18th Sunday after Pentecost “Ventures, Paths and Perils”
October 9, 2022 Ruth 1:1-19a (cpr19)
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
In our liturgy, (our standard & historic order of worship), The Collect of The Day is a brief prayer that emphasizes a portion of the lessons for that Sunday. Many of those collects can be traced back hundreds of years. In today’s Collect, the opening line was – “Almighty God, you show mercy to your people in all their troubles.” In the OT reading, Naomi’s family had trouble; in the Epistle reading, Paul advises Timothy to face suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus; and in the Gospel, Jesus shows mercy on ten men troubled with leprosy. So then we also pray with the Collect that in our troubles, we will still recognize God’s goodness, and praise Him.
There is another historic little prayer called ‘The Collect for Guidance’, and it’s one I like very much. It prays like this: “Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, thru perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; thru Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.” This little prayer is fitting for many times in our lives, just as is was for Abraham & Sarah, for the Apostles, and the men & women followers of Jesus in the NT. A little prayer like this probably passed over the lips of Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth as changes came into their lives. Let’s consider those two women this morning.
We have not experienced a famine, but severe food scarcity is not uncommon in various places at times in our world. Whenever a famine pops up, people are on the move to seek available food. In the book of Ruth, that famine was during the time of the judges. This is after the time of Joshua, when The 12 Tribes of Israel are settled in the land of Canaan, but God has not yet brought the first King on the scene; that would be King Saul before King David. The time of Ruth was 1,200 yrs before Jesus is born. At that time, because of the famine, Elimelech and his family leave Bethlehem to live for a time in the foreign land of Moab; he has his wife, Naomi, and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. We’re told they were from ‘Bethlehem in Judah’.
It is ironic, or worth a chuckle, to note a few interesting facts. The name Bethlehem means ‘house of bread’ in Hebrew; but at this time, there’s no bread there. This was also thee ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ where the One who is the Bread of Life would later be born of the virgin Mary. It’s also funny that Elimelech takes his family to a country -Moab- who had refused to give bread & water to the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness in their area. And yet, that’s where this Israelite goes to find bread. As it turned out, Elimelech & his family did escape the famine, and stayed in Moab for ten years.
We might wonder if God’s hand was leading Elimelech to go to Moab, or if it was his own decision == just as we can wonder about the times we made decisions to go to live in this place or that place in our lives. Nevertheless, since Elimelech and his family kept the faith of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, so we can conclude that God was still with them (and us!), and was guiding them in their lives – even while away from their homeland.
During their time in Moab, the two sons married Moabite women; which was another odd & questionable choice. We read that the Israelites were forbidden to marry Canaanites, and warned -in general- against marrying wives who were not Israelites. This had nothing to do with ‘race’ or ethnicity, or what we call xenophobia; this was a very real concern to keep the Israelites from falling away from the true God to worship false gods. The Apostle Paul gives the same advise when he writes to the Corinthians saying believers should marry believers, & not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Too many Christians marry for ‘love’ first and ‘faith’ second; and then they are pressured away from the church & the Lord’s ways in order to keep peace at home.(& that’s not right!) So, it was a real danger that non-Israelite wives could lead their husbands astray; it was a danger that even wise king Solomon faced in his lifetime.
Ten years of life & work & living pass, and then we are made aware of God’s guiding hand in their story = altho we wonder if it is with blessing. Neither Mahlon nor Chilion had children = that was not considered a blessing; and then they & their father died in Moab, never getting back to Judah = also not considered a blessing. However, God did continue to preserve them with food and life until their death. So, there was no punishment here from God; their days came to an end, just as our days will come to an end. For the surviving family, this is a new trouble. Mother-Naomi is left with her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, three childless widows.
Naomi especially feels out of place in a foreign land. Then she heard that the famine had eased in Bethlehem; it said: ‘the Lord had visited His people and given them food.’ So, she decided to return to her hometown & relatives & friends. As we heard, Naomi advises her two daughters-in-law not to follow with her to Judah, but to stay in Moab. And there becomes a discussion involving human reason, and the meaning of marriage & family, involving faith itself, as well as the statutes of the Lord given thru the Law of Moses.
Naomi uses human logic and pleads using practical, earthly reasons. She knew God’s Law, the law of levirate marriage given in Deuteronomy. According to this law, if a man died, his brother would marry the wife, and the first son born would be considered to be the son of the brother who had died. But both Naomi’s sons had died, there was no brother to marry either daughter-in-law. Naomi herself was getting too old to remarry, and have more sons for these women to marry. Even if she did, it was impractical for them to wait for more boys to grow up. There was no earthly-marriage-reason for them to stay with her.
This was logical, even acceptable. Even if the young women would come with her, it was not very likely that they would be able to find husbands in Judah because they were not Israelites. Better that they stayed in Moab. On the other hand, Orpah and Ruth were also thinking reasonably & appropriately that they owed a certain real responsibility to their mother-in-law; they were all family, and that’s supposed to mean something more than mere logic.
Here we might think about how sad it is in our terrible & immoral cultures that important things get lost when marriage is not considered a gift & design of our Creator for all peoples & all cultures. To change or throw out God’s design, means people will jump in & out of marriage, thinking there’s no consequences = but there are. Family lines are blurred, confused & neglected. The good & proper roles of male & female are torn down, & the spiritual aspect of marriage is ruined, and the sacred value of children is aborted – destroyed.
Without practicing the qualities of that sacred vow to God, of loyalty & commitment, and upholding proper sexuality, there’s no trust that is built up to bless marriage & family, and no solid foundation for the next generation to build on. All of those male/female things, like husband/wife/children/family were given to man to show us aspects of who God is, and what this life is really about with Him. Without those things, we won’t have real & blessed life, and we won’t have a clear picture of who God is as Father, or how He graciously treats us as the Bride of Christ or as a child of God. Gender, marriage, sexuality, children, family = those all support faith & life with our Creator & Savior.
So, to ‘go’ or ‘not go’, and either could be okay. Orpah decides to return to Moab with Naomi’s blessing to find fulfilment with her family of origin, and with another husband & household. But Ruth refuses to leave. Her life with Naomi & family had changed her. Earlier, both women had said to Naomi, “We will return with you to your people.” But now Ruth says “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Ruth makes a confession of faith. She was not born an Israelite, but by the grace of God, she was brought into God’s people; not simply by a legal earthly marriage, but more by an adoption into a new family & new life = a family from the little town of Bethlehem of Judah. This family was part of the Hebrew people, the descendants of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob, with the God who had brought His enslaved people out of mighty Egypt with a mightier hand and an outstretched arm.
Ruth declares that the hand of the true God had called her to ventures – unseen, by paths yet untrodden, and thru some perils & changes in life. Naomi & family had a God and a faith she didn’t grow up with. They had covenants & promises & hopes & a future that the false gods of Moab couldn’t make. So, even if going with Naomi to Judah meant that Ruth would not be seen as an acceptable wife, and even if she would remain childless, she was not willing to gain those earthly things by leaving God’s family and throwing away the heavenly eternal things. So, Ruth makes this rather famous profession of loyalty, from a daughter-n-law to her mother-in-law == even tho we often use it to encourage the marriage vow between a man and a woman. Yet this is more than a declaration of human loyalty; it is a Spirit-led confession of faith of a believing soul.
16 But Ruth said, “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. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
And in the same way that God’s hand guided Ruth away from Moab and toward Judah,
God Is Ever with Us on Paths as Yet Untrodden.
God’s used the presence of Elimelech’s family in Moab to bring Ruth & Orpah into contact with Himself and with true life. In Ruth’s case, it meant a forever family in the kingdom of God. Our reading ends with the two arriving at Bethlehem. For Naomi, God’s hand would be leading her in an unseen venture of being an older widow; not the easiest path in life, but God’s love was promised for her support. For Ruth, God’s hand would also be leading her as a young widow and a foreigner; but her courage was in His promises to be her loyal God, no matter what.
That’s as far as our OT lesson takes us. But, I should summarize what happens next, because it -too- illustrates to our lives how gracious, loyal & guiding God is for the people brought into His family = and that means you & me. The Law of Moses stated that the land assigned to a family-clan would remain in that family. So, even if that land changed hands now & then, it could still be redeemed back into that family by a close male relative. Ruth was part of the family of Elimelech thru marriage; but her land was in danger of being lost because her husband Mahlon was dead. The guiding hand of God brings Boaz into the picture. He not only redeemed the land, but also redeemed Ruth, by marrying her so that she remained in the family. Boaz and Ruth would become the great-grandparents of King David, and therefore the ancestors of Jesus – the Christ.
A non-Israelite, childless widow becomes an ancestor of Jesus. Who could ever see the blessed ending like that of those various perils, paths & ventures == who, except God Himself. You & I are not Ruth or Boaz, or Naomi or Elimelech, but the promises made to them, along with their reliance & hope in God’s watchful eye and guiding hand, those also belong to us. We have been adopted into God’s family by the Redeemer Jesus, & the redeeming waters of Holy Baptism, and thru the faithful witness of those around us. By His grace & Spirit, we are called children of God = and that is what we are, says 1John 3.
This history & story involving Naomi & Ruth is not just a nice little tale of two women. It’s a vivid picture of who our Creator is for all people, all nations & tribes & languages. It is a lesson of how God pays His kind attention to those who fear, love & trust in Him above all things. It’s an example, one of many in Scripture, that shows the high vantage point that God has over our lives so that we will have courage every day when it looks like our life is aimless, pointless, and that no one is paying attention to our troubles. God shepherds His people; He always has; He always will. And we can have that courage every day until His hand leads us all the way to our heavenly home. Amen.