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 25, 2015

Sermon (October 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Book of Job: Trust Me!"

    One of my least favorite memories as a father is the time when our son was in Middle School and we were living in Toledo, Ohio at the time.  I was clearly reminded before the day even began, to not forget to pick up our son after school that day.
     “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I know.  I know.  You don’t have to remind me!”  Famous last words!
     I totally forgot all about it.  Actually, I arrived an hour after I was suppose to pick him up.  And there he was in front of the school, just shaking his head at me.  That’s no fun to be standing there all alone, not knowing what’s going on.
     That little memory which my family will not allow me to forget, reminds me of just how important it is to keep our word.
     I’m reminded of the Peanuts comic strip where every Fall, Lucy promises to hold the football for Charlie Brown to kick it.  And every year, Charlie Brown falls for it.  Literally.
     How many of you think Lucy is funny?  (You sick people!)
     I must admit that Lucy has some good lines when she pulls this prank.  Here are a few of my favorite ones and again these are Lucy’s comments immediately following her yearly prank of yanking the football away from Charlie Brown: 
     One year, Lucy explained to Charlie Brown,
     “A peculiar thing about this document that states I will not take away the football is that it was never officially notarized, so I’m legally off the hook.”
     Another year has Lucy saying,“Charlie Brown.  Would you like to see how that looked on instant replay?”
     One other year has Lucy saying, “This year’s football was pulled away from you through the courtesy of women’s lib.”
      Charlie Brown was dealing with trust issues every year when it came time for him to kick the football.
      Trust is the central theme of the Book of Job.  And there are different dimensions of trust in this book.  One dimension is concerned with whether or not Job will be found trustworthy.
     From the get go, we are told that Job was a righteous man who feared God.  And one of God’s heavenly beings, Satan, tries to convince God that the only reason Job fears God is because of Job’s many possessions and that Job was well to do.  And he was. 
     We are told that Job had a multitude of camels, oxen, donkeys, and servants.  And on top of that, Job was also blessed with a large family who enjoyed scrumptious feasts and the good life.  Job had everything.
     And Satan tells God, “Job doesn’t fear you because of who you are.  The only reason he worships you is because he has all this stuff, like his membership at the Mediterranean Sea Country Club.  Just throw some adversity his way, and before too long, his favorite seat in church will be empty.  Just watch and tell me I’m not right.”
     God, not buying into Satan’s line, says, “Go at it.  Just don’t kill him.  You’ll see that my servant Job won’t cash in.  You’re underestimating him.”
     With that, Satan goes to work.  Job loses his possessions, his servants, many of his loved ones, and he even loses his health, and not because of anything he had done wrong.  But even after all of this, Job is able to say, “The Lord gives.  The Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
     You go Job! 
     But Satan isn’t through with trying to prove his point.  This time, he backs off and lets Job’s friends do the dirty work.  And Job’s friends do what they do best.  They cherry pick some bible verses and pass judgment. 
   “We got this all figured out.  You’ve sinned against God and now God is punishing you, Job.  Never mind that we’ve probably sinned as well and we haven’t been punished for it.  But rather than try to figure that all out, we find it much easier to simply quote scripture and label you an unrepentant sinner, not to mention a liar.”
     After all, what are friends for?
     I find it interesting that it wasn’t the loss of possessions, or his family, or the sores that tried Job’s patience.  It was these blasted friends of his that led him to say, “I wish I had never been born.”
     And yet, even with that statement, Job didn’t totally give up on God.  He just couldn’t figure out why he was suffering so much.  Unlike we, the readers of this book, Job has no idea that Satan had set this whole thing up.
     We find in Job, a person of genuine faith. 
      But in addition to this story being a story of Job’s trustworthiness, this is also a story about how we are called to trust in God.   Not only does God do a remarkable thing by appearing before Job and responding to his cry for help, but in our scripture reading this morning, we find that God restores Job’s possessions and enables him to have a family again.
     Surely, this is not just a story of God being able to trust Job.  This is also a story that we can trust in God whenever we face trials and adversity which we all certainly do from time to time.
     Now, I must admit, that I do have a problem with the ending of this book.  After several chapters of tremendous loss, not to mention a long-term torturous inner struggle, tear drenched prayers into the night, and unanswered questions, we get this final chapter of recompense. 
     God gives Job even more livestock than he had before as well as a brand new family.  You know, I don’t think it’s possible to replace your old family, but at least Job was able to start a new chapter in his life.
     This past week, Penny and I received an invitation from a former church member and neighbor to attend a house warming party. She and her husband around our age, attended worship every Sunday together. It was a second marriage for each of them. They both had really good jobs and lived in a very beautiful home.
    They always joked how they would arrive late each Sunday for worship even though they lived only thirty seconds away from the church. Around the 2nd verse of the opening hymn, I could always count on them finding their way to their favorite seats in the balcony.
     As they would get their hymnal open, they would always look down at me and I would motion to my watch, to let them know that they were right on time! They would smile and I would smile back.
     A couple of years ago, something terrible happened. The husband was diagnosed with a rare illness and he ended up dying about a year ago. I had made many hospital and home visits with both of them during that difficult time. When I would visit him, we would talk about everything and anything.
     We found out that we had very little in common regarding our favorite sports teams and politics, but none of that really mattered because we had our faith in common. And he would always amaze me at how he was always somehow able to get through each day.
     He told me that it was God’s presence that made all the difference in the world. He would often say how the church was such an important part of his life.
     After the funeral, his wife was facing many life changing decisions. The house was much too big for her so she needed to think about a new place to live. She also had to begin a new journey of being single again.
     That’s why this past week’s house warming invitation meant so much to me. On her invitation, she wrote the words, “Hope you can come – your prayers and support made a difference to Alan and me.”
     And all around the border of that house warming invitation were words and phrases of how God has slowly helped her to get back on her feet again. Here are some of these words and phrases of how friends and people in the church have reached out to her.
     Notes, feeding the cats, not giving up on me, friendship, dog sitting, encouragement, running errands, casseroles, wise counsel, cards, hugs, prayers, food and wine, mowing and shoveling, more prayers.
     When I think of this invitation, it gives me a deeper appreciation for the ending of the Book of Job where God gives Job a new family and even more possessions than what he had.
     This isn’t to say that we won’t have even more questions when we started this book, but it is good for us to remember that it wasn’t God that caused these bad things to happen to Job.  It was that God allowed Satan to do these things.  And here at the end of the book, God wants to bless Job.
     Before we’re tempted to believe that this book advocates a theology that says that we are blessed according to our faithfulness to God or that we are cursed according to our lack of faith, let’s remember the main point of this book. 
     It’s to show that there are no simple answers to why bad things happen to good people, regardless of what Job’s friends believed.  Certainly, there are consequences to our actions and behaviors, but the larger question of suffering and pain are much more complex.
     This final chapter is simply reminding us that God can be trusted.  That God is not some arbitrary deity who dishes out blessings and punishment, but is a God who wants nothing more than for us to live in a covenant relationship with Him, even if that means not knowing why bad things happen to good people.
     Job is a book about trust especially when we go through times of tremendous pain and struggle.
     Almost thirty years ago up in the northwest Ohio area, a friend of mine was involved in a car accident on the interstate.  He wasn’t hurt too badly, but he did end up making an appointment with his family doctor who was also a member of his church. 
     The doctor realizes that this wasn’t just an accident.  This man had really tried to end his life by swerving his car into the pathway of an oncoming truck.  This man needed help. 
     So his doctor made arrangements to have him admitted to a psychiatric hospital so he could begin the road toward emotional and mental recovery.
     For the next several months, my friend was away from his wife, from his work, and from his church family.  He became angry that he had been forced to go to this hospital.   Everyday felt like he was in a living hell.  He didn’t want to cooperate with the hospital staff and all he knew was that he was in darkness.
     One day, he was walking down the hallway of that hospital, and he noticed a piano that had a hymn book that was open.  He was curious to know which hymn was on the page.  It was opened to the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
     And for some reason, his eyes focused on verse 3 of that wonderful old hymn.  “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
     “And grace will lead me home.”  This little phrase from a hymn book, along with the prayers of his family, friends, and church family is what gave him the faith that he needed to trust in Jesus just when he was ready to give up all hope.
     After he got out of the hospital, he wanted to share with others how God had been faithful to him during the darkest time of his life.  This would be his way of responding to God’s goodness and grace.
     And so, he had hundreds of business size cards printed to hand out to people, all with the same simple message:
     “Trust Me.  I have everything under control. – Jesus”
     “Trust Me.  I have everything under control.”
     Following his accident and time in the hospital, this man ended up becoming an incredible spiritual mentor in my life. We were in the same small group together, and thanks to him, I was able to learn what it means to trust in God, especially during times of pain and adversity.
     I will never forget those cards that he gave out to his friends. “Trust me, I have everything under control. – Jesus.”
     The main reason that the Book of Job is in the bible is to help us see that there are no simple answers for why bad things happen to good people. But it also helps us to see that God is with us in a special way whenever we are going through a difficult time.
     Early on a Friday morning in June of 1989, I received a phone call from my brother in southcentral, Pennsylvania telling me that our dad had died suddenly that morning.  He was only 60 years old and it was a shock to the entire family.
     That day, I frantically hurried to get things ready for church that Sunday and find a guest speaker. One of the phone calls I made was to my District Superintendent to let him know what had happened.  And he told me something I have never forgotten. 
     He didn’t just offer sympathy or try to soften the painful reality of death.  Instead he said to me, “Robert, go and be with your family and comfort one another.  And as a person of faith, remember to go and bear witness of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
     Unlike Job’s friends, he didn’t try to offer easy explanations. He simply wanted to remind me that God was with me during that dark time of my life. It was an opportunity for me to trust God through the storm.
     Whenever I face things that are too difficult for me to understand, I am always drawn to the cross. Jesus, the full embodiment of God understood what it meant to be fully human. He felt the pain, the anxieties, the struggles, and the anguish that we experience from time to time. He even tasted death on a hard wooden cross.
     When he was hanging on the cross, even Jesus said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
     Come to think of it, like Job, Jesus’ friends weren’t very helpful when he needed them the most. Most of them fled out of fear, although a few stayed there by the cross that had been lifted up on a hill called, Calvary.
     Those that stayed on that dark hill would later find themselves by an empty tomb, and hear these incredible words of good news, “He is not here. He is risen!”
     The Book of Job may not offer the answers we were hoping for as to why bad things happen to good people. Sometimes, life just happens. Bad things happen to all of us from time to time.
     Instead of an answer to an age-old question, the Book of Job gives us something so much better.
     Instead of answers, we get something so much better.

     We get…God’s presence.

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