The Lord's Day Morning
“Some Graces Grow Best in Winter”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Turn with me, if you would, to the Book of Ruth. And we will look this morning at Naomi and Ruth. As our choir has just reminded us, there are times in our Christian lives when it is difficult to sing the Lord's song, especially when we find ourselves in strange and unpleasant circumstances. And in many ways, what the choir just sang to us from Psalm 139 is an echo of an earlier period in the history of Israel, when a family, Naomi, in particular, found themselves at the mercy of a strange and difficult providence, when singing the Lord's song was very difficult indeed.
I suspect that for many of you this morning this is your own testimony, because you have come from a week of trial and pain and difficulty, when, in the words of the Puritans, “losses and crosses” have been your lot. When things haven't gone the way that you had hoped and dreamed, and perhaps prayed for, and instead things have come into your lives that you wish they hadn't. And perhaps this morning as we gather for worship you find yourself asking, “How can I sing the praises of God when I find myself in such terrible circumstances?”
Well, I think that the story that we're about to read together from the life of Naomi and Ruth has a very profound answer, and I trust that you will find it. Let's read together the first chapter of the Book of Ruth.
“Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the land of Moab with his wife and his two sons. And 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, Ephrathites of Bethlehem in Judah. Now they entered the land of Moab and remained there. Then Elimelech, Naomi's husband, died; and she was left with her two sons. And they took for themselves Moabite women as wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. And they lived there about ten years. Then both Mahlon and Chilion also died; and the woman was bereft of her two children and her husband.
“Then she arose with her daughters-in-law that she might return from the land of Moab, for she had heard in the land of Moab that the Lord had visited His people in giving them food. So she departed from the place where she was, and her two daughters-in-law with her; and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. And Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each of you to her mother's house. May the Lord deal kindly with you as you have dealt with the dead and with me. May the Lord grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.’ Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, ‘No, but we will surely return with you to your people.’ But Naomi said, ‘Return, my daughters. Why should you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb, that they may be your husbands? Return, my daughters! Go, for I am too old to have a husband. If I said I have hope, if I should even have a husband tonight and also bear sons, would you therefore wait until they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters; for it is harder for me than for you, for the hand of the Lord has gone forth against me.’ And they lifted up their voices and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
“Then she said, ‘Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following 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. Thus may the Lord do to me, and worse, if anything but death parts you and me.’ When she saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
“So they both went until they came to Bethlehem. And it came about when they had come to Bethlehem, that all the city was stirred because of them, and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ And she said to them, ‘Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has witnessed against me and the Almighty has afflicted me?’
“So Naomi returned, and with her Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law, who returned from the land of Moab. And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.”
Thus far God's holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for every word of Scripture, a word that is able to make us wise. Grant us such wisdom as now by Your Spirit You open up this part of Scripture to us, and enable us to hide these truths in our hearts. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
In the 1630's, in Scotland, Samuel Rutherford wrote a letter to Lady Culross (Elizabeth Melvill, her true name). She was a deeply pious and godly woman, exercised by a sudden and difficult providence that came into her life, and, in addition to that, the fact that her children did not appear to make a profession of faith. Rutherford wrote to her many letters, but one in particular in which he expressed the sentiment that “some graces grow best in winter.”
And it may be this morning that you are passing through a winter in your souls. Trials, hardships, difficulties have come into your lives, and you’re asking the question, “Why? And to what end? To what purpose, what possible purpose, have these now transpired?” And I believe this morning that this particular chapter in the story of Naomi and Ruth has a very poignant lesson to teach us; one which (if we take to heart, if we hide within our hearts), will help us and motivate us, and encourage us to face whatever God may bring, and to face every day in the assurance that God's providence is certain, that there are no mistakes with God, and that as He unfolds the intricacies of His divine plan and purpose in each of our lives, He does so with a very definite goal in mind.
The story of Naomi and Ruth is set, as we read in the very opening verse, “in the days of the judges.” And you’ll know, of course, the significance of that. The writer of the Book of Ruth is telling us something here in code language which the people of God who know their Bibles will fully understand, because the days of the judges are the days when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes”–days of rebellion, days in which God's people had drifted apart from Him.
And in such days (and perhaps the writer of Ruth is trying to tell us something) it wasn't insignificant that there was a famine, a physical famine, in the land of Judah. And whether or not it was right for Naomi and Elimelech to leave the land of Judah and to go to the land of Moab rather than stay and trust in God's provision, that is a question we’ll leave aside for discussion at another period. What we do know is that they intended to go to the land of Moab–and remember, in going to the land of Moab they are drifting away from the land of Judah, the only land to which God had given specific promises of blessing. They intended, as I say, to go to the land of Moab only for “a while”, as some translations put it (though not the one we read this morning), but in actual fact they were to remain in the land of Moab for ten long years.
What happened in the land of Moab is the point of our study this morning, and the story naturally falls into three parts. It tells of the journey, first of all, from Bethlehem to Moab; then, the journey from Moab to the crossroads; and then, in the third place, from the crossroads back to Bethlehem again. And the writer wants us to see something by way of a principle – a principle that operates in the life of Naomi, but a principle that operates in the lives of all of God's children: that sometimes, when God wants to do something in your life, He will sometimes bring about a sudden and sometimes painful providence in the life of another, and that through that other person, He will channel His grace and His mercy so that it reaches you.
The challenge for us this morning is to put ourselves in the shoes of Naomi, whom God used, as we well know, to speak to Ruth.
I. The journey from Bethlehem to Moab.
They find themselves moving from Judah down to Moab, and no sooner have they got there than we read this devastating tragedy: that Elimelech, Naomi's husband, dies. She experiences the pain of bereavement and loss. And then, as the story unfolds, we read that the two sons marry. They marry outside of the covenant, they marry Moabitesses. And no sooner have they married but they also die, leaving Naomi with two daughters-in-law, and the picture of pain and sorrow and tragedy. And I imagine if the Book of Ruth were a movie, the director would now pan in close on the face of Naomi, and you would see the tears, and heaving shoulders, and a life of a young woman from whom three men whom she loved with all of her heart have been taken away. It's a very poignant picture, isn't it?
The writer, of course, of the Book of Ruth wants us to learn a very simple but a very profound lesson: that the Christian life can indeed be difficult. And I think this morning that's a lesson for us to learn and to learn afresh, because there are those out there preaching what I believe to be “another gospel.” They will tell you that if you follow Jesus, and if you follow Him closely, you can expect health and wealth and everything you can ever wish for and pray for. And, indeed, they will sometimes go further and suggest that if you have pain and difficulty in your life, the reason is that you must have sinned in some way; and if only you would acknowledge that sin and repent of that sin and turn back to God, then you will see this trouble disappearing, and you will see the blessings of God coming into your life as perhaps never before.
I wonder if in a moment of weakness and pain you have heard that message, and you've longed that it might be true. And I want to tell you this morning that it isn't. It is not the message of the Bible, because in the Bible, as you well know, we are reminded again and again that God's people can indeed suffer; that losses and crosses are part of what we can expect as Christians; that Peter writes in his first epistle, reminding those young Christians in Turkey, that they ought not be surprised when the fiery trial comes; don't let it catch you unawares. Don't let it catch you off-guard. Don't let it come into your life in such a way that you’re totally taken aback by it, as though you were never expecting trouble or difficulty. The closer you are to the King, the more likely you are to draw the enemy's fire. And sometimes the closer you walk with Jesus, the more attention the devil will give you. And God, in the unfolding of His mighty providence in your lives, in the details of your lives, is working out a grand scheme that none can thwart.
Now, I tell you, the reason why I love the Book of Ruth, and I have grown to love it more and more as the years go by, is because this is a tale of — well — an ordinary family. I don't know if that offends you, to be called ‘just an ordinary family.’ But if it doesn't, let me say to you that this is a wonderful, wonderful truth…that here in the life of this family (Naomi, Elimelech, Mahlon and Chilion) God is about to unfold some grand redemptive plan that He had purposed in eternity. Because if we can step back a little from the Book of Ruth and, well, cheat a little and tell you the end before we get there, because we're not going to get there this morning. [You know, you've gone to Barnes & Noble, haven't you, and you've gone through a book and you've read the last chapter, and you've decided, “Well, I don't need this book anymore,” and so you put it back on the shelf!]
Well, you know how the Book of Ruth ends. It reminds us of the wonderful birth of a child to Ruth and Boaz, and we see grandmother Naomi crying once again, but they’re not tears of pain now; they’re tears of joy. And the writer of the Book of Ruth wants you to appreciate that down the line is going to be David from this lineage, and down the line is going to be Jesus Christ; and you see in this narrative as it unfolds, God is giving to us here one of the building blocks in the unfolding of redemptive history, and he's saying ‘In the ordinary lives of these ordinary people, God is doing a great thing…but it hurts.’ And, oh, my! How it hurts!
And I wonder this morning, is that you? Is that you because of something that has happened in your family just recently? Is that you because of something that happened at work? Is that you because your dreams and ambitions — a promotion, a change of vocation — just haven't come true, and all your dreams have been shattered? And your life, which seemed to be going on so swimmingly, has all come crashing down. And there's pain. And there's hurt. And there are tears of great sadness. And I put it to you: Don't be surprised. My dear Christian friend, don't be surprised if God puts you through the fires; or, if I can change the metaphor, if God puts you in the winter of your souls, because some graces grow best in winter.
II. From Moab to the crossroads.
The scene moves on from Moab now to the crossroads, because, as the narrative tells us, Naomi hears that God has visited His people once again by giving them food. There was no future for Naomi in Moab, to be sure. So she makes her way back. And at the crossroads she speaks to her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth. And she says to them something that I have to confess I always found a little difficult, until I thought about it a little more. Because when she says to her two daughters-in-law, “Return, go back to your people. Go back to Moab and your gods,” you say to yourself, “Naomi, how can you possibly say that? Surely you want these two to be with you, if only for companionship for the rest of your lives.” Isn't that what you’d expect?
But, of course, you’re not thinking the way Naomi's thinking, and you’re not thinking biblically, and you’re not thinking realistically, either. Because–think about it–these two Moabitesses who, for all intents and purposes, didn't worship the God of Judah…there was no future for them in Judah, no guaranteed future. There was no guarantee that they would find a husband who would marry a Moabitess. There was no guarantee that they would find a husband who would allow their wives to bring in their heathen Moabite gods into their homes, which would be part of the bargain. There was no guarantee of sustenance; there was no guarantee of a home; there was no guarantee of food. They would be poverty-stricken beggars, eking out an existence from day to day…just surviving, that's all. Does that help you to appreciate why Naomi says to them, look, you’re better off going back home?
And Orpah, after a little persuasion, does just that, and you see her going off and we never hear of her again. We have no idea what happened to her.
And then, there's Ruth. And Ruth utters those beautiful words which we all have come to know and love, when she says,
“Do not urge me to leave you or to turn back from following you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
And you ask yourself this morning, “Where did Ruth learn the language of Zion? Because those words of Ruth are the very words, the very expressions that God's people would have used.”
You know, when I was first converted some twenty-seven years ago, I went to a prayer meeting. And in the prayer meeting there was somebody praying who kept on talking about “Lord, do this in the corner of Your vineyard…” and I'd never seen a vineyard in my life, and I knew that in Aberystwyth in Wales there were no vineyards, so I couldn't understand what this person meant by “the corner of Your vineyard”…until, of course, you begin to appreciate that this is a biblical expression. And this is the code language of the people of God, and what Ruth is expressing here is the fact that she has come to know and to love and appreciate the very language of God's people. And you ask yourself, “Where did she learn that? Where did she hear that?” and the answer of course is very simple: she heard it from Naomi.
And then, in Naomi's response to her pain, in the way that she coped with loss and bereavement and pain, she must have often spoken to Ruth and counseled her in language reminiscent of the people of God; and even though she found herself in a strange land, unable to sing the Lord's song perhaps, she could still use the language of the Lord's people. And Ruth had heard it, and something had begun to germinate in the life and heart of Ruth that was of the Holy Spirit, because Ruth comes to say ‘Whatever it is that you have, Naomi, my mother-in-law, whatever it is that motivates you and keeps you going, whatever it is that gives you such a profound stability in the midst of such pain, whatever that is, I want it. And your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.’
And you see what's happening?
In the 1740's, in the Colonies of New England, Jonathan Edwards wrote a book describing the revival, the great awakening that had taken place, and describing in particular some of the remarkable conversions under the hand of the Spirit of God that had taken place. He called the book A Narrative of Surprising Conversions. It's a kind of sub-title to the Book of Ruth, isn't it? Because what we have here is a narrative of an altogether surprising conversion. And do you begin to see the significance of what this book is all about, and at least what this chapter is now about? That God is using Naomi as a conduit, as an instrument through which His grace will flow into the life of another: namely, Ruth, a Moabitess.
And do you begin to see perhaps the significance of why it is God has allowed you to pass through the fires of trial and difficulty this morning? Because, my dear friend, it may not have anything to do with you. And that's a humbling thing to learn, isn't it, that we are not as important as we think that we are; that the reason why God has allowed you to pass through this trial, this suffering, this difficulty, is that He has a purpose that's far greater than you can ever imagine, far greater than you can extrapolate, because He intends through you and through your response to pain and suffering to speak to someone else.
III. The journey from the crossroads to Bethlehem.
And that brings us to the third part of this journey, from the crossroads back to Bethlehem. And there's a very poignant moment, isn't there, when the women of Bethlehem look onto the horizon and they see Naomi coming with Ruth, and they say to themselves, “Is this possibly Naomi?” Because pain, perhaps, and sorrow have etched their way into the very visage of Naomi, so that in appearance now she is not what she once was. She had gone away full, but she has come back empty. She had gone away a woman with a husband and two sons, and all the future before her, and she has come back with three men in her life gone. And she says to these women, “Don't call me Naomi.” She says, “Call me Mara” — which means bitter.
Now, don't misunderstand Naomi. I don't think that she was bitter in herself. You may think that; you’re entitled to think that. But I don't think that. I think what she's saying is that life has been bitter, that providence has been bitter, as in fact she expresses, “The hand of the Lord has gone out against me,” she says. And do you notice that? When trouble comes, she says ‘God is in this trouble.’ She doesn't say, you see, as one eminent rabbi in this country has said, that when trouble comes, whatever you do, don't say that God is in it.
My friend, that's no comfort at all, is it, to think that you can turn a corner and God isn't there? That there are aspects and details of our lives that are outside of the providential control of God, what comfort is there in that? None at all. And Naomi, you see, is extrapolating the truth that God is in every detail and every circumstance, and even in the pain, and even in the hurt, and even in the tragedy; and that this also is part of His doing, because He intends to fulfill a plan that is far greater than we can ever imagine. The plan, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ, in the long run, through the lineage of Ruth and Boaz. And the challenge to you and me this morning is: Are we willing to allow God to use us as a channel of blessing in the life of someone else, even if that hurts? May God so grant it, for His name's sake.
Let's sing together, shall we, the wonderful words of William Cowper, No. 128, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, His Wonders to Perform.
Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with each one of you, now and forevermore. Amen.
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