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