September 8, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT DID I EVER DO TO DESERVE THIS?
The first in a series of four sermons
Each of us is two persons living inside the same skin — a public person and a private person. Our public person is what we want other people to see. We want to be seen as strong and capable and successful. We try very hard to project that image even though we know it’s just an image. The reality lies in the private person we try to conceal from others. Deep down we are struggling with pain and doubt, guilt and fear. And among our greatest fears is the fear of self-disclosure.
Patricia Quigley has written about this. She went to church expecting to find a place where people could be honest with each other about what really was happening in their lives. She was disappointed.
It is nothing short of tragic that many Christians are today finding more acceptance, support, and need-fulfillment in secular encounter groups than they are in their churches. At church I find no signs of illness in those around me, outfitted in Sunday best shoes and smiles. We talk about what we are doing but we seldom talk about what we are feeling. We may tell about spiritual victory but we carefully camouflage defeats or struggles. On the Sundays I arrive at church in acute need of spiritual healing, I feel alone and out of place in this atmosphere. I feel like a measles-spotted child in a nursery full of healthy youngsters. Once or twice I tried to talk about my distress in a Sunday school class but sensed a tension build around me as I described my symptoms. When the fever of struggle or defeat hits me now I simply remain silent and isolated from those around me who seem to know only perpetual good health. Fortunately, during my down times I have found a company of fellow strugglers in the Bible. Like Job. Like David, Peter, Thomas, and Paul. They spoke honestly and movingly about their struggles. It is frustrating to know these men of the Bible better than people in my Sunday school class in church.
We are going to be talking today and for the next three Sundays about one of these fellow strugglers we meet in the Bible. Job. Job’s story is the story of one whose life was a mess. Putting on a good face and acting like everything was under control was no longer an option for him. The bottom had fallen out of his world. His private life and his public life now were one and both were in shambles.
We can relate to Job. Because sometimes we feel like we are Job. Bad things happen to us. Horrible things. Undeserved things. Not as bad as what happened to Job, let’s hope. His case is a little extreme. But we’ve all had the experience of bad things coming our way unexpectedly and undeservedly and struggling to get through. We’ve all had the experience of wondering where God is in all this. Where is God when I need him most? How can a loving God allow this to happen? What did I ever do to deserve this?
And so the book of Job draws us like a magnet. It speaks to us right where we live. It is real. It is relevant. It is raw. In Job we meet someone we know. We may not know the person we’re sitting next to in church, but we know Job. He’s like us.
We need to be a little careful here. Job is like us but he is also not like us. Job is a character in a story. He comes alive for us in that story, kind of like a character in a good novel comes alive for us, but we have no reason to believe that Job was a real person who really lived. One clue is that it says he lived in the land of Uz. Nobody knows for sure where Uz is. I’ll bet you anything the land of Uz in the Book of Job was L. Frank Baum’s inspiration for the land of Oz in “The Wizard of Oz”! Oz and Uz are both make believe places. This man named Job is a make believe person. He was invented by a creative mind under the inspiration of God. So his story isn’t true in the sense that it really happened. But it is true in a deeper sense. What happened to Job happens to us all the time. And Job’s story gives us true insights into how we are to understand undeserved suffering and cope with it and triumph over it.
Job is not like us in another sense, too. He is too good to be true. Job is introduced in the very first verse as “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil.” If you read the King James translation you will see Job described with the word “perfect”. Then a few verses later we see what a “perfect” father does. Job rises extra early in the morning to offer sacrifices for his teenage children who have been up all night partying, just in case any of them may have sinned (1:5). I’ve never done that for my children. I sleep too soundly to know if any of them has been up all night partying. They could be holding their party right in my house and I still wouldn’t know. This Job, who is like us in so many ways, is clearly out of our league when it comes to his righteousness.
He is also out of our league financially. Job is a very wealthy man. We are given an itemized list of his livestock (1:3) Eleven thousand head of a variety of animals. That’s a lot of money. Not to mention all his servants. When it says Job was “the greatest of all the people of the east” it means he was the richest.
Which is what we would expect. Right? The more righteous you are the more you will prosper. Material riches are a sign of God’s blessing. A lot of people still believe that today. And the opposite, too. Lack of material riches is also a sign from God. It’s a sign God isn’t happy with the way you’ve been living your life. As I remember hearing on my grade school playground, “Cheaters never prosper.” That’s the way the universe should work, right? Only good things happen to good people. And the only people who have bad things happen to them are the bad people who have it coming. And that’s the kind of universe we find in the opening chapters of Job. Job is good. Therefore, Job has a good life.
And then, suddenly we are living in an alternate universe. Job is still a good person. But instead of the good life that he had before, all these bad things start happening to him, one right after the other. The bottom falls out of his world. It makes no sense. It’s not fair. It’s not right. What is going on here? Job is baffled. Because Job is not privy to the little negotiating session that has taken place between God and Satan. Job doesn’t know that the reason for his sufferings is that God has make a little bet with Satan.
It is one of the stranger parts of the Bible. And I’ll be the first to admit, the Bible has some strange parts. This is one of them. This friendly conversation in heaven between God and Satan. God starts off bragging about Job. It’s kind of like bragging about our children or our grandchildren. “There’s no one like Job”, God says. And Satan answers, “Oh yeah?” Satan isn’t so sure that Job is as good a person as God thinks he is. “He’s just good because you’ve given him such a good life. Take away his good life, and we’ll see what a good person he is.” God agrees. God allows Satan to kill Job’s livestock, his servants, his children. Job responds by saying, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).
That’s where we stopped reading today, but there’s more. The scene shifts back to heaven. God tells Satan, “See, I told you so. Job is still as righteous as ever.” And Satan answers, “That’s because nothing has happened to him personally yet. Take away his health, make him miserable physically, and then see what happens.” Again, God agrees. God gives Satan permission to torment Job any way he wants to short of taking his life. So “loathsome sores” start appearing all over Job’s body. Throughout the book little details are parceled out about what has happened to him. Taken together, people with medical knowledge say it sounds like “elephantiasis”. This is the “Elephant Man” disease, if you remember the movie from a few years ago. It’s a disease that is excruciatingly painful but those who suffer it report that the physical pain isn’t the worst part. The worst part is the social isolation that comes from having a face that looks so awful that people cannot look at you. They turn away. You scare them. You are left all alone. Next week we’ll talk about the friends of Job who come to try to comfort him. One of the verses we will be reading says that when they came to Job “they did not recognize him” (2:12). That would be consistent with a diagnosis of “elephantiasis”.
So here we have Job, this most righteous man suffering as few have ever suffered before. Why? Because God wants to win his bet with Satan. God wants to prove his point. And so God stands by and does nothing while Satan tortures Job to within an inch of his life.
Where is God when people suffer? There are many theories. Some suggest that God is responsible for the suffering. God has a reason for it. God knows best. And so I read a story out of Parkland, Washington about a dad backing out of his driveway and killing his seven-year-old son. A little shrine appeared to mark the spot. There was a cross, stuffed animals, a toy airplane, and a blue bicycle. There was also a note attached to the cross. It read, “Do not blame yourself. It was time. God will look after him.”
A lot of believers make sense of things that make no sense in this way. It’s part of God’s plan that we cannot possibly understand in this life but that we accept much as Job accepted his sufferings. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Is that what this book of Job is saying to us?
I don’t think so. I don’t think God really made that bet with Satan. There are parts of the Bible that record historical events that really happened. This is not one of those places. For one thing, who was there to transcribe the dialogue between God and Satan? For another, the dialogue hardly sounds authentic. It sure makes God sound silly. It’s hard to listen to it with a straight face. It sounds like it was written by someone with a wonderful sense of humor and a vivid imagination who put together a creative piece to introduce the rest of the book.
That’s the important thing to remember here. This is the introduction to the Book of Job. This is not the Book of Job. This conversation in heaven is not the conclusion to the book. It sets the stage and poses the question that the rest of the book will be wrestling with. Nothing is settled in the first two chapters of Job. But here’s what I think happens. A lot of people sit down to read Job. All of Job. And they read the first two chapters which do hold one’s attention. Then they get bogged down in the next forty chapters which admittedly are a little harder to get through. And they stop reading and they walk away remembering Job as the one who calmly and patiently endured his sufferings, trusting that God knows best.
The truth is, as those who have read the whole book know, Job is anything but calm and patient! He deals with his suffering much as you and I deal with ours. He cries out in pain. He searches for answers. He rebels against trite and simplistic answers. He shakes his fist at God. This is the Job of the Bible. This is the Job that Patricia Quigley said she knows better than people in her own Sunday school class. This is the Job you and I can identify with. This is the Job, the real, human Job, who we will get better acquainted with next week. His story is our story. He faced the question we all face: Why do we suffer through no fault of our own?
Of all the horrible things that happen to Job, the worst had to be the death of his children. His 10 children. They are enjoying a meal together. And then, out of nowhere, “a great wind” hits their house. The house collapses. It falls on them. They all are killed.
You made remember the tornado that hit GoshenUnitedMethodistChurch in Piedmont, Alabama back in 1994. It was a Palm Sunday. Their children’s choir had just sung. A huge brick wall came crashing down. Twenty people were killed, six of them children, including four-year-old Hannah Clem, the pastor’s daughter.
The Reverend Kelly Clem wrote about that day. She wrote about what it was like for her and for her family and, in particular, for their other daughter, Sarah, who was two at the time. Sarah kept asking, “Where’s Hannah?” Kelly and her husband kept answering, as best they could. They would choose their words carefully. They would tell Sarah that Hannah died because her body was hurt very badly. They would tell her that now her sister lives with God and that God is taking good care of her. That would seem to satisfy Sarah for awhile, but never for long. Eventually that same question would be asked yet again: “Where’s Hannah?”
One day, after the question had been asked for about the umpteenth time and Kelly decided to try something different. She told her daughter to close her eyes. Then she asked her, “Can you see Hannah?” Sarah didn’t say a thing, but gradually a smile appeared on her face. Soon she learned to do this for herself. Whenever she missed her big sister, she would close her eyes, she would see her sister’s face, and she would smile.
Here’s the Clem family today. Sarah is the older girl. She now has a younger sister, Laurel, born after the terrible day of that Palm Sunday tornado.
When that terrible tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma in May of this year, Kelly Clem was reaching out to those who were facing what she had faced. In fact, they did a news story on her. Let’s take a look.
(Video: WHNT News, May 26, 2013)
Terrible things do happen in this world. Senseless things. Things we in no way deserve. And we struggle, as did Job, to go on.
It’s a real challenge to our faith. There are no easy answers. But I am thankful that we have in our Bibles this book called Job. This book about someone we know all about because we have been there. This book that points us away from despair and points us to a new and a stronger faith.
Dear God, we pray for those who suffer, including ourselves, especially those whose sufferings are so much worse than our own. We are grateful for the good in life, but we confess that we have a real hard time with the bad. We pray for understanding where that is possible, but where it is not we pray for faith that enables us to keep going and to keep trusting. In Jesus’ name, Amen.