17th Sunday after Pentecost “Laments and Promises”
September 24, 2023 Ruth 1
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
Do you know the word ‘lament’ ? ‘to lament’ is to express grief or sorrow; ‘a lament’ might be /a statement, /or a song, /or a poem that expresses anguish, misery or sadness. In the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah expresses the distress & misery of Judah as the Lord pours out His anger over their unbelief & sinful ways.
In these Sundays before Reformation Day, we’re going to take a look at the 4 chapters of the Book of Ruth. In Ruth’s story, we’re going to hear of the foundational HOPE that carries us thru our times of lament. In Ruth herself, we see a ‘type’ of Christ; that is, her life & her actions show us a parallel to the work & the good news of Jesus Christ for us; for our salvation, hope & peace.
So, to begin, let me read a shortened version of chapt.1 of the Book of Ruth.
Ruth 1 NIV (partly paraphrased)
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion.
3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons.
4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. 6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return to the land of Judah from there.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘now you two go back to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.’ 14 At this they wept aloud. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.
15 “Naomi said to her: ‘see, your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods.
Go back with her.’ 16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me severely if anything but death separates you and me.”
18 When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.
19 So the two women went on. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the women exclaimed, “Can this be Naomi?” 20 “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” 22 So Naomi returned from Moab, accompanied by Ruth -the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.
Naomi was bitter; and no wonder! In ten short years, she had lost virtually everything. However, despite the tragedy, she was not completely empty-handed. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, had relinquished her birth-family, her homeland, & even her country’s gods & culture – to join Naomi in Bethlehem. Still, even with such a loyal companion, Naomi lamented to her people that she was as bitter as the undrinkable water at ‘Marah’ when Israel was wandering around the Sinai desert.
This historical account of Ruth & Naomi helps us to see that, even tho Ruth’s promise to her mother-in-law was sincere, yet our promises are rather fragile because we can’t predict the future;
& we don’t always keep our promises. However, God’s promises to us in Christ are as solid as a rock. One of His promises is this: ‘in Christ, God will hear our laments.’
Laments come at the most inconvenient times. You’ve heard of ‘Murphy’s Law’, right? It says: ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.’ In this fallen creation, Murphy’s Law seems pretty true. When you absolutely have to get somewhere on time, that’s when you’ll have a flat tire. ‘Mrs.Murphy’s Law’ seems just as true: ‘anything that can go wrong will go wrong while Mr.Mruphy is out of town.’ So, laments come at the most inconvenient times.
For example: You run into a friend at the store. You’re in a rush to get home & make dinner. But your friend unloads a whole long list of frustrations, struggles, & fears. You truly care & want to help, but this really isn’t the time or place. You listen attentively, even tho you get a little irritated as they get more emotional, & even angry at God. Then finally, after your friend gets it all out, there’s a big sigh, and they say: ‘Whoa! I’m glad I ran into you. I feel so much better! Thank you.” As you go your separate ways, you wonder, “What did I do? I didn’t even get a word in.” Well, the thank you was due to something we all need – at times: a listening ear for a lament.
Naomi needed to lament because bitterness was suffocating her. Ten years earlier she’d left her hometown, Bethlehem, with everything she had, and moved to a foreign land to find relief from a famine. Suddenly her husband died.
The family tries to get reestablished to a ‘new normal’, so her sons get married, but to foreign women, and things go okay for 10 yrs; but then the two sons died. Naomi has now lost virtually everything: her genealogy, her support system, and a major part of her Hebrew identity.
She determines she needs to trudge back to the very beginning as an empty shell. However, as she trudges, HOPE is found in a rather unlikely place. It doesn’t really register right away; but there was hope. Ruth boldly & sacrificially stuck with her mother-in-law – with those words we often & rightly reserve for a spouse: “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. Nothing will separate you & me.”
This is as powerful as Martin Luther’s ‘here I stand’ moment. Naomi’s life is not empty! Ruth’s heroic confession & vow should mean that Naomi can return to Bethlehem with some confidence, buoyed up by Ruth’s unwavering support. But bitterness has a tough root. As she arrives in town, even with this loving daughter-in-law at her side, Naomi says: “Call me ‘marah’; I left full but return empty. The Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”
There may have been times when you have been in Naomi’s place. Even when your mind can point to the various blessings around you, your inner spirit wants to focus on the bitterness. We can feel the weight of the brokenness on this life. I mean, how can things be so unfair at times? We so relied on that person & now they’re not here; and everyone knows children are not supposed to die before the parents; and why do the wicked prosper & the godly suffer? The world & the devil love to have us lose sight of hope. And out of our heart & mouth come bitter words.
How do Naomi’s words make Ruth feel? If I was Ruth, I might be thinking: ‘what am I, chopped liver? I gave up everything to be with you, and now you’re saying you’re returning empty? Thanks a lot, mom!” Yet, this situation isn’t all that uncommon. A person suffocating in tragedy or sorrow often doesn’t realize how their words are landing in the ears of those who love them. To her credit, Ruth does not respond; she just listens. Maybe there were other conversations; but Naomi was allowed to air out her thoughts, and was given a listening ear.
There is a view =a good view= that this lamenting – that can result in bitter feelings & sour words, is actually a gift with a purpose.
The Lord gave Naomi the gift of lament: which is the opportunity to complain & speak her mind when grieving, and say with Psalm 3: “O Lord, how many are my foes!” Or with Ps.123: ‘my soul has had more than enough.’ Or Ps.69: “I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” Along with the whole Book of Lamentations, there are 61 psalms we have to help God’s people lament to Him in a proper way.
With those Scripture to help us lament, you & I also have a source of teaching for us to learn how to faithfully listen to our lamenting friends & family, even when they’re not saying words that are very nice or proper. Our God, who loves us, promises to listen to the prayers & cries of His people.
Ps.121 says He never slumbers or sleeps; He is always awake to listen. He is not offended by our complaints; He IS offended when we give up on Him, or refuse to talk to Him. The gift to lament is one of the promises that establishes in us a HOPE that nothing in all creation can take away. That hope stands on the promise that our Father’s ear is always open.
One of the best examples of allowing lament is in the Book of Job. When Job had lost almost everything, his three closest friends came to comfort him. At first, they were the model of godly friendship. They spent 7 days in silence as they saw that his suffering was great. They patiently waited while Job grieved, letting him lament, to ‘get it all out.’ That was very helpful, . . . until they started talking & trying to give their not-so-great advice.
How many times have we spent 7 minutes in silence with someone, let alone 7 days? If times of lament are a gift from God, or if you don’t like the word ‘gift’ here == if those times have a ‘spiritual purpose’ from God, then we will not want to deny someone that benefit. We will often be tempted to talk instead of listen; and tempted to offer our positive spin on their situation instead of letting them get out all of their bitterness. We can allow lamenting because we believe the promise that the hope of the Lord, & the Spirit behind their faith, is stronger than any bitterness.
Jesus understood lamenting. Not only does God-the-Son listen to it, but He also did it. He lamented for you. Jesus lamented in the garden, “Let this cup pass from me.” (cf Lk 22:42). That was your cup and mine; the cup of God’s wrath over our sin that we deserved, He drank that cup. He lamented on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Instead of us feeling the weight of God forsaking us, ‘God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us so that we might have he righteousness of God.’ And all those psalms were written especially for suffering Jesus to use in His work for us.
Naomi was bitter, and she poured out her lament before God and everyone else. And when her lament was finished, she still had HOPE; she had Ruth, who had suffered with her & forsaken her own godless past to hold on to the God of Abraham/Isaac/Jacob. To Naomi, God gave and God took away; but He didn’t leave her empty. Eventually her faith saw that. God’s promise of Messiah was still hers.
If there was hope in Bethlehem for Naomi & Ruth, there certainly is hope for you from Bethlehem. Even within the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah was still given that seed of hope. He wrote: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lam 3:22–23).
Our hope is guaranteed in the promises of the Babe of Bethlehem. We hear Christ in Ruth’s words. Where we go = He goes with us; where we lodge = He stays with us. Our faith-family is His family; He is our God. And when we die, we rest in His promise that He has already been in the tomb for us. And we will rise & live because He rose & is living. Jesus has not left us empty; He has filled us with those good things. And nothing can separate us from Him and His loyal love.
When you need to lament, go to the psalms & lament away. The Lord is listening, & He can handle it. He can also handle others in their bitter cries; can you handle others when they lament?
Ask Him to help you to be patient & listen. And pray that the hope of Christ will quickly return
and rest upon them as it has for us.