From the House of Bread to the World and Back
Ruth 1:6-22; Hebrews 12:7-11; James 4:13-14
February 21, 2016 • Download this sermon (PDF)
Beloved congregation of Christ: In Chapter 4 of his letter, the Apostle James warns Christians about making decisions in life without regard for the Lord’s will. He says that too often, our decisions are based primarily on our material pursuit. He cautions, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit.’”
Looking for financial security is not wrong in itself, but our plans should not be made without considering how it affects our life as Christians. Many Christians often talk about “greener pastures” when deciding to accept a job offer in another city, without exploring how their spiritual lives will be affected in their new location.
Something very similar to this happened to Elimelech, the husband of Naomi. He made a decision to uproot his family from Bethlehem during a famine in the land of Judah. What would he do to make sure his family does not starve? He went to Moab, a distant foreign land, where there was plenty of food. But as it turns out in the first five verses, Naomi’s cup turned from full to empty, from sweet to bitter. But in the midst of this bitterness and emptiness, there is a strong confession of faith from Ruth, the main character, Naomi’s daughter-in-law.
Today, our theme is, “From the House of Bread into the World and Back,” under three headings: first, From Sweetness to Bitterness; second, From Fullness to Emptiness; and third, Confessing Faith in the Midst of Bitterness and Emptiness.
From Sweetness to Bitterness
In the first five verses, there is a very brief summary of the life of Elimelech and his family aft in Moab. They lived in Bethlehem, and while they had an abundance of food and other resources there, they stayed. But when famine struck the land, Bethlehem turned from its meaning, “House of Bread,” into a “House of Hunger.”
When God made a covenant with Israel through Moses centuries earlier, covenant blessings and curses were stipulated according to Israel’s obedience or disobedience to God’s law. In addition to defeat and slavery under foreign nations, the Lord will send drought and famine on the people for their rebellion (Deu 28:17-18, 22-24). Until they repent, they will suffer these curses. Surely, Israel knew this, especially “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). The Book of Judges tell of Israel’s unending cycle of rebellion, judgment, repentance, return of God’s blessings under a deliverer, then rebellion and back to the same cycle. But the nation’s rebellion against became an increasingly downward spiral for both the people and the deliverer. The last deliverer, Samson, was himself a notorious rebel, only turning back to God after he was captured and blinded by the Philistines.
Elimelech had two choices. One, be true to his name, which means “my God is King,” and remain in Judah, repent with all the people, turn back to God for forgiveness, and trust God for provisions. Two, leave for the “greener pastures” in Moab where there is plenty of food. He chose the latter, not thinking that God is true to his covenant stipulations. Dire consequences follow disobedience. God had called Israel to live in the Promised Land, and in Elimelech’s case, in Bethlehem.
But he overruled God’s call in return for Moab, a land of plenty, but hostile to Israel and to Israel’s God. He should have know that Moab came from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his older daughter after Sodom was destroyed by God (Gen 19:36-37). Why was Lot living in the wicked city of Sodom? In Genesis 13, Lot made a choice that would have lifelong consequences. Lot chose to live in the Jordan Valley, which was “well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.” So he settled in the city of Sodom, whose people “were wicked, great sinners against the LORD” (Gen 13:11-13). He knew this state of affairs in Sodom, but chose a place “like the land of Egypt,” where he planned to prosper. The rebellious world beckoned him, “Come, live here. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die.” And this really happened to all the people of Sodom, except to Lot and his two daughters.
Like Lot, Elimelech made a similar choice to live among “wicked, great sinners against the Lord” in Moab. Which choice will you make? Often, especially in their younger days, most people make choices based only on the prospect of comfort, material gain, and security. Christians young and old are not exempt from these choices. Many of our children, even when we have raised them in the nurture and discipline of the Lord in our homes and churches, make wrong choices. And these choices change the rest of their lives, for good or bad.
So the Lord reminded Naomi of Elimelech’s wrong choice. Elimelech died, and later, her two sons also died. The two sons also made wrong choices: they married Moabite women, violating the law against marrying outside of the people of Israel (Deu 7:3-4). A consequence of her sons’ violation of this law is that God closed the wombs of their Moabite wives. Naomi was left alone without any son to perpetuate the line of her husband.
What would Naomi’s choice be in her desperate situation? Stay in Moab and remarry, surely a Moabite? That would be a very slim possibility, for she was already old (verse 12). Go back to her hometown in Bethlehem as a poor widow, without her husband and her two sons? Swallowing her pride, she made the right choice: she decided to return to the Promised Land with Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law.
This state of her life’s affairs was a bitter pill to swallow for Naomi. Twice she stated her bitterness. In verses 8-13, she was trying to persuade her two daughters-in-law to go back to their own families where they would find husbands to care for them. And then she said, “it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the LORD has gone out against me.” She sees her condition as God’s punishment against her disobedience. In verse 20, she again believes that God was punishing her after she arrived back in Bethlehem, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” Her name Naomi has lost its meaning to her, for it means “pleasant.” Her circumstances is now bitter, not pleasant or sweet. The sweetness of life has left her, and instead left her with a bitter taste. She remembered the place in the wilderness the Israelites called “Marah,” because the water there was bitter and they could not drink it (Exo 15:23).
Naomi thinks that God was angry at her for abandoning the Promised Land, for not trusting him for provisions. But even though it was her husband’s decision to leave Judah, still Naomi did not return after he died. She stayed in Moab with her two sons and their wives ten years after Elimelech died. Instead of returning to Judah after his death, she chose to stay, so her two sons married Moabite women instead of Israelite women. Most of us, and most of the time, we are like Naomi when we make choices that are more convenient and materially attractive. When we dwell in prosperity, even outside of God’s will, it is hard to make changes that would threaten that prosperity. Why leave a high-paying job, even if the boss tells you to cook the books? Why accept a good job in a place where there is no faithful church, or worse, where churches are banned?
Elimelech made the wrong choice. Naomi then followed with another wrong decision, even after God turned her sweet life into bitterness, a sure sign that God wanted her to return.
From Fullness to Emptiness
Not only did Naomi realize that her life turned from sweet to bitter; she also recognized that her cup which was full became empty. In verse 21, she says, “I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.” She used to have a husband and two sons, and their life was “full,” prosperous and going well. The plan was for the two sons to have wives and many children, their household full of laughing children, playing in the fields, growing up to be strong men and beautiful women.
It is interesting that the word Naomi uses for her former situation as being “full” is the same word used in Ecclesiastes 11:5 for “a woman with child.” In Matthew 1:18, Mary the virgin is found to be “with child,” the same word used in the Greek translation of Ecclesiastes 11:5. So a “full” life does not only mean that the Lord has blessed her greatly (Deu 33:23), but also includes the blessedness of many children, “Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them” (Psa 127:5).
But all these plans came crashing down on Naomi, because they were conceived without considering God’s will. So when she arrived back in Bethlehem, and the people asked, “Is this Naomi?”, she told them, “Why call me Naomi, when the LORD has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” She is convinced that because of her sin, God has made her a widow, poor, and without a child to perpetuate her husband’s name. She is like the Israelites, who under God’s judgment, suffer drought, and “they find no water; they return with their vessels empty.” So like them, Naomi returned to her people “ashamed and confounded and [she covers her head]” (Jer 14:3).
Confessing Faith in the Midst of Bitterness and Emptiness
At last, the Spirit of God stirred Naomi to swallow the bitter pill and drink the empty cup of returning to the Promised Land. There were only two events in the Book of Ruth where God is said to have directly acted. One is in verse 6 when Naomi decided to go back, because “the Lord had visited his people and given them food.” The other is in 4:13, when “the Lord gave her [Ruth] conception, and she bore a son.”
Naomi told Orpah and Ruth that she has no future in Moab, and that they should go back to their parents’ homes. In Moab, they will surely remarry and be secure. What would be their future in Israel, where they will be foreigners among strangers who worship a strange God? Surely no man in Bethlehem would be willing to marry women from Moab, a long-time enemy. So Orpah, who loved her mother-in-law, went away in tears. But Ruth? “Ruth clung to her.” Here, the word for “clung” is the same word used in the marriage covenant bond in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast (cleave, cling) to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
In the midst of her brokenness, bitterness and emptiness, Naomi heard words of loyalty and faith from Ruth: “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried.” Don’t these words remind us of the traditional marriage vow: for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in heath, till death do us part? Like a man and a woman in a wedding ceremony, Ruth is committing her whole life to Naomi, willing to move out of her own country to Naomi’s country.
Not only is she choosing to faithfully go and stay with Naomi, she is also choosing to believe and worship Naomi’s God, the God of Israel. To leave her own family and her own gods in Moab is a life-changing decision. She would be shunned by her own family and by her own people. She does not even know how she would be received in Israel, and at first, she was not well-received. When the two women arrived, Naomi’s neighbors asked, “Is this Naomi?” as if Ruth did not even exist. They just ignored this Moabite stranger.
This last week, one of the greatest boxers of our time, Manny Pacquiao, raised a huge controversy in the Philippines and around the world. In a TV interview, he was asked about his view on homosexuality. He said that homosexual relationships are sinful, that these relationships are worse than animal behavior, and he is only stating what the Bible says, not his own opinion. As a result, Nike, and probably other companies, dropped him from their sponsorship, costing him millions. He later apologized for saying that homosexuals are worse than animals, but stood firm in his view that homosexual relationships are sinful.
This is not an endorsement of Pacquiao for senator, or any other candidate. Political involvement is not the mission of the church. But just as Ruth did, Pacquiao renounced his former life of womanizing, gambling, and heavy drinking. 1 He committed to cling to God’s covenant people as his own adopted family. He committed to the God of the Bible, even if it would cost him money, fame, and respect. He has been ridiculed by many politicians, sportswriters, other athletes, and celebrities for standing by his faith in Christ. But just as Joshua said, he says, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh 24:15). 2
Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, what is your commitment? Are you committed to our God, no matter if it costs you your family, friends, money, acceptance, and if it invites ridicule and persecution? Some people confess Christ at the cost of their own lives, like those in the Middle East, and in the shootings in Columbine and Roseburg.
And what is your confession of faith? Is it merely confessing Christ with your mouth, but not with your deeds? Are you committed to worshiping God together with his covenant people every Lord’s Day? Are you committed to attending the Sunday school, Bible studies, and prayer meetings faithfully, and on time? Are you hesitating to become a member of this church, committing to its doctrines, worship and practice? Are you committed to doing good to those who are in the household of faith? Are you committed to confessing Christ to the Moabites around you, and inviting them to our worship services and Bible studies?
Sometimes our priorities in life become more precious to us than Christ, and they are taking his place. And what does God sometimes do to stir us? In Naomi’s case, he took all the sweetness and fullness of life in Moab away. Only then did she recognize that she had to return to the God of Israel, and to his promises. God then restored her to full communion with him.
To those of you whose desire is a life of worldly pursuits without God, go and remain where Christ is. For only where Christ is, there is sweetness and fullness of life. His words are sweeter than honey and much more desirable than gold (Psa 19:10). He promises you more than “greener pastures,” but “pleasures forevermore”: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psa 16:11). Our Lord Jesus Christ desires that you will “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). In Christ, your lives will be transformed from bitterness to sweetness, and from emptiness to fullness.
Jesus promises you the comforting words of Ruth. He goes wherever you go, and he lodges where you lodge. In fact, he is Immanuel, God with you, to dwell with you after he left his glorious existence in heaven. He clings to you even in the midst of your brokenness, bitterness and emptiness. Your people, the church, is his people. Your heavenly Father is his own Father. He died on the cross so you may also die to your sinful nature. And he was raised from the grave, so that you too will be raised from the grave, and dwell with him in life eternal.