1st Sunday in Advent – December 3, 2017
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 3 Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.
6 When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. 7 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.
8 Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. 9 May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud 10 and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”
11 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? 12 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— 13 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 turned against me!”
14 At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. 15 “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
16 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. 17 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.” (Ruth 1:1-17)
During the tumultuous period of the Judges in the Old Testament, one Israelite family just couldn’t catch a break. One faith-testing disaster after another came down on them like the blows from a boxer. During this Advent season, we will walk with them. We will watch them experience a disaster so strong that it will chase them out of their hometown. We will see this family lose loved ones, weather bitterness we can hardly imagine, and face the possible extinction of their land, their home, and their entire family line. This Advent you will witness one Israelite family endure the worst curses this world has to offer…and then, in the end, you will see God give them his greatest blessing.
It all started with a famine. This particular famine was so bad that a husband named Elimelek took his wife Naomi and their two sons all the way to Moab. Things have to be really bad for a man to take his family to an enemy country.
Their lives only got worse in Moab. Soon, Elimelek, the patriarch of the family, died. For ten years Naomi grieved. She watched her sons marry and do things their father would have loved to have seen. Elimelek’s death was the type of loss a family remembers.
Then, ten years later, tragedy struck the family again. Both of Naomi’s sons died, too. What was Naomi to do? She had lost everything and everyone she ever cherished. Should she stay a poor, bitter widow in an enemy country – constantly reminded of her loss? Or should she move back to her hometown of Bethlehem, where even more memories of those she had lost would flood over her?
What would you have done? Well, many of us have lost loved ones. So let’s change the question a bit. What have you done when you have lost those you hold dear? It is hard not to give in to emotion. Sadness washes over us in those moments. How can it not? We imagine all that our loved one will never experience. We feel less than whole, as though something the size of that person is missing from our heart.
That sadness can lead to anger. How dare God take him from me? Doesn’t God love me? Didn’t God love her? Then why is she gone? Guilt can follow. Why wasn’t it me? Why are the best always taken first?
Finally, the last emotion that follows might just be the hardest to fight against: despair. All is lost. Everyone is gone. You feel as though you are the last one left, and no one remembers you.
Naomi may have felt all of those emotions. “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.” For all of her loss, Naomi wasn’t alone. Her two daughters-in-law were still with her. But perhaps even they were too much of a reminder of the family she no longer had. That might be why she told them, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me.”
They still had the rest of their lives ahead of them. In a world that so emphasized the continuation of a family line, Ruth and Orpah could still have children and families. Naomi’s family, her hope for children and grandchildren was all gone now.
Initially both daughters-in-law stayed with Naomi. So Naomi became more forceful. It was time to show these women just how painful her life had become. “It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” Orpah got the hint. She left.
What would you have done? Well, let’s change the question again. What have you done? When someone is suffering and you still have a future, would you go with them or live your own life? Helping others can be easy – it really can. But what about helping someone when it might mean giving up your own future? That’s quite a bit more difficult.
The Bible has a special type of word for that kind of sacrifice. It calls undeserved love like that “grace.” Oprah wasn’t willing to give up her life for the sake of her mother-in-law. Not many would be willing.
Things weren’t much better in Israel once the Romans took over. Famines still plagued the land. Wives still lost their husbands and children. People still thought twice about helping one another. And it is circumstances like these that make people say “Why would I want to bring a child into all of this?” What’s the point?
Yet those were the exact circumstances into which your Lord placed his Son, Jesus. Sadness, anger, disillusionment, despair – those all existed at the advent of the birth of the Savior. Born in a stables, placed in a manger, Jesus became our perfect substitute to live among sinners.
He comforted those who lost loved ones. He raised to life children who had died in their mother’s arms. And at the grave of his friend, Lazarus, he poured out his heart in a very loving way. Jesus wept.
Jesus never abandoned anyone. But he came to be abandoned by everyone. Sadness, anger, disillusionment and despair all swirled around the cross Jesus was nailed to. But at his death, a new word was defined. It was hope. Jesus’ death means your forgiveness of sins. It means your sure and certain hope of a heaven without sadness and anger, despair or death.
Every fiber of Naomi’s being told her she was completely alone. She wasn’t. Not even close. Her Lord had been with her in Bethlehem and then in Moab, too. And the Lord made sure Naomi was never going to feel alone again. And to do that, the Lord would use the last person anyone ever thought he would: a Moabite woman named Ruth.
When Naomi urged Ruth to go back home, Ruth refused. Then this foreigner spoke some of the most beautiful words in all of Scripture to her mother-in-law: “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 even death separates you and me.”
Your Lord has promised that same commitment to you, too. Not even his death could keep him from you. Remember that the next time your sadness leads to anger, or when your despair makes you question your God. Christ’s death and resurrection have taken your sins away. Heaven is yours. And now by faith you too can hold on to that beautiful Advent word: hope. Amen.