SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON/The Battleground is the Heart
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 1:00 AM
"So the two of them continued on their journey. When they came to Bethlehem, the entire town was stirred by their arrival. "Is it really Naomi?" the women asked. "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?"" (Ruth 1:19-21)
If you possess a Study Bible, it might tell you that the Naomi's name means "pleasant" or "pleasantness". By her name, all her life, she was to be reminded of a God of goodness who fills our lives with blessings and pleasant things even as he works to make us a source of pleasantness for others. But now Naomi rejects her name. She no longer can bear to hear it voiced and asks instead that her former friends and neighbors in Bethlehem now call her "Mara", or "bitterness". Something has changed.
A number of years earlier, a man named Elimelech had packed up his wife and two sons and had moved the family from Bethlehem to the land of Moab. The immediate reason for this relocation, as we are told in the opening verses of the Book, was that there occurred a famine in the land of Israel. Now get this --- Elimelech, whose name meant "my God is King" left his home in Bethlehem (which stands for "House of Bread") because of a lack of bread. Instead of trusting his King and remaining in the land to which God had guided his forefathers, trusting God to provide as he had promised, Elimelech decided to take matters in his own hands and leave the land of Promise to dwell among the pagan Moabites. And there in that land he died. And his two sons (each of whom had taken to themselves brides of Moab) also died. And now, Naomi and Ruth - all alone - have made their way back to Bethlehem. Naomi has come home, but she's a changed woman. In her words, "I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty."
Perhaps you can identify here with Naomi. Maybe it isn't too difficult for you to remember that day many years ago when you stood in the front of some church and exchanged wedding vows with a man or woman with whom you intended to spend all your remaining days. Something happened. The vows were broken. The dream died. And now you're alone and bitterness dwells where once there prospered pleasantness.
Or perhaps you're thinking back to that glorious day when that son or daughter was born unto you, the first arrow in your quiver of blessings. With great joy and hope you watched that little one grow up to maturity only to have your baby suddenly taken from you in a senseless war in some far off land you can't even pronounce or slain in some equally senseless act of violence right here at home. And now you're filled with an angry bitterness where once lived joy.
Or perchance you can recall your first day on that new job and the way you threw yourself so enthusiastically into the work of which you had long dreamed, only to be unexpectedly stepped on by a uncaring management or abused by a jealous co-worker. And now its difficult for you even to recall that bubbling enthusiasm you once had for work and all has turned to drudgery and bitterness.
Naomi blames God. He is the One we often blame too, don't you agree? After all, he is supposed to be in control, isn't he? Hasn't he promised to watch over us, guard and protect us and keep us from harm? What happened? She refers to him as "El-Shaddai" or God Almighty, the source of every blessing. And perhaps there was once a time when she truly thought of him that way. But now, she is bitter and angry with God because he has "caused me to suffer" and "has sent such tragedy". Her friends hardly can recognize her because the harshness of her years, along with (in my opinion) the inner bitterness, have altered her countenance. She has become a distortion of her former self and if not for the grace of God, she would have remained so for the rest of her bitter days.
But isn't it wonderful how God can come to us in our grief and sourness and bring refreshment? Isn't it fantastic how he can transform our self-pity into genuine love once again? Walter Kaiser, in his book, Revive Us Again, writes "There are troubles that are the works of enemies, of evil men, of the devil, of death itself, for death is an enemy; and they are intended to harass us in the work of God, to wean us from it, to embitter us against Him, to reveal to the scoffing, unbelieving world that faith is a matter of circumstances and sunshine, but that it withers in the storms, and cannot help us in times of trial; and God gives liberty for all these to come to us because He can make all these things serve an opposite purpose. He can turn all the devil's weapons against himself." Kaiser goes on to state that the real battleground is to be found in our hearts. It is there, that we can either allow our enemy to trouble and to sour us, or we can look for God to perform a mighty work of grace by raising us up above our disappointments, removing from us the bitterness within and filling us with gladness.
Which will it be for you? -- "Naomi" or "Mara"? Will you even now surrender to God your pain, anger, and bitterness, rejecting any demands for retribution and vengeance, and embrace again El-Shaddai, the Almighty God of all blessings, trusting him to shower you anew with peace and joy? Will you?
The Rev. Donald Caviness is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, MS.