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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/baldivis/
 
Title:The steadfastness of covenant commitment
Text:Ruth 1:16,17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Covenant faithfulness
 
Preached:2012-06-03
Added:2012-06-03
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Liturgy taken from 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 108:1,2

Psalm 6:1,2,6

Psalm 61:1,2,3,6

Psalm 67:1,2,3

Psalm 87:1,2,4

Read:  Ruth 1:1-18.  Luke 9:51-62

Text:  Ruth 1:16,17

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The more often you read the words of Ruth 1:16,17, the more you reflect on them and the more you understand just what Ruth is saying here, the more amazed you will become.  Here is Ruth:  she is a relatively young Moabite woman, a childless widow, one who had experienced very little of the favour and blessing of the LORD, but she declares to her aging Israeli mother-in-law,

“Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

And so determined is she, that Ruth swears an oath to God that where Naomi dies, there Ruth too will die, and there she would be buried.  Ruth displays an allegiance to Naomi and a commitment to Naomi’s people and to her God that is astonishingly breathtaking in its breadth and its depth.  It is absolutely beautiful!

But if we are amazed at these words of Ruth today, I wonder what it would have been like for those who first heard them?  I wonder what it would have been like for Naomi as she heard them on the road from Moab to Bethlehem, and as she thought about them in the months and the years that followed?  And I wonder what the people of Bethlehem would have thought when they both heard what Ruth had said, and saw how she put these words into practice?

You see, in the time of the Old Testament, in the days of the Judges, such commitment was a rare thing.  In those days the people of Israel had wavered so much in their commitment to the God of the covenant that they had left Him.  They turned from following Him and worshipped the gods of the nations around them.  Although they had assured Joshua just a generation earlier that they would join him and his house in serving the LORD, they turned and forsook their commitment to the God of the covenant.

And what could be seen in Israel as a whole was mirrored in the family of Elimelech in Ruth chapter 1.  When disaster struck and a famine was in the land of Bethlehem, then Elimelech along with his wife and two sons had packed up their belongings and left.  They turned away from the Promised Land, they turned away from their own people, and they turned away from their God to look for bread in the land of Moab. 

But now Naomi is coming back and accompanying her are the only ones left from her family, her two daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.  And then the time for parting came, and Naomi said to her daughters in law,

“Go, return each to her mother’s house.  The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”  (Ruth 1:8)

And so soon after that, Orpah kissed her mother-in-law and left.  But not Ruth.  Ruth 1:14 says,

“. . . but Ruth clung to her.”

And when the Bible says that Ruth clung to her, it uses a word that speaks not only of Ruth’s love and affection for Naomi, but also of her loyalty, her total commitment.  It is the word used in Genesis 2:24, in the context of marriage, where it says that a man shall leave his father’s house and be joined to or to cleave to, to cling to, his wife.  It is also the word used to describe how we are to be joined to the LORD.  For example in Deuteronomy 30:20 the people of Israel are called to

“… love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days.”

This clinging then, is a holding fast, being joined to someone with a full and total commitment.  It is the commitment that God requires from all those who belong to His covenant and are called to follow Him.  That is the commitment expressed by Ruth – not just to Naomi but also to the God and the people of Naomi, and that is the commitment that God requires from you.

I preach to you God’s Word under the following theme:

From the daughters of Moab comes one through whom the LORD reveals the steadfastness of covenant commitment.

This commitment involves:

1.    A clear direction.

2.    A costly devotion.

 

1.    This commitment involves a clear direction.

In addition to Ruth chapter 1, we read together from Luke 9.  In Luke 9 we read that on His way to Jerusalem the Lord Jesus met a number of people whom He either commanded to follow Him or who readily offered to do so.  But in each case our Lord gave a somewhat negative response.  In this way Christ highlighted the cost of discipleship.  And then He said in Luke 9:62,

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In other words, just as you can not look backward and plow in a straight line at the same time, so you can not be a follower of Christ and follow the evil desires of your heart at the same time.  It is a case of either/or, and all-or-nothing.

And there are times when God makes that clear.  Ruth and Orpah were faced with such a choice on the road from Moab to Bethlehem:  they could either go back to Moab, to their mothers’ house, the home in which they grew up in, or go with Naomi to Bethlehem.  But that was a hard choice to make!  Can you try to imagine for a moment what it would have been like for Orpah and Ruth as they stood there, being told to go back home?  They had been with Naomi for at least ten years and they clearly loved her, caring for her as if she was their own mother. But now Naomi is going back to Bethlehem, back to her own country, her own people and her own God.

But what future would there be for a relatively young Moabite woman without a male protector in that foreign land?  It would be hard for Naomi back in Bethlehem; it would be doubly hard for a young Moabite woman with no husband or father figure to look after her.  They would be strangers in a strange land.  It would all be too hard.  And so, weighing it all up, Naomi decided that it was time for them to part ways.  Ruth 1:8,9

“And Naomi said to her two daughters in law, Go, return each to her mother’s house.  The LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  The LORD grant that you may find rest, each in the house of her husband.”

And didn’t that make sense?  Wasn’t that all there was left to do?  Orpah and Ruth had been such wonderful daughters in law, but their father-in-law was dead, their husbands were now dead, there were no children and no prospect of another husband.  What benefit would there be for them, what future would lie in store for them if they were to go with Naomi to Bethlehem?  How could they expect to find rest and a permanent dwelling place among the people of God?  No, their only hope for a better life was for them to go back to their mothers’ house, to settle there, to find a Moabite husband and, God willing, raise a family.

“Turn back, my daughters, go!  Turn back!  Leave me and return to your own people.  Perhaps you might then experience the blessing of the LORD and not this bitter curse that has fallen on me.”

In some ways it sounds good.  In some ways it seems to make sense.  In some ways it even appears as though Naomi has the best interests of her daughters-in-law in mind – and no doubt she thought she did.  But do you see how flawed the logic of Naomi really is?  Naomi is finally doing the right thing, she is finally turning back to the place from which she came.  She is finally rejoining the people of God and living in the land that He chose to dwell in.  Naomi had heard in verse 6 of chapter 1 that the LORD had visited His people in Bethlehem by giving them bread, and now she was on her way to live out her last days in the presence of God and His people there.  But Naomi thinks that while she is better off living with the people of God in the Promised Land, it would be better for Orpah and Ruth to seek the blessings of the LORD elsewhere.

But you can not find the blessings of the LORD anywhere else!  Orpah and Ruth can never fully receive the blessing of the LORD unless He is their God and unless they are His people. 

When Naomi spoke to her daughters-in-law on that road leading out of Moab, Orpah and Ruth were at the cross-roads and the decision they would make – to go with Naomi or to go back home – this decision would go with them not just for a while but it would go with them into eternity. Sometimes we forget that.  Sometimes we forget the consequences that come with the road that we choose to travel.  Sometimes we forget just how important it is to urge, to call, to compel one another to be joined in covenant commitment to God and His people.

Naomi did.  If she didn’t forget, Naomi would never have urged Orpah and Ruth to remain in Moab.  If she didn’t forget, Naomi would never have told Ruth to follow Orpah in going back to her own people and her own gods.  If she didn’t forget, Naomi would have urged her daughters-in-law not to turn back but to go with her to Bethlehem where the LORD had visited His people.  For it was there and there alone that Orpah and Ruth could hope for the blessing of living in covenant fellowship with God.

Orpah listened to what Naomi had to say.  Orpah wept, she kissed Naomi good-bye, and she went back to her mother’s house.  Orpah walked away from Naomi, she walked away from Naomi’s God and she walked away from a life of covenant fellowship with God.  There was no way that Orpah could truly serve the LORD in Moab, for it was not with Moab that the LORD had established His covenant, and it was not Moab that was the Land of Promise, and Moab was not the place to seek the blessing of the LORD.  But that is where Orpah went back to.

We do not know what happened to Orpah when she went back home.  We do not know if she met Mr Right.  We do not know if she received the blessing of children.  We do not know if she was ultimately glad or sad with her decision to turn back and remain in Moab.  But we do know what she missed out on.   She missed out on the blessing of a life lived in the presence of God and His people.  And that is the sad truth of the decision not to be joined to the LORD and the covenant people of God.

But Ruth was different.  Ruth clung to Naomi.  And Ruth said,

“Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go: and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.  Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.  The LORD do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me.”  (Ruth 1:16,17)

Ruth knew that she could not have it both ways.  Ruth knew that covenant commitment is a matter of all or nothing.  To cling to Naomi would mean to turn her back on her own mother’s house and to hope for a new home among the family of Naomi.  It would mean to turn her back on her own people, her Moabite heritage and to take on the new identity as a daughter of Abraham, a citizen of Israel, a child of God.  And knowing that, Ruth said to Naomi,

“Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”

There is no turning back for Ruth.  The decision has been made.  Many years later one of Ruth’s descendants, Jesus Christ, would say,

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

But as Ruth puts her hand to the plow, she states her commitment.  Her heart was not divided and nor is her allegiance.  For she does not simply cling to Naomi but she expresses her determination to cling to God and to the people of God.  Indeed her commitment was so strong that she said in verse 17,

 “Where you die, I will die, and there will I be buried.”  (Ruth 1:17a)

And that is what the steadfastness of covenant commitment is all about.  It is not a sitting on the fence.  It is not simply saying “Yes” to the gospel message and then turning to go back from where you came.  It is not a matter of weighing up the benefits, seeing what is in it “for me” and choosing for best deal.  But covenant commitment is to identify yourself fully and unreservedly with God and with His people, and to remain committed to the end of your days.

Did Ruth know what she was saying?  Did she fully understand, did she fully grasp the full implication of her declaration “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God”?

Brothers and sisters, do we ever fully understand the full meaning of what covenant commitment is all about?  Do we ever fully understand what it means to both confess and practice 100% full allegiance to our covenant LORD?  To use the words of the Form for baptism, do we really know what it means to cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to trust Him and to love Him with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and with all our strength?  I do not think so.  To both fully comprehend and then to practice such commitment perfectly is beyond me and you.

Ruth was a godly woman of great virtue and a strong faith.  But it as not as though of herself she was so different to you or me.  Do not stand so amazed at the steadfastness of the commitment of Ruth, but turn your eyes and be amazed at the steadfastness of the commitment of God and at the way the way He, through His Spirit, draws people to Himself.  It is only by God’s grace and the powerful work of the Holy Spirit that Ruth could make this declaration in the first place and then to follow through with it.  And Ruth too, like you and I, could be received by God into His covenant and counted as one of His people by grace not on the strength of her choice and determination, but on account of the One who would later be born from the line of Ruth, our Lord Jesus Christ, the One who would show the steadfastness of covenant commitment to the very end.  We will see this further in our second point.

2.    This commitment involves a costly devotion.

There is a cost involved in being joined in covenant commitment to the LORD and His people, and it is a cost that you need to consider.  We know both from experience and from God’s Word that the LORD will bless you as you follow Him.  And what a joy it is to be joined to God and His people!  As a Christian you know that there is nothing better than seeking shelter under the wings of God.  As a Christian you would not want it any other way. 

Naomi should have known that too.  Naomi should have known that the best thing for Orpah and Ruth would have been to join her in going to Bethlehem, the Bread-basket of Israel, the place where the LORD had visited His people in giving them bread.  (See Ruth 1:6)    But instead of looking at things through the eyes of faithful obedience, Naomi weighed the matter up in her mind and was convinced that Orpah and Ruth should turn back and remain in Moab.  The cost for them to go on to Bethlehem was too great.

“Ruth!  Stop clinging to me!  Orpah has gone back to her people and her gods:  you do the same!  What is in it for you to join an old lady like me in going to Bethlehem?  It is all too hard, Ruth!  You don’t understand just how hard it will be, but I do!  You are a Moabite and I a woman of Israel.  It will be hard enough for me to try and fit back in, but what about you?  You are a widow and an outsider!  There will be no one to care for you, no one to look after you.  Not everything is good in Bethlehem.  Some of the men might not treat you right.  And the women –  those gossips – their tongues can be sharp and they will be talking about you!  You can not do it, Ruth!  It is all too hard.  By all means ask for the blessing of the LORD in Moab, that He might deal kindly with you.  But stay there.  Do not join me as I return to my people in Bethlehem.”

But Ruth will have none of that! 

“Don’t you understand, mother Naomi, that I can not do that?  Don’t you understand that I can not turn back?  I have no place in Moab anymore.  I have no gods here in which to place my trust.  I have no people here whom I can call “my people”!  I have been changed, Naomi!  The LORD has done a great work in me!  I have turned from idols to the true and the living God!  My heart is changed, and I know that there is but one thing for me to do:  to cling to you, to your people and your God.”

Naomi did not get that.  Naomi did not get it how Ruth would be determined to follow her to Bethlehem even though she could expect nothing but heartache and hardship.   And so she discouraged Ruth from committing herself to the LORD and His people.

“Count the cost Ruth!  It is too high.  It is just not worth it.”

Naomi had it wrong, dreadfully wrong.  But do you see what it was that she had wrong?  It was not that Naomi wanted Ruth to abandon the LORD, for she hoped that God might still bless her in Moab.  But Naomi discouraged Ruth from joining the people of the LORD.  Naomi still did not seem to understand that you can not seek the shelter of the wings of God in the badlands of Moab!  You can not identify yourself with God and not with His people.

And if that was true for Naomi and Ruth in the days of the Judges, it is certainly true for you too.  Check it out for yourself and you will discover that the New Testament does not provide the possibility of someone being joined to Christ and not to His body.  You can not say, “I will have Jesus, but not His people.  I will have God in my life but not the church.”

You need to remember that not just for yourself but also when you share the gospel with others.  Sharing the gospel is not just a matter of telling people about Jesus Christ:  it is also a matter of telling them what to do with Jesus Christ.  It is also a matter of telling them to follow Him and in so doing to be joined to His body, the Church. 

I have occasionally heard it said, “I want people to become Christians, but if I speak to people, I would not encourage them to come to my church.”  What??!  How can that be?  Do you know what you are saying? 

“By all means love God, trust in Jesus and go your way, but don’t join me in Church!  I do not think it would be good for you.  Christ is good but the church has got its problems, you know.  The worship isn’t always what it is cracked up to be.  And the people there, even the leaders, they might not treat you right.  You won’t like it, it will be too hard.  You will be an outsider, and you will feel that way too.  You would just be setting yourself up to get hurt.  I would not do it if I was you.  The cost, it is too high.”

Now I am not saying that this church has no problems and that to belong to the people of God in this place will always be happy days in every respect.  Naomi had a point when she told Ruth it would be hard for her in Bethlehem, and it will take work and more than likely a few tears to be committed to Christ’s church.  Families have weaknesses and so does this church.  Families have peculiar traits and so does this church.  Families normally have members in them who are difficult to get along with, and you will probably find the same thing in this church.  And I am not saying this so that we who are members of this church can justify any behaviour or any action that sets up a stumbling block for those who seek to join us.  As Jesus said in Matthew 18:6,

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

But remember what this church is for it is the most wonderful blessing of God to us!  You are the body of Christ and individually members of it!  And you are joined together as the body of Christ in His Church, with His people!  Once you were not a people but now you are the people of God!  And it is as a part of the people of God that you experience His blessing! Article 28 of the Belgic Confession has it right –

“We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.  But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church.  They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.”

Does that mean someone who is not a member of the church can never be saved?  Does it mean that the only way to enjoy the shelter of the wings of God is through formal church membership here, in this particular church?  I did not say that and I will not say that and it is not my point!  I know that God, in His grace, can work beyond the walls of this His Church, and I know that the body of Christ is bigger than us.  But the point is this:  you can not embrace the LORD your God and at the same time reject His people.  Nor can you tell people to follow Christ but not be joined to His church.  If you have problems in your family, if there are things you think are wrong, deal with them.  If you have problems in your church, if there are things you think are wrong, deal with them.  But just as you may not and can not deny your family, so you may not and can not deny the people of God, the body of Christ.

The cost of following Jesus, being joined to Him and to His church is high.  Just as Ruth had to give up her mother’s house, her people and her country so we are called to leave all to follow Christ and to be joined to His people. 

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 9:62)

But there is nothing expected of us that Christ has not first done for you.  In Luke chapter 9, when our Lord met a number of people whom He either commanded to follow Him or who readily offered to do so, He pointed out the cost of discipleship.  But just before that, in verse 51, Luke wrote,

“Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”

That is what He did for you.  That is what He did for His church.  He went to Jerusalem and there He gave Himself up, He sacrificed His own life, for us.  That was the price that He paid for you and that was the price that He paid that He might have His church chosen to everlasting life.  I’d like to remind you that the theme of this sermon is “From the daughters of Moab comes one through whom the LORD reveals the steadfastness of covenant commitment.”  But ultimately the One who showed this commitment perfectly was not Ruth, but Ruth’s descendant, Jesus Christ.

If it was not for that, Ruth could never have gone on to Bethlehem.  If it was not for that Ruth could never have declared “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”  For Ruth – like you - was not  a child of God by birth.  Ruth was a daughter of Moab, and the people of Moab stood under the curse of God.  But Jesus Christ would come and pay the price so that Ruth too could be counted not as a daughter of Moab but as a daughter of Abraham, a child of the covenant, and heir of the Promise!

And that is for you too.  For you too, Jesus has born the full cost of covenant commitment, He’s paid the price that you might be joined to Him and be counted as one of His people.  And Jesus says:  “I have paid the price, now take up your cross and follow Me.  Be joined to me and be joined to My people.”  And by the grace of God and in the strength of His Holy Spirit we will do just that.  By the grace of God and in the strength of His Holy Spirit we will be steadfast in our covenant commitment, in our commitment to Him and to His people.  And in that way we will rejoice today, and in that way we will look forward to a future that is far greater than Ruth could ever have hoped for in Bethlehem.  Oh what a blessing, oh what a joy it is to steadfastly cling to the LORD, to belong to Him and be a part of His people!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2012, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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