March 9, 2014 - AM - Pastor Stan Lightfoot
Download Sermon MP3
Theme: Returning to God
* Distance & Time
If Naomi's family had settled in the neighborhood of Kir Hareseth in Moab - a logical possibility - they were about 75 miles from Bethlehem on the other side of the Dead Sea. A 75 mile journey for a couple of women, one of whom was getting older, might well have taken between 2 and 3 weeks (assuming 5 miles a day or less). You might think that's a pretty slow pace, but if you had to walk it only in daylight hours at 60 years of age in long flowing robes and sandals in the heat of the Moabite and Judean desert over terrain that was, at times, rugged, you might have a different opinion. It was no easy journey.
* Driven to Get Home
Naomi's face was set on Bethlehem. She was going home. After 10 years away, it was time to go home, and I'm sure she was anxious to get there. It would have been tough to go home after all those years - to face all of her friends and family and admit that things hadn't gone as planned. That said, it was home. It was the place where people knew her and loved her. It was the place of her birth and would be the place of her death. She was driven to get home. The text doesn't say that, but it doesn't have to explicitly. From v. 6 on, Naomi is focused on Bethlehem.
This is the last installment of our mini-series called, "The Long Way Home". It is a focus on the arrival of the women in Bethlehem and how that played out.
I. NAOMI'S ARRIVAL (1:19)
The beginning of v. 19 says, "Now the two of them went until they came to Bethlehem." There were no detours, no delays - just a steady walk home.
* Her Reception
Do you suppose Naomi was wondering what her reception would be like when she got there? Would anyone even notice as she walked into town? After all, she'd been gone at least 10 years. She left as a younger woman with a family and she was coming back alone - or, to be accurate, with someone other than her family and having aged 10 years and then some because of all the heartache. Would they hold it against her that she had abandoned Bethlehem for Moab? Would she be an outcast? Would they resent her for bringing a foreigner back with her?
She needn't have worried. As she walked into town, "all the city was excited because of them, and the women said, 'Is this Naomi?'" People not only noticed she was back, they were "excited" to see her. They were happy to have her back in the fold. They welcomed her with open arms!
Isn't it interesting that the when we wander away, we are normally the ones who have the hardest time coming back. We believe that everyone else will judge us and reject us. We put the wall up and make it difficult for anyone to get close. We desperately want people to love us and accept us, but we make it so very hard for them to do so, and often blame them for our own feelings. If you've wandered from God, put all of that aside and come home. No one will be more excited to see you than your family and friends.
II. NAOMI'S PAIN (1:20-21)
Naomi was home, but she brought back the heartache and sorrow of her trials in Moab with her. Her pain was real and there was no way to hide it.
A. Her Request
When she heard the question, "Is this Naomi?", she responded with a request. "Do not call me Naomi ('pleasant'); call me Mara ('bitter')." Once again, names meant a lot more to people in that society than they do to us. I know men who have wonderful, godly names like David, Michael, Joseph, Daniel, Steven and Paul, but their lives are anything but godly. They don't live up to their given names in any way and don't care to. Well, a person's name in OT Israel was a description of that person. Naomi had likely been a pleasant woman before she left for Moab. But now - after 10 years of death and heartache, she didn't feel like a very pleasant lady anymore. In fact, as her choice for a new name indicates, she was embittered by how things had turned out. She was hurt and probably angry. Her countenance probably showed it, as well.
In any event, her request showed that she no longer considered herself a pleasant woman. She was bitter and wanted people to know it.
What is bitterness? It's not the same as sorrow. Sorrow is what we feel when something bad happens - like the death of a loved one. Sorrow is normal. Paul said, "We sorrow not as others who have no hope." He didn't say, "We sorrow not at all." Sorrow is the heart yearning for something it once had and can no longer hold. Bitterness occurs when we don't turn to God for comfort in our sorrow - when we begin to blame Him or others for our sorrow. Bitterness is sorrow that has fermented - sorrow that has been allowed to grab our minds and poison our thoughts. We can't avoid sorrow in a circumstance like Naomi's, but we can avoid bitterness…we need to avoid bitterness because it will eat away at your joy and ruin your life.
B. Her Reckoning
Why did Naomi feel this way? She went on to say, "…for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home empty again. Why do you call me Naomi, since the LORD has testified against me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?"
I see two things here that demand our attention. First, Naomi was focused on what was bad. Again, that is often how we see things in a situation like this. To be sure, there were significant sorrowful issues in her life - the loss of both husband and sons, the loss of family lands, etc. However, when things like that happen, sometimes we can't see the good things God is doing because of the bad things we have experienced. Think of it: Naomi was home. She was surrounded by family and friends. She was no longer a stranger in a foreign land. That was good. She also had a gem of a daughter-in-law by her side. She said, "…the LORD has brought me home empty again" except, that wasn't true. She had Ruth with her - a young woman about whom it would be said, "your daughter-in-law, who loves you…is better to you than seven sons…" (4:15). She may not have realized it yet, but she came home with a devoted, loving, diligent daughter-in-law who was a woman of integrity and honor - who would care for her the rest of her life. She had been blessed of God, but she couldn't see it for the tears. Second, from her perspective, it was God's doing. It might be a little strong to say she was blaming God, but pretty close. This isn't just a statement of God's sovereignty (although it is that); it is also a statement that God is responsible for her situation. Notice v. 21: "I went out full" (not, "the LORD took me out full"), and the LORD has brought me home again empty" (not, "I am limping home again empty because we made some bad choices"). From Naomi's perspective, God was responsible for her tough circumstances. That's not a good situation to be in. As we've said before, her sorrow was coloring her reason, and she wasn't thinking as clearly as she might have under more pleasant circumstances. Her comments demonstrate the bitterness she admitted to in v. 20.
We need to be very careful when we are under the gun that we don't lose sight of reality. God is good. He is always good, even when our circumstances are not, and even when we can't see it.
III. NAOMI'S TIMING (1:22)
The text doesn't tell us whether this was planned by Naomi or not, but her timing as she arrived home could not have been better. Verse 22 says, "Now they came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest."
* God's Providence
In the providence of God, they arrived at a very good time. Barley was the first grain to ripen. It marked the beginning of the harvest season. Barley would be followed by other grains and there would be food in abundance. It was a great time to arrive back.
In addition, they were coming back to a generous people by God's command. Israel didn't have welfare. They had workfare. [It would be wise for the United States to take note!] The rich landowners had a responsibility when it came time for the harvest. It's laid out for us in Leviticus 19:9-10 [Read]. That was repeated in Lev. 23:22 and expanded in Deuteronomy 24:19. Naomi and Ruth would benefit from the legal requirement placed upon landowner's to leave some of the harvest in the field for the stranger, the fatherless and the widow" (Deut. 24:19). It was not only something the landowners respected, but as you watch what occurred in the rest of this story, they expected it and even treated the gleaners with kindness and grace. I don't know what the laws were like in Moab, but given the fact that their society practiced child sacrifice, I suspect the status of widows - and anyone else who was in need - was not as good there as it was in Israel. Once again, wherever God goes, the situation of the people improves. That has been the case over and over again down through history.
So, Naomi was home, and had Ruth by her side. The first, sorrow-filled chapter of the story is over. There was enough heartache in chapter 1 to last anyone a lifetime. If the story were to end here, it would be sad indeed…but it doesn't. From here on, God's love and care become more and more evident. His grace begins to shine in ways neither Naomi nor Ruth could have imagined.
As the chapter ends, Naomi is heartbroken and unable to see the good hand of her God upon her. She had the short view of life - the view that sees what's wrong, but can't see that God is good and that "all thing work together for good to those that love God" (Rom. 8:28). God revealed the long view as chapters 2-4 unfold - the view that shows the goodness and faithfulness of God. In spite of our sin and failings, God is faithful to His children. He had a plan, and though Naomi couldn't see it, He was working it out in the person of Ruth and through the obedience of Boaz. We need to consciously and purposefully take the long view when things are hard. We need to look past immediate circumstances and open out eyes to what God might be doing down the road. We need to be open to his plan and to rest in His love.
Notice also that sometimes the answer to our problems is right under our noses. Naomi arrived back in Bethlehem and probably saw Ruth as something of a liability - a daughter-in-law who would simply be another mouth to feed - no small task for an aging widow. But instead of being a problem, or at best a person who would be no help, Ruth turned out to be God's answer. Naomi's statement that she had returned empty could not have been more wrong, but she couldn't see it. The mist in her eyes prevented her from seeing the provision of God. What has God given you that you can't see? How has God blessed you? Maybe you need to take a step back and take another look. God often answers our prayers in ways we would never have imagined. He likes to do things better than we could have. What blessing are you missing?
Third, God loves us. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. That doesn't mean there won't be trial or sorrow. It does mean He will be there every step of the way, no matter how dark the night may be. In His providence he brought Naomi home at the perfect time. God had a plan - a plan that would meet her short-term and her long-term needs. He had a plan that would also bless Ruth for her decision to follow naomi and Jehovah. His love was not asleep. It was alive and well. Are you aware of God's love? Are you conscious of the fact that He cares for you? He does. He has a plan for your life, too, and if you will open your eyes to that fact, he will reveal His love to you.