment to Naomi’s is as unshakable as a marriage contract.  Look at what she says in v16:

Ruth 1:16:   16 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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me."

She calling on Yahweh to curse her if she abandons Naomi.    She’s totally committed to Naomi.    

Now maybe we’re so familiar with the story that it looses it impact on us.  Imagine the situation.  Your foreign husband has died.  And your mother-in-law is also widowed.  She’s destitute.  And she’s making a dangerous journey back to her own country.  And when she gets there, the future’s not bright.  It’s v uncertain.  What’s more, your mother-in-law is saying, thanks of much for all you support.  But go back to your mum and seek a better life.  What would you have done?  
It’s in a different league to all the usual mother-in-law jokes isn’t it?

But Ruth says no.  Where you go I will go.  Your people, the people of Israel, will be my people.  Your God, Yahweh the Lord, He will be my God.  I’m no longer a worshipper of Chemosh.  I love the Lord.  And where you die, I will die and be buried. 

She’s totally committed to Naomi.  Why?  Because she’s become a believer in Yahweh.  Because she’s lived around Naomi for 10 years and seen her faith in action.  They’ve probably talked loads about God.  They’ve probably studied the Scriptures together.   And Ruth was impressed.  Impressed with Naomi, but more importantly, impressed with Naomi’s God.  So impressed that she made Naomi’s God her God.  So impressed that she was prepared to give up all she knew to go with Naomi on a journey into the unknown.

And that’s still how the vast majority of people become Christians today.  There’s always exceptions.  But most people who become Christians say is was the faith of someone they knew which made them start to ask questions.  It’s the godly and trusting lives of His people that God most often uses to bring other people into the Kingdom.    It’s deeply challenging isn’t it?  Do the people around you even know you’re a Christian?  And if they did would they be attracted but the quality of your Christian life?  Would your trust and obedience especially in the tough times, draw unbelievers towards J?    Naomi wasn’t perfect and neither are we.  But it’s still deeply challenging isn’t it? 

And so in v19,  Naomi and Ruth went on until they came to Bethlehem.  And as we’ve seen, the house of bread had literally become the house of bread once again.  The barley harvest was starting.   As Naomi had put back in v6:  the Lord had visited His people and given them food.  And Naomi and Ruth were part of His people.    The Lord was working out His purposes.  Not in a supernatural way.  But through His every-day sovereign control of the world. 

Naomi had been full.  But she’d been emptied.  The Lord has brought me back empty she says in v21.  But at least the Lord had brought her back.  Back from the land of Chemosh.  Back from the land of Moab.  Back to the Promised Land.  And back accompanied by her-daughter-in-law.  Her daughter-in-law Ruth who had shown incredible loving kindness by sticking with her.    

And so we see that the Lord had already begun to bless her once again.  She was already on the road to recovery.  On the way to being refilled.  And as we’ll see as we go through this book, the ultimate blessing would come through one of Naomi’s descendents.  Through a man called Jesus who would fulfil the ancient promise to Abraham to bring blessing to all nations;  blessing not just to Jews, but to gentiles like Ruth as well. 

The Lord was in control of every detail of Naomi’s life.   And He's in control of every detail of your life too.  He doesn’t promise us an easy life in this world.  In fact the NT warns us that, simply because we’re Christians, we’re likely to face even more hassles than the people around us.  But, if we’re Christians, the Lord has promised to be with us all the way.  He does have a plan to fill us with blessing;  eternal heavenly blessing in the New Creation.  

So as we draw to a close, the central issue is this:  will you trust and obey the Lord like Naomi.  Not only in times of obvious blessing.  But through the dark times.  Through the calamities.  Even when you don’t know what He’s up to.  Even when you’ve got unanswered questions.  Or are you going to fall at the first fence, become bitter and draft away from God?   Deeply challenging isn’t it.  Especially when we remember that none of us would last the course but for the grace of God. So let’s ask for His help.  Let’s pray. 

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