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“The Long Road Back.”
The word immediately brings to mind all sorts of situations … doesn’t it.
We have organising a project and all sorts of people make a commitment to give help, or support, or be part of a project. Then, when it comes to the crunch, they don’t turn up and prove to be unreliable … and that can cause great disappointment.
We planned a special social event … a party of a family get-together. Everyone one is excited by the idea but only a few are able to fit the plan into their schedule, because they are busy doing something else. It is disappointing.
We have personal goals and plans for our life. Then we try and put them into action and find ourselves struggling to achieve. We compare who we want to be … to what we really are … and we are disappointed.
Disappointment. The outcome was not what we expected. The process was really difficult. The people didn’t act as we had hoped. The organisation was not to our liking.
Disappointment. It is a real part of life.
And, in our text today, Naomi is clearly full of disappointment as she takes the long road back to Bethlehem.
Let’s read about it in Ruth 1:6-22
You may remember from last week that we had a look at the spiritual shortcut taken by Elimelech when he moved his family to Moab because of the famine.
For the first time in the book we hear what Naomi thinks as she reflects on the last 10 years.
She is a widow … indeed she is a widow with no living sons.
She is carrying the pain of three deaths … and her family hovers on the brink of extinction.
She just wants to go home.
As she makes her way we get a real sense of exactly how she feels.
The LORD’s hand has gone out against me (1:13).
I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty.
The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me” (1:21).
“My life is trash and it is all God’s fault. I am really ticked off with God and His ways which are supposed to be so good for me”.
She is hurt, angry, and confused.
She is challenging God and questioning God’s integrity.
She lacks trust in His ways and is sarcastic about any clichés that people might want to use to bring her comfort.
Basically she is disappointed with God.
When you are disappointed with the aspects of this life you can often find ways to move forward.
You try again. You go to a different place.
You reorganise plans. You lower your expectations.
Often you can move forward. But what happens when you get disappointed with God?
You see that is the right question to ask isn’t it.
Because it is easy to look at a passage like this and say, “That is all very well to throw the blame at God but Naomi shouldn’t feel like that or talk like that. If they had of stayed in Bethlehem and trusted God more, she wouldn’t be in that situation.
It is easy to look at the lives of people around us and hear the words that they are using and say, “Yes, but you shouldn’t say that!”
Really? You’re going to decide what others should and should not say.
Have a look at these words, they are a testimony of someone who believes God.
I’m standing my ground, God, shouting for help,
at my prayers every morning, on my knees each daybreak.
Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? Why do you make yourself scarce?
For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting.
I’ve taken the worst you can hand out, and I’ve had it.
Your wildfire anger has blazed through my life.
I’m bleeding, black-and-blue.
You’ve attacked me fiercely from every side, raining down blows till I’m nearly dead.
You made all my closest friends and neighbours dump me.
The only friend I have left is Darkness.
Can you talk to God like that and get away with it? Well what I have just read is The Message version of Psalm 88:13-18. This Psalm of disappointment is in the Scripture.
God let it be put there – he could easily have made sure it wasn’t, because no one talks like that to God.
But there it is, and has been, in the Scripture for over 2500 years.
We can say, “People shouldn’t talk like that.”
But that doesn’t change the reality. People do talk like that.
What happens when they do? Well we encourage them to see anew the God who is walking with them on the long journey home.
That is what this text is about.
God doesn’t explain Himself, or try and justify His actions.
God doesn’t strike Naomi down there and then.
What God does is show up … again.
God provides answers for Naomi.
The first part of the answer involves recognising that we don’t always see the obvious.
What seems to have happened is that Naomi has just gotten up at some point and packed her possessions and left – taking the road to Bethlehem in Judah.
With her two sons dead there is nothing left here for her and the news has come from Israel that the famine is over and there is plenty of food.
And here we find the three women on the road. Naomi, Orpah and Ruth. And it is very evident that Naomi wants to go back to Judah by herself. So here is how it works.
Firstly Naomi says, “Go back to the home of your mother. May God go with you and bless you. May God find you both a new husband.” Then she kissed them good-bye and turned towards Judah. Then we get tears. Lots of tears, loud crying and a general sense of overwhelming emotion. Neither of the daughter-in-laws want to leave.
So Naomi takes another tact – this time using a bit of logic.
I’m not going to have any more sons. If you think I am able to provide some way for you to marry into the Israelite culture forget it. My womb is barren and I am old.
You can hear the bitterness can’t you.
I have nothing, no husband with whom I could try and have children. No sons left. And no way of increasing my family.
Naomi is pointing out an obvious issue. What are the chances for remarriage if the women come with her to Israel? No Yahweh-fearing family is going to let their Jewish son marry a Moabite.
And I can’t help. And even if I could would you wait for my son?
Then, just to make sure, Naomi brings in a very forceful spiritual argument, “The Lord’s hand is against me” … Can’t you see being with me brings spiritual disaster.
Basically Naomi is saying, “It is a foolish thing for you to come to my land.”
It sounds like a good argument doesn’t it.
So after some more weeping and emotion we can understand why Orpah listens and ends up going back to Moab. But here is the sad reality. While Orpah seems to be making the sensible choice, it is actually not the obvious choice.
Right near the very beginning of Scripture, when God makes a covenant with Abraham. God says, “I will bless you … and nations will be blessed through you.”
The road ahead looks very empty to Orpah, and at this point even to Naomi, but by rejecting the road ahead Orpah is rejecting the road that leads to life. She sees the road behind … the road that leads to Moab, her people, her family and her future husband.
Wide is the road that leads to destruction.
Narrow is the road that leads to life.
Logic says go back, but that is actually not the most obvious choice. The obvious choice is to go forward to Judah – that is the choice of faith.
When we are going through times of disappointment we need to pray, “Lord help me to see the obvious decision.” And always, always, the obvious decision is the one that brings us under the care and the blessing and the strength of God.
We may not feel that God is near.
We may not believe that our circumstances can change.
Our spiritual life might even feel like a desert.
But here the reality. The Bible does not have a book called “Orpah”. But it does have a book called “Ruth”. Always the obvious answer, even when it might be the hardest, most illogical answer, is to come towards God.
Which is what Ruth does. And here we see the second part of the answer as to how we help people see anew that God is walking with them in the long journey home.
The second part of the answer involves remembering that the outsider is always welcome in God’s plans.
That is what Ruth does, and she does it in a most powerful way.
She sees the back of Orpah disappearing towards Moab. As she does so she is clinging to Naomi.
The strength of this embrace and the emotion attached to it, is seen by the fact that, when Genesis 2:24 says, “A man will be united to his wife”, the word for “united” is the same as the word for “cling”.
Ruth is completely committed. She shows it visually. But she also expresses it verbally.
Ruth will willingly abandoned her family, her familiar surroundings and her religious traditions … because she could see that there was something more important.
Ruth knows that a lot of difficulty lied ahead – for she was going to be a widowed foreigner in this land. But she knew that staying with Naomi would be of far greater value then remaining in Moab and finding a husband there.
Your people will be my people. There is such a deep transition going on here because leaving the land meant going away from the “god” you were following.
“I will take on your God and let go of my God.” That is what Ruth is saying.
I’m willing to make any sacrifice.
If I don’t follow through may your God strike me down.
It is a powerful testimony of commitment.
It is the sort of commitment that gets used as a Wedding Text and put onto cross-stiches and hung up on walls.
Commitment. Welcome. The outsider coming it. It is all of this and so much more.
There is not a hint of disappointment with God, just an unwavering trust and a belief that the blessing lies under the hand of the Lord in Judah.
And what impact does it have?
Naomi stops talking.
Ruth has proven that all outsiders are welcome into the plan of God.
That’s the obvious choice to make in this situation
When faced with the obvious choice Naomi can’t say anything.
In her bitterness isn’t she an outsider?
Doesn’t she feel that God has abandoned her?
Yet there is something about what Ruth is saying that makes sense.
Naomi may feel like she is empty
In fact, in her emptiness she doesn’t even realise how mean she is to Ruth.
As she walks into Bethlehem next to Ruth she is crying out.
I went out full.
I came back empty.
What does that make Ruth … she is standing right there.
Empty. Some what selfish. Broken. An outsider.
Yet Ruth has said the very thing that has stopped her from talking for a while.
God is not giving up on her.
And that is the really big message isn’t.
On the long journey of despair God doesn’t give up on us.
Let’s be honest we do get disappointed with God.
… I’m not going to minimise that. Indeed the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, Job and Jeremiah contain many examples of people who strongly express their disappointment with God.
You can’t minimise the disappointment. But in the midst of it all we do have to recognise that while we may have given up on God, God has not given up on us.
And sometimes, to show that He hasn’t given up, God has to empty us, before He can fill us.
It isn’t so easy to see initially – but the most common word in these verses is “return”.
I need to use the ESV version of the Bible to help you see it.
1:7 – (The three women) … went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
1:8 – (Naomi said) … “Go, return each of you to her mother's house”.
1:10 – (Orpah and Ruth said) … “No, we will return with you to your people.”
1:11 – Naomi said, “Turn back [return], my daughters; why will you go with me?
1:12 – Turn back [return], my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband.
1:16 – Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.
1:21 – I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back [returned me] empty.
1:22 – So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab.
Everyone is coming back.
Naomi is coming back – it has been 10 years and a long spiritual wilderness.
What about Ruth? Remember that the Moabites are related to Abraham because Abraham’s nephew Lot is the father of all the Moabites. That means this is a return for Ruth as well.
Naomi left because there was a famine – and it eventually lead to spiritual death.
When Naomi and Ruth come back it is the beginning of the barley harvest.
God’s timing is always perfect, isn’t it.
God is making it all happen. Disappointment with God doesn’t last forever, for the Lord is the one who enables us to return.
We just need to look at the obvious road. Sometimes it looks empty. But it is never a disappointment.