Famines, Deserts and other Hard Places

Empty Stomachs, Empty Cupboards...

Pastor Lutzer | January 22, 2012

Summary

Despite famine and heartbreak, we see God moving forward with His plan of redemption in the lives of Naomi and Ruth… all the way to Jesus.

Selected highlights from this sermon

Imagine being Naomi or Ruth. You’re going through incredible personal loss in the midst of a famine. That may be all we see, but God is working during such times. And in the four short chapters of the book of Ruth, we see God moving forward with His plan of redemption.

By the end of the book, we find out that Boaz and Ruth are the great-grandparents of King David. Fast forward to the first chapter of the book of Matthew and we see that Boaz and Ruth are in the genealogy of Jesus.

Even in our darkest days, God is still there, and He’s still in control.

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All of us, I think, realize that the economy is a very important part of our lives, especially when we live here in America where all of our jobs and the economy are inter-related, not only among ourselves but the whole world. If there’s anything that Nazi Germany proved, it is that people will do anything, almost anything in order to live. If there are soup lines in Berlin or in Icelavin or Munich, people were willing to give up their freedoms (freedom of assembly, freedom of press). They were willing to give all of that up in exchange for life itself.

One of my concerns as we think about our own economy and people who are going through a hard time financially is for the children, as to how they survive. The Sun Times had an article some time ago detailing the stress on children during times of financial downturns. The bottom line, as you might already guess, is simply this: that when the parents are stressed, and sometimes it is only a single mother, the children are also stressed, and what a burden many of these young ones bear.

Today we’re going to look at a famine that took place in the times of the Old Testament, and we’re going to learn some lessons and hopefully, at the end of the day, you’ll see God in your trial, God in your famine, God in your downturn, and God in your situation. If we can accomplish that by the Holy Spirit, and of course, only the Spirit can do it, listening to this message will have been eminently worthwhile.

I’m going to ask you to take your Bibles and turn to the book of Ruth. Ruth is a little book that occurs after the book of Judges. It says in Ruth 1:1, “In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land.” Judges in this period of time—everybody doing what is right in his own eyes—no simple government, no leadership,everybody fending for himself! It was a bad situation to raise a family, to raise children. And here’s a family that we are introduced to, and there is a famine in the land.

You have to see the irony here, because actually the famine is in Bethlehem and its surrounding area, and the name Bethlehem means house of bread. Bate which means house and then lehem, which means bread. Batelehem! So there’s a famine in the House of Bread, just like some of you thought that if you made the move that you believed God wanted you to make, that somehow you’d have more money, more prosperity, more whatever, but there’s a famine right in the House of Bread.

If you know Bethlehem, you know that it is actually built on a plateau, and along the sides, the terraces, there they could grow olives and they could grow figs, and then in the valleys huge barley fields. But now a man by the name of Elimelech looks around to see some of his sheep die, does not know how long the famine is going to last, so he and his family decide to move. If your first vision is the vision of a famine, let the second picture in your mind that I am trying to paint be a little family moving from Bethlehem to Moab.

Now we pick up the text and you’ll notice that they chose to relocate. It says, “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 was Naomi.” And so they go to Moab.

One of the questions that you might ask is this: Why did they leave and nobody else seems to have left Bethlehem, but they did? Possibly the reason is because they were upper class. I say that because you’ll notice it says they were Ephrathites. This is in verse 2. You see, before Bethlehem was called Bethlehem, it was Ephrata. That’s why the prophet Micah spoke of it that way. And everybody who lived, lived in the area, but the expression implies that they had been there for generations. They were people who had planted their roots deeply in that area of the world. Their ancestors had. Very probably they had more wealth, if we could put it that way, than the common person in Bethlehem, because you know it is true, isn’t it, that famine strikes the rich much harder than the poor? So far as the poor are concerned things are always tough. It can’t really get any worse whether there’s a famine or whether there isn’t a famine. Poverty is poverty and you just learn to cope. But those who are wealthier have to reinvent their lifestyle. They have to scale down. It can be very difficult for them to do so, but if you have nothing, then you have nothing.

I’m reminded of a story I like to tell about a man who was going to spend two weeks in a monastery. And the head of the monastery took him to his room and said, “This is your room.” The room was entirely bare. There was not a single thing in it – not a pillow, not a chair, and obviously not a bed, and then the leader of the monastery said this: “Now this is your room.” He said, “If you need anything you come and see me and I will teach you how to live without it.” Well, you know, when you are poor you just learn to live without it.

But when a family makes a decision like this it’s huge because a decision that you make is going to impact who your children are going to marry. There are all kinds of consequences. When Rebecca and I chose to come to the United States so many years ago, in a sense that determined who our daughters would marry, etc. and that’s the way it was going to be in Moab.

Now the Moabites had their own gods, and they were of a different religion. They were pagans basically and I can imagine that Elimelech and his family said, “We’re going to be there just for a short time and then we’re coming back. Hopefully the famine will have resolved itself in Bethlehem.” That was the plan. It’s not exactly the way in which it worked out.

So if you are continuing to have the imagination in your mind of what’s happening, now tragedy strikes, and you have to visualize three funerals. You’ll notice that it says that Elimelech (verse 3), the husband of Naomi, died. Many people think that that was some kind of a judgment from God but we don’t know that. All that we can read is that he died for whatever reason.

Well, Naomi decided to stay in the land. Her roots were deep enough there. She was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives. The name of one was Orpah, and you all know of course that this was supposed to be Oprah Winfrey’s name, but someone put the “r” on the other side of the letter “p” on the birth certificate, and that’s how come we have Oprah rather than Orpah. Well that was one, and the name of the other was Ruth. They lived there about ten years and then add two more funerals to your mind. The sons died and now instead of one widow there are three widows in the land. And then after the ten-year period was over and the sons died, Naomi hears that there is bread in Bethlehem. The famine was over.

By the way, who caused that famine? You know the Bible says that God calls for famines. Maybe I’ll have an opportunity to expound on that in another message, but God causes them. In fact, in 2 Kings 8:1 Elisha says, “God is going to call a famine in the land and it is going to last seven years,” because God has multiple purposes for financial downturns and multiple purposes for famines, some of which we’ll see in a few moments.

So she hears that things are better in Bethlehem, and so the three of them begin to go toward Bethlehem, maybe sixty miles away. So they travel several days, but now we have a remarkable story. Naomi is trying to convince her two daughters-in-law to go back to Moab. “Don’t come with me all the way. Go back home.” She’s saying, “I’m too old to bear you sons that you would be able to marry.”

What’s going on there in the text? Is it because Naomi doesn’t love these two daughters-in-law? Yes, she does, but in those days if you weren’t married, you basically had nothing—no guarantee for existence. And so, what she was saying is, “If you go back to your own people you’ll have an opportunity to marry.” She says, “Even if I got married now, there wouldn’t be any possibility of me having two sons that you’d be able to marry.” And then she says in verse 13, “No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter for me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.”

Well, then, they lift up their voices and they weep. Orpah kisses her mother-in-law, but Ruth clings to her. And Naomi says, “Go back to your own gods” in verse 19, and then we have one of the most beautiful statements in all of Scripture. When Rebecca and I were married, this was part of our marriage vow, and I believe I’ve used this verse every single time that I have ever performed a wedding. Could it get more beautiful than this?

Ruth said to her, “Do not urge me to leave you, or to return from following after 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 I will be buried.” Wow! And when Naomi saw that Ruth continued to cling to her, she didn’t say anything more to her. She and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem and now we pick up the story.

Beginning in verse 19 it says, “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?” 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 (which, by the way, means pleasant), when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me? Call me Mara. Call me bitter, but don’t call me pleasant.”

It’s a very interesting story, and what I’d like to do is to give some lessons that we will learn about famines from the text, and then at the very end of the message I’m going to tell you why this book was written and what the real lesson is for all of us. Thanks for joining me on this brief journey.

I think that one of the lessons that come to us from the text is that we should, in the midst of trials, rediscover the value of family. You say, “Well, why do you say that? Where are you seeing this in the text?” I find it very interesting that Naomi said in verse 21, “I went away full and the Lord brought me back empty.” And I want to say, “Naomi, what’s going on here? You left full? I thought that the reason that you went to Moab is because you were hungry. You had an empty stomach. You had very little to take with you and now you are saying you left full?” Well, if we could interview Naomi I have no doubt that what she would say is, “I left full because when I left I had a husband and two sons, and that husband and those two sons were of much more value to me than going to a country to try to get bread. I was full and I didn’t know it.”

Isn’t that true in times of need? We recognize that the most important thing about us is really our families. Tragedy should drive us to one another and to realize how valuable it is (if you have a family, and some of you don’t and I’ll speak to that in a moment), if you have a family during a time of crisis you have to value one another and hang together. I have received letters from men who made investments without their wife’s knowledge, and have lost money. And then I received a letter from somebody else who got his wife’s consent with a little bit of coercion but blew their entire retirement on a plan that he thought would bring money, but of course it didn’t. And that one ended in divorce. What a tragedy.

See, that’s the thing. When famines come there are more arguments, more turfism. What ought to really happen is the opposite. My counsel to this man who wrote me a letter telling his story was you have to humble yourself. You have to confess to your wife that you made a bad decision, no matter how well intentioned. Families need to humble themselves and to acknowledge that they need one another and to learn to live and value one another all over again when times are hard.

Rebecca and I have been to the Soviet Union and to Romania, and I’ll tell you, we have been to little apartments where you have a kitchen that is so small that two wives can’t be in it at the same time. One has to back out to let the other in, and yet in these small little hovels you have two families living, sometimes three. And we wonder how they can do it. By the way, and I’ll mention this in another message when I talk about the ultimate collapse that is going to happen probably during the Tribulation Period, one of the things that God does during hard times is to expose our consumerism and our need to live large, and He brings us down to a level of commitment, and valuing those around us.

Did you know that 28%of all college students now live with their parents because of our economic challenges here in America? People have to rediscover family. If you have a family, you are full, even if you are going through a hard time.

There’s another lesson that we must learn, and that is we discover the value of community. Now I’m summarizing here, but Naomi and Ruth come back to the land. Naomi somewhere finds a place to live I’m sure, and Ruth goes out in the fields. She’s willing to do anything. She goes out to the fields, and she, in the field, is gathering grains that have been left over from the reapers. And now develops a romance, because a man by the name of Boaz, who is of the family of Elimelech, notices her, and he says some very beautiful things. He finds out who she is, and in Ruth 2:8 Boaz said to Ruth, “Now listen, my daughter. Don’t go glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping in. Go after them. Have not I charged the young men not to touch you? When you are thirsty, go and drink, etc.” And he says in verse 12, “The Lord repay you for what you have done and a full reward given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” What a beautiful phrase.

And then he instructs the young men in verse 15. He says, “Deliberately leave some grain for this young woman to pick up. Don’t take it all. Let her get some.” And as a result of that Naomi and Ruth are able to live. In fact, she takes the grain home, and when you have grain you have bread, and you know, when times are tough, what you need is other people to help you. You need the encouragement of those who really even don’t fit. I haven’t made much of it but Ruth, after all, was a Moabitess. Strictly speaking, there were some things that were said in the Old Testament about Moabites not being able to enter into the sanctuary, etc. The questions is whether or not the sons of Naomi should have even married their wives, Ruth and Oprah—Orpah I should say. (laughter) You knew I was going to do that, didn’t you?

And so what Boaz does (and I know there is romance involved here) is he helps them. Could I throw out a challenge to you today? Could you find somebody to help? And when I say somebody, let that be somebody who is poor, somebody who may be of another race, somebody who has been rejected, marginalized, who feels as if they don’t belong, who isn’t going to necessarily be sending out signals and saying, “Here I am. Please help me.” Would you reach out and help those who cannot help themselves? Will the community of God rise up when things are difficult?

And while I am at it, we here at The Moody Church have a fellowship fund, and that is because the fellowship committee gives out money to people who are in financial need, and I’ll just simply lay it on the line and tell you that it is essentially empty, and the reason is we have more people making more requests and this fund is investigated. That is to say the committee investigates the needs so that they are not giving out money frivolously.

So the point is this: What we need in hard times is community. If you are going through a hard time don’t isolate yourself. Don’t say to yourself, “I’m into a difficult period of time and so what I need to do is to simply live alone and spend all of my time thinking about my fate.” You need the body of Christ in a moment of need. That’s the way God arranged it.

There’s something else that I find interesting in the text, and that is that we discover the opportunity to witness and evangelize. This is a beautiful story. Ruth is converted to the God of Israel. She said when she was asked to leave Naomi, “Your God shall be my God.” Don’t you love it? In other words, she was saying, “I am leaving the gods of Moab, and your God is going to be mine.”

Just think of Ruth. She jumped through all kinds of hoops. First of all, there was the racial hoop. She was a Moabitess—not a Jewess. There was the religious hoop. She had to leave behind her pagan gods and accept a brand new religion, a brand new God, the true God I might add. Just like some of you. You need to leave behind possibly the religion into which you were born and you need to jump through that hoop and accept God as He is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Ruth believed in the Jewish God under whose wings she had found refuge. And then culturally! You know you have different language barriers. You have different issues.

Now Naomi was not the best witness. Naomi was somewhat having a pity party. She felt sorry for herself. She was angry with God. She explained that to her daughters-in-law before they even got to Bethlehem. And yet there was something in Naomi that attracted Ruth to Naomi’s religion. I am always gratified to know that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, and that even in our imperfections and our sins and our failures, God can use us right there, and oftentimes He does it in very hard and difficult times. And by the way, evangelism always takes place in most instances on the basis of meaningful relationships. You know, it’s not because people listen to sermons. It’s not because they come to church, though we invite people to come to church and they come to trust Christ, but in most instances it is meaningful caring personal relationships that lead people to saving faith in Christ. But now we come to the bottom line. We come to the real purpose of all of this.

Why was this book of Ruth included in the Bible? That’s a good question. Well, you say, it’s an interesting romance. It’s an interesting story because Ruth and Boaz end up being married. And you can read that story on your own though you do need some help in terms of the customs of that time, but is that why God told this story? No, there’s another reason because all of the Old Testament has what we call salvation history. God is moving forward His plan of redemption, and this little jewel of a book, inserted in the midst of a difficult time of Israel’s history, helps us to understand God’s real purpose in having it included in the Scriptures.

In order to understand why, we turn to the end of the book, and Ruth and Boaz are married, and verse 14 of chapter 4 says, “Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord who has not left you this day without a redeemer (that’s Boaz) and may his name be renowned in Israel. He shall be to you a restorer of life, a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law loves you, who is more to you than seven sons (That’s a wonderful remark in light of the fact of the value of sons in Old Testament times.) has given birth to him (that is, to the child).’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him on her lap and became her nurse. (That might mean that she formally adopted the child as her grandchild.) And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name.” That’s also interesting. You’d think Boaz and Ruth would have some say in it but the women gave their opinion and apparently the family voted and agreed and they named him Obed, and then lo and behold (Do you see it there?) he was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Verse 22 – Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

Now think about this for a moment. Naomi gets to hold the grandchild, Obed. And in holding that grandchild she is greatly blessed. I am sure that she got over her bitterness. She is greatly blessed. But then Naomi dies. Obed grows up, marries, and Obed has a son and he is going to call him Jesse. And then Jesse grows up and he marries and has a son, and lo and behold, one of his sons is called David. And because David is in the kingly line, and because of the promises of God given to David for a kingdom and so forth, and because Jesus Christ on his human side (I know that he was virgin born) his legal genealogy goes back to David. And who shows up in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 but Ruth?

Naomi dies not knowing any of this. But she is glad that she can hold the baby in her arms, and then I’m sure that sometime after that she dies. Does she see God’s hidden purpose to move along redemption history? What if God in heaven were to say, “Naomi, I want to tell you this. Okay?” And now I am using my imagination. “Naomi, do you remember how difficult it was for you when you were there in Moab? You husband dies and two sons die? You have, of course, the story of your loneliness, your despair, and how bitter you were because the hand of the Almighty was against you. Do you remember all of that? Do you know what I had in mind? I wanted a Moabitess in my genealogy,” Jesus might say, “because I wanted to prove right from the get go that the Gospel is not just for the Jews. It’s for Moabites and it’s for Amonites, and it’s for all the other people that are in the Matthew 1 genealogy. And that’s why you suffered, but you didn’t know that, and you became bitter because you didn’t trust me, to believe that I knew what I was doing. My purposes are so much higher than yours.”

And I say to you today that God in heaven has multiple purposes that you and I know nothing about. We may know about those purposes someday, but we don’t know about them now in this life. But if we could only see God’s ultimate purpose, oftentimes only after we die, we would say, “Ho, ho, ho, so that’s why I went through this trial. That’s why I went through this difficulty. Oh, so that’s what God was doing.” But there’s no way for us to know that now. All that we see is that we have bills to pay, and we have relationships that are broken, but if we trust God, we will discover in the end that even through famine and heartache God has a purpose that He is working, and He has not left us without a witness.

The other day someone sent Rebecca this quotation. It says, “When you are going through a trial and you don’t know where God is, always remember that a teacher is silent during an exam or a test.” Of course He’s there. There are dozens of purposes that you and I know nothing about! If only we would trust Him.

Some of you need to forgive God. You say, “God doesn’t need forgiveness.” I understand that, but you are bitter with God. You are bitter. You are angry. You are Mara, because the Almighty has dealt harshly with you and brought calamity into your life.

This past week on the radio there was the testimony of a woman who was so angry, a virgin the whole time and Mr. Right is supposed to come along and he doesn’t, so what does she do? She goes and lives her own way and ends up in all kinds of heartache and brokenness and trouble, but she said, “I was mad at God. Everybody else seems to be blessed. I’m left out. I am Mara. Don’t call me by my name because the Almighty has done harshly with me.” That was Naomi’s take.

God was saying, “Naomi, don’t you understand that your bitterness was actually to be a blessing if you had had faith to believe it and to trust me?”

God knows what he is doing, and in the midst of the greatest heartache, the taking away of people, the sons of Naomi, the heartache of financial stress, God says, “Just trust me, and don’t be bitter. You are meant to be a blessing.”

I’m going to pray in a moment, and I am going to ask those who have been designated as prayer partners to get up right now and take your places in the aisle. In a moment we are going to be singing together. If you have a need we have only a very brief time to pray but you can connect. You can give to God your need and a prayer of trust in the midst of hardship, and the prayer partners will continue to pray for you all week. Let us see the glory of God even in that which we do not understand. Let’s pray together.

Father, help us to understand that Your purpose is so much greater than what we can see, to genuinely believe that You are here for us. For those today, Father, who need to release their feelings of pain and anxiety and perhaps even bitterness, to believe that You are in the midst of heartache, show them today Your glory if only we can trust You. In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.

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