Episode 1. What a Rotten Place This is
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Sometimes in life, it feels as though we’re lost in a foreign land – in a place where we’re not meant to be, going through things that just don’t make sense. That’s where Naomi and Ruth and …
Sometimes in life, it feels as though we’re lost in a foreign land – in a place where we’re not meant to be, going through things that just don’t make sense. That’s where Naomi and Ruth and Orpah found themselves. But in those places, the thing we so often lose sight of – is that God is a God who wants to bless us.
Alone in a Foreign Land
I’m so excited today because we are about to kick off a new series of messages – a series, after some prayer, that I have called, “A Journey into the Blessings of God”. Now some people get a bit twitchy, I have to tell you, when they hear some guy talking about the blessings of God. Why? Well, over the years – and this is nothing new – over the years some have twisted this whole thing of God’s blessing into this notion that, if we push this button or pull that lever with God, then money will just roll out. “I can have a big house or a big car or financial prosperity – that’s what being a Christian is all about.”
Some call that the “prosperity doctrine”! And the reason I won’t subscribe to it is because you won’t find it in God’s Word, the Bible. It ignores the fact that Jesus, the very Son of God, died a gruesome death on a cross, without even the shirt on His back, or at least the tunic on His back. So when I talk about the blessings of God, abundant financial blessing is not what I am talking about.
When I talk about the blessings of God, I am talking about something much bigger … something much more than mere financial prosperity. God is a God who wants to bless us – He wants us to be secure and at peace and full of joy, smack bang in the middle of His blessing. And as we take this journey to God’s blessing – the blessing that He promises each one of us who put our faith in Jesus His Son – we are going to travel alone a road with a woman by the name of Ruth.
Now, Ruth has a whole Book under her name in the Old Testament. Granted, it’s a short Book, just four chapters, but nevertheless, a whole Book. That’s quite something when you think about it. And so, each week over the coming four weeks, we are going to take a journey into God’s blessing, walking along the road with Ruth.
And today, we are going to kick it off with just the first part of her story; a story, which I suspect, is all too familiar to many of us. Have a listen. Ruth chapter 1, beginning at verse 1:
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there.
But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other was Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons or her husband.”
Now, let’s just position this time historically in the journey of Israel. You may recall that for centuries Israel was stuck in slavery in Egypt, then when God heard the cry of His chosen people, He led them out of Egypt, through Moses, through the Red Sea into the wilderness on a forty year journey – finally arriving at the Promised Land, the land of Israel, which they had to take bit by bit, battle by battle.”
Once they settled, their system of Government was a theocracy. In other words, God was their head of state and God administered His rule through a number of Judges who judged Israel. Not just the way we understand judges to judge, but also in terms of leadership and government.
So here a famine strikes and Elimelech does something that, well, sure, saves his skin in the short term, but ultimately ends in disaster. He leaves the Promised Land; he leaves the Land flowing with milk and honey because in the short term there is not enough food to go around – there is a famine in the land. And to be sure, for people who were living in those days – hand to mouth subsistence farming situations – when there is a famine in your own land, well, sometimes you had to get up and go to another land to where there was enough food to eat and enough water to drink. The problem here is that Elimelech, whose name literally means ‘my God is king’, forsakes his King; he forsakes the promises of God, the blessings of God in the Promised Land because on the surface of things there is a famine.
Now, it’s the easiest thing in the world for any of us to do – we put our trust in God through Jesus, His Son. “Yea, I believe in God. He is a good God. I believe God wants to bless me. Yes, I believe God is all powerful. Yes, I believe God is powerful enough to deal with every problem and situation in my life.” We even sing songs about those things at church; we listen to sermons about them, but then … at the first sign of trouble we put our tail between our legs and we run away!
It’s what Elimelech did. He took his wife with him, Naomi and his two sons, Marlon and Chilion to Moab. Now the sons end up, after their father’s death, marrying Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth respectively. Never mind that the Moabites are the sworn enemies of Israel; never mind that God said to His people, “Don’t take foreign wives.” So what happens – surprise, surprise – Elimelech and his two sons die, leaving Naomi, Elimelech’s widow and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, stranded. And for Naomi, she was a woman alone in a foreign, hostile land; in a land where she didn’t belong.
Now later on in this programme and over the coming weeks in this series, we are going to see what happens to these women. We are going to see what decisions they make and how God deals with them, in particular how two of them journey back, right into the middle of God’s blessing. Remember, God is a God who forgives and who blesses – He just does.
But right now, let’s focus on the mess they’re in. And the reason they are in this mess is that the head of this household, Elimelech, turned his back on God. Can I tell you, that’s something that many, many of us are familiar with. So many people start off believing in God and His promises, following Him and then in the middle of some adversity or dilemma, they turn aside; they run away; they forsake the promises of God and try and go it alone.
Precisely where God found me! Again, almost two decades ago – I had once believed; I’d once worshipped Him but through the pressures of life and my own stupidity and arrogance, I decided somewhere along the line – like Elimelech – to take matters into my own hands. And what a mess that turned out to be; what a mess!!
Now, none of this was Naomi’s fault, or Orpah’s fault, or Ruth’s fault – they were women and in that time and in that place, in that culture, they did what the head of their household told them to do. But here they were, women – alone and widowed. Women couldn’t own property, they had no legal standing. They were in a mess – a big one. So what happens next? What does God do?
Back to the Promised Land
So there’s Naomi, widowed and destitute in the land of Moab, with two Moabite daughters-in-law – Orpah and Ruth. It was a difficult situation – the Moabites and the Israelites were sworn enemies. Here we had a cross cultural marriage situation, with more than its usual tensions and now the husbands were all gone. What should Naomi do? Should she stay there or go back to her home town, Bethlehem in Judah, from which she had fled with her husband all those years before, because of the famine?
What should Orpah and Ruth do? They were Moabites – should their allegiance rest with the family of their late husbands or should they again become Moabites? Should they go to Bethlehem in a foreign land, with Naomi, their mother-in-law or remain here? Should they continue to worship the God of Israel or should they go back to worship the gods of the Moabites?
These are the questions that confronted them and it’s pretty much a life and death situation. Women without men to provide for them and to protect them were likely to starve to death – it was as simple as that. And the decisions weren’t clear cut. There were pros and cons on each side for all of them.
Well, let’s pick up the story and see how it began to unfold after Elimelech and his sons, the husbands of Ruth and Orpah, had all died. We are reading now from Ruth chapter 1, beginning at verse six:
Then Naomi 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 considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way back to the land of Judah.
But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.
The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you come with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me.
See, the tension in this story. Things were by no means clear cut, well, at least not for the daughters-in-law, the Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. But Naomi had made a decision, a pretty pragmatic one, I suspect, to go back to Bethlehem. God had blessed His people, Israel. There was again food in her homeland and her hometown and of course, her wider family was still there. That offered some protection and provision for her. Families looked after one another in that way. They were responsible to provide for the widows amongst them.
Naomi made the right choice to return to her homeland, her family and whether she realised it or not, to the promises of blessing from God in the Promised Land. This land of Israel, after all, was THE Promised Land; the land that God had promised to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob all those centuries before. And as we will see over the coming programmes, that was absolutely the best decision she could have made.
Can I tell you something? When my life was in a mess, almost twenty years ago now, it was in a mess because I had turned away from the promises and the blessings of God. And when you are sitting there in your dung heap – in your disaster which is by and large of your own making – you kind of look around and wonder, ‘Well, what should I do? Should I pick up the pieces here? Should I try and rebuild my tower of Babel or should I turn back and go back to where I belong, in the promised land of God?’
For me, that ‘turning back’ was a bit scary at first. What will God say? What will God do? Will there be blessing or punishment at the other end of this if I turn back to Him? I had never heard of Naomi or Ruth or Orpah back then, but I did a “Naomi”. I went back to the Promised Land, back under the covering of God. And as I think of it, maybe I was more of a “Ruth” than a “Naomi”. At least Naomi was an Israelite, one of God’s chosen people by birth. Me, I was more a Moabite, more an enemy of God and God’s people.
Can I tell you something? I hated Christians. I absolutely hated Christians, so to that extent, I was very much a Moabite. It didn’t feel natural to turn back to God and isn’t that what Naomi says to the girls? “Look, go back to your own families. Go back, worship your own gods. Go back to where you belong.” That was good, worldly advice. And as we will see, one of the daughters-in-law decided to stay and the other decided to go.
But for now let’s just immerse ourselves in this reality: the last thing that any of them were expecting was God’s blessing because they were in a mess. They were making decisions in difficult physical circumstances and difficult emotional circumstances. Just as you and I have to make such decisions when we are under duress; when we are hard pressed by difficult circumstances. Should I stay here and worship my own gods or should I turn back to the one true God? Should I throw my lot in with those who are against God, albeit that I know them better, or with those who are for God, headed off to some promised land?
You see, eventually, that’s a dilemma that confronts each one of us.
Ruth Takes a Stand
You know, sometimes in life we have to take a stand and often it happens when we come to a fork in the road of our lives. ‘Will I go this way or will I go that way. Everyone wants me to go left – the world is telling me, “Go left”, but deep in my heart I know that’s the wrong way. I need to take a stand here – I need to go the right way.’ Yes, sometimes in life we need to take a stand and we need to make some hard decisions.
That’s exactly what happened to Ruth in these difficult times. Let’s take a look. I’m reading here from the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament, chapter 1, beginning at verse 8:
Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.”
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth … Ruth clung to her. So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.”
But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.”
High drama indeed! Naomi was right, from a human perspective, the two younger women were far better off with their Moabite families, worshipping the Moabite gods in the safety of their own country and their own family and their own kinsmen. What lay ahead, back amongst the Israelites for these two Moabite women, was nothing but danger and persecution; rejection. They would always be outcasts, they would always be foreigners, they would always be looked down upon by the Israelites.
But here, right here, Ruth took a stand. Who knows what she was thinking; who knows what she was feeling. But she takes a stand; she makes a tough decision to go with her mother-in-law to a place she has never been to; to a country she has only heard about; to be amongst the people who would at best, look down their noses at her. Something in her heart moved her deeply and ultimately, it was her love and her respect for her mother-in-law that made her so determined.
Don’t press me to leave you or to turn back from following you. Where you go, I’ll go; where you lodge, I’ll lodge. Your people will be my people, your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die – there I will be buried.
Words of love and friendship and loyalty! Ruth knew this journey back home would be difficult for this older woman, Naomi, her mother-in-law, all on her own. Ruth knew she would need a friend on the journey and she throws herself at Naomi and says, in effect, “I don’t care what you say, I’m coming with you. I’ll be your friend, I’ll be your family, so long as we breathe.”
Names were important in Hebrew culture. God often speaks to us, not only through what some of the characters in the Bible do and say, but through their names and the name “Ruth” literally means “friendship”. That’s who Ruth was and based on whom she is and her love for Naomi, she takes a stand; she goes on this uncertain, dangerous journey with her mother-in-law.
In the context of these two nations, two peoples – the Moabites (Ruth) and the Israelites (Naomi) who were sworn enemies, this was a risky and a courageous stand. “Your people will be my people and your God, my God.” In one fell swoop, Ruth cuts her ties with her homeland, her family, her culture, her people and swears allegiance to Naomi and to Israel and perhaps, most importantly, to the God of Israel – the one true, living God.
Earlier we chatted about the fact that taking tough decisions under pressure isn’t always easy. Perhaps it made sense for Naomi to return to her home town, her family, her extended support network, but Ruth? Uh uh! No way! She is a Moabite; an enemy of God’s people and that to a great extent, is how I felt when I was in a mess and had to make a tough decision. That’s how I felt when it came time for me to take a stand – either for Jesus or against Him.
I didn’t know about Ruth back then but later when I first heard of her story it kind of struck me that her story, for many of us, is our story – enemies of God – and when we are confronted by this Jesus – as we all are one way or another, at some point in our lives – man, going and worshipping Him, throwing our lot in with Jesus, can be a very tough choice. And I know that beyond any shadow of any doubt, that of all the people listening to this message, this week right around the world, there are some, in fact there are many, in that place right at this moment.
Perhaps you once believed and then you went your own way and now through God’s Word, you hear God calling you back. Perhaps you live in a place where putting your faith in this Jesus is about as dangerous as being a Moabite on a journey to Israel in Ruth’s day. Perhaps you have known all along that Jesus is the Son of the one true, living God and maybe He is calling you and you have been trying to ignore Him. Perhaps you have been warming a pew in a church for a good many years, but when it comes right down to it, you have never really thrown your lot it with Jesus, living a lukewarm, sham of a faith.
Come on! Let’s all call a spade a spade, given where we are in our own lives. Well today, right this moment, I believe God is calling a few people to this same place – to make this same difficult stand that Ruth made when she said to Naomi, “Your God will be my God. Your people will be my people.” And if something … if something is holding you back, then I encourage you to stick with us over these coming weeks on the programme because so far the one person we haven’t spoken about yet is God Himself.
He is the great unseen player in all of this. And friend, what we are going to be discovering is how He blessed Ruth for the stand that she took that day. If I could take you back a couple of decades to where my life was when I finally woke up to my senses; when I finally gave my life to Jesus, can I tell you, the last; the very last thing that I expected was God to bless me. I really thought that the most appropriate thing for God to do would be to punish me. But it wasn’t till later that I discovered and I learned that Jesus was punished for my sin. Jesus died on that cross for my sin. Jesus died so that the door could be open for me to come back to God – to make that decision without fear, without uncertainty and discover the love and the blessing that God has in His heart for me.
Friend, if you have been struggling to finally make this decision; if you have been struggling to give your life to Jesus, can I tell you something? I believe God is calling you today, to take this stand, to say with Ruth, “Your God will be my God.”
It’s a decision I have never regretted. It’s a decision I took almost two decades ago and I can honestly say, not once on my walk since then – as difficult, let me say, as it has been sometimes – not once have I regretted throwing my lot in with Jesus.