Word for Word 3/22/23

Rev. Grant VanderVelden
Rev. Grant VanderVelden

“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.” (Ruth 1:22)

What a pathetic pair of sad-sacks they were that day – Ruth and Naomi – as they shuffle into Bethlehem looking like 40 miles of bad road.

People feel sorry for them, but Naomi wants nothing of their pity. What she really wants is for the gawkers to get as angry with God as she is. And so she tears into Almighty God with the fury of a woman scorned:

“Time was when my name meant ‘Pleasant,’ and I used to be a pretty pleasant person, too,” Naomi laments. “But that was before God messed with my life. Now just call me ‘Bitter,’ because that’s what I am, and it’s all God’s fault!  God is to blame for moving me from Pleasant to Bitter. So come on, folks: Let’s shake an angry fist at Almighty God!”

But in her defense, Naomi is just about as empty as empty can be. To riff on an old Paul Simon song, “Empty as a pocket, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose.” God is deep in her doghouse, and Naomi surely isn’t looking to God with much hope. But then comes that last verse: “The barley harvest is beginning.”

As a pastoral colleague observes, the very stuff of life – barley and wheat – is coming in from the fields to the little town of Bethlehem, a name that means “The House of Bread.” The bakers of Bethlehem soon will be firing up their ovens, and emptiness and scarcity soon will be turning into abundance and nourishment.

Even now, as Ruth and Naomi pass through the city gates, grain-laden donkey and ox carts are already snaking their way through the narrow streets of Bethlehem.

As wooden wheels passed over rough cobblestones, kernels of grain are already starting to fall from the wagons and onto the streets, and the crunch-crunch sound of grain kernels are popping under the sandals of Ruth and Naomi.

Crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch: The sound of emptiness soon becoming abundance, the sounds of pain and death about to give way to hope and assurance. In the midst of Naomi’s great sorrow and intense anger, God lets the crunch-crunch sound of barley be heard. Don’t count out God just yet, Naomi. Something more is in the works, so stay tuned.

“Death and decay in all around I see” go the lyrics of an old hymn.

And the news on any given day presents us with enough sorrow and mayhem to undo us all.  The whole of creation started out so full but now often turns up so empty. And then death comes calling – intense, personal and heart-breaking.

But in and through it all God remains God, and long about the time you conclude that it’s all over and there is no hope, suddenly barley crunches under someone’s foot, and we begin to suspect that there may yet be a second act to Creation’s drama.  You begin to suspect that the God who created us for fullness will not be content to leave us in emptiness.

Ruth will become a distant relative of a man named Jesus. Many years later in Bethlehem – the House of Bread, from the unlikely location of an animal’s feedbox, the sound of a crying infant will be heard. And for those with ears to hear, there’ll be a sense that night, too, that God is indeed still around, truly still aiming things to move from emptiness to very great fullness.

Even if for today we feel sad and empty, angry and bitter, lost and alone, disconnected and disaffected, the barley harvest is beginning, and Bethlehem’s Bread of Life – by Jerusalem’s Cross of Hope – will surely wipe away every tear and bless us with fullness of relationship.

For that just is the Word of the Lord – ancient words, ever true!

Rev. Dr. Grant M. VanderVelden, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church, Waukon.