Updated: Jan 15, 2020
I love this church. Not the building…although our campus is a beautiful gift from God…but I love the people of Covenant Church. I love the hope you have in Jesus Christ. I love the heart you have for proclaiming God's Holiness in worship. I love your generosity. I love the way you love each other and our community. As we enter the first week of Advent, there is so much to love about Covenant Church.
I trust you had a good Thanksgiving. How are you feeling about leftovers? Have you started your Christmas shopping? My wife and I love hitting the mall on Black Friday or equally-as-crowded Saturday. We get stuff done, but it's also the one time each year we actually enjoy the crowds. I know, we're weird, but it's fun.
On the negative side, in years past "America's Funniest Home Videos" would run those reaction videos of kids behaving poorly in response to a Christmas gift they weren't particularly happy to receive. I used to think they were funny. Now I think they're sadly pathetic. I don't understand why a parent would even submit them to be televised.
So I'm going to flip the script. Here's a response video where a dad lets his kids open one present before Christmas. Unbeknownst to them, it's done in jest. Here's the video…
Those kids are amazing, right? Think about your own Christmas mornings past. I'll bet that, most of the time, even if it wasn't the most desirable gift, children or adults reacted with kindness and grace.
We all know what it's like to be disappointed by the presents we get. But most of us, most of the time, have enough love in our hearts where we don't show it. In fact, we write glowing thank-you notes. Our outward actions are an expression of the condition of our hearts.
Let's start by looking at Romans 15:13:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
I love that. Abound in hope. Other translations put it, "overflow with hope," "so that your hope will continue to grow," "so that you will brim over with hope," "your whole life and outlook may be radiant with hope," and so on.
Are there times in your life when your hope isn't so abounding? Are you filled to the brim with hope right now? That's what we want, especially in this season of hope, is for our hope to abound.
Even when it's difficult, are you abiding in hope?
Some of you are having health issues right now. Or someone you love is. Life has taken a turn you neither welcomed nor expected. But you are abiding in hope.
For some of you, things aren't going well at work. Or you're not happy with you job. Perhaps you're between jobs right now. But you are abiding in hope.
Some of you lost a loved one this past year. This will be a different, if not
difficult, holiday. Their place at the table will be empty. But you are abiding in hope.
Some of you are dreading the extended family holiday gathering because, to be honest, there's that bombastic, opinionated, or uncomfortably awkward relative who makes the place better whenever he or she goes. But you are abiding in hope.
I'll never forget that first Christmas, three months after my mom died. She was just 44 years old when she died, following a six-year battle with cancer. My wife and I were engaged. And we were abiding in hope.
You have your own struggle to share. And yet, here we are, together, abiding in hope.
Today, and next week, we're going to look at two chapters from the Book of Ruth. Unlikely choice for the Christmas season. My plan is for it to eventually make sense. I am abiding in hope.
Ruth is only four chapters. It begins in the time when judges were ruling Israel. There were no kings. There was a famine in the land. A man from Bethlehem, Elimelech, moved himself, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, to the country of Moab. I would never question what a man does to keep his family alive in a time of famine. For whatever reason, Elimelech believed he needed to relocate to a foreign land.
Important to the story is the meaning of some of the names. We know the significance of Bethlehem. Here's the breakdown of their names. Sometimes, in Biblical stories, names convey meaning:
Elimelech = "God his King."
Naomi = "Pleasantness."
Mahlon = "Man of sickness."
Chilion = "Coming to an end; man of finality."
Ruth = "Friend."
Boaz = "Strength is with him."
As the story unfolds, Mahlon and Chilion grow up and marry two Moabite women. Remember, Moab is a foreign land. The sons of Naomi and Elimelech marry women from a pagan culture, who are not believers in God. In short order, all three men die…Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion. We're not given any details. All we know is Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah are now widows. Naomi and her two daughters-in-law are grieving together.
I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like for these three women. All of them battling sadness, sorrow, and loneliness.
When was the last time you felt any of those things? There are times when it's easy to feel alone in a room full of people. Christmas can magnify the negative emotions of disappointment, difficulty, or loss. Those feelings have been horribly expressed in that awful song, "Blue Christmas." I would rather listen to the late, great Eartha Kitt singing "Santa Baby" than that downer of a song. Things couldn't get any bluer for Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah.
So, as the story unfolds, Naomi decides it's best for her to return to Bethlehem. There's no place, no future for her in Moab.
Ruth and Orpah seem to be attached to Naomi, so much so that they are ready to leave their homeland and go with her to Bethlehem.
As they start their journey, Naomi tries to get them to turn around. Not only don't they need the baggage of their mother-in-law hanging around, they will also have a better chance of getting a husband in Moab, their homeland. That's what Naomi tells them.
Orpah sees the sense in it, so she returns to Moab. But Ruth insists on staying with Naomi. Here's what she says in 1:16:
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.
How is that for a conversion experience? Out of hardship and loss, Ruth embraces the One True God. She knows that hope is in Him, and Him alone.
As they continue on, Ruth says:
"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 1:17
What an amazing statement of abiding hope from this foreign woman. In fact, Ruth's hope is so unexpected, Naomi makes the rest of the trip in utter silence. When verse 18 says, "And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more," I means she was silent for the rest of the trip.
So Ruth and Naomi are walking to Bethlehem. Bethlehem is less than 500 people. "O Little Town of Bethlehem," indeed.
She's been gone for years. But in small towns everybody knows everybody, and nobody forgets a face. They remember Naomi, and they remember her name means pleasantness. But listen to what Naomi says in verses 20-21:
"Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. 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?"
Look at the flip. Naomi, the woman from Bethlehem, a woman of Israel, now claims bitterness as her new name, while Ruth, a woman from a pagan land, claims a new faith which has given her abiding hope. Interesting, isn't it?
Naomi responds to tragedy as people sometimes do. They get mad. They blame God. "This isn't the way life is supposed to work out." "It's not fair."
That's one way to read the story. Naomi has lost her husband. She's lost her sons. She's lost her home. She's lost hope. This is a story about loss.
But here's a question I want to close with. It's something to think about for next week. Does the story have to be about loss? Does that have to be the big picture? Naomi lived with a lot of incredible pain. But is that what it has to be about? Do pain and loss have to be the big picture?
Is there more to life than pain and loss?