Bitterness to Sweetness

A final sermon in our series on Ruth.

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We began this sermon series on the Book of Ruth just a few weeks ago, and did so by looking at the person of Naomi. This morning we also end with Naomi. Specifically, we are going to pay attention to two scenes in which Naomi takes centre stage – two scenes that serve as bookends in the narrative, and two scenes which actually mirror each other. 

The first scene deals with the moment of Naomi’s return to Judah. We read in chapter one: “When Naomi and Ruth came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?’ Naomi said to the women who had gathered around, “Call me no longer Naomi (which means sweetness), but call me Mara (which means bitterness) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”

In that opening scene, we find Naomi surrounded by the women of Bethlehem, and we hear her announce to them her bitterness, her emptiness, her grief.

She has lost her husband.

She has lost her social security.

She has lost her joy.

The women of Bethlehem gather around her, and to them Naomi announces her grief.

But then there is the second scene, which mirrors the first. The second scene is found at the end of the narrative and was in our reading this morning from chapter 4.

“So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made Ruth conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women of Bethlehem said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel. The child shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age…’ The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son has been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed.”

Two scenes, acting as bookends for the story – two scenes that mirror each other.

In the first Naomi is surrounded by the women of Bethlehem, announces her grief, and speaks of the bitterness God has brought into her life.

In the second Naomi is again surrounded by the women of Bethlehem, but this time the storm clouds have been chased away. The women announce God’s blessing on her. The narrative of Ruth, we have said throughout this series, leads from emptiness to fullness; from bitterness to sweetness. And these two scenes make plain that movement of the story. Naomi begins with bitterness. She ends in sweetness.

But how we get from one scene to the other? What is it that makes possible this transition from the bitterness to the blessing for Naomi? In answering these questions this morning we’re going to focus on two other moments in the narrative, but this time moments when God takes centre stage. In some ways God remains in the background to the narrative of Ruth, yet in two instances we are reminded of God’s direct involvement in the story.

The first instance of God’s action comes way back at the beginning of the story in chapter 1: “Then Naomi started to return to her homeland of Judah from Moab, for she had heard that the Lord had considered his people and given them food.” There has been a famine in the land of Judah, a famine that has driven Naomi’s family into the land of Moab. But while she is still in Moab, Naomi hears that God has provided a harvest. Without this harvest there would be no turnaround in Naomi’s life. Without God bringing an end to the famine, there would be no source of nourishment or of long term security for Naomi. The closing scene of blessing upon Naomi would be impossible if God did not provide a harvest.

The second important reference to God’s direct involvement is found at the end of the story, where we read: “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive and she bore a son.” In that ancient, patriarchal culture, as we have pointed out, Naomi’s security can only be attained through a male member of the family. And as we said last week, the child born to Ruth and Boaz becomes the grandson to Naomi – and heir of Elimelech’s land.

This child becomes a source of security for her in the future

This child is also a source of joy and delight for Naomi in the present moment.

And the text of Ruth reminds us that God is the giver of this child.

So in the story we have these two very clear references to God’s direct intervention. Without these direct interventions, the narrative turn from bitterness to sweetness, from emptiness to fullness would be impossible for Naomi. We can say that God provides two miracles for Naomi – that’s the language we often use when speaking of God’s involvement in our world, isn’t it – we speak of the miraculous.

God provides the gift of harvest after years of famine – God provides a miracle of grain.

And God provides the gift of a child, who is the answer to Naomi’s emptiness and insecurity – the miracle of a child.

What’s particularly interesting about each of these acts of God is that they come in areas of life where ancient peoples felt particularly vulnerable.

When it came to the cycles of the harvest, and the fertility of the land, the people of Judah had a profound sense of their dependence on God. The end of this particular famine is a miracle – a gift of God.

When it came to the conception of children, there is also a profound sense of their dependence on God – the birth of Ruth’s child is a miracle – the child is a gift of God.

As one biblical commentator puts it, in the story of Ruth God acts to reverse conditions over which ancient peoples felt little control. They felt little control over the weather and harvest. They felt little control over the conception of children.

Already in this sermon series we have raised the question of God’s involvement in our lives. Already we have been invited to consider how God might be at work around us – providing us opportunities for service – providing us opportunities to extend loving kindness to those God puts alongside the path of our lives.

This morning we extend that discussion in a slightly. We do so by considering a very western preoccupation – our preoccupation with control over our lives. The two instances where God intervenes directly in the story of Ruth are in areas where the people of Judah feel particularly vulnerable – God intervenes in areas where they have a profound sense they are not in control of their lives: Over the harvest and over the conception of children.

But in western culture today, we rarely think of anything as being out of our control.

Above all, through technological means we have taken control of those aspects of our existence that often confounded the ancients.

We can irrigate and fertilize the land, and can manipulate seeds in ways that are unimaginable for the ancients.

We have medical treatments that can often overcome infertility problems that just a decade or two ago would have been insoluble.

In general, in western culture, we live today with a profound sense that things in our lives are manageable – that things are under control. The idea that there might be a famine seems to us inconceivable or quaint. The idea that a woman couldn’t have a child is increasingly strange. But even beyond those two areas, we live day by day with a general sense that things are within our control.

There is food on the table,

an education system for our children and grandchildren,

a reliable pension or pay cheque,

employment benefits when we lose work,

medicines for when we are sick,

vaccines against diseases that once maimed or killed.

We live in the west with a profound sense that we have things under control. And that sense of control, and a desire for stability, defines our culture. But when we stop to think about it for just a few minutes, we quickly realize that this idea that we have life in hand, that everything is manageable, is nothing more than an illusion. It can all come crashing down so quickly – in just seconds we can be left utterly shaken, with the sense that in fact the most important things are out of our control.

Even with fertility treatments, sometimes the conception of a child is impossible.

Depression might lay us low – robbing us of any sense of stability.

The loss of a child or loved one might cripple us emotionally.

An accident might literally cripple us.

These kinds of events remind us that the control we think we have, is essentially an illusion. In a profound sense our lives aren’t that far removed from the ancients.

What we should especially see, this morning, is that our sense of control over our own lives, and our feeling that things are essentially manageable, represents a fundamentally atheistic mindset. We may not be avowed atheists – indeed, many in western culture are not avowed atheists. But the truth is that when we live from day to day with a sense that everything is manageable and under control – then we are living within an essentially atheistic framework.

We become blind to the involvement of the living God in our daily existence…

We become forgetful of God’s provision for us from day to day…

We become dismissive of the miraculous in our everyday.

The ancient people of Judah did not have the luxury of thinking that everything was under their control – and the idea that God helped them and provided for them came naturally to them.

The idea that God is active in our daily lives does not come so easily to us. Indeed, why would we need God to be active in our lives when everything is so manageable, when we have everything very much in hand? But as we’ve said, in our better, more lucid moments we recognize this stability and control for the illusion it is. Often we arrive at these moments of lucidity, only when we are flat on our back, when we are forced to see how fragile everything really is. But it doesn’t have to be such dramatic events to remind that life is vulnerable – a little honest reflection can just as easily bring us to that conclusion.

It seems to me that these reflections represent an opportunity for us. You see,

when we discover that everything is not under our control,

when we discover that we don’t have everything in hand,

when we discover that we really don’t know how life is unfolding or will unfold,

when we discover that much more is up in the air than we could imagine,

then there is the possibility

that we might come back to our everyday lives with a new curiosity;

that we might come back to our lives with a new openness to the miraculous;

that we might come back to our lives with a renewed sense of God’s involvement there.

In his most recent piece of non-fiction the Canadian writer David Adams Richards explores this question. The book is entitled God Is – and in it he explores his convictions about God, and offers his refusal of the atheism of our age.

He points to the fact that we often live as if our comfort and security are assured, as if we know how things are unfolding and will unfold. But he reminds us that it is a fallacy to think this way. There is nothing certain around us.

But David Adams Richards wants to say that when we discover everything is much more vulnerable than we realized, this doesn’t simply reduce us to fear and anxiety. If life from moment to moment is more vulnerable than we have realized, and if we can’t be assured that everything will unfold as we expect, then we might become open to the possibility that there are miracles going on all around us – that God is alive – that God is at work in our world and in our lives.

David Adams Richards offers a few narrative snippits pointing to the miraculous, the involvement of God, in our everyday. He writes:

“Friends of ours adopted a child. We became very close both to them and to the boy. The couple pondered over a name and finally decided to call him Luke, which seemed a slightly strange decision to some of their friends. A month or so later they received a letter from the birth mother, who was living in Australia. She asked them to lover her child – which they did, of course, because he was now their own. She asked them to tell him something about Australia, which they would do. She asked them – and they had no prior knowledge of this – to name him Luke.”

A coincidence? A freak alignment of the stars? Or a miracle of God by which the loving intention of a mother is affirmed even before any human has had a chance to act upon it.

God was at work in the lives of Ruth and Boaz and Naomi – miraculously at work in their every day.

God brought a miraculous end to the famine that afflicted Judah.

By his providential care, God brought Ruth and Boaz together in a field of Bethlehem.

God gave the gift of a child, next of kin to Naomi, who was for her security and joy. 

At the beginning of the story, Naomi comes back to Bethlehem bitter and empty, but because of God’s intervention in her everyday, we find her at the end of the story blessed by the women of Bethlehem.

Perhaps some of us will look back on this ancient story and think that they were simply naïve. We might scoff: They could believe in such simplistic things as a God who controls the harvest or who gives the gift of children. They could believe God was active in the events of their everyday lives.

But if they were able to do so, perhaps Ruth and Boaz and Naomi would look at our modern lives, would look at our sense of the manageability of life, would look at our feeling of control – and perhaps they would remind us that we’ve simply become blind to the miracles that surround us.

This morning we receive an invitation to see that God acted to bring Naomi from emptiness to fullness. And doing so we are invited to consider our own lives with a new curiosity.

The God who brings all things all things to fulfillment in Jesus Christ is miraculously at work in your everyday. Can you see it?

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