Into the Wilderness

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Throughout November we’re taking an in-depth look at Ruth, the little book that helped pave the way for God’s Messiah to come into the world.

Did you hear about the church that was frustrated with their new pastor?

He loved to preach about baptism.  In fact, he explored the finer points of baptism the first ten times he stood in the pulpit.    

A couple of the elders took him aside and said, “Look, we don’t have anything against baptism, but everyone at this point would appreciate a new direction.  How about preaching from the book of Genesis?”  The pastor thought that sounded like a great idea.

The next Sunday morning he began, “According to Genesis 1:1, God created the heavens and the earth.  About 71% of the earth’s surface is covered with water.  That brings me to this morning’s subject…” 

Teachers and preachers occasionally become obsessed with a particular topic.  That certainly rings true when we dive into the book of Ruth.  The unidentified author is consumed with the reality of God’s active presence in the world – a theme to which he returns again and again. 

Naomi, however, doesn’t see it.  She seriously doubts that a caring God is directing history.  Certainly not her history.   

The men in her life have made disastrous mistakes.  Instead of trusting God when famine came to Israel, her husband Elimelech took things into his own hands and left the Promised Land.  He moved Naomi and their two sons to the land of Moab.  This would be like an Amish family experiencing some bad harvests and choosing to move to Las Vegas to seek a better life.  Moab had a reputation for corruption and immorality, and God had specifically warned his people not to put down stakes there.  Mahlon and Kilion went a step farther and married Moabite women, something expressly forbidden by Jewish law. 

Now the men have all died.  The family line of Elimelech is teetering on annihilation.

Leo Tolstoy famously opened his novel Anna Karenina with the line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Real families have real problems.  In the Bible, as in real life, we learn that families should not be idealized.  David Frost once interviewed Billy Graham’s wife Ruth.  He pressed her: “In all these years, haven’t you had problems?  Have you never once contemplated divorce?”  “Not once,” she shot back.  “Murder, yes, but not divorce.”

Naomi’s family and consequently her very life have been shattered.  Her widowhood falls into the most precarious category.  She is an old widow who has no sons.  In the ancient world, women depended on male guardians for protection and financial security.  Now she has no husband.  Her sons were her retirement package – her 401(k).  But that safety net has also been taken away.    

Employment wasn’t an option for mature women.  Thus she is facing the likelihood of a future in which no one will be there to take care of her.  She is the ancient world’s version of a bag lady.

She feels hopeless, helpless, and uncertain.  What’s going to happen next?  How will these three widows eat?  No one is going to sponsor a brainstorming session in which creative new solutions will be proposed.  Naomi and her daughters-in-law have entered a spiritual and relational wilderness.

Here we need to pause and acknowledge an uncomfortable truth.  A great deal of the teaching that is heard in contemporary churches turns out to be what we might call “Wilderness Avoidance Theology.” 

Its core message is that if you’re faithful to God, God will be faithful to you.  He’ll protect you from disaster, disease, and depression – not to mention unemployment, bankruptcy, and humiliation.  If you end up in dire straits, like Naomi, you really only have yourself to blame. 

But it just isn’t so. 

All it takes to refute the Gospel of Prosperity is to glance at the life of Jesus.  If God’s own Son was led into literal and metaphorical wildernesses, why – in the light of his assurance that his followers will always be called to follow in his footsteps – should we think ourselves exempt? 

When St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) was thrown from a cart into a creek, she came up out of the water and said, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few!”

The Bible doesn’t teach Wilderness Avoidance Theology. 

It offers something infinitely better: the assurance that there is always hope in the wilderness.  Even if we are the ones who have stranded ourselves in spiritual cul-de-sacs, God is at work.  And few of us can predict what he’s going to do next.

Naomi certainly couldn’t. 

But soon she will begin to see the first rays of light.

She will learn from experience that God isn’t fazed by impossible circumstances.