The goodness of God: back to Bethlehem (Ruth 1)

Publié le 6 décembre 2020 dans Traductions

Sermon by Pastor Samuel NIBLACK

This Christmas, we are going to look together at what many have called “the perfect short story” in the Bible, Ruth.

It’s a love story, but not Hollywood romance. It’s a story about women, but men have lots to learn. It’s a Christmas story because it connects Bethlehem to the birth of Jesus. And this is a story set in a difficult time, not a pandemic, but a famine, and yet it is a story of redemption and hope, which we still need it today.

Let’s read Ruth 1

Naomi expresses our dilemma well: She says in v8: May the Lord be kind to you. but v13, v21, she says,  the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. She knows God is good, but in her situation she doesn’t see it.

One of the key words in this book is kindness (hesed in Hebrew). The key word of the whole Bible, often translated lovingkindess, goodness, mercy, compassion…. We are going to talk about the goodness and the kindness of God this morning, but we recognize that it is not always that simple. 

Is God good at all times? Christians know we have to say yes, but at times, we find it hard to believe  It’s a major question in life, for Christians and non-Christians alike. So much so that God has given us many stories in the Bible to help us navigate dark times.

If you have an author that you love to read, and after reading many of his books you recognize his style, you recognize his signature,even if  every story is different, but you can guess the ending. God gives us these stories to help us guess the end, even though when it’s our turn to be in the story, and not knowing the end, it’s difficult.

When his people are helpless, God loves to show his goodness. To better understand this kindness, the three distinct scenes: A painful departure (to Moab), A decisive crossroads (way back), A bitter arrival? (in Bethlehem)

1. A painful departure

In  v1-5 Each verse contains something bad, unfortunate.

v1, In the days of the judges … already a very bad period in the life of Israel. Lots of disobedience. The Book of Judges ends with two particularly sordid and painful stories (rape, murder, theft, idolatry), both of which begin in Bethlehem.

Next, a famine in the country. Knowing that this takes place during the time of the judges, we know that the plagues, the misfortunes were judgments of God because of the disobedience of his people. It seems to be a localized famine, since no famine in the neighboring country. What’s more : A famine in Bethlehem: Bethehem means “house of bread!” 

They went to the land of Moab. Not good ! In the minds of the first listeners of this story, that would sound painful too. Moab was not an allied country, friend of Israel. Moab was frowned upon, a people with incestuous origins, and hostile to Israel.

To abandon one’s heritage, one’s property, one’s homeland to seek a solution in a pagan country, does not seem to show a life, a step of faith. Elimelech, My God is King, does not seem to live as if God were his King. (a luxury to leave, he had the means…) But instead of showing fidelity, loyalty, solidarity towards his people, his country, his God, even during difficult times, he seeks a solution elsewhere. He does not seem to be moved by the spirit of Joshua: As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. More lime; me and my house are going far away from God.

Moving to Moab means moving far from the temple, from worship, from the people of God. Naturally, his sons married Moabite daughters, which was also frowned upon. The Moabites were forbidden to enter the assembly of God for up to 10 generations (deu 23.3). (Ezra laments that some men married Gentiles such as Moabites.)

Husbands, fathers, heads of families: Where we take our family, where we lead our family, the surroudings we choose for our family will inevitably have consequences…

Elimelech dies. So the move to Moab didn’ really work out for him anyways. 

And for Naomie, this is not the end of the pain. Her sons marry but go 10 years without children! For both couples, that would also have been a painful ordeal. And finally, Naomie loses her two sons, Machlon and Kiljon (sick and without strength).

So, assessment, in this departure to Moab: nothing good! A exiled, bereaved, financially ruined widow all alone. What is her conception of God and his goodness now?

II. A decisive crossroads

She learns in v6 that the Lord visited his people and gave them bread. So she decides to return to Bethlehem, and her two daughters-in-law, both widows too, accompany her. Note that all 3 go a long way together. And then they come to a crossroads, perhaps the border between Israel and Moab, at the roundabout with the arrow towards the small region of Judah… This scene is the key moment in this first chapter.

Up till now, both showed a certain kindness towards Naomie. They want to be loyal to Naomie and to the memory of their husbands. Both are crying, v10 both say they want to continue to Naomie, despite her insistence that they better go home. But at the moment of decision, the two daughters make differnt choices. Will help us to understand true goodness.

Orpa chooses the normal life, the life she knows, her friends, the possibility of remarrying, it is a logical choice, it is a choice which aims at her personal happiness, her personal development. Can we blame her?

And yet, as Naomi says in v15, the choice of Orpah was also a religious choice. v15: “She returned to her gods.”

On the other hand, Ruth, in one of the most beautiful expressions of faith and commitment in the Bible, v16-17: your people will be my people, your God will be my God. Ruth converts to God, (like Rahab, another pagan …) Ruth chooses to take refuge « under the wings of the God of Israel »

The Moabite gods: Chemosch, Baal-Peor, were cruel, sensual gods, gods indifferent to the fates of humans. Like our modern idols of money, sex. Ruth does not want to go back to her gods.  Rather, Ruth chooses the path of loyal kindness. She herself shows this trait of God, this kindness, this totally loyal kindness, hesed kindness. “Until death do us part!” Same language in marriage vows and promises. This kind of love is only found in the God of the Bible.

Have you made the choice ? The God of Christians will be my God. The Christian people will be my people. God leads each of us to a defining crossroad in life where we will have this choice to make. Whether you are from a Christiam family; or an atheist background, I hope that by comparing the gods of this world and the God of the Bible, you can do like Ruth and choose to follow this God; even when it represents a sacrifice.

So, in Ruth, we have a wonderful expression of faith, wonderful illustration of the faithful goodness of God. But back to Naomie. It is her relationship to the goodness of God that is more complicated. Let us now see this third scene of the chapter: the bitter arrival in Bethlehem.

III. A bitter arrival?

What about the attitude, the faith of Naomie / Mara, v20-21? All the circumstances of her life are against her. Is it wrong to talk like that? She’s bitter, she’s grieved, but she doesn’t give up on her faith. What she says is similar to what we will read in Psalms, Job, etc. Notice that what prompts her to return is that she learns that God had visited his people. It takes faith and humility to go back. She asks God’s blessing on her daughters-in-law.

And yet she is filled with bitterness and attributes it to God’s actions in her life. (Theologically speaking; that’s much more correct than denying that God exists, or that he has no power to help or change…) 

And we can understand her bitterness. Now might not be the time to say: Why don’t you sing and dance with us?

That said, bitterness can color our vision. She says, “The Lord has brought me back empty-handed.” This is true, but not quite true. She does not come back with nothing. Are her hands empty? The author reminds us v22, she returns with Ruth the Moabite. Even the other women of Bethlehem don’t seem to notice Ruth too much at first. She’s a foreigner, that doesn’t count .. etc. But Ruth is a treasure greater than any she can imagine. Ruth is God’s goodness to her. It is Ruth who will reap, and she will reap more than barley, but a husband, a child, a future for Naomi, even a place in the line of Messiah. She says that the Lord will gone out against her, but the Lord is actually perfectly answering her prayer in v9. If God is perfectly answering her prayers, he is not totally against her. And finally, even the famine, the departure to Moab, the mourning are part of God’s goodness towards Naomie.

Obviously, it is impossible for Naomi in her current situation to guess how all of this is part of God’s goodness. Even in her lifetime, she will not see the full scope and beauty of God’s work, knowing that Christmas is not yet 1300 years away!

Likewise, it is impossible for us to know, to explain exactly the full extent of God’s goodness in our lives today. You will have to cling to this truth even when life seems to say otherwise. But like Naomie, we have this good news that God visited his people in Bethlehem, and he has given us the Bread of Life; in Jesus, the ultimate proof that God is good and will do good in the lives of all his children