READ – Ruth 1
The story of Ruth takes places “in the days when the judges ruled” (v1). These were dark days in Israel. Judges tells us how the people of Israel continually spiraled away from God further into the emptiness of idolatry. Not only was it a time of spiritual emptiness, it was also a time of agricultural emptiness - “there was a famine in the land”. Ruth tells us the story of one family’s response to living in these empty times and how God met two women in this family to fill their emptiness in the most surprising of ways. But Ruth is more than the story of just one family or two women. It’s the story of how God filled the emptiness of all His people by paving the way for a King who would lead them out of the dark and difficult days of Judges into a time of rest and blessing (see Judges 21:25 and Ruth 4:17). This is why Ruth is a “Christmas story” – it’s the story of how God raised up a faithful king to lead His people back to Him through a miraculous birth by the most unlikely of mothers in the city of Bethlehem.
1. HE DRAWS THE DRIFTING
Ruth is a story about a family that drifted far away from God. Because of the famine, Elimelech led his family out of the promised land into the land of Moab. Though we can’t blame a man for trying to keep his family alive, in the OT leaving the promised land behind was the same thing as leaving God behind. On top of this, Moab was a place of spiritual emptiness. Moab had repeatedly sought to undermine Israel’s faith in God. It was supposed to only be a short stay (a “sojourn” v1) for the family but it turned into a place to remain (v2), find wives for their sons and settle in. Before they knew it, 10 years went by… and God was all but forgotten to them.
This family’s drifting away from God was subtle and gradual. This is how almost all spiritual drift works. We distance ourselves subtly and gradually away from God, his people (the church) and practices that keep us connected to God. Pretty soon we wonder if God is necessary at all. The men in the story end up dying but Naomi and her daughters-in-law are left alone. Three widows in the ancient land of Moab would be so easily forgotten in the annuals of history. But God had not forgotten them. In the fields of Moab with no husband, no sons-in-law, no grandsons and barren daughters-in-law, Naomi is empty. She represents someone completely emptied in life. It’s here she begins to realize also how far she has drifted from God. Here God begins to draw her back.
2. HE MEETS THE HURTING
Though our times of emptiness are often the times when God gets our attention, it doesn’t mean they are easy. They are often very painful. God knows this. Notice how he meets Naomi in her hurt:
· He hears the hurting – Read verses 13 and 20-21 again. Naomi is talking about God again (maybe for the first time in 10 years) but it’s in a way that would make most of us uncomfortable. In her pain, she uses the language of lament. She laments that God’s hand is against her, he has emptied her, made her life bitter and brought calamity on her. By the end of the story we realize that, in fact, God’s hand is for her, he will fill her, make her life sweet and bring her more good than she ever imagined. God knew where the story was headed but Naomi didn’t. When Naomi lamented in pain, God didn’t correct her or rebuke her, he heard her. Lament is the language we need to find our way from emptiness and pain and back to God.
· He uses the hurting – Amazingly, God uses Naomi in a powerful way despite her weak faith and hurt. When Naomi blesses her daughters-in-law to return home, Orpah takes her up on the offer and goes back to Moab. But Ruth, in some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture, pledges herself to stay with Naomi and her God. On the road to Bethlehem, Ruth decisively converts to faith in Israel’s God. Why? It’s because she knew what Naomi was doing in releasing her to go home. Naomi was giving up all prospect of hope and security (ie in her daughters-in-law remarrying). Naomi was emptying her life of hope, to fill Ruth. This was all Ruth needed to see. This self emptying love drew her to Naomi and Naomi’s God for good. God uses us even when our faith is weak.
· He comforts the hurting – Though Naomi’s life was emptied, it was in the emptying that God was filling her with something better than she ever had – the covenant friendship with Ruth. Through Ruth’s pledge of friendship God comforted Naomi. God often comforts the hurting through people. This is the power of friendship – the kind of friendship that sticks with us when we feel empty and aren’t very pleasant to be around.
3. HE WELCOMES THE RETURNING
The story of Ruth chapter 1 is a story of return. In fact, the Hebrew word for return is the most repeated word in the chapter (8X). Naomi’s return is a case study in repentance. Our understanding (and experience of) repentance reveals whether we understand the gospel, the very heart of the message of Scripture. Our understanding of Christianity boils down to our response to these questions - How does God treat us when we return from drifting away from Him into sin? How does he treat us when we return hurting with weak and fragile faith?
How did Naomi return? She came blaming God. She came unable to see how God had given her Ruth; how God had brought her home right at the beginning of the harvest. She was so focused on herself – her pain, her mistakes, her circumstances. She barely returned, but she did return. How did God welcome her? The rest of the story tells us: He welcomed her back to the land, her hometown, to a great harvest, right into the life of her nearest relative (Boaz), and into the lineage of Israel’s greatest king – David.
This is how God always welcomes the returning. No matter how far we drift or how empty we feel. How can we be sure of this? We can be sure of this because of the good news of the self-emptying love of God for us in Jesus. At his birth, Jesus entered into the bitterness and brokenness of our human experience. He emptied himself of his Kingly honor, glory and eternal comfort. He became the One who God testified against and took the calamity of judgment upon himself. Why? To take away our sin, to bear the cost of our drifting so we could be welcomed into his family. So we would always be welcomed home anytime we return.
To those who return barely clinging to faith in Jesus, God says - whenever you are emptied, it is only that I might fill you with something better. Whenever you return, you return as one welcomed home - for you are in the family of the King.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. Do you agree that most spiritual drift is subtle and gradual? Have you experienced this in your own life? How might we counteract this drift from happening? What role does connection to our church community play in this?
3. Times of emptiness can also be times when God gets our attention. They can be times when we realize how we’ve been looking to fill ourselves. Has God used times of emptiness in your life to get your attention or draw you closer to Himself?
4. Lament is the language we need to find our way from emptiness and pain and back to God. Is lament a part of your spiritual experience? If so, how does this look? If not, why not?
5. In the sermon it was said that God can use those with weak faith, those whose lives are marked by a mix of unbelief and belief. He used Naomi to bring Ruth to faith. How does this encourage you?
6. The role of friendship is a major theme in Ruth. Ruth’s self-emptying friendship became Naomi’s salvation. What can we learn from Ruth about what kind of friends we need and what kind of friends we need to become?
7. Why is our attitude and experience of returning (or repentance) so vital for our understanding of the core message of Christianity? What do you tend to feel in times of repentance? Guilt? Shame? Regret? Remorse? What does God feel in times of our repentance? (See Luke 15 for help).
8. Namoi was written into the family of the King (David) by grace through (weak, stumbling) faith. What difference does it make to know that – even when we barely come in weak and imperfect faith, God welcomes us because of Jesus?