Sermon for March 4th, 2018

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Job 30:16-31

16 ‘And now my soul is poured out within me;
   days of affliction have taken hold of me.
17 The night racks my bones,
   and the pain that gnaws me takes no rest.
18 With violence he seizes my garment;
   he grasps me by the collar of my tunic.
19 He has cast me into the mire,
   and I have become like dust and ashes.
20 I cry to you and you do not answer me;
   I stand, and you merely look at me.
21 You have turned cruel to me;
   with the might of your hand you persecute me.
22 You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it,
   and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.
23 I know that you will bring me to death,
   and to the house appointed for all living.
24 ‘Surely one does not turn against the needy,
   when in disaster they cry for help.
25 Did I not weep for those whose day was hard?
   Was not my soul grieved for the poor?
26 But when I looked for good, evil came;
   and when I waited for light, darkness came.
27 My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
   days of affliction come to meet me.
28 I go about in sunless gloom;
   I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
29 I am a brother of jackals,
   and a companion of ostriches.
30 My skin turns black and falls from me,
   and my bones burn with heat.
31 My lyre is turned to mourning,
   and my pipe to the voice of those who weep.

It Ain't Fair!

While driving through Texas, a New Yorker collided with a truck carrying a horse. A few months later he tried to collect damages for his injuries. "How can you now claim to have all these injuries?" asked the insurance company's lawyer. "According to the police report, at the time you said you were not hurt." "Look," replied the New Yorker. "I was lying on the road in a lot of pain, and I heard someone say the horse had a broken leg. The next thing I know this Texas Ranger pulls out his gun and shoots the horse. Then he turns to me and asks, 'Are you okay?'"

As you may have noticed, we are in the midst of a four-part sermon series on the book of Job. It's hard, painful stuff, the book of Job, and today's passage perhaps more than any other. Last week we watched as Job lost his family, his wealth, and his physical health. Though stunned and anguished, he was still able to "bless the name of the Lord," and the bible tells us that up to that point he "did not sin with his lips." This is the famous "patience of Job" for which he is known and revered.

But all that patience quickly runs out. Beginning in the third chapter, Job spirals downward in despair--emotionally, physically, and spiritually--frequently and through tears asking God what happened, and why? In today's passage, Job hits rock bottom.

I should note that Job is a long book, and we're really condensing it here--last week we read chapters one and two, and this Sunday we jump all the way forward to chapter 30. And here, at rock bottom, there is a definite shift in Job's tone, in his argument. Job is no longer questioning why--he has arrived at a definitive answer: It ain't fair. And he's ready to make his judgment: Lord, you ain't fair. In other words, God did this to me.

Verse 18: "With violence he seizes my garment; he grasps me by the collar of my tunic. He has cast me into the mire." Then in verse 21, Job shifts from talking about God to speaking directly to God--and his tone is just as harsh: "You do not answer have turned cruel to persecute will bring me to death." Not only does Job blame God, but he judges God too: "Surely one does not turn against the needy when in disaster they cry for help?" Job points to himself as an example: "Did I not weep for those whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor?" In other words, "If even I can do those things, God, surely you can too. Or am I better than you?" Verse 26: When I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came." It almost sounds here like Job is accusing God of evil. Pretty bold for a patient man who "did not sin with his lips."

Actually, Job has landed squarely in the middle of a dilemma that has tied theologians and philosophers in knots for ages, as well as just about any faithful Christian or Jewish person who has experienced a tragedy. It goes something like this:

We believe, on one hand, that God is sovereign--all powerful, in control of everything that happens in the universe. We also believe, on the other hand, that God is good--he loves us perfectly and unconditionally. After all, God is love. And so when tragedy strikes, we tend to question one of those two pillars of our faith. "God, if you really love me and want what is best for me, how could you let this happen to me?" Maybe God is not as "good" or "loving" as we thought. Or maybe God loves us, but something prevented Him from helping us in this situation...maybe, then, God is not as "powerful" as we thought. Countless solutions have been proposed to this dilemma, but almost all of them end up compromising one side or the other, at least a little, in order to work.

Let me give you an example from my own life: When my father died of a heart attack at the age of 48, some well-intentioned person came up to me at the funeral service and said: "This is all part of God's plan. We can't see it now, but somehow this will all work out for the best." I wanted to punch that person in the face. You mean God wanted my Dad to die? What kind of God is that? And is it really all about me? God wanted my Dad to die so that somehow things could work out better for me? Well, that's great for me, but it sure stinks for my Dad! What I didn't realize at the time was that this person was trying desperately to hold onto God's sovereignty, or God's "all-powerful" nature. God is in control. And in the process, that well-meaning person let the other pillar (God's love or goodness) come into question some.

Well, about five minutes later, still at my Dad's funeral, yet another person came up to me and said "This wasn't supposed to happen. God didn't want this to happen -- it's an attack from the enemy!" I didn't want to punch this person in the face, but I was still pretty unimpressed with the answer. That must be a pretty powerful enemy if God's plans are so easily blocked. Or a pretty weak God. What's the point of following a God like that? This second person was trying desperately to hold onto God's goodness and love. And in the process, this time, it was God's sovereignty that was compromised.

Here's a tip in case you ever find yourself on the comforting end of someone's tragedy: He or she may be looking desperately for answers, but unless you are the Creator of the universe and all things, you probably shouldn't try to offer any. It's better just to sit quietly in solidarity and let your presence be the best answer you've got. I don't understand either, but I'm here.

Job, of course, is pretty solidly on the "sovereignty" side of things. He never questions that God is in control. Notice that in chapter two, Job said "The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away." He didn't say "The Lord gives and Satan takes away" or "the Lord gives but evil people (and natural disasters) take away." God is in control. But this is probably why later in the book, when things start to unravel form him, he questions God's goodness. "It ain't fair" quickly becomes "Lord, you ain't fair."

Job is in pretty good company on the "sovereignty" side of the argument--John Calvin leans that direction, and so does your pastor. But that's not to say that Job, Calvin, and I are necessarily right: Leaning on the "love" side of the argument are our good friends Michael Simants, James Holt, and the late Rev. Billy Graham. But what all six of us have in common is that at some point we have to acknowledge that none of our answers are completely adequate, and our reasoning can only take us so far in our knowledge of God. God is sovereign; God is love; but God is also mystery.

Right before today's passage, just a few chapters earlier and still in the midst of all his suffering, Job speaks eloquently about this very fact in a beautiful poem that has come to be called the "Hymn to Wisdom" in the book of Job:

But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, "It is not in me."
and the sea says, "It is not with me."
It cannot be gotten for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed out as its price...

Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abadon and Death say
We have heard a rumor of it with our ears.
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens...

The cover of our bulletin teases us from this passage: "Where can wisdom be found?" But I hope the answer--that it can't be found, at least not in this life, and not by us--doesn't disappoint you too much. Since I set up that false expectation, I guess that's my fault. What can I say? It ain't fair? That's far too callous a place to end, especially for those who have, or will, experience tragedy and suffering in this life. Job may not offer all the answers we think we want, but I believe it does offer something for those who suffer and those who grieve. It offers comfort. I think there are three great principles that we can pull out of this passage, and out of Job's experience--principles that I hope will comfort you and give you hope when tragedy strikes.

First: Grief takes time. When Job loses everything in chapter 2, his immediate response is to bless the Lord. I don't think that's evidence of some kind of superhuman faith or patience. I think it was just habit kicking in. In tragedy, we are comforted by our favorite customs, rituals and traditions. Ironically, it is tragedy that forces us to change those customs, because we are forever changed by our loss.

Grief takes time. Job's suffering and anguish last for three quarters of the book. It's only after today's passage, chapter 30, that Job has finally exhausted everything he has to say, all his questions, all his grievances, all his accusations and anger.

But then something interesting happens. When Job has reached the end of his rope...God is there waiting. I think he was there all along. Listening. Grief takes time, but God (more than Job, and us) is patient.

Second: When tragedy strikes, hold tightly to what you know about God. Maybe for you that's God's sovereignty. Maybe it's God's love. Whichever one it is for you, cling to it because it will get you through. It's ok to question, to doubt, even to get angry. But hold on to at least one thing you know about God. And all those things you don't know, don't understand? Let them go. God can be what you need him to be and still have enough mystery to account for the rest.

The third thing is simple: It's always darkest...just before the dawn.

We live in the wake of the life of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
We have a hope and a comfort that Job never knew.
Because when the son of God rose up from the grave, it was with the promise
that someday we too would conquer death and darkness.

We work toward a Kingdom where suffering and loss will be no more
Where every teardrop will be wiped away
Where the lion and the lamb will lie down together
In the peaceful Kingdom of God.

Yes, there will be tragedies in this life.
There will be suffering and pain.
Jesus knew a thing or two about suffering and pain.

He walks with us on the long journey
Sometimes he carries us.
Always he asks us to carry each other's burdens, too.

So let this be your prayer in the midst of tragedy
Let this be your hope and your comfort
That in your hour of greatest need
In the dark night of your soul
Not that this cup would pass from you,
Not that your questions would be answered
Not that you might understand why or how or how long

But simply this:

That no matter how great the loss
No matter how long the road
No matter how dark the night
God will lead you through it to a bright new day.