Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the book of Ruth. When you hear that, you think the main subject of the book is who? Ruth. In our Lutheran Study Bible, in the introduction pages of the book under the title of “Blessings for Readers”, it says this:
The Book of Ruth relates a beautiful story in the history of King David’s family, illustrating how God guides history for the sake of His people. He works through suffering and redemption to preserve His people and to welcome the nations. These aspects of the Book point to the birth of Jesus, the world’s Redeemer, who descends from Ruth and Boaz.
Though the Book of Ruth is not a love story, it beautifully illustrates the Lord’s enduring love for you. As you read Ruth, consider how the Lord calls you to show love and faithfulness to your family and your neighbors, for whom Christ lived and gave His life.
From that, you would again assume the book is about … Ruth. And yes, the unknown author does follow what it is which Ruth does and how it is that she wins the affection of Boaz who then redeems and restores her family. We learn through the description I read and through the genealogy listed at the end of Ruth 4 that Ruth and Boaz’s are great-grandparents of King David. We are reminded at Christmas time that Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register because they are of the lineage of David. So it is through the book of Ruth where we learn about this special union of Ruth and Boaz which leads to our Savior.
But this morning as we look at our reading from Ruth, I want us to focus on a different person. We’ll look at Ruth a little, I’ll mention her husband Boaz, but I really want us to focus our attention on Naomi. Naomi is much more relatable to you and me than either Ruth or Boaz.
So who is Naomi? Naomi is the wife of Elimelech. She is the mother of two sons Mahlon and Kilion. They are a happy little family living in the small town of Bethlehem. That is until a famine strikes the land. Hungry and needing food, this family of four pack up their things and move to the country of Moab.
There in Moab, Naomi’s husband dies. At the death of her husband, her two sons are now responsible for taking care of her. Naomi’s two sons, they get married to two sweet Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Not sure how long after the weddings, both of these men die. Naomi now has no one, she has no male left in her family to help take care of her. Essentially she has lost everything.
The first five verses of the book of Ruth is filled with profound loss, with a famine, and with an overwhelming sense of emptiness. The sole survivor from this original family is Naomi. Having lost everything, feeling as if there is nothing else she can do … she returns home, she returns to Bethlehem.
Return … it’s a simple word. But in our reading, this is the most dominant verb. The Hebrew word for turn or return is found twelve times in our text and here at the beginning of the book, this simple word sets a new theme from the original tone it starts with. After the first five verses, it seems like anything and everything which could go terribly wrong for Naomi does and with that, she is filled with the bitterness of death.
That is until she hears that the Lord has come to the aid of His people back home in Bethlehem by returning food to them after the famine. Naomi and her two daughter-in-laws prepared to return home.
As they set out for Bethlehem, Naomi changes her mind and tells her daughter-in-laws to stay behind, to find new husbands, and to start a family. “Return home” she tells them not once but twice. Orpah listens, but Ruth insists on staying. Naomi again, two more times tells Ruth to return with her sister-in-law, to return back home. Ruth again says no and says “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16-17). Determined, Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem.
It’s there in Bethlehem where people begin to quietly ask questions. “Can this be Naomi?” (1:19). Naomi wanting to squash the town gossip says, “Don’t call me that. Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (1:20-21). Why the name change? Naomi changes her name because her life is no longer defined by her former identity, her life is no longer defined by the life she had lived with love and promise and blessings. That all died and was buried in Moab. She asks the people to call her Mara because that’s how she felt. She felt bitter, empty, and full of loss.
I can relate with that. We started out the service praising God right? “Praise the Lord, I will extol, I will worship, the Lord with all my heart” (Psalm 111:1). To be honest with you, when dealing with stress and anxiety which just continually wears on you, leaves you tired and sometimes irritable … I’m not so much into praising the Lord. When you find out you’ve got cancer or when you find out a family member has cancer, when you lose your job, when you lose your retirement with crashing stock prices, when a hurricane or tornado spread pieces of your home across the country side, or when relationships fail and life begins to crumble … I think we feel more like Naomi, like Mara than we do David who is praising the Lord. In the midst of the darkness and the trudging through the valleys, in the midst of trying to fix things on our own and keep coming up short or feeling inadequate, it’s easy to just throw in the towel, it’s easy to feel bitter, empty, and full of loss.
Return. Return is the main verb in the opening chapter of the book of Ruth. You see, the book of Ruth wants you and me to know the wisdom of waiting on the Lord and to trust that the Lord will provide redemption through an heir who will bring salvation.
One of my Seminary professors says this about Naomi. “The Lord God Almighty is the cause of her troubles. The Lord has testified against her, God Almighty has brought her calamity. She will change her name to ‘bitter’ and tell the story of her suffering to the people. Naomi defines herself as one who is empty, bitter. One against whom the Lord has turned. And yet, she returns to dwell in the land of Israel. Inside the Old Testament law there are disciplines like feeding the hungry. Leaving behind grain for the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners (Deut. 24:19). These disciplines have a way of redeeming property in the case where there is no heir (Numb. 27:8-11). More importantly, these disciples have a way of redeeming people, raising up an heir for the deceased (Deut. 25:5-10). These are the laws and the customs surrounding the laws that shape the lives of God’s people.”
As you read through the book of Ruth, you will see that Ruth will glean the fields to find the left over grain. She collects it for her and Naomi. Ruth is the one who keeps the laws obediently and then wins redemption because even Boaz can see what a righteous person she is on behalf of Naomi. Ruth does all the work and passes on the blessings she received to Naomi.
You and I … we’re like Naomi. We’re like Naomi because even though we may feel bitter, even though we may feel empty, even though we may feel loss … we are on the receiving end of the blessings of God’s law fulfilled on our behalf by Jesus. We’re on the receiving end! By God’s grace, His mercy and blessings are new each day as He provides us with the very things we need in order to sustain this body and life. By God’s grace given to us through Jesus’ death on the cross and His returning from the dead, you are redeemed, you are restored, you will one day be resurrected from your grave and you will physically return to Him to live with a perfect body in a redeemed and restored new creation.
Until that day of Christ’s return, God will continue to provide with just enough to get through each day. I want to close with these words from the prophet Joel, “‘Even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ … Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Joel 2:12-13). Like Naomi, return to the Lord, for He has given you a new identity in Him, He has redeemed you, He has promised to always be with you. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Redeemer and Lord, now and forevermore. Amen.