The Resurrection of the Dead

The following is the sermon manuscript I used on April 8, 2017, the Second Sunday of Easter. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.

Sermon Text – Ruth 1:1-5

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. 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. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

“God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That is the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for all people and for all time.

Ruth is a story about resurrection. Naomi begins this story as a person surrounded by death – the deaths of her husband and her sons – with only death to look forward to herself. She ends this story celebrating a new birth. Naomi begins this story as a foreigner in a foreign land with no family except her adopted family in Ruth. She ends this story in her own hometown with her own relative to look after her for her the rest of her life. Naomi begins this story as someone whose line is all but cut off – her sons bore no children! It ends with her as the great-great grandmother of David, the king. Naomi begins this story, as we’ll see next week, wanting to rename herself “Mara” – bitter – because “the Almighty has dealt bitterly with [her].” She ends this story hearing the chorus of the women: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you . . . He [through his redeemer] shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age.”

“God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That is the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for all people and for all time.

Ruth is indeed a story about resurrection. But as all good resurrection stories go, it is a story that begins in death. In the first seven words, we find out that this story takes place “in the time of the Judges.” Now the only reason Derek and I picked the gloomy book of Judges for our Lenten sermon series is so that you’d know exactly what that setting means.

Ok, that’s not entirely true.

Actually, we’re sadists.

Ok, that’s not exactly true either.

No, the reason we forced you through the doom and gloom of Judges for five weeks (I know you probably thought it was longer than that!) was to highlight how much depravity the human race is capable of on its own and how desperately we need Jesus to rise from the dead! And we kept the depravity kind of tame! We didn’t even go into the end of the book of Judges and discuss the concubine who’s thrown out to an angry mob that literally rapes her to death Sodom-and-Gomorrah-style so that her priest-lover can dismember her body and send pieces of it to the twelve tribes of Israel which, of course, starts a civil war!

You’re welcome.

The refrain in the book of Judges, as its very last verse says, is “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Doing what is right in your own eyes is sin. And as we know from the second chapter of the Bible onward, sin always leads to death. When God warns Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, God says that the “day that you eat of it, you shall surely die.” Up to the moment that Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, they only knew good. And every moment since we, their children, have known good and evil. Death is evil. It is not part of God’s original design of creation. It is a corruption perpetrated by us – every human being that’s ever lived – as we work with Satan himself to bring it about. It is God’s pronouncement of judgment, a curse, that if the things he’s created insist on having their own way apart from him, he allows them to do so. And the way apart from God leads to death. As Judges shows us, doing what is right in your own eyes leads to death.

The desire of the people of Israel eventually becomes the desire for a king who will show them what is right in God’s eyes. Of course, there is resistance to this idea of earthly kingship (going all the way back to Moses) because God himself desires to be their king. And some of the irony in these first few verses is that a man whose name is “My God is King” – Elimelech – is going to reject God as king and do what is right in his own eyes. Now, we can’t be too judgmental of Elimelech. We would probably do the same thing if we were in his situation. If our family faced starvation, we would probably want to take them away to a place with food! Hear again the irony: Bethlehem, the “House of Bread” has no bread! What choice does he have?

But Elimelech should know that this starvation is the result of famine that’s God’s punishment for Israel’s disobedience in the time of Judges, and that if the people repented and cried out to God he would again show them his favor! Instead of trusting in the Lord, his King, to provide, he despairs. He names his children based on the words that mean “to be sick” – Mahlon – and “to come to an end” – Chilion. And he takes his wife, “Pleasant” – or Naomi – and he leaves the Promised Land to go to the land of Israel’s sworn enemy, Moab.

And he dies.

He dies leaving Naomi a widow and his sons without wives away from their hometown in Bethlehem, away from their fellow Ephrathites, away from Judah, away from the covenant people of Israel. And it’s Elimelech’s desperate disobedience that leads to the desperate disobedience of his sons, for they ignore clear commands in the Law against marrying people outside the covenant community – specifically against marrying those Moabite women – and take Ruth and Naomi as their wives. And for ten years they are childless in Moab. Orpah and Ruth bear no children. And Mahlon and Chilion die in Moab away from their home.

And Naomi is left with no husband, no children, no grandchildren. She is a stranger in a strange land, the victim of the results of sin and death, the victim of the choices of people she loved who, though desperate, wanted to do what was right in their own eyes in the face of that desperation.

She will not repeat that pattern.

She will go home. She will be faithful. She will trust in the Lord and be kind to her Moabite daughter-in-law. And in the midst of death, God will make new life. Naomi, destitute and lacking hope, will be one of the great-grandmothers of the Source of all hope – Jesus Christ – as God works wonders around this foreign daughter-in-law of hers. A foreigner in a foreign land, she will be the demonstration, through her daughter-in-law, Ruth, that God welcomes the stranger, the foreigner, the sojourner into his Kingdom! Indeed, God welcomes in especially those in the margins, those even hated by people who claim to be his people, because God’s reach is global. Naomi’s life, though here surrounded by death, will be the example for us, who live over 3,000 years after her, that God is a God of the living, not the dead.

Because in the midst of death, in the midst of despair, even in the midst of her doubt as we’ll see next time, Naomi trusts in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. No, of course she was not a witness to it. Well, actually she was, just not in the way we normally think about who a witness is. The only Jesus she knew was the leader who conquered the Promised Land under the hand of God – Joshua. The Jesus we know is named after Joshua, “God Saves.” Even though she would see none of Jesus’ signs or miracles, Naomi returns to the land of Joshua, to the very town in which Jesus would be born. She does not try to find a redeemer in the midst of people who do not worship her God. Instead she returns humbly, but grieving, to find a redeemer in the birthplace of our Redeemer, Jesus, the one who over 1,000 years after her would be the Redeemer of the whole world.

How do we react to the despair of sin and death? I don’t have to explain to you what reacting to death feels like. We see it too often all around us to need a reminder. We have felt it in the loss of loved ones. We have feared it in the sicknesses of our friends. We have mourned it for our country and for the world – especially when it is so hard for us to escape the constant images of violence and warfare and death. We have known it in our churches as we have seen attendance and giving decline, and as we have seen other churches with long histories shut their doors.

Certainly, we grieve. It is right and proper for us to grieve death because death is opposed to God! Wherever we see death, we should hate it and long for its final end when, as Revelation 21 tells us, death is cast into the very pit of Hell along with sin forever and ever.

If there is an overall shape to the pattern of Judges, it’s that the people of God move from good times at the start to truly horrific times through their own disobedience. And if there’s an overall shape to Ruth, it’s the movement from raw, familial tragedy, as we see in our passage today, to the abundant life that’s promised to the whole world through the Son of David, the Son of God, Jesus Christ who rose from the dead!

But where is God in this story? That’s certainly a question we ask in the midst of death, isn’t it?

I have to admit made quite a few assumptions here. I’ve said that the famine was judgment for Israel’s disobedience. I’ve said that Elimelech and his sons’ disobedience led to death. I’ve said that God will restore Naomi and bring about new life. I’ve inferred these things from other scriptures. But the text today doesn’t explicitly say any of that. God as a character in the book of Ruth seems to be absent. Oh certainly, characters mention God, the LORD, the Almighty. But there is no direct narration of God actively doing anything.

But what a grave mistake it would be for us to assume that God is anywhere close to absent in this story! The book of Ruth is one of the most powerful statements of God’s sovereign hand over all creation in the Bible. There are many things that will happen over the next few chapters that we might be tempted to say are just coincidence, or luck, or shrewd women taking advantage of a situation. Shrewd, faithful, and obedient women do take advantage of the situations in this book, but they do so because God has arranged it. God sees their need, and he meets their need. He sees their desperate state, he sees their example of faith and faithfulness, and he brings them from death to life.

Because “God is a God of the living, not the dead.” That is the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ for all people and for all time.

The times in our lives when God seems the most absent, as he does in many places in the book of Ruth, are not the times when God has ceased to work! God is working, even here through refugees, to bring all his people into a home – his home. God is working, even here through a foreigner, to bring all his people into his family. God is working, even here, to bring life from death. Indeed he is working to bring into the world the One who is the Resurrection and the Life! Especially in the places we do not see him working, God is on the move bringing death to life for us and for his whole creation!

At the center of all of human history is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the center of all human hope is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the center of eternal, everlasting life – for Naomi and for us today – is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in this season of Easter, in the midst of grieving real tragedy in our personal lives, in the world, and in our churches, we proclaim that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has made all things new.

In the name of the One who has passed from death to life, to whom we proclaim all majesty and glory and dominion forever and ever, Amen.

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