Friday, 15 February 2013

When God brings good out of our bad decisions (Ruth 1)

Do you have regrets? Are you living with the consequences of some bad decisions? Maybe you ignored the wise counsel of others when it came to choosing where to live.  Perhaps you feel that you are in a career that doesn't suit you.  Smoking, lack of exercise or over-eating has left you with health problems.  You have said things that you wish you could take back.  You were insensitive towards someone.  You've burned your bridges.  You have done some things that are shameful to remember.  You might think that you married the wrong person.  You may have invested poorly during the Celtic Tiger.  What are your regrets?

Some of the things that we have to live with we're chosen innocently.  We thought we were doing the right thing but could not foresee the consequences.  Other things that we have to live with we're done sinfully.  We knew that is was wrong to shout at him like that.  He shouldn't have been driving at that speed, and on his phone as well.  She was compromising when she went that far with her boyfriend.

This morning we are going to see that God is willing to redeem our past. We may be living with the consequences of bad choices but God can still do beautiful things with our future.  Our lives may be in a mess but he can straighten things out.  Not only is he willing to bring good out of the innocent choices we have made; he is willing to bring good from the sinful choices we have made.  We will see this as we look at Ruth 1.

Elimelech: Living with the consequences of godless decision-making (1-5)

This story is set in the days when the Judges ruled.  You can read all about that time in the book of Judges.  Judges is a shocking time.  There was a downward spiral of rebellion and immorality.  Yet our gracious God kept coming to the aid of his wicked people when they turned back and cried out to him.  The last line of Judges sums up the attitude of God's people.  'Everyone did as they saw fit.'

At that time there was a famine in the land.  Now this nation to which Elimelech and his family belonged was unique.  At Mount Sinai God had entered into a covenant with these people.  It was a covenant that was in place until the coming of Jesus.  These people were special to God.  Their special status included blessings for obedience and curses for persistent disobedience.  They had been warned that if they rebelled and turned to other gods then the one true God would send famine.  It may be that the famine in that land was such a judgement.  What the people needed to do was to turn back to God, not flee to Moab.

Just a word of warning before we press on.  This Sinai covenant was unique to the people of Israel and only in place until the coming of Christ.  God dealt with them in a special way.  The blessings and curses of this covenant weren't addressed to other nations.  So we have no ground for assuming that other famines in other countries, or other disasters in other places, are direct acts of judgement.  Indeed, many Christian spokespeople have embarrassed the cause of the faith by speculating beyond what has been revealed in the Bible.

Anyway, back to the story. 

There is irony in the names that are used here.  Bethlehem means 'house of bread' but there is no bread available there.  So what does Elimelech do? He takes his family and heads off to Moab. Moab was to the east, on the other side of the Dead Sea.  Moab was known for its idolatry and immorality.  Moab was a long standing enemy of God's people.  God's people had been told not to have dealings with Moab.  Moving to Moab was not a move designed to please God.  This was not a God-honouring decision.  The name Elimelech means 'my God is king' but this man is not living as if God is his king.

They arrive in Moab intending to stay for just a short while.  But they remain there.  Indeed, they stay there for ten years.  So settled are they in Moab that their two sons marry Moabite women.  That too was not a God-honouring decision.

Moab wasn't mentioned among the list of nations that they were not to marry from.  But the principle of God's law was clear.  They were not to give their sons or daughters in marriage to people from the surrounding nations for they would turn them away from God to serve other gods (Deuteronomy 7:3-4).  John Piper explains, 'The point was not to protect racial purity.  The point was to protect religious purity ... The issue is not colour mixing, or customs mixing, or clan identity.  The issue is: will there be one common allegiance to the true God in this marriage or will there be divided affections? The prohibition in God's Word is not against interracial marriage but against marriage between the true Israel, the church (from every people tribe and nation), and those who are not a part of the true Israel.'

So while it was wrong for Kilion to marry Ruth because she pagan, it was not wrong for Boaz to marry her despite the fact that she was a Moabite; for Boaz marries her after she had come to faith in the one true and living God.

Elimelech had taken matters into his own hands.  He had made decisions that were not God-honouring.  These decisions did not result in the deliverance he had hoped for.  He dies, and so do his sons.  Mahlon and Kilion mean 'sickness' and 'failing', perhaps they had always suffered ill-health.  Now Naomi is left to pick up the pieces.  Not only is she heart-broken but in a society dependant on men she faces economic ruin.  She is too old to marry, has no sons and has no prospects.

Naomi: A woman who turns around (6-13)

'When she heard in Moab that The Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home ...' Apparently, in the original Hebrew the word translated return or repent occurs eleven times in this chapter.  It seems that Naomi's repentance is more than simply returning back to Bethlehem, she is turning back to God.

We see some signs of true faith in Naomi's words. 

She tries to persuade Orpah and Ruth to stay behind in Moab declaring, 'may The Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me'. The kindness of God is one of the central themes of this book.

She recognises the full sovereignty of God.  'It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord's hand has gone out against me' (13).  It may trouble us that our loving God allows bad things happen to people, but there would be no real comfort if God was not in control.  Isaiah 45:7, 'I form light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I The Lord do all these things.' The author Jerry Bridges writes, 'if there is a single event in all the universe that can occur outside God's sovereign control then we cannot trust him.'

She uses the term the LORD (capitals in our translations), this is a translation for Yahweh/Jehovah.  Yahweh is God's covenant name.  It is like the 'like the name of a caring husband, a name which speaks of a love which will not let go, a love which has his people’s long term interests at heart, the tough love of a mother for her children who will sometimes insist on the hard medicine when the voice of reason is spurned.'

Later in this chapter she will call God 'the Almighty'. Bible commentator Alec Motyer says that this describes ‘the God who is at his best when man is at his worst’.

Ruth: A Woman who is truly converted (14-19)

Orpah is given the option but decides to stay in Moab.  She stays with what she is familiar with.  God invites us, but he never forces us to follow him.  Melvin Tinker says that many people are like Orpah.  'There is an affection towards God and the Lord Jesus, a mild attraction - as Orpah had towards Naomi and no doubt her religion. There may even be the occasional church attendance. But when all is said and done - the attractions of comfort in this life far outweigh the promises of the next life.  And for a minister of the Gospel there is nothing as heartbreaking as that - to see people walk away from the only hope they have of eternal life.  And if you are in that position, please think again - your soul is at stake.'

Orpah makes a decision for comfort.  Ruth makes a decision for love.  "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." This is not just her commitment to Naomi, this is commitment to Naomi's God.  This is serious.  This is like the 'for better or worse' language of marriage.    This is personal conversion.  Through the quite gentle witness of Naomi, Ruth has come to know the true and living God.

While walking away from God may lead you towards a life of comfort, walking towards God brings many challenges.  For Ruth to go with Naomi to Israel was a massive risk.  Remember the animosity that existed between the Moabites and the Israelites.  It would have been much easier for Ruth to get a husband in Moab than Israel (remember that this was a time when women were dependent on men).  For Ruth, commitment to Naomi's God was wrapped up with commitment to her mother-in-law (a relationship with the God of kindness involves showing kindness to his people). 

Conclusion (20-22)

One preacher says that the book of Ruth is like a commentary on Romans 8:28, 'and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him ...' But does 'all things' include the mistakes we make?

Well, on one hand, Galatians tells us that we reap what we sow.  Elimelech's godless decision-making was costly.  Naomi went away full and came back empty.  The people of Bethlehem asked, 'is this Naomi?'  Ten painful years had taken their toll on her appearance.  But her son's godless decision to marry a non-believing woman has given her Ruth.  Ruth who will prove better to Naomi than seven sons (4:15).  If God can bring good out of the godless decisions people make, then surely he can redeem those decisions that were made innocently but seem to be mistakes.

So remember those regrets that we talked about at the beginning of the sermon? Naomi arrived home with regrets.  At this stage in the story her life is still bitter.  But she has turned back to God and he is about to make things better for her.  Whatever bitter circumstances we are enduring we can gather hope as we look forward.  God will sort the mess out.  It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, it might not even be during this lifetime, but the best has yet to be.  And remember that the good God is working towards is making us more like Jesus.  For now he might do that in the midst of the mess.  If you want a comfortable life the stay in Moab with Orpah.

We all like sheep have gone astray, each one turned to his own way.  But The Lord has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. We have all gone to Moab. Our God delights to forgive.  He does so for the sake of his Son.  Naomi went astray, but turned back, and will soon experience how kind our God is.  Ruth was a Moabite, a woman from an idolatrous and immoral people, but with his blood Jesus has purchased people from every tribe, language, people and nation (Rev. 5:9).  And this redeeming God can bring beauty out of ashes, can replace the years that the locusts have eaten, and can bring wonderful things out of the messes that we have found ourselves in.

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