1In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. 2The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. 3But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. 4These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, 5both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
6Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. 7So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. 8But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. 9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. 10They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11
But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her. 15So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” 18When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.
19So the two of them went on until they came to Bethlehem. When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them; and the women said, “Is this Naomi?” 20She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. 21I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?” 22So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Where you go, I will go
The human mind is an amazing thing. We don’t fully understand how it works, but somehow it processes, discards and stores more information per minute than we can begin to fathom. The human brain generates about 25 watts of power when we’re awake, enough to power a light bulb. It’s estimated that we think about 70,000 thoughts every day, most of which we don’t remember. If we did, where would we store such thoughts? We lament our ability to forget things, but these moments stand our precisely because of our incredible ability to remember. The human mind can think about things from different perspectives. It can consider another point of view, recognize situations and faces, and process incoming information and prod the body to react in different ways. It can produce incredible joy and paralyzing fear. It is nothing short of a miracle.
And yet one of the human mind’s most amazing characteristics is the ability to ruminate on one subject over and over again. Do you know what I’m talking about? The treadmill in your mind that ideas often hop upon, leaving you unable to think about anything else. You could not change the subject if you wanted to. You simply sit and think about one thing, over and over. It becomes an obsession. We may have 70,000 thoughts in a given day, but when we’re obsessed with something, it seems as though we only have the same one 70,000 times.
At times like this we often find ourselves taking ‘heavy walks’. We go outside to try and clear our heads, hoping that some fresh air will help us think better. We go out with friends and loved ones, hoping that we’ll be able to talk things out, to come to some clearer understanding of what is happening, hoping to get those ideas off that treadmill.
I’d imagine that the first few steps of this journey back to Bethlehem were heavy. Ruth, Naomi and Orpah set out in hopes of finding some new life, but the heartbreak that bound them together must have made it difficult for them to be excited about the future. Naomi had lost her husband, and ten years later lost both sons, and these two women were all that were left for her. The women, too, bound by obligation, had nothing left now that their husbands were gone. Widows each, finding community in each other, hoping for some light to shine in their darkness.
I wonder what their thoughts were as they trudged onward. Orpah, perhaps with her head turned round, looking back to the country she had always known, to the place she had played as a girl, where her family was. Perhaps she was trying to come up with the words, a reason, any excuse to go back. Ruth, with her head pointed at her mother-in-law, this woman of foreign birth, a strong woman, somehow able to bear all that has happened to her and still find the strength to keep going. Naomi, with her head pointed forwards, looking ahead, perhaps wondering about all those choices they had made, back in their youth, when life was ripe and waiting to be plucked. A brief sojourn in Moab, waiting out the famine, had turned into heartbreak and weeping. They had set out with so much, and now she was returning with so little.
At some point in their journey they turned, one to another, and Naomi implored them to go back. “Go back. Go back to your homes, to the places you grew up, where you may once again find peace and love and the innocence that you have lost. Go back, to a place I cannot go, where you might once again find someone to love you, someone to protect you, someone to live with. Go back.”
Tears were shed, protests were offered, but Orpah turned back, unable to go forward, unable to find the strength Naomi had, the fortitude of Ruth, looking for the life she had known, the comfort of family, the chance to start over.
There would be no turning back for Ruth. No words from Naomi could change her mind. The storms of life had ravaged the landscape she knew so well, but there were not winds that could change her mind. “Follow your sister,” Naomi pleaded, but the words must have sounded empty as they escaped Naomi’s throat, for she must have been able to see in Ruth’s eyes that no protest would work. Ruth was going to follow Naomi, and she offers up her pledge.
"Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 1:17 Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!"
Such a pledge would cease the protesting from most of us. So they returned to Bethlehem, to a home familiar and yet foreign, a small town outside of Jerusalem, where they recognized Naomi, and saw her come home without the ones they had seen leave, only this Moabite woman to accompany her. The brief sojourn, doubtless filled with many ‘we’ll be back soon’s had become a decade long absence, and now heartbreak strolled into town.
This story invites us in to many different places. Over the course of our lives we become familiar with the stories of these women. Tragedy and heartbreak, grief and loss, does not escape us. While I pray that none will know heartache the size of Naomi’s, as we are all human, we all know that life is fleeting, sometimes disappearing before our very eyes. Grief changes us all in different ways, and we often find ourselves in the shoes of Orpah, hoping for some way to go back, to start over, to escape the memories of the pain we know too well. Others follow in the footsteps of Ruth, finding the strength of a friend inspiring, and we cling to them, knowing that we cannot carry on without them, and we will follow them as far as they may lead, for without them our strength would dissolve. Others know the walk of Naomi, where the shoulders are hunched, the feet are weary, and yet somehow they simply press on, for life has not ceased. There are questions to be asked, tears to be shed, and yet now is not the time for that. While life stops for an instant, it must carry forward.
One of the many amazing parts of this story is in the words of Ruth. “your God shall be my God.” We have watched Naomi flee a famine to build a home in a foreign land. We have read about how her husband dies, her sons die, and yet somehow Ruth has seen such faith that she wants Naomi’s God to be her God. There is a lesson in here for us. Even in the most difficult times of our lives, people are reading the pages of our lives. Even when absolutely everything in life seems to be fighting against us, people are watching. Our friends, our families, strangers, are watching us, to see what kind of faith we have. Do we have a shallow faith, one that is easily discarded at the first sign of turmoil? Or is our faith deep enough so that we are free to weep, to rage against God, but ultimately to always come back to faith. Naomi lives a life of deep faith, one that persists even through this darkest period of her life, and leaves such an effect on Ruth that she wants this God to be her God.
Ultimately, we get a peak at what the future is. Despite all the tragedy we read about in chapter one, it concludes with a hint. “They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.” In all of the tragedy that has been sewn into their lives, God has something big in store. God is not going to give up on Ruth and Naomi, to allow their lives and their deep faith not to bring forth fruit. God is still looking towards spring, for we worship a God of the new creation, a God who is always bringing forth new life out of the darkest winter. May we never forget this, even in the darkest nights of our lives, that the God we worship, the God we cry out to, the God who knows our strongest tears, is the same God who creates anew each day.
Let us pray.