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When God's Will is Bitter

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Ruth 1:19-22

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When God's Will is Bitter

  1. 1. 1 Move One—Introduction This is the second sermon in our series on Ruth. Before we read the sermon text, let me set the stage for today’s text by recounting the story to date. Three weeks ago we were introduced to the saga of Elimelech, Naomi, and their family. As a consequence for Israel’s covenant faithlessness in the form of corrupt theology and practice, God brought a famine upon the land. As a result, Elimelech, Naomi, and their two sons left Israel and travelled to Moab—modern day Syria. Their journey, we said, is like the Exodus in reverse: leaving the land of plenty in order to sojourn in the land of captivity. For years they make their lives work. The sons marry local women. Life seems good. Then Elimelech dies. Ten more years pass then the two sons die leaving only the women: Naomi and her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. A decision has to be made: will they remain in Moab or will they return to Bethlehem, the land of Naomi’s ancestors? Will they return to the land of God’s promise or remain in a pagan land? Naomi makes up her mind: she will return. Her daughters-in-law must decide too. Will they remain in Moab? Will they return to the religion (the gods) of their families of origin now that their Jewish husbands have died. They decide differently. Orpah remains in Moab, but Ruth pledges herself to returning with Naomi to Judah—“where you go, I will go,” “where you lodge, I will lodge…” They begin their journey back to Bethlehem. Ruth 1:19-22 19 So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22 So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.
  2. 2. 2 The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of Our God endures forever. Move Two—Riches to Rags Most all of us are familiar with “rags to riches stories.” These are classic tales of people whose childhood is marked by poverty yet they somehow manage to parlay that into great wealth owing to native intelligence and sheer hard work. Someone like J. K. Rowling—a single mother living on government assistance, she completed most of the first Harry Potter book in cafes while taking her daughter for walks in the stroller. The "Harry Potter" franchise has since become a worldwide success and Rowling is now worth an estimated $1 billion and Harry Potter is a household name. We love rags to riches stories. We’re, for the most part, indifferent to tales of woe that go in the opposite direction. Google “rags to riches” and you’ll find 1.2 million results. Do the same thing and enter “riches to rags,” and you’ll find two-thirds fewer results. We like rags to riches stories. This isn’t, however, a “rags to riches” story. This episode in the life of Naomi’s family is quite the opposite just now. And while we are culturally shaped to like rags to riches stories, you will find that God doesn’t limit himself to those sorts of stories alone. God moves in all types of stories that appear good or bad, happy or sad, at various points along the way. Move Three—The Talk of the Town Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem and they’re the talk of the town—“the whole town was stirred because of them.” People wondered aloud: could this really be Naomi? Whose name meant “pleasant”? Her reversal of fortunes seemed so complete. A dead husband… Two dead sons… A foreign-born daughter-in-law… Showing back up in the town they forsook years ago... Her life seemed to be anything but pleasant. Yet, sadly, few things arouse our curiosity like someone else’s misfortune. So the news went around the market quicker than it gets around the church.
  3. 3. 3 A woman walks up to her: “Naomi? Is that you?” “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara!” – Don’t call me pleasant; call me bitter! Her name and her circumstances no longer aligned—and it was painful to her. She goes on: “For the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? Ever felt like that? Ever said, “just call me bitter!” Move Four—Bitter The remarkable thing about this exchange is the way that Naomi laments before God on the basis of how God has acted in her life. Naomi doesn’t stifle her lamentation. She speaks forcefully about the situation in which she finds herself. It’s not good It’s not right Things should be different Naomi lays the blame squarely at God’s feet. The reason her husband and sons are dead, the reason that she is returning to Bethlehem destitute, is because of God—“the Almighty has brought calamity upon me!” (21). The force of her questioning implies that she is desperately seeking some sort of answer in order to place her suffering in a wider context. It seems we can suffer more when we know why we’re suffering. No answers come—not even from the narrator. God is silent. Naomi is modeling for us what it looks like to hold God responsible for His Covenant promises. Chief among those promises is in Genesis 17:7f. “I will establish my covenant between me and you [Abraham] and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you…”
  4. 4. 4 That covenant promise is restated and applied to those who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in Acts 2:39, where Peter preaches before the house of Israel: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” God’s promise to us as Christians is that He will be our God and that through Christ alone there is remission of sins and adoption into the family of God. We move from being “strangers and aliens” to God—those justly deserving of his wrath—to those who are beloved sons and daughters of the Father for whom Christ is their elder brother. We become family. God watches over His children with a special care that those who are not of the family of God do not experience. As the Apostle Paul says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Move Five – Holding God Responsible What does this look like in a real life? Our lives? When we experience suffering we are forced to hold together two realities: That God is sovereign—nothing happens in this world except that God permits it. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism: “[Christ] watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation” (Q/A 1). Notice: “all things work together for [our] salvation,” or “our deliverance” or “our good.” That in this world we will suffer, face troubles, experience persecution—Jesus has told us that (John 16:33) and he was unequivocal about it. Naomi’s speech brings these two things together: (1) God is intimately involved in the details of her life—and could stop bad things happening to her family. (2) The God who is intimately involved in her life has not stopped these bad things. (3) Therefore, in her suffering she lays the blame at God’s feet.
  5. 5. 5 God desires for His people to hold him to account for His Covenant promises. If we don’t hold God to account it’s effectively a statement that either: (1) God’s promises are not worth relying on, or living by, because God is arbitrary or capricious, and/or (2) That God is powerless to make things to be otherwise. Affirming that God is sovereign and that, despite that, we still suffer and have cause for lament isn’t a silver bullet that makes life easier. It does, however, help us to acknowledge both God’s power and God’s love when God’s will seems bitter. Move Five -- Application We understand ourselves by the stories we tell about ourselves—the words we use, the concepts we value. As we talk about ourselves, in this place, there are words that come up time and time again: legacy, heritage, koinonia (fellowship), lighthouse, example, or model. These are good words and they rightly point to the ministry that has taken place here over the decades and for which we may give thanks. Yet we, each of us, is fallen. Our lives—together and individually—are touched and affected by sin so that even at our best we are not perfect, far from it. Scripture describes our righteousness as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). We so easily allow our focus and attention to shift from the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ who is head of the church and redeemer of his people our own glory, our own rights, our own opinions, and not with. We are united in our esteem for our legacy and our history, but we are divided along factions—“I am of Paul,” “I am of Appollos,” “I am of Cephas,”—insert your favorite pastor or leader here… For too long we have been united only in name and not in purpose—we have been united around convenience or personality and not around truth, not around Scripture, not around the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” The only thing that can overcome the fracture lines, the only sure foundation, is the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ—the message that “you are more sinful and flawed than you ever dared to believe, but in Christ you are more accepted and loved than you dared hope.” It’s the message of extravagant grace that accepts “just as we are.” But it’s the not the story of cheap grace, which demands nothing of us. It’s the story of costly grace, which cost the life of God’s Son and which requires us to surrender our lives to God’s transforming grace. The message that is pictured for us at the Lord’s Table is that “[God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him [Christ] we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  6. 6. 6 Like Naomi, we can affirm that God has brought us to this place. We can, like Naomi, bring that before him. And, at the same time, we can rely on the promise that all things will work together for good to those who are faithfully following God’s purposes in the world. Let us pray.

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