Missionary Susan Valiquette shares this video of World Communion Sunday at Inanda Seminary in Durban, South Africa.
Missionary Susan Valiquette shares this video of World Communion Sunday at Inanda Seminary in Durban, South Africa.
Joseph: The Forgiving Hero / Genesis 37:1-24; 50:15-21Heroes Series Part 5 St Paul UMC Fremont | Pastor Sun Hee Kim
1 Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
2 This is the account of Jacob.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented [a] robe for him. 4 When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
5 Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: 7 We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
8 His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
9 Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
“Very well,” he replied.
14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”
17 “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’ ”
So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the desert, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.
23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the richly ornamented robe he was wearing- 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. Now the cistern was empty; there was no water in it.
15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
THE POWER TO FORGIVE
We are now on the fifth week of our Heroes series. After today, we have just one more to go. You will recall that so far we have looked at Rahab, Abraham, Esther and Ruth. Stories of ordinary people turned extraordinary by God’s call and through God’s grace. What I love about what we are learning in this series is that God calls each and every one of us in many different ways to rise to some sort of occasion for some sort of important purpose. God has a purpose for each of us – kingdom sized purpose. And in each of us, there is a hero waiting to surface at just the right the time to make an extraordinary difference.
Today, we turn our attention to Joseph – a very familiar character of the Bible. Many of you may be familiar with the story through Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” that came out many years ago. The story of Joseph spans fourteen chapters in the Book of Genesis – taking up nearly one third of the whole book! That’s a lot of pages and a lot of verses that’s devoted to this one character, and this story is just rich with detail containing many interesting plot twists along the way. I wish we had the time to talk about the whole story, but for the purposes of today, I want to focus on just one primary characteristic of Joseph that makes him an extraordinary hero in the Kingdom of God – his forgiving heart.
Now, we all know and we have all had experiences in life where we have learned how difficult is to forgive. Someone at some point did some sort of wrong to us, and for some of us, that wrong left some deep unhealed wounds. And as much as we try and want to forget, we can’t because forgiving comes so hard to us. And it really doesn’t matter who you are, I think forgiveness is a real difficult thing to do. I read this funny quote, and I’m not sure who said this, but it goes like this: “Men forget but never forgive. Women forgive but never forget.” So true, right? (I can see husbands and wives staring each other down right now even as I speak.) Well, whether you’re a man or a woman, obviously, when it comes to forgiving, there are some major issues there, amen?
Indeed, forgiveness is a difficult and delicate thing, but what our story today will teach us is that forgiveness is not impossible, and when it is given, it becomes one of the greatest heroic acts you can possibly imagine. That’s the story of Joseph, the story that we have before us today.
SIBLING RIVALRY GONE BAD
We read today from Genesis chapters 37 and 50 which is just the beginning and the end of the story of Joseph. But this gives us a pretty good set-up of what’s going on and how it all unfolds in the end. And what we see here is that the story of Joseph really begins as a story about sibling rivalry gone bad. This is what we read in Genesis chapter 37 verses 2 to 4:
This is the account of Jacob. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them. Now Israel (which you all may know is another name for Jacob) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made a richly ornamented robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
Now, remember this is the beginning of the story. In the first four verses, the author of Genesis immediately wants us to know that Joseph and his brothers were not very tight. In fact, the Bible tells us that his brothers “hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” Hold on to that phrase for awhile, because we are going to come back to that at the end of this sermon. For now, suffice it to say, there is some major sibling rivalry going on here.
I don’t know how many of you have siblings, but I came across this big cover story from TIME magazine that was published several years ago about siblings. In this issue, they cited a whole bunch of different research about sibling relationships, and one study that they cited was about fighting that occurs among siblings. Do you know how much fighting goes on among siblings? Kids, the research says, between the ages of two and four have an average of 6.2 fights per hour. That’s about 90 fights per day. That’s about 3000 fights per year! So, if you’re parenting little kids, it’s no wonder why you’re so tired. And by the way, for some people, those averages don’t decrease much over the years.
Well, we see here in Genesis that sibling rivalry is a real old story. And as bad as sibling rivalry may be, in the story of Joseph it goes from bad to worse. The Bible tells us that Joseph was the son of Jacob’s old age and the son of his favorite wife. Yes, the Bible has accounts of certain men having more than one wife. And just so that you don’t get any funny ideas, this is not a prescription for God’s people; it’s more of a description of the way that culture was back then. But that’s another sermon for another time. For our sermon today, what we need to know is that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite. Anyone here in this room have siblings who thought that they were mommy’s or daddy’s favorite, but you knew deep down that the favorite was clearly you? Sibling rivalry. Of course, it was you.
Well, here in Genesis, there is no argument. Joseph is clearly the winner when it comes to the contest of favorites. This is the way that John Ortberg describes this:
“Joseph was the favorite. When the other boys would walk in the room, Jacob would ask them about the flocks or whether their chores were done. When Joseph walked into the room, their dad’s eyes would light up. His face would beam. Joseph was the one that Dad would brag about. Jacob knew how Joseph was doing in school, who his teachers were, and what his friends’ names were. Jacob was a little fuzzy about the details of the other boys’ lives. In a hundred ways – in ways that most parents are not even aware of but that kids can smell a mile away – Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph leaked out of him.”
No wonder his brothers hated him. And what made it worse is that, one day, Jacob’s favoritism took on a concrete form. The Bible tells us that Jacob gave Joseph a “richly ornamented robe.” Now, the meaning of the Hebrew word for “richly ornamented” is a little uncertain. It could have meant “with long sleeves”. But most of us are more familiar with the old King James Version that says that Joseph was given a “coat of many colors”. Apparently, Jacob must have bought it at Nordstrom. It was hand tailored, custom made just for Joseph. And whenever Joseph wore that robe, his brothers were reminded that their father will never love them the way he loves Joseph. The robe was a symbol of status, marking Joseph as his father’s pet. As John Ortberg goes on to comment, “This was an open, visible, in-your-face expression of raw favoritism.” And the brothers cannot stand it. And they hate Joseph with all of their beings.
Now, Joseph himself doesn’t make matters any better. In fact, he seems to naively fuel the fire of their jealousy. In Genesis 37:5-8, we read:
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.” His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of the dream and what he had said.
Obviously, the sibling rivalry thing is not getting any better in the story. It just gets worse and worse, and the Bible tells us that Joseph’s brothers hated him more and more. The hatred grows and soon becomes uncontainable. So, one day while the brothers are out in the fields to graze their father’s flock, Jacob sends Joseph out to them to see how they are doing. He is kind of sent on an assessment mission. “Go check on them,” Jacob says. So Joseph goes and the Bible tells us in Genesis 37:18, that while he was still far off, “…they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” Hatred has now turned into a conspiracy for murder. Now, quick question: how did they recognize that it was Joseph? How could they actually see him in the distance and know it was him? That’s right. They may not have seen his face, but they sure could see his “richly ornamented robe.” And they are just burning with anger.
This is what we read in the Bible:
“Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
Notice, they don’t even call him by name anymore? They don’t say, “Here comes Joseph. Here comes our brother.” No, they say, “Here comes that dreamer.” It’s human tendency that when you are jealous of someone, when someone has done you wrong and you hate them, you don’t even like to think of them as a person. You don’t even like to think of them having a name. And this was the case with Joseph’s brothers. Here comes the favorite. Here comes this arrogant, would-be-ruler. We’ll teach this dreamer a thing or two. Or better yet, might as well just kill him.
Well, the Bible tells us that when Joseph arrived, they stripped him of his robe – and notice the author describes it once again by saying, “the richly ornamented robe that he was wearing” (apparently, this robe was a big point of contention) – and they throw him into a dry, empty cistern (a well). And originally, their plan was to leave him there to die. But as the story goes, the brothers later decide to sell Joseph for twenty shekels of silver to some Midianite merchants who were passing by. They think that it would just be better to sell him off than actually have his blood on their conscience. So they sell him off for a very meager price, soak his robe in goat’s blood, and take it back to their father telling him that Joseph must have been slaughtered by animals. And of course, Jacob mourns and weeps like crazy for his favorite son that he believes is now dead. And Genesis 37 ends with this verse:
Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.
LIMITS OF FORGIVENESS
Now, that’s quite a serious example of sibling rivalry. And I do hope that as much as any of you may have had experiences of sibling rivalry in your lives or maybe still do, that it’s not to that extreme. I mean it’s one thing to compete for the attention of your father or mother and maybe get into a few disagreements over the years (at the rate of 6.2 fights per hour), but to hate to the extent of wanting to kill? To sell off your own flesh and blood to strangers knowing that you’re handing off your sibling to a hard and cruel life of slavery? I mean, if you were Joseph, how do you think you would feel? Could such an act of hatred ever be forgiven? If you’re like me, I’m sure you would be saying right now, “Absolutely not. There’s limits to forgiveness.” Amen?
But here’s the thing. And this is why this story of Joseph is just so amazing and this is why Joseph is considered a hero in the Kingdom of God. The Bible tells us that Joseph does eventually forgive his brothers, and we read about it in the last chapter of the Book of Genesis, chapter 50. It’s the closing scene of this epic story. And I wish so much that I could go into more detail about everything that happens between chapters 38 and 49, because again it’s such a rich and great story. But for the sake of time, let me really make a long story short and say that through the mighty and providential hand of God, and by way of many divine twists and turns in the plot, Joseph’s life is not only spared but eventually exalted to the position of second-in-command of all of Egypt, a position second only to Pharaoh. Joseph is 30 years old when this happened. Thirteen years have passed since his brothers sold him off. Joseph’s life is actually quite incredible at this point, but do you suppose for one minute that he ever forgot about what his brothers did to him? You don’t have to actually read the whole story to know that this is a burden, a huge emotional wound that Joseph carried with him every day of his life. That is until as fate would have it, he is reunited with his brothers again.
Fast forward to chapter 50. A famine has hit the land, and people all over have been starving and looking for food. Joseph’s family and his brothers are among them. And they come to Egypt in search of some sort of relief not knowing that their very brother who they sold off to slavery many, many years ago is now one of the highest officials in all of Egypt. You have to admit, there is great poetic justice in some of these amazing stories of Scripture. And again, there is much detail here that I would love to go into, but you’ll have to read those on your own if you haven’t already. Suffice it to say that after more than thirteen years, Joseph still remembers his brothers and despite what they did, decides to help them. And this is what we read in the closing scene of the Book of Genesis:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” They said.
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
Wow, what an amazing and tender scene, don’t you think? What an amazing and tender man that Joseph is, don’t you think? Joseph was hated by his brothers, sold into slavery, suffered in an Egyptian prison, then rose to power at just the right time to save the people of Israel. He became a hero. But make no mistake about it. Joseph’s greatest heroic act is not about interpreting dreams, or about rising to the position of second-in-command, or even about feeding a starving nation. His greatest heroic act was forgiveness. Joseph is “The Forgiving Hero”. And sometimes, it takes all the power in the world, all the power available from heaven, to offer this type of forgiveness for this type of wound that’s been carried for years and years. Joseph had that power and, friends, that power came from God, and that power is available to us as well.
Earlier in the sermon, I asked you to hold onto a phrase from Chapter 37. It was the phrase “his brothers hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” Notice that in the closing scene of this story of Joseph, Chapter 50 tells us that Joseph “reassured them and spoke kindly to them.” This is visible forgiveness. Joseph gives to them what they refused to give to him many years before. Sometimes this sort of “kind word” can be the most amazing and most extraordinary heroic gesture.
FORGIVEN BY JESUS TO FORGIVE
Truth is that we have all been on the receiving end of forgiveness, the receiving end of kind words. For we know as Christians, that there was once another young dreamer that came into the world, and He too was stripped of his robe, and He too was betrayed and deserted by His brothers, and He is the One who ultimately said, “Your sins are forgiven. You are healed.” He laid down his life, so that ours could be lifted up. And it wasn’t easy. The path to forgiveness was a difficult path that led up to Calvary Hill where some of the kindest and heroic words were spoken. And it was there, on that hill, that forgiveness was made possible for us. Forgiveness that can be received – and – forgiveness that can be given.
So, let me ask you in closing today: who do you need to be a Joseph to? Who has hurt you or done you so much wrong that it has been difficult to forgive? Don’t you think it’s time for God to work in your life, to have His extraordinary grace fill you so that you can offer the heroic gesture of forgiveness to someone who really needs it? I know it seems difficult, and I know it seems impossible at times, but if Joseph can forgive his brothers and Jesus can forgive us, I certainly think that we can offer forgiveness to others. Amen?
Lewis Smedes once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” By the grace of God, and by God’s extraordinary call into our ordinary lives, may today be a day of incredible freedom for us all. Amen?!
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?