Even when it's hard to see God in our story, God is the author who will faithfully write the ending. Sermon preached at the five weekend services of First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem on September 12-13, 2015.
Move 1. An immigrant story
Have you ever been in a desperate situation? Not just difficult, not just stressful,
but absolutely desperate?
The sort of situation where starts in your heart… then slowly, like oil on water, it
seems to spread through your entire body affecting your digestion and your heart rate
and your shoulder muscles? It triggers your fight or flight response.
Have you ever experienced that kind of desperation? Perhaps you’re
experiencing it now—millions of people around our world are.
It’s the kind of dread that compels people to grab what little they can of their life,
sling it across their backs and head west in the hope of a better life. Perhaps they’re
unaware of all of the difficulties they may face on their thousand mile journey, but it
pales in comparison to the seeming certainty of intractable poverty or even death
where currently are.
It’s the kind of dread that leads, indirectly, to a photo of two little sneakered feet
—about the same size as those of my own children—splayed across the sand of the
beach—the feet of a little refugee child whose life was cut short when he drowned at
sea. His tiny body then carried ashore by the tide.
There are other photos—bikinied holiday makers comforting cast away refugees
whose appearance on the resort beach interrupted a vacation; families crossing train
lines in the hope of hitching a ride to a better life, or simply to stay alive.
The book of Ruth is the story of an immigrant family—a family in a desperate
situation who were forced to take significant risks.
As the story unfolds chapter-by-chapter it seems like a winding tale with an
uncertain outcome. At times it even seems that God isn’t much of an actor in it. But
even when God’s hidden, or perhaps eclipsed by the moment, God is always the one
telling the story and the ending is always God’s to be written. And sometimes, what
seems like the conclusion isn’t the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.
If we’re honest, each of our stories has something of the Ruth story in it
We’re all on a journey and none of knows how the story will unfold.
Sometimes we struggle to recognize God’s involvement at all—God seems hidden.
At other times finding the fingerprints of God on our story is a comfort; occasionally
we see them as evidence of a divine plot against us.
In the end, God is the one who is telling the story, and the end is God’s to be
Move 2. In the time of the Judges
Elimelech and Naomi lived during the time when the judges ruled. It was a time
of religious contention in the nation of Israel—not online our own.
The Book of the Judges tells the tale of the “bad old days.” Throughout the book the
writer reiterates, “in those days…” as if we should pay attention to avoid repeating the
mistakes of our forebears.
The nation was in a downward spiral of unfaithfulness.
The people followed their own consciences rather than their God-ordained leaders,
the Judges, and since the people were largely ignorant of God’s Word (law/Torah) they
did whatever they thought would work best.
For example, taking silver that had been dedicated to God and then shaping it into
an image to use in worship (17:3)—violating God’s command, to make no graven
image for use in worship. They attempted to worship God in a manner that God had
explicitly instructed them to avoid—but they didn’t know any better.
One result of Israel’s disobedience was famine, and it’s this that drove Elimilech’s
family across the border of modern day Israel into Syria.
To do so, they had to hike through the desolate Jericho Pass, through the Judean
wilderness near the Dead Sea—crossing the Jordan River—and into the land of Moab.
In some ways this seems like a an Old Testament parable, a sort of Exodus in
reverse—a leaving of God’s promised land, where “milk and honey had become
scarce,” in order to find plenty in the land of exile.
Elimilech—whose name means, “God is king”—seems to be finding it difficult to
trust God just now. Ever feel like that?
When the journey gets difficult and when the way seems unclear we sometimes find
ourselves desiring—even longing for—something totally new… or something old and
1. A new car
2. A new wife
3. A new church
4. A new way of worship
5. A new definition of marriage
6. The fondly-remembered time when the community thought well of us
7. A familiar, soothing voice from the past who’ll tell you just what you want to hear
8. The moral clarity that seemed—only seemed—to mark previous generations
These feelings are understandable and yet the story before us suggests to us
that they can be a double-edged sword.
There is so much that seems so right, so true, so comforting in them that we can
easily mistake them for gold, when in fact they are fool’s gold.
The new car gets a scratch, or worse.
1. The new partner doesn’t give what you think you needed—she still snores, he
still leaves the toilet seat up.
2. A new church turns out to remarkable imperfect like the one you left—people are
3. The trusted voice leads you astray.
Elimelech seems to have lost perspective and arrived at the conclusion, better to
eat in the land of exile than starve in the land of promise.
How many of us have repeated that story in our own lives?
Move 3. Bad turns to worse
Elimelech dies. We don’t know how or when.
Ten years later… Ten years in one, short paragraph. A temporary solution—a
short-term fix to get out of a difficult situation—has turned, well, permanent. It’s funny
how life goes: things become permanent before you know it. Elimelech and Naomi may
have wished to return to Judah, but the return trip was as risky as the outbound one.
So they stayed, and they made it work for ten years beyond Elimelech’s death.
Then things fall apart: the two sons die. The three women are left totally vulnerable,
both economically and physically.
Move 4. It’s time to move.
The reports from Judah were promising—the crops were healthy, people had
enough to eat, inflation was low, unemployment was low, and the Conference Board
said that consumer confidence was moving higher.
Difficult decisions become easier when you realize that your back is against the
wall. Naomi was running out of options: she had no source of income and no extended
family in Moab.
The only option was to return to Judah—to return to the promised land. As Dietrich
Bonhoeffer once said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the
corridor in the other direction.”
Sometimes you just have to leave. So they did.
Doesn’t this seem like a winding tale with an uncertain outcome?
God’s hidden—eclipsed by circumstances—but still the one telling the story and
the ending is always God’s to be written.
Move 5. Go your own way.
Naomi tells her Moabite daughters to remain there and find new husbands—after
all, they had kin in the area and could find the support they needed to remain secure
(see Ruth 1:9).
Her arguments are pretty convincing:
Do I still have sons in my womb for you to marry?
Even if I did have sons, they’d be no use to you—not of marrying age!
Can I even become pregnant without a husband?
Even if I could become pregnant, my sons would be too young!
Just because God’s hand has turned against me, doesn’t mean it has to turn
against you too. Get away from the cloud that’s hanging over my head!
In the dire situations we all face individually and collectively from time to time,
there are always compelling phrases that get stacked up against us like kindling
waiting for a match to be struck:
This is the beginning of the end…
“All is not well…”
“There is peril ahead…”
“You need us…”
“You’ll be depleted…”
“No one will respect you…”
This isn’t going to work out well…
Who are you going to marry?
It’s always been that way…
Naomi makes her case and the daughters are sad—they cry. Then they react in
very different ways.
Orpah cries and then gets over it and says, “Well, if you insist…I’ll stay in
Ruth cries too, but her tears don’t dissolve her commitment; they cement it—
she clings to Ruth, immovable.
Move 6. Which daughter are you?
When the journey gets difficult and when the way seems unclear we sometimes
find ourselves desiring—even longing for—something totally new… or something old
Ruth and Orpah did…
Which daughter are you?
…The going gets tough and Orpah made the decision that it was in her best
interest to return to her ancestors—she looks to the past, she can easily envision what
her life might be like staying in Moab with her kindred.
She’s from Moab, she’s in Moab, she’s never been anything other than a Moabite
—ain’t nobody going to take her from Moab.
She’s going back to her old family, to her old gods, to her old life.
In the moment of decision—in the midst of the test—Ruth remained true to her
And in the face of the odds, she chose to return to Judah with Naomi.
Not reluctantly, but with a poetic vigor that has inspired the faithful from
then till now…
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!”
Was it risky? Sure. Leaving your homeland with your penniless mother-in-law
—that’s not sensible!
Was it costly? Leaving your homeland to walk across a desert and some
mountains and crossing a major river—it was costly.
Was it popular? Hard to tell—I imagine her kindred wanted her to stay with
them in Moab, but we’ll never know.
Did she know how it would end? Certainly not…
There were a thousand calamities that could strike between her leaving
Moab and arriving in Judah, but she had to leave.
But what she did know, and what she proclaimed when she said “your God will be
my God” was that even when God’s hidden, or perhaps eclipsed by the moment or by
the rival voices inside your own mind, even when the outcome of the journey is in
question, even when the going gets rough—God is always the one composing the story
and the ending is always God’s to be written.
And sometimes, what seems like the conclusion isn’t the end, or even the
beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. Amen.