“Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara!”
Today’s text comes from the book of Ruth and it is not from the lectionary reading for today. Somehow God gives us texts these Sundays, that fit the overarching theme of revival that has been on my heart for long for our people. I will focus today’s text on Naomi coming back to God from her waywardness. I am sure all of you are familiar with the story of Ruth and Boaz, the sweetest love story we can find in our Bible, which portrays God’s love toward gentiles, his plan of salvation for gentile people like you and me.
Let us see how the first chapter of Ruth is connected to wayward people coming back to God.
Verse 1, “In the days of when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.” (NIV)
Their names were Elimelech, Naomi, and two sons were Mahlon and Kilion.
This verse tells a lot, but a few of them we are going to focus on from the perspective of sin and its consequences. 1) Remember that the land of Canaan, the land of flowing milk and honey, that Israelites were inherited was of hills and valleys? If they obey God’s command, God will provide water and food by giving them early and late rains in the land, if they do not, then they will starve and thirst. Verse 1 says that there was a famine in the land they were living, the land of their inheritance, then, what does that mean? They disobeyed God, they did not follow God’s commandments. So there was a famine! 2) Instead of correcting themselves, being right with God, this family decided to leave the fold of God. Bethlehem, –Beth (house), lechem (place of bread)–, is a “house of bread” which signifies bread of heaven, the bread of life. Remember Jesus was born in Bethlehem as the bread of life? These people, Elimelech, Naomi, and Mahlon and Kilion left the “house of bread” and went to live in Moab. If we take into consideration that “In ancient times it was believed that a deity had power only in the geographical region occupied by his worshipers”, in other words, a foreign country meant a foreign religion, it means they left Bethlehem, the house of bread, their Jehovah God and went to Moab, to the Moabite god of Chemosh. 3) Their thought, instead of correcting/repenting themselves of their sins, of moving away from God, avoiding God’s wrath, -the famine-, to the protection of foreign god whom they believed that will solve their problems was a disastrous decision. Instead of being better off, they were getting deeper and deeper into the mire of tragedy, living away from God. They were “sick and wasted away”. Their children, Mahlon and Kilion, whose name mean Mahlon: “sickly or sickness”, and Kilion: “wasted away or consumption”. Children are what we beget. Figuratively, their living in sin, living away from God, –the source of life and strength–, they reaped the consequence of their choice of deserting God; they were ended up in being sickly and wasted away. Elimelech, Mahlon and Kilion, they all died in the land of Moab.
What do all these mean for us?
Supposedly strong Christians can also fall from God’s grace. There is no such thing as “once saved is always saved”. Those of us, who believe that we are born again Christians who made Christ as our king, the Lord our master, can also fall from God’s grace, sin and be lost forever. Elimelech means “God is King” and Naomi means “pleasantness or sweetness”. Elimelech was a strong believer of Jehovah God, making God as his King, and Naomi found “pleasantness and sweetness” in her life because of God’s blessings. But what had happened? Elimelech when he sinned, instead of turning himself back to God, he avoided God, moved away from God and his life was wasted away in the land of Moab, living in sin without returning to God. Naomi whose life was sweet and pleasant became “bitter”, Mara. In verse 20, she said, “Don’t call me Naomi anymore but call me Mara.” As a result of her sin, deserting God, her life became “bitter” from being “sweet”.
We have to note that Elimelech wasted away in the land of Moab or Naomi became Mara, was not God’s doing. It was their own doing. Life away from God comes to nothing, wasting away. Life away from God becomes bitter, though at first, it seemed promising what we want in life. Both Elimelech and Naomi thought they were escaping from famine for a while; they thought it was a reasonable thing to do since the land of Moab appeared to have more food, but they did not realize that their chosen path to avoid famine will lead them to destroy their own lives in God. The world out there seems to promise our comfort, fun, and pleasures in life. But do we know that choosing to move away from God to live a life of this world, since it seems more enticing and reasonable thing to do, will eventually lead us to eternal damnation if we do not return to God? We are making choices every day and some choices we make will affect our relationship with God. Do we know what we are doing, do we know what our choices will lead us to? Let’s not forget that our life on this earth will not last long. In the span of eternity, our life on earth cannot even have a trace as much as a dot in the line. Let us not live as if this life on earth is all we have to live. We have life eternal, and it is our choice where would we spend our life in eternity, –life with God eternally or life without God, life in eternal damnation or life in eternal blessing with God!
Verse 6, Naomi whose life had turned to bitterness heard that the Lord had blessed his people, “providing food for them.” The Lord had forgiven them of their sins and became their God again and blessing them, Naomi heard. She decided to return to the God of Israelites, her own God in whom she used to find her life as “sweetness or pleasantness”. She remembered her God and decided to return. Though it said in a sentence that she decided to return, it might not have been easy for her to return to her own land, to her own God. It meant she had to admit that she was wrong to move away from God to Moab. It meant she had to face her reality, how empty and bankrupted her condition was. It was a shameful thing to come back empty handed lost everything she had. She had to admit that she was a failure, not to mention the uncertainty she must have felt whether her townspeople would welcome her back or treat her as a traitor. Simply said, it took courage for her to return, a great courage, indeed!
We have to come back to God in order for us to be God’s people being under the wings of almighty God. Even if it means shame and embarrassment. Even if it means that we have to admit we were wrong, our chosen path was a failure, we have to come back to God to be blessed and renewed our relationship with God. It is not easy to face our reality of bankrupted condition, facing our empty hands which were once full. It takes courage for us to return to God; nevertheless, we have to return to God. Our soul is at stake!!!
Lastly, when Naomi decided to return, her two daughters in law, Moabites, also decided to come along with her. Orpah and Ruth. Naomi had two converts, in other words. The reason I say that they were converts because they decided to come to Bethlehem, the house of bread, leaving behind their own people, land and their own god, Chemosh. Naomi decided to come back to Bethlehem because it was her own home, whereas these two women, Orpha and Ruth, decided to come to Bethlehem leaving everything behind, –their own people, land and their own gods—, … they were leaving comfort and security they had known for all their lives. Orpha and Ruth were pre-figures of gentile people who will come to God leaving everything behind like Abraham who had left 1) his relatives; (2) leave his homeland; (security and comfort), and, (3) trust God to bless him following God’s command to leave.
From Orpah and Ruth, we see two kinds of Christians who have decided to follow God.
Firstly, there are Christians like Orpah, who had decided to follow God, but who could not leave behind the comfort and security of the world. Her name, Orpah, means “stiff-necked”. She turned back from following her mother-in-law to Bethlehem, the house of bread, to her family and relatives, land and her gods. I mentioned earlier that separation from one’s land meant separation from one’s god(s). She could not resist “rest and security” she believed would come from under the protection of her gods. She had been stubborn and stiff-necked in staying her old ways of life that did not have anything to do with Jehovah God.
There are people who might have interest in God’s kingdom initially, but cannot leave behind things of the world, –the false gods that are seemingly promising “security and comfort” of life on this earth. Those people who cannot resist the temptation of going back to one’s old ways of life cannot continuously walk toward “Bethlehem”, the house of bread.
Secondly, there are Christians like Ruth whose determination to go to Bethlehem is so strong that only death can stop their walk toward God. Ruth declared that “I will go with you to Bethlehem until death separates you and me”. She left everything behind: her native homeland, her own people, even her own gods.
Another point we have to note about Ruth is that she cared for her mother in law whose life was desolate not having any prospect of security and comfort in her old life having no children. Ruth in insisting that she will accompany Naomi throughout her life means Ruth is fully willing to take Naomi’s potential suffering upon herself, not marrying anyone, providing relief for a loved one by experiencing that fate instead. As a gentile, as a widow, she did not have much prospect of remarrying anyone in Bethlehem, yet she was willing to accompany her mother in law to take care of her in her old age. After Naomi dies, she was to be all alone in a strange land, yet, she had a caring heart for her mother in law. Sounds familiar? This emulation of the Savior is not an accidental message of the story…. Ruth whose name means “friend or companion” is a representative of Christ bride marrying Boaz, a prefigure of Christ, the family redeemer. If we are brides of Christ, we have to have a heart for those whose lives are desolate, not having any prospect of security and happiness of God. We have to have a heart for lost souls who do not have the future prospect of living in God’s kingdom. ‘I am your friend, a companion for you to reach God, the bread of house, Bethlehem….. Here hold my hand, I will accompany you until death will separate us’ Are we having such heart?