If you have your Bibles, turn with me to Ruth chapter 1, verses 19 through 22:
The two of them, [Ruth and Naomi,] traveled until they came to Bethlehem. When they entered Bethlehem, the whole town was excited about their arrival and the local women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi, Call me Mara,” she answered, “for the Almighty has made me very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has pronounced judgment on me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” 22 So Naomi came back from the land of Moab with her daughter-in-law Ruth the Moabitess. They arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
One time a friend of mine sent me a book he found in his church library, called “If God Loves Me, Why Can’t I Get My Locker Open?” It was riveting. Naomi’s meltdown is not like that. Try to imagine how you’d feel if you’d had A Rough Ten Years. Like, “It’s been a bad decade.” Naomi says, “I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty.”
Because ten years earlier, there was a famine in the Promised Land during “the time of the Judges,” and Naomi’s husband Elimelech packed up the family and moved them away from their home in Bethlehem to the land of Moab, which was economically stable but also filled with wickedness.
When they arrive, Elimelech dies and leaves Naomi with nobody but her two sons. Then, her two sons go off and marry pagan women from Moab, named Orpah and Ruth. Then those two sons die without having produced any children, so Naomi is left alone in a strange land, surrounded by folks who hate her because she’s a foreigner, and all she has left in the world is her two daughters-in-law, who’ve been recently widowed, and who can only hope to avoid extreme poverty by getting married again. Naomi has had a rough ten years.
This is not, “If God loves me, why can’t I get my locker open?” this is “My husband dragged me to a strange place and then died, my sons married pagan women and then died, and I’m a burden on my daughters-in-law, neither of whom have any shot at bettering my situation or their own so long as they’re tagging along with me.” That’s a nauseating predicament.
So much so that Naomi wants a new name. She says, “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara, for the Almighty has made me very bitter.” Because the name “Naomi” literally means “My Pleasantness,” or “My Sweetness,” and the last ten years have been anything but pleasant. She says, “Call me Mara,” which literally means “Bitterness,” because as far as she can see, the Almighty has made her “very bitter.”
But what she isn’t doing is accusing God of dealing unjustly with her. It’s quite the opposite. What she actually says is that, “The Lord has pronounced judgment on me and afflicted me.” This isn’t, “Why did God do this to me?” It’s, “Why didn’t God do this to me sooner.” She’s not shaking her fists at the heavens and saying, “I don’t deserve this.” She says “I earned this,” “I made this bed and now I’m lying in it.” “The Lord has pronounced judgment on me and afflicted me.”
Naomi interprets her suffering as God’s judgment: Her husband dragged her away from the Promised Land because of his unbelief, and she’s convinced that she’s being punished for it. She sees her “bad ten years” as a manifestation of the horrifying judgment of God.
The story keeps going, though: Since having to cart their foreign mother-in-law around drastically lowers their shot at finding another husband in Moab to care for their needs, Naomi does everything in her power to talk Ruth and Orpah into leaving her behind and going back to their family’s household.
Orpah takes the offer and heads home, but Ruth refuses to leave Naomi’s side, saying, “wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May Yahweh punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me,” so they make their way back to Bethlehem on foot.
When they get back to Bethlehem, verse 19 says that, “The town was excited about their arrival.” That means that something must have changed about Bethlehem since Naomi left with her husband.
For those who don’t remember, or weren’t here, our story takes place during the time of the Judges, and according to the book of Judges, the time of the Judges was kind of like the Wild West, there were just no rules.
God had given his Law to the people of Israel through Moses – that’s most of what you’ll find in those first five books of the Bible – and although most of us are taught from a young age to be scared of the book of Deuteronomy, and so forth, the truth is that God’s Law had functioned for a long time to protect the poor, to protect women, to create pathways for lifelong and temporary slaves to become free men and women, to create pathways where pagans from the surrounding nations could become Yahweh worshippers who lived in Israel and found full acceptance by the community.
And so not only did God’s law make Israel a just nation when they obeyed it, it also made Israel a missionary nation. Rather than recoiling in fear, treating pagans with suspicion, their law was directly designed around welcoming them and then inviting them to join in God’s good mission to reconcile the world to himself.
But during the time of the Judges, everything was so scattered and disorganized that the Priests either had no power to enforce God’s Laws because the local rulers kept undercutting them, or, during the lowest periods, the Priests were part of the problem because they found ways to buy their way into power and then use it as a way to make themselves wealthy at the expense of the common folks – so, history repeats itself.
But what all of that means is that, throughout most of Israel during Ruth’s lifetime, it wasn’t really safe to be a woman, because nobody feared God or abided by the Laws he set to protect vulnerable women from powerful men, and it wasn’t really safe to be a foreigner, because nobody feared God or abided by the Laws he set to protect foreigners from the folks who didn’t like seeing newcomers filing into their communities. And it really wasn’t safe to be a foreign woman like Ruth. You’d be at the top of nearly everybody’s hit list. So you can see why Naomi tried so hard to talk her out of coming back to Bethlehem with her. She’d be diving straight into the jaws of a lion.
On top of that, throughout the period of the Judges, resources were scarce because the modest degree of infrastructure that Moses and Joshua had been able to establish essentially collapsed beneath the weight of the fact that “everyone was doing whatever was right in their own eyes.”
As a result, the less people who lived on the plot of land you were occupying, the better. Less organization means less produce, and less produce means less food. So it was not surprising that a famine hit and people like Elimelech packed up and left.
But you wouldn’t necessarily welcome those returning after the famine, because they would be more mouths to feed; and you’d be especially reluctant if they’ve brought some foreign widow along with them.
So it really is remarkable that the people of Bethlehem were excited at their arrival. It means that something must have changed, because there’s nothing natural about a village of subsistence farmers welcoming a widow and a foreigner in a time of economic scarcity during “the period of the Judges.”
And what we’ll see is that this is one of the first signs that God is breathing new life back into his people after their long period of unfaithfulness.
Naomi says, “The Lord has pronounced judgment on me,” but what she doesn’t know is that her suffering is about to bear “good fruit” that she couldn’t possibly have anticipated: In next week’s passage, her Moabite daughter-in-law is going to meet a man named Boaz, he’s going to marry her, redeem the property that Elimelech left behind in the famine, and then they’re going to have a child named Obed, who has a child named Jesse, who has a child named David, who becomes king, who has a great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchild named Jesus.
A lot of times, what we think of as God’s judgment is actually the furthest thing from judgment.
There’s a really weird story in Matthew chapter 21 where Jesus is hungry, so he heads to a nearby fig tree to grab one of the fruits off the branches. Unfortunately, it’s not fig season, so there aren’t any figs growing.
Jesus knows that. He’s not dumb. But he makes an example out of it for everybody watching: He curses the tree and says, “May no fruit ever come from you again,” and the tree just withers up on the spot.
The crowd goes wild, the disciples all scratch their heads, some dude runs out of his house upset that Jesus killed his only fig tree, probably. And Jesus turns it into a teachable moment: A fruit tree that doesn’t bear fruit is a waste of space, like salt that doesn’t season or preserve, like a vacuum cleaner that does suck anything up – y’know.
We see throughout the story that the Bible tells that Jesus destroys everything that is unholy and fruitless – but we see that the opposite has happened here: Rather than cursing Israel so that it withers into nothing like he does with the fig tree, Jesus makes Israel fruitful again: He brings the famine to an end; he changes the hearts of the people in Bethlehem; he makes a pathway for Ruth and Naomi to return to the Promised Land and be welcomed again rather than turned away.
Instead of annihilating the people of Israel for their fruitlessness during “the time of the Judges,” Jesus is redeeming them. Instead of withering them into nothing like the fig tree, he is making them fruitful again, and Ruth and Naomi will be “step one” in the process.
In a number of ways, I think that the church in America is like the land of Israel towards the beginning of Ruth, here. God has poured his mercy out on us in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily notice up front, which should give us all great cause for rejoicing.
Over against what you might believe if you watch a whole lot of nighttime news, those revivals from yesteryear are working. There has never been a more fruitful harvest than there is right now – not just overseas, where the gospel has never spread as quickly as it’s currently spreading, but also here. There has never been a more fruitful harvest in America, there has never been an American population that’s been better prepared by God to hear and receive the message of the gospel than the population of America today, I’m convinced of it.
Do not be fooled by the folks who are telling you that our work is in vain. Do not be fooled by the folks who get paid to tell you that no one wants to hear the message of the Gospel anymore. Do not be fooled by the TV pundits who get paid to tell you that everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, that there is no hope, that all you can do is bunker up, prep for the end times, and wait for the “good old gospel ship” to come take you away somewhere safer.
If Satan can’t make you an unbeliever, the next best thing is to make you terrified of unbelievers, to make you resent unbelievers, to make you point toward unbelievers and say, “They’re what’s ruining my community, or my country, or my culture.” Satan is real, and he’s clever. And if he can direct your anger so steadily towards unbelievers that you avoid them out of hand and spend all your time complaining about them, he doesn’t really have to do anything else, because you’ll do his job for him.
But if you are willing to accept that the harvest really is as plentiful as Luke chapter 10 verse two says, but that the laborers really are as few as Jesus tells us in that same passage; and if you are willing to accept that you are God’s solution to that problem – not just an evangelist that you’re financially supporting through the Cooperative Program, although that’s good; not just the guy you pay to preach to you every week, but you – if you are willing to accept that, like in today’s passage, we are at the beginning of the harvest, not the end, you will see that God is making us fruitful again. If you shut your TV off, hammer your sword into a plow, like Isaiah chapter 2 says, and go to where the harvest is, you’ll see that there is more than enough fruitful labor to be done. It’s plentiful, but the laborers are few. You are God’s solution to that problem. You are God’s “Plan A,” and there is no “Plan B.”
But what I’ve learned over the years is that most folks doubt they’ll ever be any kind of fruitful again. I remember when I first got to college, I was in a town called Shawnee, Oklahoma, it’s where Elyse and I met. The whole first year we didn’t really talk to each other, though. Because I never left my dorm. I went to class, I went to the Braum’s across the street way too much. And I watched too much TV. That was what I did, the year of Our Lord 2014.
And idleness tends to give birth to sinfulness, right?
Think back to the times in your life when you were intentionally directing yourself towards good things in the form of good work, and good rest. And then think about the times in your life when you just kind of hung back: You’d go to work, you’d come home, and just sort of slouch over, you just kind of idled, because you were tired, and it takes more energy to rest – to do things that make your heart glad even if they aren’t productive – it takes more energy to do that than it does to idle. So you’d work yourself to exhaustion, because you had to, and then idle.
If you’re like me and almost everyone else on planet Earth, your idleness gradually led you into sinful patterns that you probably wouldn’t have had time for if you were intentionally giving yourself to good work, and good rest.
That was me my first year of college. I made myself fruitless. I slept walked my way into a church that demanded nothing of me, sank down in the back, and – without abandoning the faith by any stretch of the imagination – stopped seeking the Lord in the scriptures and seeking the Lord in prayer and seeking the Lord by carrying out his mission in Shawnee. Instead of pruning the tree so that it would grow larger and stronger and more reliable, I just clipped off all the fruit as they’d grow, because fruitlessness is easy. Fruitlessness is natural.
The tendency towards fruitlessness is just soft-wired into us, so we don’t have to try to be fruitless. We don’t have to set our sights on fruitlessness and then pursue it with everything in us. It just happens. It just comes. It is what we become when we don’t aim at anything.
Fruitlessness is our natural state when rather than giving ourselves to the same Jesus who rescued us, so that he can shape us into his own image through the Holy Spirit’s good work in our hearts, we simply sleepwalk onward in the same direction our souls gravitated towards before we were rescued by his grace.
That’s exactly what happened to Israel during the time of the Judges, when everyone simply did what was right in their eyes, and it’s what happens to us when our hearts become slack and careless.
And in a room full of 40-ish people, in all likelihood, somebody – or multiple somebodies – in here feels exactly that. You feel the depths of your fruitlessness like Bethlehem felt the depths of its fruitlessness, and you wonder why Jesus hasn’t withered you like he withered the fig tree.
You wonder what the point of getting back up again is, you look back across the last 5 or 10 or 20 or 50 years, and all you see is a vast desert of fruitlessness, you think back to the way you spent your 20s, or the way you raised your kids, or the way you conducted yourself in your marriage, or the way you acted towards your co-workers or treated your employees or whatever, and you can’t grab hold of a single thing that bears even the slightest witness that the Holy Spirit’s been doing a blasted thing in your soul.
If that’s you, I don’t have a fire and brimstone diatribe to throw at you. If your heart is already grabbing you by the shirt collar and screaming at you about it, the Holy Spirit is already talking to you. God has not thrown his hands up in the air and said, “I’m done with this one.” God is already drawing you out of your fruitlessness and into that process by which he turns you from a barren desert into a fruitful harvest again. If you are terrified like Naomi was terrified – terrified that God is going to abandon you for the fruitlessness you walk in, you already have your evidence that he hasn’t.
That terror you feel is the beginning of the process where God restores you to fruitfulness, where Jesus turns you from your idleness and your apathy and molds you into his own image by the Holy Spirit who lives inside you, so that rather than walking consistently in fruitlessness and unrepentance, you become what Paul calls a “vessel for glory,” a vessel that glorifies the Father.
Don’t misunderstand me. Don’t get in your car after the service, drive to Bojangles, and file that Holy Terror that you feel away in a drawer called “Things That Only Matter When I’m Sitting In A Church Pew And The Choir’s Singing.” Give yourself over to the Jesus who rescued you, to be changed by the Holy Spirit, to be a vessel that glorifies your Father in heaven. Throw yourself on to the mercy of Jesus to be made fruitful again, or fruitful for the first time.
I’ll be at the altar in a few moments, for anyone who wants to pray together, or talk. At Mount Zion, we believe that every church is called to spread the gospel into every corner of their community, and you might be one of the corner’s we’re meant to spread the gospel into. I’d love to walk through the process of submitting yourself to the Jesus we’ve been talking about this morning, to throw yourself on his mercy for the forgiveness of your sins, to be “made fruitful” lie he made Israel fruitful, like he made Ruth and Naomi fruitful, to be adopted into his family through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.