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This time of year we think often of the little town of Bethlehem and the child born there—our Savior.
For the next three weeks, we’re going to look at another Bethlehem story, Ruth: A Story of Redemption.
It took place over 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus, yet the two are beautifully tied together in God’s plan of salvation.
Ruth is a story within a story.
Like the larger story of the gospel it is a story of good news for the empty and lonely and hopeless and brokenhearted.
So, here’s your ‘heads up’: this story has a dark start.
It begins with a living nightmare for a woman named Naomi.
This is a story about Naomi.
And it is a story for all Naomi’s.
Out of Bethlehem
Set in the time of the judges - a period of history that was an ever-darkening spiral into idolatry and immorality.
Famine in the land (irony, Bethlehem means “house of bread”)
So an Israelite man took his family to find relief: Elimelech and Naomi / Mahlon and Chilion
Left the Promised Land for the country of Moab.
To an Israelite audience, “Moab” was a bad word, connotations were all negative (incestual origins; hostile and shameful wilderness encounters, Numbers 22, 25; in the law of Moses, Moabites were banned from the assembly of the LORD for ten generations, Dt. 23:3; in most recent history, enmity and hostility, Judges 3, i.e.
Ehud and King Eglon)
At the mention of Moab, things are not looking up.
But, quickly, it goes from bad to worse: Elimelech died, boys took foreign wives (Chillion married Orpah, Mahlon married Ruth), and after 10 years both sons died, childless.
It’s hard for us to even imagine Naomi’s decade-long nightmare.
In a culture very different from our own, this had essentially spelled the end for Naomi: a widow, childless, too old for marrying and having more children, living among pagan foreigners.
Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
Around this time, Naomi heard talk in the fields of Moab that “the LORD had visited his people (her people) and given them food” (vs.
The house of bread was being restocked!
So she decided to return to Bethlehem, setting out with her two daughter-in-laws.
Somewhere along the way she begins to acknowledge what this might mean for her Orpah and Ruth.
What man in the land of Judah would marry either of these Moabite, apparently infertile women?
How could she be so selfish as to expect them to go any further with her?
Surely Naomi had hoped for her sons better than to see them marry Moabite women!
But regardless of how she initially felt about these two women, after the 10-year nightmare they had endured together, the three had obviously become very close.
Naomi wanted Orpah and Ruth to have a future, to marry and perhaps have a family.
And she wanted them to experience God’s hesed.
It’s the word translated here as “kindly” or “kindness.”
It’s that rich and beautiful God-word for which there is no adequate English equivalent.
hesed - a covenant term, a gift-wrapped word that holds within it the God-attributes of: steadfast love, covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness, and loyalty.
It is love that goes way beyond duty.
We take note of it here because it is a key theme in this story.
Interestingly, Naomi seems convinced that God has no hesed for her.
Now, both Orpah and Ruth initially refuse to leave Naomi.
She goes on to make a convincing argument about how impossible it would be to even imagine a scenario that would work out well for them.
Her argument reaches it strongest and bitterest note when she says:
“The hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”
On that note, they all weep together, and Orpah reluctantly agrees to return to her Moabite people.
But Ruth is another case altogether.
Orpah kissed Naomi goodbye, but Ruth “clung to her” (vs.
Naomi tried again to convince her to leave.
These words have often been repeated in many weddings… but who says this to their mother-in-law!
Especially a mother-in-law who is convinced that even God is against her!
Ruth’s words aren’t gushy, sentimental, made-for-a-Hallmark-movie; these are strong words that put a stop to all other talk.
‘I’m going.
To the grave, count me in.
Your people—my people.
Your God—my God.
So the two of them travel the rest of the way to Bethlehem.
Put yourself in Naomi’s shoes.
Have you ever re-engaged with folks that you have been distant from?
What will they think?
What will they say?
The whole town stirred.
And the women said, “Is this Naomi?”
Just the mention of her name (pleasant, lovely, sweet) was too much for Naomi.
It no longer fit her.
So much had happened.
So much had been lost.
Her word’s echo Job: “the Almighty…has made my soul bitter” (Job 27:2).
Naomi’s perspective: it’s all over for her.
Even God is against her.
Or is he?
The rest of the book answers that question.
Can she ever again be Naomi?
Can she again know anything pleasant, lovely, and sweet?
Three hints in the summary statement of verse 22.
“beginning of barley harvest” vs 22
return, turn, restore - key word, 15 times in the book / 12 in chapter 1; the concept of reversal is the major theme of the book, “reversal is the essence of redemption,” and God is in the redemption business— causing life to turn around
Ruth was with her
It’s a little awkward to put ourselves in Ruth’s shoes.
She has gone well beyond the the duty of a daughter-in-law.
She has given up everything for this woman.
And now she hears Naomi say “the LORD has brought me back empty.”
It appears that Naomi doesn’t recognize that the hesed of God is standing next to her, and has never left her side.
The agent of God’s steadfast love and kindness and loyalty has pledged herself to the grave for Naomi’s wellbeing.
And we haven’t even begun to see what that will mean for her!
The steadfast love of God walks with us even when it is too dark to tell.
God writes the story's end — and he is in the business of turning life around.
What is it for you?
“Just call me __________.”
Bitter / hopeless / empty / dry / useless / unfit / unqualified / too broken / a mess?
The gospel says to us: You are blessed, loved, forgiven, holy, gifted, you are family, and you are integral to the body and the work.
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