Summary: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth – three women standing at a cross roads in life. One will find restoration, one will write herself out of God’s story, and one will journey down the road less travelled. Which road will you choose?

The Road Less Travelled - Ruth 1:3-18 - January 27, 2013

Series: From Heartache to Hope - The Redemption of Ruth - #2

Quite a number of years ago now, an author by the name of Robert Frost, penned a poem entitled, “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a poem that tells the story of a man, who, upon walking through the woods, comes to a fork in the road. It is a place of decision; a place of no return – a choice must be made for he cannot journey down both paths. Whichever road he chooses will lead him to new pathways, and new choices, and he will never stand again where he stands this day.

And life is like that, isn’t it? So often we come to a fork in the road, a place where we must choose one path over another, knowing full well that whatever choices we make, will have repercussions, good or bad, or some of both, that spill over into the rest of our lives. What school to go to? Which career to pursue? Whom shall we marry? And on and on it goes. And all we know for certain is, that having made that choice, having begun that journey, that from that moment on, certain doors will be forever shut, while others will open in their place.

The man in the poem knows this truth full well. So finally, making up his mind, he begins his journey down the road that fewer feet have trod upon. And he sums up his decision with these words in the concluding verses of the poem, saying: “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence: / Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - / I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference.” (Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken)

It has made all the difference indeed! And in our Scripture passage this morning we are going to see how the road less travelled by, is the road that Ruth journeys down, and how it is going to make all the difference in her life as well. So I invite you to open your Bibles with me this morning to the book of Ruth. Ruth chapter 1 and we’ll begin reading in verse 3. And as you’re turning there, let me remind you of what we discovered last week.

The book of Ruth begins during a time of hardship and spiritual apostasy amongst the people of Israel. There has been a turning away from the Lord and everyone does what seems right in his own eyes. In that sense it is very similar to what we see in our own day. There is little regard for God’s word and a pervasive sense that we as people, know better than God, which results in each one doing what they see fit, rather than doing that which is in keeping with God’s own heart.

In the opening verses of this book we meet a man, named Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon, and Kilion. They live in Bethlehem in Judah. Bethlehem translates as “House of Bread,” and Judah as “Praise.” But there is a famine in the land. A famine both of godliness and of food. As there has been no praise in the House of Bread, there is now no bread in the place of praise. So Elimelech, uproots his family, and travels to the land of Moab. In effect, he has turned his back on God and has gone to live in the land of God’s enemies. In his time of need, he whose name means, “My God is king,” runs to the world, rather than to God, to find deliverance. And again this is so often what we see in our own day as well – people running after the things of this world in their time of need, rather than turning to God and seeking Him in faith. And when we do that we discover, that which Elimelech, to his great sorrow and despair discovered as well: that we will not find that which we seek by running away from God. It is a path that ultimately leads to heartache and sorrow.

Scripture says that Elimelech went to live in the land of Moab for just “awhile.” But the truth is that Elimelech never came home. He died in the land of God’s enemies as did his two sons. They had fled the House of Bread in the place of Praise, to seek after that which the world had to offer them – but instead of finding what they longed for, in its place they found misery and grief. It is a heart wrenching story, but for that very reason it is a powerful warning to us, of what is likely to happen when we run from God, and seek satisfaction and life and deliverance in the things of this world, rather than in God Himself.

Now that is a dismal start to what eventually becomes a tremendous tale of redemption and hope. Naomi and her daughter’s-in-law, wracked with sorrow and grief, filled with despair and hopelessness at the way their lives have turned out, stand at a fork in the road, a place of decision. Maybe you’ve been there too. Whatever choices they make from here on in will shape all their days yet to come, and while they all stand at the same fork in the road, while they each are faced with the same choices, they will not all journey down the same path. So let’s begin reading in Ruth 1:3 and see what we will learn today, for it may be that you stand in a similar place of decision this morning.

“Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’s hand has gone out against me!” At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” 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. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.” (Ruth 1:3–18, NIV84)

Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth, stand in the place of decision. For Naomi, it has been a long time coming. She has walked a bitter road. She grew up in the Promised Land, she was of God’s chosen people. She’d known life in the House of Bread in the place of Praise. She’d known what it meant to live for God and to worship Him and she’d forsaken it all when she’d followed her husband to the land of God’s enemies. At the time it probably made sense: things were hard in Bethlehem – why not journey to Moab and enjoy the relative plenty there? The problem is that God’s people are called to live by faith and not by sight. In the time of need we are not to run to the world to find satisfaction but to turn to God.

Elimelech and Naomi chose wrongly when they placed physical need above spiritual life and it led to great tragedy for the family. In verse 13 she says it is “more bitter” for her, than for her daughter’s in law, for not only has she lost a husband, as had they, but she had lost two sons as well. And she sees God at work in this saying that it is because the “LORD’s hand has gone out against” her, that all this has taken place.

And it’s here, in these moments of Naomi’s story, that we learn a hard truth. Scripture tells us that God disciplines those He loves. In other words, when we have wandered away from God, God will use, or bring about, circumstances in our lives to get our attention and to try to turn our hearts back to Him. It’s a pattern we see again and again in the pages of God’s word. God’s people go their own way, God gives them time to repent and to turn to Him, when they persist in continuing as they have, He brings about, or uses, difficult circumstances in their lives to lead them to call out to Him once more.

At times God’s discipline may seem harsh – but there is always a purpose in it. Paul writes that “When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” (1 Corinthians 11:32, NIV84) And in Hebrews we read these words … “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:5–11, NIV84)

Naomi has experienced the pain and sorrow of God’s discipline, but it has not been wasted on her. And though her circumstances seem grim, ultimately they will produce a harvest of righteousness and peace in her life, for they have not left her unchanged. Verse 7 tells us that though she has been walking a bitter path for many years, now she is setting out on a new road - the road that will take her back to the land of her people, the road that will take her home to where she needs to be to experience God’s blessing. The road back to the House of Bread in the place of Praise; the road back to fellowship with God.

Naomi is as the Prodigal Son who, having fled his father’s house to run to the world, now returns broken and empty, but who is welcomed with open arms just the same. As such, hers is a story not just of heartache and sorrow, but one of healing and restoration, and so hers is a story of hope renewed.

And maybe today you find yourself, a child of God, living in the land of Moab. You’ve tried to find satisfaction, deliverance, life and hope in the world around you rather than in God Himself and perhaps you too know the sting of God’s discipline. If so, receive it as God intends it – a warning cry, a call of love, an invitation to return to Him before it is too late, for ultimately He disciplines us in love, for our own good, that we may share in His holiness and that a harvest of righteousness and peace may be brought forth in our lives. Return with all your heart to the place of Praise, once again seeking God with everything you are, and have, and ever hope to be!

The apostle Paul writes saying that “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10, NIV84) For years Naomi’s sorrow was the sorrow of the world – tears shed for loss and pain – but no change of heart. Now the sorrow runs deeper. It seeks God in its pain and she is moved to action. She has been walking the road of bitterness, now she will choose the road of restoration as she turns away from Moab and seeks out the place of praise.

Orpah, though she has walked a different road all the years of her life, she too stands at the place of decision with Naomi. She is a child of Moab through and through – and remember that Moab is as the world is to us today. She has gotten a taste of Naomi’s God, as the family has done life together over the years, but she has never broken with her past. And so when the pressure is on she returns to what she knows rather than to the God who would know her. In verse 15 we learn that she returns to her family and to her own gods. Despite what all she may have seen and heard of Israel’s God, her heart is still set on the gods of her own people. And so she turns back from the road she had started down with Naomi, the road that led to the place of praise, and she returns to the only reality she has ever known, and in doing so she disappears from God’s story.

Orpah’s story is the story of each and every one who looks into the things of God but who, for whatever reason, turns back to the only life they’ve ever known without having believed and received God’s grace. She turns her back on God’s light and never discovers the hope and the healing that she could have had in Him.

Now Ruth has walked the same road as Orpah for much of her life. She too is a daughter of Moab, a child of the world. She too marries into a family with, if not a vibrant faith, at least the remnants of a once more vital faith. As did Orpah, Ruth too, loses a husband and is left without hope or prospects in the land of her birth. But unlike Orpah she chooses the road less travelled – the road that will take her to a place she has never been before, a journey that will take her to the place of Praise. It’s a journey towards God and it’s a journey begun by faith.

Naomi has nothing to offer to Ruth and neither of them knows what the future is going to hold. The road less travelled is like that - filled with the unknown - yet Ruth decides to follow Naomi just the same. And I want you to hear again the commitment that Ruth is making. After Naomi has once again tried to discourage her from coming back to Judah, Ruth replies with these words: “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. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.” (Ruth 1:16–18, NIV84)

Ruth walks the Road of Repentance. The heart of Ruth’s commitment, is that from that day forward, Naomi’s people would become her people, and that Naomi’s God would become her God. For Ruth it is a complete identification with a new way of life, a new people and a new Lord – it’s a break that Orpah would not make, but one Ruth would not live without making.

It’s a complete break with the past. She leaves behind everything she has ever known – family, friends, familiarity - and throws herself into the unknown. Unlike Elimelech and Naomi who went to Moab because they were living by sight rather than by faith, Ruth is choosing to go to the place of praise, though she doesn’t know what waits for her there, because she is choosing to live by faith rather than by sight. She is going to the place of praise, to the land of God’s people, in order that she might know the one true God.

Her commitment is total and it is unchanging. She will go wherever Naomi goes. She will stay where Naomi stays. She will die where Naomi dies. And she will commit all of her ways, all of her life, all of her days, unto the Lord.

What an amazing picture of repentance and of faith! Repentance, because it’s a complete break with Moab – with the ways of the world – and a complete turning to the ways of God. And that’s what true repentance is all about. When we find that we’ve been living in, and living for, the things of this world, repentance is turning from those things and seeking God in their place.

Christianity is about total commitment. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24, NIV84) And again He says, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:26, NIV84) What’s Jesus saying? Is He really advocating that we “hate” those closest to us? Not at all! What’s He’s telling us in words, is what we see lived out in Ruth’s choice to journey along the road less travelled. Here the word “hate” means not to despise, but rather to “love” one thing less than another. In choosing to seek God with all her heart, soul, mind and strength, Ruth is choosing to love God more, to a greater degree, than either father or mother, or things of this world.

Our love for Jesus is to be the same way – so strong that every other relationship or thing pales in comparison. To “carry the cross” means to die to self and to identify ourselves with Christ on a daily basis – surrendering our dreams, our hopes, our fears, our plans – our very lives - to God’s will.

In a very real way this is what Ruth has chosen to do. From that day forth her identity will be found in God. In Him, she will live and move and have her being, if only He will welcome this daughter of Moab, this child of the world, into the place of praise, into the family of God. But that’s a story for another day!

For now, I encourage you to consider which of those three women best represents your own life, your own response to God. Some may be in the place of Naomi – having once walked closely with God, in a time of need or careless choice, or at the end of a long and slow slide in the wrong direction, you have chosen to go to Moab. If that’s the case, it’s time to get back on the road to praise and come on home.

Other’s may be in the place of Orpah – playing around the edges of faith but never really committing. Failing, or fearing, to break with the past you find yourself constantly drawn back to the things of Moab. Instead of the life that you hoped you would discover, you have found death and sorrow and emptiness.

If that’s the case then I urge you to choose, as did Ruth, the road less travelled. To taste and see that the Lord is good, to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and to believe upon the Lord with all your heart and soul, to receive and experience the grace of God, and to discover new life in Jesus!

Let’s pray …

Earlier this morning I mentioned the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The prodigal is a young man who leave his father’s house, runs off to a far country, and squanders his inheritance in riotous living. When the funds run out, and the party is over, life gets very hard. He is deserted by his friends and he is left to scramble to make a living. The only work he can get is feeding pigs and it’s not until he finds himself longing to eat the pods the pigs were eating that he realizes just how low he has sunk and how far from home he really is. At that point he finds himself in the place of decision and he decides to head home and throw himself on his father’s mercy. He knows he is not deserving of it but to his surprise he receives it just the same. He is welcomed with open arms, a changed man.

The Parable of the Prodigal is an incredible picture of how God is willing to receive each of us if we will only come on home to Him. And the cry of our hearts, is the cry of the prodigal – that we’re not worthy. We know our sin, we feel our shame, we know the darkness of our hearts – and we fear that God will reject us, that He would not want anything to do with us, and so we fear to come into His presence. But if we will humble ourselves, confess our sin and turn from it, willing to accepting God’s healing, forgiveness, and restoration, He waits for us with open arms – to bind up the broken hearted and to breathe new life into hearts that have been dead.

When Jesus died, the Bible tells us that He who had no sin, became sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. That’s what happened on the cross. Our sin was placed upon Jesus and through God’s grace we receive His righteousness. That which has kept us from God, and God from us, is forgiven and we enter into new life with Jesus.

And that’s what we remember as we share the Lord’s Supper together this morning – the life that we have in Jesus. The bread, an emblem of the body of Christ given over to death to pay the price for our sin. The cup, representing the blood that was shed for the forgiveness of sins. As we eat and drink these together this morning let this be a time for the prodigal to return home and find grace, for the sons and daughters of Moab to discover a new hope, and for the hearts of God’s children to be lifted in praise and thanksgiving.

The bread and the cup will come to you one after another this morning. Please hold on to them until all have been served and then we will share them together …

[Servers distribute the bread and the cup.]

Eat and drink with thanksgiving in your hearts for as we do so we proclaim the wonder and the reality of God’s great love and mercy!

Let’s pray …