February 12, 2012

Picking up the Pieces

Okay, the first thing I want to know this morning is whether or not anybody took up my little experiment last week?  Did anybody pay enough attention to the Super Bowl commercials to see how many sent forth the message that your image and value aren’t enough without their product?  I confess I didn’t keep an accurate count, but I would guess about 75% of the commercials I saw sent that message.  On another note, as far as I was concerned, this was really a down year for commercials.  Minus some previews for movies high on my list, the dog wearing running shoes, and the dog using Doritos as a hush payment, I was wrong in my assessment from a few weeks ago that companies were not going to drop four million dollars on 30 seconds worth of ad time without putting on the Ritz.  Oh-well.

In more contextually appropriate news, we are going to begin a new journey this morning.  Before I tell you what this story is, I wanted to take just a minute to tell you why we’re going to study it together.  Many times when we approach the Bible we take kind of a piecemeal approach.  What I mean by this is we tend to treat the Bible like a buffet.  We see it as kind of a smorgasbord of tasty tidbits which, depending on our mood and appetite, will hit our taste buds in just the right way.  While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this—at least we’re getting a steady diet of the word—there is another approach worth taking up every now and then. You see, when we approach the Bible in such a piecemeal fashion, it is easy to forget that it actually tells one complete story from beginning to end.  It’s not composed of a bunch of disparate parts that God picked and choose to put together because they answered the right questions or imparted the right knowledge to us.  There is a single story being told in Scripture that stretches from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.  It is the story of redemption and the coming of God’s kingdom.  And unless we take in the whole story from time to time—or at least larger pieces of it—we run the risk of missing it entirely.  The tough part of this is that forming a view of the world happens more in the context of stories than it does in canned sound bites or text bites.  Hearing God loved the world so much that He sent His only begotten Son to give life to all those who believe in Him is one thing.  Seeing that love take shape and get expressed throughout God’s interactions with a people He called out of obscurity revealed Himself to and ultimately used to bring His Son into world, and then seeing that Son violently put to death, raised again to new life, send His Spirit to start the movement that would be most responsible for expanding His kingdom on earth, and then give one of His closest followers a glimpse of what that eternal life will look like is something different entirely.  I’ve said before that context is everything in studying the Bible.  Seeing God’s love in context is something totally different from merely reading a verse taken out of context proclaiming it.  Sometimes, seeing it in context can help us hear it as we need to hear it.

With all of that said, we are going to spend the next four weeks taking a look at the Old Testament story of Ruth.  Ruth is a great little book.  It is one of those few stories in the Bible that leaves you with a good feeling after reading it.  In terms of its literary character it might be one of the best written stories in the Bible.  It begins on a high note, quickly descends into a heap of trouble, and…well, I won’t ruin the story for you.  In order to get into the story this morning, I want to start by giving you some of the background of the book so you have a sense of where it came from.

Canonically speaking, Ruth’s story sits right in between the books of Judges and 1 Samuel.  Historically speaking it takes place during the time period covered by Judges.  The story begins with the phrase: “In the days when the judges ruled…”  For the folks who first heard this story—probably late in David’s reign or soon after—this would have rung in their ears like “once upon a time” rings in our own.  When parents sat down with their children to tell them a story in the evening since they didn’t have televisions to steal away their time together, this opening phrase would have stirred up some excitement in the little ones.  This story wasn’t set in some mythical, far-off, fantasy land.  It was set in the context of an actual time period in their family’s past.  Kids would have looked at this time in much the same way kids today look at the Colonial era of this country or perhaps the Medieval era in Europe.  It would have been a period rife with nostalgia and heavily romanticized as they took turns pretending they were Gideon or Samson or Delilah in much the same way kids today might pretend they are Robin Hood or King Arthur or Guinevere.  Yet, as is the case today, the reality of the time of the judges was far different from what the romanticized versions would have had them believe.  In was a wild and violent time.  It was a time when the people were still attempting to settle the land, but instead of relying on the help and power of the God who had taken them this far, they were attempting to go it alone.  They were dominated and subjugated for a generation at a time by the various surrounding nations, in particular the Ammonites and the Moabites.  The judges were heroes of near mythic proportions, but the state of the people spiraled ever downward.  The judges were short-term saviors for a people in need of long-term salvation.  The book itself ends with the rather ominous statement: “In those days there was no king in Israel.  Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

Well, sometime during this period of history, a famine struck the region of Bethlehem.  The irony of this would not have been lost on those hearing the story.  The name Bethlehem literally means, “House of bread.”  Except that now, the shelves were empty.  It’s been many years since this nation has known famine.  We wouldn’t even know how to act in a famine.  In a situation as desperate as that, worldviews tend to be laid bare.  When the empty platitudes we blithely prattle when things are going well don’t work anymore, what we really believe starts to come out.  More specifically, when it comes to the point that you have to find food for your family or they die, it quickly becomes clear how much you really care about your neighbors.  You also learn how much you really dislike your enemies—especially if they have plenty of food.  In this case, when the house of bread had no bread, a man named Elimelech packed up his wife Naomi and their boys and moved to Moab.

Now, there are a couple of interesting things here that are easy to miss.  The names Elimelech and Naomi were common in that day.  That’s not so interesting.  What’s interesting is what they mean.  Elimelech means “My God (Yahweh) is king.”  Naomi roughly translates to “pleasant,” or “happy.”  Indeed, if Yahweh, the God of Israel, really was king, things should have been happy.  His people should have been well-fed.  The house of bread should have been well-stocked.  But this wasn’t the case.  How could the God who was supposed to be king let this happen?  How could He let things get so bitter?  The text doesn’t give us any clues this was a judgment from God.  As far as we know, it just happened.  Sometimes God lets things happen that seem really awful to us, but which turn out to advance His plans for His people, proving in the end to be for everyone’s benefit.

The other interesting thing here is that Elimelech took his family to Moab.  And, to get to Moab he had to travel through territory held by the Ammonites.  As Dad recited this part of the first verse the kids would have gasped.  Let’s go back in history just a bit to see why.  How many people remember any of the story of Lot, Abraham’s nephew?  What happened to Lot and his family?  When he and his uncle Abraham parted ways, Lot moved with his family and settled in the city of Sodom.  Yes, that Sodom.  But for his uncle’s pleadings, Lot and his family would have been destroyed with everyone else.  As it played out, God sent an angel to go in and get them out of there before it was too late.  The only instructions they got once they cleared the city gates were to run and not look back.  Lot’s wife couldn’t resist and was famously turned into a pillar of salt.  What happened next, though, is what matters for our purposes.  Lot and his two daughters took refuge in a cave several miles out of the danger zone.  The daughters started feeling the perceived hopelessness of their situation.  They had gone from having everything to now having nothing.  Even their prospects at getting married—the only real hope they had for a decent life in that culture—had all gone up in flames.  As a result, they came up with a plan.  They got their dad drunk and took turns seducing him.  Both of these unions resulted in pregnancies out of which each delivered a baby boy.  Guess what the boys were named.  From Genesis 19:37: “The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab.  He is the father of the Moabites to this day.  The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi.  He is the father of the Ammonites to this day.”

To start with, then, the Moabites and Ammonites were cousins of the Israelites.  But they were the cousins you didn’t want to go play with.  They were the cousins who were kind of weird and not in a good way; the ones you never really wanted to be around.  Thus, the relationship between Israel and Moab and Ammon wasn’t great to start with.  Things got worse from there.  When Moses was leading the people of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, one of the more well-known episodes out of that time was when a magician named Balaam was hired by the king of one of the regions they traveled through in hopes that he would curse the Israelites.  As Balaam was riding his donkey to meet with the king, though, the animal stopped on the road and wouldn’t move.  After beating and cursing it a few times the donkey spoke up in its own defense.  In the end, the curses didn’t work and Balaam pronounced lavish blessings on the people.  Well, the king decided to try another tack.  They staged a huge barbeque and sent an invitation to the Israelite men that read something like, “Hey, come on out for a neighborhood barbeque with us.  We have girls.  They’re prettier and more…willing…than your nice Israelites girls are.”  The men of Israel went, did all kinds of things they shouldn’t have done, God got really mad, and punished the people pretty thoroughly.  This little incident was part of the larger spiritual decline of the lost generation of Israelites in the Exodus.  They were already in the doghouse with God before this happened, but this episode didn’t help things.  Israel blew it, but it was this foreign king and his people who actively enticed the people away from God.  He takes this kind of thing very seriously.  Guess what nation the king heralded from?  Moab.

As if that weren’t enough, the Moabites actively oppressed the people of Israel during the time of the judges.  Now, maybe Elimelech took his family there during one of the periods when Israel held the upper hand, but this didn’t mean the relationship between the two peoples was any better.  This would be like a famine striking Dinwiddie and you packing your family up to take them to Pakistan.  There isn’t really an open conflict between the two nations, but neither is the relationship all that warm and fuzzy either.  Imagine the shock people would have if one of the stories of our nation’s founding fathers included an episode when in the midst of a hard time here, he moved his family back to England where things were better.  Yes, Elimelech was making a hard choice to be sure his family was getting food, but to give up on his land and his people, and more importantly, his God—for his actions suggested to his contemporaries his belief that the god of the Moabites was better able to provide for his people than the God of the Israelites—was a big deal.   I mean, his very name proclaimed the identity of his God and yet he had no trust in that God to provide for him and his family.

Well, all of this is to help you understand how quickly a potentially positive beginning to a story—I mean, what could be more hopeful than “once upon a time”?—takes a nose dive.  There’s a famine in the land God is supposed to be providing for —in a place known as the House of Bread no less—and a guy whose name suggests great faithfulness in God packs up his family and moves to join the enemy, declaring by his actions his belief that his God had failed.  Oh, and did I mention that the god of Moab, Chemosh, was known for demanding child sacrifice by burnt offering?  This is a pretty bleak picture.

You think you’re facing a hard situation?  You might be.  It might be something that as far as you are concerned is every bit as desperate as Elimelech and his family were facing.  I’m not going to play the game of trying to guilt you into thinking that your issues aren’t so big compared to those of other people.  While that is in all likelihood the case, being told as much doesn’t solve the issue for you and probably won’t make you feel any better about it in the short term.  You want to know where God is and what He’s doing about your situation.  Sometimes you can find the answer to those questions in a story more easily than in a platitudinal repetition that God loves you.  As you might be expecting, though, in order to get there you have to hang on until the end of the story.

Well, as you might have experienced with your own hard spots in life, when it rains, it pours.  When one thing goes wrong, it seems like something else is always on its heels; something to make you look at the sky and scream: “Why me!  Why can’t anything be easy for me!”  Naomi is someone who shares your pain and frustration.  You see, soon after Elimelech packed up his family, ran out on every social and relational and emotional connection they had back in Bethlehem, and set up shop in “enemy territory,” he died.  So here was a woman named Pleasant with her boys in a foreign land and her husband (read: source of provision and protection) had just died.  I think we can all agree that their world had fallen apart.  They weren’t even left with a straw to grasp at.  Well, what do we do when our world seems to have fallen apart?  When life appears over, keep looking forward.  There’s really nothing else that makes sense.  I mean, sure we could lie down and give up, but who does that help?  Particularly if you have people relying on you as Naomi did.  We set the bitterness welling up from deep within our souls aside for a moment, cast our eyes ahead to tomorrow, and live life as it should be, even when it isn’t like it should be.  (Although for what it’s worth, life as an easy, pain-free, happy exercise in bliss is something never promised or frankly even offered by the Bible.)

This is what Naomi did. She and her boys, Mahlon and Chilion put down roots.  They each took a wife from among the local people, and started to forge a new path forward.  But then, tragedy struck yet again.  From v. 4: “They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.”  For ten years the small family struggled to put down roots and plant a new life.  This struggle is made apparent in that in ten years no children were produced by the couples.  I suspect Naomi took that as a constant omen that something else had yet to happen to her.  After ten years her premonition proved correct.  All the work they had done together was ripped right out the ground.  Certainly the boys’ wives Orpah and Ruth were devastated, but their devastation did not even begin to approach that of their mother-in-law.   Yet what do you do when life appears over?  You keep looking forward.

In this case, Naomi had finally had enough of Moab.  This land was curse from the start.  It might have given her two exceptionally faithful daughters-in-law, but it took everything else from her.  She had no future here.  She would return home where local rumors said the famine was long past.  So the three of them packed up everything and started on the road.  Eventually, though, they came to the fork that split off to the girls’ homes.  With no warning but obvious expectation Naomi turned to her daughters-in-law and said in v. 8: “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!”  Hear well all the gracious words not explicit in this send off.  Naomi was releasing the girls to go and find once again the life they thought they had with her boys.  She didn’t have to do this.  They were culturally bound to her, and frankly the only real chance she had of supporting herself as she aged. Yet she graciously, if somewhat fatalistically, freed them to another chance at the life she was convinced was no longer possible for her.  Indeed, sometimes when we feel life has ended we try to go out in a blaze of glory, taking as many other people with us as we can.  Naomi looked forward, saw a chance to give life to someone else, and took it.  When life appears over, keep looking forward.

Well, all three of them start bawling in a really touching scene.  There is something powerful about a group of people forged by the common bond of shared trials.  But there was no sweetness to the sorrow of this parting.  The girls, of course, tried to refuse, but Naomi had already thought this through and her logic was airtight.  She had nothing left for them.  Even if somehow she had more children that very day, they couldn’t wait for them to grow to manhood in order to be married once again.  In the end, Orpah accedes to Naomi’s wisdom and leaves.  Now, she’s often maligned as faithless in this action, but the story doesn’t make this judgment.  In fact, culturally, she was the obedient daughter-in-law.  She didn’t do anything wrong.  She was faithful to the end.  Ruth, on the other hand, was faithful past the end.  And in this magnificent and beautiful statement of faithfulness and commitment and, frankly, conversion, that is often used in modern weddings Ruth makes clear her position.  Look at v. 16 with me: “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you.  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, and there will I be buried.  May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”  Ruth had looked forward and saw life in this direction.  She saw life and nothing—not even the eloquent logic of her mother-in-law—was going to dissuade her from it.

Keep in mind, by the way, what Ruth was now giving up.  She was giving up all the same things Elimelech did when he came to Moab in the first place.  The difference is that in relation to God, she is giving them up in the opposite direction as him.  She is waking away from her family and her people, yes, but she is walking toward the God of Israel.  This is always a good thing.  Walking toward God is the right decision regardless of what else is happening.  Life may have fallen apart to the degree that steps toward God seem suicidal.  But they aren’t.  When life appears over, keep looking forward.  From a literary standpoint this is beautiful storytelling.  We have come full circle.  Things haven’t improved in the situation of these women who were poor in every way, but they are headed in the right direction.  Things are still bleak.  We have no assurance that Ruth faithfulness and Naomi’s gracious fatalism are going to pay off.   Yet still there is a glimmer of light on the horizon.

There’s just one more hurdle to clear.  Naomi arrives home to the astonishment of her friends and family. When she left over a decade ago she was an attractive young woman in the prime of life.  She was worn down from the famine to be sure, but she was buoyed with hope all the same. Now, though, they barely recognized her.  She had aged far more than the ten years should have allowed.  And she was different.  She had a hard edge and life had clearly worn her down to a rawness that many don’t ever reach.  She also road into town with no one save a young Moabite girl—perhaps a slave?  When they greeted her by name, albeit with some incredulity, she responded with venom in v. 20: “Don’t call me [Pleasant], call me Bitter.  The Strong One has dealt me a bitter blow.  I left here full of life, and God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Naomi?  God certainly doesn’t.  The Strong One ruined me.”

Her pain is so great that she changes her name.  The woman called Pleasant is a dim memory.  Only bitterness remains.  Bitterness given its dark life at the hand of the God who her husband once proclaimed by his very name to be king.  Tyrant is more apropos.  We are left, then, not with answers, but with questions.  Will she find a way out of this bitterness to become once again the woman she once was?  Who is this God who has allowed her so much pain?  He cannot be the same God who is platitudinally said to love the whole world.  Here, however, we have no answers.  Only a painful silence.  A painful silence and this from v. 22: “…they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.”  Just as a seed dies when it goes into the ground with no assurances of experiencing life again yet by God’s grace fruit appears, so also when it seems that we have gone into the ground and died with no hope of experiencing life again, yet by God’s grace, sometimes fruit appears.  We won’t know it, though, until the harvest.  Perhaps you find yourself in this first part of Naomi’s story.  The story that will become Ruth’s story.  You have experienced more brokenness and frustration and heartbreak than any life should know.  Life as far as you are concerned can’t carry on much longer.  Yet hold fast because the harvest is coming.  When life appears over, keep looking forward.  The harvest is coming.