Sunday 12 August 2018 God in a strange land Martin Baker
I want to talk this morning about this wonderful little Book in the Old Testament called the Book of Ruth.
It has it all: Love and romance and kindness. It has seduction, famine, death, intermarriage, conversion.
And if you thought it had no message for us, it also raises questions about who is a foreigner and how do we treat refugees? It touches on the strength and power of women in a society in which they were often treated quite poorly.
Historians also tell us that it is likely that this story reached prominence in the midst of a time when the authorities were clamping down on the presence of foreigners in the community, were banning inter-marriage between people from different backgrounds, and were even developing rules that would see immigrant families split up.
So we need to listen for the story that is being told in the face of some very turbulent times in ancient Israel. - All these issues from a book that comes from a period perhaps more than 2500 years ago. And the strangest thing of all is that the story revolves around Ruth, neither king nor prophet, but only a widow and a foreigner.
And behind it all a resilient and robust faith in the presence of God.
1:1 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 two sons. 2 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. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. 6 Then she 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. 7 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 to go back to the land of Judah. 8 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. 9 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. 10 They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 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, 13 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." 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." 16 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. 17 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!" 18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, "Is this Naomi?" 20 She said to them, "Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?" 22 So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Let Us pray
Do you ever have this experience? You are in an okay mood. You might even be feeling quite positive. And you over hear a conversation, or maybe you listen to it directly, and you can feel your heart sinking?
Or it could be one of those, ‘if you think that’s bad’ conversations. Where we hear people, maybe even hear ourselves, competing with another for who has the worst story to tell.
If we were an ancient person, say living around 2500 years ago, and heard how this story started your heart would sink.
In fact if we turned in our Bibles back one verse to the very end of the previous book, the book of Judges, we would get a sense of what might be in store. The very last verse in the Book of Judges, reads: In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
Never a good sentence to read in the bible.
So we start off:
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 two sons.
So the judges were ruling but it seems there was a significant degree of anarchy. Then a famine. caused by disease, crop failure, war, no rain? And we are told that this man, who we learn is called Elimelech travels to the country of Moab – he, his wife and two sons. Moab is roughly where Jordan is, a bit South and east of the dead sea.
The alarm bells would be getting louder. Moab was an extremely problematic place for an ancient Hebrew family to go to. They must have been desperate. We know what risks refugees will take even now. You see Moabites were descendants of an incestuous relationship between a man called Lot and his eldest daughter. They worshiped another God, and they carried this stigma of a very troubled ancestry. So famine, refugees heading to a place where they not only worshiped a different God but a place that stands with a certain bad history about it.
So there is the father called Elimelech. Elimelech means something like my God is King. Naomi means pleasan,t joyful. The names Mahlon and Chilion probably indicate that neither were particularly healthy children. They are names that derive from words to do with sickness.
Then Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, dies, and she was left with her two sons.
So things were bad and now they are getting worse. The husband dies. Naomi is left in a foreign land with two sons.
4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. Troubling.
Despite the Hebrew rules expressly prohibiting inter-marriage with Moabites, these two sons married out. One married Orpah. (Oprah Winfrey’s mother intended to name her Orpah after this Biblical character. However, due to a misspelling on the birth certificate she became Oprah instead.) The other son marries, Ruth.
When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. She just has two daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth. No mention here of any children.
6 Then Naomi started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard that things were looking better back home.
7 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 to go back to the land of Judah. 8 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. 9 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.
She says may the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead, and with me“
I’ve talked about this word hesed before - here it is translated as deal kindly. But it may well be the most important world in our Old Testament. It can be translated as kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, goodness, faithfulness, or love. A couple of weeks ago we were talking about that special word for love, agape In the New Testament. And this word he·sed is the closest word to agape. It is an action word. It involves more than kind feelings. It is always expressed through kind or loving actions. Hesed like agape can never be separated from action.
Naomi is saying that Orpah and Ruth have dealt with their husbands and Naomi with he·sed—faithful and generous love. Now she prays that the Lord will repay Orpah and Ruth with the Lord’s he·sed - love.
This hesed or agape is the glue holding these passages together. Just like Jesus said. Love one another.
So on one hand we have the knowledge of hesed and on the other the knowledge of all that Naomi has been through.
Maybe we have experienced this ourselves – and certainly we know people who have gone through such a lot. When one bad thing happens and then another and another. One of the privileges of my ministry has been to witness people who manage so much. And one of the critical elements to getting through is the experience of hesed, the knowledge and experience of being cared for and loved. Part of that knowledge and experience is in this story today.
We have a freezer out the back and boxes of food – but its more than turning up with a frozen lasagne or a box of weet bix when someone is going through a tough time. It’s also the mindfulness, the hesed in the act itself which makes the difference.
Naomi has experienced insecurity on a massive scale: First, through the famine in Bethlehem and the move to a foreign land; second, through her husband’s death; third, through the deaths of her sons; and fourth, through this impending move back to Bethlehem, from which she has been gone for at least ten years. Her prayer is that Orpah and Ruth will not experience that kind of insecurity, but will instead find a life, a future, goodness, hesed.
10 They said to her, "No, we will return with you to your people." 11 But Naomi said, "Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands?
Naomi responds with straight talk expressed in blunt, harsh terms, not because she doesn’t love her daughters-in-law, but because she is determined to turn them back for their own good.
“Do I still have sons in my womb that they may be your husbands?“
4 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15 So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law."
Then we hear some of the most well-known words in ancient scripture. Hesed purified.
16 But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following
“for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God;
where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried“
(1) Ruth will go where Naomi goes
(2) and lodge where Naomi lodges.
(3) Ruth will accept Naomi’s people as her own
(4) and Naomi’s God as her own.
(5) Not even death will part them, because where Naomi dies, Ruth pledges to die
(6) and to be buried where Naomi is buried.
The loss, the bitterness of Naomi is not the whole of the story. Ruth’s loyalty, Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law holds the promise of something more, as does the final verse of this chapter: “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest” . Naomi is empty, but faithful Ruth is right beside her, and the harvest is coming.
This morning we can ponder the very fact that this story is here at all and is part of our scripture.
An important lesson: Kindness and love are always kindness and love. Whoever shows them. Christian Jew, atheist Sikh. Our response is thankfulness to God
The thing that gets us through: Faith in God’s presence and the love and kindness of others get us through the toughest times.
Treatment of the outsider: In the midst of cultures and political movements that treat outsiders and those who are different in punishing and damaging ways, how do we affirm the stories of God’s goodness and love to all people.
Pray about the deepening of our own faith and relationship with God. That God’s love may be our love, and that we hear Jesus message in this . He said that everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
If you read in the genealogy at the start of the Gospel of Matthew you will find that Ruth is an ancestor of Jesus. The hesed, the agape we hear of in this story flows through to Jesus’ command, love one another as I have loved you. AMEN
Would you like to share in our purpose and mission? We believe that good relationships, open discussion and a genuine desire to seek God’s calling allows us to grow as people and a community together.