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Mercies In The Shadows

Fellowship In Sufferings

Rev. Philip Miller | July 12, 2020

Selected highlights from this sermon

The Hebrew word hesed combines two concepts: love and loyalty. It’s a costly and sacrificial love, but it’s also a source of hope. As Pastor Miller walks us through Naomi’s grieving process, he shows us three examples of what hesed love is as shown through Naomi, then Ruth, and most importantly, through God. Then we will learn how we can become people who live out such love with one another.

Well, good morning, Moody Church. It’s great to see all of you. We are jumping back into our series today, “Mercies in the Shadows,” as we look at the book of Ruth, this 3,000-year-old story found in the Old Testament. It’s a story that is dominated by tragic loss and sorrow and grief.

Last week, if you will remember, if you were with us, we saw Naomi’s life completely unravel. She lost her husband, her two adult sons, and that not only meant that she had to stand by three different gravesides and mourn their loss, it also meant in her Ancient Near-Eastern patriarchal world that she lost a lot of things. She lost her income. There was no one to work the fields. She lost her legal representation in society. She lost her ability to inherit property, which was only passed down through the male line.

And so Naomi’s life has been dominated now with no hope, no future, and she has nowhere to turn. This is grief upon grief upon grief. And if you know anything about grief (Many of us do.) you’ll know that grief is a very painful journey, isn’t it?

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her definitive book on death and dying introduced us to what has now been popularly known as the five stages of grief. Grief is not a linear process. It is a patched-up mess of emotions, but it has five discreet elements. There’s denial—this can’t be happening. There’s anger—I don’t like this; who do I blame? There’s bargaining—manipulating, trying to regain control. There’s depression—I’m just too sad to do anything. And then finally, eventually, after long last, there’s acceptance and peaceful resignation to the new reality and embracing that and going forward.

Now, in the book of Ruth here we’re going to watch Naomi, in particular, as she moves through these stages of grief, and we’re going to see her throughout this book crying and at other times angry and bitter and lashing out and depressed, and eventually coming to see hope in the midst of her circumstances. But grief is a messy thing, isn’t it? We’re all over the place, and one of the things we most need in the midst of our grief is someone to love us through it, who won’t quit on us, no matter how messy or hard it gets, especially when it’s messy or hard; someone who loves us enough to go the distance, to see us through all of the drama of what we will go through, to stay close to us and love us through to the other side, to see us at our absolute worst and love us still the same.

There’s a special Hebrew word for this kind of love, and it is hesed. Hesed. Wherever you are seated this morning, would you just say that with me? It’s a crazy word. It’s in the back of the throat. Hesed, hesed! Yes! There’s no English equivalent for this word, but it is the combination of two concepts: love and loyalty. Love and loyalty together! It is often translated lovingkindness or covenant faithfulness. It is the love, not just of the emotions, but of the will, a choosing, devoted, committed love, a commitment to the well-being of the object of our affections. This is the kind of love that God has for His people. It is a hesed love.

Exodus 34:6, famously says, (God is speaking) “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (That’s our word, hesed) and faithfulness!” This concept of hesed is paraphrased by Sally Lloyd Jones in her Jesus Storybook Bible, which is one of my favorite books in the whole world. My kids love it, and I think every adult should read it. But she paraphrases this kind of love this way: “It is the never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love of God.”

Hesed is not just the kind of love that God extends to us. It is also the kind of love that God calls us to extend to each other. And in the passage that we’re going to look at today, we’re going to see this kind of hesed love in action, and it will help us learn what hesed is, and it will help us learn how to become people of hesed for one another. So, if you have your Bibles with you, would you open them up to Ruth 1? We’re going to be looking at verses 6–22. Ruth 1:6–22.

Let me pray for us as we return now to God’s Word.

Heavenly Father, we pray now that you would be our teacher, that you would guide us into life. Teach us to love as you have loved us. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen. Amen. Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word now as we turn to it.

This is Ruth 1:6: “Then she arose…” (This is Naomi.) “Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited His people and given them them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.”

Now, what we’re going to do this morning is just pause there for a second. I want to kind of show you three glimpses of hesed this morning, first through Naomi, then through Ruth, and then through the Lord God Himself. Okay? So this is Naomi’s hesed here in these first verses.

As we saw last week, this is the first glimmer of hope in this story. Naomi hears this rumor that the Lord God has been faithful to His covenant, that He had visited His people and the famine is over. The rains have come. The crops have been raised. There’s food once again in her homeland. And Naomi returns home. Nothing had gone right in Moab, and hopefully it’ll be better back in her homeland. And as we saw last week, this is not just an immigration plan. This is a journey of faith. She is returning to her homeland, to the land of promise. She is coming back into the covenant land of God. She’s throwing herself in hope upon who God is for her. She’s coming back under the shelter of His wings. This is not just geographic relocation. This is spiritual relocation as well.

Now, she sets out with her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. And according to Ancient Near-Eastern customs these two ladies are now functionally Naomi’s servants. As the matriarch of the family unit they were at her disposal. But somewhere along the line she has second thoughts, and so here in verse 8 the text continues: “But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘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!’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.”

Now, I don’t know if you see it, but do you realize what Naomi is doing here? She’s setting her daughters-in-law free. She is relinquishing them of any obligation to serve her or continue to live with her and help out around the house. She’s sending them back to their homes in order that they might remarry and rebuild their lives. She doesn’t have to do this. According to the Ancient Near-Eastern customs, she could have made them come along, made them help set up a new home, help with all the chores, help with whatever tasks and provision were required for their family unit. This was her prerogative. But instead, this is amazing to me, instead of allowing her grief to turn her inward, and orient herself toward a selfish sort of posture here, Naomi puts their interest ahead of her own, and lays down all her rights and privileges here. She sets them free. She sacrifices herself, and she resigns herself to a life of isolation and loneliness in order to love Orpah and Ruth.

She says, “May the Lord deal kindly with you.” That’s our word, hesed, right here. “May the Lord have hesed toward you. As you have dealt with the dead and with me, as you have shown me hesed, and my family hesed by your choosing to become a part of our family, and love us, may now God in turn show you such love and loyalty (hesed) as you go on into your lives. May the Lord bless you, and extend His lovingkindness to you so that you may find rest, peace, security and a new home with a new husband and a new life.” She is releasing them, sacrificing her own needs to give them a chance at life. And as she prays that the Lord would show them hesed, she herself shows them hesed as well.

And so here’s the first thing we realize about hesed. Hesed is loving selflessness. Hesed is loving selflessness. It is a willingness to lay down our own interest in the service of others. You remember that great theologian, Olaf the Snowman from Frozen? Do you remember how he defined love? He said, “Love is putting someone else’s needs before yours.” That’s pretty biblical, isn’t it? In other words, hesed is a costly love. It is a sacrificial love. It is a committed love. There’s a price to be paid. Hesed promises, “I will give myself for you.” I will give myself for you.

You know, everyone enjoys love when it’s reciprocal, don’t we? You know, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” And honestly that’s how a lot of our relationships are. I’ll love you as long as you love me back. There’s reciprocity. But don’t you see, hesed love does not demand reciprocity. It is a loving, sacrificial, self-giving love without expecting anything in return. It is a self-giving love, a dying to self love. It is hesed love. So that’s Naomi’s hesed.

Now Ruth’s hesed. Naomi is trying to set them free, and in verse 10 they won’t have anything to do with it. Look at verse 10: “And they said to her, ‘No, we will return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Turn back, my daughters; Why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.’ Then they lifted up their voices and wept again.”

So Naomi here is making the case for why they should go home and find new husbands and move on with their lives. She says, “Look, I’m not having any more sons here. It’s not happening. And even if I were to miraculously remarry, and miraculously conceive, and they miraculously were twins, and they both were miraculously sons, you’re not going to wait around twenty years to marry them. She’s referring to this whole idea of levirate marriage that if a son died and left his bride without a child, that a brother, an unmarried brother, was required by law to marry the widow so as to provide an heir. It was a weird sort of social security safety net in those days. That’s not happening. That’s Naomi’s point. She’s playing out this absurd scenario to point out the helplessness of the life that they would be committing themselves to. To come with Naomi is to embrace a life without hope and a future. Only destitution and death await. Naomi says, “No, you’re better off on your own. Don’t bind yourself to my fate. God is against me. We’ve all suffered enough. Go home. Be done with this.”

Verse 14: “And Orpah kissed her mother–in-law, but Ruth clung to her. And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” So Orpah heads out, and we can’t blame her for this, but Ruth here won’t let go. And so Naomi renews her appeal with peer pressure this time and says, “Look, Orpah has made the reasonable choice here. She’s seen the bitterness of my life. She’s going back to her people, to her land, to her family, to all that she knows. She’s going back to her gods. And I don’t blame her,” Naomi would say, “after what God has done to me. Ruth, you really should do the same thing. It’s the only rational thing to do.”

But verse 16: “Ruth said, ‘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.’ And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.”

This is such a powerful, gripping, beautiful scene, isn’t it? Do you realize what Ruth is doing? She’s burning her passport. She’s saying, “I’m never going to go back.” She’s giving up her homeland, her people, her security, her freedom, her hope of remarriage, her hope of children and family. She’s choosing to be an exile, a foreigner. She’s binding herself to Naomi’s fate, to destitution and hopelessness. She’s giving up all of her dreams to lovingly care for her mother-in-law for the rest of her life. And it’s amazing here. She even goes beyond her marriage vows. We don’t promise what Ruth promises here. When we get married we say, “Till death do us part.” Ruth says, “I’m not even going to part from you after death. I will be buried next to you.” This is loyalty long after Naomi dies. “My loyal love will remain.”

And Ruth is also not only loving Naomi here. She’s declaring faith and trust in the Lord God of Israel, isn’t she? She is throwing herself on His mercies. She’s taking shelter under His wings. Instead of running back to her Moabite gods, she is turning to the hesed love of the Lord God, the covenant keeping one, and she’s extending hesed to Naomi. Don’t you see that? And the hesed we see here is enduring faithfulness. It’s another angle on hesed, enduring faithfulness. Ruth says, “I’m with you now and forever. I am binding myself to you. I’m all in for all time. May the Lord do so to me and more also, if anything but death parts me from you,” she says. It’s an oath. It’s a promise. It’s a covenant commitment she’s making here. And what I think is so beautiful is that in grief we often try to isolate, don’t we? We push people away, and we just try to get alone, and God won’t let that happen here, and neither will Ruth. They are running to Naomi in her grief here because hesed promises “I will be there with you. I will be there with you.” This is remarkable love, courageous love, loyal love. “I will never leave you, nor will I forsake you. I will be with you always.”

Now let’s look at God’s hesed in this story. Let’s look at verse 19 here. “So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” Can’t you see them just muttering to one another? “Is this Naomi? Could it be her? I mean it looks like her. It seems like it’s her, but her face is so lined, and she looks like she’s aged thirty years. She’s only been gone a decade. Life must have been hard on her, and where’s Elimilech? And where are those two little boys? Naomi, is that you?”

Verse 20: “She said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?’”

Can’t you feel her anguish here, her bitter tears, the pain in her broken heart? She’s back among the lifelong friends, and she’s been strong for so long, but in the moment when she sees people from her former life, she can’t keep it in any longer, and out of the overflow of heart the mouth speaks here. She says, “Don’t call me Naomi. Don’t you dare call me Naomi. Call me Mara, which means bitter, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I was full, and now I’ve come back empty.”

This is kind of a hurtful statement. I mean, Ruth is standing right there. She’s not empty. But she doesn’t even count Ruth. These are stinging and hurtful comments, but friends, that’s what happens. In grief we say things we’ll regret later, don’t we? She says, “Why call me Naomi when the Lord has testified against me? I’ve showed up in court and God was on the opposition. He was the attorney that sent me down. He brought calamity on my life. He sentenced me to bitterness and this death. It’s all God’s fault. Don’t you dare call me Naomi. Call me Mara, bitterness. It’s all that’s left here.”

Friends, Naomi is lashing out against God, isn’t she? The agony in her soul finally just bursts here. The dam breaks. The boil is lanced and what pours out is raw and ugly and bitter. These are harsh words that she has for God. She rails against Him with bitterness and disbelief and blame. And yet, she’s coming home. She’s coming home! Underneath the bitterness there’s still a little bit of faith down there, a tiny bit of trust, a fool’s hope, a mustard seed of faith, but as it turns out it will be enough. It will be enough.

Verse 22: “So Naomi returned, and Ruth the Moabite her daughter-in-law with her, who returned from the country of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” I love that. This last line just hangs there. It was the beginning of barley harvest. They came at the beginning when the crops came in, at the turning of the tide, at the dawn of a new era when mercies were on their way. It is a poetic, artistic way of reminding us that God’s kindness, His covenant faithfulness, His loyal love, His hesed is on the move. The harvest means God is faithful. He is keeping His covenant of love to a thousand generations, and this story isn’t over.

And so we see, friends, that hesed is forbearing graciousness. Hesed is forbearing graciousness! I’m amazed here that God allows Naomi to vent at Him like this. Aren’t you? And not only does God put up with this, He is going to, in response, move toward her in grace and kindness and love. She throws up this wall of bitterness and grief and blame at God. And He is so patient and so kind, and so gracious, and so forbearing, and so gentle, and so understanding of her suffering, and so compassionate toward her pain.

And hesed promises, friends, “I will extend kindness to you.” I will extend kindness to you. And not only is God going to move toward Naomi in hesed lovingkindness, He uses Ruth here to show Naomi the very kind of love that He has for her. Do you realize in this moment Ruth is incarnating and showing, modeling in flesh the hesed love of God that He has for Naomi. Naomi has almost given up hope in the hesed love of her God. She doesn’t really believe it’s a thing, but God says, “Okay, then let me soften your heart by showing you my love through Ruth, so that you’ll begin to trust me again.” How tender is this?

And here’s where it really gets real for us, friends. Hesed is not just the love that Got extends to us. It’s the love He calls us to extend to one another. So here’s the takeaway. We incarnate hesed for one another because Jesus incarnated hesed for us. We incarnate hesed for one another because Jesus incarnated hesed for us.

Now, how are we ever to become people of hesed love like this? Now let me tell you how it’s not going to happen. (chuckles) It’s not going to happen by trying really, really, really hard. It’s not going to happen by looking at Ruth or Jesus and saying, “I will do my best to copy their example.” That’s just going to demoralize us at the end of the day. First John 4:19 says this, “We love because he first loved us.” We love because He first loved us. Friends, the way we become people of love is when we receive and allow the love of God to change us out from the inside. When we realize that Jesus came for us, that He pledged His life to us, that He laid down His life for us, that in loving sacrifice He laid down Himself (He said, “I will give myself for you.”), that in enduring faithfulness He bound Himself to us and said, “I will be there with you,” when we realize that in forbearing graciousness He looks upon us sinners and says, “I will extend kindness to you,” when we realize that Jesus incarnated hesed for us to redeem us and rescue us and cleanse us and forgive us, when that sinks in and it melts us out from the inside, do you realize we get to the point where we say, “How can we not love others as we have first been loved by God Himself?” When we drink deeply of God’s hesed love for us, friends, it changes us, and it makes us into people who extend hesed to others.

I heard a story a few years ago of a husband and wife who had been married for like twenty years, and the husband was in an accident, and broke his neck, and he became a paralytic from the neck down—quadriplegic. And as he was in recovery they had their twentieth wedding anniversary. And he said to his wife, “I sure wish we could go out on a date.” And so she decided that was a good idea, and so she came over and she actually shaved his face. She gave him a little sponge bath. She brushed his teeth and combed his hair. She got him all dressed up, which wasn’t easy, quite a project. And then she went and got herself ready. And they had a little board that they used to slide him out of the bed into his wheel chair. And so she got the board and slid him over. And then she pushed him to the car. And she backed the car out of the garage and took the board and slid him from his chair into the passenger seat, and folded up the chair and put it in the trunk, and put the plank in there, and went around and drove him to the restaurant.

And when they got to the restaurant she got the chair and the plank out and slid him back out and into the chair and wheeled him into the restaurant up to the table where they sat. She spoon-fed him and fork-fed him every bite of his meal, helped him drink out of the straw when he needed to drink. And they talked and they had their meal.

When the check came, she paid the bill. And then she went and pulled the car around and wheeled him out, and took the plank and slid him into the chair, and folded everything up and put it in the trunk, and drove home and got to the house, and got the plank and slid him back out into his chair, and wheeled the chair into the bedroom, and put the plank down and slid him back into the bed. She parked the car in the garage. She came and helped him get ready for bed, brushed his teeth, got him all tucked in. She went back and finished and got herself ready for bed, and turned out the lights and climbed into bed next to him and said, “Thanks for taking me out on a date.”

Friends, that’s hesed love. It is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast. Its not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrong doings but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Hesed never fails.

That, my friends, is the kind of love that we need, isn’t it? And it’s the kind of love God uses us to show to others. It’s the kind of love that fetches us out of the despair and the darkness of our souls, and gives us hope. It is love that is real. It is grounded in the triune love of God for His people. Aren’t you so glad for the hesed love of our God?

Let’s pray.

Oh Father, sometimes we are overwhelmed by your love, that you would move toward us with such grace and compassion, kindness and faithfulness. Father, we are so fickle, so doubting, so prone to wander. We trust our own instincts. We wander away, but your mercies are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness and kindness to your people, not just for us, but to a thousand generations. Oh Father, may we rest and drink deeply from, and extend through our lives, this hesed love. Teach us, change us, wash over, melt us we pray in the beautiful name of Jesus, our hesed, faithful God. Amen. Amen.

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