Text: Ruth 1
Can God be trusted, even in the dark? When your world has collapsed, and you can see no way of putting it back together again. When God himself seems to have dealt you a very poor deal, and when you cry out “Why?” heaven remains silent. When your faith is sorely tested. Can you – will you – cling to God nevertheless?
This is the very practical problem that I would like to explore with you from Ruth chapter 1.
The little book of Ruth is recognised as one of the most beautiful short stories ever told. It is remarkable for the way it puts the spotlight on three people in particular – Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz – and shows God at work in their lives in ways they could not possibly have understood at the time. And it shows how God’s unfolding plan, for these three fairly ordinary individuals, forms part of his wider plan for the whole world.
It’s a positive, hopeful book. But not to begin with. In chapter 1 there is more sadness than joy, more shade than sunshine, more questions than answers. Indeed, in the space of just 5 verses, we see one person’s life fall apart. That person is Naomi.
Observe the following aspects of darkness in Naomi’s life –
1. the darkness of living in chaotic times. 1:1 tells us that the story took place ‘in the days when the judges ruled’. Judges 17:6 ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.’
2. the darkness of material deprivation. V1 – ‘there was a famine in the land’. God had given to his people a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Bethlehem itself was famed for its fertile soil. The name means, ‘House of Bread’. But on this occasion, the rains failed, the crops perished, and there was no food to put on the table. Possibly, Elimelech should have seen this famine as God’s amber warning light, prompting repentance. But instead of turning back to the Lord, he turns his back on the Lord.
3. the darkness of domestic upheaval. Faced with this famine, Elimelech ups sticks and moves his family from their home in Bethlehem to the neighbouring country of Moab. From their home in the Promised Land to an alien land. From the place where the true and living God was known and worshiped to a place where people worshiped gods such as Chemosh, to whom children were offered in sacrifice.
4. the darkness of multiple bereavement. Picture Naomi as she stands first at the grave of her husband, then of one of her sons, and then the other. How do you think she feels? And this is the Ancient Near East. As a widow in a foreign country, with no man to protect her and provide for her, she must have felt utterly desolate.
Truly, these were dark days for Naomi. And they lasted ten long years.
Then one day she hears news from Bethlehem. The famine is over. So she decides to go home to Bethlehem. But the Naomi who returns regards herself as a very different woman from the one who left. ‘Don’t call me “Naomi” (Pleasant)’, she says, v20. ‘Call me “Mara” (Bitter).’ ‘I left full,’ she says in v21, – full of my family, full of hope, full of myself – ‘but I’m coming back empty.’
How often, I wonder, did she spend the night tossing and turning, crying out to God, ‘What have I done to deserve this? Why have you allowed this to happen to me?’
She might well have asked, with Teresa of Avila, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.”
Well, what account can we give of the Lord’s dealings with Naomi?
Let’s try it a couple of different ways.
Soon after Diana, Princess of Wales, died, a well-known religious leader was contacted by someone in the media. “We’d like you to explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident.”
“Well,” came the reply, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel? How exactly was God involved?”
In other words, stuff happens. God has given us free will and people abuse it by making bad choices then they and others have to live with the consequences.
Well, that’s neat, simple, and is probably the kind of answer that many Christians would give.
But it’s not the answer we’re going to find in Ruth chapter 1.
Let’s try it another way.
Christian pastor and scholar Dale Ralph Davies tells of the time when his father, who was in his mid-seventies, was admitted to hospital with a serious illness. Then at the same time his mother had a fall and broke her leg. Lots of different things were going wrong in that little family all at the same time. One day, when Davies was visiting his father in hospital, his father said quietly, ‘It seems that the Lord has stretched out his hand against us lately.’
Well, I don’t regard that as either neat or simple. But it’s pretty much what Naomi says here. V13 – ‘The Lord’s hand has gone out against me!’; v20f – ‘the Almighty has made my life very bitter…I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty…The LORD has afflicted me (testified against me); the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’.
When bad things happen to people, and we cry out ‘Why?’, does God splutter,
“Sorry, nothing to do with me”?
No: he whispers, “Dear child, there is a reason, and one day you will understand.”
And, in the mean time, while we wait for our understanding to catch up, God’s help may be nearer than we think. It was certainly nearer to Naomi than she could have realised. God’s gracious provision for her was just around the corner. In fact, it was standing right next to her in the person of Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law. Ruth had travelled as far as the cross-roads between Moab and Bethlehem, and there she had made a momentous decision. Her sister-in-law Orpah turned round and went back to Moab. But Ruth stood her ground, and declared to Naomi, ‘I’ve made up my mind; I’m going with you: V16 – “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.”
It cannot have been an easy decision for Ruth. It was a journey from the known into the unknown, from security to insecurity, from her gods for Naomi’s God. In going to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Ruth would have no real prospects at all, except to share in Naomi’s desolation, and her lonely old age.
But God was about to do far more abundantly than either of them could ask or even imagine. Neither of them could not have known at the time that God was about the transform their situation. And would not only have blessed consequences not just for themselves, but would prove to be part of God’s gracious plan for nation of Israel, and beyond that, for the redemption whole world.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. All Naomi and Ruth have at the moment is a glimmer of light on the horizon.
V22- ‘So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.’
Yes, the author of this lovely book says to us with a knowing wink: the tide is just beginning to turn, God’s plan is beginning to unfold, his dawn is beginning to break. More of that in the next two weeks.
But let me close this morning with a few words of encouragement to anyone who feels that God’s hand has gone out against them, and who may be struggling to understand why.
1. Remember that others have trodden this path before you. Even Jesus, at the great turning-point of history to which the story of Ruth leads, cried out “Why?” – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The great value of this morning’s passage is we can look back and read God’s signature in the lives of Naomi and Ruth, when we cannot yet see make out his hand-writing in our own.
2. Learn to take the long view. For 10 long years things went from bad to worse for poor Naomi. And even now there is only the slightest glimmer of hope. But God’s ways are not our ways, nor his timing our timing. In Psalm 73 Asaph ponders the question why wicked people seem to flourish, when godly people seem to be given such a rough deal. V17 – ‘till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.’ And he finds rest for his soul in v25 ‘Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.’
Which brings us finally to…
3. Above all else, cling to God, for there is no other. Do you remember how, in John 6 Jesus began to teach his followers about himself being the bread of life. And we read, ‘from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “Do you want to leave too?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”’
And he has promised his people, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Yes, God can be trusted, even in the dark.