Bitter in Bethlehem

And when they came to Bethlehem, the whole town was stirred because of them. And the women said, “Is this Naomi?” (Ruth 1:19-21). 

There’s something about this season of the year that stirs our memories, evoking a certain kind of nostalgia.

For me it’s a collection of photos that we display in our house every Christmas. Since our son’s very first Christmas at the age of eleven months we’ve managed to get a Santa photo every year. Little sister shows up in picture # 2 and then I can watch the years roll by with every photo that follows. So far that’s a collection of twenty photos. They may be getting tired of it, but my big kids still humor us and sit with Santa long enough for a picture. I’m hoping that secretly they like it as much as I do.

Those photos tell me where we lived at the time and what Christmas was like at that season of our life. I’m sobered by the passing of time and my failure to know back then how swiftly it was moving by me. So many things surround us these days that can send our thoughts back to what was: an ornament, a song, a favorite food, a tradition you still carry on but in a different way.

Sometimes these fleeting detours to Christmas past are a good thing. But sometimes they’re not. Like Scrooge, we’re haunted by what was or left yearning for it in the knowledge that we’ll never get it back. We remember Christmases before the funeral or divorce; days when the kids still lived at home or could easily get home; times when holiday plans were far less complicated and so were the family dynamics.

We look back to a better time, or so we think.

Call Me ‘Mara’
Naomi had left Bethlehem years ago, but not long enough to be forgotten in that small town. Those were the famine days. The hardships of a bad economy and the scarcity of food had forced her family to leave the place they knew, the place where they were known. With her husband and two sons Naomi had gone to make a life in the country of Moab.

After a while her husband Elimelech died. In the tenth year of life in Moab both of those sons also died, leaving Naomi widowed with two Moabite daughters-in-law. Naomi had no reason to stay in Moab and news of a better economy in Judah made it seem right to return home to Bethlehem.

One daughter-in-law stayed in Moab. The other, Ruth, insisted on staying with Naomi.

When they returned to Bethlehem it took a while before anyone recognized her. Her face had been changed by the passing of years and the heaviness of grief. Old neighbors would pass her on the road or in the market. The first glance brought surprise. The second gave confirmation. Naomi was back. Everyone was whispering the same question: “Can this be Naomi?”

Naomi, bereft of her husband and sons, answered their question: “Don’t call me Naomi – call me ‘Mara.’ God has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty” (1:20-21). Naomi had known Bethlehem in better times. All she seemed to have now was bitterness inflicted upon her from God. She allowed that bitterness to define her. ‘Mara’ (bitter) was her new name.

Bethlehem’s Other Baby
Naomi and Ruth had made the journey from Moab back to Bethlehem, but for Naomi she would never truly be able to go home. Bethlehem was different now. At one time she had lived there in fullness. But that time was gone, and now she had come back to emptiness.
In Bethlehem yesterday was far more than tomorrow ever could be.

But what Naomi could not see was this: God was still very much at work in Bethlehem – and not just the Bethlehem of yesterday. In any given moment, in any and every circumstance, God is doing far more than we know.

There in Bethlehem another baby would be born. Ruth would find a husband by the name if Boaz. Naomi would become the grandmother of a baby named Obed. Obed would be the father of Jesse. Jesse would be the father of David. And from the line of David would come Jesus the Messiah. Naomi was at the heart of a divine drama, a God-authored story she could scarcely imagine.

Don’t let your nostalgia keep you from missing out on that story. Treasure your memories and name your regrets. But don’t look back to Christmas past because you’re so deeply disappointed with Christmas present. The familiar story we tell every year isn’t merely history. It’s unfolding even now, and you’re invited to have a role.

The birth of Jesus means God with us – right here and right now. This place, this day, this Christmas.

Guard us, O God, from retreating to our past simply to escape our present. Remind us today that you are doing more than we know, more than we see. Make us expectant, eagerly waiting for your work among us in this time and place, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

One thought on “Bitter in Bethlehem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s