Fleeing Trouble
by Jack Wald | September 26th, 2010

Ruth 1:1-5

When I was four months in the womb, my mother’s father died. His name was Leon and so when I was born, she wanted me to be named Leon, in memory of her father. But I had two older sisters and my father wanted his son to be named after himself. He carried his father’s name and wanted me to carry his name. There was a big argument and my father won. If he had not won you would be calling me Leon today.

My oldest daughter is pregnant and due to have a baby girl in January. The name game has begun and lots of names are being proposed. The goal seems to be to pick a name that not many others have and that does not remind my daughter or her husband of any people they did not particularly appreciate in the past.

This is not how names in the Bible were given. Children were named to reflect the manner of their birth or perhaps in a prophetic way, the course of their life.

When Rebecca gave birth to twin boys, the first born was covered with hair and so was named Esau which means hairy. The second came out of the womb holding on to the heal of Esau and was called Jacob which means “he grasps the heel”. When Jacob’s lesser loved wife, Leah, bore sons, she gave them names that reflected her misery at being unloved by Jacob. When Rachel finally gave birth to a son, after years of barrenness, she named her son Joseph which means “may he add”, saying “May the Lord add to me another son.”

When we read the book of Ruth, it helps to know what the names mean because they reveal some of the great truths in this book of the Bible.

If you want to have an idea about when this story took place, Boaz, who married Ruth, was the son of Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho who took in Joshua’s two spies and hid them from the authorities. And then Ruth was the mother of Obed who was the father of Jesse who was the father of David who became King of Israel. So the story of Ruth takes place with the son of Rahab who married Ruth and became the great-grandfather of King David.

The story begins in Bethlehem in Judah.
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. 2 The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion.

What do these names tell us? Bethlehem means “house of bread”. Elimelech means “my God is king” and Naomi means “pleasant”. So you have My God Is King and Pleasant living in House of Bread. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? This should be a “they lived happily ever after” story. But then House of Bread became If you’re Looking For Bread You Won’t Find It Here. There was a famine and Elimelech decided to escape the trouble and go to Moab.

What do we know about Moab? The meaning of the name is not clear but it sounds like the Hebrew for what or who and father and carries the meaning “Who is your father?” This is a mocking question because everyone knew that the father of Moab was Lot and Moab was conceived when Lot’s daughters got him drunk in a cave after escaping from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In more recent history, the king of Moab tried unsuccessfully to get Balaam to curse Israel when they were passing through and then the women of Moab enticed the Israelite men into adultery. Because of this, Deuteronomy (23) had a 10-generation prohibition on a Moabite entering the temple. Moab was a despised nation. In Psalm 60 Moab is called a washbasin.

So My God Is King and Pleasant left House of Bread to go to Washbasin. Now it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a good story, and if there were any doubt about that, they took with them their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion whose names mean “sickly” and “failing”.

Some of you may remember in June when I preached from Psalm 1. I talked about Lot and how after Abraham gave him a choice about what land he wanted to have, he moved to the plains of Sodom and Gomorrah. As the verses go on there is a progression.

We read in Genesis that (Genesis 13:12)
Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom.

Later there was a battle and Lot and his possessions were captured. Notice where he is now living. (Genesis 14:12)
They also carried off Abram’s nephew Lot and his possessions, since he was living in Sodom.

Lot pitched his tents near Sodom and when the kings captured him he had moved and was now living in Sodom.

Then when angels arrived to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the great evil in those cities, where was Lot to be found? (Genesis 19:1)
The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city.

Lot pitched his tent near Sodom, then lived in Sodom and finally sat as a city elder in the gates of Sodom.

This same path to destruction is found in the opening verses of Ruth.
a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab

A sojourn is a temporary residence. It indicates a brief stay but then in verse 2 we read
They went into the country of Moab and remained there.

This means they decided to stay a longer time. They decided this would not be a short stay and began thinking longer term about their future in Moab. But then Elimelech died. It might have been the desire of Naomi and Elimelech to return at some point to Bethlehem so their sons could find wives but now their sons chose Moabite women and married Orpah and Ruth. And in verse 4 it appears they settled down, putting down roots in Moab.
[They] took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years,

So to recap, My God Is King and Pleasant left House of Bread to go to Washbasin, taking with them Sickly and Failing. They went for a brief stay, decided they would stay longer and then settled in for the foreseeable future.

Elimelech died and while Naomi was grieving the loss of her husband and looking forward to grandchildren, both Mahlon and Chilion died, neither having produced any children. Having no prospects, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem.

When Naomi returned to Bethlehem people recognized her and called out to her but listen to what she said to them. (Ruth 1:20–21)
“Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 21 I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”

Naomi means pleasant but Mara means bitter. The events of Naomi’s life had made her a bitter woman.

When she and Elimelech left Bethlehem to escape the famine, she had no idea she would lose everything she had, and that is exactly what happened. She lost her husband. She lost her sons. She lost her sons before they could produce sons. She had nothing left and as a widow she was responsible for caring for her two daughters-in-law who also had no one to take care of them.

What could she look forward to? She would have to depend on the generosity of others. She might not be a beggar on the street but she was the next step up from that. She came from Bethlehem with a family to escape a famine and now a famine had taken over her life. She had nothing left.

This is how the book of Ruth begins. What lessons can we take from this story thus far?

The first lesson is that when God calls you to a person, place or thing and you abandon that person, place or thing when it becomes difficult, you are likely to find yourself in even deeper trouble.

Remember that Elimelech and Naomi were in the first generation of the Israelites who were born in the Promised Land. Their parents came with Joshua, crossed over the Jordan River, defeated Jericho and set out to conquer the rest of Canaan, the Promised Land. As they grew up they heard all the stories their parents had experienced.

The plagues God sent against Egypt to convince Pharaoh to release Israel were like WWII is to us. The miracles of provision of water and manna in the wilderness was something their parents had experienced. God had brought them safely into the Promised Land. God had demonstrated over and over again that he would take care of them and then at the first sign of trouble, a famine which periodically swept through Palestine, they ran away. They thought going to Moab would make things better but it made things worse.

There have been many times this year when I said to myself, “The heck with this. Why should I stay here? Why not go back to the US and get a job and have a much easier life?”

But one night in March when I was feeling this very intensely, I heard Chris Martin, pastor of CIPC in Casablanca, preach from this passage of scripture and he made this application, that when we are called to a place, we should not abandon it simply because it becomes difficult. I felt that God spoke to me that night and in times since then when I have been frustrated, when I have grieved because close friends have had to leave, when I have been tired of being unwanted, I have remembered this lesson. I will not leave on my own volition until I sense God telling me my time here is over.

Is this a lesson that comes only from the book of Ruth? What did Jesus do when it became difficult? In Luke’s gospel he records the story of Jesus preaching in his home town of Capernaum when the people were so upset with what he was saying they tried to kill him. Did Jesus step away from preaching and healing and driving out demons? No! He continued his ministry to which his father had called him.

When he was opposed by the Pharisees and they sought to kill him, did he step away? No! When he met with Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration and it became clear that he was to be crucified, did he turn away? No! He set his face toward Jerusalem, teaching, loving people, healing people as he went.

He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemene the night he was arrested and his prayer reveals his inner struggle. (Mark 14:33–36)
And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

When Jesus was being arrested and Peter resisted, Jesus told him (Matthew 26:53–54)
Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

Jesus did not run away when things became difficult. He faced his trial. He submitted to his father’s will. He did not run away.

What did Paul do when he was beaten, flogged, stoned and left for dead? Did he decide enough is enough and leave for a safer environment? No! Did he decide he had done his part and now it was time for someone else to pick up the work and retire to some small community where he could read, study and pray in peace? No! He continued to: (Philippians 3:14)
press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

What did James, the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem say? Did he say “Run when trouble comes your way?” No! He wrote: (James 1:2–3)
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

There were freedoms here for the last ten years that do not exist any longer. What do we do? Do we run away or do we stay? If this is where God has called you to be, then this is where you belong, regardless of any trouble you are experiencing.

Annie and I had a wonderful wedding day, a wonderful honeymoon and started out married life with a lot of excitement. But then my immaturity and some of Annie’s issues caught up with us and we had some very difficult years of marriage. We could easily have divorced each other several times. What would our life be like if we had divorced? If we had run at the first sign of difficulty, what would have happened?

It is wise not to discount God’s ability to bring good things out of disaster, as we will see over the next couple months as we work our way through Ruth, but I know what I would have missed if Annie and I had divorced twenty years ago. Annie and I have a wonderful friendship, fulfilling marriage, great children, sons-in-law and grandchildren. We can enjoy them as a family without the strains of divorced parents. We just had three wonderful weeks of vacation and our last week was delightful when we were alone on a lake in the northeast of the US where we were able to relax and enjoy the pleasures of a long relationship full of trust. We like being with each other. It feels good to be alone together.

This lesson from Ruth applies to your marriage. When you were married you married for better or worse, even if you did not use those words in your wedding vows. Flee from the difficulties and you may find yourself in a more difficult situation.

This lesson also applies to your work. In the book of Genesis when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, part of the curse was (Genesis 3:17–18)
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

The soil will work against you. Work will always have difficulties and if you run from one job to another, you will not find no difficulties, you will find different difficulties or the same difficulties in different clothes.

This is not a call to Christian masochism. This does not mean we are never to move away from a troubled situation. We are not to seek out suffering. It is sometimes a wise decision to leave a job and go to another. It is sometimes good to leave one place and move to another. But the key is that if God has called you to a person, place or thing, then it is not wise to leave when difficulty comes. This is why we are to work out our problems in marriage. When we marry we marry before God and Jesus told us: (Mark 10:9)
What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

In what area of your life are you facing difficulty? Has God called you to that person, place or thing? If so, then stand up and face the difficulty. God will work in you. It may be the difficulty will be resolved in the short-term or maybe not. In any event God will work in you to grow your faith, develop your character. You will benefit by sticking it out. If you leave, you can easily find yourself in a far more difficult situation than if you had stayed and faced the difficulty.

There is a second lesson I want to bring out from this section of Ruth. When all is lost and it seems that you are at the bottom of the pit, there is yet hope and out of despair can come incredible blessing.

Naomi had her husband die and then one of her sons and then finally her last son was taken away from her. As we will see as we move through the book of Ruth, she came from a prominent family in Bethlehem where she was well known, but now she is a foreigner without anyone to support her. The family line of Elimelech had died out and she was left alone with no family to look after her.

And so she asked people when she went back to Bethlehem to call her Mara, bitter.

But as we will see in coming weeks, out of the hopelessness of her life came blessing. She began the story in despair and finished the story with the blessing of Psalm 128. (Psalm 128:5–6)
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
6 May you see your children’s children!

How could a childless woman too old to bear children live to see her children’s children? This is the wonderful story of Ruth, how God made possible what seemed impossible.

Where in your life do you feel despair?

Over the last couple weeks I have been feeling very intensely the pain of the children of the Village of Hope whose parents were taken away from them almost eight months ago. I look at the pictures of the children with their smiling faces in the VOH calendar and wonder how they are doing now that they have been taken from their families and stuck in an institutional life. I am in despair. I see no hope. I see no way God can turn this into a happy ending. I think about the children and how they pray for their parents to be returned and yet nothing happens. I brainstorm and try to figure out a way a reunion of children and parents could be managed and I cannot find a scenario. This is an impossible situation.

We read the story of Naomi with the knowledge of how it turned out to be wonderful for her and because we know the happy ending it seems that her situation is not that bad. We want to tell her, “Just be patient Naomi, it will soon be better,” but there was no happy ending in sight for Naomi in these opening verses. Naomi is in complete despair. “Call me bitter, not pleasant.” She was in an impossible situation.

When we are the one who is hopeless, in despair, people telling us to be patient because things will soon be better are more irritating than helpful.

But God is not blocked by what seems to us to be impossible. God is far more creative than my best brainstorming. The story is not yet over with the children at the Village of Hope. We are only at the beginning chapters and there are more chapters to come.

Where in your life are you facing difficulty? What in your life seems so difficult that there seems no possibility of a happy ending? In what area of your life do you not have hope? You may be feeling like Naomi, “Call me bitter,” but your story is not limited by your imagination.

I’m not here to tell you it will get better. I’m here to tell you God can take you safely through anything you face and God has the power and creativity to take an impossible situation and make out of it a happy ending.

Your story is not yet over. You have chapters to come and the power and love and creativity of God is at work. Let this good news encourage you.