“My God Is King” Ruth 1:1-4 July 27, 2008
SI: Two weeks ago we began a study of the book of Ruth.
It’s a story of how God takes his people from tears to rejoicing.
In Ruth we see the Lord working everything, even bad things,
even foolish sinful things, for the good of those who love him.
There is a book on the Book Table called “The Gospel According to Ruth”
by Iain Campbell. If you want something devotional to read about Ruth
while we are studying it on Sundays—I recommend Dr. Campbell’s book.
I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from that book for my own sermon preparation,
and want to give credit where credit is due.
INTRO: I read an article in this week’s Sports Illustrated about a swimmer named
Hayley McGregory. She had Olympic hopes.
But at the swimming trials her time was not good enough to go to Beijing.
What made the story interesting was that her time for the 100 meter backstroke
at the trials would have won her the gold medal for that event
at the 2004 Olympics.
But this is not 2004, it’s 2008, and the competition has changed,
so she failed the trial.
It was heartbreaking and yet it was a powerful reminder that not
everyone who claims to be an Olympian is an Olympian—
only those who make it through the trials.
There is a spiritual parallel.
Anyone can claim to be a Christian,
but the Bible teaches that faith is proved real through trials.
Remember how Peter put it in our Scripture reading earlier in the service:
“You may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.
These have come so that your faith may be proved genuine.”
Faith is proved genuine through trials.
James echoes this teaching in his letters when he says:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds,
because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”
There it is again, trials of many kinds, the testing of your faith.
The book of Ruth opens with a trial of faith.
There was a man named Elimelech.
That’s a significant name, it means “My God is King.”
Elimelech was an Israelite from Bethlehem in Judah—
a town in the heart of Israel, the buckle of the Bible Belt—
and he had this strong name—My God is King.
It’s a great name, so we expect great things of this man.
But in this trial of faith Elimelech failed so completely,
and became so entrenched in his failure, that it cast doubt on his name.
And he died and never saw the great blessings that God brought at the end.
It’s a sober story—one of those stories in the Bible you want to skip over.
And yet here it is at the beginning of Ruth.
Why does Ruth start this way?
Remember, I told you two weeks ago—Chapter one is the weeping chapter.
There’s lots of sadness in this chapter.
Elimelech’s failure of faith is part of that sadness.
And so this story is a warning to take trials of faith seriously.
It shows us how easy it is to fail and the devastating effects of failure.
But there is more than that—Bible never just gives warnings.
Warnings alone don’t change our hearts or make us better people.
Elimelech’s failure highlights God’s grace.
God is the hero of every story.
God is the hero of the book of Ruth.
Through this failure of faith we see that our hope is in Him.
Let’s look at this story and what it teaches us about faith, trials, and failure.
For you note takers, will do so under three headings:
1. The Reason for Failure
2. The Effects of Failure
3. The Hope in Failure
MP#1 The Reason for Failure
Verse 1 says there was a famine in the land, a famine in Judah.
Word was that 50 miles away, across the Jordan River in the country of Moab
there was food. The famine was Elimelech’s trial of faith.
Should he stay in Bethlehem or go to Moab?
He chose to go to Moab and that was a failure of faith.
There were several reasons why he shouldn’t have gone to Moab.
God had given the Israelites the Promised Land as their inheritance.
The land was the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.
Living in the Promised Land was central to their calling as the people of God.
So Elimelech leaving the land was abandoning his calling.
And it was even deeper than that.
The Israelites were commanded not to have anything to do with Moabites.
Reason was that when Israelites coming up from Egypt to Promised Land,
Moabites tried to destroy them. They didn’t try to do it militarily.
Instead, they tried to corrupt them with the worship of their Canaanite gods.
And it almost worked. Canaanite worship involved prostitution and immorality
and a lot of Israelites got pulled in and it was disastrous. Can read in Numb. 25.
The Lord cursed Moab, and warned Israel not to have anything to do with them.
So Elimelech leaving Israel, going to Moab was not just moving to another place.
There was a spiritual element—it was looking for help from the world.
And there was an even deeper component.
God had told the Israelites that if they ever turned away from him,
he would discipline them through wars and famines.
And the Lord had said, When these things happen, when famines come,
they are from me. I’m trying to get your attention.
I promise that if you call out to me, repent, I will forgive and feed you.
So the trial of faith that Elimelech faced was this—
should he follow the path of repentance and faith that God had laid out—
and that would mean staying in Bethlehem, staying in the place God had called
him, and waiting for God to work—
Or, should he do what he thought was best, and move to Moab,
where all of his physical needs would be met immediately?
Those are the two big options in every trial of faith that you have:
Do I obey God, stay true to my callings, listen to what God is telling me through
this trial, repent if necessary, and wait for God to work—
Or, do I do what seems best for my immediate comfort and security?
Let me state it in an even more memorable way.
Elimelech’s home town was Bethlehem. Bethlehem means house of bread.
So the very name of this town where God had given Elimelech an inheritance
spoke of the promise that God would feed his people.
We know the bigger significance of Bethlehem.
Jesus Christ, the bread of life, was born in Bethlehem.
So every trial of faith that you face boils down to this: Bethlehem or Moab?
And the reason you fail is that in the moment of trial,
Moab has bread, and Bethlehem doesn’t. It just has the promise of bread.
You can’t see Jesus. You can’t see what your life will look like if trust him.
And so it often seems best, best for your happiness and well-being,
to go with what you can see, rather than with what you can’t see.
Never forget conversation I witnessed as a young, very green assistant pastor.
In the parking lot of Marco Presbyterian Church, between the minister
I was working for, Bruce Fiol—a very gentle man—and a woman in the church.
She had a string of failed relationships, had told Bruce going to marry
another man who was not a Christian. Bruce gently told her, You can’t.
The Lord has made his will clear and you have to trust him.
And she cried out: But I just want to be happy!
And there it was—Bethlehem or Moab.
Trusting in the guidance and promises of Jesus who she could not see,
or marrying this man who she could see.
Faith, the Bible says, is being sure of what you hope for,
and being certain of what you do not see.
Maybe your trial of faith is a wrong someone has done to you.
Will you forgive him or enjoy bitterness and self pity?
You can see, over and over, what he did to you.
Takes faith in Jesus, who you can’t see, to believe forgiveness is better.
Maybe your trial of faith has something to do with money, children, in-laws,
but you know Lord has spoken, and choice is Bethlehem or Moab.
MP#2 The Effects of Failure
I think that when the Bible talks about trials of faith that it is talking about
something different from our daily challenges to live the Christian life.
The nature of a trial is that something big is at stake.
Like Hayley McGregory, what was at stake was her place on the Olympic team.
It was different from her challenges in swimming practice, or other meets.
A connection—it involved the same thing—swimming, but more at stake.
Trial of faith seems to be just that—a temptation or a challenge in which
a lot is at stake. It may be an unusual thing or it may be an ordinary thing,
but lots is at stake spiritually for good or bad.
What were the effects of Elimelech going to Moab?
There are two that stand out.
I don’t think these are always present in every failure, but here they are.
The first is that you may become entrenched in your disobedience.
There are some subtle words in these verses that are very revealing.
Verse one says that Elimelech “went to sojourn in the country of Moab.”
But then verse 2 says, “They went into the country of Moab and remained there.”
You can almost hear Elimelech. I know Bible says not to go to Moab—
but we’re not going to move there, we’re just going to sojourn there.
Just going to go there for this famine, not going to put down any roots.
Just going to stay in a hotel for a few months, till next harvest.
You hear him justifying his decision.
But then sojourning turns into remaining there.
And the really, really sobering thing about this is that Elimelech never
returned to Bethlehem, he died in Moab.
This sometimes happens when a person fails a trial of faith.
He justifies it, he says it’s just for a short time, this is not really him,—
and then he becomes entrenched in his disobedience.
A minister I know once had a young man in his congregation who was doing very
well in his business, and making a lot of money.
They were talking and this young man asked,
“Pastor, what would you think about me getting a new Mercedes Benz?”
Pastor could tell there was a struggle going on in this young man’s conscience.
So he said: There are wealthy Christians and well-to-do Christians,
and there is no law in the Bible against owning and using expensive things.
But, he said, this decision is troubling you,
and that is an indication that your loyalty to Christ is being tested.
It’s a test of what you will do with success.
So whatever you do, whatever decision you make about this car,
you must do it in good conscience, and out of loyalty to the Lord Jesus.
Young man failed the test and began to live in open rebellion against the Lord.
Another story I heard from a minister: Young single woman came to see him.
I’m pregnant. Will God forgive me if I get an abortion?
Quoted 1 John 1:9
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins,
and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
The Lord will forgive every sin you confess to Him.
But, he said, I have to warn you, getting an abortion may scar your conscience
so badly that you turn away from God and don’t repent.
And that is what happened.
I’m not going to leave you with this—going to talk about repentance, and hope.
But I’ve got to show you these unpleasant truths in this passage because
the Holy Spirit has put them here. God warns us because he loves us.
Two effects: The second is that it may harm the souls of other people.
In Elimelech’s case it was his boys—Mahlon and Chilion.
We are told: “These took Moabite wives.”
Which in Old Testament language is a way of saying, abandoned covenant.
Elimelech knew deep down that it was wrong to be in Moab.
But his sons didn’t even have that qualm.
They watched their old man and were logically consistent.
If not wrong to live here, settle here, then not wrong to marry Moabite women.
Elimelech’s sons died in Moab. They died as covenant breakers,
willfully living outside the Promised Land.
I know an elderly preacher’s wife. Her trial of faith was a church that
mistreated her husband. She became very critical of the church.
Her three sons have nothing to do with the church to this day.
Other people can be harmed spiritually by your failures of faith.
That’s a painful truth, especially if you have done damage . . .
MP#3 The Hope in Failure
That brings us to the hope in failure. Are you ready for some hope?
I am. I would kill me if we ended here.
We’ve got to end with some good news.
The first hope is conspicuous by its absence in this story—repentance.
Repentance is one of the glories of the Christian faith.
Failure in a trial of faith is not the end—
you are not a ruined, second class Christian if you fail.
Through repentance there is always a way back.
Think for a minute about some of the great stories of failure and repentance
in the Bible. We studied one of the best of all back in May—Peter.
You remember Peter’s trial of faith on the night Jesus was betrayed.
Jesus said: “All of you will fall away because of me.”
Remember what Peter said: “Even if everyone falls away, I never will.”
“Even if I have to die for you, I will never fall away.”
And then Peter found himself in the courtyard of the High Priest.
And the servant girl said: Aren’t you one of his disciples?
And Peter denied Jesus with curses.
And the rooster crowed, and Peter went out and wept bitterly.
St. Augustine made a profound observation about this story.
He said that Peter was in a healthier condition and was a truer Christian
when he was weeping bitterly after his fall,
than he was in the Upper Room swearing his undying loyalty to Jesus.
Augustine wasn’t saying that it’s better to fail in a trial of faith than to stand firm.
He wasn’t saying that at all. It’s always best to pass the test.
He was saying that when a Christian has failed, and when he repents,
that repentance humbles him and brings him to greater dependence on Christ.
It brings us into fresh connection with his life and death for us.
And that is always a healthy place to be.
Elimelech could have said. What am I doing in Moab?
This is all wrong. I’ve got to go back to Bethlehem, Lord forgive me.
Could have said to boys—I failed, but God is good, he brought us back.
Effects of that would have been mitigated or even reversed. Missed that.
Don’t let that be true of you.
If you’ve failed—if even now you are trapped in accusation, self-hatred.
Or if you find yourself justifying decision, becoming entrenched, enslaved.
There is a way out. Through repentance.
You can do that today when we come to the Lord’s Table.
And you may need to tell someone, Christian friend you trust.
That will be an aid to your faith.
But perhaps you are saying—You don’t understand.
I’ve repented, but the damage is done.
I know God has forgiven me, but I can’t forgive myself.
Look at the effects of my failure in my life and lives of others.
Where’s the hope for me in that?
I want you to look at verse 4 again. Here we see full extent of Elimelech’s failure
and its effects in the lives of his sons:
“These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth.”
And there, right at the end of the sentence, you have that name Ruth.
Ruth, the Moabite woman who became a believer in the true God,
and who made her home in the land of Israel, and who married Boaz,
and who became the great-grandmother of King David—
and through David, one of the great-great grandmothers of Jesus Christ.
What this shows us is that God, in his grace overruled Elimelech’s failure,
and brought about greater good than anyone could have imagined.
Take your bulletin, turn to the Meditations page—
Let me read Ian Campbell’s words—He says it better than I ever could:
“In a strange way, Elimelech’s name could stand as the theme of the whole book. God IS king! Even when we disobey his command, and walk contrary to his will, he over-rules every experience for his own glory and the good of his people. He has purposes which he has not revealed to us; and perhaps what shows us God’s kingship more than anything is the fact that even our disobedience is over-ruled by him. Is that not a great comfort to you? I know it is to me. There are areas in my life when I go far astray, and come far short of what God wants me to be. Yet in his grace, he over-rules my sin, and permits me to fall and allows me to disobey, so that he will show that he truly is in charge. Elimelech’s name at one and the same time both condemns his personal action, which was a transgression against the God of the covenant, and sets for us the great lesson of this book. In the Book of Ruth we see that God is actually king. He does rule. Ruth came to know the Lord as a result of God’s overruling grace, although her story begins with her father-in-law’s disobedience.”
That’s our great hope even in our failures of faith—
We serve a sovereign God, who through his Son is working all things
for the good of those who love him.
Trust Jesus. Give your life and all of your failures to him—
and he will turn all for good and in his time, wipe away every tear.
The effect of all of this should be a renewed desire in your heart
to fight the good fight this week, and to rejoice in your trials—
and to see them as an opportunity to prove your faith.