God Cares - no Matter What

Reading: Ruth 1

A Christian couple in ministry in a small Queensland country town had two sons and were happily expecting their third child. On the Monday before the birth was due, the eldest son, five, came home from school sick. His condition worsened until, on Saturday morning, he died. That afternoon their baby was born - a son.

About four years later they had another son. The family moved to Brisbane. A couple of years later the father developed tuberculosis. After time in the Chermside hospital he retired from ministry on grounds of health and the family moved to a cold dry climate for recuperation. While there the youngest son took ill and had to be hospitalised. The diagnosis was not good and the doctor told the parents that he had no more than a fortnight to live.

There is a happy ending to that story, for I am that youngest son. Dad, who surprised everyone by being able to return to ministry, recorded in the diary he was keeping during those difficult years how church folk picked them up to take them to a prayer meeting at the parsonage. He was quite sure that believing prayer, together with the modern wonder drug penicillin, was responsible for my recovery.

It was only years later when I drove Dad from Bundaberg to Kingaroy as Chairman of District that I saw Kenneth's grave at Murgon and knew he had died the same day David was born. And when, at the age of eight, I was given a fortnight to live, it must have all come back to them.

Today we are looking at the first chapter of Ruth and I have taken the title, "God cares - no matter what." That is true. My parents knew it to be true. They found it to be true. But when you are going through a series of harrowing experiences, you sometimes have to hang on in faith and wonder what the end will be - when and how the loving care of the heavenly Father is going to be revealed to you in your own experience.

A Family in Crisis

Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, lived in Bethlehem in Judah. It was their home. Their relatives and friends lived there. But the family fell on hard times - "there was a famine in the land" (Ruth 1.1-2). A famine is a shortage of food. It may have been caused by drought, by a plague of locusts or even by the violence of the times. It was in the time of the judges and the book of Judges ends with the comment, "There was no king in Israel at that time. Everyone did just as he pleased" (Judg. 21.25).

Whatever the reason for this famine, this family heard that conditions were better east of Jordan for the moment and decided to move there "to live for a while in the country of Moab." They didn't intend to stay there - in due course they would return home when conditions were better.

There may have been other reasons for the move. The names given to children usually had a significant meaning. Mahlon was their elder son, and his name means "weak, sickly." Chilion, the younger, means "failing, pining." These names suggest that the boys had been born with health problems. Add to that the harsh conditions and a shortage of food and we may have a better understanding of why this particular family decided to uproot for a time, their relatives and friends stayed in Bethlehem. It may be a clue to what happened later on.

But disaster struck - Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. Mahlon and Chilion married Moabite girls, Orpah and Ruth (vv. 3-4). The Moabites were descendants of Abraham's nephew, Lot, by his eldest daughter. Deut. 23.3 doesn't place a restriction on Jews marrying Moabites, but they may not be admitted to the congregation and the offspring of marriage with a Moabite were not to be admitted to the congregation to the tenth generation. (It was Balak, the King of Moab, who tried to get Balaam to put a curse on the Lord's people on their way to the promised land. Balaam refused and blessed them instead.)

The statement that they were there about ten years probably covers the whole of their time there, and not simply the time of their married life. Their marriages were most likely toward the end of the ten years, otherwise there would be some reference to children or childlessness.

Disaster struck again - Mahlon and Chilion died. Now Naomi was "all alone, without husband or sons" (Ruth 1.5). The Jewish Talmud regards the death of the three males of the household as punishment for leaving Judah. The cause of death is no part of this story, though Naomi herself says, "The Lord has turned against me" (v. 13). Later, on return to Bethlehem, she says she can no longer be called Naomi, the pleasant one. They should call her Marah, the bitter one - "the Lord Almighty has condemned me and sent me trouble" (v. 21).

Home to Bethlehem

"Some time later Naomi heard that the Lord had blessed his people by giving them a good harvest..." Learning of the end of the famine in Judah, the three women prepare to return to Bethlehem.

For Naomi the journey is a return home after an extended and tragic visit to the country of Moab. It is a return to family and friends. It is coming back to "the land" again, the place of the Lord's people.

Orpah and Ruth mean to go all the way with Naomi, but she has no intention of involving them in a change of country. In those days marriage was almost the only career open to a woman. It was the one thing that promised stability. Naomi can see no future for the young women in her own country. Being Moabites they would be less likely to remarry in Israel. So Naomi presses them to go back to their mother's home and wishes for them the blessing of the Lord and marriage and a home.

The young women protest, "No! We will go with you to your people." But Naomi presses them again. She has (and will have) no more sons for them to marry. They would have to share with her the poverty of a widow's home. Better for them to return to the country of Moab. It is as if she feels that the Lord has become her enemy, and she wants them to experience his blessing, not his judgment.

Orpah kisses her mother-in-law and sets off home. In reading the story, we tend to condemn Orpah, yet she was simply responding to Naomi's sensible advice and obeying her request. Don't be too hard on her!

But Ruth has already made up her mind. She doesn't want to be urged to change her commitment. "Don't ask me to leave you! Let me go with you. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God." This means that she will be cut off from the Moabite people and will make Naomi's people her own. But, even more, she has come to trust Naomi's God, a trust that is very real. "Wherever you die, I will die, and that is where I will be buried. May the Lord's worst punishment come upon me if I let anything but death separate me from you!"

Ruth's commitment to Naomi is not short-lived. She will stay with Naomi until death and will continue in her community after Naomi's death. Naomi seems to view her own disasters as a sign of the Lord's judgment on her, but Ruth believes God expects her to stay committed to Naomi.

God cares

God is on our side. He continues to care for us, no matter what our circumstances. Listen to those familiar words from Psalm 23, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (v. 4) - in the Good News Bible, "Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd's rod and staff protect me."

That doesn't make "the valley of the shadow of death" pleasant or comfortable. It doesn't dim the pain of grief and loss. But don't despair! God is there! Know his care!

Paul could write, "We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose... I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below - there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8.28, 38-39).

That doesn't guarantee that what we call "good" will always happen to us. Paul seems to expect that "trouble, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death" (v. 35) may well happen to Christians. He doesn't expect that there will necessarily be deliverance from these situations, but that people will know "complete victory" (v. 37) and the love of God in them.

Is there some dark or bitter experience that has clouded your life? It may be some present happening or something from the past that you have carefully hidden for years. God does care for you - no matter what! Be ready to forgive some person past or present. Be open to allow the healing gracious love of God pour over you. Be ready to allow that love to reach out to touch the lives of others around you.

God's promise to Paul in his own weakness was, "My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak" (2 Cor. 12.9). It is his word for us too!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 7 February 1999
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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