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Sermon – Completed by Suffering – October 21, 2012

Sermon for October 21, 2012                                       The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Completed by Suffering

Job 38:  1-7, 34-41;  Hebrews 5: 1-10;  Mark  10:  35-45

There was an episode of the Twilight Zone years ago in which two astronauts landed on a planet where the civilization was the size of a flea-circus.  The astronauts’ stride would span the limits of a city, and they could divert the flow of the city’s river with one step.  The power over the lives of the little people, who were too small to establish any real give-and-take with, went to the head of one of the men.  Giddy with the mastery resulting from the disproportion, he exulted in how he had become like a god to them.  His fellow astronaut was horrified to see him crush and destroy the almost-invisible population as an expression of his unanswerable advantage.

Mark Twain, years earlier, created a similar image in his story “The Mysterious Stranger.”  In it someone was on the shore, and could be seen molding little living beings out of mud.  He’d play with them for a while the way a child amuses himself with tiny toy figures, and then he’d crush them as nonchalantly.  It was as if because he had brought them into being, he was free to dispose of them in any way he chose.

Both these stories illustrate a terrible human suspicion:  that the great power overseeing our destinies is indifferent to our sense of what’s right and wrong.  Rather than being the source of moral value, and the creator of justice, such a being is motivated by pride or vanity or perhaps acts without any reason at all.

Though many of us have been little boys who stomped on ant hills, it is not the perspective of absolute power which motivates the telling of such stories.  It is being on the other side of the equation– perceiving ourselves as the little creatures helpless before a disaster-dealing deity, or the victims of a creator without a conscience.

In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner published a book written in response to the tragic death of his son from the disease progeria, an accelerated aging which dooms young children to early deaths.  The book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, became an international best-seller, and translated into twelve languages.  Kushner wrote the book to reconcile his belief in the goodness of God with the injustice of his son’s suffering.  Without presuming fully to answer the questions raised by the existence of evil in human experience, Kushner concluded that God’s supervision of the cosmos is not total, that some bad things just happen which nobody can justify by presuming that God is conferring some unperceived benefit, and that what one expects from the good God who also is subject  to the vagaries of existence, is God’s sharing one’s indignation, and sympathy with one’s pain.

Like all popular works on religion, the book was criticized from many quarters for not supporting one or another traditional teaching about the nature of God and life, but it is easy to understand its appeal.  The world is full of obviously undeserved ills.  Many people have an instinctive apprehension of purpose behind the way things are, and so are disposed to credit the existence of something like the god or gods of traditional religions, but their own experience of misfortune, to use one more concept to describe it, prevents them from regarding that God or gods as either as well-intentioned as described, or as able.

The Jewish scriptures have a recurring theme that bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people, because God has no rivals in the spiritual sphere, no competitors, that it’s monotheism, period; and that God is just.

Kushner’s book uses the book of Job to meditate on the nature of God, because Job is in what we call the Old Testament as a reflection on how the notion doesn’t hold up that good is rewarded and bad punished.  Job is completely good, yet has terrible things happen to him.  Several people come to encourage him to believe that there is somehow justice in what has happened, that God can’t be blamed for making a mistake.  They are all wrong.  Job has been wronged, and this posture of recognizing that he is suffering unjustly, in the logic of the book, puts God in the wrong.

That’s where our scripture from today comes in.  Job’s recognition that his suffering is unjustified, and the implicit complaint in that recognition, gets God’s dander up.  God, who has been silent through all the debates Job has had with his neighbors, shows up and tells Job off.  Who does Job think he is, to presume to question what happens?

This really is a “who do you think you are?” conflict.  God points out God’s might and the scope of God’s power.  The implication is that it is presumptuous to find fault with what God has made, even the misery which has become Job’s life.

Now, before the whole story is over, God does announce that everyone who tried to get Job to think that he somehow deserved his suffering was wrong, and that Job, who believed himself an innocent victim, was right.  Being an innocent victim in God’s universe is not impossible.  Does that undermine who God is, or what right and wrong are?

The theology of this is unsatisfying.  It may not say that “might makes right”, but it seems to say that “might makes one above being found in the wrong.”  God really is unanswerable–God does what God wants, the universe goes the way it does, and people have to take it.  If they do right and are rewarded, well and good.  If they do wrong and are punished, what can they expect?  If they do right and are punished, who is anyone to complain to God about it?  That’s what they get, they just have to take it.

The righteousness of Job rests on two things.  He tells the truth about his circumstance, in the first place, and in the second place, when God answers him out of the whirlwind and tells him that he is “darkening counsel by words without knowledge”, Job admits to being out of his depth and shuts up.

See, even when Job has recognized his reality as not right, he remains righteous.  Religious virtue is not negated by the unfairness of life.  This reminds me of the existentialists who responded to the horrors of the two World Wars by deciding that there was no benign power behind events, and that one could achieve a heroic dignity by living by one’s own conception of right and wrong despite the fact that there wasn’t a God to back one up.  That’s almost the lesson of the book of Job, except for Job his integrity is related to his relationship with God, even though God never justifies Job’s suffering, but merely questions Job’s complaining of it.

In the gospel, two of Jesus’ disciples asking to sit at his right and left in his kingdom.  Jesus asks if they are able to do what they must do, and they say they are able, and Jesus agrees with them.  They’ll go through every thing Jesus will go through.  So do they get to sit on his right hand and left?  After all, he responded to their question by asking if they were able to do A, B, and C, and they and he agree they are able.  No.  They won’t sit at his right hand or his left– it’s reserved for someone else.  Whatever reward they are going to receive for their faithful following of their Lord is not going to be what they think is right, even after having their suffering on the way to the kingdom posed as a prerequisite.  They just have to take it.  Suffering is not something they pay in order to get to be Jesus’ special companions.  Suffering is part of being Jesus’ special companions, period.

The gospel goes on to notice the resentment of the other disciples to the request made by James and John.  Jesus tells them that the posture of humility, of not putting oneself forward, of spending oneself for the other, is what will make them like him.  Christianity, he tells them, is not a matter of being served, but of serving, and giving one’s life.  It’s not what’s in it for us, but what we can do for others, and whatever suffering is involved in that unselfishness is apparently not regarded as a problem.

The Book of Hebrews presents Jesus in terms familiar to the Jewish religion of the early centuries.  Jesus is the great High Priest whose sacrifice of himself is the once-for-all resolution to the burden of guilt and shame hanging over people.  Hebrews sees Jesus’ willing lowering of himself to the humble status of a human being as a necessary part of his being useful to us, and says that Jesus is made perfect in suffering.  What I take that to mean is that Jesus’ sharing of human experience isn’t complete without suffering.  That is evidently part of what it is to be us, and from the perspective of the author of the Book of Hebrews, part of what Jesus transforms by his participation in it.

Kushner’s way of preserving God’s goodness despite unjustified suffering is to say that God is not really in complete control of all things, that some things just happen, and God mourns the wrong in them alongside us.  This is not consistent with the developed theology of either Judaism or Christianity, neither of which like the idea of undermining God’s omnipotence.  On the other hand, it is very consistent with the commonsense perspective often shared in some of the more thoughtful scriptures, like those we have read today.  All of them suggest that undeserved pain is not only a possibility, but perhaps always a part of people’s lives.  Jesus isn’t scandalized by the idea of his disciples sharing his unfair fate; he’s unhappy because they expect to be rewarded for their faithfulness.  Hebrews says that Jesus isn’t really one of us until he suffers.  Suffering is simply the way it is for human beings, transformed by faithfulness– ours to God and God’s to us– but not transformed into justice, or the riddle resolved of the innocent suffering wrong in God’s good world.