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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:God graciously returns Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem
Text:Ruth 1:19-22 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

NOTE:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Psalm 150

Hymn 63:6 (after the law)

Psalm 30:1,2,5

Hymn 65

Psalm 46:1,2,5

Scripture reading:  Ephesians 4:25-32

Text:  Ruth 1:19-22

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Every so often our government delivers a throne speech to open a new session of Parliament.  All the MPs and Senators gather in the red Senate chamber in the House of Commons.  Our governor-general spends some time outlining the plans of the government for the next while.  You could say that the government makes all kinds of promises, even if that exact word doesn’t get used.  Then over the next few months, we watch eagerly to see if the government delivers.  And if they don’t, many will remember come election time.   When someone doesn’t keep their word, we look at that as a bad thing.  We believe that people should always keep their word, always keep their promises.

In the Bible, God makes many promises to us.  We know that God will always keep those promises.  God is not like sinful human beings.  We’re fickle and sometimes unfaithful.  Governments have been known to fail in keeping their promises, and so have individuals.  But not God.  He never lies.  He never fails.  He’s always faithful. 

The first promise recorded in the Bible is in Genesis 3:15.  We call it “the mother promise,” because this is the promise from which all other salvation promises in the Bible are birthed.  After our first parents Adam and Eve had sinned against God, he graciously went after them.  He didn’t give them the silent treatment.  Instead, he gave them a promise.  In Genesis 3:15, he was speaking to the serpent, but the promise was for Adam and Eve.    God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.”  You see, God promised from the beginning that he would destroy the devil.  God said that the devil would have his head bruised – that’s a death blow.  God promised that Satan would be destroyed by a child from the woman.   But at the same time, he promised that there would always be enmity between the children of the woman and the children of the devil.  Satan would always be working to undermine and attack God’s work in this world.  He works subtly and persuasively, sometimes through people, sometimes through events.  Satan does whatever he can to undo the gathering, defending, and preserving of the church.  He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

Satan would have been paying attention to the goings-on in Ruth chapter 1 as well.  He would have wanted Naomi and Elimelech to flee the Promised Land and head to the pagan country of Moab, where he would have been in complete control.  He would have been pleased to see Mahlon and Chilion get married to Moabite women.  Satan would have wanted Naomi to curse God and turn her back on him.  He didn’t want Naomi to have fellowship and life with God.  No, that roaring lion is all about death and destruction.  When it came to Ruth, surely it was the same story.  Satan would have been quite happy to see Ruth listen to her mother-in-law and go back to Moab. 

But our gracious God had other plans.  He wanted to use Naomi and Ruth for his purposes in the history of salvation.  He didn’t want them to have death and destruction.  God wanted them to have the fullness of life.  That’s something they could not possibly have in pagan Moab.  Moab was full of people who were on the broad road to destruction, full of people who didn’t love God.  They worshipped false gods; gods like Chemosh.  We heard last time about how the worship of Chemosh involved child sacrifices.  Moab was a country full of spiritual death.  It was Satan’s playground.

Israel was different.  The people there belonged to God’s covenant.  Yes, as the book of Ruth opens, these covenant people are living in apostasy and rebellion.  They fell under God’s covenant discipline as a result.  A famine came to get their attention.  God did get their attention and they repented.  There was a revival in the land.  Again God blessed his people with food and life.  Covenant fellowship was restored.  The country was full of life again.  In his grace, God wanted to bring Naomi and Ruth back to that land full of life.  So he works sovereignly in their lives to do exactly that.  God graciously returns Naomi and Ruth to Bethlehem.  That’s our theme.  As we look at the last verses of Ruth 1, we’ll consider the:

  1. Foul attitude of Naomi
  2. Faithful activity of Yahweh

Naomi and Ruth together left Moab and walked back to the Promised Land.  It wouldn’t have taken long and soon they were in Bethlehem, the place where the story started.  When they arrived, the town was abuzz.  Especially the women of the town couldn’t believe that this was Naomi.  It seems that they thought she would never come back.  Perhaps they were surprised that her husband was gone and so were her two sons.

The women were chattering and asking each other, “Can this really be Naomi?”  She overheard them mentioning her name.  In Hebrew the name “Naomi” means something like sweetness or pleasantness.  It’s a beautiful name with a rich meaning.  Naomi was quite aware of the meaning of her name and as she heard it uttered by fellow Israelite women, a certain emotion welled up inside her.  She resented her name and what it said.  So she responded by saying, “Don’t call me Naomi anymore.  Don’t call me “sweetness.”  Instead, call me Mara.”  In Hebrew, “Mara” means bitter.  “Call me bitter.”

Why did she want a name change?  Why Mara?  Because, she said, “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.  I went away full – I had a husband and two sons – I had life and security with male family members.  Now I’m coming back with nothing.  I have absolutely nothing.  Why would you call me Naomi?  What is there that’s sweet and pleasant about my life now?  Yahweh, the LORD, he has made a case against me.  The Almighty has brought all this calamity on my head.  I’m a miserable woman because of God.  So, no more Naomi.  The name’s not fitting.  Instead, call me Mara, call me bitter because that’s what I am.”

You can sense that Naomi was not enjoying a good relationship with the Almighty.  She was bitterly shaking her fist at God for everything that had happened.  You could even say that she blamed God for taking away her husband and her two sons.  God had taken away everything she depended on for life and security.  God had left her with nothing.  In her mind, this was all his fault.  She had quite the foul attitude towards God.  Notice how she doesn’t take any personal responsibility.  She doesn’t give any evidence of any humility whatsoever.  She could have said, “Well, we got what we deserved.  We tried to run away from God.  We thought we would find a more abundant life in pagan Moab, but the LORD caught up to us.  He gave us the discipline we deserved there too.  He took my husband and sons away from me.  I depended upon them for life and security and he took them away so that I would learn to depend on him instead.  I needed to learn that lesson.”  No, that’s not at all what Naomi said, not even close.  Instead, she shook her fist at God in bitterness and put all the blame on him for everything that happened.

Loved ones, in one sense Naomi was right.  God had done all these things in her life.  He is sovereignly in control of all things.  He controls the things that we experience as good, as well as the things we experience as bad.  In Naomi’s case, God was testifying against her.  He brought calamity upon her to get her attention, so that she would wake up, repent, and return to him in faith.  The things that happened to her were not pointless.  God was behind these things and he had a purpose in them.  His purpose was good.  His plan for Naomi was a good one.  If her husband had stayed alive, if her sons had remained alive and if they’d had a bunch of grandchildren and got all nicely settled in Moab, would they have returned to Bethlehem?  If things had gone well in Moab, would they have returned to the land where God promised to dwell among his people?   Would they have returned to the land where there was access to reconciliation and renewed fellowship through the sacrifices offered at the tabernacle?  God had a good purpose in doing what he did.  Her foul attitude was not the proper attitude of a child of God who knows and trusts him.  This was a sinful reaction.

Our text lays that on the table for what it is.  The sin of bitterness is exposed as a warning for us.  In Lord’s Day 10 of the Catechism we have our confession about God’s providence.  We believe that God brings good things our way, things that we perceive as good.  From his hand, we get the leaf and blade, the rain, the fruitful years, the food and drink, the health, the riches.  We can easily see that those things come to us from our loving God’s hand.  But what about the things that we experience or perceive as being undesirable or bad?   What about the drought, the barren years, the sickness, the poverty?  We confess from the Scriptures that also these things come to us “not by chance but by his fatherly hand.”  God has a good purpose and plan in all those things as well, even if we can’t always see his purpose or plan. 

So if those hard times come and we’re faced with adversity and we find ourselves getting bitter, we have to ask ourselves:  who are we bitter against?  Our good God is in control of all things:  fruitful and barren years, health and sickness, riches and poverty, everything!  Should we be shaking our fist bitterly at God and getting angry at him, blaming him for all our problems?  Or perhaps just being indifferent towards him and ignoring him.  He seems to have turned his back on us, so let’s return the favour?

No, brothers and sisters, there’s a better way.  It’s the way described in Lord’s Day 10.  We can be patient in the adversities we experience, and “we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love.”  You can hear the echoes of Romans 8:38-39 in those beautiful words.  Instead of getting bitter at God when things get hard, or instead of treating him with indifference, shouldn’t we rather trust him that he will make everything work out for our good?  Shouldn’t we trust the love of our Father and his good plans for us?  In Jesus Christ, he loves us as his own children, and he promises and assures us that all things will work for good for us who believe.  He promises that in Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  So, why should we be bitter at God if things don’t go the way we want?  And, of course, this is all the more true if we bear any personal responsibility for the hard times we’re facing.  God is trying to get our attention!  Bitterness will never help us in growing closer to God – it will never result in joy or peace. 

This is why Ephesians 4:31 reminds us to put away all bitterness.  It doesn’t fit with who we are as Christians.  It isn’t fitting for those who are united to Christ.  Think about that.  When you think about Jesus and how he is revealed to us in Scripture, do you see a bitter man?  Today at God’s right hand, do you think Jesus bears any bitterness or malice?  Of course not.  He was never bitter and never is.  This was a sin that he never committed and his obedience in this too is yours, credited to your account.  He’s paid for all our bitterness with his suffering and death on the cross, including any bitterness we’ve ever had towards God.  All paid in full with his blood!  Loved ones, be encouraged to know that God’s grace is enough to cover it all.  Believe it.  And now, through the Holy Spirit, we are united in faith to this Saviour.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  These branches have been grafted on to the vine so that they would come alive and bear fruit.  God’s purpose and design is that our lives would more and more reflect our Saviour Jesus.  Therefore, we want to put away all bitterness, especially any bitterness towards our gracious and sovereign God.   

Now even though Naomi was so bitter against him, God did not leave the scene.  He continued to be active in every way.  He had a plan to work through Naomi, and especially through Ruth, her daughter-in-law.  Remember that in verse 16, Ruth had said that Naomi’s God was going to be her God.  Ruth was leaving behind Chemosh and all the other Moabite gods and goddesses.  She was now going to worship Yahweh.  She’d made that commitment as they were leaving Moab.  Refusing to go back, she continued on the journey to Israel with Naomi.

Now Ruth is there alongside Naomi as they come into Bethlehem.  Ruth would have heard these bitter words which expressed a foul and sinful attitude.  “Your God will be my God, Naomi.  This God that you’re bitter against, he is now my God.”  You might think that Ruth would have second thoughts about her commitment to Yahweh after hearing this tirade from her mother-in-law.  “Maybe I spoke too soon when I said, ‘your God will be my God.’  She’s bitter against him, why would I want to serve him?”  But we read nothing of the sort.  She doesn’t say something like, “Well, if that’s what God is like, then forget it.  Naomi can have her God that she’s so bitter against.  This was all a big mistake.  I’m going back to Moab.”  No, I want you to see that our God Yahweh is actively working here with Ruth, so that she doesn’t follow that path.  He is the one who works with his Spirit so that she perseveres in having the God of Israel as her God.  The sovereign God has called Ruth to be his child and he does not let go of her, nor does he allow her to let go of him.       

You can see this in verse 22.  Last time I mentioned how the author of this book not only speaks about Naomi returning to Bethlehem, but also Ruth.  At first glance, this seems odd, because Ruth is not from Israel, she’s from Moab.  It’s here in verse 22 as well.  They are both described as returning to the Promised Land.  Ruth was returning to where she belonged.  God wanted her to be part of his church, to worship him instead of Chemosh.  The last line of the chapter is also significant:  “And they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.”  This was the time of Pentecost, the feast of weeks.  People were celebrating the harvest of barley grain, but they also looked ahead to the time when God would bring in a harvest of all the nations. 

Ruth was part of the first-fruits of that harvest.  She points ahead to a time when our Saviour Jesus would be saving people from every tribe, tongue and nation.  If we look ahead to the New Testament, we see it starting full-force in the book of Acts.  Throughout that book, God was saving many Gentiles, bringing them to saving faith in Christ – that great-grandchild of Ruth, the seed of the woman who definitively crushed the head of the serpent at the cross.  Of course, that’s just where it began.  God’s faithful activity of gathering his church from the nations has continued through the centuries.  Some day we will see what John saw in Revelation 7:9, “…a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…”  Together we will be singing God’s praises into eternity.  People from every nation, every ethnic background, they will have returned to their Creator and God.  For that, he will be praised forever.  God will make this happen.  He has promised and he is faithful! 

If we look around us in just our own congregation, we can see it already.  None of us are Jewish.  Most of us come from a Dutch background, but there are some other ethnicities here too.  We’ve got people with [insert whatever is appropriate here for your congregation] backgrounds – and maybe others that I’ve missed.  This is great!  Through his faithful activity, our gracious God has brought us all together into this one church.  The diversity of the church reflects God’s intentions to save people from every nation.  He did it with Ruth, and he still does so today.  He does it for the praise of his glorious grace, so that we would together make much of our faithful God.

Loved ones, this morning, we’re called again to believe God’s promises.  God calls us to believe him when he has promised that sin and evil will someday be completely gone.  He calls us to believe his promise that Jesus has crushed the head of the serpent.  That serpent cannot stand in the way of Christ’s church-gathering work with us or anyone else.  We’re called to believe that Yahweh is our faithful God, and that because of what he has done in his sovereign grace, one day we shall stand alongside Ruth in that great crowd of people redeemed by the Lamb.  We see God at work in Ruth 1.  He makes promises and he keeps them.  Despite the efforts of Satan and sinful people to frustrate his plans, God faithfully works.  Our God is stronger than the devil and far stronger than sinful people.  Let’s continue to trust in this gracious God who is always faithful to his Word.  AMEN.                                         


Gracious God,

We give you thanks for your faithfulness.  You never forsake your promises, you never forsake us.  You took Ruth out of Moab and returned her to yourself.  We praise you for that!  Us too, you’ve gathered us into your church by your grace, and for this we’re grateful.  We pray that you would continue your church-gathering work, continue to bring in the elect from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  So we ask your blessing on all the mission work we support.  Please bless our missionaries in Brazil, in Papua New Guinea, in Indonesia, and also here in Canada.  Father, please let your Spirit work through the Word preached by your faithful servants everywhere. 

Your Word this morning also leads us to praise for your sovereignty and providence in our lives.  We know that everything happens with a purpose and everything fits with your plan.  Please strengthen our faith so that we always trust you and never doubt your love.  For the sake of Christ, please forgive us for every time that we have failed in that.  Please forgive us for any bitterness we may have ever harboured against you.  Father, please teach us to be patient in adversity, help us to trust in your love for us at all times, in all circumstances.  Because we’re so weak, we need the help of your Spirit and we pray that he would continue his sanctifying work in our lives.      



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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