Sermon 09-21-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 7: Ruth”

October 2, 2014

superhero graphic

Sermon Text: Ruth 1:1-18; 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Ruth’s radical commitment to Naomi and her God is the same kind of commitment that should characterize our relationship with both our spouse and with Jesus Christ. In other words, our love should be unconditional—the way Jesus loves us. I hope this sermon helps inspire us to love in this same way!

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Twenty-one years ago, I married into a very interesting family. My father-in-law’s side of the family is Italian. Lisa’s grandparents on that side were first-generation Italian-Americans. Well, sort of… Lisa’s grandfather, Frank Blancato, whom we called Nonno, was actually born in America—in Omaha, Nebraska, of all places—after his own parents immigrated here, coming through Ellis Island, along with so many other immigrants from southern Europe, in the early 20th century.

Times got tough in America, however. Nonno’s parents were having trouble making ends meet. They heard about opportunities back home in Italy, so when Nonno was just a young boy, he and his family returned to Sicily, where he grew up, was educated, and eventually graduated from college.

Then a little thing called fascism happened. Mussolini happened. One of the great stories that Nonno told was about that time when he was in college, and he was part of a traveling soccer team. They had an important match in another city. When they arrived in the city the day before the match, he and a few of his teammates were gathered on a street corner to discuss strategy for victory. While they were standing there, a police officer came up to them and explained that Mussolini had made it illegal for more than two people to gather together in public—out of fear that they would be conspiring against the government. So Nonno and his teammates weren’t allowed to stand there.

Nonno thought that was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard, and he told the cop to shove off, that they were talking about soccer anyway, not overthrowing the government. The cop didn’t like that one bit, and he arrested Nonno and took him to police headquarters. “Before you lock me up,” Nonno said, “I’d like to call the American consulate. I’d like to speak to my consul.” And the police officer in charge said, “What are you talking about? Your name is Blancato! You’re Italian.” He said, “No, I’m an American! Because I was born in America.” And so they released him.

It was around that time that Nonno resolved to return home, to America. Because, as difficult as life in America was during the Great Depression, it was even harder in Italy under Mussolini. But after a series of twists and turns, Nonno eventually made it back here.

Nonno’s story isn’t entirely different from Naomi’s story. Her family—including her husband, Elimelech, and her two sons—left their home in Bethlehem when times got tough there because they’d heard about better prospects in a country on the other side of the Dead Sea called Moab. This must have been a difficult decision, because it meant abandoning their home and their land in Israel. Plus the Moabites were enemies of Israel, a pagan people who worshiped a different god. But Elimelech was doing what he thought was best.

Like Nonno in Italy, however, life for Elimelech and his family in this other country wasn’t proving any easier. Elimelech died. His two sons married Moabite women, and they also died. So Naomi was left alone in a country that was not her home. Meanwhile, she’d heard that back home, in Bethlehem, the Lord had ended the famine and given his people food. Naomi felt incredibly alone.

But she wasn’t completely alone. She had two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

By the way, there’s a famous celebrity who was named after Orpah—perhaps the only person in the history of the world who was named after Orpah. Except people kept mispronouncing the child’s name, until eventually her parents changed her name to “Oprah,” and the rest is history.

But these two daughters-in-law wanted to stay with Naomi and return with her to her native country, Israel, but Naomi insists that they stay in Moab. And it’s hard to argue with her logic: She tells her daughters-in-law that even if Naomi met and married a man and got pregnant with sons today, what are they supposed to do? Wait around until the boys grow up, so she can give them new husbands? And without husbands to support them, they will have an exceedingly difficult time making ends meet—whether they live in Moab or in Israel.

Reluctantly, Orpah agrees to leave, but not Ruth. And Ruth speaks the following words to Naomi that you’ve probably heard quoted at weddings—because the kind of commitment that Ruth makes to her mother-in-law is the same kind commitment that husbands and wives ought to make to one another: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. 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.”[1] Then, she says, “May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

What if we said that last part at weddings! “May God strike me down if anything other than death separates me from this person I’m marrying!” If we said that and meant it, do you think the divorce rate would be lower?

While we’re on the subject, there’s actually an important insight here about marriage that I want to share. Let’s notice first what Naomi says. One reason that Naomi urges Ruth and Orpah to leave her is because, she says, “the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” In other words, because she’s lost nearly everything, she, like Job before her, interprets this as God’s punishment. But that’s not true in either her case or Job’s case. Bad stuff happens sometimes, and when it does, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is punishing us—God is using it to accomplish his good purposes; God is using it to help us learn and grow; it’s happening for a reason; but that reason isn’t necessarily because God is punishing us. Naomi doesn’t see it that way, however… At least not yet.

But… what she’s really saying to Ruth is: “Look: If you hitch your wagon to my star, you’ve got nothing but trouble coming your way. I have no prospects. When I look into my future all I see is trouble and tears and heartache. I have no future. But you’re not like me. You’re young, you’re beautiful. You can marry again. You can have kids. Are you sure you want to be stuck with me? No one in the world will blame you—least of all me—if you walk away.”

This reminds me of a couple whose wedding I performed years ago. This young man, the groom, had a lot trouble in his past—he had been physically abused by his parents; he suffered from clinical depression; because of all these very real emotional and psychological problems he had a difficult time finding and keeping a job. I was heartbroken for the young man, because all these bad things had happened to him, over which he had little or no control. So all this stuff about his past came to light as I was counseling the couple before the wedding. And I took turns looking both of them in the eye, and I said, with complete candor, “This stuff we’re talking about—you know it’s going to make the prospects for a successful marriage much, much more difficult. You know that, right?” I guess I was mostly directing these words to the bride. Like Naomi, I was reminding her, in so many words, “You know you can do better than this… You know you have other prospects. You know you can have a better future with someone else.”

And as I was saying this, the young woman was in tears. But she looked at me and said, “I know… you’re right. But I love him, and I’m going to stick with him, no matter what. That’s my choice, and I hope you’ll still marry us.”

What could I say to that? I was deeply moved. And I did marry them. I hope they’re still married today.

We promise God, we promise the church, and we promise one another at our wedding that we will stick to one another “for better and for worse.” But let’s face it: mostly we’re counting on the better and not the worse part to happen. What’s amazing about Ruth’s commitment—her stubborn love for her mother-in-law—is that she has no reason to expect anything other than the worst to happen. Why? Because remember: she’s a Moabite. Moab’s god was not the one true God, Yahweh. Therefore everything she knows about Yahweh, she learned from Naomi and her family. So when Naomi says that Yahweh’s hand has turned against her, what reason would Ruth have to doubt her? Ruth has no theological reason to believe that things are going to get better. Yet she still wants to stick with Naomi!

What a remarkable commitment!

And you know what? It’s the same kind of commitment that Jesus demonstrates toward us. Remember Ephesians 5: the apostle Paul compares our relationship with Christ to a marriage. He says that the love that Jesus has for us is like the love that characterizes the love between husband and wife: Just as a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the “two shall become one flesh,” so Christ left his Father in heaven, became one flesh with us, and clings to us. And he loves us with a love from which nothing can separate us—“neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.”[2] Truly, Christ loves us “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health,” except—let’s be honest—in our case, he’s mostly doing it for worse rather than better for poorer rather than richer… and in our spiritual sickness rather than in our spiritual health!

And this is the logic behind our sticking with our spouse in marriage come hell or high water. Because Christ did the same for us!

Pastor and author Tim Keller puts it well in his book on marriage: He said that if you’re married and you’re going through a dry spell, and you’re not feeling the love, and you’re not feeling in love, and you’re not feeling attracted to your spouse, and you don’t feel affectionate toward your spouse, and maybe you feel like throwing in the towel, calling it quits, giving up, you need to tell yourself something like this:

“Well, when Jesus looked down from the cross, he didn’t think, ‘I am giving myself to you because you are so attractive to me.’ No, he was in agony, and he looked down at us—denying him, abandoning him, and betraying him—and in the greatest act of love in history, he stayed. He said, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ He loved us, not because we were lovely to him, but to make us lovely. That is why I am going to love my spouse.”

“Speak to your heart like that,” Keller says, “and then fulfill the promises you made on your wedding day.”[3]

Maybe even right now you’re tempted to leave your spouse—either by separation and divorce, or through the spiritual and emotional abandonment of adultery. Maybe you can list a hundred perfectly understandable reasons why you should do it. Brothers and sisters, if you’re feeling that way right now, tell yourself this truth: by rights, Jesus should have called upon God’s army of angels to take him down from the cross, to avoid suffering the agony of hell for my sins; by rights, he should have left me in my sins; by rights, even after I accepted his gift of salvation and supposedly followed him as Lord of my life, he should have left me a thousand times over because of my constant unfaithfulness to him.

And now, when he tells me that my love for my spouse should look like his love for me, how could I think of leaving?

So this is the kind of commitment that we should have to our spouses. And guess what? This is the kind of commitment we should have to our Savior! A kind of love without conditions. Remember the Rich Young Ruler: “I’ll follow you, Jesus, on the condition that I get to keep all my stuff… all my wealth.” Jesus said, “No, get rid of all that stuff and then follow me.” Or remember the man who said, “I’ll follow you Jesus, but first I have to go and bury my father.” Jesus said, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury the dead.”[4]

I love Ruth because she didn’t have any conditions on her love for the Lord. Even though she believed that he believed that the Lord’s hand was against her, she’d rather be faithful to the Lord and have trouble in her life than enjoy a prosperous and easy life without God.

Does our commitment to the Lord look like her commitment to the Lord?

A few years ago there was a masterpiece of a country song called “Anyway” by Martina McBride. In the song she talks about just how disappointing life can be: “You can spend your whole life building/ Something from nothin’/ One storm can come and blow it all away/ Build it anyway,” she sings. Likewise, she says our dreams often don’t turn out the way we planned; we often don’t get what we pray for; we sometimes lose the people we love with all our hearts.

The song could be written for Naomi. She lost everything. Her dreams didn’t come true. Her plans fell apart. Her prayers went unanswered. She lost the three people in her life whom she loved with all her heart.

What’s she supposed to do now?

Keep hoping anyway. Keep trusting anyway. Keep loving anyway. Keep believing anyway.

See, Naomi had some defective theology. When everything went wrong, she believed it must be because God was against her. But you know what? In chapter 2, she changes her theology. Ruth goes to glean for grain in a wealthy landowner’s field, who just happens to be a distant relative named Boaz. And Boaz likes Ruth. I mean, likes likes her. And he sends Ruth home with enough grain to feed her and her mother-in-law for a year!

And when Naomi finds out that this man was her cousin, who is in a position to rescue her and Ruth from poverty and restore the family name, well… She realizes something important: “Oh… God’s hand wasn’t against me after all! The Lord hasn’t forsaken me after all! He was actually on my side, loving me, this whole time!”

When you take to heart the message of the Book of Ruth, you begin to doubt that there really is such a thing as luck or coincidence. You begin to doubt that things happen merely by chance. God is only mentioned a few times in the book, but the truth is, he’s the main character, always working behind the scenes, always working in the smallest details of people’s lives, always working though the events of history.

I think about my own situation. I wouldn’t be standing here today in front of you, if not for Benito Mussolini. Thanks to him, my wife’s grandfather escaped Italy, came to America, had a son named Orlando, met a woman named Anna Lee, who had a child named Lisa. And Anna Lee was hired by the church I attended in college, which enabled me to meet Lisa… who ultimately encouraged me and made it possible for me to become a preacher.

Which goes to show that if you don’t like me as your pastor, you can blame Mussolini!

No… My point is, these are just a few of millions of coincidences and accidents and lucky breaks that brought me to this place to which the Lord has called me.

Except, when we understand what God’s Word is telling us, we see that they’re not merely coincidences, or accidents, or lucky breaks… They’re all a part of God’s plan.

And God’s plans for us are better than our plan for us. Amen? And God’s dreams for us are better than our dreams for us. Amen? Will you remember that when times are hard?

Let’s pray…

[1] Ruth 1:16-17a

[2] Romans 8:38-39 ESV

[3] Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 109.

[4] Matthew 8:21-22

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