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Mercies In The Shadows

Running To Reality

Rev. Philip Miller | July 5, 2020

Selected highlights from this sermon

Naomi and Ruth had their worlds completely shattered; they lost everything. During our lives we may find ourselves having lost something: a job, our health, even a friend or loved one. We are grieving, not just as individuals, but as a world.

This grief can turn us bitter and hard or soft and tender, but everything hinges on what we do with God’s mercies in the shadows of our lives.

To find hope, healing, and redemption, we need to invite God into our grief. Pastor Miller gives us three realities we must face if we are to navigate grief in the mercies of God because when life is full of grief, God is inviting us to come running to the reality of who He is.

I want to thank Pastor Lutzer and Berv Peterson for those kind words of welcome. I also want to thank you, Moody Church, for your warm welcome. Our family has felt very loved even from afar. We are excited to join you in the city to settle in, and to become a part of what God is doing through The Moody Church in this great city and all around the world.

I want to begin our time together this morning in a way that might seem a little bit odd. We’re going to be looking at the book of Ruth in a series we’re titling, Mercies in the Shadows. And Naomi and Ruth, the two leading ladies in this story, have their worlds completely shattered. They lose everything, and they are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives and get back to normal. And what we’re going to see is that they begin to discover hope, and healing, and redemption through God’s mercies in the shadows. And I think that’s something that you and I could both use a little of right now, hope, healing and redemption, because the reality is we all live in this COVID-19 stricken world right now, and we’ve all lost something. Maybe it was relatively mild, what we lost. Life as normal, eating out, the way we normally would do things day to day. Maybe you had summer plans and you lost those, or a graduation that you wanted to celebrate with your friends and you couldn’t. Maybe you had a birthday and it didn’t feel like your birthday this year. Some of us have lost far more substantial things. Jobs, our health, maybe even a loved one or a friend. And when we experience loss, we also experience grief. There’s no question. We face grief.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t like grief. I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to deal with it. I try to ignore it. That’s my basic instinct, but the reality is, we are all grieving. As a city, as a world, we are grieving, and we have to face that reality square in the face. We need to see grief, feel it, experience it, and invite God into our grief if we’re ever going to make it through the darkness into the dawn. And here’s what I know about grief, and you know this, too. Grief can turn us bitter and hard, or it can make us soft and tender. Everything hinges on what we do with God’s mercies in those dark shadows of our times and our lives.

And so what I want to do this morning is we’re going to read the passage, the first six verses of the book of Ruth. We’re going to pray and ask God’s help for our time together. We’re going to make some comments about the historical background and sort of the context of what’s going on in the text. And then I want to show us today three realities we need to run to if we are to successfully walk ourselves through grief in the presence of the mercies of God. Okay? So three realities we need to run to.

Let’s open God’s Word together. We’re going to be in the book of Ruth, and the first chapter, the first six verses. If you will, follow along as I read here. We’ll also have the verses on the screen for you.

Ruth 1:1–6

“In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other was Ruth. 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. 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 food.”

Thanks be to the Lord for the reading of His Word. Would you bow your heads and pray with me?

Father, we ask as we open your word now, which is sharper than any two-edged sword, it is living and active, we pray that we would also open our hearts, our lives, our souls to you, that we would lay them bare, and that you would teach us, instruct us, change us, draw us close by the power of your Holy Spirit. Transform us, we pray, in the name of Jesus, Amen. Amen.

Our author begins this passage with a chronological marker. He tells us this story takes place in the days when the judges ruled. This is the period after Joshua when he brought the people of Israel into the Promised Land and before the days of the monarchy, so Saul and David and Solomon, when they ruled. The period in between was called the Period of the Judges. The story takes place approximately 1100 B.C. during the period that historians refer to as Iron Age I.

There’s a reoccurring cycle in the book of Judges that, if you read it, you will see that the people of God wander away and rebel from God. God sends famine and He sends invasions from foreign hostile countries to come in and take His people captive. The people then cry out in agony and cry to God for relief. He raises up a judge, a deliverer who comes and fights on behalf of the people and sets them free. And the people return to God, and then a few years later, they repeat the pattern all over again.

It is a time of unrest and instability and disruption. And in the end of Judges it is summarized with this verse,
Judges 21:25: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” And it is in the midst of all of this chaos now that we find our story, this family of four, a husband, a wife, and two sons who are going to make a journey. They are Ephrathites. This is a regional clan of the half-tribe of Ephraim.

You’ll remember that Joseph, who was one of the twelve patriarchs, had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, each of whom took half of the tribe that would have been belonged to Joseph and this family here is from the tribe of Ephraim. They hail from Bethlehem in Judah. Now Bethlehem to our ears is a very famous town because that’s where Jesus was born. But at this time it would have been a town of no consequence, just located five miles southeast of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is a name that’s made up of two compound Hebrew words: Bet, meaning house, and Lehem, meaning bread. Betlehem, House of Bread! And that’s ironic, of course, because there’s a famine going on.

Elimelech is the name of the patriarch of this family. His name means, in Hebrew, “My God is king.” He is married to Naomi whose name means “pleasant, kind, or sweet.” And they have two boys here, Mahlon and Chilion, whose names respectively mean sickly and frail. Now, those are likely not their real names because what parent would name their kids Sickly and Frail? Right? What’s probably going on here is that the author has tweaked the spelling of their actual names in order to create a kind of pun here, what’s called a “nomen omen,” an ominous sign of what is to come in the story.

Now, in light of the famine, this family of four ventures out into the country of Moab. They go east across the Jordan Valley into the hills rising above the Dead Sea into what is now modern day Jordan. Moab was populated by the second cousin hillbillies of Israel. These are hillbilly second cousins here. They were founded through an incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. It’s a very sad story. You can read about it in Genesis 19. And actually, Moab itself, the name for the people, is a compound of two words–Mo, meaning who, and Ab, meaning father. Who’s your father? Moab literally means, “Who’s your daddy?” Okay? (chuckles) Who’s your daddy?

And so Moab and Israel were not on friendly terms at all, to say the least. The king of Moab was the one who had hired Balaam to come and curse Israel, if you remember that story from
Numbers 22–24. When that didn’t work, the Moabite women seduced the Israelite men in retaliation (Numbers 25). The Moabites were those who worshipped the false god of Chemosh, and there was all kinds of messed up stuff in their worship there.

And just recently in history in the time of the Judges, the king, Eglon, had been oppressive to the people of Israel, and it was only when the left-handed dagger man, Ehud, killed him in his palace that the people were delivered in Judges 3.

And so all of this is just to say Moab is not a good place. Okay. It’s not a good place historically, politically, morally, or theologically. That Elimelech is going there is a problem. Now, Elimelech and his family may have intended only a brief journey to the land, but sojourning became remaining, remaining became dwelling, and when it was all said and done, they were there over a decade. And it is in Moab that the tragedies go from bad to worse.

First, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi widowed. In an agrarian patriarchal society, this is especially devastating. There’s no life insurance, no social security. Women had very few legal rights. They were not allowed to inherit property. Property was passed down the male line in these days. But she does have her sons which means they can work the fields. They can inherit the property and care for her in her old age.

Both of these sons get married. They take Moabite wives. Orpah and Ruth are the names of these ladies, but after ten years they are still childless. And the point here is that there are no sons and there are no heirs. And then they both tragically die, which leaves Naomi now in utter destitution. There’s no one to work the fields and earn income, there’s no one to protect and defend if there’s a legal issue, there’s no way to pass on property through inheritance. There is no hope, no future. Everything is done.

Now, in Israel there was a kind of social safety net for situations just like this. It was called Levirate Marriage. If a woman was widowed without an heir, it was her deceased husband’s brother, it was his responsibility, if he was unmarried, to actually marry his dead brother’s bride, and then father a child and carry on the family name so that the property could stay in the family. And the problem here, of course, is that Naomi is well beyond child-bearing years. And we don’t even know if Elimelech has a brother, and so there’s really no real hope in this situation.

Naomi has lost everything. I mean, can you imagine her suffering and anguish? She’s not only lost her husband and sons but she’s lost her livelihood, her social stability, her future, everything! She has entered into a kind of living death. No hope, no future, and nowhere to turn! That is until she hears a rumor that there is bread once again in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the House of Bread, has bread in it, that the Lord (You’ll notice the capital letters in this verse. The Lord, the L-O-R-D! This is the covenant name of God, Yahweh.) the covenant keeping God has been faithful to His covenant, to His people. He has visited and graced them once again. And so she gathers her things and heads for home. And thus begins what is, I think, one of the most beautiful stories of redemption in all of the Bible.

Now, we’re going to look at this more over the coming weeks, but today what I want to focus on is I want to show you three realities that we need to run to if we are to navigate grief in the graces of God, in His mercies.

So the first reality we have to run to is this. Life is full of grief. Life is full of grief! You know the Greek theater made famous those two masks, you know the happy mask of comedy, the sad mask of tragedy. And you know, comedy, where everyone lives happily ever after; tragedy, where everyone dies in the end. Right? And most of us, if we were to go to see a movie or a play or something, we would want to see a comedy, wouldn’t we? We would want to see something happy because that’s how we wish life was all the time. But if we’re honest, tragedy is really a deep reality in our lives, isn’t it? There’s a whole lot of tragedy in life, a whole lot of pain, a whole lot of heartache and suffering and loss.

In one of my favorite movies, “The Princess Bride” (This is getting quite old now. I think it came out in 1987. I know they’re remaking it. They’ll probably ruin it, but you know, don’t get me started.) But Wesley says to the princess in once place, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” And the reality, friends, is that the Bible is not giving you a cheap sales pitch. Do you realize that, that the Bible is utterly honest about suffering? In this sin-cursed world, illness and famine and disease and death are painful realities, and life hurts a lot. Deeply, devastatingly, groaningly, life is full of sorrow and grief, and one of the most beautiful things about God, the God of the Bible, is that He’s not detached or aloof or unconcerned with our heartaches, but He enters into our pain, into our grief. Psalm 34:18 says that the Lord is near to the broken-hearted.

Isaiah 53:3 foretells about Messiah, Jesus, that He will be a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Romans 8:26 describes the Holy Spirit as one who groans with us in our sufferings. The whole triune God is a grieving God. He comes close in our pain.

One of my favorite stories in all of the Bible is in John 11. Jesus is coming to the gravesite of one of His friends, Lazarus, and He knows what He’s going to do. He’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. But when He comes to the tomb with full knowledge that He’s about to raise him, John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible says this, “Jesus wept.” He wept, not just a little tear, but a weeping, bawling, crying. And here’s what’s amazing to me. He could have shortcut the pain. He could have short-circuited the process and rushed through to resurrection and redemption. He knows what’s coming, but He doesn’t do that. He enters into the pain and the sorrow of the moment. He feels its ravages and He weeps.

Friends, we have a God who weeps because we have a God who loves, and grief is the price of love. Grief is the price of love! It is the only rightful response to the sin and death and suffering of this sin-cursed world.

And so, friends, here’s the takeaway. We need to learn to lament. We need to learn to lament. God invites us to weep, not alone but with Him; to bring our sorrow, our pain, our heartache, our frustrations, our doubts—even our anger, and bring all of it in its ugly messiness and cast it upon Him, entrust it to Him, invite Him into our experience of pain, to cast our cares on Him because He cares for us.

The Psalms are full of prayers, laments just like this. Let me just give you a couple. In Psalm 10 this is what it says: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” So he feels like God doesn’t care, that He’s not near, but this is how he ends. Verse 16: “The Lord is king forever and ever.” Or Psalm 13:1: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” But then in verse 5 he says, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love. My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”

Friends, do you see the honesty of the pain, the struggle, bringing all of this before God? And yet, it is a prayer, isn’t it? It is a prayer offered in faith in the presence of God, confident that God will respond. He will answer and He will come through for the psalmist. These are raw prayers. They’re honest prayers, and some of them are a little bit hard to think about even praying. Maybe you’re sitting there saying, “I could never pray like that. That’s not theologically correct. That’s not honoring God. I don’t know that I could say that.” Well, Jesus did. Jesus did!

Look at Psalm 22. Jesus quotes from this. Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” But then in verse 19: “But you, O Lord, do not be far off. O you my help, come quickly to my aid.” Verse 26: “The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.” You’ll recognize those words probably from Jesus Christ from the cross as He dies in agony and pain and suffering. Jesus cries out in lament. And if Jesus cried in lament, we can too.

And so don’t you see? We run to this reality, that life is full of grief, and we lament. We weep with God through our pain, through our sorrows in faith, knowing that God hears us, and that He will walk with us every step of the way.

The second reality that we are to run to in this passage here is that our instincts are often dangerous. Our instincts are often dangerous. It’s interesting when the famine came, Elimelech’s instinct was to go to Moab. Right? And for the original audience there’s red flags flying up everywhere here. Okay? The first one is where he’s leaving. He’s leaving the Promised Land. That was God’s gift to the people of Israel. You don’t reject the gift that God gave you, number one. And secondly, that’s where God’s presence and protection is, in a sense. And so Elimelech is leaving, in a sense, the presence and protection of God.

Secondly, it’s where he’s going to. We already talked about this, but he’s going to Moab. And Moab is not a good place to go for an Israelite person. He is leaving, in a sense, the land of Yahweh, and he is now residing in the land of Chemosh.

The third thing that’s going on here, the third red flag, is that he’s abandoning the covenant. He’s abandoning the covenant. Deuteronomy 28 and Leviticus 26 make it abundantly clear that when Israel was obedient to God, doing the right thing, He would send blessing and provision for them. But when they disobeyed and rebelled against Him, He would withhold the rain. Their crops would fail. And it’s like a warning light. It’s God saying, “Listen, I need you to turn back to Me. Be faithful to Me.” And so when the famine hits it’s not something to run away from. It’s a warning light meant to draw the people of Israel back to God. But that’s not what Elimelech does. And the irony here is that the man whose name means “my God is king,” decides he’s going to be the king of his own life. There is no way he is going to kneel before God in repentance, and turn to God. He’s going to go do his own thing in his own way. And to borrow a turn of phrase here, we could say, “You see there was no king for Elimelech. He did what was right in his own eyes.”

And here’s the reality, friends. The same sufferings that make us turn to God can also make us turn our backs on God. The same sufferings can make us turn to God, or turn our backs on Him. And I’ve seen it so many times in my own life and the lives of others. When we are experiencing loss and pain and heartache and grief, it either drives the roots of our faith very deep into who God is for us. Then we find strength and life and sustenance and joy, and God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, as it were. And He is our Good Shepherd. It either drives those roots really deep or it uproots us altogether. And we become self-reliant, and our faith grows cold and distant, and we end up walking through our suffering and pain alone. And that’s what Elimelech did here. His instinct was one of self-reliance. And friends, self-reliance is always self-destructive.

Proverbs 14:12, says: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” Or Proverbs 3:5–6 famously says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. (Do you see the caution in this?) In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

And so here’s the take-away for us, friends: Lean in closer. Let’s lean in closer. When we are in grief it is not a time to try to go it alone. It is not a time to throw in the towel and give up on God. If ever we needed God most, it is in times of grief and sorrow and pain. And so, friends, let’s lean in closer.

I know it’s scary to trust God again. I know it’s scary to be vulnerable. I know it’s scary to let Him love you when you are hurting so badly. But friends, our God is faithful and true. He will never leave us nor forsake us. And even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we can fear no evil, for our Good Shepherd is with us.

And so, friends, we learn to lean into His promises don’t we? We lean into His Word. We lean into worship and lean into prayer. We lean in with the people of God, and lean into the presence of God. We lean into the everlasting arms of our beautiful God. And so, friends, we run to reality, the reality that our instincts are often dangerous. And so we lean in closer to the faithfulness of God.

The third reality that we need to run to is that sometimes going back is the way forward. Sometimes going back is actually the way forward. In verse 6 it says that Naomi returns. There’s a pun going on here. The word for return is the same word in Hebrew for repent. So she returns. She repents. In going back to the Promised Land, to her homeland, because she heard of the faithfulness of the covenant-keeping God, Naomi is not just relocating her body. She is relocating her soul, her faith, her trust. She has heard that the covenant-keeping God is once again on the move, providing food for His people, and instead of trying to continue doing life on her own, Naomi decides to bring her life under the kingship of Yahweh.

This is a journey of faith. And you say, “Well, why did she wait so long to do this? When Elimelech died, why did she not go back then? I mean maybe there was a relative who would have been willing to redeem her, become a redeemer and marry her and provide an heir. Why didn’t she return when her sons became of age to marry so they could have married within the covenant as God had prescribed? Why did she not return when her children were unable to have sons and grandkids? Maybe the Lord would intervene as He had done with Sarah and so many other women in the past. Why does she wait until everything falls apart and she hits rock bottom and there’s no hope left? Why?

Well, friends, that’s often what it takes, doesn’t it, to wake us up, for us to see reality and to run home to God? The reality is repentance is a really hard pill to swallow, isn’t it? As a matter of fact, our pride is usually the greatest barrier to experiencing God’s mercies. It’s hard to admit when we are wrong. It’s hard to confess when we’ve blown it. It’s hard to turn around when we’ve been going the wrong way for so long in life. But when you are driving and you find out you’re on the wrong road, the faster you stop and turn around, the sooner you get to go home. Right? As my dad used to tell me, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging.” Right? (chuckles)

Remember the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15? When he’d spent everything frivolously, and then the famine hit (another famine, in another foreign country) and he found himself slopping the pigs, wishing he could eat the food he was feeding to the pigs, and he hit rock-bottom? Remember this? It says, “He came to himself,” and he realized in his father’s house even the servants had enough bread.

He realized there was bread in his father’s house. And he arose and he left the far country where he was, and he went home. He returned. And what happened? While he was still a long way off his father saw him and was moved with compassion and ran to him. And he put a robe on his back, a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet. And he hugged him and kissed him. And he threw a party and served filet mignon. It’s right there! And I wonder if the brother (the younger brother, the prodigal son) I wonder if he thought to himself, “Man, why didn’t I do this sooner?” What kept him away for so long? It’s the same thing that kept Naomi away for so long. It’s the same thing that keeps you and me away for so long. Pride. Pride.

And so here’s the takeaway, friends. Let it die! Let it die! Friends, it’s time we let our pride die, let our self-reliance die, our stubbornness die, our bitterness die, our guardedness die. It’s time to let it all die and turn around and come home.

Maybe you’re like Naomi. Maybe you’ve been really hurt, and maybe you decided not to trust God, not to trust anyone, but just to go do your own thing, try to manage life on your own. It’s kind of a Dr. Phil moment, like “How’s that working for you?” Right? And maybe in this moment you realize there’s something, you’re like, “Maybe I could come home.”

But here’s the catch. You just say, “Listen, God wouldn’t want me, not the way I am, not soiled and dirty. There’s no hope for me.” Well, friends, let me push back on that. Do you realize if Naomi can come home, you can too? No matter what you’ve done, no matter who you’ve become, no matter what’s been done to you, and no matter how far you’ve gone, you can always come home to your Father. If you just turn, just repent and head for home you will find that God runs to meet you exactly where you are because here’s what’s true. Naomi may have abandoned God, but God never abandoned Naomi. Aren’t you glad?

As she returns to the land of Israel she’s going to discover a God who is faithful even when she has been faithless. She will discover a God who is steadfast and true, whose love is loyal and strong, whose mercies are greater than all of her sin, and whose redemptive plan is just getting started. And friends, if that’s true of Naomi in the old covenant, the Old Testament, how much more is that true of you and me who know and live on the other side of the cross. We know the extent to which God will go to redeem and restore and be faithful to His people.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” We have seen how Jesus experienced the famine of covenant curse on the cross in order that we might enjoy the eternal bread of salvation. We have seen how Jesus was swallowed up by the curse of death that we might have abundant life forever in the presence of God. We have seen how Jesus was cast out in order that we might come home, how Jesus was abandoned–“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”–in order that we might have forever relationship with God. And friends, listen! When life is full of grief, and we suffer and endure pain, just as God is inviting Naomi and us, He’s inviting us to come running to the reality of who God is.

In Deuteronomy 7:9, God says this: “Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.” Friends, this is your God. And so wherever we suffer, wherever the pain of grief rolls over our lives, friends, God is inviting us to run to the reality of who He is, that He might become our greatest and deepest and most precious reality itself. Won’t you run to Him? Won’t you bring your sorrow, your pain, your grief to Him, invite Him in? Won’t you doubt your own instincts and trust yourself to the Lord, and even if you’ve run the other way and done your own thing, won’t you dare to believe that you can come home because of the promise of the faithfulness of your God? He’s waiting. He’s there for you, and here’s the reality.

We are never ever alone. No matter how far Naomi went, she could not outrun or leave the faithful presence of God. She was never actually alone no matter where she went. And neither are you. Neither am I, because we have a faithful God.

Would you bow your heads? Let’s pray together.

Father, we thank you that we cannot run, we cannot hide, we cannot flee your presence. You are good to us always, faithful and true. May we return, wherever we stray. May we come home and rediscover the beauty and goodness of who you are. We thank you for Jesus who went to the cross to die in our place and for our sake, and bore all of our sin and shame in order that we might come home by faith, that when we admit that we are sinners, when we believe that Jesus is enough and commit our lives to you that you wrap your arms around us and say, “Welcome home.” We love you. You are so good to us, and so we run to you, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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