When Everything Falls Apart

This week we are kicking off a new teaching series called, A Love Story. For the next four weeks we are going to be walking through one of the greatest love stories in the Scriptures. It is found in a little book tucked away in an easily overlooked corner of the Hebrew Bible called Ruth. Rather than just telling the story, we are going to experience together through the eyes of the characters who were actually in it. Read the story for yourself, and then take some time with this message and encounter for perhaps the first time through one who was there.

When Everything Falls Apart

I love a good story. Don’t you? There are just some ideas we can communicate better through the lens of a story than we can by plain instruction or by facts and figures. Now, we still need those, but stories are powerful things. There’s a reason so much of what we find in the Scriptures comes through the lens of a story. Do you know what’s even better than a regular, old story, though? A love story. Love stories are really powerful. There’s a reason Hallmark is a made-for-TV-producing juggernaut and that multiple different networks and streaming services are basically cut-and-pasting their storytelling format…especially during the Advent season. 

Because of the emotional power of love, love stories can pack even more of a punch when it comes to conveying deep and important truths. Now, you won’t find much in the way of deep and important truths in a Hallmark movie. In fact, you’re more likely to find a whole lot of stuff that isn’t even remotely true about love and relationships there, but the point holds all the same. Well, as we are entering into the season when we tend to give love a bit more time in the spotlight than at other times during the year, I thought it would be fun to dive into the single best love story in the Scriptures together to see what truths we can find there.

So, for the next four weeks, that is exactly what we are going to do in a new series called, “A Love Story,” that is all about one of Jesus’ distant ancestors named Ruth. But I don’t just want to tell you this story. Many of you have heard it before. Many times. You don’t need me to tell you this story again. Instead, what I want to try to do is to take you into the story itself to perhaps experience it for the first time through the eyes of the characters who were in it. Each week in this journey we are going to experience the next part of the story along with the main character of that part. These few weeks will be a bit different from our normal format during this time, but sometimes different can help us see and hear things we might otherwise miss. If you have a copy of the Scriptures handy, find your way to the wonderful story in the Hebrew Bible we call Ruth. We’re going to be in the first chapter today and you can scan it as we go. But otherwise, sit back, relax, and experience Ruth’s story through the eyes of someone who was there. 


Bitter. That’s what I am. My life has been one bitter disaster after another. We may serve a God who has revealed Himself to be good, but I don’t see it. I never see it. Life has always been hard. That’s just the world we live in. Sometimes our elders would tell stories about a time when things used to be good. They’d tell of Joshua’s leading the Israelites to victory as we conquered the land God had promised Abraham He would give to his ancestors. Yes, we compromised sometimes when we shouldn’t have, but the people were committed to the ways of the Lord at that time and He rewarded us for our faithfulness. We haven’t seen those rewards for a very long time. 

Well, that’s not completely true. He has rescued us from the hands of our enemies. More than once. But we wouldn’t have been there unless He had allowed us to be overtaken by them in the first place. Sure, we strayed from the path of the Law a bit…or a lot…but isn’t it His job to keep us on that track in the first place?!? I’m sorry. That’s my bitterness coming out again. I can’t help it. Everything has just gone so wrong. 

You’re probably wondering who I am. My mother would be so ashamed. I’ve gotten so focused on my pain that I’m even forgetting my basic good manners. My name is Naomi. As for why I am so bitter, let me tell you some of my story. 

Things weren’t always quite so hard for me. There was a day when things were good. Really good. Elimelech and I—that was my husband—were young and happy. The Lord had given us two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. Elimelech even owned some land near a little town called Bethlehem. We didn’t have the wealth of Job, but we had enough. Yet have you ever lived in a day when you felt like the world around you was going insane? We were faithful, or tried to be. But the world didn’t make it easy. Our friends and neighbors treated God like He was someone you could take or leave as you pleased. You didn’t want Him as an enemy, of course, but they lived like as long as they stayed out of His way, He would mostly stay out of theirs. They were just buying into ideas that were common in some of the larger towns and villages. Other, more modern tribes, were exporting such dangerous ideas. And they were paying a price for them too. 

We had seen it happen more times than I cared to count. The people turned from God. God allowed them to be conquered. They cried out to God. And God would send a leader to bring them some relief. My grandparents would tell us the story of Deborah, the great and faithful judge who led the people in conquering the Cananites. Before her were Othniel and Ehud and Shamgar. Then came Gideon. Gideon led us in a great battle over the Midianites, but his legacy was not the one of faithfulness that we needed. His initial moral cowardice never really left him and it allowed for one of his sons, Abimelech, to seize power and make an absolute disaster of the nation. We are still trying to clean up from the chaos he left behind. 

Life was hard, but there was just something special about Bethlehem. It’s like it was just a bit insulated from the problems afflicting the other eleven tribes. Besides, Judah’s descendants always stood just a bit taller than their brothers and sisters. And so while we heard of the trials and tribulations of the other tribes, we enjoyed the life that we had. At least we did until the famine came. Elimelech really did work hard to try to keep us on our land for as long as he could, but the misery wouldn’t let up and eventually we had to do something. We were going to starve if we remained where we were. 

But Moab? I told him it was a bad idea. “There is nothing good for us in Moab,” I said. But he was insistent. The famine was everywhere in Israel. All twelve tribes were affected by it. “On that side of the Jordan,” he said, “they have water and food. I know it’s hard, but we have to go there for the sake of our family.” He didn’t seem to care a bit that Moab and Israel are mortal enemies. Moses even laid down a law prohibiting them from being a part of Israel. “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the Lord’s assembly; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, may ever enter the Lord’s assembly.” If these people were that bad, why would he take us to live among them? Survival matters, of course, but at what cost? 

But he was going. And so we went. And it wasn’t at all clear that he planned to ever return home. We acquired land. We built a home. Were we simply giving up on God’s covenant? I told him judgment would come for this. But he wouldn’t listen. And then he was gone. It was just me and our boys who had become men during our time there. It came time for them to marry, yet try as I might, I could not convince them to return to Israel to find a wife from among the people of the Lord. They both married girls from the local village where we lived. They told me—sounding entirely too much like their father—that this was necessary to secure our family’s future. But I knew it wouldn’t end well. The girls were lovely, yes, but they weren’t from our people. Were we even part of “our people” any longer? The boys both seemed pretty settled into living out their lives and growing their own families in Moab. I told them—I told them—this wasn’t what God wanted, but they wouldn’t listen. And then they were gone too. One, then the other. It had only been ten years since my Elimelech left. And I was alone. 

I decided in that moment that I had to return home. Staying didn’t make a bit of sense. I had nothing there. No connections. No power. No family. All that place was to me was pain. 

And then the most incredible thing happened. The girls—Orpah and Ruth—both said they would come with me. What could possibly possess them to do such a thing I couldn’t begin to understand. There was nothing for them in Israel. As Moabites, they weren’t even really welcome there. I wasn’t sure whether to celebrate this as a gift from God, or to take it for what it really seemed to be: yet another curse to remind me of just how alone I really was. I didn’t want them to stay. I wanted them to come with me. Our worlds were different, yes, but we had shared so much. I had come to love them like they were my own daughters. I tried hard to not forget that when I lost my sons, they lost their husbands at the same time. But why would they give up the life they still had available to them in Moab with their own families? Their faithful intent was incredible, but I couldn’t ask that of them. They both protested fiercely when I told them to return to their fathers’ houses, but somehow I found the strength to hold firm. We were all crying together, but my logic was unassailable. Even if I could find a husband and have children again, they couldn’t wait that long for them to grow up and be of marrying age to have husbands who were my sons once more. 

Orpah hugged us both one last time fiercely and went out the door. She didn’t even look back. I was proud of her resolve and thankful for it. If she had returned again, I don’t think I would have had the strength to tell her to go. I went back into the house slowly to give myself time to build up my own resolve to tell Ruth to go. She had been sitting on the floor just sobbing her eyes out when I saw Orpah off. But when I returned, while the sadness was still in her eyes, there was something else there as well. I recognized the look immediately for I wore it on my own face. It was resolve. Perhaps she really had finally decided to heed my advice and go. That’s certainly what I expected. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for what came out of her mouth. 

She looked right at me with her beautiful eyes still puffy and red from her tears and uttered words I will never forget. “Don’t plead with me to abandon you or to return and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go, and where you live, I will live; your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me, and do so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” 

When she finished the speech she had obviously been rehearsing in her head since I walked out the door, a silence hung in the air for what seemed like hours even though it was only seconds. Time stopped. You could almost hear both of our hearts beating in sync. What could I possibly do with that? I wondered for a moment if she really knew what she was committing herself to, but the look in her eyes said she understood it perfectly well. She was coming with me and that was final. I could accept it or fight it, but it was happening either way. 

My heart almost skipped a beat. There was joy welling up in me, but I couldn’t bear to let it flourish. I was perhaps not so alone as I had feared, but there was no way I was going to rush headlong in this direction just yet. I had already lost so much. I couldn’t be hurt again. Everyone close to me had died. A part of me feared that in saying yes I was simply consigning Ruth to a similar fate. But the selfish part of me didn’t care. Maybe this really was a gift from God after all. Things were so bitter for me, but maybe God hadn’t turned His back entirely. I wanted to believe it, but I hurt so much it was hard. 

The journey back to Bethlehem was long. Ruth and I talked as we went, trying to make a plan for how the two of us would make it. I knew Elimelech still had a land claim, but I had no idea if we would be able to access that or even if someone else in the family had taken ownership of it. I knew the community had practiced the gleaning laws when we left, but we would see if that had held. We would see how far the corruption burrowing its way through the rest of the tribes had made its way into the Bethlehem community. 

When we finally arrived the other members of the community could hardly believe their eyes. It had been so long since Elimelech and I had left with the boys. Children who had been running around were grown men and women by now. The community had blessedly changed little. We were going to be welcomed with open arms. Yet in that moment, I was completely overwhelmed with a pressing sense of loss. A fresh wave of anger rolled over me. Anger at my husband for taking us from this wonderful community. Anger at my sons for being so weak as to die, leaving me totally alone. Anger at God for never seeming to care. The bitterness in my soul finally flowed out of its container, and for a moment, it poisoned everything. Ruth could see it in my eyes, but she alone understood and so let me have my moment. As the women of the community shouted their astonishment that Naomi had returned, the words flowed out of my mouth before I could stop them. I couldn’t be named “Pleasant” any longer. My whole life was bitterness now “Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara. For the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has opposed me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?” 

They were shocked and drew back like they had been struck. But my words had their intended effect. They gave us space then and marveled at what our story must have been in the years since I had been gone. Things were bitter for us. And yet, in spite of all my pain, in spite of all the bitterness that was trying to break free from its bounds and take control of my heart completely, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that God hadn’t forgotten us. He wasn’t going to leave us alone. I didn’t know what tomorrow would hold, but His love was holding us and I had to believe that was going to be enough. 


Naomi’s pain had to be intense. She had lost everything. Today we have various social safety nets for people in her position—although even those don’t catch everyone. But in that day, there was nothing. There was only suffering until you died. Her prospects were grim indeed. And yet there was Ruth’s faithfulness; a bright spot that was shining like a beacon of God’s own faithfulness in what were incredibly dark times for the people of Israel that would grow darker still before they got any brighter. 

That beacon of God’s faithfulness was something that shone brightly in that moment, but its impact stretched on beyond that. It was a persistent reminder that God’s faithfulness was bigger than merely the moment we are currently facing. As Naomi understood, even when things are bitter, God is still with us. 

God was still at the beginning of a work then that would stretch on forward for many more centuries. It was a work that was always intended to bring us out of the bitterness of sin that characterized so much of our lives; that held such power over our hearts. It was a work that was intended to remind us once and for all time that even when things are bitter, God is still with us. 

It was a work that would be brought to completion in Christ. Yet that completion did not come without a cost attached to it. And as we wrap up our time together this morning, I wanted to take just a minute to remember that cost and what it bought together. You see, sin is bitter stuff. It accomplishes nothing but pain and heartache and destruction anywhere it is unleashed. That’s all it can do. We turn to it because of its grand promises of freedom and fun and life, but all it delivers are lies; lies that bind us tightly and keep us from the very life we turned to it to have. Like I said, sin is bitter stuff. But even when things are bitter, God is still with us. 

He’s with us because He loves us. And in this particular instance, His love for us was so great that He was willing to move heaven and earth to free us from sin’s terrible prison. Because of His justice, though, that freedom could only come when sin’s terrible cost was paid. He knew, though, that we could not pay it on our own. So in the single greatest act of love ever conceived—one that was beautifully foreshadowed by Ruth’s faithfulness to Naomi—God sent His Son to pay that cost for us. He did that by dying in our place. He made Himself a perfect sacrifice so that our way back to God could be opened. And then, with sin’s price paid, God raised Him to life again, breaking the power of death, and making us able to finally have the life we had always sought in Christ. Even when things are bitter, God is still with us. If you will have Him, He is ready to receive you. He is ready to take you out of your place of bitterness and into the spacious, open, sweet plains of grace. I hope that you will.

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