10/14/18 – Faith in the Midst of Suffering

FAITH IN THE MIDST OF SUFFERING

October 14, 2018
21st Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-17; Ps. 22; Heb. 4:12-16; Mk. 10:17-31
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

A few weeks ago, I visited my oldest daughter. She told me how good her life is. She has a great husband and two lovely, healthy children. She has a new job that excites her; it pays well with excellent benefits. I am very happy for her and glad that she is thankful for her good fortune, but her proclamation sent chills down my spine. I have been reading Job! How often I have heard such testimony before someone is hit with unexpected, catastrophic misfortune. Perhaps, it is superstitious; but well, look what happened to Job. He had it all, and then suddenly he lost everything. Job’s dilemma, his frustration and anger at God portray the universal question: “Where is God when my world falls apart?”

There was an old insurance commercial that gave us the iconic line: “Life comes at you fast.” In a second a catastrophic accident changes a person’s life forever. In a second, a frightening diagnosis of an incurable disease turns one’s life upside down. In a second a police officer comes to your door or there is a call in the middle of the night. Job lost everything that made his life good – enviable even. The worst blow was losing his children. Job was angry and bitter towards God. Jacob’s friends came by to comfort him but ended up making him feel worse. Each of the three friends that visited him explained his suffering from the standpoint of Deuteronomic theology. This being: if you have misfortune it is because you have sinned, and God is punishing you. Repent and your fortunes will be restored. But Job wasn’t buying their explanations.
Job maintained he had done nothing that should warrant the pain and suffering he was experiencing. Job’s anger bears witness that arguing with God demonstrates great faith, not a lack of faith. Job’s complaint is not that there is no God, but that God is absent from him. God is just not paying attention. Job believes so strongly in the omnipotence and goodness of God, he is convinced that if God will just show up, Job will be able to present his case before God and win on appeal.

The whole book of Job reads like a court procedural. Job puts God on trial for being asleep at the wheel and causing an accident. Today’s reading brings us, uncomfortably, into the darkness of pain. There is no escaping from the hurt. This is the place where we ask God the honest and insubordinate question: “Why, God, why?”

In total despair, Job breaks into a long, loud cry of lament to God. At this stage of grief, Job imagines a route whereby he can bypass the pain. The kind of pain Job experiences cannot be explained or understood. This is the type of suffering that is totally out of our control.

O, how wonderful it would be if we could go before God, as Job wanted, and make grand promises in return for relief from our suffering. I have a Jewish friend whose two-year-old daughter was very ill. She told me she promised God if her daughter were healed she would never eat bacon again. Thirty years later she still did not eat bacon. Even though her daughter had been a difficult child and, as an adult, treated her mother and father hatefully, my friend declared: “A promise is a promise. I still won’t eat bacon!”

Learning to live by faith does not happen when we live in a beautiful, neatly ordered garden. Adam and Eve learned that the hard way. You will find in some rabbinical thought the belief that remaining in the Garden of Eden would have been a disaster for humankind. Our love for God and one another would have never developed if we lived in paradise and never experienced suffering.

Our ability to live by faith matures when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We just keep on walking, keep on talking, crying, falling to our knees– keep on living through the pain. Job does all of these.

As Job’s friends suggested, we might say to ourselves: “God sent this to teach me a lesson.” When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 48, she believed she must have gotten the disease because she worried too much, and it weakened her body. As the principal of a school with grades kindergarten through 8th grade, she was always concerned about someone or something. We fear we were afflicted because God knows all the ways we have strayed from being faithful servants and we must pay a price.

Some of us might take the stiff upper lip approach and rationalize: “I am going to be a stronger person to endure this.” But, neither of these answers really reduces our pain and suffering. The story of Job confirms that God does not cause pain and suffering. Yet, God does redeem our pain and suffering. Pain does change us. We have a choice as to how it changes us.

When my father was diagnosed with his first cancer, colon cancer, he made an observation about his experience spending hours at a cancer center getting chemotherapy. He said: “I sit in this room talking with people I never would have encountered in my daily life before. Black, white, male, female, affluent, poor, educated and illiterate, we all have this deep fear and pain and we talk for hours.” Wisdom and empathy are precious byproducts of suffering.

Another way of responding to pain and suffering is to blame God. This is the approach Job took. He had done nothing to distance himself from God so God must be abandoning him. Job’s lament comes from the place where he admits he can’t comprehend God. Think about people you know who have given you some true wisdom to help you along. Chances are these are people have experienced pain and suffering, they’ve had times of smooth sailing and had the wind suddenly knocked out of those sails.

Job is a story of historical fiction, which speaks to the universal question of why do we experience pain and suffering. We will be spending more time with Job, but – here’s a spoiler alert – Job does not get the answer to the question he first asked. The set up to the plot, is Satan being God’s quality control agent. Satan is the one who insists on setting up a test of Job’s faithfulness. The story makes it clear that God did not want Job to suffer. As the story progresses, Job’s original question and intent on challenging God to take a back seat as new questions arise.  Could God be redeeming Job’s pain and making something new possible?

Pain and suffering take us to the very center of the Gospel. The cry of Job in his despair is the cry of Jesus on the cross. Hear the words of Psalm 22: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” These are the words we read on Good Friday. Job’s lament echoes Jesus’ cry on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It feels almost heretical to claim this is a cry from within the Holy Trinity. But, it is a part of the deep relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is in lament that brings humanity and divinity together to cry in one another’s arms. God’s steadfast love meets us in our need that only God can touch.

For Job, there is nothing outside of God to save him and nothing outside of God to comfort him. That is the sign of Job’s faithfulness. He insists that all he seeks can only be found in God. A lament is an act of faith for this one reason: it means casting all our hope upon God.

This is what the author of Hebrews tries to explain to persecuted Christians who were losing hope that Christ would come again. The author writes that Jesus is not “a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16Let us, therefore, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Job’s journey through his suffering offers the revelation of grace.

Likewise, in our gospel lesson, the rich young man learns that his wealthy and privileged life is not enough to have what he really needs. He implores Jesus:  “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  This rich man learns the hard lesson that discipleship does not come without cost.

 

Jesus sets him straight that this is not about anybody being good except God. Like Job, the rich man isn’t asking the right question. His eternal life has nothing to do with what he does, but what God does. He can’t earn it; it is a gift God offers. Jesus then tells the rich man to remember God’s commandments. Notice he does not tell him if he obeys the commandments he will have done what is required of him to earn eternal life. Jesus says, “You know the 10 commandments,” and then lists the second half of the commandments, each of which has to do with our relationship with our neighbors.

 

The rich man then wrongly assumes that maybe he’s already paid the price of admission to eternal life with God since he believes he has obeyed these commandments. Like Job, he assumes he has been faithful and the rest is up to God. Then Jesus blows his sandals off with his request: ‘Okay, Mr. Self-Righteous, then prove it.’  Jesus then says those words that have struck fear in the heart of Christians since they were first read. Go and sell all you have and give to the poor.”

 

Notice he tells the rich man to do two things: Sell all his possessions and give the money he gets to the poor. Jesus isn’t saying just being poor, taking a vow of poverty like a monk, will give him eternal life. You do not earn eternal life with poverty. Remember, Jesus has said you do not earn it at all. Jesus tells him by identifying with the poor and supplying their need, he will be given a gift from heaven in the here and now. What he will get is the relationship with God and his neighbors that is missing in his life. Jesus asks him to get rid of the things in his life that were getting in his way of having a deeper relationship with God. Only then, will the rich be ready to become one of Jesus’ disciples.

Now Jesus gets to the first half of the commandments – the ones that have to do with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, with putting no other gods before the one true God.

This man wasn’t some Pharisee coming to challenge Jesus with a trick question. This man came to Jesus because, even though he followed the religious laws, he knew there was something missing in his life. He wanted to be part of something bigger than himself, for his life to have meaning beyond just doing what was expected of him. But, the worldly things he owned had enslaved him. In Mark’s gospel, this is the only person Jesus is reported to have “looked upon with love.” Jesus wanted to free him from the life that was not whole, to a new life at peace with God and his community.

The truth that was so difficult for Job and the rich young man to bear is that we cannot manipulate, analyze or predict God. Perhaps the message today is that if we feel abandoned by God, we should abandon ourselves to God. Do not try, like the rich young man, to hold some things in reserve in case God does not come through in the way we want. God held nothing back in Jesus. God gave up everything to live among us, and Jesus gave up everything to save us. In the end, this is what Job learns to do, to let God be God and trust in God’s steadfast love and goodness.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church
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