a story from the fires on the West Coast that he had heard on the news. You might have heard it as well.
A man was looking for his family missing in the fire. As he drove along, he encountered a badly burned woman wandering down the road. He got out to get her to safety. He told her he was looking for his wife and son. And she turned to him and simply said. “I am your wife.” So badly burned she was, he did not recognize her. And the man who called me simply repeated those words, “I am your wife.” And then he said something like, “Boy, that’s something,” clearly moved and saddened by the tragic horror of the scene. Then he said, “You know. You might want to use that story sometime.” And I said “Yeah, maybe so.” But honestly after that, I dismissed it.
But the story kept hanging on. It kept hanging on because I knew it didn’t end there. The son they were both looking for did not make it through the fire. No. That 13-year-old boy died with his dog at his side, in a car he hoped would protect them both. But it didn’t.
I am tired of those stories, from the fires in the West, and the storms in the Gulf. I am tired of the ones from this awful pandemic where so many have died alone, or even now struggling to find food for their families. In a time like this, do you find it hard at times to see God? I gotta admit. Sometimes it seems like God has left the building.
This past Saturday, I was seeing my optometrist, and she was frustrated she did not have the right contact for me to try out. And I said, “Well, it’s not the end of the world.” And then she turned with a half-serious look in her eye (that’s all I could see – the mask covered the rest), and said something like, “Well, in your job, I guess you’d kind of know.”
But it can feel a bit like the end of the world, this world where God’s presence, provision can be hard to find. So, in times like these, how do you know? How do you know God is still there? How do you know God is still at work, still moving in the world? How do you know God hasn’t just left the building? In this story, where God doesn’t seemingly show up at all, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.
Storms and floods on the Gulf Coast. Fire and flame on the West Coast. And a pandemic, happening, well, everywhere. In times like these, do you ever wonder? God, where are you? Or maybe, you don’t exactly ask that question, but you feel it. You feel a weariness with life. You carry more fear than hope. And at times, at almost paralyzing uncertainty rises up as you wonder. What’s going to happen next? And with all that, God just fades further and further into the background. But in this story, God shows you. Just because you don’t see God, doesn’t mean God isn’t there. For you may not see God now. But, one day, without a doubt, you will.
As this story begins, it sure looks like God has left the building. Everything seems off. Bethlehem, of all places, faces a famine. Bethlehem means literally “house of bread.” How can a place with a name like that not have bread? Yet it does.
Then we hear that this man named Elimelech decided to leave Bethlehem for, of all places, Moab. His name, Elimelech, means My God isKing. But in Moab, Elimelech’s god definitely doesn’t rule anything. No, the god Chemosh does. In fact, these folks in Moab, they’re enemies. They’ve attacked Israel off and on for years. Yet Elimelech heads there. It’s almost like someone named “Jesus rules” deciding to join the Taliban. It makes no sense. And how he names his kids’ makes no sense either. Mahlon means sick, and Chilion means wasting away. What sorts of names are those for your kids? But they sure tell you where this guy’s head was. And it wasn’t a good place. Thank goodness, his wife, Noami has a decent name. Her name means Pleasant.
Still this family moves to Moab, but then Elimelech dies. Somehow Naomi and her sons survive. They even get Moabite wives, but then that comes crashing down. Both sons die. Naomi finds herself alone.
This painful double loss means more than deep grief. It means economic ruin. Naomi has no way to survive, no one to protect her. With nowhere else to go, she hears. Things are better in Bethlehem. She decides to return home. She invites her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth along for the ride. It seems that over the years, they had gotten close. And Naomi can’t face letting them go.
But her invitation makes no sense. She’s asking Orpah and Ruth to leave their families to go to the land of their enemies? How are they going to have a future there? Now halfway there, Naomi comes to her senses. She urges them. Go back. And Orpah does. But Ruth doesn’t. Ruth refuses to go. Instead, Ruth says. I will never leave you. Your home will be my home. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.
Why would Ruth do that? Why would she leave her country, her family, even her religion to go to a place that offered her no future? She loved Naomi. And she wasn’t going to leave that love behind. Now, strangely, amazingly, in that decision, in those moments, God is there. But no one can see it, certainly not Ruth or Naomi. But one day, one day, they will.
Because, just because you can’t see God, doesn’t mean God isn’t there. Yes, you may not see God then, but one day, without a doubt, when you look back, you will.
It began with a simple ride I gave to a man to get some formula for his baby son. He seemed like an ok guy. Then the next day, in the newspaper, I read how that same guy, had that very night beat that baby boy to death. For three months that summer, I had been working in the brutal inner city of Paterson, NJ, creating of all things, Vacation Bible Schools, in churches struggling to survive. I had been commuting every day from a sparsely furnished, flea-ridden vacant house in a wealthy suburb into the bleakest city I had ever seen. I had been accosted by drug dealers, who thought I was a customer, and visited with folks who had seen their share of poverty and despair. But that moment, reading the story of a man who less than a day before had sat in my car, and then gone home to kill his own son, that broke me.
I came back a few weeks later for my last year of study to be a pastor. Over the next year, a relationship I thought would end in marriage would just end. A semi-truck would rear-end and totaled my new car, leaving me making payments on a car that no longer existed. And I would decide no way was I up for leading a church anywhere. So, there I was, a seminary graduate, with no job, no girlfriend, no car. I ended up working as a low-level publicist for a small firm in New York City and living in a small room in a church. My whole life felt derailed. And I didn’t know if would ever get back on the tracks.
Now, my struggles do not come close to what Naomi faced here. But I still get why she told folks. Don’t call me Naomi. My life has nothing pleasant. It’s all bitter. So, call me that. Call me Mara, the bitter one. But here’s the stunning truth. Just because Naomi can’t see God at work, doesn’t mean, God isn’t. For she may not see it now. But one day, she will.
As for me, that job in New York City gave me time I needed to heal. And I got to meet a few soap stars. And that church I lived in gave me a community that touched my life in more ways than I have time to share in a 20-minute talk. And, I didn’t know it at the time. But the church that I would serve for 16 years was an hour’s train ride away. My life looked derailed. But God was working, nonetheless, even if I couldn’t see it.
And in this story? Well, let me give you a glimpse of what happens next.
Israel had no food stamps, no public assistance. If you were poor, and Naomi and Ruth were definitely poor, you had to rely on the good graces of the better off. Basically, you picked a particularly good field where workers were harvesting. And you hung out behind them, hoping to pick up what they missed, what is called gleaning.
So, Ruth goes out to glean. And she ends up in the field of a wealthy man named Boaz. But Boaz isn’t just any rich guy. He is related to Naomi’s dead husband. It means, if he chooses, he can help Ruth, even marry her. He can give her the life she lost when her husband died. But Ruth doesn’t know that.
And Boaz sees her. He finds out who she is. And having already heard of her faithfulness to Naomi, he makes sure that his workers take care of her. She comes home from her first day in the field with about twenty-five pounds of grain! Naomi, blown away, asks. “Where did you go to get that?” Then Ruth tells her about Boaz. And for the first time, Naomi begins to hope. She knows who Boaz is, that he can help.
And indeed, if you read on in the story, you will find. He does. He not only helps Ruth. He marries her. And in the end, Ruth, an outsider, a Moabite woman, becomes the grandmother of the greatest king in Israel’s history, King David, the very King from whose line Jesus comes.
But you don’t see any of that here. No one could see it. Not Naomi or Ruth or Boaz. But just because you don’t see it, does not mean it’s not happening. In fact, in all this pain and hardship, God is laying the groundwork for God’s own coming in Jesus, a thousand years in the future!
So, is God at work in these days. Yes, God is. But does that mean, you will see it. No, not always, at least now. But one day, without a doubt, you will.
That’s what this cross proclaims. On that day, as an innocent, righteous man suffered a brutal and unjust death, it sure looked like God had left the building. But God was right there in Jesus, dying for you, for me, for this broken and hurting world. God was right there, defeating evil, destroying death, liberating creation. And if God did that in the ugliness and evil of the cross, then no place exists that God cannot and will not work. No place or time exists that God cannot redeem and restore. No person exists that God cannot save and free. And in these days, remember that. And on the days you can’t see, trust that, one day you will.