Pastor of Decatur and Concord United Methodist Churches
Each day we send our children to school in the hopes that they are learning and growing. They study, they work hard, they have fun. All of this is part of working and helping to shape them into the unique humans they are. One of the questions that people always ask kids is what they want to be when they grow up.
When our daughter finished Kindergarten, they had a program where the kids walked across the stage and said what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some of these answers provide some serious goals, but others provided some serious laughs. Kids wanted to be doctors, veterinaries, lawyers, teachers, scientists, auto mechanics, professional athletes, but kids also wanted to be mermaids and princesses and ninjas and YouTube stars.
Each of us knows that these young children will change their minds multiple times over the course of the next years of their lives. Their whole world is in front of them, and thankfully their destiny is not set as they walk across the stage in kindergarten.
Regardless of what you wanted to be in kindergarten, you likely know that circumstances change in life. When it comes time to begin a job or a career, your interests might change, your opportunities shift, and life’s circumstances affect what you have to do. Then regardless of what happens, life happens and what you thought your life was going to be about or what you thought was going to happen in your life isn’t what came to pass. When this happens, you often have to change the focus of your life and go in a different direction.
One heartbreaking example of when this happens is when you experience loss, especially unexpected loss. The heartbreak that comes when a promised life can’t be expressed to the fullest. And what was once full of hope turns into a mountain of grief.
Today we are beginning a new message series on the book of Ruth. This is such a great book in the Bible. It is a short book, but it full of heart retching drama, grief, despair, hopefulness, seduction, and love. This short book of the Bible has a great plot, that could chart and keep audiences’ attention even today. But this book is more than just a good story. I really think that in the Book of Ruth we can find some guidance and God can speak to us through something that happened long ago.
This book, especially what we will explore today, has something to say to us about this grief and what happens when your life has to go in a different direction.
If you have a Bible with you, you can follow along with me by turning to the Book of Ruth. The Book of Ruth happens in the region of Palestine. The Israelites at one point were enslaved in Egypt, then God led them to freedom through Moses, then they came to live in the promised land in the Book of Joshua. For a period of time, there was no formal government or king, instead the people were governed by charismatic leaders known as judges. If you want to read about this time, you can do so in the Book of Judges. We are not going to look at the book of Judges today, but it’s in this same time, the time before a king that the Book of Ruth is set.
Let’s take a look, at Ruth 1:1.
During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. 2 The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.
So, we have this family that lives in Bethlehem. A man named Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons are living in Bethlehem. While they are living there, famine strikes the land. This family must be desperate. They are starving in their home, that must be fearful of dying, because they make the impossible decision to find refuge in another land. This family becomes climate refugees in hopes of just surviving another day.
The plight of refugees is a tough one. During the days of the judges, when the Book of Ruth was set, there were no international laws protecting refugees. Today we have the United Nations Convention on refugees that is supposed to protect refugees around the globe. Even with this convention the rights of refugees are often not respected. Even the United States, which used to lead the world in humanitarian resettlement of refugees, has drastically reduced the protection toward people fleeing their home country seeking refuge.
All of this is to say that this family is desperate and in a difficult position as they seek survival. Their difficult situation is about to turn worse:
3 But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. 4 They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.
5 But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.
Naomi becomes a widow. Her sons marry women from their new county, and then they die. Now we have three widows. Here is the thing about women at this time. For the most part, women were forced to rely on their male relatives to survive. It was the male relatives that provided for the family and cared for the women. Today if a woman’s husband dies, it is devastating, but such a death doesn’t have to leave the widow destitute. But this was the potential position for Naomi and her daughters-in-law Ruth and Orpah.
These deaths produce grief upon grief and the threat of economic destruction. Naomi is a refugee in a foreign land, and her entire support system, as she sees it, is completely gone. Grief stalks Naomi and she realizes that she is going to have to try to go home. She has no home left, and she is trying to survive in the midst of life crippling grief.
6 Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. 7 She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.
8 Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. 9 May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.
Then in verse 13, Naomi said:
This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”
The grief is stalking. The women are crying. Orpah listens to Naomi and returns to Moab. Naomi then tries to get Ruth to return as well.
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. 17 Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 18 When Naomi saw that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped speaking to her about it.
19 So both of them went along until they arrived at Bethlehem. When they arrived at Bethlehem, the whole town was excited on account of them, and the women of the town asked, “Can this be Naomi?”
These two women make the long trek to Bethlehem. Once Naomi had fled Bethlehem due to fear and the hope of a better future. Now she is coming back, her hopes dashed, her fears realized, and full of grief. The town hasn’t seen Naomi in years, but they recognize her, could it really be our friend our family member? They are excited about this return and reunion, and they call out, can this really be Naomi? They are trying to welcome her and provide some excitement for this homecoming.
20 She replied to them, “Don’t call me Naomi,[a] but call me Mara,[b] for the Almighty[c] has made me very bitter. 21 I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty. Why would you call me Naomi, when the Lord has testified against me, and the Almighty has deemed me guilty?”
Do you hear that? Naomi is utterly devastated. Naomi’s name means pleasant, but she insists that her heart is too broken for that name. Instead, they should call her Mara or bitterness. The town or at least the towns’ women wanted to celebrate the homecoming, but Naomi wasn’t even sort of in the celebrating mood. Those around her might be wondering why she is so downtrodden; not one could recognize her deep, deep pain and hurt.
When Naomi got married, she had dreams and hopes for her future. When Naomi gave birth to her sons, she had hopes and dreams for their future. Even when Naomi fled as a refugee with her family, she had a hope and a dream for her future. And then when her sons got married, she had hopes and dreams for the future—hopes for grandchildren and hopes for a new life. Now she sees all of her hopes dashed. Her grief has utterly taken over. Her plans for her life were completely dashed, and she felt that God was punishing her.
This is hard, this makes her angry, and she see no hope for the future. When we begin to look at the Book of Ruth, we find that grief is a part of life. Grief can interrupt your plans for your life and can begin to take over. People on the outside have different opinions about your grief. People in the mental health field even try to classify grief as a mental disorder if it lasts too long. The reality is that grief has no time table, and different people experience it in different way.
From the outside we could look at Naomi and know that she is not empty as she claims. Her daughter-in-law, Ruth, is with her and promises to remain with her to be her family. But grief is not rational. Grief can be long, and hard, and all consuming. Each of you, each of us, processes and will process grief in different ways and that is ok.
While this grief is ever present today and ever present in the life of Naomi, no matter what you or anyone else is going through, this is not the end. As Naomi walks back to her home, her grief seems like the end. Her seems as if it will never end; it is something that seems too heavy to carry. And today, that is where grief leaves us. It’s like the day before the funeral of a loved one. You’re grieving; you’re planning for grief; you’re not thinking about anything beyond what is today.
I want you to know that grief happens, and for each person, grief happens differently. And that however happens in you or to you, its ok. There are people around you that care and that want to give you the space you need to grieve and find healing. That is part of what it means to be in a community of faith. This is part of what it means to be loved by that around you.
Today we have just looked at the opening scene in the Book of Ruth. This is a scene where grief and heartbreak have prime spot, but this is just the opening scene. This is not the final word.
Naomi thinks her life is over that the only thing she has left is grief, but for those reading the story and maybe for those in the town, we can see hints that she has something more. She has Ruth who cares deeply for her. She has friends in the community who are excited to see her. In short, Naomi thinks she is alone, but she has a supportive community that covers her.
When you or someone you know is experiencing grief, it’s important that you grieve. And it’s important that people give you that space to grieve. But it is also important that the people who care for you come around you as they came around Naomi to express their care and concern and support. In their love and embrace, perhaps you can see hints that this grief is not the end that is so desperately feels like.
Over the next few weeks, we will explore more of this story from the Book of Ruth, and we will find that grief does not have the final word in Naomi’s life nor in your life. What we will find is that God is working through others to provide a new way of hope and a new life that ultimately lead to a beautiful love and to salvation. I hope that you will stick with us as we explore this inspiring biblical writing over the next few weeks.
Decatur United Methodist Church
Our hope is that these messages will be relevant in your life and encourage you in faith.