Faith in the face of famine

Ruth  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  29:54
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The book of Ruth is a delight: a short, punchy story of faith and courage in the face of difficulty, rewarded with an amazing happily-ever-after ending. Who could want more? But what does it have to do with us? How could we learn from such a simple tale? Let's dig into the first chapter of Ruth to find just how similar the lives of the ancients were to ours, and how much we can learn from them.

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Introduction—the book of Ruth

This week we’re starting a short series on the book of Ruth. We wanted to look at a story, and what more delightful story is there than the story of Ruth?
It was probably written in the time of King David or Solomon. The author is unknown, but very skilled. It is an historic book—it’s not mythological or poetic. It’s a simple, elegant, historical account of ordinary people who showed extraordinary faith, and were used by God in amazing ways. It could be a story about me or you, and that’s why it’s such a popular book.
So let’s dig in.

Part 1—The emptying

Scene 1—Leaving home

Our story begins:
Ruth 1:1 NLT
1 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.
This first part of Ruth is very terse. It sets the scene so quickly it’s easy to miss what’s going on here. It’s especially hard for those of us who live in vastly different cultures. So let’s slow down and try to understand this setting.
This story occurs during the reign of Judges in Israel. What’s that mean? During this period life was tough, the Israelites were barely scratching out a living, beset on every side. So people had to stick together in families and extended families. Something like a famine could spell disaster for a community.
If this reminds you of the stories of Abraham or Isaac, it should: the author of Ruth uses exactly the same phrase to introduce the famine as in Genesis, and that’s the only other times this phrase is used in the Bible.
It’s easy to see, then, why this man would take his family away to somewhere that offered refuge during a famine.
Unfortunately, Moab is like Egypt and Gerar—it offers dubious safety to God’s people. Israel and Moab’s relationship throughout history is complex and fraught. You might remember that Moab was settled by Lot’s descendants. However, despite this, they did their best to obstruct Israel’s journey to the promised land, leading to Moses declaring:
Deuteronomy 23:3–4 NLT
3 “No Ammonite or Moabite or any of their descendants for ten generations may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. 4 These nations did not welcome you with food and water when you came out of Egypt. Instead, they hired Balaam son of Beor from Pethor in distant Aram-naharaim to curse you.
Still, as they say, desperate times call for desperate measures. I know I’m not the only one here who has left my home town to find a more secure future. In fact, I’ve done it more than once. Who else has done that? It’s tough, isn’t it? Back at this time, moving country was tough, not because of visa requirements, but because of lack of family, lack of connections. You were really an outsider, and so your situation was perilous. Better than starvation, though!
So, who were these mysterious migrants?
Ruth 1:2 NLT
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.
Did you know that Elimelech means “God is king” or “God is my king?” That seems like a faithful sort of name, doesn’t it? Naomi means “pleasant one,” which is a nice name, isn’t it? You can imagine the hopes of the parents of this couple. The names of the two sons, though often interpreted in various ways, seem to be nothing more than typical names for that period.
We need to remember: these people are not archetypal characters in a myth, they’re just an ordinary, everyday family, trying to survive in difficult times.

Scene 2—Losing everything

Unfortunately for this family, things don’t go well in their place of refuge:
Ruth 1:3–5 NLT
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.
Even from our modern perspective, this seems like a pretty horrible situation for Naomi (not to mention Ruth and Orpah). But in that day and age, it’s much worse.
You see, in the Ancient Near East, people didn’t function in society as individuals, rather they operated as part of a family unit. The head of that family unit was the patriarch, the oldest male. He was the one who made the decisions, who bore the responsibility, who protected and provided for the family. That’s why verse 1 says that it was Elimelech who left his home and went to Moab, bringing the rest of the family with him.
When a woman’s husband died, her interface to society transferred to either his brothers (or parents) or to her own sons. Obviously, in Moab, Naomi had only her sons to rely on. Fortunately, those two sons found wives, and with them the hope of families of their own. However, ten, long years passed with no children, and then, horrifyingly, both those sons died.
Naomi now found herself with no genuine social identity; all the men who could connect her into the broader society, who could protect her and negotiate for her, had died. On top of that, she still had two daughters-in-law and, as the elder, she had some responsibility for them. Naomi’s life, once so full and secure, had been completely stripped away of everything but the burdens of responsibility. What could she do?

Part 2—Returning home

Scene 3—Turning back home

Ruth 1:6 NLT
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.
At last! Some good news! The famine was over! It can’t have been hard for Naomi to decide to return to Bethlehem. At least there she had relatives and countrymen. At least there the law demanded protection for widows. But what could she do with her daughters-in-law? They seemed determined to come with her.
Ruth 1:7–9 NLT
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.
Naomi is clever. Instead of trying to persuade her daughters-in-law to abandon her while they are still all surrounded by the familiarity of the last ten years, Naomi gives them a taste of life on the road before abruptly halting in the middle of nowhere and confronting them with a choice.
It’s still not an easy choice. Naomi and her girls clearly have a deep and genuine love for one another, and they all bawl their eyes out.
But a decision must be made.

Scene 4—A decision

Ruth 1:10–13 NLT
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.”
At first, the daughters-in-law are adamant that they will remain with Naomi. But then Naomi explains the hard facts of their situation to them. While they stay with Naomi they have no hope of ever being part of a whole family again—Naomi is too old to provide that for them. Their only hope is another marriage, and they can only secure that from the safety of their own families. It is a harsh reality that the world separates people who have a deep, abiding love for one another. This still happens, and it always will, until the final day.
So, what do the girls decide?
Ruth 1:14 NLT
14 And again they wept together, and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-bye. But Ruth clung tightly to Naomi.
One of them, Orpah, is sensible, and heads home with a broken heart. The other, Ruth, will not let go of Naomi. But why not? What does Naomi have to offer?
Ruth 1:15–18 NLT
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.
Imagine the scene. Two women, dusty, tired, hungry. The dust on their faces is streaked with tears, the mud dripping on their clothes. They cling together, barely standing in their grief. Behind them is nothing but peril and poverty. Ahead of them? For the younger woman it is nothing but strangers and poverty, and probably a lonely death. For the older, death among friends.
There is nothing special about these two women. They are poor. They are abandoned. They are weak.
And yet, the declaration that Ruth gives here is one of the great declarations of the whole of the Bible, up there with Joshua’s declaration of family faith, Mary’s song to the Lord, and Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah.
In this declaration, Ruth aligns herself with Naomi, her people, and her God. Despite Ruth’s only experience of Yahweh being a God who is silent in the midst of famine and death, Ruth makes herself his faithful servant. Ruth somehow sees beyond Naomi’s emptiness to the providence of God, and she places her trust in that. Naomi has given her no reason to think that God will reward her faithfulness, but she gives it anyway.
Like the other great faith leaders, Ruth throws herself into the arms of God, trusting in his goodness. Like Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Joseph refusing to bow to circumstance, Moses confronting Pharaoh, Rahab helping the spies, and Joshua defeating Jericho, Ruth abandons herself to Yahweh’s faithful love.
We should not look at Orpah as a failure—she’s merely being reasonable. Nor should we see Naomi as unreasonably bitter. She still has faith in Yahweh, she even trusts that he has the power and authority to bless Orpah in Moab, a foreign land! Naomi has simply come to the conclusion that God has no plans for her except for emptiness.

Scene 5—Arriving home, the reality

Ruth 1:19–21 NLT
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, 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?”
Now, back home in a familiar environment, Naomi is free to lament. You might think it unfair of Naomi to say that she has come home “empty” when she has the faithful Ruth by her side. But it is Naomi’s grief speaking. While Ruth’s name means “comfort,” she has yet to provide any real comfort to Naomi.
Ruth 1:22 NLT
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.
It is up to the author, then, to finish the first part of our story with a hint of the fullness to come. Naomi does have Ruth by her side, not yet knowing what a blessing that is, and the barley harvest is about to begin. And it’s going to be a good one.

Faith in the Face of Famine

So. What can we take from this account? What are we meant to learn?
Certainly, the contours of the story are familiar, the way God empties people’s lives before he can fill them with his blessings.
But is there more?
I think there is.
It is clear that Ruth is the exemplary character here. She not only made the most difficult decision, but she got to give an impressive speech about it.
And the decision that she made—to trust in God despite circumstances—is a decision we too are so often called to make.
Do you think Ruth felt the thrill of great historic circumstances at work when she decided to go to Bethlehem with Naomi? No, of course she didn’t. She didn’t know that she would be the grandmother of the greatest king of Israel, and more than you know where your actions will lead to in a hundred years. And Ruth certainly didn’t know that she was a part of the ancestry of the savior of the world!
She made a decision on a dusty road with tears muddying her face and her throat sore from wailing. She was almost certainly tired, sore, hungry and scared. She could have chosen a slightly easier path and returned with Orpah, but she chose the harder path. Not because it was noble or glorious or important, but because it was faithful. Faithful to her dead husband. Faithful to Naomi. Faithful to Yahweh.
Faithful. That’s all.
Ruth showed faith in the face of famine. She clung to God despite his silence.
And God used her.
He transformed her simple act of faith into a crucial building block of his great plan of salvation.
He can do that with our simple faithfulness, too.
If we can trust in God even when he’s silent, even when things seem at their lowest, then he can use us for his glorious plan.
And he will.
Now that we’ve dug into the chapter, let’s take it in as a whole piece:
Ruth 1 NLT
1 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, 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?” 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.
Let’s pray.
Lord, there are so many days when it feels like you’re not there. There are so many years that feel wasted. Like Naomi we feel like we were once full, but are now empty. But we see, in Ruth, that if we keep stepping out in faith, if we keep supporting one another with your loving kindness, then you will use that to fill the world with your goodness. Help us to show our faith by loving one another, by trusting you.
In Jesus name, Amen.
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