Sermon May 11, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

May 11, 2014

“A Mother’s Love”

Ruth 1:15-18

This is the day when we in the church join the rest of the country in giving special recognition and honor to all the women who have taken on the sacred and challenging task of being mothers. Our observance of Mothers’ Day had its origin at the Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. It was there that Anne Reeves Jarvis taught Sunday School for over thirty years. Three years after her death, a Mothers’ Day observance was held at the church on May 10, 1908, at the request of her daughter. The tradition was quickly imitated by other congregations until President Woodrow Wilson, in 1914, signed a proclamation designating the second Sunday in May to be a day of national observance. So that makes this the 100th anniversary of Mothers’ Day.

As we see, Mothers’ Day has a religious origin but a secular endorsement. I think this is one of those times when I don’t have to be concerned with being persuasive. To honor and appreciate mothers and to give respect to motherhood in general is well accepted. It takes a great deal of courage to be a mother. No one ever does it perfectly and some may not do it well at all. But it is without a doubt one of the highest callings any woman can accept.

Mothers are essential for the well-being of society and needless to say there would be no families without them. A cartoon from the Saturday Evening Post showed a young boy about five or six years old talking on the telephone, saying, “Mom is in the hospital. The twins and Roxie and Billy and Sally and the dog and me and Dad are all home alone.”

In honor of this day I went looking for a good story in the Bible about a woman of faith – someone who is a good example, not just for mothers and women, but for everyone. One of the great short stories in the Bible is the book of Ruth. It’s not very long; it doesn’t take long to read. In fact, I encourage you to read it through sometime this week.

The story of Ruth is a simple one. There are no kings or palaces; no soldiers or battles; no prophets or priests. There is no indication until the last few verses that this is anything more than the story of two widows and a farmer.

The story begins with a woman named Naomi and her husband Elimelech and their two sons. Because of a famine in Israel, they left their home in Bethlehem and traveled to the country of Moab in search of an easier life. While there, the father Elimelech dies. The two sons grow up and marry Moabite wives – Orpah and Ruth. And then the two sons die.

So now Naomi is left with only her two daughters-in-law and they are without children. So Naomi decides that she may as well go back to her home village of Bethlehem. Life as a widow was extremely difficult. Unless you had children or other family members who would take you in, you were left without any means of support. At least in Bethlehem Naomi had kinfolk, so she would not starve.

That brings us to this well-known scripture text which is a great illustration of love and loyalty. I often use this quotation in a wedding ceremony. Naomi’s daughters-in-law are still young and can marry again and have children who will support them in their old age, so she releases them of any obligation to her. There is nothing for them in Israel and very little prospect of finding an Israelite who will marry a foreigner. So finally, after much convincing, Orpah turns back to her homeland. But Ruth clings to Naomi. She says: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.”

The word used to describe the loyalty of Ruth is the Hebrew word “hesed”. This is the Old Testament word for love. In fact, it’s the most common word to describe how God feels about his people. It is usually translated as “steadfast love” or “loving kindness”. Ruth’s great statement of loyal love has now become one of the greatest examples of personal loyalty in human life.

And then we see that love lived out. After they return to Bethlehem, Ruth sets about faithfully supporting Naomi. One of the ways poor people could sustain themselves was to go into the fields after the harvest and glean whatever grain had been passed over. In fact, Jewish law prescribed that every farmer was to leave the corners of his field unharvested so that those like widows, orphans and aliens, who would have no other way to feed themselves, might benefit.

One farmer who attempted to faithfully follow the law of compassion was a man named Boaz. As it happens, Boaz had heard of Ruth. The story of her faithful care for Naomi must have become common knowledge in the village. Impressed by Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law, Boaz instructs his workers to leave extra grain for Ruth.

It is then that Ruth discovers from Naomi that Boaz is one of Naomi’s kinsmen. Naomi told her that Boaz had a kinsman-redeemer relationship to them and if they played their cards right, they might be rescued from poverty and Ruth could get a husband. The ancient custom in a situation such as this was that if Naomi offered her inherited land for sale, the closest kinsman had the first right to redeem it. But this would also include taking on the responsibility to support Naomi and to marry Ruth in order to carry on Naomi’s family line.

So Ruth proposes marriage to Boaz, but Boaz informs her that there is another kinsman more closely related than he. But Boaz doesn’t send her to the other relative. Instead, he goes himself and presents the case to him, putting it in the worst possible light, so that the other kinsman, wanting to protect his own children’s inheritance, refuses the offer to buy the property and marry Ruth. So then Boaz is free to marry Ruth.

In this story Boaz also becomes an illustration of God’s love. Other than her personal loyalty to Naomi, Ruth has nothing going for her. She is an impoverished foreigner with the extra baggage of a mother-in-law to care for. Ruth was no great catch. It would have been the simplest thing for Boaz to let this be someone else’s problem and mind his own business. But Boaz emerges from this story as another example of God’s steadfast love, loving the one who has nothing to offer in return.

You may be thinking – this is all well and good, but you didn’t tell us a story about a mother, only a daughter-in-law. Well, we really don’t find out the true significance of the story of Ruth until we read the last sentence in the book. As lovely as it is, why would anyone care about the story of Ruth – at least care enough to put it in the Bible? Why would a book with a woman who is a foreigner in the lead role be important enough to the Jewish people to include in their scriptures?

The concluding lines of the story have a surprise ending. Ruth does become a mother. It says, “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife … and she bore a son … They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” As it turns out, Ruth became the great grandmother of King David, the greatest of all the kings of Israel. And David was the ancestor of Jesus.

As we think about Mother’s Day, I think there are two things about the story of Ruth which deserve special note. This applies not only to mothers but to all of us. The first is the sacrificial nature of love. Ruth said – “Where you go, I will go … where you die, I will die.” Love is self-giving, self-sacrificing. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul said: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”

It is this portrait of love that we so often associate with mothers. It is a determined, committed love that does not give up. It is a love that perseveres through every kind of hardship.

I read a story told by the owner of a photography studio. A college boy came in with a framed picture of his girlfriend. He wanted the photo duplicated, so it had to be removed from the frame. In doing so, the studio owner noticed the inscription on the back of the picture: “My dearest Tommy: I love you with all my heart – I love you more and more each day – I will love you forever and ever. I am yours for all eternity.” It was signed “Dianne.” And then there was a postscript: “If we should ever break up I want this picture back.”

That’s not the kind of love we see in this story. Ruth’s love for Naomi is a commitment she makes for the long haul. It is not based on whim or mood. And then Ruth lives out that loving commitment. Love willingly gives itself away for the other – an essential quality of God’s love.

The second thing we should notice about the story of Ruth has to do with the results of love. You never know how things are going to turn out. Ruth had no expectation of good fortune in accompanying Naomi back to Israel. Naomi had nothing to offer Ruth – no home, no money, and least of all no husband. There would be the insecurity of a strange town in a foreign land. There was no discernible reason for it, but Ruth loved Naomi. And that’s how God loves us.

For Ruth, her loving commitment to Naomi turns out to be a tremendous blessing. It leads to a new love – a marriage to Boaz and the birth of a son. However, the story goes beyond that and Ruth becomes a famous woman whose name and story are remembered for all time as the great grandmother of King David. Ruth would never have imagined it, but that’s how love is; it can lead to unanticipated blessings. And I believe the love we show to others is also multiplied in and through our lives in ways we could never imagine either.

The loyalty we see in the story of Ruth, like the steadfast love which describes God, is sacrificially self-giving, and it leads to blessings we could never have planned. For many of us we first experienced this kind of love through the care and nurture of a mother. And it is this quality of love that we celebrate today.

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