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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Baldivis
 Baldivis, Western Australia
Title:Being emptied shouldn't make one a Mara!
Text:Ruth 1:20,21 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Liturgy from 1984 Book of Praise

Psalm 9:1,5,6

Hymn 10:1,9,10

Psalm 30:1,2,3

Psalm 30:7

Hymn 48:3,4

Read:  Exodus 15:22-27; Hebrews 12:1-17; Ruth 1

Text:  Ruth 1:20,21

Note:  Psalm 30 in the 2010 edition only has 5 stanzas!  I suggest you sing verse 5 instead of verse 7.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” the question is asked by Juliet,

“What’s in a name?  A rose by any other name would be just as sweet.”

What’s in a name?  The problem for Romeo and Juliet was that Romeo was a Montague and Juliet a Capulet, and the blood feud between those two family names forbade her from loving him.  And so Juliet was frustrated that a thing so small as a name could get between her and her true love.  Who cared what Romeo’s last name was, what did it matter that he came from “the wrong family”, for he was still the most wonderful man around, the love of her dreams.  But in the end, Juliet’s Romeo did have the wrong name and so a life to be lived happily ever after was not to be for these so-called “star-crossed lovers”.  

What’s in a name?  Actually, quite a bit, for with a name comes everything that is attached to it, with a name comes perceptions, and the name we ascribe to something or someone can alter our understanding of it.  Just look at the issues of today – abortion, same-sex marriage and climate change – and you will learn just how important a name is, how carefully people choose to call something one thing and not the other.

What’s in a name?  Would a rose by any other name be just as sweet?  Perhaps a rose would be just as sweet, but give it another name, and you would probably be convinced that it is a whole new flower with a whole new smell.  A name really is much more than just a label and so when it comes to choosing one, choose carefully!

In the Bible times the meanings associated with names was taken very seriously, and in a previous sermon on the book of Ruth, we have already reflected on the name Elimelech (My God is King), and the irony of there being a famine a town being called Bethlehem (House of Bread).  And now at the end of the first chapter of Ruth we hear Naomi reflecting that her own name (Pleasant) was no longer appropriate and so she wanted them to call her by a new name, Mara, which means Bitter.  “For”, she said, “the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”

“Call me Mara, for the Almighty has marred me.  What I have gone through, what the Almighty has done to me, has changed who I am from being Pleasant to Bitter.”

Naomi has changed.  She is not the woman she was ten or fifteen years earlier.  She’s changed.  She does not like what she has become but she does not deny it.  “Call me Mara.  Call me Mrs. Bitter.”

But what about you?  What is your name?  What would be the most appropriate word to describe you right now?  What have you experienced in your life and, more importantly, what is your reaction to those experiences?  What sort of a person have they left you to be?

As we go through life we soon learn that not all is pleasant but we also experience much that is bitter.  It may be sickness or poverty, the loss of a job or the collapse of a business.  It may be famine and it may be the death of those who were most dear to us.  Or our bitter experiences may be the result of a failed marriage, the inability to have children, family conflict, a work dispute or being the victim of abuse or some other crime.  And such experiences can easily leave you bitter because they tend to play on your mind and it so quickly happens that you can’t seem to look past them.  These experiences can colour your perception of everything and even of life itself.  When things don’t turn out the way we’d hoped, we can feel cheated of the joy and pleasantness that otherwise could have been. 

But being emptied should not make one a Mara!  When adversity strikes, do not become self-absorbed and bitter, but rather look to the Almighty, trusting that even when you are emptied, He is preparing you to experience the fullness of His blessing.  And so I preach to you the word of the Lord under the following heading:

Being emptied shouldn’t make one a Mara!

1.    Who’s to blame?

2.    What’s your name?

1. Who’s to blame?

It must have been an emotional roller-coaster for Naomi as she made that trek back to Bethlehem.  When she’d left all those years ago, it was as though she was a different woman in a different life.  She’d had her husband Elimelech then, and also her two sons, Mahlon and Chilion.  Thinking there was no immediate future for them in Bethlehem, they had left the House of Bread for Moab in the hope of better days ahead.  Oh there would have been some sad good-byes – and more likely than not some friends or family members warning them against such a move at such a time.  But Elimelech and Naomi had been relatively young and full of enthusiasm for a new start in a new place.  But things had not turned out the way they had hoped, and now Naomi was coming back alone, a hollow shell of her former self.  And the closer she got to Bethlehem, the more the memories would have come flooding back.  The old house where she had grown up in as a girl.  The farm in the fields of Ephrathah that used to belong to her and Elimelech.  The streets of Bethlehem where she had often stopped to talk, to smile, to laugh with the women-folk.  The town well from which she used to draw water.  And then as she entered Bethlehem, Naomi no doubt began to recognize some of the people.  The men folk, of course, were almost all out in the fields harvesting the barley.  But there was Mrs. So-and-so, bustling along as usual.  And there was Mary, that sweet young girl who was a couple of years younger than Mahlon.  (Who knows?  If things had been different, Mary might have been Mahlon’s wife!  But look: she’s carrying a child now and has two others in tow.)  And there is Mrs. Dinah, Naomi’s childhood friend.  She’s hardly changed in the past fifteen years – apart from the three grandchildren she seems to be looking after.

But Naomi can not hide in her own village.  It does not take long before people notice Naomi and Ruth walking towards them.  And the women would have been asking one another:  “I wonder who they could be?  What are they doing here – two strange women all on their own?  Where did they come from and where are they going?  That older woman . . . she looks familiar.  You know, the way she walks, the shape of her face.  It seems like I know her from somewhere . . .  Do you think she might be . . . no she can’t be . . . no wait a minute, maybe she is . . . isn’t that Naomi?

“Naomi?  No, it can’t be!”

“Yes it is, I think it is!”

“But if that is Naomi, where is Elimelech?  Where is Mahlon and that other boy, Chilion?  And who is the girl she’s got with her?”

But it was Naomi.  And then all the city became excited and the word quickly spread.  “Did you hear the news?  Naomi – she’s back!  Alone!  Oh, and she’s got a Moabite girl who’s come back with her.  Isn’t that something?  Who would have thought?  Naomi, she’s come back!”

But then Naomi turns to the women who seem so excited, even delighted to see her.  And she says them,

“Has Naomi come back?  Yes, it is me, but I am not the same woman I was when I left you all those years ago.  Things did not go well for me and I’ve lost all that I ever had.  Please don’t call me Naomi: it sounds so cruel to call me that.  Because there is nothing pleasant about me or what has happened to me.  Call me Mara, call me Mrs. Bitter.  Because that’s who I am now, that’s what I have become.  I went away full, but the LORD has bought be back again empty.  He has testified against me and the Lord has punished me for who I am and what I’ve done.  The Almighty has afflicted me, He has dealt very bitterly with me.  Don’t call me Naomi:  call me Mara.”

Naomi is bitter.  All that she had, all that she lived for, was gone.  And she knows who to blame:  the troubles she had came from El Shaddai, the LORD Almighty.  The LORD had testified against her and it was He who had punished her.

Naomi makes it abundantly clear that the trouble she experienced came from God.  And in one sense she was absolutely right to say that all she had experienced had come to her from God.  Naomi called Him the Almighty and so He is!  What had happened to her was not some cruel twist of fate.  The adversity that she experienced in her life of trouble had indeed been sent to her by the LORD, the God of the covenant.  God is sovereign, He is in control and so everything that Naomi experienced came to her not by chance but by His hand.

But see how Naomi describes what the Almighty had done to her:

“The Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”  (Ruth 1:20)

“The LORD has testified against me.”  (Ruth 1:21)

“The Almighty has afflicted me.”  (Ruth 1:21)

And as she said in verse 13 (NKJV),

“The hand of the LORD has gone out against me.”

Naomi then saw this as punishment, as evidence of God’s divine wrath, His anger and His rejection.  Since the LORD had testified against her, He had made His judgment.  “God is angry with me,” she said, “and that is why He has cursed me.  And that is what made me bitter.”

But was Naomi seeing this right?  Was she interpreting things right and was she right to blame God for her troubles?  Was is right for her to call herself “Mrs Bitter”?

Some Bible commentators suggest that actually Naomi was right, that she had interpreted things correctly and it was right for her to call herself bitter.  Naomi is not only being honest about her feelings, they say, but she is acknowledging the hand of the Lord.  It was then not the root of bitterness nor an angry charge against God that was behind Naomi’s outburst but rather an acceptance of the bitter consequences of her sinful actions.  To call herself Mara, then, was both good and appropriate.

Personally I am not convinced of this, however and I do not think that calling herself “Bitter” was the right response to the chastisement she had received from the hand of the LORD, nor does she appear to acknowledge her sin.  When Naomi cries out in bitterness it sound more as though she voices a self-centred cry of “woe is me!”  The women of Bethlehem were delighted to see Naomi back, but Naomi can not see past the pain and the loss that she’d experienced.  For Naomi, it was all about herself and her own pain and her own bitterness.  “I went out full, and the LORD has brought me home again empty.  The LORD is angry with me and He’s got it in for me.”  Naomi’s words do not come across as a humble acceptance of what she received from the hand of the Lord.  Nor does Naomi either acknowledge or confess the sin of her and Elimelech in leaving Bethlehem for Moab in the first place.  And in her bitter cry, Naomi fails to even acknowledge the presence of her daughter-in-law Ruth.  It is as though Ruth, whose words of loving commitment had been declared just a short time before, was not even there. 

Naomi had been chastened by the LORD and chastening, Hebrews 12:11 teaches us, is designed to yield the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.  But Naomi had not yet learned this lesson.  Naomi was so overwhelmed, so caught up in what she had lost, that she could not see the grace and the mercy of God, nor the steadfastness of His covenant love toward her.  She did not see His love in bringing her back, His grace in giving her Ruth, nor His mercy in providing food.

It was good that Naomi recognised the LORD as the Almighty.  It was right that she saw all things as coming from His hand.  For He is sovereign, He is the great and mighty King.  But when the hand of the LORD was upon her, it would have been more appropriate for her not to call herself Mara but to confess what it really means to know the LORD as the Almighty.  It would have been appropriate for Naomi to have remembered how the LORD had revealed Himself as the Almighty to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.  It would have been appropriate for her to remember that the Almighty works all things together for His purposes and for the good of the people of His covenant.  It would then have been appropriate for her to have looked back to how the Almighty had brought His people Israel out of bondage in Egypt with an outstretched hand.  And then she could have been comforted in the promise that if God had dealt with His people like this in the past, even though He knew how they would trample His grace, then He would also be merciful and patient and gracious towards a repentant sinner who had come back to Bethlehem and back to her God, back to the refuge of the shelter of His wings.  And then instead of the danger of being swallowed up in bitterness, the hope of faith would have kept Naomi’s focus on the LORD Almighty, the One who is our Great Provider and our Blessed Redeemer.

2. What’s your name?

She may not have been right and the root of bitterness may have been taking hold of Naomi, but we can certainly sympathize with her.  Naomi’s life had been anything but pleasant, and the chastisement of the LORD had indeed been bitter.  And when the world comes crashing down and you lose that which is most dear to your heart – in Naomi’s case it was her husband and two sons – then it is very hard to look beyond the hurt and the pain you are experiencing.  It is hard to see the glass as half full when you think that it is empty!  And Naomi did indeed feel terribly empty.

And when you are empty, it is as though there is nothing left to keep you going.  To use the words of Hebrews 12:3, you become weary and discouraged in your souls and verse 12, your hands hang down and your knees become feeble and weak.  

But when that happens, what should you do?  What should you say?  “Call me Mara”?  No.  Beware of the root of bitterness, beware of the danger of failing to see things right.  It is when we feel empty, drained, and numb with grief that we know that the only thing left is to look up.  To remember that when you have nothing left, when you can not even put a short prayer together, that your Redeemer sits at the right hand of the throne of the Almighty and that He is there for your benefit, interceding and praying for you! 

Naomi could not see things as clearly as they have been revealed to us, but her faith also needed to be directed to the Almighty, the God of the covenant. 

“Call me Mara” Naomi had said.  “Call me Mrs. Bitter because the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”

 But the name Mara too had its own history, and if Naomi understood it she would not have called herself “Bitter”.  It was at a place called Marah[1] in the wilderness that the people of Israel complained to Moses because they were thirsty and they could not drink the water there.  But at that time, in Exodus 15, even though the people grumbled, the LORD was true to His covenant promises and showed the steadfastness of His covenant commitment and of His love, by showing mercy to an undeserving and rebellious and embittered people.  He made the water sweet so that they could drink and then the LORD said in verse 26,

“If you diligently heed the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in His sight, give ear to His commandments and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have brought on the Egyptians. For I am the LORD who heals you.”

If Naomi had remembered the steadfast love and covenant commitment of the LORD as He revealed it at Marah, then the peaceable fruit of righteousness that Hebrews 12 speaks of would have begun to grow in her heart.  And then she could also have been comforted that in the very next place that God brought the people of Israel to in Exodus 15, was Elim, the place of rest with is twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees, where they could all camp there by the waters.  God’s people did not even have to wait until they came to the Promised Land to experience a taste of God’s comfort and the goodness He had in store for His people.  There is never a time that is so dark and so bitter that the Almighty God is not there for you.

And if Naomi had opened her eyes, she would have seen that this was true for her too.  She claimed that the LORD had brought her back empty.  She said that the LORD had made her life bitter.  But while it is true that Naomi had been emptied – she’d lost her husband and two sons – that did not turn her into a Mara!  For although the LORD had emptied her, He had already begun to fill her with His blessing.  He’d brought her back to Bethlehem when the Barley harvest had just begun.  And He had given her Ruth, a daughter in law whom the women of Bethlehem would later say was worth more than seven sons.  And so, when the women had exclaimed in surprise and some delight, “Is this Naomi?” then instead of asking for a name change to Mara, Naomi would have done better to say,

“Yes, it is Naomi.  I don’t feel that way right now, for my life has been anything but pleasant.  I have reaped some of the consequence of my sin against the LORD, and it has been very bitter in my life.  But the Almighty has brought me back.  My heart aches and I feel as though I will never see the kindness of the LORD again in the land of the living.  But I know that my LORD is the Almighty One.  And I believe that I am still His child, that He can still forgive, that He can still bless.  I’ve come back.  I’ve come home.  And I pray that the Almighty might be merciful and grant me shelter once more under His wings, that one day I might once more feel not like a Mara, but like my real name, like Naomi.”

It is a good thing that the name Mara did not stick.  It is a good thing that in the rest of the book we keep reading about Naomi as Naomi.  For just as the Almighty had provided for His people in the wilderness of Marah many years earlier, so He filled Naomi the fullness of His blessing.  Indeed so much would she be blessed that through Ruth Naomi would once more receive a son.  A son, who in turn would be a blessing not just to Naomi, but who’s descendants would be a blessing to all Israel and who’s great Descendant, Jesus Christ, would be a blessing to us all.

So let us not call her Mara but Naomi, the Pleasant One, who was blessed by the LORD.

But what about you?  What is your name?  By what name would you like to be called?  What sort of name would suit you?  What is your response when you are emptied, when all that you hold dear is lost and stripped away? 

Beloved in the Lord, when you belong to Jesus Christ, when you share in His name, then being emptied should never make you a Mara.  Instead, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and look to Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.  (Hebrews 12:1,2)

Look to Jesus!  Remember who He is and what He has done!  Look to Jesus and remember that the God who gave you Jesus will never forsake you nor abandon you but instead will fill you will all that is truly good.  It is true that in His wisdom the LORD chastens, cleanses and purifies us, we will have pain and our troubles will be multiplied.  But look to Jesus!  Remember that He is the One who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath to the very end.  And He did that so that even when God empties you of the things of this world, and even when you go through death’s dark valley itself, you will never be a Mara!   For the LORD has not testified against you but has taken your sin and punished it in His beloved Son Jesus Christ by the bitter and shameful death on the cross.  Jesus Christ was declared guilty and He paid the penalty so that in Him you might be redeemed to enjoy the fullness of life at His right hand.  And that’s why being emptied shouldn’t make one a Mara.  For although we are emptied of much, the Lord also fills us with His grace and the Holy Spirit.  And so even in your darkest days the Lord Almighty promises to fill you with the extravagance of His love.

In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says to Romeo, “What’s in a name?”  But their love for one another was doomed from the start, for they could not change their name, nor could they change who they really were. 

But for you it is different!  For God has emptied you of your old name, your old you, and He’s given you a new name and made you a new you. Do not call yourself Mara, nor say that the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with you.  For the LORD has not testified against you, but He took your sin, laid it upon His Son and testified against Him, and it is He who drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath.  Jesus Christ became Mara for you so that you might receive His great and wonderful name.   Revelation 14:1 says,

“Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads.”

That’s your name for you share in the name of your heavenly Father.  And so filled with joy we may now sing,

Now shall my heart sing praise to Thee:

Gone is the grief that silenced me.

I may, delivered from despair,

Now laud Thy Name in song and prayer.

Forever, LORD, my God and Saviour,

Will I give thanks for Thy great favour.

(Psalm 30:7, 1984 Book of Praise)


[1] Although there is an interesting variant in the spelling (Marah in Exodus 15 ends with the Hebrew letter he and Mara in Ruth 1 ends with the Hebrew letter aleph), both words have the same stem and in both cases the word is chosen because it means “bitter”.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2012, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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