1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
As Naomi entered Bethlehem, her heart was breaking. The sight of the familiar streets cast her mind back to happier times when she had walked them with her husband, her sons playing alongside.
How joyful and carefree they had been! But then, everything had changed . . .
First, a severe famine had forced them to leave Bethlehem. (Ruth 1) It hadn’t been easy to leave their homeland, but they had settled in Moab and been happy. At least they had one another.
But then Naomi’s husband, Elimilech, had died, followed around ten years later by not just one, but both of her sons. They had left as a family of four. Now as Naomi returned, alone, the sense of loss was overwhelming.
Sadly, loss is something we all encounter at some point. It may be the tragic death of loved ones, as with Naomi, but there are other losses – divorce, life-changing illness, redundancy, loss of a friendship . . .
The last couple of years have brought so much loss for us all due to the pandemic. We’ve grieved the loss of celebrations with family and friends, cancellations of long-anticipated plans, the loss of “normal” in gathering and traveling, all of which we once took for granted.
Sometimes, even “smaller” losses hit us hard.
“‘Don’t call me Naomi. Call me Mara,’ she answered, ‘for the Almighty has made me very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why do you call me Naomi, since the Lord has opposed me, and the Almighty has afflicted me?’” (Ruth 1:20-21)
Several years earlier, as the Israelites travelled through the wilderness, they found themselves in a similar place of bitterness. (Exodus 15:22-27) After three days of searching for water, they finally found some, only to discover it was too bitter to drink. Just as Naomi identified herself by her bitterness, the Israelites identified the place by its bitterness, naming it Marah.
While God miraculously removed the bitterness from the water, the bitterness in the Israelites’ hearts remained. They continued their journey, complaining about the lack of food, even looking back fondly to their days of slavery in Egypt. (Exodus 16:1-8)
Their bitterness blinded them to the reality of God’s provision. They had recently witnessed the Red Sea parting before them, enabling them to escape the Egyptians, and they had personally known God’s presence leading them every step of the way!
Similarly, Naomi’s bitterness blinds her to the truth that she is not alone. God has not brought her back empty. Her faithful daughter-in-law, Ruth, is beside her, and although Naomi has unquestionably suffered devastating losses, it is not the end of her story. God still has a good plan for her.
In Naomi’s return to Bethlehem, we see a glimmer of hope. On hearing God has blessed His people in Israel by providing food once again for “the Lord had paid attention to His people’s need,” (Ruth 1:6) she chooses to go home. It is a physical return, but perhaps it is also the beginning of a spiritual return, of turning back to God, of turning toward hope in His promises and His goodness, even in the midst of loss.
What about our response in our times of loss? Do we become stuck in the wilderness of bitterness and isolation, or do we turn back to God? Do we choose to return to “Bethlehem” and remember that, in Jesus, God entered our pain and suffering to deal with sin and brokenness and offer us hope?
A few weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a friend’s husband. It was a tragic loss; he was a wonderful, godly man who seemed to have been taken far too soon, leaving behind a wife, four children, one grandchild and another on the way. There was great sorrow, of course, and a huge sense of loss, but not a trace of bitterness.
Instead, the whole service was a beautiful testimony to God’s faithfulness and presence even in the midst of loss, and it expressed a determination to hold onto Him and His hope.
One of the readings was from 1 Thessalonians 4, which encourages followers of Jesus that we do not “grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
We will grieve, and we will experience loss of various kinds, but, in Jesus, we always have hope. Ours is an unshakable hope that comes from knowing Him as He walks with us through loss and reminds us that, no matter what losses we face, they are not the end of our story.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
Wilderness Day 14
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