A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sermon (October 18) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Book of Job: Trust Issues"

     Have you seen any good bumper stickers lately?  I have.  Let me share some of these with you just for fun.
     Here’s the first one:
-       “If you can read this, I’ve lost the trailer!”
-      On the same train of thought as this first one, a different bumper sticker reads, “If you can read this, I can hit my brakes and sue you.”
-      The driver that has this bumper sticker is clearly annoyed with bad drivers.  His bumper sticker reads, “Forget world peace; visualize using your turn signal.”
-      This driver clearly has lawyer issues.  This one reads, “Lawyers have feelings too, (allegedly.)” 
-      Another work-related bumper sticker says, “To err is human.  To blame it on somebody else shows management potential.”
-      This one gets a little risqué but I think it’s funny.  “Talk dirty to me.  I’m a cleaning professional.”
-      Here are a couple of bumper stickers I’ll put in the general category.  The first one says, “I used to be schizophrenic, but we’re OK now.”  (By the way, I wanted to put that bumper sticker on my car, but the other side of me said, “Don't do it Robert.”)
-      And last but not least, my favorite religious bumper sticker by far is this one – “Thank God I’m an atheist.”
     You can learn a lot about drivers just by reading their bumper stickers.  And hopefully,a lot of these are meant to make us laugh in the middle of our day.  But as I think about it, I’m concerned that there are a lot of people who never get beyond those catchy sayings, as clever as they may be.    
     Bumper stickers only allow you to go so far, and sometimes it’s not very far at all. Maybe the reason we live in a bumper sticker society of short and shallow sound bytes is because we don’t like to admit that life can be hard to understand sometimes, life is more complex that we are willing to admit.
     I’m thinking that this was the problem with Job’s friends who were trying to help him understand why he had lost his family and possessions.  Each of these friends offers Job an unsolicited bumper sticker answer to his problems. 
     Needless to say, they weren’t very helpful.  I mean, with friends like these, who needs enemies?
     One by one, these friends take their turns at throwing trite bumper sticker slogans Job’s way.  Kind of like a, “take two aspirins and call me in the morning” quick fix when in reality, the issue is much more complex than a simple spiritual headache.
     I invite us to use our imagination and picture Job’s friends riding their camels side by side along a dusty road.  You are also riding a camel and you are riding just behind these three friends of Job. 
      You notice bumper stickers on the rear ends of their camels.  And the first camel has a bumper sticker that says: “Get a Job, Job!”  (I spent a whole minute thinking that one up!)
     You then notice the bumper sticker on the 2nd camel’s rear end.  This one says: “Friends don’t let friends go on sinning.”
     And the third donkey has this bumper sticker: “Honk if you’re not a sinner like Job.”
     It’s not that hard to see why Job got even more depressed thanks to these so called friends of his.  But of course, they were only voicing the theological sound bytes of their day.  They were only repeating what they had heard over and over again.  And certainly, there was some truth in what they were telling Job.
     When someone sins against God, there are often consequences.  God’s ways are meant to bring life and life in all of its fullness and when we go against God’s ways, it only stands to reason that there will often be a negative fall-out.
     I think of a time when I went for a doctor’s visit and I asked how his day was going.   He just shook his head and had a disappointed look on his face.  And I said, “That bad, huh?” 
     And he said, “It’s amazing what people do to destroy their own bodies and then they come expecting to me to perform some miracle and make them all better.”
     I would imagine that this would be the most difficult thing about being a doctor, to have to watch people throw their lives away.
     There are consequences to our poor decisions.  Even after God forgives us of our sins, we often have to live with the consequences of our actions.
     So on one hand, we can understand where Job’s friends are coming from.  They are simply stating a truth – that sin leads to pain and problems.  That’s a good sermon to preach. 
     But remember, Job’s friends are preaching to the choir.  We were told from the very first verse of this book, way back in chapter one, that Job was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
     Good advice, Eliphaz, but that sermon doesn’t apply in this situation.
     What Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar don’t realize, is that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with anything Job did or didn’t do, but it has everything to do with Satan who had made a challenge to God, saying that Job can’t really be trusted. 
     Satan tells God, “You know…the only reason, your servant Job has faith in you is because you’ve given him all these possessions, good health, and a nice family.  Take those away, and you can wave bye-bye to his faith.”
     Job’s friends don’t know about this little heavenly test that is going on, and so they are only going on what they think they know. 
    “Job, we got this all figured out.  We know why you’ve lost all your possessions and your health so the only logical explanation is that you are a dirty rotten unrepentent sinner.  And we mean that in a nice way.”
     Job responds, “But guys… hear me out. I haven’t done anything wrong.  If I did sin against God, I would gladly repent of that sin.  But I’m telling you.  I haven’t done anything against God, at least nothing comes to mind.”
     And this leads one of Job’s friends to say, “Oh, now we see what your problem is.  You think you’re perfect.  Maybe that’s what your sin is.  You think you’re perfect, don’t you?”
     Isn’t it painful to read this book?  Job’s friends are barking up the wrong tree. 
     They think they have this thing all figured out, but they don’t.  And this is really one of the big reasons why this book is included in our Bible in the first place. 
     It’s to keep us from becoming so arrogant, and so confident, and so egotistical, that we think that we have the quick theological answer for everything. Ironically, it’s not Job that has trust issues. Job is the only one who hasn’t settled for easy answers. It’s his friends who have the real trust issues.
     People who wrestle with their faith when life doesn’t make sense aren’t the ones who have trust issues. It’s the people who think they have it all figured out by cherry picking carefully selected bible verses and settling for shallow answers.
     When I think about who has trust issues in this book, it’s not Job. It’s Job’s friends who have the real trust issues as they hide behind their bumper sticker theology.
     Philip Yancey is one of my favorite Christian authors.  He has also been the editor for the periodical, “Christianity Today.”  He has written a couple of books on this whole topic of why God allows good people to suffer. 
     And I have to laugh every time I think of his answer to this question.  Even after all of his thorough research of various religious books on this topic, his careful examination of the scriptures, as well as his own personal struggle with this issue, he comes to this three-word conclusion:  “I don’t know.”
     Sometimes, these three simple words are all that we can manage to say when you’re sitting with parents whose teenage son just died in a car accident.  Or when a friend tells you that she has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer.  Or when, at age 38, a man with a wife and five children has just been told that he has lost his job.
     The last thing that we would ever want to do, would be to offer up some worn-out bumper sticker theology that ignores the complexity and the mysteries of life.
     Several years ago, I remember reading an article in Newsweek magazine about Billy Graham, the famous evangelist.
     Next to Mother Teresa, Billy Graham might be the 2nd most well known Christian of our time.  What impressed me most from that article was how humble Billy Graham is. 
     At one point in the article, Billy Graham is quoted as saying, "There are many things that I don’t understand.  Sincere Christians can disagree about the details of Scripture and theology – absolutely.”
     Here is a man, who in many ways has earned the right to say, “Listen to me.  I have all the answers.”   But instead he says, ‘There are many things that I don’t understand.’”
     I think all of us can learn something from this great man of faith – humility.  Because the truth is, we don’t have all the answers.
     Jobs friends had it right in the beginning when they simply sat with him in silence for a full seven days and seven nights, not saying a single word to him.  But when Job finally speaks, these friends can’t resist in offering their two cents.  And things unravel from there.
     Last Sunday, we left church with Job on top of a garbage dump saying, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!”  Even after losing all that was dear to him, he still managed to keep faith in God.
     And this week, he leaves us with some very different words for us to ponder this week.   He cries out, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”  
     While not accepting the easy answers offered by his friends that his suffering was God’s judgment upon him for past unconfessed sins, he is still left with the painful question, “Why, God?  Why me?”
     This isn’t a very good way to end a sermon, I know.
     But in the distance, we can hear another innocent sufferer crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.”  His hands are pierced and his head is weighted down with a crown of thorns.
     It’s amazing the kind of prayers we find in the Bible.  These are the prayers of people who had every reason to give up on God, but didn’t.
     And so…Congratulations Job!  You may be down, but you’re not out. Even in your despair, you are showing more faith than all of your friends combined. 
     You haven’t settled for shallow answers, and you are honest enough to admit that you just don’t understand why all of these bad things have happened to you. Your integrity is beyond measure.
     And even more importantly, you have taught us all something very, very important, something that would fit quite nicely on a bumper sticker.

     “Satan was wrong.”

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