"Amid Bitterness and Emptiness"

October 10, 1993 Message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Ruth 1:1-22
(first in a series)

Ruth and Naomi, Phillip Ratner, 1998. The Safad Bible, Israel Bible Museum.

On my summer reading list was a book I sometimes found difficult to read. To be honest, I still haven't finished it. The Living, by Annie Dillard, is an historical fiction which tells the story of the settlement of Bellingham, Washington during the last century. Dillard does not spare her readers from life as it really was. It is a very personal account of life and death on the frontier. I almost put the book away on page five, when I encountered the accidental death of a family's two year old child. It hit too close to home. In fact, the author portrays tragedy in a matter of fact fashion, that is - it was just another part of living. But life goes on.

That's hard for us, today, to fathom. In spite of the grim stories on our nightly news, real tragedy seems very distant. But for our ancestors, as well as for many people around this globe, tragedy is an integral part of life. Look in our church cemetery, and you will find several grave markers for infants or young children. The dates are not that long ago. In spite of what we may try to tell ourselves, tragedy is an integral part of life. Few of us are spared from it in one form or another.

Turn to Guideposts magazine and monthly you will find accounts of how various people have responded to tragedy. One person I know well does not appreciate Guideposts because it seems, in reading it, that bad things have to happen in order for good things to follow. In reality, life is not full of tragic events, and bad things don't have to happen in order for good things to follow. Nevertheless, few of us are spared from tragedy of one sort or another.

The Bible has numerous accounts of the faithful falling into tragic situations. Many of these accounts allow us to see the threads of purpose - the reasons behind why bad things happen. For instance, when King David is briefly overthrown by his son Absalom, we are given a glimpse

into a family problem which had its origins in an extra-marital affair between David and Bathsheba. But many accounts purposely muddy the water to prevent us from answering the question "why?" - "Why did this happen?"

We look to the book of Job and find a man who has been tragically emptied of everything meaningful in his life. His home and property are destroyed, his family dies. Everything is taken away but the ash heap upon which he sits and asks, over and over again - "why?" "Why did this happen?" No explanation is satisfactory, especially those offered by his friends, who at least sit with him throughout his ordeal. Even when God finally speaks, and restores Job to some semblance of a meaningful life, no reason is given as to why this tragedy happened. All of which leads us to wonder if the answer to "why" is as important as the question: "What now?"

There is another story in the Old Testament which also does not answer the question "why did this happen?" It is the story of a woman, two women really, faced with similar circumstances as those of Job. We find this masterful tale in the little book of Ruth. This is the first of four sermons I plan to preach on Ruth.

As I see it, this book is a "Jubilee story." It illustrates some of the themes of Leviticus 25, the Jubilee year:

Repentance, that is - turning in the right direction,

Hospitality - rightly treating persons: as guests, not objects,

Justice - doing the right thing, and

Forgiveness - making things right.

In the beginning of the story, we find a family of four who have left their home in search of opportunity. While in this foreign country, the husband dies, but his wife is still left with two sons, who marry local girls. Ten years later both sons die leaving this older woman in a hard situation. She's a widow with no children in a strange land. At least Job was at home among friends. Economically, socially, and in all other ways she has shifted suddenly to the bottom of the barrel. All she has left are two daughters-in-law.

This is the story of Naomi, that older woman who has not been spared tragedy. The details of how it all happened, and why, are not told. Unlike Job, Naomi does not tear up her clothes and sit upon an ash heap. Perhaps this is the difference between a man and a woman, and perhaps not. Sometimes it seems that men have a more passive response when tragedy strikes home. Oh, we may bite the bullet, grit our teeth, and say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." But long-term suffering such as grief, is not as easy for us to handle. How many "Jobs" are there who sit upon ash heaps and passively respond to a tragedy?

On the other hand, how do many women respond to tragedy? The work still has to be done, people still have to eat, children still need to be washed. Persons like Naomi respond to tragedy in an active way. They continue. They put their grief into their hands and work on it, like a baker kneads bread. I don't know about you, but I've seen this difference between "Jobs" and "Naomis" over and over again. Now I haven't literally seen folks sitting on ash heaps, but even amid activity, I've seen the ash heap in their eyes. Often, when a "Job" is depressed, he is immobilized.

But not so much a "Naomi." In our Jubilee story, what does she do? She packs up shop and heads for home. What is her first spoken concern? It is for her daughters-in-law. They are still young. A new life still is possible for them. Security, right now a slim commodity, is still available. "Go, return to your mothers home, find a husband, have a family." Naomi's concern, amid her sorrow, is for someone else. Haven't you seen that before in persons like Naomi? My own mother, after Dad died, would speak more readily her concern for her children or for others than her concern for herself. The years of putting others' needs ahead of her own continued when facing sorrow.

Naomi did likewise. But even within her (Naomi's) activity, her active concern for other's first, is another element. We find it in the words "empty" and "bitter." Like Job, Naomi gives voice to her sorrow. She does so indirectly at first, but eventually she is able to do so openly. Her first effort to get her daughters-in-law to return to their own families, is marked by tenderness and remembrance of kindness. When both younger women refuse to leave, after much kissing and weeping, her request becomes more cynical: "Do I have any more sons to give you? I am too old for a husband, too old to conceive, too old to bear children again. And even if all this would happen, would you wait with me for them to grow up? Of course not."

When Naomi voices her sorrow, saying, literally, "Things are more bitter for me than for you," there is a well of bitterness within her which comes to the surface and she is able to express it. Later, with just one daughter-in-law beside her, she returns to Bethlehem and gives full voice to her bitterness. To the Bethlehemite women who have gathered to greet her, she says, "Don't call me Naomi, call me Mara." In other words - Naomi means pleasant, Mara means bitter. "Call me bitter, for God has dealt bitterly with me. I left here full, I come back empty. It is God who has done it."

Naomi speaks these words. No lightening flashes and kills her. She isn't stoned for saying such things. She brings a legal accusation against God, just as Job did, and she lives to see another day. Her Repentance, if you will, is not an act of contrition, of sorrow for sin. Her Repentance is a turning toward God, even as she has turned toward home. This should teach us something.

We tend to avoid casting our sorrow upon God. In fact, we defend God from such accusations. After all, it's not God's fault, really. Inside, though, we may still be full of bitterness and emptiness. Now tell me - which is worse, stating it openly, or hiding it inside? The truth is, God can handle our anger much better than we can. Perhaps that's why the Israelites were constantly lamenting or complaining to God. Such complaints revealed not so much a lack of faith, but were acts of faith themselves. Naomi returned home to her friends and shared her grief, her heavy burden, her bitterness and her emptiness, with them and with her God.

This is Naomi's story. But it is also the story of another person, by the name of Ruth. She was one of those two daughters-in-law whom Naomi tried to dissuade from returning with her to Bethlehem. Ruth had married Naomi's son Mahlon, and after 10 years of marriage, she, also, was left with nothing. No children, no real estate as such - just her own grief. Faced with Naomi's words of bitterness and emptiness, Ruth chose to stay with her mother-in-law forever.

In a speech as dramatic as any ever uttered, Ruth vowed to go wherever Naomi went - to stay, to make her home, her night's dwelling, wherever Naomi did - to call Naomi's people her own, and to claim Naomi's God as hers. Her vow went beyond death, for her bones would rest in the same place as Naomi's, so that even if one day someone might open their grave, the bones of Naomi would hardly be distinguishable from Ruth's. That is one of the Bible's strongest statements of commitment. And it is spoken by a foreigner and not a Jew. Yet, as we shall see in the next couple weeks - by word and action Ruth was one of God's People. The law of Moses lived in her...

Isn't it amazing how these stories of Ruth and Naomi blend together? Naomi comes to the point where she lays her complaint before God, full of bitterness and emptiness. How does God respond? Well, she certainly is not destroyed for complaining - her complaint is really an act of faith. God does answer, but the answer is not outright. God does not openly speak or act. God operates more behind the scenes. Even before Naomi's complaint is voiced, a woman named Ruth, a foreigner, becomes God's answer. Instead of why?, why did this happen?, the question becomes - what now?

Next week we shall explore the next scene in this real-life drama. But for now we leave Naomi and Ruth in a little town called Bethlehem. Centuries later God answered the complaint of an entire people, a world, through another person who was born in Bethlehem. His tragedy has become our salvation. You are invited back next week to continue our walk through this "Jubilee story" of Ruth, a journey which leads us to the Messiah, Jesus Christ.


Series on the book of Ruth:   message #2,   message #3,   message #4


1993 Peter L. Haynes

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