Shattered Dreams and Broken Lives
Scripture: Ruth 1:1–1:22
Synopsis: We all start out in life with our dreams and ambitions. But life doesn’t always follow our script. What happens when we wake up one day, far from home with our dream in pieces and our life broken? In this message from Ruth 1, entitled Shattered Dreams and Broken Lives we follow the story of a Jewish woman and her family who left God’s place of blessing “to sojourn (stay a little while)” in a distant land. What happened to her there? What spiritual lessons can we learn from her experience?
We all start out in life with dreams. We hold in our minds a vision of how we want our life to be, of what we are going to be “when we grow up” and of what we are going to accomplish. But life doesn’t always follow our script, does it?
Our dreams of athletic glory evaporate when we can’t even make the team. We fail exams we needed to pass to get into that elite school. Our dream job or career never materializes. We find ourselves just trying to get by in a dead-end job. Life has let us down.
And people! People who are important to us disappoint us. They break their promises. They are not there when we need them. They turn out to not be the people we thought they were, the people we needed them to be. Even worse, sometimes the people we were counting on, people we needed get sick and die, leaving us behind, alone. People have let us down.
And where is God in all of this? If we are honest, sometimes he is the biggest disappointment of all. After all, he is sovereign in the world, isn’t he? If so, how come the world is in such a mess? How come my life is such a mess?
Maybe you’ve wrestled with questions like these. Maybe you’re even wrestling with them right now. Somewhere along the line, your dreams were shattered, and your life got broken. If so, I have a word of hope for you. In our next four messages, we are going to dive into a little book of the Old Testament; the Book of Ruth. And the overarching message of this short little book is powerful and immensely reassuring. God loves to rebuild broken lives.
We just completed a series of messages before Easter on the life of Elijah. For our next series, we are going to stay in the Old Testament and we are going to stay in a narrative (or story) section. But I have chosen the Book of Ruth by reason of contrast. I entitled one of my messages on Elijah, “Of Kings and Prophets.” The stories of Elijah took place on a national stage, in the palace and on the battle field. They were important stories with important lessons for us to learn. But let’s face it. Most of us do not live out our lives on such a stage. So I have chosen the story of Ruth and Naomi by way of contrast.
We could subtitle this: Of Mothers, Sons and Daughters in Law. In the book of Ruth, we leave the national arena of palace, chariots and statecraft for the domestic realities of a Jewish family just trying to survive. It is an arena which many of us will find easier to relate to. But the point I want to highlight is that just as God was active in the palace, he is also active in the kitchens and living rooms of the humble homes of his people. In the stories from 1 Kings, we learned that God is sovereign on the battle field. In the Book of Ruth we will be reminded that he is also sovereign in the barley field.
There is another reason I have chosen the Book of Ruth as a contrast to the stories of Elijah. The stories of Elijah are full of the miraculous, supernatural works of God. Crows that fly daily to feed the prophet; a jar of flour and cruse of oil that never runs out; a boy raised from the dead; fire that falls from heaven. When we turn to the Book of Ruth, we find no stories of miracles; no supernatural events. Yet I hope through these messages to demonstrate that God is as present in the Book of Ruth as he is in the stories of Elijah.
The book begins with an introduction that gives us the historical setting of the story. “In the days when the judges ruled…”
What do we know about the days in which the judges ruled? It was a time period lasting several hundred years after the people of Israel were settled in the Promised Land by Joshua. Joshua and his contemporaries were no sooner gone from the scene than the people began to depart from the ways of God and the covenant of God. There was no king in the land and no central government and “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” It was a very dark period in the nation’s history. In judgment against their sin, God would allow their enemies to defeat the Israelites in battle and oppress them harshly. Under this discipline, the people would cry out to God and he would send them a judge – a ruler and often a military hero who would deliver them, and then rule them for a time. But when that judge died, they would fall back into their sinful ways. The last few chapters of Judges record some very graphic descriptions of just how chaotic and sin-filled the nation had become during this time period. We need to keep this background in mind as we follow the events of the story before us.
Now the writer introduces the main characters in the story.
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. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3 But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, 5 and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Do you remember my opening theme statement this morning? God loves to rebuild broken lives. Does it sound like these women are in need of this message? Their dreams were shattered. Life was broken. What will become of them now? I want to examine the story from the perspective of two people: One an Insider, the other an Outsider.
Let’s first look at Naomi: the Insider.
First of all, what do I mean by an Insider? In the Old Testament context, I am talking about a person born within the covenant and under the promises of God, with all the spiritual benefits and privileges that brings. Naomi is a classic Old Testament Insider.
She was christened “Naomi” which means “pleasant.” She was an Israelite, born in the Promised Land in a village called Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” She grew up to marry a man from her same tribe; a man named “Elimelech” which means “My God is king.” With her marriage came status and prestige and even property rights. She had standing in the community. With time, she gave birth to two sons; with her sons came more status, more honor, and above all, security. She had sons to care for her as she aged. Life was progressing according to plan and all was well.
Then what happened? The story begins to grow dark. We are told that there was a famine in the land. That should remind us of something we learned in our messages on Elijah. Remember the covenant God made with the people in the Book of Deuteronomy? If the people were faithful to God and his covenant, God promised to send the rain. If they disobeyed God, what would happen? Drought and famine! So God is trying to get the people’s attention by sending a drought.
What did Elimelech and his family do? They left the land. They left Bethlehem, the “house of bread” and fled to Moab, a nation that God had cursed because of their enmity toward Israel. We are told that they went to “sojourn” or “stay for a little while.” But they ended up staying; away from the land, away from God’s place of blessing. Then Elimelech died; tragedy, sorrow, grief, broken dreams. But at least she still had her two sons.
The two sons marry Moabite women, against the teachings of the covenant. They settled down, apparently satisfied to stay out of the land, away from God’s presence. But then, after 10 more years, more tragedy strikes. First one son dies, and then the other. Now Naomi is left utterly alone. Her dreams are shattered, her life is broken.
Listen to how she describes her own life in Ruth 1:19-21:
So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20 She said to them, “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?”
Let’s think about this for a moment. To what extent was Naomi a victim of her circumstance, and to what extent was she the cause of her own downfall through a series of wrong choices? Whose choice was it to leave Bethlehem; to leave the place of blessing and then to stay in Moab? Did Naomi help make those choices? Or was she simply swept along by national crisis and her husband’s choices? What about staying in Moab after Elimelech died? Was that her choice or her sons’? What about her sons marrying Moabite women? What was her role in that decision?
The fact is, we don’t know the answers to any of those questions. But we do know this; along the way, her life got broken. And that’s the way it is with us. The difficulties we experience in life are usually a combination; seemingly random circumstances over which we had no control may combine with wrong decisions by people close to us. Then we throw in a generous dash of our own wrong reactions and wrong choices. Before we know it, it is impossible to sort it all out. But the end result is the same. Dreams are shattered and life gets broken.
That is when we need to be reminded of this truth: God loves to rebuild broken lives.
But I want to call attention to what Naomi, the Insider had to do before that rebuilding could take place. It is described in verses 6-7.
Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. 7 So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah.
Naomi had to set out to go back; to return to Bethlehem, to the place of blessing, the place of God’s protection and care.
Let’s pause here. If Naomi is the classic Old Testament “insider,” who would be the “insider” today? Let me suggest two categories for purposes of application. First would be the person who was born and raised in a Christian home; a home in which you heard the Gospel, and learned the Scripture and had clear examples of Christian faith in your parents. You know the claims of Christ upon your life, but you have resisted them and gone your own way. Maybe you only intended to stay away a little while; just a brief sojourn to stretch your wings and maybe sample the world’s pleasures. But now you find you have been away a long, long time.
The second present day “insider” might be the person who made a personal commitment to Christ at some point in life; maybe as a young person in Sunday School or youth group or at a retreat. But with time and the distractions of life you have drifted away from that commitment. You are far away in the “land of Moab” and life is broken.
But here is the thing. As an “insider” you know where home is. You know the way back to Bethlehem. God loves to rebuild broken lives, but before he can do that, you have to go home. You have to set out on the road back to Bethlehem; back to that spiritual place of blessing.
But of course there is another main character in this story. She is the one for whom the book is named.
She is Ruth: The Outsider.
What do I mean when I call her an Outsider? Ruth was a Moabitess; a member of a hated nation, a nation which had opposed God and his people. The king of Moab had sought to curse the Israelites as they passed by Moab on their way to the Promise Land. The Moabites set out to deliberately corrupt the Israelites with intermarriage and consequent idolatry. It was a nation devoted to idolatry and the worship of false gods. Ruth was born outside the covenant, outside the promises of God, outside the land of blessings. There is a clear description of a spiritual “outsider” in Ephesians 2:12: remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
No doubt Ruth, too, had her dreams of a secure and happy life as a wife and a mother of children. She met Mahlon, the Israelite and they were married. But then her dreams, too, were shattered. Mahlon died, leaving her a widow, and even worse, a widow without children. Her life, too, was broken.
But remember, God loves to rebuild broken lives.
But something had to happen first. What did Ruth have to do before God could rebuild her broken life? She had to put her faith in God. This chapter contains a classic statement of commitment and faith. It is a beautiful description of the faith that lay at the heart of Old Testament conversion. It is found in Ruth 1:15-17:
Before I read it, let me describe the setting. They are on the road from Moab to Israel. Both of her daughters in law, Orpah and Ruth are accompanying her. Naomi is doing her best to send them home, persuading them that they will have no future with her in Israel. Orpah is persuaded and turns back, but listen to what Ruth says:
But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”
This is such a beautiful statement of loyalty and commitment and love that it is often used in marriage ceremonies to describe the commitment between a husband and a wife. But here it is actually a commitment of a daughter in law to her mother in law! And the heart of it is a statement of spiritual commitment and belief. “Your God will be my God!”
There is a wonderful word picture of what her decision signified in Ruth 2:12: The Lord repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge!”
Isn’t that a beautiful image? God is a mother hen, and Ruth, this alien little chick from another brood comes scurrying under her wings for safety from the hawks circling over head. And she is welcomed!
So who are the Outsiders today? By analogy, they are those of you who were born outside the community of the Christian faith. Your families are not Christians. You had little or no exposure to the Gospel in your background and no commitment to Christian faith anywhere in your history. And your life is broken and your dreams are shattered. You’re not sure where to turn. Do what Ruth did. Commit yourself to seek God and to find refuge under his wings. He will never turn away anyone who comes to him in true faith. He will welcome you, and he will set about his favorite task: rebuilding your broken life.
Ruth chapter 1 ends with Naomi and Ruth in the midst of a circle of inquiring women. Life is still hard, confusing and bitter. But there is a clue in the final verse, a light at the end of the tunnel. We are told that “they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of barley harvest.” That little clue is the signal of brighter days ahead. God is about to begin his work to rebuild their broken lives.
Is your life broken? If so, how did it get that way? As I said before, it is probably a mixture; you have made some bad choices, you are the victim of others’ actions and bad choices, and to top it all off, you live in a broken, messed up world. But there is some good news. We don’t have to figure out the answer to that question in order to find the answer. The solution is still the same.
If you are an “Insider”, you already know the answer. You know the way home. Come on back! Return to the God of your childhood, the God of your earlier commitment. Set out today on the journey to your spiritual home.
If you are an “Outsider” with no background in Christian faith, the invitation to you is also open. There is always room under God’s wings. Come to find refuge.
Let God rebuild your life. That’s his specialty. God loves to rebuild broken lives.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- When you were young, what did you want to be/accomplish/have “when you grow up”? How has “real life” confirmed or changed that dream?
- Read Ruth 1 together. What are your general impressions, thoughts, questions or observations?
- Names are often a significant source of meaning in Old Testament narrative. What can we gather about the characters in this story from their names?
- Reflect on this family’s history and choices in the light of God’s covenant with Israel. What do we know about Moab? What is the significance of drought? Do you think they were right or wrong to leave Bethlehem?
- Note the progression in the verbs: sojourned, remained, lived there, arose…to return. What spiritual lessons can we draw from them? What marks the turning point?
- Why does Naomi try to send her daughters in law back? What is the logic and Old Testament law she is referring to in her reasoning? What choice does Orpah make?
- Reread Ruth’s pledge of commitment in verses 16-17. In the message, Pastor Cam calls this a “model prayer of Old Testament conversion.” What does he mean by that? How is it different from New Testament conversion? How is it the same?
- Based on Naomi’s speeches in this chapter, do you think she has an accurate theology (view of God) or an inaccurate one? Explain your answer.
- In the message, Pastor Cam contrasted Naomi and Ruth as “insider” and “outsider.” What did he mean by that? What equivalents did he draw for insiders and outsiders today? Can you think of any other applications for either category? How is the path to God’s blessing different for each? How is it the same?