musings of a saint and sinner

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sticking to you like glue

(Based on the Bible reading from Ruth 1)

Was there ever a time when you felt forsaken by God? Perhaps a great tragedy had occurred and you were angry at God, wondering why He had taken a family member or friend from you. Perhaps you felt that He did not care about you anymore. Or perhaps you were struggling with a physical or emotional ailment that simply refused to get better, despite your visits to doctors, counselors, and pastors. The heavens remained silent. Or maybe, contrary to all reason, all of a sudden you could not feel God’s presence like before. No great event had happened…you just felt dry, bland, alone, alienated.

If there was ever someone who could understand the feeling of being forsaken by God, it was the woman we read about in our first reading, Naomi. A famine forced her and her husband, Elimelech, out of the country of Israel into the foreign land of Moab. It must have been hard to be so far from home, but Naomi made the best of it. She saw to it that her two sons found wives among the Moabite women. “Bloom where you’re planted” seemed to be Naomi’s motto. But then tragedy struck. Not only did Naomi have to leave her homeland because of the famine, she also lost her husband and two sons. Scripture does not explain to us why the three of them died. I find myself wondering if an epidemic hit, given the fact that nearly an entire family was taken out. Regardless, Naomi, and her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah (not to be confused with Oprah!) survived. Naomi’s grief knew no limits.

The only good thing was when Naomi heard that there was food again in Israel, so she decided to return home. Naomi must have been a good woman, because we see that her daughters-in-law are desperate not to leave her. And we see this again in Naomi’s consideration for her daughters-in-law’s wellbeing. In case they were only trying to observe good manners and protocol, she gives them her blessing to return to their homes. “You’re still young,” she says. “You can still make something of your lives. I have nothing to offer you…go home to your family. You’ll find other husbands. Just forget me and this whole lousy fiasco we have had together.”

In the midst of trying to convince Ruth and Orpah to go back home to their families, Naomi says something very powerful, something that perhaps all of us can relate to at one time or another. She says, “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!” (vs.13, NIV). You see, Naomi has a very strong belief in God’s Sovereignty. She believes that God is in charge of the universe and deeply involved with what happens to human beings. This is why she blames the death of her husband and sons on God. In some sense, Naomi is right. Nothing in the world can happen without God causing it…or at least allowing it. God is the King of the universe, so even the devil must get permission from Him before causing something to happen on earth. We see an example of this in the book of Job where the devil tries to prove Job’s faith is not real and is only dependent on his wealth and circumstances, but he must get permission from God to test Job. So, Naomi was right to believe that God was deeply involved in the events of her life, and that nothing could happen without His allowing it.

And we can also commend her for speaking honestly of her feeling of being forsaken by God. How many of us are afraid to say that we don’t feel God’s presence, that we are going through a dark night of the soul? We are often afraid of being condemned by our church community--or even by God--for saying this. But in the Jewish faith of the Old Testament, people frequently expressed frustration and anger with God. Their relationship with God was passionate, and so all of the ups and downs of emotion that would be part of a human relationship were also part of the people’s relationship with God. This kind of relationship reminds me of a line in a famous song by the band, U2, “With or without you…I can’t live, with or without you.” We have all had times when we felt we couldn’t live with God, given what He was asking of us, given the amount of suffering He was allowing in our lives. But at the same time, we are drawn back in by those times when we realize yet again that we cannot live without Him either! As Peter said in his confession of faith, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!” There are many times in my life when I have been tempted to walk away from faith…it can be so darn hard to be a Christian! But then I think, “But where would I go? This is the only place I can go…into the arms of Jesus.” Indeed, Naomi knew what it means to say to God, “I can’t live with or without You.”

So, we have commended Naomi for her recognition that God is the King of universe, and without Him, nothing can happen. And we have also commended her for her honesty about the life of faith. But we can also criticize Naomi a little bit. You see, although she believed correctly that God is absolutely sovereign over the universe, she had a short-sighted view of His work. In the Old Testament, there was a word that was used to kind of summarize God’s essence. In Hebrew, this word is chesed, the lovingkindness or all-enduring faithfulness of God. Another way to explain this chesed would be to say that our God “uses His powers for good.” We see this in verses in the New Testament as well. For example in Romans 8:28, we hear the promise, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV). This means, that God is always at work for good for those who are believers. And in the cross, we see the ultimate expression of God’s heart. We see that God is willing to give up all of Himself for us, for our benefit. If this is true, then we can know that He does not whimsically put us through suffering for no reason. We may not know the reason this side of heaven, but there is one. Now, Naomi did not know about the cross, but surely as a Jewish believer she knew of the underlying trait to God’s character, His chesed, His faithfulness and lovingkindness. And so, she would have done well to look ahead in faith to what God might do in her life. But she stayed stuck in the hopelessness of the present. As a widow—and one without sons at that!—she would have been the poorest of the poor, since women in the Bible were dependent on men to support them. She had nowhere to turn, and everything ahead looked dark, broken, and full of suffering. She didn’t dare to believe that God was about to do something marvelous, something miraculous, in her life. To be fair, most of us would do the same. We humans are very prone to fixate on our present difficult circumstances, and very slow to trust in God to bring about good in the future.

But the great thing about our God is that He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him in perfect faith. Because we are sinful, we are always laden with doubts, fears, and anxieties. We get stuck in our terrible present. Our faith is often very small. God, however, is not dependent on us having great faith—and we give thanks for that! You see, while Naomi was stuck in her pain and depression, God was at work behind the scenes bringing about something good in her life. Imagine Him smiling to Himself and wanting to say to Naomi, “Just you wait and see what I am going to do!”

God’s redemptive work in Naomi’s life started with Ruth. Although Naomi tries to convince her daughters-in-law to leave her, one of them is bound and determined to stay. That woman is Ruth. She gives a really heart-felt speech, declaring her absolute loyalty to Naomi. She says, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me” (vv. 16-17, NIV). The irony of it all is that it takes a foreigner, a person who is not of the nation of Israel to have faith for a Jewish believer. According to Deuteronomy 23:3, Moabites (which Ruth was) were not allowed to “enter the assembly of the LORD, even down to the tenth generation.” Ruth was not only a foreigner, she was considered unclean, and yet she is the one who dares to have faith in the God of Israel. It is so often true that God uses “the least of these,” the unexpected person, to do His work. Paul talked about this principle in the New Testament. If you can, turn to I Corinthians 1:26-31 in your pew Bibles (page 1041).

1 Corinthians 1


Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.


But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.


God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are,


so that no one may boast before him.


It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.


Therefore, as it is written: "Let those who boast boast in the Lord."

Today's New International Version

Ruth is a picture of God using the unlikely person to accomplish His purposes. Not only does she express faith in the God of Israel, I believe that she becomes a picture to Naomi of God’s faithful, loving presence. She is a picture of God’s ability to stand by people despite their faithlessness. She pictures God’s stubborn love for people who doubt Him. She pictures a God who doesn’t give up on people, even if they give Him reason to.

Some of you may wish to go home today and finish reading the book of Ruth. It is only 4 chapters. We don’t get it very often in our lectionary, but it is a powerful testament to the faithfulness of God with a broken woman. You see, God ends up bringing Ruth to marry a man named Boaz, who is a relative of Naomi’s husband. Boaz is a wealthy land-owner, a man of influence, and he is kind towards Naomi and Ruth. He provides food for them, even before he marries Ruth. When Ruth and Boaz marry, a son is born and this baby, Obed, is the balm to Naomi’s sorrows. When tragedy struck in the land of Moab, she had thought that she would never have family again. But God provided her a daughter-in-law, a man to provide for them, and a baby to continue the line of the family. Even more amazing, this child was to become one in the line of David, a line which would eventually give birth to the Messiah, Jesus! Do you think Naomi could have imagined any of that when she was stuck in Moab, mourning the loss of her husband and two sons? Of course she could not! Because she could not imagine it for herself, God sent her Ruth, who had faith, and pictured His loving, abiding presence with stubborn, broken, doubting people.

For those of us today, there is a message of good news. God is present with you in your suffering, sticking by you even when you doubt Him, even when you fear Him. Maybe He has brought a “Ruth” into your life to show you a picture of His faithful love for you. Even if you do not have such a person, you have God’s Word. Listen to His promise to you found in I Corinthians 2:9, “However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived-- these things God has prepared for those who love him.’” We may not know how God’s purpose for us will happen—perhaps we will see the reason in this life, or perhaps in heaven—but we can trust that God’s purpose is good. And we can trust that God will stick by us with complete faithfulness and love, just as Ruth stuck by Naomi. Amen.

--This is my sermon from July 22, 2007


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