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"In the Midst"


Ruth 1:18-22

18 When she (Naomi) saw that she (Ruth) was strengthening herself to go with her, she then ceased to speak to her. 19 And they went, the two of them, until their coming to Bethlehem. And it was in their coming to Bethlehem that all the city was stirred regarding them, and the women said is this Naomi?20 But she said to them, do not call me Naomi, call me Mara, because Shaddai has indeed made me bitter. 21 Full was I when I went away, but empty has Yahweh has caused me to return. Why do you call me Naomi when Yahweh has testified against me and Shaddai has caused disaster to me? 22 Thus Naomi returned and also Ruth the Moabitess, her daughter-in-law with her, the one returning from the fields of Moab, and they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest

 

For those of us who have grown up in the church this is a familiar story, the story of Ruth and Naomi. This particular passage falls right after Ruth’s famous speech, pledging her devotion and steadfast loyalty to Naomi…your people will be my people and your God will be my God.

 And I wonder if it is not almost forgotten, in the shadow of Ruth’s inspiring speech of loyalty? Or if we are not too quick to get to the end of the story—which would be especially tempting during this season of advent. Now Ruth and Boaz had a son and they named him Obed, who became the father of Jesse, the father of David. And it would be so nice, in this advent sermon, to go right into, “and in the city of David was born a child, Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.” It sure would be a shorter sermon. Now we can all go home. As a fellow student said in a preaching class, after finishing his sermon, “Thanks for coming.”

 But here, between Ruth’s exclamation of devotion and the promise of new birth, is a passage with less inspiration, with less anticipation, with less hope. For here we find Naomi, a woman empty, left with nothing, alone. And she is hardly hopeful.

 And when Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she said no more to her. This phrase follows directly after Ruth’s speech—where you go I will go, where you lodge I will lodge, your people will be my people and your God my God.

 And Naomi stopped talking to her. This is hardly a fitting response. Did she not just hear what Ruth said? Did she not appreciate this stirring speech of commitment?

 We can almost hear Ruth saying, “Excuse, me, did you not hear what I just said? Maybe you weren’t paying attention? Maybe you missed it? I said that I am giving up everything to go with you, to be with you, and you just turned and started walking! Do you care?”

 But I wonder if Naomi did hear. Or if, in hearing, it made any difference at all. It is almost as if the emptiness in Naomi’s life was ringing out so loud that it drowned out any other voice, any other ability to hear. And the emptiness said to her, you are alone, Naomi. Your life has not turned out the way you planned, Naomi. When you left, sure you were hungry from the famine, but now you are returning to food, but with no one by your side. You are alone, Naomi. You have no husband to care and provide for you. You have no sons to take care of you in your old age. You are empty, alone. And what does anything else matter? What is the point? For your life is empty now. And things did not turn out like you had planned.

 And with the sound of these voices still ringing in her ears Naomi arrives in Bethlehem. And it almost takes her a moment to realize that the stirring sounds that she is hearing are no longer the voices in her own head, but those of the women of the town of Bethlehem. And they are abuzz. Is this, could this be, no, it couldn’t or…is this Naomi? It is a mixture of shock and surprise, of excitement and confusion. She looks different…where is her husband Elimelech? And what of her two sons? And who is this young foreign woman walking with her?

 And finally Naomi speaks, and her voice breaks through the buzzing chatter of the other women.

 “No, in fact, I am not Naomi. For Naomi no longer exists. Naomi is the name of a woman who went away full, a woman whose life was pleasant. And I am definitely not that woman. No, don’t call me Naomi, call me Mara, for I am bitter, the Lord has dealt bitterly with me.”

 And it is almost as if the pain and anguish that Naomi has endured finally erupts in her speech. For with as much intensity as Ruth has spoken of her devotion, Naomi now speaks of her suffering. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. The Lord has dealt harshly with me. The Almighty has brought calamity upon me. No, pleasant I am not. Call me bitter, for that is my life.

 And perhaps then she recounts her story to the women of the town. And it sounds too horrible to be true. First her husband, then her two sons? What, is this some kind of divine joke? How is one person supposed to endure all of this? It is a wonder that Naomi has even enough feeling left inside her to voice this harsh indictment of God. But she does. And she does give voice to her experience, as she has known it. And she doesn’t let God off the hook. And so she comes face to face with her pain.

 She encounters her situation head on. She does not try to minimize it. She does not deny it. No. She cannot. For she is so consumed with the pain of her loss that she cannot even bear to have the reminder of the name she once knew.

 And she is so consumed by her suffering that it is as if she has forgotten that Ruth is even by her side. But the narrator will not allow us to forget.

 So, Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.

 Ruth, a foreign woman. Ruth, who was determined to go with her. Ruth, who was invisible to her in the midst of her pain. Ruth, in whom we will find the seed of promise, the hope of the future.

 In this season of advent we dare not rush to quickly from the baby born in the manger, to the glory of the resurrection. For, nestled between the stories of the “Where you go I will go, your people shall be my people” and the promise of the hope of new life and rebirth, we do have the story of Naomi.

 Yes, in this time of waiting we wait eagerly, with hopeful anticipation. But we also wait with Naomi. And in waiting with Naomi we acknowledge and give voice to the times when we are empty, when the Lord has dealt harshly with us, when the Lord brings us back empty. For Naomi’s anguish is real. And there are those of us here who have known such pain, such suffering. And we need to give voice to that. And we need not try and sugar coat it.  For that pain is real. But in the midst of our pain there is one who travels with us. There is one who returns on our journey alongside us. And it is through this one who travels with us that we find hope, that we find the promise of new life. And it is this one who says to us, “Where you go I will go. And you shall be my people.”

 

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