Last Sunday we had the privilege of visiting Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian Church, where some of our staff members and students worship. Graham was invited to preach, and the church is in the middle of a series on ‘Comfort’. So Graham chose to speak from Ruth chapter 1, ‘Shame Comforted’. Here is his sermon. We pray that you find it encouraging!
Graham Scott, Kangaroo Ground Presbyterian
Ruth: Shame Comforted 12/8/2018
Ruth 1 (NIV)
In the days when the judges ruled in Israel, a severe famine came upon the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah left his home and went to live in the country of Moab, taking his wife and two sons with him. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife was Naomi. Their two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. And when they reached Moab, they settled there.
3 Then Elimelech died, and Naomi was left with her two sons. 4 The two sons married Moabite women. One married a woman named Orpah, and the other a woman named Ruth. But about ten years later, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion died. This left Naomi alone, without her two sons or her husband.
6 Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she set out from the place where she had been living, and they took the road that would lead them back to Judah.
8 But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back to your mothers’ homes. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord bless you with the security of another marriage.” Then she kissed them good-bye, and they all broke down and wept.
10 “No,” they said. “We want to go with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi replied, “Why should you go on with me? Can I still give birth to other sons who could grow up to be your husbands? 12 No, my daughters, return to your parents’ homes, for I am too old to marry again. And even if it were possible, and I were to get married tonight and bear sons, then what? 13 Would you wait for them to grow up and refuse to marry someone else? No, of course not, my daughters! Things are far more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord himself has raised his fist against me.”
14 And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi. 15 “Look,” Naomi said to her, “your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods. You should do the same.”
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said nothing more.
19 So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was excited by their arrival. “Is it really Naomi?” the women asked.
20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she responded. “Instead, call me Mara,[a] for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer[b] and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by her daughter-in-law Ruth, the young Moabite woman. They arrived in Bethlehem in late spring, at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Good morning. It’s great to be here with you again.
Firstly, in my role as CEO of SIL Australia, I’d like to warmly thank you for taking such good care of SIL students and staff members over the years. I’ve been involved with SILA since Ellie and I were students in 2003. And I know that this church has faithfully looked after and blessed so many of the SILA family. Thank you for your generosity and kindness to students who are usually in transition, stressed, and under-slept. You have cared for them. And you have comforted them.
And that brings us to today’s passage, Ruth 1. In the book of Ruth, we see comfort being worked out in the daily grind and grief of life. We see comfort offered when it was costly, when it was uncomfortable, and when it made little sense. And we also see an even greater comfort worked out in the puzzling and painful circumstances of messy real life.
One of the things I love about the reading the Old Testament is the way that the authors left clues and hints for readers to pick up on. I enjoyed meeting Kevin Currell last month and I think that his book and the work he is doing in Bible backgrounds, customs, and manners is so important. It’s that sort of thing that we need to have in mind when we read Ruth. Where are the clues? Where are the links to earlier books and stories? If we can put the clues together, we will realise that the book of Ruth is rich and powerful, and has much more to offer than we might think at first glance.
Verse 1 tells us that Ruth takes place during a time of trouble for Israel. It’s the period of the Judges – enemy tribes threaten, there are power conflicts within the community, Israel’s desire to follow God is quite weak, and they are being led astray by other religions and worshiping other gods. The book of Judges paints a picture of tragedy.
This is a difficult time. It’s a messy time. But things get worse. Ruth chapter 1, verse one announces that there is a famine in the land, and so a man from Bethlehem leaves his home and travels with his wife and sons to neighbouring Moab.
Verse 2. Elimelech and his family pack up and leave Bethlehem to travel in search of food and set up house in Moab.
There is irony here, because Bethlehem, a place we associate now with the Christmas story and the birth of Jesus, means ‘house of bread’. But there is no bread in Bethlehem, and so Elimelech and his family leave the barren ‘house of bread’ and travel to Moab to find food.
This is another irony, another clue for us: Moab is not just any neighbouring country. The Old Testament picture of Moab is almost entirely negative.
In Genesis chapter 19, Moab originates from the drunken incest of Lot and his daughters after they flee from the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah. In Numbers chapters 22-24, the king of Moab hires Balaam to curse the Israelites. In Judges, the Moab king oppresses the Israelites (Judges 3:12ff). And even in God’s law for the Israelites in Deuteronomy 23:3; Moabites are banned from taking part in Israel’s religious life because the Moabites lead the Israelites into pagan worship and away from God (Num 25:1-2).
So Elimelech takes his wife Naomi and their two sons out of the ‘house of bread’ and into a land of immorality, oppression and unfaithfulness to God. And as we read on in Ruth chapter 1, things get worse for this family, not better.
Verses 3-5. Elimelech dies. So it’s just Naomi and her two sons, who have married Moabite women. And then later on both the sons die, and Naomi is left alone without her husband or sons in a strange foreign land without any other family to rely on.
What is Naomi going to do? Go home perhaps? But who will support her and protect her? Who will comfort her?
Finally we read some good news in verse 6-7.
Naomi hears that things have gotten better for the farmers back at home in Judah, and that God had blessed the people there. And so Naomi and her two Moabite daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Orpah, pack up and start the journey to Bethlehem.
And as they travel together, Naomi tells the women that they are free to return to their own families, to remarry, and have a ‘normal’ life.
She blesses them and prays in verse 8 that the Lord will reward them for their kindness to their husbands and to Naomi. In this verse, we have the first use in the book of Ruth of the key Hebrew word, hesed, translated here as ‘kindness’. And it also can be understood as lovingkindness, compassion, faithfulness, and loyalty. Hesed is about living in right relationship with others (including God). Naomi says that both the women have acted with hesed, with kindness, loyalty towards their husbands, Naomi’s sons. But poor Naomi now feels like she cannot do or offer them anything in return.
Verse 10, Ruth and Orpah refuse to leave Naomi. So in verses 11-13, Naomi reminds them of the implications of staying with Naomi.
Survival is going to depend on having a suitable husband. Naomi knows that they are going to have a hard time finding a family who will let them marry their sons in Bethlehem.
However hard life is going to be for Ruth and Orpah, Naomi is sure that her predicament is far worse. Verse 13: “Things are far more bitter for me than you, because the Lord has raised his fist against me.” Naomi wants the best for Orpah and Ruth, and because God has clearly turned his back on Naomi, she thinks it’s best that they leave her, and seek new lives elsewhere.
Things are hopeless for Naomi. She has lived through famine, forced migration to Moab, the deaths of her husband and two sons, and to top it all off, although her sons were married, no sons were born to Ruth or Orpah. Life is hard, tragic, and bitter. And Naomi blames God. It’s not bad luck, or misfortune. She says that God has raised his own fist and has struck her.
For Naomi, the Lord, the God of the covenant, the faithful and kind One, has broken his promise. She is bitter because she believes that God is punishing her, and so she blames God for the chaos and pain in her life. When you feel like God has turned his anger on you, who can comfort you?
Verse 14, Naomi weeps and her daughters-in-law weep with her. Orpah bids her farewell, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi’s side and continues to cling to her.
Then Ruth makes an amazing declaration to her mother-in-law.
Verses 16-18: Ruth replies, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
Ruth is committed to walking through life with Naomi. She is willing to take on a new identity with Naomi’s family, with Naomi’s God. So much so that Ruth even wants to be buried in Naomi’s family tomb. Ruth’s commitment to Naomi is truly remarkable.
There is no self-interest in Ruth. She will not allow her relationship with Naomi to be broken no matter what. She promises to be committed to Naomi for life. She promises allegiance to Naomi’s family, people, and God, which means turning her back on all she knows. She is committed to Naomi’s well-being, and as she makes her promise, Ruth understands that God is her witness to what she has said. Naomi is not alone and will not be alone.
In that moment, Ruth’s promise must have been such a comfort to Naomi. So much so that in verse 18 she stops trying to persuade Ruth to leave her, and the two women journey on towards Bethlehem.
Verse 19, the two women finally arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown. And the locals seem to be amazed that Naomi has returned.
Ten years ago woman Naomi left Bethlehem with a husband and two sons, and now she returns without them. No doubt she looks much older. Life has been so hard for her. And the people of Bethlehem can’t really believe it is her. She left with hope and promise for a future, and now returns empty, destitute, and angry. And without comfort.
Verses 20-21, Naomi’s reply to them sounds harsh compared to the gracious and loving words Ruth spoke just a couple of verses earlier. She no longer wants to be called Naomi, which means ‘pleasant’. Naomi again repeats that God is against her.
“Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”
Papua and Ruth
Ellie and I worked in what we in Australia call West Papua in training and language development roles, and we still maintain a close connection to the community and language project. Ruth was the very first book of the Bible that the team translated. Verse 13 was a challenge for Mary the Papuan translator. The idea that God had made Naomi’s life hard was hard to translate. She would have much preferred to say, that Naomi felt like God has made her life hard, or even that God had allowed her life to be hard. But there was a phrase in her language that they often used to express the feeling that God had made life bitter, and so this was used in the translation.
Mary took a draft of the Papuan Malay translation of Ruth chapter 1 along to her ladies’ group Bible study. And together they read the very first Scripture in their language.
And her Bible study group loved and embraced verse 13. Each lady in the group agreed that God had given them hard lives and that they had felt this way too. Certainly life in Papua for women is difficult, and the book of Ruth resonates with them – they are all too familiar with hardship, poverty, tragedy, and loss. Life can be very unfair and unjust, and without hope or comfort. They felt for the first time that God understood their feeling, that it was okay to admit this feeling to God and to wait to see what God would do in response.
Naomi knows she has become bitter. And in her bitterness, sorrow and tragedy, she’s unable to see that God has already started to comfort her. Is it true that, verse 21, the Lord has brought her home empty? What about Ruth?
Yes, Naomi has suffered great loss and feels great shame at being a childless widow. But her bitterness, her anger and resentment have blinded her to the fact that she is not alone. Ruth is with her. Ruth has promised that she would be there with her, no matter what. When Naomi speaks in verses 20-21, it’s like she has forgotten all about Ruth, and cannot be thankful for her at all.
It’s ironic. Ruth, the Moabite, not an Israelite, not expected to know about the covenant with God, or how to live His way, is God’s chosen instrument of comfort. This is the ‘surprise’ of Ruth – that a young Moabite woman can be a living example of what a godly woman is like. She can be a godly comfort.
God comforts Naomi
As the story continues, Ruth does the hard and humiliating work of collecting fallen grain, follows her mother-in-law’s advice, and at every turn shows profound respect and love for Naomi.
And from the barren hopeless beginnings of chapter 1, a bright and shining hope begins to light the story, and Naomi’s heart. Through the goodness and faithfulness of Ruth’s life, and the faithfulness and loving sacrifice of Boaz, the bleak horizon is lifted, and the story of Naomi has a dramatic upswing.
By the end of the story, in chapter 4, there is a fairy-tale wedding and the birth of Boaz and Ruth’s son, Obed. And the women, who Naomi had told to called her Bitter, visit and remind her of the goodness of God. Chapter 4 verse 14, the women of the community say, “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a guardian-redeemer,” and they go on to praise Ruth as being part of Naomi’s comfort and hope, saying, “For your daughter-in-law [Ruth] who loves you and is better to you than seven sons, has given birth.”
What Naomi couldn’t see at the beginning of the story, her neighbours point out to her at the end of the story – Ruth is a God-sent loving comfort to Naomi, a good comfort, a better comfort than anyone could have imagined.
And as the story concludes, Naomi takes her grandson into her arms and cares for him. And the women living there say, “Naomi has a son!””
Naomi is reminded by her friends, that God has brought Naomi from a place of no hope to a real and tangible hope in the new baby. So much so, that they tell her that Naomi herself has a son. And Ruth concludes by revealing that this son becomes an ancestor of King David, an ancestor of God’s promised Messiah.
Comfort takes several forms in the story, and we can find points of application connected to the characters of Naomi, Ruth, and the village women.
So first, Naomi. Naomi teaches us to be honest before God about our own discomfort. When we need comfort, we can bring our feelings of disappointment, emptiness, grief, sorrow and bitterness before God and sit with him in the midst of these feelings.
What God shows us through Naomi is that he is still working in the midst of tragedy – in Naomi’s case to bring a Moabite woman into his own family and include her among the ancestors of his own Son.
God brought such good out of Naomi’s suffering – and we can trust him to bring good out of our distress. God’s comfort may not be what we expect or come from expected sources. One thing Naomi does do well, even in her bitterness, is to accept Ruth’s unlikely companionship. God provides in unexpected and surprising ways. So be ready to be surprised by God’s comfort.
Who may God be bringing alongside of you to walk with you through your difficulties? Accept their companionship as God’s comfort and grace to you. God’s grace is richer and wider than we can imagine. When we accept God’s comfort to us through others, God’s comfort will exceed what we were hoping for.
Secondly, the character of Ruth. Ruth becomes a strong example of God’s grace and comfort. Ruth provides us with a great example of how to comfort someone in distress. Ruth weeps with Naomi, she expresses her loyalty and love, she walks with her through life, and she does what she can to provide for her in practical ways.
From the example of Ruth, we can ask ourselves – who may God be asking us to walk alongside of in their distress? Be ready to be God’s comfort and grace for a hurting soul. If you are walking alongside of someone who is in difficulty right now, follow the example of Ruth in showing love and care in practical ways.
Finally, the village women. From the village women we learn how to respond when God comforts others. We rejoice with them. As we’ve been patiently praying for God to intervene in someone’s distress, then we will rejoice when we see God’s goodness and able to proclaim that goodness to others.
God’s grace breaks through into a dark world and brings into the world our Saviour Jesus, our hope and comfort. God transforms utterly hopeless situations. When we are in a time of crisis and distress, we cannot know how or when it will end. But we trust a God who brings seasons of weeping to an end and replaces them with seasons of rejoicing. When we trust God to comfort us, and ask him to comfort us, he will comfort us. Amen.