Affirming One’s Identity


Text:  The Book of Ruth;  1 Peter 1:1-21

Our life is shaped largely by the decisions we make. I am what I am— both for good and for bad—as a Christian, as a husband, as a father, as a worker, and as a human, largely because of the decisions I have made in my life. Someone once said that “Decision determines destiny.” Another put it this way, “History is made whenever you make a decision.” Every day we are pressed for decisions, decisions, decisions, but there are some that have world-impacting – even eternal – consequences. In the first half of today’s sermon, we will read of three women, two of whom made decisions that not only influenced the rest of their lives, but also changed the world. In the second half of the sermon, we will look at decisions Christians have made and have to make in the aftermath of the decisions made centuries ago.

The three women—Naomi, Orpah and Ruth—had all lost their husbands. Here is their backstory. Naomi was an Israelite. With her husband Elimelek, she moved from Bethlehem in Judah to Moab. Now, that may not seem like such a major move in terms of distance, and it wasn’t, just a few hundred kilometers to the south. But, in terms of culture and religion, it was a huge move, as they were leaving Israel where YHWH God was ostensibly worshipped and going to Moab, where detestable gods such as Molech and Ashtoreth were worshipped, demanding that children be sacrificed to them in the fires of their altars. The culture of Moab was entirely foreign to what a worshipper of YWHW should have desired, but the reality was that in that day, around the year 1100 B.C., Israel was not much better. As we have seen, the Book of Judges makes this statement four times and sums up all the bad things that happened then with its last verse:

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. (Judges 21:25)

Because there was no king to lead the people in the keeping of God’s law, the 300-year time-period of the judges was one of moral and ethical decay in the land of Israel. Because there was no king, there was no leader to ensure the keeping of God’s laws or to make sure that righteous living was encouraged in that society. Thus, the people did whatever they wanted, as they saw fit. People, as we have read, did heinous things: judges who had multiple wives and who led the Israelites in worship to Molech and Ashtoreth, priests who had concubines, and one priest who cut up the murdered body of his concubine and then sent the 12 pieces of her body to the 12 tribes of Israel, calling for civil war, etc. Such moral and ethical bleakness! However, at the same time that Israel was sinking morally, ethically, and spiritually, (thus concurrently with all of that) God was working in the background, specifically in the lives of two women, Naomi and Ruth, and one righteous man, Boaz, individuals whose decisions moved Israel out of the time of the judges and into the time of the kings, and thus, by extension, finally to the time of the Messiah, Jesus.

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. So, a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. The man’s name was Elimelek, his wife’s name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem, Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. Now Elimelek, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband. (Ruth 1:1-5)

Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth, as women in that horribly patriarchal society in Moab, and amongst a people who would not help them but who would employ them to be prostitutes, made a decision. Often, the most crucial decisions in life are those we must make are in the midst of trials and difficulties. We can run from our problems or meet them straight on. Naomi made a logical decision—to return to the land of her people, to go back to Bethlehem in Judah, instead of being a prostitute or beggar in Moab and subjecting her daughters-in-law to that same fate. However, the fact that Naomi’s two sons had married Moabite women had been in direct contravention of the Law of Moses in which YHWH God had strictly forbidden Israelite men from marrying non-Israelite women, such as Moabites, because, as He said in Deuteronomy 7:3,4, “For they will turn away your son from following me, that they may serve other gods.” In any case, Naomi’s daughters-in-law decided to go with Naomi. However, somewhere along the road, Naomi changed her mind about those two Moabite women coming with her back to Bethlehem.

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah. Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Then she kissed them goodbye and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me — even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” (Ruth 1:6-13)

Some commentators have suggested that Naomi was embarrassed to have Moabite daughters-in-law and simply wanted to rid herself of the evidence and that was the reason she told them to return to their homes. Others have suggested, though, that God’s hand was in all of this to teach the rest of us a lesson or two about His guidance, about our response to Him, and concerning how He had a plan of salvation for all humankind that He was working on even in the corrupt time of the judges. My spirit resonates with this second explanation.

It seems apparent that Naomi had witnessed to Orpah and Ruth about YHWH God and living for Him, but Orpah decided to not go to Israel, to where YHWH could be worshipped freely, but to instead return to Moab, the Ancient Near East’s center for idolatry and worldliness. She decided to go back to her old way of life, to what was familiar, instead of pressing on towards God as she should have. We have all had that experience of people calling us to give up our faith and return to our old way of life. But consider what happened with Orpah: she decided to go back and worship the false gods of Moab. Her time in the annals of history closed. She is never heard about again. Orpah is a picture of people who come close to having faith in God yet decide to not proceed. You know, it’s possible to get very close to the kingdom of God and still not enter in. In Isaiah 55:6,7, we read, “seek the Lord while he may be found.” In other words, don’t turn your back on Him when you are close to finding Him. In fairness to Orpah, Naomi had suggested she go back to her family in Moab, but Orpah didn’t need to go, as we see with the other daughter-in-law, Ruth.

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her. “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.” But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (Ruth 1:14-18)

Ruth did what was right. Her love for Naomi and her love for Naomi’s God, YHWH, convinced her to go to Bethlehem with Naomi. Ruth had a new identity as being an Israelite, a daughter-in-law for life to Naomi, and, most importantly, a servant and worshipper of YHWH God. Ruth had a new identity as a child of YHWH God. She had put her faith in YHWH God and, unlike Orpah, was no interested in being in Moab or in serving or worshipping Moabite gods. She was now a servant of YHWH God. That was who she had become, her new identity secure. Ruth’s right decision to go with her new identity impressed many, gave her a good reputation among the people of Bethlehem, and, frankly, was the key to one of the men there, Boaz, being intrigued by her.

Now, with Naomi, the right to her deceased husband’s plot of land in Bethlehem had been taken from Naomi because she had no sons (they had both died). The law then dictated that her husband’s plot of land was to be given to his male next-of-kin. It was horribly chauvinistic we would all agree. However, there was a way for that land to be returned to Naomi as long as that male next-of-kin agreed to it. YHWH God had arranged for a way for widows to have land. However, for that to happen, Naomi needed to have a son who would carry on the family line of Elimelek, her deceased husband. So, that is how good old Boaz entered the story. A man closer in age to Naomi than to Ruth, he was smitten by Ruth, and she by him. This excited Naomi for she realized that Boaz was a relative and thus could possibly be her “kinsman-redeemer”, a family member who could redeem, buy back, her land for her. But, for that to happen, Naomi would need a son who would be considered to be the son of Naomi’s deceased husband Elimelek. That son would carry on his family line, and the only way for such a son to be born would be Naomi’s daughter-in-law to marry her kinsman-redeemer and have a son with her. The problem was that, though Boza was a relative, there was another relative who was closer in line to Elimelek. Boaz went and negotiated with that kinsman-redeemer and told him that he had a cultural obligation to marry Ruth, the widow of Elimelek’s son Mahlon. However, that man realized that doing so would mean that Naomi and Ruth would then have a claim to his own land and estate and thus his own children may not get his land and estate after his passing away. And, so the kinsman-redeemer decided to not proceed and he told Boaz that he could take his place. That Boaz happily did and Boaz became Naomi’s new “kinsman-redeemer”, a seemingly impossible situation made possible through YHWH God’s intervention and help and Boaz’s negotiating skills.

Then the elders and all the people at the gate said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your home like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the family of Israel. May you have standing in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem. Through the offspring the Lord gives you by this young woman, may your family be like that of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.” So, Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife. When he made love to her, the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son. The women said to Naomi: “Praise be to the Lord, who this day has not left you without a kinsman-redeemer. May he become famous throughout Israel!

He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age. For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you than seven sons, has given him birth.” (Ruth 4:11-15)

Ruth’s child, whom they would name Obed, became the grandfather of Israel’s most important king, David. This story of Naomi and Ruth lead the Israelites out of the time of the judges to the time of the kings.

Then Naomi took the child in her arms and cared for him. The women living there said, “Naomi has a son!” And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. This, then, is the family line of Perez: Perez was the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, Boaz the father of Obed, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David. (Ruth 4:16-22)

As important as King David was, he recognized that a Saviour for all humankind would be needed and that wasn’t him because he was a sinner. However, God had revealed to David that the Saviour, also called the Messiah, would come out of his family line. That Messiah – a word which in later Greek would be translated as “Christ” – would be known as “the son of David”. He would sit on the spiritual throne of David forever. Thus, the Ruth’s family line would lead to the Messiah. In the first chapter of the first book of the New Testament, the writer of the Gospel of Matthew writes out the genealogy of Jesus, and he uses the exact wording of the genealogy we just read in Ruth 4 but then he carried on past David, through the family line and down to the birth of Jesus. Picking up with the naming of Jesus’ grandfather (a man named Jacob) Matthew concluded his genealogy of Jesus thus:

And Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. (Matthew 1:16)

Note that Jesus’ last name is not Christ. Rather, Christ describes his function. He was the Messiah, the Christ. His name was not Jesus Christ.

Going back to Boaz, as things turned out, Christians always say that he was an Old Testament type of Jesus who became the Messiah, the Christ, who redeems us, purchasing our freedom, redeeming us from slavery to sin, by his own blood on the cross. Jesus did not shrink from this cost of our redemption – his life given for us on the cross in exchange for our freedom. However, it is up to every individual to choose – or not choose – to participate in this act of redemption. Who we are is the decision for us to make. Are we simply humans who live in this world or are we Christians, followers of Jesus? How do we identify? Ruth identified herself as a follower of YHWH God and her life was changed as a result. People today need to identify themselves not as “church-goers” (I really have trouble with that term) but as “Christians”, a word that means “follower of Christ”, a follower of the Messiah who came out of the family line of Ruth.

Next in our “preaching through the Bible” series we are going to work through 1st Peter, a letter which strongly emphasizes the importance of identity. After the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, his followers spread throughout the Roman world. One of the places they went to was what in modern times is known as “Turkey”. Then, the land mass we call Turkey was split into five different provinces of the Roman Empire – we will hear those five names mentioned in just a moment. Christians were in all five of those Roman provinces and Peter wrote to them, zeroing in on the importance of them knowing their identity as Christians, and living a lifestyle honouring him.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood: Grace and peace be yours in abundance. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. (1 Peter 1:1-7)

Knowing what their identity was as followers of Jesus was crucial to their viewpoint of the world. Those early Christians were willing to die for their faith for their identity as Christians meant everything to them and affected their lifestyle choices. If you were to call them “churchgoers” they would look at you, confused. They had correct theology: they didn’t “go to church”, they were the church, the people of God, because they identified as followers of Jesus.

Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. (1 Peter 1:8-17)

Naomi was a foreigner living in the land of Moab and yet she continued to identity as a worshipper of YHWH. Ruth was a foreigner living in the land of Israel yet she chose to identify as belonging to YHWH. Those first-century Christians were living in a land foreign and hostile to the ways of God, and yet they never reneged on their faith.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21)

So, “who are you?” “How do you identify?” “Whose are you?” “What impact does knowing who and whose you are have on your life?” I once read about a sign on the door of a classroom which has this saying “We are not born losers, we are born choosers.” The outcome of our lives is determined, not just by what happens to us, but by the choices we make. Choose to identify as a Christian, as belonging to the Lord, and you will be given strength from Him and blessings will come to you and to your family. In Jesus’ name, I proclaim this! Amen.

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