Faithfulness Is Proved in Hard Times

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“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. 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’” (Ruth 1:16-17).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It seems fitting that on the day of the year our congregation celebrates the faithfulness of the women of the LWML that our text would highlight the faithfulness of a woman—Ruth, a young widow who refused to leave her widowed mother-in-law, or turn her back on the Lord, the covenant God of Israel, even though it meant an uncertain future, a life likely filled with hardship and loneliness.
Imagine moving to a foreign country, a place where your people are considered the enemy. A place where you know only one other living person. Not only that, you’re going there as a pauper, a widow in what should be your most productive years with no real prospects for a husband or children. Common sense tells you that you’ve got a better chance going back and staying with your parents. You’re still young. They could take care of you until they are able to arrange another marriage with someone from your own people. How could you leave? What would cause you to go even when it defies all common sense? I would suggest there is one thing: faithfulness. Faithfulness is proved in hard times.
It was the time when the judges ruled over Israel. A famine struck the land of Judah and Ephraim, but not the higher plateau of Moab farther to the east. As a result, Bethlehem of Judah was not able to feed its people. This is ironic because Bethlehem means “house of bread.” There was bread in foreign Moab, but the cupboards of Bethlehem were bare.
Elimelech belonged to the clan of Ephrath, which was the name of Bethlehem when Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. Old Testament genealogies tie Ephrath to Caleb, the faithful spy, and to Bethlehem. A well-known reference to Bethlehem Ephrathah is Micah’s prophecy of the Savior’s birthplace (5:2).
Elimelech and his family sought refuge in Moab, a move that put them outside the area of both their faith and Israel’s law. Pressed by hard times, Elimelech went to an enemy land, apparently failing to trust in God. We would have expected a faithful Israelite to bear such hard times as chastisement for sinfulness, sent to move them to repentance, or as a discipline for strengthening their faith, instead of trying to avoid it, for the Lord promises He will gladly come to the aid of His believers in need. God works in mysterious ways according to the theology of the cross as He brings about salvation through suffering.
For an Israelite, a major deterrent from leaving his home was the fact that his personal real estate was really on loan to him from the Lord ever since the land of Israel had been parceled out among the tribes, clans, and families. It was his duty as a member of the covenant people to retain his inheritance faithfully, for it was a personal sign to his family of God’s gracious covenant, a down payment on God’s promise of eternal life. To abandon it or to sell it to strangers, except because of extreme poverty, would be tantamount to reneging on the covenant, on one’s bond to the Israelite community, and on one’s bond to both ancestors and descendants.
The Hebrew indicates that when Elimelech left, he fully expected to return to Israel. The Lord had other plans. Elimelech died and left behind a widow and two unmarried boys. Still, Naomi was not without hope. With her sons’ marriages to Orpah and Ruth, the family line might be continued. But alas, Mahlon and Chilion also died. To be deprived of both husband and sons and to be too old to remarry was the worst possible situation for a woman in ancient society. Naomi’s family had all but died out.
Hearing that the famine was over, Naomi left for Bethlehem. As her two daughters-in-law accompanied her, Naomi tried to make it clear that she wished to return to Bethlehem alone. Naomi had two wishes for Orpah and Ruth. First, she prayed that the faithful love of the Lord would remain theirs in recognition of their loyalty to their dead husbands. Perhaps here we have a hint that both women had been touched by the faith of the family into which they had married. The Hebrew word hesed, is translated as “deal kindly” in the ESV, but it is better rendered “show faithfulness," an action rooted in God’s own mercy, love, and faithfulness. As with love, faithfulness is learned by people from God’s gift of it to them. We are faithful to God and His people because He first showed us faithfulness.
Secondly, Naomi wished for the two women the security that a new marriage would provide. She used the word rest, used elsewhere to describe the blessings that come as the result of God’s promises. Having blessed them, Naomi gave each woman what she thought would be a final good-bye kiss. But both insisted that they intended to walk the whole journey with her back to Bethlehem.
Naomi took a firmer tone with her daughters-in-law. She laid the facts before them. Marriage was what these two women needed. But, as foreigners in Bethlehem, marriage would be next-to-impossible. Yes, levirate marriage was technically possible, but such a scenario was highly improbable. No, the prospects of remarriage were much better for Orpah and Ruth if they stayed in Moab.
Naomi’s words convinced Orpah. She left, wishing to be a wife again. Ruth stayed, content to remain a daughter. Our text tells us Ruth clung to Naomi. This word is an interesting choice because it can be used to describe the relationship between husband and wife. It first appears in Genesis in the account of the marriage of Adam and Eve: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (2:24). Clinging or holding fast is a strong description of a close relationship.
The term can also refer to Israel’s covenant relationship with the Lord. The Lord clings to His people through His promises, and His people cling to Him in faith. Thus Joshua reminds the people of Israel: “Only be very careful to observe the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God, and to walk in all His ways and to keep His commandments and to cling to Him and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Joshua 22:5).  
Here, Ruth clung to Naomi with the same fierceness and commitment—literally and emotionally. Her actions are startling, but her words to Naomi are even more so: “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. 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.”
  Ruth called upon the Lord as witness of her pledge never to separate from Naomi as long as they both lived in this earthly life, and, moreover, to remain by her even after death and burial. Thus even if one should die before the other, the separation would be only temporary, for they would be buried in the same family plot. Those believers who shared the same burial ground professed their union in faith in Israel’s God, also implying their reunion in the resurrection. Not even death can separate believers from their Lord, nor permanently from each other.
If Naomi had any doubt about Ruth, it was dispelled by Ruth’s faith in the Lord and commitment to her. Loyalty proves itself in crisis. Faithfulness is proved in hard times. Naomi was left with no alternative but to accept the earnest words of her daughter-in-law. They headed to Bethlehem. Yes, Bethlehem. The story of Ruth begins and ends in Bethlehem. Not just this first chapter, but the whole book. Let’s skip ahead to the final chapter of Ruth and see.
At the city gate of Bethlehem, we find Boaz, a shirttail relative of Elimelech. He announces to the elders and all the people that he is acting as kinsman-redeemer, assuming the rights of redemption to all the land that belonged to Elimelech and his sons, and that he is marrying Ruth the Moabite in order to keep their family line going. Faithfulness is proved in hard times.
All the townspeople and elders pray that the Lord will make the marriage of Ruth fruitful like that of Rachel, Leah, and Tamar. These foreign women with ties to Bethlehem had given birth to the descendants of Israel. Judah and Tamar were direct ancestors of Boaz through their son Perez. The Lord has been working behind the scenes to produce a husband for Ruth, but even more importantly, to continue the Messianic line. God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times.
Shortly after their marriage, Ruth conceived and bore a son. They named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. Yes, that David, the shepherd boy of Bethlehem, who grew up to be the greatest king in Israel.
David would be known for his faithfulness. In fact, David was called by God, “a man after My own heart.” Still we know David wasn’t perfectly faithful. He fell into sin and he fell hard. But God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times. By God’s grace, David repented and was forgiven. David trusted in the promise of Savior from sin who would come from his own family line and reign on his throne forever. God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times.
In due time, this Son of David was born in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ is the Redeemer who saved more than a poor family and their land; He redeemed a whole world of poor, miserable sinners with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, bringing all who believe on Him forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Here is the one who demonstrated perfect faithfulness to God and His people even unto death, and death on a cross, at that. God’s faithfulness is truly proved in hard times.
This is Good News for you and me who are not always so faithful. There are times when you also might be tempted to leave behind or disregard the Lord’s gifts to you. The death of a loved one or the loss of a job, income, or house might cause you to doubt the faithfulness of the Lord. Such hard times can be like your own personal famines. You may be tempted to pursue other avenues of support or help that are not God-pleasing or just forget that God is waiting to provide, though it may not be obvious how and it may not happen as quickly as you wish. You may feel as though God is absent and not working in your life. You may not be able to see His work behind the scenes. You may even ask, “Where is the Lord?” God in His hiddenness can seem so distant and arbitrary.
The temptation in such times is to try to figure out what God is doing and why. Have you sinned in some specific way? Is God trying to tell you something about how you need to change or do something differently?
It is not to God’s hiddenness that you should look in times of struggle and pain. It is not to yourself that you should turn. Rather, you look to God in His revealed self. God reveals Himself in mercy in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. It is to Him you cling, like Ruth clung to Naomi and like God clings to you. Clinging to Christ crucified, you ride out the storm brought on by God in His hiddenness. God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times.
So come, take solace in the Church, where God’s revealed means of grace are found. Remember your Baptism, cling to the water and Word that made you a child of God. Partake of Christ’s very body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, given and shed for you. There in His Word and Sacraments is where God’s faithfulness to you is most clearly demonstrated. And sometimes, when you come out on the other end of hard times, you can look back and see the marks of God’s other means for working mercy—the people who love you, the random strangers encountered on the way, the timing of everything—although you could not see these things before.
God’s faithfulness is proved in hard times. As St. Paul writes of Jesus and His work of salvation: “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him; if we deny Him, He also will deny us; if we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:12–13). Go in peace! For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

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