Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there.
3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11 But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? 12 Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— 13 would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” 14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 16 But Ruth replied, “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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
19 So the two women went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them, and the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?”
20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
22 So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. (Ruth 1:1-22, NRSV)
This is Belaynesh. She’s a widow who lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and I met her this past March. Mule and Selam, members of Faith, are from Ethiopia and Selam, who is also pictured here, is part of a ministry that cares for widows like Belaynesh. She took us to meet her in her home.
Belaynesh lives what I would call an urban cave. A few steps lead down from the sidewalk through a door into what you might expect would be an apartment. Inside, however, is just one small bedroom. There is a bit of worn furniture, including an old bed. The room is very dark and there are no windows. The floor is dirt, or at least very dirty. The air is thick. Her possessions are few. We’d seen some very humble homes during our time in Ethiopia, but Belaynesh’s home was among the most humble. And yet, from the moment you meet her you realize that Belaynesh is a poor woman who is rich in joy.
Her joy began to make sense to me when Selam told us that Belaynesh is actually now in a relatively good place. As a widow with no children to care for her, it wasn’t long ago that she was in a very desperate spot. You see, there is no government aid in Ethiopia to act as security net for women like this. There are no soup kitchens or shelters to be found anywhere. This means that widows like Belaynesh must resort to begging every day on the street simply to get enough food to survive. Because of Selam and her ministry, however, Belaynesh has something healthy to eat every day and no longer has to beg. For this reason, she is now as full of joy and gratitude as most any well-off American I have ever met. She is grateful for her humble home and daily fresh vegetables. Compared to the streets where thousands of other less fortunate widows throughout that city spend their days and nights, Belaynesh lives in a well-furnished castle.
I tell you her story because we can easily forget how desperate it can become for widows in other parts of our world and at other times in history. It’s no coincidence that when the Bible speaks about the poorest of the poor, it often refers to widows and orphans because nobody in those days was more desperately poor than women who had lost their husbands and children who had lost their parents.
Naomi was such a woman. She and her husband Elimelech lived in Bethlehem. When famine struck, however, they and their two sons fled to the country of Moab, a neighboring and hostile nation where Israelites only went when there was no other option. Sometime later, Elimelech died leaving Naomi and her two sons alone. Both young men took Moabite women as their wives, women named Orpah and Ruth. After some years, however, both these men also died leaving Naomi a widow and childless refugee in a foreign and hostile land.
The devastating grief of these circumstances would be enough to crush somebody even in our day. In those days Naomi’s pain was exacerbated by the fact that as a widow, much like Belaynesh , she now faced not only emotional but also economic and social tragedy. She had no inheritance rights, no source of income, no right to her husband’s property. On top of that, her husband’s death would have been viewed as a judgment against sin and would have left her the object of great social shame. It’s no wonder that later in the text we read that Naomi changed her name to Mara, which literally means “bitter”, saying, “The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” In Naomi we are given a picture of a person who is as impoverished and marginalized as any person you will ever find. All she has left, really, is a daughter-in-law who is about to stun her with her faithfulness. But in the end, as you’ll see, this one treasure will prove to be more than enough.
Well, one day Naomi hears that the famine back home has ended. Immediately she sets out from Moab to go back to Bethlehem. Orpah and Ruth try to go with her but Naomi sends them back. Naomi knows that there is nothing in Bethlehem for these young girls. In Moab they each have families to which they can return. That meant that there were potential husbands with whom they might one day begin a new life as it was customary in those days for a male relative to marry a family member who had been widowed. In Israel, however, Ruth and Orpah would have no family. And no good Jewish boy is going to want to settle down with a Moabite refugee woman. In Israel they would be no better off than Naomi is in Moab. So Naomi, out of concern for these two, sends them back home.
Initially they both argue with their mother-in-law (something, by the way, I never recommend to anybody), but Naomi is firm. “There’s nothing in Bethlehem for you, so go home.” Orpah agrees and, though it saddens her to leave this woman she loves, she kisses her and heads back home. Ruth, however, refuses to go. We’re told that she clung to Naomi. She didn’t just hang around, she hung on tight.
In her words to Naomi we hear words of stunning devotion.
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 even death separates you and me.
This is an oath, a solemn oath. Rush speaks in such a way that, in those days, made the oath binding until death. This is a hard but clear decision she is making. You see, Naomi has nothing. She has no family, no possessions, no dignity, no future. She’s too old to marry again and too old to work in the fields. She’s only going back home because the chances for survival for an old Jewish woman begging on the streets of Bethlehem are better than the chances of survival for that same Jewish woman begging on the streets of Moab. Her own people are more likely to show her pity.
Ruth, on the other hand, still has prospects. She’s young. She has family, and potentially a husband, maybe children, even a restored status. She still has her home and her culture. Unlike Naomi, her future is full of prospects. But if she leaves with Naomi, she will relinquish it all. She will give up her culture, her people, her family, even her god and take on the culture, people, family, and God of Naomi to go and live in a place where people from Moab are despised.
Can you see that Ruth is giving up her high position and, out of love and devotion, taking on the low position of Naomi, and not taking it on temporarily but taking it on until death. If Naomi’s fate is death, Ruth is prepared to die with her. Ruth is giving up her life so that Naomi can live. Ruth impoverishes herself so that Naomi can become rich. Ruth lets herself become the alien outside the gate, marginalized so that Naomi can be back at home with her people. Ruth gives up her family so that Naomi is not left without a family. And there are no conditions on her sacrifice. In going with Naomi, Ruth will lay everything on the line.
I was reminded this week that most immigrants leave their home country for another land expecting a better life. Some of you in this church immigrated here to the States and you likely did so in hopes that your lot would improve when you arrived. Even refugees leave their homeland in hopes that things will get better in their new land. Ruth, on the other hand, is immigrating expecting a worse life. Why would she do such a thing? Simply because she has faith. Somewhere along the line, this Moabite woman who grew up worshipping the idols of her own pagan culture, came to believe in the one true God. We know this because when she makes her oath she makes it to God, saying, “May the Lord deal with me, be it every so severely, if even death separates you and me.” In the Hebrew language of the original text, Ruth addresses God with the most sacred name of God, Yahweh. No Moabite would have used this name, unless that Moabite had come to believe, as Ruth apparently had come to believe, that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, I Am Who I AM, was in fact the one true God.
Pastor Tim Keller, in his interpretation of this passage, calls this “a baptismal moment” for Ruth. What happens in Christian baptism? A person makes a hard but clear decision to forsake all that is behind from their former life, to die to their old self and their old way of living and thinking, and to enter into a whole new life with a whole new way of living and thinking. In baptism, we say to Christ essentially the same thing Ruth said to Naomi: “Jesus, where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your family will be my family and your Father my Father. Where you die I will die, and where you live I will live.” If you have been baptized and placed your faith in Jesus Christ, this is essentially what you proclaimed to the world when you did so. This is what we do in baptism.
In light of this, Keller asks a very good question. When we make these baptismal vows to die to our old life and embrace our new life with Christ, do we do so expecting a better life or a worse life? When you became a Christian, you decided to stop living for yourself and to start following Jesus through life, wherever he would go. Essentially you were leaving your native land where you were in charge and going into a foreign land where he was in charge. When you did that, did you expect that life would get better or get worse, become easier or become harder? When Jesus spoke of the Christian life, did he give the impression that it was easy or that it was difficult?
It’s interesting to remember that when Jesus first began to spread the message of the Kingdom of God, he drew huge crowds and rave reviews. At one point, it seemed that nearly all of Israel was captivated by him and wanted to be with him. And why not? Blind people were seeing. Crippled people were walking. Dead people were breathing. Jesus fed thousands of hungry with just a few loaves of bread. He turned common river water into fine wine. Who wouldn’t want to join this party? Who wouldn’t want to buy a ticket on this train?
Soon enough, however, things began to change. Jesus’ teaching became hard. He talked more and more about sacrifice, about loving enemies, about putting yourself last, about dying to your own desires, about giving your stuff away, about humility and simplicity. At the same time it was becoming increasingly clear that Jesus’ crowd wasn’t going to be the most popular crowd in town, that he and his followers were not going to be welcomed or adored by those who were in power. Ultimately, association with Jesus became dangerous, even life-threatening. And so the crowds started to thin out a bit. Soon the crowd was little more than twelve. When Jesus is arrested and convicted to death, the crowd left altogether. Even those who pledged to go where he went and die where he died went back on their promises and left him to die alone on the cross.
You see, sometimes we think that following Jesus is going to make things better off but then we start actually following Jesus and things don’t get better but initially get worse. There’s an interesting moment in the Gospels, in Matthew 19, when Jesus has just given some hard teaching to the disciples and Peter, speaking for the others, asks Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Peter is figuring out that life with Jesus is not the easy road he thought it might be and he’s wondering if it will all be worth it in the end.
Listen to how Jesus responds. “Truly I tell you,” he says, “at the renewal of all things, when [I sit on my] glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”
What’s Jesus saying? “Follow me and life at some point will be beyond wonderful. Those who give their lives to me are promised a rich inheritance of eternal life that begins the moment they turn and follow.” This is the promise. However, Jesus’ words also make clear that initially along the way there is going to be great sacrifice. In one way or another, going towards Jesus is going to mean going away from our homes, our families, our work and going towards his home, his family, his work. It’s going to mean forsaking an old way of life that may be very comfortable and familiar and self-serving in favor of a life that may be quite uncomfortable and unfamiliar and sacrificial. Going with Christ, in other words, means expecting, at least for a time, a harder, not easier life.
Bethel Gospel Assembly in Harlem is a church that began in 1916 when two African American women went to a white church in mid-town Manhattan and were converted. But this was 90 years ago and the pastor at that time told these women that they were not allowed to become members of the church because they were black and that sort of thing didn’t happen in those days, even in New York City. There was, however, a German woman in this church named Lilian Krager who overheard what the pastor said and went later to these women and told them that if they got some of their friends together she would come up to Harlem and teach them God’s Word and help them start their own church. They agreed. When Lilian went to tell her fiancé her plans, however, he immediately informed her, “If you do that, we’re through. If you go to work with these people we’re not getting married and you’ll probably never get married and that means you’ll never have a family.” Can you imagine?
Lilian was terribly upset as she faced this incredibly hard decision. But then one day as she was reading her Bible the Lord led her to this single verse in Isaiah 54: “Sing, O barren woman, and you who never bore a child, burst into song and shout for joy you who were never in labor, because more are the children of a desolate woman than she who has a husband.” And all of a sudden Lilian was filled with the peace of the knowledge that if she followed Jesus she might not have the life which she expected, and she might initially have a life that was worse, but in the end she would find a better life, a much better life. So she left her home and her fiancée and her past dreams, and because she did now 90 years later thousands of lives, both in Harlem and across the world, have been transformed by the ministry of this powerful congregation planted by an incredibly devoted woman who left everything to follow Jesus to Harlem.
Some of you are here today are just checking out Christianity and trying to figure out what Jesus is all about. That’s good. We’re glad you’re here. Many of you, however, are here this today because you are already seeking to follow Jesus. To you I want to ask this question: Would you still want to follow Jesus if you knew that life, at least for a time, would get worse?
You see, if you follow Jesus he’s promised to welcome you fully into his family and fully share with you abundant and eternal life. At the same time, however, Jesus is also going to ask you along the way to love and serve and forgive people you don’t want to love and serve and forgive. He’s going to ask you to live simply and generously. He’s going to want to teach you to handle money, and sex, and time, and work, and status in ways that won’t make sense to most people you know. He’s going to ask you to stop trying to justify your life with your career, or your health, or your kids, or your marriage, or your stuff, or your status. He will not want you to gain your identity or your security in anything other than him. Ultimately, Jesus is going to ask you to leave your old life and follow him wherever he goes, even to death.
Now, if you hear that and you suddenly feel like you’re not all that sure that following Jesus is what you want after all, at least take heart in the knowledge that you’re not the first to feel that way. That’s how Jesus’ first disciples felt. They were all in until the going got tough. Then even the ones who boasted they would never do so abandoned him to die alone. What’s funny, however, is that the New Testament records that eventually many of these same men and women came back, along with many others. In the end, they did follow. In the end they did give up everything, families, homes, work, property, wealth, even their very lives to follow Christ. So what changed? And if it changed for them, can it change for us? Could you also become a person willing to give up literally everything to go after Jesus?
What changed? The resurrection. That’s what changed. The One they gave up on when he died on the cross stunned them and rose three days later from the grave. They witnessed this happen and then realized, once and for all, who this man actually was. This was no mere prophet or great teacher, no short lived leader or revolutionary. This was the Messiah, the Christ, the eternal Son of God who had first done for them what he was now asking them to do for him.
Do you see that Christ is the true and greater Ruth? Out of deep love and compassion, Christ forsook everything he had in order to be identified with us. He left his Father’s side, the highest place of honor and privilege in all existence, and took upon himself our place, our world, our life, our flesh, our sin, even our death. Out of love Jesus took Ruth’s words to Naomi and made them his words to us, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried, so that now my family can become your family and my Father can become your Father.” Our fate was death; Christ came to die in our place. Our fate was spiritual poverty, separation from the One who is our source of life; Christ came to join us in that place as he allowed his Father to forsake him. Christ impoverished himself so we could become rich. He left his home so that we could find our way back home. He left his family so that we could become a part of that same family. Christ gave it all. In an even greater way than Ruth, Christ completely sold himself out in devotion for those he loved.
Friends, this is the electrifying experience of God’s grace. The story of Ruth, you see, is the story of Christ. It’s not a story meant to tell us what to do as much as it is a story meant to tell us what God has already done. You see, like everything else in the Old Testament this story points us forward to Christ. For just as Ruth clung to Naomi, Christ clung to the world, to us, to you, forsaking all and taking our place so that we would not be forsaken but, instead, live. This is the unbelievable but true good news of the Gospel and those who accept it in faith find that nothing in life, on this or the other side of the grave, is ever again the same.
Some of you know that there’s more to Ruth’s story. It’s a great story. I encourage you to go home and read the rest. After Ruth leaves with Naomi to go to Bethlehem things do, in fact, become difficult. Even two widows together in those days were going to have a tough go of it in Israel, especially if the younger one was from Moab. In time, however, Ruth caught the eye of a well-to-do farmer named Boaz. He was no spring chicken but, in a fatherly way at first, he took Ruth under his wing. It was Naomi who was the first to suspect that this old man eventually began to see Ruth in a different light. I’ll let you read the steamy details for yourself and only say here that Naomi proved herself to be a pretty decent matchmaker.
In the end the unthinkable happened. The well-off old Jew at the top of the social ladder climbed down to the bottom rung of the ladder to take as his wife the penniless young widow from Moab. As Ruth had done for Naomi, now Boaz did for Ruth, leaving a better life for a worse life so that another could have a better life. “Redeemed” is the word the Bible uses in the story. As Ruth became Naomi’s redeemer, Boaz becomes Ruth’s redeemer, lifting her up from a place out of which she never could have climbed on her own. As it turned out, redemption was to be a part of their family heritage.
As the story goes, Boaz married Ruth there in Bethlehem. They eventually had a son named Obed who brought special joy to a lot of people, especially Naomi. Obed, it so happens, became the father of Jesse who, it so happens, became the father of David the great King of Israel who, it so happens, was also from Bethlehem and became, in time, the ancestor of a young couple also from Bethlehem named Mary and Joseph who, it so happens, gave birth to the One who was the Redeemer of the world.
What a great story. It’s almost too much to believe. For our sake, I hope it’s not.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Re-read the passage from Ruth 1:1-22. What do you notice?
Orpah returns to her family while Ruth clings to Naomi. Which action is most surprising to you? Why?
Read Ruth’s oath in verses 16-17. What most impresses you about this oath? Has anybody ever said anything like this to you before?
Have you ever had to choose a direction in life that you knew was going to make life worse instead of better but you did so for the sake of another? What was that like?
If you have made a decision to follow Jesus in your life, did you do so expecting a better or a worse life?
What do you think about the woman (Lilian Krager) who left everything to help start the church in Harlem? Do you think you could ever do something so drastic?
Jeff said that Jesus is the true and greater Ruth. Is this true? How does the story of Ruth point you forward to Christ?
How is Jesus your redeemer?
 Timothy Keller made this point in a sermon he gave to Redeemer Presbyterian Church – https://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/immigrants-courage
 Matthew 19:27-30.