Doing the best you can
Ruth 1: Doing the best you can
Ruth 1: 1-22.
I don’t know about you, but part of me is still in holiday mode so I am not really up for a heavy deep sermon.
Which is fine because Ruth isn't a heavy book.
In some ways it is hardly a Bible book at all.
God never speaks.
Unlike the prophets where big decisions about the life and death of the nation are in the balance and God is speaking and people need to listen,
unlike Exodus, which we were looking at recently and God needed to speak to Moses to get him to do what he needed to do to save the people,
here God never speaks to Naomi and God never speaks to Ruth.
In fact I think in many ways if people were to describe a book that they feel best fits their life, then the book of Ruth is that book.
Here people just live their ordinary lives and are trying to do the best they can. They kind of think that God is part of their life, they talk about God. But there never seems to be a moment in which they seek God’s guidance really.
You never hear of a moment where they pray to God and then get a revelation of what they need to do next.
And I think to a certain extent that might be the majority of church folk.
They might kind of pray to God, but if they do then they are not expecting any great revelation.
Naomi would have thought that her life was too small, too insignificant to be all that important to God. And that is the way I feel most people in church probably feel.
That first chapter sums up the way Naomi feels, and especially the end of the first chapter. That part when the extended family meets her again after such a long time, the sisters and brothers, the nephews and nieces and their families and they say, ‘Is that you Naomi?’
And she replies, ‘Don’t call me Naomi, (which means pleasant) my life is bitter now so call me bitter (or Marah)’
I kind of think that sums us up. There is the way we often feel about life and I think we often think about life the way Naomi does here.
We are Naomi. We are ‘pleasant’ or rather our life is relatively pleasant and we like to keep it that way. She had a husband; she had two boys who grew into two men. They had a decent life in Bethlehem but it could have been better. They heard things were good in Moab. So off they go to Moab.
There is no praying about it as far as I can see. They don't seek Gods advice as to whether this is what God wants them to do. Here’s the point theologians would make...they are leaving the land God promised them. Why would someone do that?
And the hint is, the implication is, that if you do that, leave God’s plan for you, then disaster will fall.
And sure enough within a chapter she has lost everything and has to come crawling back to Israel. Obviously this is some kind of punishment and if she had stayed in Bethlehem then none of this would have happened. And now instead of a pleasant life, she has a bitter one.
I think that is often the way we look at our life.
There is a God out there and we hope he cares for us but on the whole He never really interferes in our life and we never really let him interfere in our life because things are fine.
We do what we do. Most of the time, in fact nearly all of the time, we make decisions and we don't consult God about our plans. Mainly because we are scared that God’s plans for us won’t be the kind of plans we think we would want for us.
I got this scar on my head because I wanted to climb this hill next to my house, and mum didn't want me to. To go to the shops we passed this hill. So I asked mum if I could climb the hill and she said no. And I had to obey because she was my mum. However as far as I was concerned the way back was a completely different journey. I could have asked her on the way back if I could now climb the hill. Instead I thought I would run ahead and climb it and I knew that with all the shopping she was carrying she would never catch me, and when she was shouting I could just pretend that I hadn’t heard her. I might get into trouble but I would still have got to climb the hill. If I didn't ask mums opinion on climbing the hill then I don't need to put up with the answer if I didn't like the answer. Only I fell down the other side and split my head open.
And most of us are like that with God.
If I have a nice pension scheme building up, should I pray to God about that, but if I do that then what if God says to cash it in and give it all to the Salvation Army?
I was on a cruise round the Mediterranean. I didn’t pray to God about that. What If I had and God said that he would rather I use that money to get stuff for the food-bank?
I know a lot of you live in houses that have more bedrooms than the number of people in the house. What if you prayed to God about that and he said to move to a smaller house and give the money away? How would you feel about that? How would the family feel about that?
What if God said that if you trusted him then you could live in a tent in the garden and let homeless people live in the house?
That’s what Jesus would have done. In fact Jesus was so hard core he might not have had a tent so God is letting you off lightly.
We are so scared of God that we rarely talk to God.
But then, BUT THEN, something happens. Something bad. And we read that as God punishing us because we haven’t be following God’s plan for us.
That's what Naomi did, that’s what we do.
But is that fair on God?
Let’s look at this.
Naomi had a good life. And when she went to Moab she still had a good life, God didn’t seem to be punishing her. It was such a good life that everyone felt settled. Settled enough that they didn’t think they would be going back to Bethlehem.
Even when her husband died Naomi isn't thinking of going back home.
Life is good here.
They had made lots of friends in their new place. They had become accepted people in their community. Accepted enough and important enough and stable enough that people let their sons marry their daughters. The boys were thought of as a good catch.
All was going well.
Then ten years after that the boys die.
We don't know how.
Life was frail in those days.
Maybe a cholera epidemic, contaminated water, maybe food poisoning, or an infection after a cut or a bite.
But now, without any men to farm or work, there is no way for the women to make money.
So the good life, the blessed life that Naomi has had is going through a dip.
There is no rationalisation that nothing lasts forever, that any life that is lived must have ups and downs.
Equally, there is no indication that she felt God had been the one who had given her all those blessings when things were going well for 10-15-20 odd years.
But now things are going badly it must be God’s fault.
There are two things I want to say that I think are really important.
The first is this. If God hated her so much then why let her have such a good life to start off with.
If God was punishing her for leaving the Promised Land, having her children marry outside the religion, then why wait so long to punish her?
What kind of evil God punishes you by making your life all the better so that your fall will be all the harder?
So if you are going through a bad time, it may be true that you haven't been following God’s plan for you, it might be true that there are things that you shouldn't have done that you did, it may be true that you have done things that have contributed to your tough time, but it doesn't mean that God is punishing you.
The second thing is this.
It is so obvious that we miss it.
But the hero of this tale, the name of the book, is Ruth.
Think about that.
This is at the time of the Judges. The Israelite policy about other races was that they were evil. Remember Jericho was to be cleansed by Joshua of the people, of all other people. Everyone was to be wiped out. There was to be no mercy because they deserved no mercy.
There was God’s people and those who were not God’s people.
And that opinion of others never really changed for centuries.
Hundreds of years later when the people had gone through exile and returned, the prophet Ezra insists that anyone in a mixed marriage should turn out their foreign wives, and not just the wives, any children of those wives. Because the children are a contamination of the people, they taint the people, make the people unworthy.
In a time when there was no one to look after them, just cast out the women and children because they are not pure enough.
To that people, a people with that level of racism and xenophobia, God shows that he has a different heart. For the hero of this story is a Moabite woman. Not one of the chosen people, not someone who lived in the Promised Land, not someone of power and influence...just an ordinary person who didn’t even worship him to start off with.
The moral of this story is very simple and very profound.
It doesn't matter what we think about God, God is there for us.
It doesn't matter what other people think of us, God cares for us.
It doesn't matter if we are angry at God like Naomi was, God was there for Naomi.
It doesn't matter if we think we have done things wrong and not lived the way we think God would want us to live, like Naomi, God was still there for her.
It doesn’t matter what the people of the village thought of Naomi and her decisions; whether they thought they were wise or foolish or greedy or selfish or even if they thought God was punishing her, God was there for her.
It doesn't matter if we don’t understand God the way Ruth would have struggled to understand God, God was there for her.
It doesn't matter if we think our life is unimportant, that we have no power, no influence, that we can’t do anything important, like Ruth, God was there for her.
According to the rituals and the faith of the people of the Bible;
the pecking order for God was The High Priest, then the priests, Jewish men, women and children, then men of other faiths, then women of other faiths.
Ruth was the real bottom of the pile...but not to God, to God Ruth was the hero of the story. The story is even named after her.
Because for all her foreignness, for all her ignorance, for all her lack of standing in the community...Ruth was kind...and in Gods eyes maybe that was all that mattered.