Summary: This sermon is about Ruth and Naomi's wilderness experience through death and loss
In Need of a Redeemer
When you hear the word wilderness, some of your may think about the barren landscape of the desert, others the swamp or the jungle far removed from any human being. For the Israelites, they thought of the Judean wilderness, a barren place of very little water or food, filled with dangerous animals and steep slopes as far as the eye could see. This was a place where people ran to escape those who were seeking to harm them. Thus, it was a place of refuge. It was also a place to seek God. In the barrenness, silence and solitude, people came to the wilderness to seek and to hear God’s voice. Because of its harsh conditions, the Judean wilderness for the Jewish people became a metaphor of the difficult, painful times in life. But it can also be a time of great blessing as well. Thomas Merton writes of Hebrew people’s time in the wilderness: “the desert was the region where the chosen people had wandered for 40 years cared for by God alone. They could have reached the promise land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love him in the wilderness and that they should always look back on the time in the desert as the idyllic time in their life with him alone.”
The Book of Ruth is only four chapters long and as a result, you may have overlooked it. But it tells the story of two women, a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law and their journey through the wilderness of death. The story begins with the Elimelek and his wife Naomi moving from Bethlehem which is in the midst of a famine to Moab. They have two sons who marry Moabites women. In the first few verses of this book, we see that not only does Elimelek die but so do two his sons. These women now have no one to provide or care for them. At that time, this was a life of guaranteed poverty and starvation because women could not work or own property. In what seemed to be a series of events conspiring against Naomi, her entire world is turned upside down. The key word for the Book of Ruth is turn. The word ‘turn’ is important as it or some derivative of it like ‘return’ is used more than 50 times in the book of Ruth. What the Scriptures seem to be saying to us is that not only do the wilderness moments represent a turn of events but they will spark a turn of us, either to God or away from God, either to our loved ones and friends or away from them. And that is exactly what happens to Ruth and Naomi. Naomi tells her daughter-in-laws to go back to their maternal homes in the hope that their families would take them in and they could start life over again. This was really their only hope for survival. One daughter-in-law goes back to her family but the other, Ruth, says, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” Refusing to leave Naomi, these two women head on a journey to Israel.
There are several things we learn about the wilderness experience. First, it can lead us to blame God. It had only been 10 years since Naomi had left, yet the change was noticeable. She had left married and came back widowed, had left energized but came back weary. Granted, she had more gray hair and wrinkles but the biggest change was her attitude. Her family sees her and calls out by name, “Look, there’s Naomi!” She responds, “’Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara (The name Naomi in the Hebrew language means pleasant and the name Mara means Bitter), Call me Mara because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.’” Now names in Biblical times had meaning. They were who you were and who you would become. So Naomi is saying bitter is who she has become as a result of her losses and she blames God.
Second, many times the events that lead to wilderness experiences are beyond our control. You can't control when someone is going to die, or when a famine is going to come. Sometimes, the wilderness is the result of circumstances beyond our control. This can lead to an even greater sense of helplessness because you can almost feel like you have no control. Have you been there, when the events of life seem to conspire against you and your world is turned upside down and you feel as if you are at the whims of the world? It could be through the loss of a loved one through death, a divorce, the loss of a job or a home or even a close friend.