Chaplain Mel Baars
October 7, 2012
Job 1:1; 2:1-10
“Help Our Unbelief”
I was really hoping that the lectionary would be more helpful for this Sunday when we celebrate World Communion. Since it is also my last time to preach, I wanted to end on a high. When I opened up the Bible to our gospel, my first thought was, you have got to be kidding me. Divorce...really??!! It’s not quite as gruesome as the beheading of John the Baptist, but for many who have struggled through it, a beheading may have been preferable. I was hoping for something warm and fuzzy, maybe something about hope or love or God’s promises of goodness. Something that was easy, which didn’t remind us what we are continually trying to avoid, how challenging our lives can get, the fact that we can never quite live up to who God is calling us to be, no matter how hard we try.
Our Old Testament reading wasn’t much help either. God and Satan are in the middle of a major power play, what appears to be a cosmic game of chess. Unsuspecting and upright Job seems to be caught in the middle, almost because he was such a good guy and not the opposite. Today’s scripture selection makes me think of saying something which is not often uttered audibly in a church. “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” Last night, as I was praying for divine inspiration, my modus operandi for Saturday nights throughout this deployment, it struck me how true this statement can be, or at least how it may appear in certain seasons of our lives. Job is an extreme case of suffering, but all of us, no matter where we come from or how well we follow Jesus each day, inevitably, we face periods of wilderness. Someone joked yesterday that he felt a lot like Job on this deployment, struck each day with some new struggle, some new tragedy. Our lives here may not be as dramatic as Job’s, but some days, when that Red Cross message comes in or we catch the wrath of some superior officer, it sure feels like it.
Job is the Bible’s classic case of enduring faith despite terrible suffering. This morning in our reading, we skipped over some of the saddest parts of Job’s story, when he loses everything, including all of his children in a sudden, deadly tornado. In chapter two, he is ravaged with oozing sores from head to toe. His wife, who along with Job has also lost everything, poses the question many of us may be wondering in the wake of such devastation, “Do you still keep your integrity, even now when you have nothing left, no offspring or wealth, no blessings or hope at all. Do you still hold on to your faith? Just curse God and die.”
On one hand, I think she sounds pretty levelheaded. Wouldn’t we all be asking the same question, at least somewhere in the annals of our hearts? I mean, we have to ask ourselves, what is the point of faith anyway? Why do we seek to love and serve God in the first place? Is it an insurance policy for heaven? People say this all the time to me, that they might as well believe, just in case it turns out to be true. Is having faith a way to get something good? If the point of faithfulness is to become more prosperous, to only know blessings, then somewhere along the line, Job’s God has failed him. If God failed Job, perfect and sinless, otherwise what none of us are, then it is not too farfetched to think God may fail us, too.
Yet, do we really expect that the relationship between faith and prosperity will always be one-for-one, tit-for-tat. One prayer equals one day illness free. There are some who think this. They believe if you have enough faith, or the right kind of faith, nothing bad will ever happen to you. With a heavenly flick of a magic wand, problems will be fixed, marriages will automatically mend, illnesses will disappear. They think that faithfulness comes with an immediate reward, just like that. But, what happens when problems don’t go away, when marriages fail, when illnesses intensify, when jobs and homes and dreams are lost, or worse, when a loved one dies without warning. What then? What happens to that kind of faith when a storm rolls in and one is buffeted from every side?
Job responds to his wife with these words, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” It is the right answer but I must admit that I am a little suspicious. This is only chapter two. The book of Job is forty some odd chapters, and Job doesn’t get a break, at least not until much later. If we stopped reading at chapter two, we might think that Job isn’t really human, that he took one devastating blow after the next and never got to the end of his rope, never got angry at God or faced doubt or even a crisis of faith. All of those things come later. Today we only get as far as chapter two. This is just the beginning of Job’s journey through the wilderness, before he has hit rock bottom.
When Job finally reaches his breaking point, he has what many of us would call, a “come to Jesus moment.” He demands to know what he ever did to deserve this horror. He is not going to be satisfied with some generic response from God, but he wants to know details. When did he turn away a stranger or not share his wealth with the poor? When did he harbor deceit in his heart or secretly rejoice when one of his enemies suffered? When did he behave in a way that would garner punishment? He knows the answer is never. According to the story, Job was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. No sin escaped his lips. Job did not reap what he sowed. He did not deserve punishment. He needed no lessons to remind him to give thanks to God for his blessings. He was the kind of guy who did that on his own. But, nonetheless, he still faced the darkness, not because of his sin, but because there are times when the darkness is inescapable.
I have found, strangely, that the most difficult texts have often offered me the most comfort. These texts give us the truest insight into our own lives and the shadows that we live with every day—the suffering that we experience, the illness that our child struggles with, the divorce that is still fresh, the doubts and the fears which haunt us. There are days when we have many more questions than answers, how a good God who loves us could let such difficult things happen in our lives? At times, this has always been our human cry, a common theme when we have found ourselves deep in the pit. Where are you God and why is this happening? It was Job’s question, and it was even Jesus’ question from the cross when he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”
Job and Jesus and many other people of faith whom we encounter in the Bible remind us that neither our lack of understanding nor our dismay negates our faith, neither does anger nor grief. Not even our doubts turn God away from us, even when we say them out loud. God’s arms reach wide enough to bring us back again and again, even if we have wandered very far, even if we have been lost for a long time.
God never stops responding to us, reminding us in countless ways, through a burning bush, out of a whirlwind, or in the presence of another pilgrim on the journey, that we have already been given the most important answer of all. We belong to God and God alone. Though we forget it sometimes, particularly in the midst of the darkness in our worlds, we do know the rest of the story. We know how it all ends. We celebrate it every week when we come to God’s table, and we remember God’s saving love in Jesus.
Today is world Communion Sunday which means that all over the world, in every time zone and on every continent, in grand cathedrals and in makeshift church shacks, in every language and in places where having faith is punishable with death, throughout the ranks and denominations of the whole church, people of faith will find their way to this table. They will break bread and share the cup. They will take and eat and remember that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. They will cross their hands, forming the sign of the cross, and they will share in this holy meal. Some will have just faced great loss while others will be filled with joy. Some will have done this throughout their entire lives while others will come to the table for the very first time. Young and old, rich and poor, some filled with hope and others laden with doubt. Together, with them, we will proclaim what God has promised, that we are joined with Christ through death into everlasting life.
I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?
Lord we believe; help our unbelief. Amen