This Sunday, my two churches begin a five-part series on the Book of Ruth. At the one where I’m preaching this weekend, it also coincides with the annual Covenant Service, where we Methodists renew our commitment to Christ. Hence there is a lot of reference to that in the sermon below.
I should add that before you read it, I owe a huge debt for background issues on this sermon to Daniel I Block’s magnificent commentary on Judges and Ruth in the New American Commentary series.
There was no monarch or President. Transport was primitive and you couldn’t go to the shops for retail therapy. There was no Social Security system and women were entirely dependent upon men.
It sounds a world away from our lives, and you could say it is. Yet human nature being what it is, and God’s nature being what it is, the story of Ruth is one that can have a surprising number of connections with our call to be Christian disciples today. Today, as we begin a new year, it can even frame the renewal of our covenant promises to God as we ponder the dedication shown in this opening episode.
Firstly, there is a context to set, and it begins with a famine (verse 1). That might seem a long way from our experience, situated in the middle of fast food outlets and just down the road from a Tesco Extra. But we of course are putting our weight behind the establishment of a food bank, and the economic prospects for Western society remain poor. People are struggling.
Indeed, in that fact there is another potential similarity. The famine in Israel happens ‘when the judges ruled’ (verse 1), and you may recall from reading the Book of Judges that when disaster hits Israel it is usually the displeasure of God at his people’s sins, following on from the warnings in Deuteronomy. This famine, therefore, could well be one of God’s judgments against his people.
Now without wishing to be too dramatic, it doesn’t seem entirely impossible to me to construe some of our current economic woes as a divine judgment on our society. We can blame the banks for selling credit too easily, but in our desire to munch up everything a consumer culture threw at us, we accepted it. As a result, we face stark measures to try and tame our colossal national debts. Could it be that God is letting us reap the whirlwind of our choices to seek pleasure instead of him? I do not think, therefore, that it is too remote an idea to consider that we too face the challenges of discipleship as part of a society which makes God weep, and where his severity is part of his call to return to him.
There are hints, too, right at the beginning, that this story is going to turn from pain to tragedy. We see this in the names of the two sons. Mahlon probably derives from the Hebrew verb ‘to be sick’, and Chilion from the verb ‘to be finished, to come to an end’ (verse 2).
Not only that, if I am right that there is a background of God’s judgment, Elimelech makes a bad move. Instead of sharing in some corporate repentance for the sins of his people, he takes what he thinks will be the quick and easy way out, which is to move to Moab. But this is to embrace one of Israel’s ancient enemies. In doing so, he leaves Bethlehem (verses 1 & 2) – at this time a small and insignificant community, but one destined to be central in the purposes of God. Elimelech misses this, because he wants his instant solution.
Having set the scene of despondency and desperation, the second thing we find is that it all gets worse. Elimelech isn’t saved: he dies (verse 3). And then the two sons marry pagan women, outside their clan (verse 4). In fact, it doesn’t even sound like a normal form of marriage: when our English translations say they ‘took’ Moabite wives (verse 4), ‘took’ is quite a forceful word. It implies they abducted Ruth and Orpah. These were far from pleasant young men. The women are effectively the victims of domestic violence. You wonder what the resulting relationships were like. Certainly, within the understanding of the time the fact that in ten years of marriage no children are born to either couple and then the husbands die (verses 4-5) indicates more displeasure on God’s part.
For many of us, that will all seem rather remote. But the awful truth is that many Christians today are victims of domestic violence (I can certainly think of some people I know), and that means in some cases the violence is perpetrated by Christians. It is not a wild suggestion to make that today in Methodist churches around the world, there will be people renewing their covenant promises who do so against a background of consistent suffering at home.
Yet it is desperate in a new way when these thuggish young men die. This is a society where no men means no hope. Men were the providers. What on earth are these three widows – Naomi, Orpah and Ruth – going to do? Yet into this horrendous situation comes the third element of our story: God’s grace. Naomi hears good news in the midst of her grief:
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had had consideration for his people and given them food. (Verse 6)
God has visited his people in mercy. ‘His people’: the language of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. Judgment is not the last word in God’s vocabulary, grace is. And he has not simply ‘given them food’, the word is ‘bread’, which is significant for Naomi, as Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’. The house of bread is being restocked. This is grace: not only forgiveness, but provision for needs.
It is grace like this and far more that brings us to a covenant service. The grace of God in which he gives up his only begotten Son for the salvation of the world brings us here. The grace that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself brings us here. The God who not only mercifully withholds judgment in favour of justifying us but who also in grace blesses us with many things we do not deserve – all this brings us to a covenant service. If it were only about the solemn promises we make, this would be a severe and sombre occasion. But we are here because God’s grace is extravagant and healing.
Therefore the fourth movement in this episode is Naomi’s response. Grace has shown her where she belongs – not in Moab but among the people of God, and so she heads home, accompanied by Ruth and Orpah (verse 7). Having heard of God’s mercy to her own people, she offers mercy to her daughters-in-law. She urges them to go home, so that they might have the chance to remarry and thus find their own security in having a husband provide for them – and this time, hopefully treat them better (verses 8-9). Naomi, the one who has come to know grace, must first of all respond in kind to others. In today’s parlance, she ‘pays it forward’ to others. The very essence of our own response today to God’s grace is that we seek to offer grace to others.
Now in the fifth stage of the story, Ruth and Orpah react. Have they been affected by Naomi’s graciousness? Had they all been bound together in their common suffering? They promise to come with her (verse 10). However, Naomi assumes they will be doing so in order to find husbands – not an unreasonable assumption. She moves quickly to show them that gaining new husbands through her is a ludicrous idea (verses 11-13a). But in doing so, it exposes an unhealed, unredeemed side of her. At heart she is angry with God for her circumstances. There is no self-examination, just a lashing out at God. She says:
No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me. (Verse 13b)
It may well be that today we need to reflect on this. We are at our covenant service because we know that God has shown grace to us and we are making a gut response to that of wanting to show our gratitude by demonstrating that grace to others. However, we have those areas of our lives that may be forgiven but which are not yet transformed. Someone has said that the Gospel is about salvation from sin in at least three different senses: we are saved from the penalty of sin (that is, forgiveness), one day we shall all be saved from the presence of sin (when God brings in his new heavens and new earth), but in the meantime God wants to save us from the practice of sin (that is, enable us to grow in holiness).
And if the covenant service is anything, it is a commitment to holiness. I believe that one reason why we sometimes feel uncomfortable about the promises we make today is that they highlight those areas of our lives we have not yet been willing to hand over to Christ for purification. I don’t want to promise to follow Christ with no strings attached: I want to retain a veto over what he asks of me. For Naomi, it was an issue of anger, bitterness and, I would suggest, trying to justify herself. In the final part of today’s reading, we shall see that she still has not resolved it: she says God has dealt bitterly and harshly with her, taking everything away from her (verses 19-21). What is it for us? Can we at least say to Christ today, I do not feel that willing to be changed, but I am willing to be made willing? May we not let it fester, as Naomi appeared to do.
Orpah, then, takes the natural human course and returns home (verse 14a). She is not to be blamed for this. But Ruth clung to Naomi (verse 14b) and from this springs the most remarkable and beautiful sixth phase of this story, where her commitment is worked out in the way she devotes herself to Naomi. It’s really quite astonishing, because we have yet more evidence of Naomi’s rather fragile faith here. She implores Ruth to follow Orpah back to Moab ‘to her people and to her gods’ (verse 15, italics mine). Naomi, a follower of Yahweh, the one and only God, speaks as if the Moabite claim to other deities is true. Sheer heresy! Yet Ruth is attracted to her mother-in-law and her feeble faith. Ruth will travel and live wherever Naomi goes; Ruth will transfer her allegiance from her people and gods to Naomi’s people and Yahweh; Ruth considers herself part of Naomi’s family now, because she wants to be buried in the same family grave (verses 16-17).
Do not let the weakness of your faith prevent you from speaking out for Christ. God does not wait until you have it all together for him to use you. God uses a woman like Naomi, with her unresolved feelings and her theological errors, to draw out a true sense of covenant from Ruth. Come, with whatever weaknesses you know you have, to renew your commitment to Christ in our service today.
But of course, as it is often said, God loves us just as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us as we are. For that reason, aspire less to be like Naomi and more like Ruth. For Ruth becomes a wonderful example of what it means to make a covenant commitment. She is committed to God and to God’s people. This is what covenant means. We bind ourselves to our Lord, because in grace he has bound himself to us. But we do not do so in isolation. God’s covenant is not merely with individuals, but with a community, with his people. The purpose of his covenant is make us more truly into the community of his kingdom, a living, breathing witness to his love. Like Ruth said to Naomi, so we say to each other today, ‘Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ And as Ruth also said to Naomi, so we also say to one another today, ‘Where you go, I will go.’
Today, in a context of suffering and judgment, even from the pain of our own lives, let us acknowledge with joy the grace of God in Christ and respond by seeking redemption for our brokenness, and by binding ourselves to our Lord and to each other.
Let it be so.