When you feel empty in life and bitter toward God, you must turn from seeking fullness by the world’s ways of selfish expediency and self-pity, and turn to seeking fullness by God’s ways of sacrificial loyalty and faith, where you will immediately recognize glimmers of hope through union with Christ.
Introduction – How to preach on finding fullness, filling up the emptiness in such a prosperous country as America, in the über-prosperous region of the DC metro area? Do you realize 5 of the 10 wealthiest counties (per capita) in the US are within an hour’s drive of Warrenton, Virginia? In response to our nation’s historically-unprecedented wealth, many preachers have assumed everyone is full, but we just need a reminder. Sermon illustrations abound of people who have it all, but still feel empty. There is an old gospel hymn that goes “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings see what God has done; and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” It’s a sweet song, but what if you really haven’t found much fullness? What if you are profoundly empty? The Bible knows your response to that song (Prov 25:20)! You’re left cold and bitter.
When life is full of goodness and all seems right with the world, you believe God is good, but when you are low and life seems empty, you believe God has turned against you. This is human nature. This can make you embittered toward God and want to either give up on God and find fullness the way everyone else does, or wallow alone in your misery. Both ways dull the pain of your emptiness. When you feel empty in life and bitter toward God, you must turn from seeking fullness by the world’s ways of selfish expediency and self-pity, and turn to seeking fullness by God’s ways of sacrificial loyalty and faith, where you will immediately recognize glimmers of hope through union with Christ.
I. Our Profound Need for Fullness
A. God created us to live in fullness (Gen 1:26-31; 2:18, 21-25)
The biblical meaning of “fullness.” Prosperity, blessing, fruitfulness, happiness, satisfaction, pregnant(!), filled up, overflowing with goodness, wholeness, to know and be known, shalom.
B. Meeting basic human needs provides a measure of fullness (Ps 128)
1. Abraham Maslow, a 20th century psychologist, famously observed that basic human needs may be understood as a hierarchy, with each level of needs resting on a necessary foundation of more basic needs—1st survival, 2nd safety, and 3rd love and belonging. In other words, people act instinctively to meet their survival needs before they concern themselves with safety and love, and likewise will seek to meet their safety needs before seeking fullness in love and belonging.
2. Family, Marriage, Children, Provision, Protection, Stability, Community, Friendship, Labor and Rest. Needing these, Naomi, Ruth, and Orpah were deficient in all three foundational levels of basic human needs (level one—food and shelter; level two—protection, security and stability; level three—marriage, love, belonging, work and rest).
C. We yearn for fullness and mourn the loss of fullness (vv. 8-9; 20-21)
1. Becoming a widow in the ancient world was the equivalent of financial and relational ruin. Widows almost always lived in crippling poverty. People either took advantage of them or ignored them. There were few stations in life worse than widowhood. This is why God has particular concern for widows, and expects his people to provide widows with emotional and economic support. God’s law instructed the nearest relative of the dead husband to care for the widow (levirate marriage; cf. Dt 25:5-10). But Naomi had no relatives in Moab and did not know if her relatives were still alive in Judah. As far as she knew, she was returning to the Promised Land that held no promise for her—to remain poverty stricken and under God’s displeasure.
2. The three women were not merely weeping loudly because they will miss each other after parting. This wailing was characteristic in their culture for bemoaning a tragedy. All three women are destitute and seemingly without hope if they stick together. Naomi cannot provide for Orpah and Ruth, and she also cannot provide them levirate husbands since she herself has no husband and no sons. They had no future with her, so Naomi sent them back to Moab to find fullness by finding husbands to escape the poverty and dependency of widowhood. From Naomi’s perspective, parting is painful, but the best option for all.
II. The Elusive Nature of Fullness
A. The good things in life provide only a fleeting fullness (vv. 8-9, 11-13a, 19)
The closest our culture gets to understanding fullness is through the pursuit of happiness. Try googling “why is happiness elusive.” The number of articles, personal reflections, blogs, scholarly studies, books, discussion threads, and advice is astounding—almost 4.5 million! And the further you get from the first page of hits, the search results are still highly relevant! It seems that the more we reach for fullness, the more it appears beyond our grasp.
1. Naomi’s words to her two daughters-in-law are technical language for bringing an end to a relationship. She is not mere saying, “Goodbye and God bless you.” Rather she is expressing her utter hopelessness to provide hesed for Ruth and Orpah. The NET Study Bible explains hesed “is not merely an attitude or an emotion; it is an emotion that leads to an activity beneficial to the recipient; a beneficent action performed, in the context of a deep and enduring commitment between two persons or parties, by one who is able to render assistance to the needy party who in the circumstances is unable to help him – or herself”
She cannot repay their kindness, so she turns them over to the LORD trusting that he will repay them. In effect Naomi is formally releasing her daughters-in-law of any obligation to her. Her fullness is slipping away.
2. The women know they need the fullness that marriage and family provide. The question is where best to find it. Will they turn to the LORD for lasting fullness, or turn back to the land where they experienced emptiness and bitterness? Naomi chides both Ruth and Orpah to stop following her because doing so is senseless. “Think about it, ladies!” Her womb provided husbands for Ruth and Orpah once, but that cannot happen again. To follow Naomi hoping for husbands to materialize was foolish, even crazy, and Naomi wanted to wake them up from their dream of happy marriages through connection with her. “Go home! Can’t you see I’ve got nothing to offer you? The fullness we once had as a family is gone, and it isn’t coming back.”
Quitting Church is a book about why the faithful are leaving and what to do about it. In one chapter the author (who is a single woman) opened my eyes to the emptiness that haunts singles, widows, and divorced people in the church. She reminded me how the pain that loneliness, rejection, lack of intimacy and acceptance leaves us feeling empty and without God’s blessing. For people not married, being in the church surrounded by families is a constant reminder of the fleeting nature of fullness. And without hope of their emptiness being filled through connection to others in the church, after awhile the pain simply becomes unbearable. So they walk away. If God has blessed you with a measure of fullness, know that your fullness is meant to be shared with those who are empty. That’s what Jesus did when he emptied himself to give fullness to the lowly, the destitute, the empty. Find someone, even in this congregation, who needs the fullness that God’s love provides and help them. Love them, befriend them, talk with them, get to know them, help them find the fullness we all long for.
B. The resulting emptiness of life hinders us from pursuing fullness (vv. 13b-14a, 20-21)
1. Often logic and common sense work against finding fullness (Heb 11:1-2). Naomi’s final plea to Ruth and Orpah is a hypothetical case, assuming that she still has a shred of hope left. The hypothetical case suggests an unreal situation, thereby stressing the utter hopelessness of their real situation. What if I married tonight? What if I bore several sons tonight? The questions are of course absurd, which serves to highlight for the audience that God is certainly orchestrating the happy ending for Naomi and Ruth, because Ruth and Naomi could not have done so. Their future fullness was hopelessly lost if left to mere human orchestration.
2. One commentator detects in Naomi’s two questions the “bird-in-hand” principle—Why pass up the realistic opportunity at hand to marry and find fullness in exchange for a future, humanly impossible hope? Ruth and Orpah had good prospects of marrying in Moab by returning to their mother’s homes. That is why Naomi is more bitter than they. They have a future, she does not. In Naomi’s mind, although God has dealt harshly with her so far (famine, exile, bereavement, childlessness), this might be just the beginning of her bitter life! That is why she wanted her identity changed from Naomi (meaning “pleasant, lovely”) to Mara (meaning “bitter”). [Mara was indeed a fitting description of her words and attitude, for it was at Marah in the wilderness after leaving Egypt where the Israelites complained against the Lord, accusing him of forgetting them and making their existence bitter (Ex 15:22-26).] Thus in Naomi’s mind Ruth and Orpah are better off distancing themselves from her right now while they still have the chance. Will they heed her words and agree with Naomi’s assessment of God’s heavy-handed character? Naomi’s experience of God’s heavy hand is echoed in the words of the lament psalms (Ps 38:2; 39:10).
III. Where to Find Fullness
A. Not in the world’s ways
1. Positive: Selfish expediency. Orpah sought fullness in the good things of life by way of the familiar. C.S. Lewis recognized that many pursue fullness like Orpah did.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that the Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot understand what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
The irony is that if you grasp for the good things of life for their own sake, and you manage to lay hold of them, you’ll still be left feeling empty. Good things that meet your basic human needs cannot and will not give you true fullness because emptiness is primarily a spiritual problem. Is it wrong to seek good things in your life? No. Marriage, family, children, home, community, work and rest, stability are good and desirable. God may choose to bless you with these, “but seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33).
2. Negative: Selfish pity. Naomi sought a “fullness consolation prize” by soliciting sympathy for her emptiness. This is also a common way to pursue fullness. Whereas Orpah is the “glass half-full” person, Naomi is the “glass half-empty” (or better: the “glass-bone-dry”) person.
B. In sacrificial loyalty to God’s people (vv. 10, 14b-16a, 17-18)
But Ruth is neither. She is contrasted with both Orpah and Naomi. Ruth is loyal and godly compared to Orpah. Ruth is courageous, faithful and full of youthful hope compared to Naomi who embodies defeatism, bitterness, doubt, elderly resignation, and barrenness. Ruth expresses covenantal commitment, binding herself to Naomi and the LORD, with no prospective future except a share in Naomi’s desolation. What an act of great faith! Ruth is saying in effect to Naomi, “If you are too old to have a husband, then I will spend my nights with you—I will be your companion.” Wherever the future takes Naomi, Ruth promises to be by her side. What loyalty, what friendship, what devotion, what love, what hesed! Her words represent her complete conversion as a worshiper of the LORD, and they recall the central covenant promise—“I will be your God and you shall be my people” (Ex 6:7; 2 Cor 6:16b). Ruth understood that she must renounce all familial ties to her people in Moab for the sake of the kingdom of God. Christians must do the same, for this is the teaching of Jesus (Mt 8:21-22; 10:37; 19:29). God so often works through the ordinary circumstances of life to restore hope and fullness. If we learn faithfulness in the ordinary, then we will be equipped to handle by faith the crises when they come.
C. Through faith in the Lord of the Covenant (vv. 8-9, 16b, 21-22)
The Lord is God of the haves and the have-nots. He is God to those on the inside and those on the outside. He is God to the churched and the unchurched, to the religious and secular, to the empty and the full. He is God to Israel and the nations. God sent his Son to remove the barrier of sin that excludes us from covenant relationship with him. He invites us to leave Moab and its paltry measure of fullness, and return to the Promised Land where God and his blessed people dwell in true fullness. All are welcome to come and be received into fellowship with God and his people—to experience the fullness of life that we so profoundly need. Ruth united herself in faith to the LORD. She clung to Naomi and Naomi’s God.
D. Embodied in Jesus Christ, who emptied himself for our fullness (vv. 22b)
1. Jesus emptied himself to give fullness to his church (Phil 2:1-11; Eph 1:22-23). Naomi needed more than Ruth—she needed Jesus—just as you and I need him. Jesus is the greater Ruth! He showed the depth of his sacrificial loyalty to all those whom the Father gave to him by clinging to us—uniting himself with us. He left his Father’s house to come live with us, to serve us, to empty himself even to death on a cross so that we might live in fullness. He lived the words of Ruth by going where we go, lodging where we lodge, making us his people and his God our God. The bitter judgment that he endured redeemed for eternal good the bitterness Naomi felt under God’s hand of covenant discipline. He has transformed our bitterness into blessing. For all those united to Christ by faith, he has changed our name from bitter to pleasant, from empty to full, from Mara to Naomi.
2. Jesus is the fullness of grace and truth. We receive fullness and blessing from him (Ps 16:10-11; Jn 1:16)! It is not a coincidence that Naomi and Ruth find themselves returning to the Promised Land at the beginning of a bountiful barley harvest. The LORD tested the bitter Israelites at Marah in the wilderness, but their next stop was the oasis of Elim where God gave them water. The harvest is the first glimmer of hope for these lowly women. There is bread in Bethlehem! God has visited his people once again. When you turn from the world’s ways of finding fullness and turn to God’s ways, your union with Christ and all his benefits is immediately apparent. Jesus, the bread of life, fills his empty people with himself, sustains us in fellowship with his people, protects and provides for us, and gives us a fullness that satisfies both now and forever (Jn 6).
Conclusion – Paradoxically, the way to find fullness is to empty yourself—for God and neighbor (Mt 10:34-39). God chose the lowly and despised in the world to bring to nothing those who are exalted (1 Cor 1:26-31). Jesus taught this as the only way to find fullness, he lived his teaching, he died proclaiming it, and he rose from the dead thereby validating its truth. Ruth understood that fullness could only come through radical, no-turning-back, covenant loyalty to Israel’s God. Naomi had trouble believing God would give her fullness again and so she pouted and solicited pity. Orpah chose a measure of worldly fullness in the familiar at the expense of true fullness. Whose life does yours resemble? In whom will you trust for fullness?