Ruth 1: The God of Ordinary People

Have you noticed the Bunnings hardware ads? Starring normal people. Ordinary shop assistants talking about what’s so good about buying stuff at Bunnings.

I guess the message is “We’re not a big business who isn’t interested in you. We know what it’s like to be an ordinary person. To understand what an ordinary person wants. We’re almost like your friendly LOCAL hardware store. Even though we bought them out years ago.

There’s something about the ads that just doesn’t CONVINCE me.

It’s a bit of a TREND really. ORDINARY PEOPLE ADVERTISING. Don’t use paid actors. Don’t make things look too slick or professional. Big companies trying to convince you they’re interested in the small person. In the everyday problems of normal people.

And sometimes we’re tempted to think the same way about GOD. That he’s too busy to be involved with NORMAL PEOPLE? And much of the Old Testament can seem to give that impression. With books about kings and nations. And temples and city walls. And international warfare and exile and rescue from slavery.

But Ruth is DIFFERENT. The message of Ruth is that God is interested in all the ordinary little details, of all the ordinary little lives, of his ordinary little people.

The big lesson of Ruth is that God’s SOVEREIGN. He’s KING. He’s in Control. Of EVERYTHING. Of planets and stars. Of oceans and weather. Of rivers and roads. Of men and women. Of birds and bees.

But God isn’t just sovereign over the affairs of NATIONS – of kings and judges, of tribes and clans, of battles and wars and conquest. He’s INTERESTED IN ORDINARY PEOPLE! – like you and I, doing ordinary things, struggling with everyday, normal trials. Family and food. Making ends meet, keeping a roof over our head, through difficult situations.

That’s what we learn from the book of Ruth.

It’s a wonderful short story. Beautifully crafted. Not a word wasted. It’s a story about the little details of life. About village life, and gathering food. It’s about marriage and death, and children and family.

It’s about boy meets girl, WITH MOTHER-IN-LAW THROWN IN FOR GOOD MEASURE!

No famous people here. In fact the plot revolves around two widows – and one of them’s a FOREIGNER! It’s a story about people who are so ordinary, they’re NOBODIES.

And it’s only in the closing lines of the book that the significance of the story is revealed. In fact it’s the last WORD that reveals why this insignificant story is so important. Why it’s important to the Jewish nation who first heard it, and why it’s important to Christians today.

But I don’t want to spoil the surprise! Today we’re only looking at the first chapter! (Well, we might sneak a quick peek at the last page later!)

1. Ordinary peoples’ lives

So let’s start at the beginning. Let’s look over the back fence into some ordinary peoples’ lives. Verse 1.

(Ruth 1:1 NIV)  “In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.”

The story starts in Israel. The time? When the judges ruled. Which puts it sometimes between 1400 to 1000 BC.

But the reference to the time of the judges is more than just a time signature. It’s a description of THE MORAL STATE of the nation.

It’s a couple of generations after the Jews have conquered Canaan. And it’s a TURBULENT time! There’s still fighting and uprisings. The Israelites are still mopping up. Getting rid of the last pockets of Canaanites from the land. Joshua’s dead, and for the most part, Israel is leaderless.

The people are learning about farming. Never done it before. And they’re tempted to follow the fertility God, Baal. After all, the LOCALS seem to know how to get the good crops!

Israel’s tempted to turn from the TRUE God. The God who BROUGHT them into the land. And to follow OTHER gods instead.

As you read through the book of Judges, there’s widespread wickedness and violence, and disobedience of God. It’s a time when there’s no king, no leadership. This is one of the DARKEST DAYS of Israel’s history.

And the chorus that’s repeated through the book of Judges is that it’s a time when there was NO KING IN ISRAEL, and EVERYONE DOES WHAT’S RIGHT IN HIS OWN EYES. There’s no HUMAN king, but more importantly when GOD is not recognised as KING. And so, everyone does whatever he feels like. There’s no rule, no law, no accountability, no justice, no MORALITY.

That’s WHEN our story happens. That”s the SETTING. And the first detail we discover is that there’s A FAMINE IN THE LAND. And although we’re not told it EXPLICITLY, we can’t help wondering if the FAMINE is the result of people abandoning God. Of doing what’s right in their own eyes. Because that’s often what happens in the Bible when there’s a FAMINE. It’s because the people aren’t looking to GOD to supply their needs. And so he sends A FAMINE to shake them up.

Our attention immediately turns to one normal family. Struggling to put bread on the table. The subtle irony is / they live in Bethlehem, which means house of bread. But there’s none to be had. Like living in Surfer’s Paradise, but there’s no waves, or Fisherman’s Point, but there’s nothing biting.

A famine that’s caused by the people rejection of God as king.

And so this man’s solution is to leave Israel in search of food. And he chooses to go to MOAB. Perhaps 80 km away. But there’s food THERE. Which makes it seem likely that the famine in Bethlehem IS God’s punishment.

But rather than address the SPIRITUAL problem behind the famine, for THIS guy it’s all about the MATERIAL side. And so he leaves God’s people. Leaves WORSHIP and a congregation of believers. Leaves potential wives for his sons behind. Sacrifices ALL OF THAT.

And goes to MOAB. A wicked, sexually promiscuous people. Who worshipped Chemosh, rather than God. A people who began with the drunken incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter in Gen 19. Her son was called Moab, the father of the Moabites.

And that’s where this guy takes his family. To a place where they were probably the only family who followed God.

And they do it to find FOOD. To avoid STARVING TO DEATH.

Perhaps you’re a guy who’s tempted to put MATERIAL PRIORITIES before SPIRITUAL ones. Making decisions for your family about FINANCE, but when it comes to Christian foundations, they’re not important at all.

In v2, we find out his name’s Elimelech, which means “my God is KING”. Which is subtle irony again. Because his ACTIONS show the exact opposite of his NAME.

My God is king. King over nations. King over families. King over food and famine. Over life and death. My God is king.

God is king, but this guy is going to solve his problems HIMSELF. He’s going to be king of his world. And God doesn’t MATTER.

My God is king. It’s a theme that’ll be expanded on as the story unfolds. But at the moment, it’s just a TASTE!

NAMES are SIGNIFICANT in the story of Ruth. His wife’s name, Naomi, means pleasant, or sweet, “Sweetheart”.

And his two sons are Mahlon and Kilion. Now, I know Biblical names are often good to choose for your kids. But don’t call them Mahlon or Kilion. They mean “sickly” and “whining”

2. Ordinary Peoples’ trials

And so we almost expect what happens next. Ordinary peoples’ TRIALS. The family emigrates to avoid starvation. To avoid DEATH. But it doesn’t work. Elimelech tries to be king, to control his world. But he FAILS. V3. He moves to Moab, then he DIES ANYWAY.

Naomi’s left with her two sons, who marry Moabite women, called Orpah and Ruth. But then, v5, jump forward 10 years, the TWO SONS die.

And so within a couple of paragraphs, we’re left with Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law.

Things aren’t turning out too pleasantly for Naomi whose name means PLEASANT. Three widows all alone, in a foreign country, destitute! No husbands, No children, no protection, No family, No land, No income! No social security. They were nobodies!

What were they going to do? 5 verses in, and they’ve got nowhere left to turn.

3. Ordinary People’s Extraordinary God:

But it’s not the end of the story, is it? Because it doesn’t DEPEND on them. Between the three of them, there’s NO means to make things happen!

So who’s going to be the mover and shaker? Who’s going to give the story some energy? Who’s going to side with these NOBODIES – that people want nothing to do with?

God, of course! Ordinary people’s EXTRAORDINARY God. He’s the REAL central character in the story. The same God who’d CAUSED the famine. The same God who had taken Elimelech, and Mahlon and Kilion. This SAME GOD, in time, caused the famine to end in Israel.

So Naomi decides to return to Israel. Verse 6.

(Ruth 1:6-7 NIV)  “When she heard in Moab that the LORD had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, Naomi and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there.

They head off. But some way down the road, perhaps outside their parent’s homes, they stop for a conversation. There’s lots of conversation in Ruth. Half the book is conversation. And you’ve got three women, so when there’s a problem, they’re obviously going to TALK about it.

Naomi realises Israel’s no place for her daughters in law. They won’t just be widows with no family. They’ll be FOREIGN widows! She gives them the opportunity to stay behind. Verse 8

(Ruth 1:8-10 NIV)   “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the LORD show kindness to you, as you have shown to your dead and to me. {9} May the LORD grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kisses them

The girls give token and polite resistance – promise to stay with her. But we don’t really expect that they’ll keep it up for long. OF COURSE the best thing to do is for them to return to their families! It’s obvious! Verse 11. There’s NO WAY Naomi will ever re-marry, and have more sons for them to marry! How ridiculous!

And so Orpah agrees, and returns to Moab. Just what we’d expect. So only Ruth remains with Naomi. And then she gives a beautiful speech. A speech of loyalty and love and faithfulness. Verse 16.

(Ruth 1:16-18 NIV)  “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 anything but death separates you and me.” {18} When Naomi realised that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.”

Ruth is saying, “I’ll be faithful to my marriage vows”. “I’ll be faithful to God”. And I’ll be faithful to you”.

Faithfulness reflects God’s purposes:

So what are WE to do with Ruth? How should HER life influence OUR life? There’s TWO ways I want to talk about.

Firstly, we’re to see REFLECTIONS of the way God relates to people. It’s in Ruth’s loyalty that we see a PICTURE of God’s faithfulness to his people, Israel. Ruth’s marriage-promises reflect God’s covenant-promises. Ruth’s FAITHFULNESS reflects God’s PURPOSES:

The message is that in the times of the judges, where there was so much sinfulness and wickedness and unfaithfulness, GOD WAS STILL ACTIVE AND FAITHFUL and working in the lives of ordinary people – people like Naomi and Ruth!

Look at Naomi’s prayer. Verse 8. She prays that God would show KINDNESS to these Moabite girls! The word is “loving-kindness”, or “covenant faithfulness”. The Hebrew is HESED. It’s a word particularly used about God’s behaviour towards ISRAEL – the people of his covenant!

And Naomi’s praying that God will extend his covenant blessings to these Moabite, Gentile women!

In the time of the Judges, with Israel acting as if they’re anything BUT God’s chosen people, being unfaithful wherever they could. It’s a GENTILE woman who shows Israel how to be faithful. And it’s for a Gentile woman that Naomi prays. Prays that God will be faithful to her.

And in Ruth’s declaration, she expresses her commitment to become one of God’s FAITHFUL children. “Your God will be MY God”

God’s plan has ALWAYS included ALL people – not just the Jews. Right back from Abraham’s time, God promised that he’d be a blessing to ALL nations. And that’s something we can be grateful about. Since we’re Gentiles, too!

So Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem. Verse 19. The townsfolk are all buzzing with excitement! “Is it really you, Naomi?” Naomi answers

(Ruth 1:20-21 NIV)  “”Don’t call me Naomi (or pleasant), ” she told them. “Call me Mara, (or bitter) because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. {21} I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.””

So the chapter draws to a close. Naomi’s come home. The famine’s over. But aren’t things much worse than when they’d left?

What difference has Ruth’s loyalty made? Perhaps she’d made the wrong choice after all? What sort of lesson do we get out of THIS ending? How can God be KING when there’s been famine and death? How can he be showing KINDNESS to Naomi and Ruth when they’re nobodies without husbands, homes, support, or prospects?

But look at the way the story of Ruth addresses these doubts and questions. Because this ISN’T the end of the chapter, is it? Look at verse 22.

(Ruth 1:22 NIV)  “So Naomi returned from Moab accompanied by Ruth the Moabitess (just in case you’d forgotten), her daughter-in-law, arriving in Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning.”

Just a tiny phrase finishes the chapter on a high note. It’s not a loud, obvious note, – not a trumpet blast. But it’s still a positive.

But that’s really the tone of the whole book! It’s not always in the big, miraculous, obvious ways that God works. And he doesn’t just work with the gifted and talented, the rich and the successful.

God provides the ordinary needs of ordinary people. Despite all that Naomi has been through, she’s arrived home JUST AS THE BARLEY HARVEST WAS BEGINNING!

A coincidence? I don’t think so! But it’s what we do, isn’t it?

Little things fall into place. and we say, “That was LUCKY, wasn’t it?!”

Or, we worry about decisions as if God wasn’t in control.

Or, when things don’t turn out the way we wanted, we get disappointed, rather than look for God’s purposes.

Or we take the everyday provisions for granted, as if WE’RE the one’s who’ve made them possible.

We treat the world as if it was about COINCIDENCES, rather than a world where God’s in control – where “My God is King” – Elimelech – My God IS King!!

God provided the ordinary needs of his people. And we mustn’t forget his hand in the ordinary things in our lives. In his protection on the roads, In our health, and the provision of jobs, and money, and food, and housing, in friends and so many other things!

We can’t see the COMPLETE answer to Naomi’s complaints yet. That’s still coming in the next chapters. But here we get the HINT. God’s working bad things for GOOD.

But it’s also true FOR US. In OUR tough times. When bad things happen, and we wonder where God is in all of it. WE CAN’T SEE THINGS COMPLETELY. But God CAN. He DOES promise to work all things for GOOD. Which may not mean our comfort, or our wealth, or our health. And he doesn’t promise it will happen instantly.

But he IS full of loving kindness and faithfulness. And he calls US to be kind and faithful as we TRUST him.

Faithfulness achieves God’s purposes:

So in Ruth’s loyalty, we see a PICTURE of God’s loyalty. But that’s not all! There’s a second way I think Ruth’s meant to teach us.

Ruth’s loyalty is also the MEANS by which God works out his plans.

Ruth’s loyalty is the instrument for God’s loyalty to his people.

There’s a real sense in which Ruth’s faithfulness ACHIEVES God’s purposes.

I’m not normally one who reads the last page of a mystery novel! And I hate finding out the result of a football game before I’ve had a chance to watch it.

But I’m going to make an exception here! If we turn to the last page of this story, we see the way it turned out!

Without Ruth’s loyalty, the story would have stopped in Moab. Without Ruth’s loyalty, she wouldn’t have married Boaz. Without Ruth’s loyalty, she wouldn’t have given birth to Obed, who in turn fathered Jesse, who in turn fathered King David! Without Ruth’s loyalty, King David’s line wouldn’t have culminated in Jesus – the Saviour of the World!

That simple act of Ruth’s loyalty was used by God to work out his ultimate loyalty to his people – Jesus!

Would Ruth have been loyal to Naomi if she’d known how things would turn out? Of course! But she didn’t!  As far as she knew, she was going back TO POVERTY.

She didn’t know that she would marry Boaz! She didn’t know that she would have a son, Obed. She didn’t know that Obed’s son would be Jesse, or that Jesse’s son would be King David. And she didn’t know that King David’s line would eventually culminate in the Saviour of the world, Jesus!

If Ruth hadn’t come back from Moab with Naomi, she wouldn’t have been part of God’s plans for an ordinary person, which culminated in an extraordinary event! Ruth’s decision was made so much harder because she didn’t know how things would turn out!

Let’s suppose this story was doing the rounds of Israel about 100 years after the event. During the reigns of King David and King Solomon. That’s pretty likely. Great times. Easy times. Times of prosperity and wealth and also pride and complacency.

For the original Jewish hearers, Ruth was a story that showed them where their great kings had come from. The great time of peace under David and Solomon, was the result of GOD’S ACTION IN ORDINARY PEOPLE. – ordinary people being obedient in ordinary decisions.

It illustrated the faithfulness of a God who stood by his covenant promises, who was loyal to his precious possession – his people Israel.

The challenge was that if Israel was to continue in this time of peace under the kings, then INDIVIDUALS needed to display the same sort of loyalty to each other and to God/ that this foreign woman had showed.

God’s covenant blessings DEPENDED on Israel’s faithfulness – faithfulness like that shown by Ruth

God works out his purposes when God’s ordinary people live faithfully like their God. That was the lesson for the Jewish hearers. And it’s the lesson for God’s people today.

God works out his purposes when God’s ordinary people live faithfully like their God. As a CHURCH, we’re God’s people. It’s as we deal faithfully with each other. As we are truthful, and honest, and caring. As we involve ourselves in each other’s lives, that GOD CAN WORK OUT HIS PURPOSES IN US.

One of the ways we witness to God/ is to REFLECT HIS CHARACTER in our dealings with each other. As our neighbours see a group of people who are ordinary, but who are faithful and loving and truthful, then they begin to understand the faithful and loving and truthful God we serve.

It’s one of the great benefits of home-groups. If you haven’t been involved in a home group, I want to encourage you to join one. As you get involved in each other’s lives, you’re working at God’s purposes for his world! That’s a pretty awesome occupation!

God works out his purposes when God’s ordinary people live faithfully like their God.

And individually, just like Ruth, we’re ordinary people! Every day we have the opportunity to work with God in dozens of ordinary decisions. We don’t know how the future will turn out! Sometime we’re faithful, and obey God. Most of the time we don’t see any result from our obedience.

Sometimes we’re disobedient, and the chance for God to use us passes us by! It’s our loss! God isn’t limited by our obedience or disobedience. If we don’t work with Him, then he uses someone else to achieve his purposes.

But we can never tell how God will use our ordinary obedience!

In May 1934 a Charlotte, North Carolina farmer lent a pasture to some businessmen. They wanted to devote a day of prayer for Charlotte because the Depression had spread spiritual apathy in the city. They’d planned to hold an evangelistic campaign later that year.

During that day of prayer on the land their leader, Vernon Patterson, prayed, that out of Charlotte the Lord would raise up someone to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

For eleven weeks from September 1934 a renowned, fiery Southern evangelist named Mordecai Fowler Ham, and his song leader, Walter Ramsay, shattered the complacency of church- going Charlotte.

God did hear their prayer. The farmer who lent his pasture for the prayer meeting was Franklin Graham, and his son Billy became a Christian during the meetings. And Billy Graham is probably the most well-known evangelist today. God has used him to bring hundreds of thousands of people to himself.

It was the simple, ordinary act of obedience on the part of an ordinary farmer. God used it as one step along the track to thousands upon thousands of people becoming Christians.

God is a God of ordinary people.

In the midst of momentous events,

He wants to PROVIDE for ordinary people.

He wants to RULE over ordinary people

He wants to USE ordinary people.

Will you let him use you?