Ruth: The Loyal Hero / Ruth 1:1-24Heroes Series Part 4 St Paul UMC Fremont | Pastor Sun Hee Kim
1 In the days when the judges ruled, [a] there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. 9 May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”
Then she kissed them and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons- 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!”
14 At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
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.” 18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
20 “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.”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
ADDING TO THE LIST OF SUPER POWERS
Well, we are now on the fourth week of our sermon series entitled, “Heroes: Ordinary Turned Extraordinary”, a series in which we have been looking at how God uses some ordinary and sometimes even some less than ordinary people for extraordinary purposes. People like Rahab, Abraham, Esther. These were, for the most part, just run of the mill type of people. People like you and people like me. And yet God chose them for amazing and heroic acts of service, and more often than not, God called these individuals in critical moments – as we read in the Book of Esther last week – for such a time as this.
Today, I want to share with you yet another one of these amazing stories – the story of Ruth. Like some of the characters that we have studied over the past few Sundays, Ruth is not someone who on the surface would be considered “hero material”. I think of some of the more well known fictional heroes of our day (you know the Marvel and DC Comics type heroes) – Superman, Spider Man, Wonder Woman. And it’s easy to understand why they are considered not just heroes but “super” heroes. They all have “super hero” powers. Superman – he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and… (that’s right) able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Spider Man – well, he’s got those keen spider instincts, can shoot web out of his wrists, and swing from building to building. Obviously, abilities that we all long for, right? And of course, there’s Wonder Woman – she’s got that cool invisible jet, the flashy bracelets that deflect bullets, and the golden lasso that she ties up men with so that they tell the truth. Now, what woman here wouldn’t want those types of super hero powers? I mean she’s got style and strength! All of these type of heroes, it’s simply obvious why they are considered heroes. Not so the case with Ruth.
Ruth possesses no extraordinary physical strength, she can’t fly, no fancy bracelets, and though she may be able to spin yarn, she certainly can’t spin a web. Once again, we have here in this story, an individual who is very, very ordinary. But, God chooses her for extraordinary purposes, and she becomes a hero in the Kingdom of God. I call Ruth the “Loyal Hero” because of all the characteristics she possesses, it’s really this character of loyalty – her heart of commitment – that makes her who she is and the hero that she eventually becomes. So, I want to take a look at this characteristic today and follow very closely in this story of Ruth, how loyalty comes to save the day.
THIS AIN’T NO FAIRY TALE
We read earlier from Ruth chapter 1, twenty-two verses that pretty much sets up the scene for the story. Now, I do want to highlight real quickly that the Book of Ruth is only four chapters in its entirety, so I want to encourage you as I did last week with Esther, to go home and read the rest of the story. The Book of Ruth, as short as it may be, is just rich with detail and one of the most beautiful stories in Scripture. You’re not going to want to pass on this one.
Anyway, back to chapter 1. The Book of Ruth begins in perhaps one of the most dismal ways that we can possibly imagine. And we can see from the very beginning that the story that we are dealing with ain’t no fairy tale. Verse 1 says that this story took place “in the days when the judges ruled”. Biblical scholarship tells us that this would have placed the story somewhere in between 1400 to 1100 B.C., but more importantly, the Bible itself tells us in Judges 21:25 that “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, this was perhaps one of the most evil times in Israelite history – no rules, no regulations, people just did whatever they wanted. No wonder that verse 1 also tells us that “there was a famine in the land.” Which, of course, meant no food. Though it may not be explicit, what verse one is implying is that this famine was sent as a punishment for this very apostate and evil time for Israel. And so, people begin to move elsewhere in search for food. One of them is this guy named Elimelech, and he goes to a place called Moab.
Now, you have to understand that we are not even out of verse one, and the story is already full of details and just thick with irony. I mean consider this. Elimelech is from Bethlehem, the Bible says. And I don’t know if you know this or not, but Bethlehem actually means “House of Bread”. The irony here, of course, is that there is no more bread in the place that’s called house of bread. So of all places, where does Elimelech go in search of bread? Moab. Once again, irony. Moabites and Israelites were mortal enemies. But we see here that when you’re hungry, you have to place your historical differences aside. So, here we have in the beginning of the story of Ruth, evil, famine, desperation. Not a very pretty picture, but believe it or not, it gets worse.
The Bible goes on to introduce five other characters – Naomi, who is Elimelech’s wife, Mahlon and Killion, their sons, and Orpah and finally Ruth, the two sons’ wives. Now, just as an aside, if you know anyone who’s planning to have kids anytime soon, make sure that they don’t name their child Mahlon or Killion. These are just terrible names. They literally mean, “sickly” and “dying”. I mean, can you imagine naming your kids this and having to introduce them to people, “These are my two sons, Swine Flu Pandemic and Incurable Walking Pneumonia.” This is pretty much the gist of these names. Not great names at all. But then again, they’re not in a very good situation to begin with.
So, the story goes on, and now we’re not even past the third verse yet, and Elimelech dies. The Bible doesn’t say exactly why or how. He’s just dead. And now, Naomi is suddenly left with only her two sons, and they marry Moabite women – Orpah and Ruth. Don’t forget that Moabites are enemies of Israelites. I’m not sure how well this fared with their widowed mother, but it’s safe to guess that there may have been at least a little tension. Nonetheless, they marry, and ten years later, Mahlon and Killion also die. Not surprising considering what they were named as babies. But now, what was once a bad situation has gotten even worse, and it’s a dark, bleak, hopeless scene for Naomi. Elimelech dies and so does his sons. Could you imagine what that must be like to be living in a foreign land and lose your husband and your sons? It’s bad enough that you’re hungry and searching for food, that famine has hit the land and the economy has gotten so bad that you have to turn to Moab of all places for help, but to lose your whole family? Like I said, this ain’t no fairy tale.
FOR EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER ASKED “WHERE IS GOD?”
Now, if you’re Naomi, you’re heart would be crying out in severe pain, and you would be asking (if not by shouting with clenched fists to the heavens, at least with silent and bitter tears), “Where is God in all this pain?” For any of you who have ever faced tragedy, for any of you who have ever lost someone dear to you, this question is all too familiar. Some will answer, there is no God. But others will answer that God can work through even the greatest suffering.
In C.S Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, there’s a character named George MacDonald who says, “Ah, the Saved…what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”
This is pretty heavy stuff, but what Lewis is basically saying is that God has a funny way of working through suffering to bring about incredible blessing in the end. In essence, this is the truth that unfolds in the Book of Ruth after this point in the story. As I said earlier, the book of Ruth is just a fabulous book. It’s short but so rich with content about (as one pastor says) “what life with God is like in the shadows, in the left turns, in the detours.” It’s a book about how God works in mysterious ways to perform his wonders. It’s a book for people who wonder where God is when there are no visions, no dreams, no prophets, no miracles. It’s a book for people who wonder where God is when tragedy after tragedy attacks their faith. It’s a book for people who wonder how God could use their ordinary lives of faith to do something great. And ultimately, though it may not seem very convincing at this point, it’s a book of hope and I so want you to be encouraged by it.
So where is God here in this story of tragedy, darkness and despair? Well, short story even shorter, God is in the life and heart of this character named Ruth. And this is what happens. Chapter 1, verse 6, Naomi hears news that back home the famine has ended: “The Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them.” So, Naomi decides to head back to Bethlehem, the land of Judah, and tells her two daughters-in-law to go back to their families, to get new husbands and basically seek another chance at a full and happy life. But Orpah and Ruth insists that they plan to go back with her to her people.
Naomi’s response? This is what we read in verses 11-13: “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me – even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons – would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”
Granted that Naomi is speaking from the center of her pain, in the midst of hopelessness, feeling the bitter slap of tragedy, she nevertheless raises a pretty good argument. She seems to be saying, “You suffered enough already by being a part of my family. Don’t put yourselves through anymore. As for me, it’s hopeless. No good can come out of you following me back to Judah. Can’t you see that God is against me?” At this point, Naomi cannot see God working in her life. She is blind to the pool of water that is masquerading as a desert wasteland of hopelessness. And as far as Orpah is concerned, Naomi’s bitter speech is convincing enough and she returns back to her original home. Ruth, on the other hand, is not one bit swayed, and she offers her own speech. This is what she says in verse 16:
“Don’t urge me to leave you or 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 anything but death separates you and me.”
Wow! I don’t know about you, but I like her speech a lot better than Naomi’s speech. Ruth is declaring her undying devotion to her mother-in-law. She is expressing her loyalty and her heart of commitment to Naomi. And she seems to be saying, “It doesn’t matter how much you have suffered, and it doesn’t matter how much more you might suffer. And it doesn’t matter if I suffer. My place is next to you. I will be with you until death prevents me from being with you no more. I am going with you.” What an amazing and awesome demonstration of commitment, don’t you think? Now, you have to remember once again that Ruth was a Moabite. For her to go back with Naomi to Judah would be putting her own life at risk. She was heading back into hostile territory, and now she would become the foreigner living in a strange land among strange people. But ultimately, none of this mattered, because for Ruth – this ordinary Moabite woman – her loyalty and commitment to Naomi was of the utmost priority. And it is through this loyalty that God would end up doing extraordinary things through her.
A VERY DIFFERENT ENDING
Chapter 1 ends with this verse: “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning…” I love the stark contrast of the closing verse of this first chapter to that of the opening verse. Originally, the people of Israel were found to be living in an evil, desperate and bleak time with famine having struck the land. But the closing verse paints a very different picture – a picture of hope and harvest. What’s more, there is this image of these two widows who lost everything, but there is this sense that something is about to happen – something good. There is this sense that God is at work and all the pain and tragedy that once was would be a thing of the past. There is an answer – even if it’s just a glimpse of it – at the end of this chapter to the question, “Where is God in all this pain?”
Well, according to the rest of the story of Ruth, according to the remaining three chapters, we see very clearly that God is actually very close by. God’s presence is manifested in the heart of this ordinary Moabite woman named Ruth and in her amazing display of loyalty. God is present in the generosity of a kinsman-redeemer by the name of Boaz who becomes so impressed with the loyalty of Ruth that, in short, he offers to marry her. God is present in the hope of a child named Obed that was later born to Ruth, who became the father of Jesse who was the father of David – the greatest King that Israel ever had and, of course, the ancestor of Jesus, our Lord and our Savior. Where is God? God is in the ordinary moments of our lives, working extraordinary things that sometimes we cannot see, but later comes to fruition in very real ways – through the very precious relationships that are so important to us, through the random acts of generosity and kindness of strangers, through the faith that moves mountains and fills dry pools with water.
God was with Naomi. And no doubt, God was with Ruth. And of course, as ordinary as you and I may be, God is with us, calling us to do extraordinary things in God’s name. Amen?