JRR Tolkien published The Hobbit in 1937. Even if you haven’t read the book, you probably have seen the movies, which tell a story of the unexpected journey taken by a reluctant Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins, who is recruited by the wizard Gandalf to assist a group of Dwarves in reclaiming their ancestral mountain home from a monstrous dragon named Smaug.
In the story, Gandalf attempts to lure Bilbo into the unknown by calling it an “adventure.”
Gandalf: “I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”
Bilbo: “I should think so – in these parts! We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t see what anybody sees in them.”
Gandalf: “You’ll have a tale or two when you come back.”
Bilbo: “You can promise that I’ll come back?”
Gandalf: “No. But if you do, you will not be the same.”
Gandalf was right. The journey into the unknown would change Bilbo in ways he could not have imagined possible, bringing out something within that he didn’t know he possessed.
It is the same for us today, having been cast upon a journey into the unknown in the wake of a viral outbreak in Wuhan, China that in one way or another, is having a life overhauling impact on practically every human in the world.
Two months ago, who could have foreseen a 1929 type market crash when the Dow Jones was setting record after record? Who would have believed millions of people would be quarantined in their homes?
Yesterday, out of the house on a search for a roll of toilet paper, I noticed that the North Georgia Outlet parking lot, in midday, was deserted.
Who could have envisioned the entire world coming to a virtual standstill, with resounding cheers at basketball tournaments being replaced with consuming fears of the unknown?
It is like we are living on a river that twists and turns every 100 feet, never sure of what is around the next bend. It is not a river that we have chosen to float. This is just where we are. All of us.
It is a journey that will not leave us unchanged. As Gandalf assured Bilbo, we will not the same.
What we do know as we journey into the unknown is that our Abba, Father has a plan, working in all things for the good of his people and the advance of the gospel of his grace in Jesus.
My prayer is that the Lord will allow the message of the cross to spread around the globe faster than the virus, replacing fear with faith, anxiety with peace, and despair with hope as he gives us eyes to see a new horizon.
But it is not just the coronavirus. There are plenty of other unknowns that we may be required to face:
- Some are frightening but exciting, like when my family moved took a journey into the unknown when we moved to Dahlonega to start Creekstone Church. For some, it is the unknown of getting married. Having a baby. Starting your first job.
- Some unexpected journeys into the unknown are crucibles of grief and sadness.
This is the type of unexpected journey we find in the Old Testament book of Ruth, a story that chronicles the journey from devastating loss to unrelenting hope. Granted, it is a hope slowly realized, rising like the Rocky Mountains as you drive across the plains of Kansas toward Denver. Eventually, and ever so slowly, the flat horizon gives way to staggering beauty.
The opening verses of Ruth’s story teach us to keep our heads up and look intently for the hope that is on the horizon. For if we can see the beauty begin to rise, it will give us hope for as we journey into the unknown.
Ruth takes place around 1100 B.C. in the period of the Judges before the Jewish monarchy was established in 1050 B.C. Israel has been delivered from slavery in Egypt, crossed the Sinai wilderness, and now resides in the promised land. But these are hard, uncertain times of severe drought. Think Great Depression. If toilet paper had been available, they would have hoarded it.
For our main characters, Ruth and Naomi, hope on the horizon was very difficult to see. Since many of us can relate to their plight, the lessons they needed to learn are lessons for us today.
Ruth 1:1 In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab. 2 The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. And they went to Moab and lived there. 3 Now Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4 They married Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other Ruth. After they had lived there about ten years, 5 both Mahlon and Kilion also died, and Naomi was left without her two sons and without her husband.
That is a bleak, Grapes of Wrath style opening, isn’t it? Grief. Loss. A sense of hopelessness. Maybe you are at that low place? If so, there really is hope on the horizon. I want to help us all see it.
To that end, we will explore three major headings from this text:
- A Shattered Dream
- An Inescapable Question
- A Sanity-Restoring Perspective
A SHATTERED DREAM
For Ruth and Naomi, the fog of despair had grown thick.
First, in response to a famine in Israel, Naomi and her husband had moved to Moab. This was not a step up. No Israelite wanted to live in Moab. This is why the text adds, not only that they went to Moab… but they LIVED there.” They moved there in a desperate attempt to survive.
Then her husband dies. Then her sons die, with no grandchildren. It would be expected that Naomi’s daughters-in-law would return home to remarry into other families.
With no husband or sons or grandchildren, Naomi had entered what Paul Miller calls “a living death.” For an Israelite woman residing in a foreign land, she has no discernable future or purpose.
Naomi is not likely to remarry and has no trade or means to support herself. She has been reduced to a beggar.
Naomi has lost her home. Her friends. Her life.
In her mind, death may have been a welcome relief.
There are stretches of the journey when everything seems to be going wrong.
The AC goes out in July. Then you get a flat tire, the radiator blows, and then you overdraft the checking account. Things go from bad to worse.
The market falls by 600 points. Then 1,600. Then, unthinkably, by over 10,000. It just keeps falling and falling, with many retiree’s financial security evaporating.
As the virus spreads, more severe measures are taken. Things feel like they are going from bad to worse. On this unknown journey, where will it end? Where are we going?
These are questions Naomi would be asking. Where and when is this going to end? Eventually, she would ask an inescapable question.
AN INESCAPABLE QUESTION
“Where is God? Why is he letting this happen?”
The meaning of words was incredibly important to the Hebrew people. So, understanding the meaning of several words used in this text reveals that Naomi very well may have felt deserted by God. Even mocked for believing that God could be for her and trusted with her present or her future.
- In Hebrew, Bethlehem means “house of bread” — beth (house) lehem (bread).
- The name Elimelech means “my God is King” — El (God) i (my) melech (king).
- The name Naomi means “pleasant.”
Imagine how she would have been interpreting the events of her life.
There is a famine in the house of bread where her King (provider/protector) has died. Life is anything but pleasant. As she looks for evidence of God’s blessing, all she sees is abandonment that feels like judgment.
Have you ever been honest enough to acknowledge that you feel that way?
When I was serving a church in Memphis in the mid-90s, I would do hospital rounds on Friday afternoons. One of the hospitals I’d visit was St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where every patient is a child with cancer or a related catastrophic illness. No parent wants or plans for that kind of unexpected journey into the unknown. Rather than a pleasant life; those parents were living a nightmare.
Like Naomi. Maybe like you.
Which leads to the inescapable question: “Where is God? Why is he letting this happen?”
It doesn’t have to be a sick child for someone to experience grief and hopelessness.
We live in the real world—a world impacted by the brokenness and sin that was let out of Pandora’s box in the garden. Journeys into the unknown are going to bring with them waves of fear mixed with grief, followed by seasons of relief and then unexpected tsunamis of disappointment.
Being tossed by these waves of emotion can make us seasick. Life-sick. But there is Dramamine for the emotion tossed soul. We find this in our final heading, which is a sanity-restoring perspective.
A SANITY-RESTORING PERSPECTIVE
It helps to remember that our unexpected journeys are part of and contribute to a much larger story. It is so hard to grasp this in the moment, believing that God has a purpose even in the pain. In verse 2, we are reminded that Naomi and Elimelech “were Ephrathites from Bethlehem.”
Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, was the last in his clan. With the death of his sons, the family name was dead to history.
But we know that the family line didn’t die because 350 years later, a prophet named Micha would write, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micha 5:2)
The Lord would providentially find a way to continue Elimelech’s family line, with most well-known descendant—the one prophesied by Micha—being Jesus!
I can’t wait to show you over the next few weeks how the story of Ruth and Naomi unfolds! Although I’m not going to give it all away now, I can tell you that the story of Ruth is a Romans 8:28 story, where Paul encourages us, saying that we don’t know everything, but “We [do] know that God works all things for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”
Although Naomi couldn’t see it at the time, the tragic events of her life fit providentially, prophetically, and perfectly into God’s larger story.
Even when we realize that moving to Moab very well may have been a move of self-reliance. The story could be read that God had not abandoned Naomi, but that Naomi had abandoned the Lord. I don’t how much to read into that, but it is possible that these events were also designed to bring her home, which is what we see happen later in the story.
The same is true for us. God is at work, whether our trials are from without or caused by our own sinful actions. Everything fits into God’s larger story.
The same was true for Jesus, whose life was the center of the larger story. He totally understood the suffering of Naomi’s journey and he understand yours and mine.
Because his journey also was filled with grief; but unlike Naomi’s misery, his journey of suffering was not unexpected. Just as God ordained Naomi’s move from Bethlehem to Moab and the tragedy that followed, God-ordained Jesus to move from a perfect heaven to a sinful world, where he would be the recipient of the most grievous tragedy in human history.
Yet it is out of that planned tragedy that God has brought about the greatest good in human history.
Through his journey to and through the cross, Jesus bore the complete penalty for our sinful, self-reliant, rebellious ways, enabling us to receive unqualified reconciliation with the Father, being fully forgiven and perfectly accepted.
Like Naomi, God’s purpose is to bring us home from our own Moabs to himself. The way home is the hope on the horizon.
In fact, I believe Jesus was able to endure the crucible because he could see the horizon.
Let Yourself Believe
In the film, Elizabeth, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh is explaining to the Queen what it’s like to journey across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. Speaking slowly and deliberately, he says,
“For weeks, you see nothing but the horizon. Perfect and empty. You live in the grip of fear. Fear of storms. Fear of sickness on board. Fear of the immensity. So, you must drive that fear down, deep into your belly. You study your charts. Watch your compass. Pray for a fair wind. And hope. Pure, fragile, naked hope.
“At first, it is no more than a haze on the horizon. So, you watch. And there’s a smudge—just a shadow across the water. For a day. For another day. The stain slowly spreads, taking form along the horizon. Until, on the third day, you let yourself believe and dare to whisper the word: Land! Life! Resurrection! A true adventure, coming out of the vast unknown. Out of the immensity. Into new life. That, your Majesty, is the New World.”
On our journey, we study our charts—not a map of the Atlantic, but of the gospel, where we discover a new world on the horizon, the land of all lands, secured for us not by a Sir Walter Raleigh expedition, but by a Savior’s crucifixion.
It is a new world of beauty, even glory, where there is the fullness of joy, peace, and rest—eternal prosperity. Riches of grace.
That is where God is leading us. And it is the hope on the horizon that fuels us with hope for the journey into the unknown.
The challenge for us today is to look intently upon the horizon and allow yourself to believe.
- What is a situation in your life that you can’t imagine working out for good? Or, what would you consider to be a shattered dream in your life?
- Have you ever asked the question, “Why are you letting this happen to me, God?” Describe your emotions in that place of hopelessness.
- Emotions are like lights on the dashboard of a car. How can they reveal a heart that is disconnected from the heart of God?
- How can Romans 8:28 reorient our hearts to the redemptive plan of God, even when all we can see and feel is brokenness and grief?
- How does the cross encourage us to take this perspective?