“Pleasant or Bitter” Ruth 1:6-22 August 3, 2008
SI: We’re studying the book of Ruth.
It’s a story of how God takes his people from tears to rejoicing.
We’re going to read the rest of chapter 1 today.
But we’re not finished with this chapter.
We’re going to come back to it for one or two more Sundays
because there are so many threads to the story that we need to pick up
so that the rest of the book will open it’s treasures to us.
Chapter one, as I’ve told you, is the weeping chapter.
There’s lots of sadness and loss.
It starts with a famine, and then a man, Elimelech, fails a test of faith,
and that leads to spiritual harm and loss for his family.
And then Elimelech died, and his sons married Moabite women,
and then they died. And verse six starts with his widow, Naomi,
shattered by her losses, preparing to return to Bethlehem.
As we read about Naomi,
I want you to ask yourself if you’ve ever known Christians like her.
INTRO: As a Christian, you have many callings from God.
One of your callings is to be a pastor.
There are times when the Lord brings people into your life who need
to be shepherded spiritually—and you are the person for the job—not me.
You can’t say—call Andrew—you have to do the work.
Because you are the one this person will listen to—you are the one he trusts.
Where is this pastoral calling that God has placed on your life?
It’s found in the many New Testament passages that describe our responsibilities
to “one another.”
Read through the epistles and you will find this phrase “one another” over and over.
Encourage one another.
Teach and admonish one another.
Spur one another on to love and good deeds.
Apostle Paul said this to the Christians in the Roman church:
“I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness,
complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another.”
Encouraging, teaching, admonishing, spurring on to love and good deeds,
instructing one another—that’s all pastoring—and that’s your calling.
There is nothing that warms my heart more than when I find out that someone
with a problem or a crisis and has been pastored by a member of Christ Covenant.
And it happens all the time.
Just this week someone called me and said I talked to this person
and gave this counsel and guided this way—I didn’t even ask you.
I hope that’s ok.
I said, I trust you completely.
You are helping that person more effectively than I every could.
God has called you to be their pastor in this crisis, and you are doing a good job.
This morning I want us to look at this passage a little differently than usual.
I want you to put on your pastor’s hat—and look with me at Naomi.
How would you deal with Naomi if God brought her into your life?
Every person and situation is different—
and yet Naomi is very typical of the kind person that you may have to pastor.
She’s was believer—there is no doubt about that.
But in response to the troubles of life, she spiraled downward
into a pit of self-pity and despondency and bitterness toward God.
Her name, Naomi, means “Pleasant” or “Sweet.”
But you see her troubled spiritual condition when she said—
Don’t call me Naomi, call me Mara—Mara means “Bitter.”
And her bitterness was affecting every part of her life.
She’s in your church, she’s a Christian friend—and she comes to you.
How do you respond?
Or else you see that she’s struggling and you know Lord wants you to help.
What do you say to her?
What do you do for her?
How do you pastor fellow believers who have fallen very low?
The despondent, self-pitying, bitter Christians you love?
Let’s look at her story more carefully—
and I want point out five ways you can pastor the Naomies
that God brings into your life.
I’ll give them to you as we go.
MP#1 First, affirm God’s sovereignty.
Affirm that God is in control
and that this hard thing your friend is dealing with is from his hand.
Did you notice how many times Naomi said
that what she was going through was from God?
“The hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” vs. 13
“The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.” vs. 20
“The Lord has brought me back empty.” vs. 21
“The Lord has testified against me.”
“The Almighty has brought calamity upon me.”
One commentator I read said that Naomi was blaming God.
I can understand why some people would be very bothered hearing her
talk about God this way and would want to tell her—Quit blaming God, Naomi!
But as her pastor, you should see this first as a positive and affirm it.
Yes, you are right, Naomi. God is dealing with you.
He has brought you to this low place. He is emptying you.
You cannot begin to help people pastorally until they recognize that it is God
with whom they have to deal. Sometimes when Christians are in crisis,
all they can see and talk about is the immediate cause of their problems.
And you have to say—Yes, all of those things are important.
Yes, we will talk about those things in time.
But don’t you see that this is not about your spouse, or your teenager,
or your money, or your health, or your mid-life crisis—
it is God who is dealing with you. This is God’s hand. He is doing something.
I’ll never forget a woman who started coming to our St. Louis church.
She had a chronic disease and she was touchy and bitter.
At prayer meeting someone prayed for her healing—
And then said, And, Lord, if healing is not your will at this time,
help her to see that this is from your hand and give her grace.
She said, God has nothing to do with my illness! And never came back.
I would much rather deal with a Naomi who is blaming God, than someone who
refuses to believe God has anything to do with what going through.
There’s hope in believing God is in this, even if person can’t see it right away.
You ought to affirm, yes, Lord’s hand in this.
MP#2 Second, affirm God’s goodness.
Affirm that the Lord is good,
and that his purposes for your friend are always good.
The reason Naomi’s words do bother you,
is because there is something wrong with them.
She was denying God’s goodness. She was really saying:
The Lord’s hand is in this for my harm. God is out to get me.
I think if you had asked Naomi, Is the Lord good?
She would have given the right biblical answer. Yes, the Lord is good.
She believed that in a general sense.
Remember what she said to Ruth and Orpah:
May the Lord deal kindly with you. May the Lord help you find another husband.
She believed that the Lord was good to other people.
But she didn’t believe that the Lord was good to her.
As a pastor, you have to affirm that the Lord is good—
and not just good in general—
You have to affirm that his goodness extends to your hurting friend.
There are different ways to communicate his goodness.
You’ll have to find what works best for you.
I’ve always liked the language of Romans 8—where Paul describes God’s
goodness and love as God being “for us.”
“If God is for us, who can be against us.”
That’s powerful, to say to a struggling believer: God is for you, not against you.
Sometimes it’s helpful to say to the person: And I’m for you.
In Naomi’s case, there were sinful and foolish choices involved.
We looked at that last week—how their move to Moab was wrong.
Naomi knew that. That guilt compounded her sense that God was against her.
It’s not always the case that the person you are pastoring has done something
foolish or sinful—but it’s pretty common.
Guilt and failure compound the sense that God is against you.
So if there is sin involved, especially important to affirm God’s goodness.
God’s hand in this thing you are suffering, but he is not against you, he’s for you.
MP#3 Third, confront her unbelief.
Confront her lack of faith in Christ and in the promises of God.
I said her, because we’re using Naomi as our example.
If it’s a man, confront his unbelief.
To me, this is the hardest thing to do right pastorally—because it takes such insight.
It’s easy to see the sins and foolish decisions that get people into trouble—
and our tendency is to think that pointing those things out is the answer.
Naomi, you and your husband should never have left the Promised Land for Moab.
The law of God forbids that. Leaving land was turning back on inheritance.
And allowing your sons to marry Moabite women was a rejection of covenant.
You know that what you did was wrong, don’t you?
In order to deal with your bitterness and despondency—
you need to repent of those things and ask God to forgive you.
I’ve done that as a pastor and it doesn’t help people.
Not because it’s not true, but because it’s not deep enough.
It misses the underlying sin that needs to be confronted which is unbelief.
Lack of trust in your heavenly Father.
Lack of faith in Jesus Christ.
Lack of belief in the work of the Holy Spirit and the promises of the Word.
The flipside of unbelief is idolatry. Bitter person is often trusting in himself,
or in someone or something else besides God. That’s bound to pull you down.
Several years ago I was despondent over situation and my poor response to it.
And I was getting gloomier and gloomier, couldn’t figure a way out.
Allison said to me: Andrew, don’t you believe in sanctification?
And that went in deeper than anything she had said.
Because I realized, I’m gloomy because I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is at work.
I’ve quit believing that he can use this to make me a better man.
No wonder I’m depressed, I’m trusting myself to work this out and I can’t.
That led me to repent of my unbelief and God led me out.
At the bottom of every sin and every pathology of Christian life is unbelief.
Unbelief was the root cause of Naomi’s bitterness—
didn’t believe God loved her and was faithful to his covenant.
She believed it was all up to her and the best she could do was go back to
Bethlehem and try to fix things herself. No wonder life was bitter.
It’s hard, it takes thought—but to help bitter Christians, have to confront unbelief.
MP#4 Fourth, show God’s grace.
You have to show your friend, have to point out to her (or to him),
the evidences of God’s grace in her life.
The Lord never leaves his people without some evidences of his grace and love.
No matter how dark things are all around, there is always some light.
When you pastor people, you have to point these things out.
Look, at God’s grace. Look at his love.
What was the greatest evidence of God’s grace in Naomi’s life?
It was Ruth! This incredible daughter-in-law.
Common sense said that Ruth should stay in Moab, rebuild her life there.
Naomi was even pushing her. Probably reminder of her failure.
But Ruth committed herself to Naomi. And said those wonderful words:
“Where you go, I will go. Where you stay, I will stay.
Your people will be my people, and your God my God.”
Words are so powerful that they have found their way into wedding services—
Here is the deepest commitment possible to another person,
grounded in Ruth’s own faith in the true God.
Naomi had lost a lot—she had suffered a lot of pain—future very uncertain—
but what an amazing evidence of God’s grace in her life.
Too bad she couldn’t see it.
Did you notice Naomi’s response to Ruth’s words of commitment?
“When Naomi saw she was determined to go with her, she said no more.”
Silence. Because Naomi was all wrapped up in her bitterness.
And when they got to Bethlehem she said, the Lord has brought me back empty.
Ruth, was standing right there and Naomi says, I have nothing.
You will often find the same when pastoring people.
You will say, Yes, this is a tough time, but look at these wonderful evidences
of God’s grace in your life. Can’t you see this is a sign that he loves you.
And they will look away and say: That’s nothing.
You need to argue with them a little and be persistent.
Yes, it is something. In fact, it’s huge. Open your eyes.
And hopefully they will, in time.
And that brings us to the fifth thing you have to do when pastoring Naomies.
MP#5 Give her time.
You have to be patient for God to work and patient for your friend
to move from bitterness and unbelief, to trust and joy.
When you hear Naomi saying: Call me Mara—
it’s hard to believe she’s the same woman you see at the end of the book.
At the end of Ruth Naomi is surrounded by women of Bethlehem
who are calling her blessed, as she holds in her arm the grandson
that she never thought she would have.
This grandson who is more than a grandson—he’s a figure of Christ himself.
And the salvation and blessing of God.
But it takes time for Naomi to get to that place—time for God to work,
time for Naomi to be ready to accept his blessing.
When you are pastoring, you have to know that it takes time.
We are impatient and want people to snap out of it.
But with every promise of restoration, there is a time element.
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”
The promised joy will come, but still the night that you have to get through.
“Humble yourself under God’s almighty hand that he may lift you up in due time.”
God will lift you up, but he will do so in his time.
The good shepherd promises to spread a table before us and fill cup to overflowing,
he promises to make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters,
but that often comes after you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
And it may take a long time for a person to stumble through that valley.
And in the middle of that valley, the future can look very dark indeed.
You might wonder, will this person ever change—
Will his joy ever be restored? Will she ever trust God again?
When will he see the Lord’s blessing.
And you might even wonder, what is God doing? Why taking so long?
Will he bring joy in the morning as he promised?
Your calling as pastor means you have to believe these promises for your friend.
You have to wait patiently for God to work.
I know a man who pastored a Christian friend for many dark months—
continued to speak truth, confront unbelief, point out God’s goodness.
Started to wonder himself if there would ever be a change.
And then one day he looked in his friend’s face and saw something different—
and his friend smiled and said, “I’m back.”
It doesn’t always happen that way—but we trust God for his timing.
CONC: Perhaps even now, even this week, the Lord has put someone
under your pastoral care. You feel the weightiness of this responsibility.
A precious person. A precious soul.
And you are the channel of God’s grace and mercy.
And you wonder—what do I do, what do I say?
What were those five points in that sermon Sunday?
Where is my bulletin? Why didn’t I take better notes?
Relax, the Good Shepherd has called you, and he will give you what you need.
Ask him. Trust him.
An old hymn say:
Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of Thy tone;
As Thou hast sought, so let me seek
Thy erring children lost and lone.
O teach me, Lord, that I may teach
The precious things Thou dost impart;
And wing my words, that they may reach
The hidden depths of many a heart.
Make that your prayer. And now come to the Table, commune with Jesus,
and receive from him fresh strength and joy to do your work.