Change: Naomi and Ruth

Change: “Naomi and Ruth”
A Message on Ruth 1:6-18
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
June 13, 2021
By Doug Wintermute
dwinterm@yahoo.com

Ruth 1:6-18 (NRSV)

6 Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9 The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10 They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

18 When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

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Today we begin a new sermon series that we will follow all the way to Advent, which is the season leading up to Christmas. The title of this series is “Change,” and during this series we will be looking at people of the Bible that experience some great changes in their lives.

We have all gone through a lot of change this past year, and it looks like we will continue to experience change in the future.

Change is constant. Always has been, always will be. Time marches on and things change, even when we don’t want them to. But as Christians, the important thing is how we respond to change.

Today we kick off this sermon series by exploring two women who experienced some major changes in their lives.

The story of Naomi and Ruth is found in the book in the Bible named after Ruth. It is a true story of tragedy, of hope, and of faithfulness.

The story begins with our first scripture that we read today. It starts in a city that is familiar to our ears but that we usually only hear at Christmas: Bethlehem. There was a man named Elimelech (try saying that 10 times real fast) who lived in Bethlehem who had a wife named Naomi and two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Life is good in Bethlehem for the Elimelech family. Well, it was, until a famine hit.

It’s hard for us to imagine the difficulties of a subsistence living. If the crops grew, you ate. If they didn’t, well you went hungry. And hunger will make you do some pretty dramatic things. In the case of Elimelech it meant uprooting the whole family and traveling, by walking, of course, to a place where they heard the crops were better and there was food to eat: Moab.

The distance from Bethlehem to Moab is somewhere between 30-50 miles, depending on which scholar you want to believe. One of the challenges in determining that distance is that Moab is an area, not a city, so depending on where in Moab they went they could have gone 30 mile or they could have gone 50.

Now for us today that doesn’t seem like a very long journey. Hop in the car and we can be 30 miles away in Tyler in about 45 minutes, depending on what part of Tyler you are going to and what the traffic is light. But back in the time of Elimelech a day’s journey on foot was about 10 miles per day. So it would have taken three to five days to make the trip.

As the crow flies it’s not that long of a distance, but the problem is that Bethlehem is on the west side of the Dead Sea, and Moab is on the east side. So they had to basically walk around the Dead Sea to get to Moab.

There were no Uhauls, so everything the family had they would have taken with them. Perhaps they had a donkey or two, but still that’s traveling light if you ask me.

So they get to Moab and sure enough, there is food there. So they are in Moab for about 10 years before tragedy strikes: Elimelech dies. We aren’t told how he dies, whether it was in a war or of disease or what, but he dies. That leaves Naomi a widow, which is bad, but she has her two sons, which is good.

In those times children were so important because there were no security programs for people as they got older. As people aged they lived with their adult children, who took care of them.

It was especially important for women at the time because they were very limited in the ways they could make a living. If they had no husband and no children to support them, they were often left with no choice but to beg or engage in prostitution just to live.

Well after Elimelech dies, that’s the situation Naomi finds herself. Both her sons die. Like Elimelech, we don’t know how they die, but just know that they did.

So Naomi is really in a pickle. She has no husband. She has no children. She has lost all forms of financial support, not to mention the emotional heartbreak of going through the death of her husband AND her sons.

Can you imagine the stress and anxiety Naomi is going through at this moment? One of the things people often think to themselves when major tragedy strikes is “Is God punishing me for something I’ve done wrong?”

It’s something we don’t really want to say out loud to anyone else, but if you’re like me, you’ve thought it. I think it’s a common human emotional question.

The times I have been visiting with people who are brave enough to share this thought with me I have tried to respond something like this: God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. Bad things exist because we live in a fallen world, and while God allows bad things to happen, I don’t believe God causes them to happen. So no, I don’t think God is punishing you for some wrong you have committed. I think bad stuff just happens. But God gives us the strength to get through those tough times.

Naomi, with very few options available to her, gets word that the famine condition in Bethlehem has improved. Rain has come, crops are growing, people have enough to eat. So she gets ready to travel back to her hometown from Moab. After all, she has relatives there. Maybe one of them will take pity on her and help her out.

So she tells her daughters-in-law, Orpah (not Oprah, by the way) and Ruth of her plans. She encourages them to go back to their fathers’ homes where they will not only have a support system, but also the possibility that a man may someday marry them.

There is some back and forth discussion between Naomi and here daughters-in-law as well as some weeping moments. Finally Orpah agrees to go back to her father’s home. Now we need to be careful and not be judgemental of Orpah because of her decision. It was certainly justifiable, and the odds of her security at her father’s house are much better than if she had accompanied Naomi or worse, heading out on her own. Orpah’s decision is an honorable one, and just.

So while Orpah makes the choice to return to her father’s home, Ruth is adamant that she will go with Naomi.

Now let’s think about Ruth’s perspective for a moment. She is from Moab. It’s home to her. She knows the land and knows the people. If she goes with Naomi she is trading what little “known” things she has in her life for a lot of unknown things. She will be traveling to a different country that speaks a different language. (The residents of Moab spoke Moabite, which is similar to Hebrew, which Naomi spoke, being from Bethlehem. While similar it is different.)

There is so much that is unknown for Ruth.

As humans the things we fear the most often have to do with the unknown. We fear what our health will be like as we get older and age because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We worry and fear about finances because we don’t know how much we will need when we retire, or if we will have extreme medical costs that will take everything we have saved. We worry about relationships because we don’t know how it will turn out or if we will grow closer or further apart over time.

We fear the unknown. We really do.

But even with all the unknowns ahead of her, Ruth makes the decision to stay with Naomi. She not only decides to go with Naomi, but to change her life in order to support Naomi. Listen to what Ruth tells Naomi:

Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried. Ruth 1:16:17

Ruth ends up going with Naomi to Bethlehem. And the story has a happy ending. Ruth ends up marrying Boaz, a relative of Naomi.

Not only that but Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, who in turn has a son named Jesse, who just happened to be the father of a guy named David. (As in King David.)

Ruth, even though she wasn’t an Israelite but a foreigner, (and remember the Israelites were not supposed to marry foreigners), ends up being listed in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. Only five women are listed in that genealogy of Jesus, and Ruth is one of them!

So what can we learn about change from Naomi and Ruth?

I think the first thing we can learn is to overcome our fear of the unknown with a trust in God. When we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, when we start worrying about the “unknowns,” we can trust God that he will get us through it. In Ruth’s case, she overcame her fear of the unknown by being willing to go to another country with another language with a woman who was not a blood relation (which was a really big deal back then). God then blesses Ruth with not only a husband, but with being in the lineage of the Savior of the World: Jesus Christ.

Another thing I think we can learn from Naomi is to never give up no matter how bleak things look. And you have to admit that things that for Naomi thing looked very, very bleak for a while.

Psychologists tell us that there are certain things that, when we experience them, cause us anxiety and stress. They even have a list, called the Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory, or The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. You can find it online and take it yourself if you want to see where you fit in.

I went to a site on the interwebs and did just that, but instead of doing it for myself I did it for Naomi. I checked the boxes that Naomi would have checked if the inventory had been around back then. For example, death of a spouse, death of a close family member (her sons), change in financial status, etc. I added up the scores and came up with a total of 333.

So what does that mean? Well the scoring guide says that 150 points or less means a low susceptibility to stress-induced health breakdown, 150-300 points means about a 50 percent chance of a major health breakdown within two years, and 300 points or higher means an 80 percent chance of a major health breakdown within two years.

Naomi’s score was 333. That’s a lot of stress!

And yet Naomi came through all that stress. She trusted in God to take care of her, and God did. God worked in ways Naomi could not imagine, but in ways that worked for her good. Like Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”

Trust in God during those difficult, stressful times. God doesn’t abandon us, but in fact is “near to the brokenhearted.” Psalm 34:18

My challenge to you this week is to trust in God when you experience changes in your life. God promises to never leave us or forsake us. During those dark nights cling to the light of Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection give us power to overcome anything the world can throw at us.

Change happens. Change will come. But God doesn’t change. God’s love for us is constant, regardless of our circumstances. God’s love is much, much more powerful than change.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

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