Sunday, July 17, 2011

Women of the Bible: Ruth Ruth 1:3-18 and Ruth 3:1-13

Today we are going to continue our preaching series focusing on the lives and examples of a few prominent women in Scripture and as we look to these women, I believe you will see great acts of faith and devotion in how they lived their lives. We began this series two weeks ago as we focused on the story of Deborah and how her faith in God and her ability to be humble, allowed her to deliver the Israelites from certain defeat. Last week we continued on by turning to Esther, as we discovered how her courage and faith saved not only her own life but those of her people as well. Today we look Ruth, a woman whose concern for others, combined with her ability to love, and loyalty to God inspired those around her.

Mothers are the Bond of Life
Many years ago, a teacher gave her class of second graders a lesson on the magnet and what it does. Hoping that repetition would help this information to stick, she gave them a test the next day. On that test she included this question: " My full name has six letters. The first one is M. I pick up things. What am I?" When the test papers were turned in, the teacher was astonished to find that almost 50 percent of the students answered the question with the word Mother.

Ruth's Beginnings
The story of Ruth expressed to us the magnetic bond a motherly figure can have in our lives. You see it was the motherly relationship between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, that sets the stage for us this morning.

Ruth's story begins when a man named Elimelech flees a drought and famine in Judah with his wife Naomi and their two sons. They move to a foreign land named Moab seeking a better life, but not long after they get there Elimelech dies. Naomi is left to struggle and raise both boys on her own. When the boys grow up they choose to marry women from Moab named Orpah and Ruth. I often wonder what Naomi thought about that in her heart of hearts. Intermarriage was greatly frowned upon in Israel and now her Jewish boys were marrying foreigners. But there is not one word, not one indication, that Naomi ever let her inner feelings be known. As far as Orpah and Ruth were concerned, they were now as much a part of Naomi's family as if they had been born into it. There were lots of wonderful things about Naomi, and this was just ONE of them: Naomi ACCEPTED them...and they knew it.

But after a while, both of Naomi’s sons also pass away. And so Naomi is left alone with just her two daughter-in-laws as family. One day, after receiving word from relatives in Judah that the famine is over and that God is blessing the Israelites again, Naomi decides to take her little family and return to her homeland in Judah. After they have traveled for a while, Naomi begins to think better of her decision to bring along Orpah and Ruth. What kind of future could these foreign women hope to have in Judah? The custom of marrying the brothers of their deceased husbands was out since they had not brothers and Naomi was too old to bear more children.

So she tells her daughter-in-laws to return home to their parent’s houses where they can be taken care of. She prays that God might reward them for the kindnesses they have shown her and that he might bless them by giving them the security of new marriages. You see, Naomi BELIEVED in those two young women. She had gotten to know them just as if they had been her own flesh and blood. She knew that they had a lot to offer the young men who might marry them. She had seen them offer a lot to her own sons, especially at the time of their death. She knew these girls would be all right.

But the girls are in tears and do not want to leave her. But again Naomi pleads with them to consider their own futures and tells them to go back. It had to have been painful for her, because she loved Orpah and Ruth and they were all she had left in the world. But Naomi was practical. She was well aware that, in her culture, the life of a woman was totally dependent upon the man. A widow could not simply decide to pick up the pieces of a broken life, go out, get a job, and start all over again. The only way life could really begin again was in the home of a new husband. Naomi was CONCERNED for them, so she was willing to sacrifice her own wishes for their happiness.

One daughter-in-law shows Naomi a measure of respect by obeying her wishes. Orpah is grieved at the separation, but she kisses her mother-in-law goodbye and turns back toward Moab. But the other daughter-in-law shows her steadfast devotion to her mother-in-law and her God by making one of the most beautiful statements of commitment found in Scripture. One that is still used today in wedding ceremonies as the ultimate relationship statement - “I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16b).

When Naomi realized that Ruth had made up her mind, she stopped urging her to leave; instead the two of them continued on towards Naomi’s tiny hometown in Judah, the city of Bethlehem. The next two chapters of Ruth tell the story of how God is faithful to look after both Naomi and Ruth. Ruth supports her mother-in-law by going out and gleaning in the fields. That means Ruth was following the harvesters around in the fields and picking up the wheat that they dropped or left behind. This was the Israelite custom for helping to feed the poor, the widows and the orphans. The field in which Ruth happens to glean belongs to one of Naomi’s distant relatives, Boaz. And eventually he comes to admire and love Ruth because of her dedication in giving up everything to help her mother-in-law. And so Boaz steps in to marry Ruth and care for both she and Naomi.

The marriage of Boaz and Ruth was then blessed with a son whom they named Obed. I’m sure that he was not only the joy of his parent’s lives, but the delight of his grandmother’s life as well. And he would be the delight of the people of Israel, for Obed was the grandfather of King David.

Ruth the Teacher
We spoke earlier of the differences between Naomi and Ruth; culture, background, family, religion and age. But they also had a few things in common; a shared deep sorrow over their respective losses, a great affection for one another, a sense of loyalty and commitment, and a concern for each others well-being. Naomi was willing to let Ruth return to her family in Moab because she figured Ruth would be better off there. Ruth was willing to leave everything she knew, her family and her homeland, to follow her mother-in-law to Judah.

Beyond all of this, these two women also shared a commitment to the God of Israel. God was at the center of their close connection. But how did this happen? Ruth was a Moabite woman and the people of Moab had their own gods that they worshipped. Yet Ruth acknowledged and worshipped the God of Israel. Her devotion to God and to Naomi was rewarded in that she, a foreigner, stands as one of the ancestors of King David and Jesus, the Messiah himself.

So how did Ruth come to know the God of Israel? No doubt this was through her relationship to Naomi. Naomi comes across as a bitter woman in the book of Ruth, and rightly so after suffering the death of her husband and both her sons. But you only have to look at the fact that both of her daughter-in-laws were willing to leave their families and their homelands to follow her, to understand that Naomi was a pretty special mother-in-law who had lavished love and attention and care upon Orpah and Ruth. The strength of that relationship, of their bond, made it possible for her to also share her faith, to live it out as real, in good times and bad, before her daughter-in-laws. And Ruth responded to this. Naomi accomplished something with her life that all of us should hope to accomplish. She influenced someone to choose to follow her God. Naomi became the instrument of Ruth’s choice to make Naomi’s God her own.

Lessons Handed Down
There were some lessons that were so strong that they survived being passed down several generations. Lessons that can be of tremendous benefit to us today.

One was practical faith. Ruth had a faith that directly impacted her everyday life and how she lived. Through Naomi, Ruth had learned enough to say “Your God will be my God.” For many Christians, faith has become separated from daily life. It’s one of a number of different things that we do, but the practice of our faith doesn’t always intersect with all areas of our life. Faith should not be just another task in our life. It should inform our entire life. Our faith should be the basis for all decisions, easy and hard. It should influence our mood, our treatment of others, our spending habits, our vacation plans, our daily routine. Faith is the foundation for how we live for Christ.

Another lesson is that of obedience. The pattern of obedience we find in Ruth’s example is embodied in the statement, “All that you tell me I will do.” Such unswerving obedience is a model of faith for every Christian. Our society has become obsessed with greatness. But greatness does not mean that we are great people; instead, greatness is found by being obedient to a God who is great. For if we are obedient, we appear great because the greatness of God shines through us. The spiritual giants we look up to are the same. They are simply obedient to God. People like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Paul, and Ruth.

We can also see the value of the idea of love your neighbor. Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Naomi and Ruth were women of two different countries, in fact the Moabites, of which Ruth was a member of, were sworn enemies of Israel. Yet these two women were able to understand that they were still neighbors. And they didn’t just say this. They demonstrated it through acts of kindness. Do you want to reach people for Jesus Christ and his church? You can talk till you are blue in the face, but we know the truth that "actions speak louder than words." The good news of Christ's abiding presence in our lives will most assuredly be communicated by what we DO at least as much as by what we SAY. Loving our neighbor is the clearest way for that to happen.

We have no idea what Naomi might have said to Ruth about her God during the years they lived together in Moab. However, we do know what effect Naomi's life had upon her daughter-in-law: that marvelous affirmation, "Your God...MY God." And we know what marvelous effect Ruth’s life and faith had upon future generations of her family. We can leave a powerful legacy. May it be one of mutual commitment and concern for each other.

The lesson from their story applies to us all. Naomi accomplished something with her life that all of us should hope to accomplish. She influenced someone to follow her God. Naomi became the instrument of Ruth’s choice to make Naomi’s God her own.

Let us learn from Ruth and Naomi’s example of mutual commitment and concern for one another. Let us put into practice their example of common faith by reaching out to those we love. Every relationship has a powerful potential to influence others for the kingdom and your influence can begin today...right this rail. Come, pray, and ask for that influence, ask for the opportunity to influence others for Christ. Ruth had the incredible capacity to love others through her faithfulness to God. I encourage all of us to follow in her footsteps; to love each other; and not to be afraid to witness for Christ.

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