The Bitter Return
Cornerstone Covenant Church
A father was trying to explain to his four-year-old daughter the concept of marriage. But she just wasn’t getting it. So he decided that maybe some visuals might help.
He pulled out the wedding album and went page by page – pointing out the bride arriving at the church – the entrance– the wedding ceremony – the recessional – the reception. Finally, the little girl said: “Now I get it. That’s when mommy came to work for us.”
Happy Mother’s Day!
It’s not easy being a mom, is it? And it really is a hard concept to grasp – how you pour your life into your family – your children – and they don’t really get it. Sure they appreciate what you do for them. But they don’t – perhaps can’t – understand what you feel – how you feel every time they get sick – the worry you feel when they’re not home on time – the agony you go through when they make dumb choices that you know will have an impact on their entire lives.
Being Mom isn’t easy. Ask Naomi. Her husband dragged her away from their extended family out into the land of Moab. Of course, there was a good reason – a famine back in Bethlehem. They had two sons both of which had issues. I say that based on their names – one meant “sickly” and the other, as best we can tell meant something like “loser.”
So you can imagine that her mothering experiences were not – well – ideal.
And then, of course, her husband dies. And then the two sons die. And she is stuck by herself in a foreign country. Although she does have two daughters-in-law.
Naomi decides to go back to Bethlehem. The famine is over she has heard – so it seems wise to go back. She packs up the little she has left – obviously a very poor woman and starts down the road – her daughters-in-law follow.
“No,” she tells them. “Go back to your own mother’s home – at least there you have a chance of getting another husband. But if you go back to Bethlehem with me what will you have? I’m not going to have any more children who could grow up to be your husbands.”
So there is this big emotional scene out on the pathway. Neither daughter-in-law wants to leave Naomi. But finally Orpah agrees that it would be best to return to her mother’s home. Ruth, on the other hand, is stubborn stubborn stubborn. She is determined that she is going to stick with Naomi.
You know the rest of the story. They both return to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. And in hind-sight all of this means that Naomi and Ruth end up being two of the most important mothers in the Bible. But it was not an easy or a very romantic journey.
I would like to make four relatively quick observations about the bitter return to Bethlehem and what it all means – not just to for the unfolding of the whole biblical story but also for our lives as well. So here we go.
#1 – NAOMI WAS REAL.
There did not appear to be an ounce of pretense in this woman. Life had knocked her to the ground and kicked her around for awhile – and she had absolutely no problem acknowledging that reality. She was not the stoic. She was not pollyanna.
After all of the loss in her life she gave up her daughters-in-law – or at least tried to. Then when she arrived back in Bethlehem she said to her old friends there: Verse 20 – “Don’t call me Naomi, Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me.”
There is a little play on words here. “Call me mara for the Almighty has marred me.”
Stuff has happened to me. I can’t pretend otherwise. I’m a bitter old woman.
Now, of course, this is not what we want to hear from people. We know that protracted bitterness tends to kill people. And no one really wants to be around someone who oozes bitterness.
But this doesn’t appear to be acidic in nature. She is simply acknowledging the reality of a hard life. And there is nothing wrong with that.
Maybe you’ve been through the mill yourself – deaths in your family – divorce – brokenness – aloneness – isolation. Hey, there is nothing wrong in acknowledging this – it’s a part of who you are and what has happened in your life.
The only real cautionary note is – don’t leave it there. Don’t get stuck in the reality of what has been – especially when God is in the business of recycling the garbage in our lives into something new and more beautiful than we could imagine. We may not see it right away. And we may think that our lives are characterized by bitter things. And it’s good to admit that. But don’t get stuck there. See the bigger picture.
And this leads us into the second observation – NAOMI RECOGNIZED THE SOVEREIGNTY OF THE LORD – EVEN IN A FOREIGN PLACE.
You know what we mean by the word sovereignty, right? Sovereignty is supreme power.
And I say Naomi recognized the supreme power of the Lord even in a foreign place because in those days a lot of the religions thought that a deity’s powers were restricted to a particular geographical location. But the Lord is sovereign over all. He can’t be tied down or restricted. And Naomi recognizes that even though she is living in a foreign place it is still the Lord – Yahweh – who is supreme. He is the one behind everything that has happened to her.
Ruth 1:20- 21 – “‘Don’t call me Naomi,’ she told them. ‘Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why should you call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy?’"
Naomi understands that the Lord is ultimately behind the flow of history.
Now, I think that she is reading too much into this. She understands that God is sovereign but she doesn’t quite understand what that means. She assumes that the Lord is directly causing all of her problems – for a reason. But as we learned in the book of Job – the Lord doesn’t always bring tragedy into our lives – he allows it – but he is not necessarily the instigator.
In Job it was the devil. Other times things happen to us just because we live in a fallen world. Bad things are the result of choices that other people have made – even thousands of years ago.
Now, there are times when the Lord will bring trouble into our lives – a divine spanking – to get our attention – to correct us for disciplinary reasons. But there is no indication that such is the case here in the book of Ruth.
There is no indication that the Lord is trying to get Naomi’s attention or that he is trying to redirect her life along a better path. These things have just happened to her.
But even in saying that we are acknowledging that the Lord is sovereign – that his will is supreme – because he takes all of the disasters in our lives – regardless of their source – and weaves from them his will. He takes that which was intended for evil and turns it to good – as Joseph describes his ordeal at the end of the book of Genesis.
Indeed Naomi is right – the Lord is supreme. He is in charge – his will will be done. God is in control. Nothing spins so far out of control that it is beyond redemption – and not just in the sense that God makes it all better – but that he is actually in the big-picture-scheme-of-things using it all to work out his better plan.
It boggles our minds how this could be but we understand recycling and know that objects made out of recycled material can often be more significant than the original. For example, a few years ago we were at Yellowstone National Park and were walking out to see some geysers along a planked pathway. Only it was different than the previous visit. In the past the planks on the walkway were made of wood – and were constantly in need of replacement.
But the new planks were a sturdy plastic – a nice looking plastic. I looked more closely at some of the planks – found some manufacturer information – did a little research and discovered that the planks were made of recycled milk bottles. What started out as garbage ended up being sturdy, nice looking walkways that carried millions of people to beautiful places.
Don’t underestimate the power of garbage when there is a powerful creative God in charge of the world.
Thirdly, notice that NAOMI DIDN’T ALLOW HER BITTERNESS TO ZAP HER FAITH.
How many of us – when bad things happen – give up on God or life? If it’s not going my way then I just say “forget you God.” If you’re not going to do things my way then I’m going to take my ball and go home.
How many people drop out of church after some crisis in their lives? And they’re mad at the way things have turned out. They’re mad at other people who couldn’t fix things for them. They’re mad at God!
Well, if anyone had the right to drop out it was Naomi. But listen to her response: Ruth 1:6 – “Then Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had blessed his people in Judah by giving them good crops again. So Naomi and her daughters-in-law got ready to leave Moab to return to her homeland.”
God wasn’t blessing her in Moab so she was going to go to where God was blessing.
Ruth 1:8 – “But on the way, Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go back to your mothers’ homes instead of coming with me. And may the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and to me...’”
Notice the words. “May the Lord reward you for your kindness to your husbands and me...”
It’s a prayer! After all the garbage she’s gone thru she’s still praying. And she is seeking the Lord’s blessing for her daughters-in-law! The Lord hasn’t blessed her but that doesn’t stop her from seeking the Lord’s blessing for them.
After all the garbage she has gone thru – and even though she thinks that God has done this to her for some reason – she is still talking to God. She is still relying on him! She is still trusting in him. This is real faith
Then fourth, notice that RUTH IS AN UNEXPECTED SIGN OF GROWING HOPE.
I mentioned last week about the pattern in the book of Ruth. It starts out with total despair. But then the curtain very slowly opens to reveal more and more hope – until in the end it is outrageous hope.
Well, Ruth’s stubborn determination to stick with Naomi is a sign that things are turning.
Ruth 1:16-18 – “But Ruth replied, ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. I will go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.  I will die where you die and will be buried there. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!’  So when Naomi saw that Ruth had made up her mind to go with her, she stopped urging her.”
This was Ruth’s statement of faith. I’m going with you. I’m going to die in your land. I’m going to stick with you. And in spite of the fact that the Lord hasn’t really blessed you – I’m going to put my trust in your God, too. Your God will be my God.
When Naomi went to Moab I bet she wasn’t thinking that she was going to be a missionary. She was just trying to survive. But here’s proof that something bigger was happening – a convert!
And as you know, Ruth ended up in the lineage of Jesus. God used her to bring things to the point where the Savior of the whole world could make his entrance. And the turning point – the sign of hope – the sign that something better is coming – starts to emerge right here in Ruth 1. This is a pivotal chapter in the Bible.
Perhaps you’re looking for a sign of hope in your life right now. Maybe things haven’t been going too well. I don’t even want to try to list all of the garbage you’ve had to deal with – but you can certainly identify with Naomi.
Hey, listen, I want to invite you this morning to hear this message of hope. Look at the big picture. God is in charge. He has set things up for a Savior – for the cross and the resurrection. And we’re talking 1,100 years before Jesus actually arrived. And if the Lord was at work in the midst of those tough times back then – and he’s brought things this far – is there any reason to believe that he is any less at work in your life today?
So I want to invite you to affirm your faith in the midst of whatever it is that you’re going thru. And one great way that we can do this is thru the 23rd Psalm. Ths is a psalm of King David – the great grandson of Ruth – words of faith that he wrote when he was going thru his own tough time.
Let’s read together the 23rd Psalm.
"The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need.
"He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads me beside peaceful streams.
"He renews my strength. He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.
"Even when I walk through the dark valley of death, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
"Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.
"You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.
"You welcome me as a guest, anointing my head with oil.
"My cup overflows with blessings.
"Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever."