If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Ruth chapter 1, verses 1 through 5.
During the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land. A man left Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and two sons to live in the land of Moab for a while. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife’s name was Naomi. The names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the land of Moab and settled there. 3 Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 Her sons took Moabite women as their wives: one was named Orpah and the second was named Ruth. After they lived in Moab about 10 years, 5 both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two children and without her husband.
This is the word of the Lord.
Today marks the first week of our sermon series on Ruth. That means that without actually planning it, we’ve landed on the closest thing the Bible has to a “Mother’s Day”-themed passage for the sermon in today’s Mother’s Day service. I feel like I should have some sort of “Mother’s Day” pun to throw at you right now, but I’ve got nothing.
In the first draft of this sermon, I spent, like, ten minutes talking about Sodom and Gomorrah. It was completely on topic, but I try to keep these things in the thirty-ish minute range, so I hacked it out for good measure, so you’re welcome, and Happy Mother’s Day.
If you’ll look at verse 1 of our passage, you’ll see that the story of Ruth takes place “during the time of the Judges.”
That’s more significant than you’d think. If you’re familiar with the book of Judges, you’ll remember that during the “time of the Judges,” Israel was kind of like the “Wild West.” About halfway through the book of Judges, in chapter 17, verse 6, the author puts the story he’s telling on hold, throws his hands up, and says, “Everyone did whatever was right in their own eyes.” He finds his train of thought again, gets back to the story, but loses his temper again in chapter 21, throws his hands up again and says, “Everyone just did whatever was right in their own eyes.” Like I said, it was the “Wild West.”
It’s easy to see why. God has just brought them into the Promised Land after 40 years of wandering, and things are starting to go pretty well for them. But the better things go for them, the less interested they are in following God’s commands.
It’s been a few years since God was guiding them through the wilderness as a “pillar of smoke” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night, and they begin the long process of forgetting – forgetting how God has rescued them from Egypt, forgetting how he’s sustained them in the wilderness outside the Promised Land, forgetting how he’s driven out the other oppressive nations and blessed them with a safe place to lay their heads. So one by one, the author of Judges shows us how each of the tribes of Israel begin to abandon the Law that God has given them through Moses.
The wide-angle view of the Old Testament is that God rescues the people of Israel out of Egypt and then spends two millennia “getting the Egypt out of Israel,” purging them of their old ways. But during the time of the Judges, they backslide about as hard as they possibly could. And what we learn as we watch them abandon God’s commands is that Israel becomes a nightmare world.
It stops being a safe place to be a woman. It stops being a safe place to be a foreigner. It stops being a safe place to be poor. God gives the commands he gives because they’re good for us, and his commands are good for us because he gives them, and when we break God’s commands it’s like bloodying our own faces, blackening our own eyes – we’re throwing punches at ourselves.
And so the book of Ruth picks up here, and the author tells us that “There was a famine in the land.”
Which shouldn’t be surprising since God tells Israel to expect famine to accompany their unfaithfulness. It doesn’t actually say that the famine was punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness, but it doesn’t have to be a punishment. In Leviticus chapter 26, he says that if his people “reject his decrees” and “abhor his laws” they will work the land “in vain.” If the people of Israel became “fruitless,” eventually the God of Israel would make the land of Israel grow “fruitless” like the people.
And that’s exactly what happened during the time of the Judges. The land refused to bear fruit for the people of Israel. Like God predicts in Genesis 3:17, the “ground gives thorns and thistles” instead of good produce. If they eat at all, it’s “by the sweat of their brow.” The land is every bit as fruitless as the people who live there.
So verse 2 says that, quote, “A man named Elimelech left Bethlehem in Judah with his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion to live in the land of Moab for a while.”
The way this sentence is phrased is probably even more accurate than it seems up front: The Bronze Age was probably the worst period in history to be a woman, anywhere in the world.
Now, because of the Laws that God gave to Israel through Moses, being a woman in Israel was considerably less of a nightmare. But in the time of the Judges, God’s Law was perpetually trampled on, and as a result women were reduced, essentially, to glorified servants just like they were in the other nations. Israel lost sight of God’s design for the world, and women suffered for it. So when Elimelech decides to flee from the land that God has told his people to “settle on,” he probably doesn’t consult his wife, Naomi.
We see that there is a famine in the Promised Land, and instead of repenting for his own part in Israel’s fruitlessness and trusting God to restore the land and its people to be fruitful again, the man Elimelech packs up his family and moves them to Moab, because Moab is economically prosperous in way that the Promised Land wasn’t at the time.
But running from the consequences of your sin never works out the way you think it will, right? So verse 3 says, quote, “Naomi’s husband Elimelech died, and she was left with her two sons. And her sons took Moabite women as their wives – one named Orpah and the second named Ruth.”
So after dragging his wife away from the Promised Land and into a place where they will be mistreated as foreigners, Elimelech dies on her. Then, Naomi’s two sons marry Moabites. And the fact that they had married Moabite women would have hurt a little more than we probably realize, because Israel and Moab had a pretty bitter history with each other.
When you’re reading through those first five books of the Old Testament, what you’ll see is that when God rescues Israel out of slavery in Egypt, he brings them into the Promised Land and each of the pagan nations who were living there responded in one of two ways. A handful of tribes welcomed them, praised the Lord for the great work he had done in rescuing them from Egypt’s oppressive death-grip, and then aided them with food and water and lodging on the way to the Promised Land.
A lot of these tribes ended up saying something like, “We know there is a God in Israel because we’ve seen and heard what he’s done in Egypt – we see that the God of Israel isn’t a plantation boss like the gods we grew up in, the God of Israel is the one leading the slave-revolt, and we want in on that.” And so they’d integrate into Israel and become part of Israel.
But Moab was not one of the nations that welcomed the people of Israel as they fled from Egypt. Instead, Deuteronomy chapter 23 says that, quote, “No Moabite may enter the Lord’s assembly, because they did not meet you with food and water on the journey after you came out of Egypt.”
That’s bad enough, but it gets worse. Numbers chapter 25 says that, quote, “While Israel was staying in the Acacia Grove, the people began to sleep with the women of Moab, and the women invited them to the sacrifices for their gods, and the people ate and bowed in worship to their gods.So Israel aligned itself with the god Ba’al of Peor, and the Lord’s anger burned against Israel.”
But the worse it gets, the funnier it gets: Probably the most famous story about Moab is the story of “Balaam, the prophet.” You remember this one? Balaam was a prophet for hire, so he would take your money, and then prophesy in your favor.
So the nation of Moab hired Balaam to prophesy against Israel, because they didn’t quite understand how prophecy works; because they didn’t understand how God works; because the gods of Moab, and Canaan, like the gods of Egypt and beyond, were capricious.
You could cozy up to them, and they might favor you, or you could live your life and ignore them and they would take it out on you, but they were not your friend. “Best-case-scenario” you were kind of like “business partners,” there was a quid pro quo. But most of the time they were just the “plantation master,” and you were just the “merchandise.”
The Moabites carried that assumption into everything, so when they hired Balaam to prophesy against Israel, they assumed that paying Balaam was a bit like paying the God of Israel, that getting him to make an oracle that cursed Israel was the same as cozying up to Israel’s God and getting him to sell them out to a higher bidder.
But that did not go the way Moab thought it was gonna go, and when Balaam began to prophesy against Israel, he “lost control of his words.” In mid-sentence, there was a record scratch, or something, and all of the curses he’d begun to place on Israel turned back around toward Moab, and the crooked prophet-for-hire that they paid to curse Israel started laying some of the most ruthless curses you could imagine onto Moab while he convulsed and then tapped out.
And that’s like a scene from a Steve Martin movie, or something, but there’s a tendency in our culture to think about God in very much the same way the Moabites thought about him. To assume that God is capricious, to assume that when our car breaks down, or our finances fall through, or we lose our job, or get sick, or go through a major, long-standing depressive episode, or lose our house, or get betrayed by people we thought we could trust, it’s because we “let God down” so he’s taking it out on us.
The next time there’s a hurricane, somebody is going to get on the radio, conjure up a couple of Bible verses scattered across the book of Nahum, or something, and say “This hurricane is God’s wrath, because not enough people are tithing!” or that “God sent this hurricane because we took prayer out of schools!” or something else along those lines, because quite a few folks have spent their whole lives under the assumption that the God we worship is essentially the same as the gods of Moab – but bigger, or something.
But I have good news: We don’t worship Ba’al. We don’t worship Moloch. We don’t worship Ashtoreth, or Marduk, or any of the old gods that our ancestors invented.
There is only one God who actually exists, and the God who exists isn’t capricious. He’s not quick-tempered – God didn’t make your headlight burn out because you don’t pray enough, I promise. Sometimes your sin will cause bad things to happen to you, but that’s cause-and-effect, not divine judgment.
You didn’t get cancer in 2016 because you didn’t tithe in 2015; God is not perched on a mountaintop, waiting for your sacrifice so he can decide whether he’s going to keep walking with you. The only God who actually exists is faithful to us with a faithfulness that has nothing to do with our awesomeness, or lack thereof. If you belong to the Lord, you might have plenty to be ashamed of, but God has not abandoned you.
So looking back at our text, put yourself in Naomi’s shoes for a moment, and imagine that your husband made the executive decision to leave the land that God had promise to you and your children, to drag you to Moab, surrounded by people whose ancestors oppressed your ancestors; that your husband dragged you there to be a poor foreigner in a land that mistreats the poor and mistreats foreigners; and then he died, and then your only two sons married poor, pagan women and, by the looks of it, converted to their religion rather than converting them to yours. Naomi is having a terrible Mother’s Day.
But it’s nothing compared to the bad Mother’s Day she’ll be having ten years from now. So we fast-forward about a decade, and read that, quote, “After they lived in Moab about 10 years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two children and without her husband.”
For at least ten years, Naomi has had zero control over the direction of her life. Her husband brought her to a strange land without her input; then he died; then her sons married pagan women without her input; then they died. Now she’s left as an impoverished foreigner, living with two impoverished pagan daughters-in-law, in a foreign land famous for its unjust treatment of foreigners and neglect toward the poor.
And that’s still understating their predicament: The situation that Naomi and her daughters-in-law have found themselves in is the economic equivalent of having your lungs half-filled with water as you’re swimming your way back to the ocean surface; this was not what you would call a “market economy”; there was none of what you might call “upward social mobility.”
Their prospects, if they had any, were entirely tied to their ability to attract a viable male partner who could own property and inherit wealth or land or otherwise and provide some semblance of material security for them. In that day and age, as a woman without family, you either married or starved. And in Bronze Age culture, wives were seen essentially as vehicles for producing male children, so even elderly, landowning men skewed towards marrying young women in childbearing years rather than elderly widows – so there was no version of this where Naomi was going to find a husband of her own. Their fate was in the hands of Ruth and Orpah, the two pagan women that her sons had married.
But it gets even worse, because Ruth and Orpah had been married for ten years and neither of them had ever conceived – which, in a world without contraception, means exactly one thing. If you were a potential husband, you’d assume they were barren, and you’d look elsewhere. So there were three women with no prospects for income, no right to own to property, and no clear pathway forward. If you were Naomi, you’d probably think you’d been “forsaken by God.”
King David could’ve had Naomi in mind when he wrote the lyrics for Psalm 22, which says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You can imagine a group of Hebrew villagers, gathering together with the rest of their tribes and singing the lyrics of Psalm 22, quote: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer – by night, but I find no rest,” unquote.
You heard me say it, but imagine yourself singing it, alongside everybody else here in the sanctuary, exactly as enthusiastically as we sing songs of praise and worship. This is what we’d call a “Lament” – worship through lament – and they’ve fallen out of favor over the last hundred years or so.
So it’s interesting that Jesus spent his last few hours singing exactly this Psalm: Matthew 27 says after they nailed Jesus up to the cross, “darkness came over the land from noon to about three in the afternoon,” and Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Which makes this a fascinating moment in history: For thousands of years, the God who created the universe listened from heaven as his people gathered to worship him through lament by singing Psalm 22 together, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” Now that same God is on the cross, singing that same Psalm. God sings out to God, “Why have you forsaken me.”
A few minutes after Jesus finishes singing, Matthew 27 says that Jesus cried out again and gave up his spirit. Everybody watching would’ve said, “I guess that guy was forsaken by God.” And if you were one of his disciples you’d have given up hope and gone back home and wondered if you’d wasted your life trailing him around the backwaters of Palestine. You’d wonder if you were forsaken by God, too. But then a strange thing happened, and his body wasn’t there on the morning of the third day.
He was forsaken by God in our place, but he wasn’t forsaken forever. He took our “forsakenness” onto himself in the cross and he buried our forsakenness in his garden tomb, and when he rose from the grave on the third day, he brought us out with him, un-forsaken. God was forsaken by God on the cross, so that we will never be forsaken again.
Naomi thinks that God has abandoned her for leaving the Promised Land. She “cries out by day” and he “does not answer,” and she “cries out by night” but she “finds no rest,” but it’s not because she’s cut loose by the God who created her, rescued her from Egypt, and sustained her through the famine as she wandered outside the Promised Land.
The promise that God makes to us throughout the scriptures is not that we won’t suffer, or even that we’ll suffer less. It’s that our suffering’ll change. He never offers to spare us from suffering in the world; he promises to walk through our suffering alongside us. Jesus didn’t just suffer for us, like Isaiah 53 tells us; he suffers with us, like Isaiah 63 and Hebrews chapter 2 tell us. And I don’t know how that works.
You’re probably tired of being told that God Is On His Throne when you’re suffering. Right? When you are obviously hanging on for dear life – with, like, two fingers, and your hands are sweaty, and you’re ready to slip off and fall, – and all people have got for you is “God Is On His Throne.”
That’s a true statement, but it’s not really an answer to the question. When you’ve been put through the ringer, like Naomi, when you feel like you’ve lost everything, and you have absolutely nothing to grab ahold of so you’re just free-falling, the answer to the question “Where is God in my suffering?” is that God is on the cross.
God’s answer to your suffering isn’t a powerful pronouncement from a “gold-plated throne,” it’s a handful of lines from the 22nd Psalm while he’s hanging on the cross.
When your heart sings “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” you gradually recognize that you’re not singing alone; there’s another voice singing with you; there’s another voice suffering with you. When you suffer, you suffer alongside the God of the universe. You realize that you were never forsaken by God. He never ghosted. He never abandoned you because of your sinfulness. He did the opposite. He gave himself up to be nailed to a cross to suffer for you and suffer next to you.
And we would like you to join us, singing that song alongside Jesus. So the altar will be open. I will be available to talk to. I’d love to pray with you, to bring your suffering before the feet of Jesus. Or, if you’d simply like to talk, I’d like that, too.“