Text: Ruth 1:1-22, 4:13-22
Sermon: “The bitter heart and blessed soul”
There was a day late last year that I came back into my living room to find both of my toddlers scribbling madly all over our couch with ink pens. I think I froze in place for a couple of minutes while I was thinking that, shoot, I’m going to have to throw this entire couch out. Then I did a little research and found out that hairspray and scrubbing indeed removes pen ink, and I spent ten minutes painstakingly restoring my couch to normal. (You came for a sermon, you’re going to leave with an important cleaning tip.) When my wife came home, I regaled her with what a hero I was until she asked me how the kids got a hold of the pens to begin with. Then I became the villain.
In 1975, an angry man rushed through the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam until he reached Rembrandt’s famous large painting “The Night Watch.” Then he took out a bread knife and slashed it repeatedly before he could be stopped, causing many large zig-zag slashes on it. It was severely damaged. But what did officials do? Throw it out and forget about them? Absolutely not! Using the best experts, who worked with the utmost care and precision, they made every effort to restore it over four years. While some signs of the attack are still evident, the Night Watch was healed and put back in place.
Couches and paintings are one thing, but what about when tragedy happens to our lives? Have you ever noticed that bad events are almost never spaced out so that you can handle them with a breather in between, but are usually bunched up so that it feels as though you’re getting pummeled from all directions? It’s one thing after another until you’re reeling and don’t know what to do or how you’re going to go forward.
When tragedy happens, when you’ve been suffering for a while, the way forward may seem impossible or at least without hope. Yet we have a God who is a healer that desires to restore us with utmost care and precision if we put our trust in him.
Today we’re going to begin a two-week series on the book of Ruth, starting with the story of Naomi and her journey to restoration. Ruth is a short, memorable book of the Bible that is structured much like a sandwich, with Naomi’s story beginning and closing the tale and Ruth’s story making up the middle. So let’s open our Bibles to Ruth chapter 1 and see why Naomi was in such need of a divine healer.
The path to restoration begins in pain
The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the Judges, which if you’re unfamiliar with that book the only things that you need to know is that it was before Israel was ruled by kings when the people would go back and forth from being faithful to God and turning away from him, inviting disaster upon them until God sent a judge to rescue them. During one of these periods of the people’s faithlessness, God sent a famine to the land and it was then that Naomi’s husband decided that it was better to move elsewhere than to stick it out and encourage others to restore their faith in God. So they moved from Bethlehem to Moab, which was a country to the east of the Dead Sea.
Despite commands to the contrary, Naomi’s sons intermarried with the locals, opening the door to the influence of foreign gods in their household. However, Ruth 1 shows us that Naomi’s faith was strong as she mentored her daughters-in-law. There they lived for a decade until tragedy struck.
First Naomi’s husband dies, followed by the deaths of her two sons. The three men closest to her heart were ripped away so quickly. But the pain doesn’t stop there – Naomi is left without support in a foreign land. She has no way of bringing in money, and as an older lady, her prospects of remarrying are dim at best. Her life, which was so full a couple of years ago, is now drained down to the dregs. She feels alone, far from home, and grieves for those she loved.
In verse 20 she renames herself “bitter” and in verse 21, she calls herself “empty.” Have you ever felt empty? Has life taken so much out of you, either in huge chunks at once or in a hundred smaller ways, so that you don’t feel that you have anything left to give, any motivation left to continue going? If so, you understand where Naomi was.
In this first chapter we see that in her hurt, she is looking for a reason and assumes that God is punishing her: “The hand of the LORD has gone out against me,” she says in verse 13. “The LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me,” she goes on in verse 21. In pain, we lash out, even at those who love us. Even at those who are working to restore us.
For Naomi, her path to restoration began in suffering. She did not have the luxury as we do of reading ahead in her story to see what would happen a few pages later. She takes the only actions that seem possible: She tells her daughters-in-law to return back to their parents and Naomi prepares to return to her hometown in the hopes of finding enough sustenance there to survive. But even in her pain, we see that God is present and that his vision of her future is unimpeded. He knows the path she will take and he will work carefully, painstakingly to restore her.
As anyone who has gone through physical therapy or rehabilitation knows, it’s a process that takes time and occasionally even more pain and setbacks, but it’s a necessary process to healing. We have the choice to either stay still and be in pain forever, or to take a cue from Naomi and start that journey even if we don’t know where we will end up.
The path to restoration goes through faith
In her conversation with Ruth in chapter 1, we discover a few important traits about Naomi. The first is that even in the midst of her pain, she is still looking out for the well-being of those she loves. I’ve seen this phenomenon so many times here at Mt. Hope, when someone loses a loved one they often feel compelled to reach out and help others and give. I see it as an indication of their faith, a testimony that we have hope and should always broadcast that hope to others.
Another important trait about Naomi that we see is how incredibly strong her faith is. Even though she’s blaming God for her situation, Ruth’s response to Naomi telling her to go back home shows that Naomi has really made a huge impact on the younger woman’s faith. Ruth desires to worship the God of Naomi: “Your God my God” in verse 16. By Naomi’s faith, Ruth – a foreigner – has come to know and love the Lord. The gospel isn’t limited to just the right sort of people, but to all people, everywhere.
And even though Naomi feels punished by God, she still acknowledges him as a sovereign Lord who has ordained all things and is his servant. She blesses her daughters-in-law in verses 8 and 9: “May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The LORD grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Naomi may be bitter, but she is not bitter against God.
The road to her restoration went through Naomi’s faith. As 1 Timothy 5:5 says, “The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help.” Naomi’s move back home is an act of faith. The Lord visiting his people in verse 6 is a sign to encourage faith.
One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to flee to the roof. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, “Jump! I’ll catch you.” He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As can be imagined, he was afraid to leave the roof. His father kept yelling: “Jump! I will catch you.” But the boy protested, “Daddy, I can’t see you.” The father replied, “But I can see you and that’s all that matters.”
Jesus never promised us that following him would be a ticket to wealth, prosperity, and an easy life. Instead, he assures us that our faith in him would involve suffering but also restoration. We walk Naomi’s path when we follow Jesus. We may not feel strong for the journey, sure of where it will head, or even certain that God isn’t smiting us for some sin that we’ve already forgotten. But we walk by faith and it takes us somewhere important and life-changing.
The path to restoration is aided by family
I think it’s important note in this story that Ruth and Naomi aren’t even blood relatives or relatives by marriage any longer. The legal tie of Naomi’s son and Ruth’s husband is dead, leaving them to part ways. Yet something incredible happens in chapter one, because against all odds, they’re still family. There’s love there as the women weep in verse 9 and vow to stay together in verse 10. And while one of Naomi’s daughters-in-law, Orpah, does choose to return to her family and her foreign gods, Ruth gives one of the most memorable declarations in all of scripture:
“Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. 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 I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
I don’t think there’s anything I can add to that to increase its potency. You can just imagine this young woman standing resolute in front of the older, returning the faith and loyalty that Naomi had shown to Ruth for the past decade. Naomi may feel bitter and empty, but this passage makes it very clear that she is not alone. God is still with her and so is Ruth. In fact, by the end of the book, Ruth is called “more to you than seven sons,” showing just how important this relationship was in Naomi’s journey.
Family is so important to us, especially when we are on this path to restoration. I love that here and in other places in the Bible it’s shown that blood and marriage aren’t the only things that bind people together as a family. Ultimately it’s Christ who forms the nucleus of our most important family and who brings us together to support each other, lift each other up, and encourage each other down the difficult paths we tread.
I’ve lost count of how many times my family has helped me. One of my less shining moments in my life was when I was 21, I flew out to Boston to visit my girlfriend at Harvard – and she dumped me. With nowhere to go, I ended up back at the airport with over a day before my flight would leave. I was heartbroken, I was abandoned, and I seriously only had three dollars to my name. So I did what kids do and I called home. My parents wired me money, but more importantly, they talked and listened and prayed with me. They called friends they knew in Boston to go to the airport to be with me. Even as I felt down and out, I was already walking that path to restoration guided by God’s love through God’s people.
If you are sitting here today, you are part of our family, even if you lack blood relatives or close friends. God is gracious to give us the people who will be his representatives of love, aid, and grace, and we should not only swallow our pride to lean on them, but also to praise God for their faithfulness.
The path to restoration is guided by God
We’re going to cheat here and bypass chapters two and three to go straight to Ruth 4:13. Yes, I’m going to spoil the end of the story here, but the Bible’s been out for a few years now and I think a statue of limitations for spoilers have passed. Oh, here’s another one: Jesus comes back to life on Easter morning.
So in Ruth 4:13, events have transpired so that Naomi’s foreign daughter-in-law has found a new husband and God had given them a bouncing baby boy. The community in Bethlehem that saw a bitter, empty Naomi stagger in months before now embraces her and delivers this joyous proclamation in verses 14 and 15: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him.”
Did you catch that? God is the restorer of Naomi’s life. She had not been forgotten, not been abandoned, and not been cursed. This baby may be Ruth’s, but the blessing is attributed to Naomi. The wounds of the past have started to heal and the promise of a future – of a continuation of Naomi’s family and an assurance of God’s love – is given. The boy becomes adopted by Naomi, who starts her task of mentoring all over again.
Naomi’s journey to restoration has a similar parallel in Luke 7 that shows us the perspective of the restorer in these situations. Let’s turn to Luke 7:11-16 now and read together:
Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him.
As he approached the town gate, a dead person was being carried out—the only son of his mother, and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the town was with her. When the Lord saw her, his heart went out to her and he said, “Don’t cry.”
Then he went up and touched the bier they were carrying him on, and the bearers stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!” The dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.”
It’s not an exact parallel but there are striking similarities. A widow has just lost her only son and is grieving hard. The community has gathered around her for support. Jesus comes to redeem the situation and glory is given to God.
But here we get a glimpse into what God is thinking and feeling in these situations. Jesus’ heart goes out to the widow and his desire is to wipe away her tears. The people acknowledge that Jesus is there to help his people, to restore them. He turns a hopeless and terrible situation into one of hope, of joy, and of awe.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” the Psalms tells us. There will be a day that you too will be shouting with joy, because while the path to restoration begins in pain, goes through faith, and is aided by family, ultimately it is guided by a God who has a heart that goes out to us. You have hope. You have a future. You have a God who cares.