Facing Tragedies That Come Our Way
(This is an updated reflection by Pastor Nomer from a sermon preached last Sept 3, 2017 at Breadcom – Heroes, entitled “Overcoming Bitterness”.)
Life has many tastes of joys but also some bouts with tragedies. The latter can come in the form of physical, financial, relational and even natural disasters. In Ruth 1, we find the calamity striking the land leading towards Naomi’s misfortune that made her feel bitter not just life but the Lord Himself.
I. TRAGEDIES MAY COME EVEN TO GOD’S PEOPLE. When troubles visit the wicked it is understandable, but it becomes confusing and even painful when the believers are afflicted by them.
a. Tragedy in the Land. We read in the opening of the book of Ruth that a famine came to Bethlehem. Ironically, the name of the place means “house of bread or food” but they had no food. This made the family of Naomi leave for the land of Moab (1:1-2).
b. Tragedy in the family. While in Moab, Naomi’s husband Elimelech died. Her two sons married Moabite women, namely Ruth and Orpah. But in the course of ten years, Mahlon and Chilion also died both leaving no children (Ruth 1:3-5).
c. Tragedy of Naomi. Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem initially with her daughters in law, but later only Ruth was with her. When she arrived, all the city was stirred up and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” She said to them, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 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?” (1:19-21).
The change of name dramatically summarized the tragedies in our story, from Naomi meaning pleasant and delightful, Naomi wanted the people to call her Mara, meaning bitterness. What made the tragedies worse for Naomi was her feeling that her calamities were not accidental nor caused by men, but the God she believed in.
Was this expression of protest on the part of Naomi sinful? In the eyes of the religious yes, but in the Biblical context, it is called lamentation, a protest coming out not of doubt but from faith. David, the psalmists and Jeremiah, including our Lord Jesus have used such expressions to express their pains (see Pss 13:1-2, but vv.3-6; 22:1-2, but vv.3-31; 73:1-14, but vv.15-28; and see also Lamentations 3:1-20, but vv.21-32).
II. THE TRAGEDIES MAY HAVE EXPLANATION. Why would a good God allow such disasters to happen to God’s people? Was not Naomi’s feeling of bitterness towards God valid? Let’s look deeper at the narrative for clues.
A. The Spiritual Climate in the days of the judges. Our passage gives us a hint in the opening verse, Ruth 1:1 “Now it came about in the days when the judges governed, that there was a famine in the land.” During the stories recorded in the book of Judges, the characteristic description of the period was “ In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 21:25). Actually, they had a king ruling over them, not any human but the Lord Himself (Judges 8:23). Unfortunately despite seeking and consulting this King, the people and even judges leaned on their own understanding and acted out their wills than God (vs. Prov 3:5-7).
B. Naomi’s family succumbed to the trend. The name of Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, means “my God king” but in the time of crisis, there was no mention that he and Naomi sought their Lord, instead they took refuge in the land of Moab. This had been the tendency of many people, even believers. We tend to seek greener pastures in foreign lands. During a famine, wven Abram who had an intimate relationship with God in Gen 12:1-9, resorted to going to Egypt than seeking the Lord who called him (Gen 12:10-20). Joseph M. Scriven wrote:
“Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh, what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”
More serious was the indictment of the prophet Isaiah against God’s people, when he wrote:
Isaiah 30:1 “Woe to the rebellious children,” declares the Lord, “who execute a plan, but not Mine, and make an alliance, but not of My Spirit, in order to add sin to sin; 2 who proceed down to Egypt without consulting Me, to take refuge in the safety of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! 3 “Therefore the safety of Pharaoh will be your shame and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt, your humiliation.
Was there a better option than the practical one that Elimelech and Abram took? Yes. When there was a famine during the days of Isaac, he was also prone to do what his father did, move to Egypt, But the Lord instructed him to stay in the land (Gen 26:1-3) and promised to bless him. When Isaac stayed (Gen 26:6) and sowed in that land, the Lord’s blessing made him abundantly prosperous (Gen 26:12-14). The word of the Lord promises –
PS 33:18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, on those who hope for His lovingkindness, 19 to deliver their soul from death and to keep them alive in famine.
III. THE TRAGEDIES MAYBE TURNED AROUND. When God allows trials and even painful tragedies to come to His people, He also grieves with His people (Judg 2:18). And God can and will accomplish His good purpose despite of them (Rom 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; Rom 8:28). How did God accomplish that in our story?
A. By Hearing the Good News. While in Moab, the destitute Naomi heard that “the LORD had visited His people in giving them food” (Ruth 1:6). Such good news from a distant land was truly like a cold water to a weary soul (Prov 25:25). It brings not only hope, but reminds God’s people that their God, despite their tragedies, still rules.
ISA 52:7 How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who announces peace and brings good news of happiness, who announces salvation, and says to Zion, “Your God reigns!”*
B. By Responding to the Good News. The proclamation of the Good News is not merely to provide information, but to encourage the hearers to respond accordingly, that is, to believe and act on the news. Naomi decided to return initially with her two daughters in law (Ruth 1:1-14), but later on, ony the more determined Ruth went back to Bethlehem with Naomi (Ruth 1:15-18). The word “return” is used 15x in the book of Ruth, 12 of them in chapter 1, the other times are in Ruth 2:6; 4:3,15.
It is not that easy for a person to return from another country with nothing? In our Philippine shame-culture context, that would be terribly embarrassing. But for bitter Naomi, and her daughter-in-law, their return was their way of “seeking refuge under the wings of the Almighty” (Ruth 2:12).
While our story begins with famine and death, the chapter ends with the beginning of the barley harvest. The physical redemption signals the redemption that will happen in the life and family of Naomi and the people of Israel. But what about the blunders and pains of Naomi? The Word of God gives invitation and promise of hope.
ISA 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the LORD, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.
ISA 51:11 So the ransomed of the LORD will return and come with joyful shouting to Zion, and everlasting joy will be on their heads. They will obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
What about us who also had gone through personal and family disasters, but are not Israelites, is there any hope for redemption for us? Yes, and it also begins with the good news of the Lord’s visitation when Jesus was born –
Luke 2:8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Jesus, whose name means. “Savior” has come, and from His fullness, all people may receive grace upon grace (John 1:16). And despite all our blunders and sins, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins, not just of the Jewish people, but also of the whole world (John 1:29). What is our response? Just like Naomi and Ruth who returned from the land of Moab to Bethlehem, we need to return, the New Testament counterpart is to repent, which means, to change mind and direction.
When we return to the Lord or repent, we will experience the coming of the Kingdom of God (Mat 3:2; 4:17), but if we do not, we will perish (Luke 13:3,5). Every time a sinner returns to the Lord, the heavens rejoice (Luke 15:10).
No wonder, the apostolic invitation declares:
Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 3:19 Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. Cf. 2Pet 3:9
In Christ, those who feel empty like Naomi, can be filled up anew with the best that comes from God Himself (Eph 3:19). For His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, came not only to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10) but for us to have life, and enjoy this life to the full (John 10:10).