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Sermon – October 11, 2009: What You Have

Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

What You Have

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

It’s a small city hospital, in the emergency room. An older woman has been brought

in with a stroke, and has been there for some hours. The family is gathered–husband, son,

other relatives–in a waiting room, and the family pastor is there. Late at night the attending

physician comes in, and says that medicine has done all it can, and that now it’s up to God.

Everyone knows what that means. In the absence of a miracle– in the absence of

something happening which overturns the way the world always works–the woman will die.

They’re invited to the bedside, and given such privacy as possible. A prayer gets said,

and people huddle, and watch, and wait, and the woman in the bed–the wife, the mother,

the aunt, the sister, the cousin, the member of the pastor’s church–dies.

It happens every day. Every day some doctor watches the monitors and looks at

the test results and realizes that there’s nothing more to do, and often has to bring that news

to people who are hoping against hope.

That particular doctor was Indian by birth, which only is worth mentioning because it’s

possible that when he said it was up to God, he was speaking out of a different religious

perspective. But that doesn’t really change anything. In the end, God is people’s last

hope, and final chance, and the question raised by the book of Job and this morning’s

scriptures, is what does that mean? Does it mean that death and disaster–the floods and

storms and earthquakes against which ordinary insurance is no good because they are

defined as “acts of God”–that the inescapable ills of life are visited upon us by God, that

when there’s nobody else to blame we can blame God? Or does it mean something

else?

That old lady was buried out of her church, and had the old rituals read over her

grave, and as the years went by her husband joined her there. Twenty years after that

night in the emergency room, at another funeral, an old man approached the pastor. He

was the brother of the woman who died of the stroke, he reminded the minister, and he

shook the minister’s hand and thanked him for having been there. Apparently he, at least,

felt that the way God was responsible wasn’t all bad, that it was okay for God to be there at

the end. He had accepted that no miracle was necessary or appropriate, that it was time to

take the person from the orbit and care of her loved ones into another realm, where God’s

goodness, kindness and care always were.

Of course, two decades had intervened, between the night of dread and steeling

oneself for bad news, and the day of gratitude for God’s being there when all else failed. It

takes time for people to shift gears, to make up their mind about who God is and how God

has worked and how, or why, it makes sense for them to have kept the faith. It takes

something for people to come to affirm that God, indeed, keeps faith with us. There are

always dark nights when it seems it is not so.

The Book of Job is an eloquent examination of such dark nights. Today’s scripture

gives us Job wrestling with what it means to serve a God who seems indifferent to one’s

distress and deaf to one’s prayers. Job knows himself not to deserve his suffering, and

believes that God doesn’t desire his destruction, but the facts suggest otherwise. He is

suffering as though he were being punished for something, and all that he can discern of

God’s hand in his life is negative. On the one hand he thinks that if he could make his case

to God, God would agree that there was no justice in what was happening to Job. On the

other hand he fears the circumstance of having nothing on which to rely except the integrity

of God. While he is yearning for a chance to engage God out of his situation, at this point

he is still maintaining his own integrity. He understands that abandoning himself to God’s will

might not give him the outcome he desires. God may not see it exactly the way Job does.

This morning’s gospel account offers us a parallel situation to that of Job. The story

of Job is that of a faithful man blessed in all his circumstances, including health, wealth, and

family, who suddenly loses all those things and the question is whether he can remain

devoted to God when he doesn’t have all those good things. Job endures the loss, and

wonders what it all means, and finally he and God find a way to deal with what’s happened,

without Job ever having renounced his faith either in himself or God– and at the end of the

book Job is blessed even more bountifully than he had been at the beginning.

In the gospel the Rich Young Ruler shows up. He’s just like Job is at the start of the

book of Job–affluent, socially prominent, and devoted to God. What more does he need

to do to get everything God wants for him? Jesus tells him to turn himself into the Job who

has lost his prosperity and his position, and to rely only on God–which I think is a fair

equivalent to the invitation to come and follow Jesus. The Rich Young Ruler, again like Job,

is reluctant to hand over complete control to somebody else, however holy and

trustworthy. He has the natural human instinct to safeguard his advantages and to run his

own life.

Then, after the Rich Young Ruler hasn’t been able to become the Job whose only

hope is God, Peter pipes up and says, “we’ve turned ourselves into that person who has

nothing in the world except what God may yet provide,” and Jesus tells him, “don’t worry,

you’ll have more at the end than at the beginning.” That’s the lesson that renouncing looking

out for oneself and instead submitting oneself to God’s direction eventually will be

rewarded. It makes us uncomfortable in many ways, for most of us because we can’t make

ourselves believe it, and for some of us because we fear that God’s rewarding faithfulness

might make our serving God somehow selfish.

What Job and Peter, at this point in the story–because Peter fails at the end,

swinging a sword in the Garden to try to prevent Jesus from having to submit to what

Jesus accepts as God’s will–have in common with Jesus, is the ability to give themselves

over to God with no guarantee that it will be okay. I say “no guarantee” but that’s not

exactly right. The guarantee, if there were one, would be based on God’s being

responsible and good, which everyone on some level believes. But human experience

also is that God’s justice and God’s mercy are not always evident in events, so that’s the

factor which Job, Peter at this point in the gospel, and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

all decide to accept, to be persons of God. They believe that suffering the loss of things–

even suffering the loss of all things, which Paul the apostle later claims coming close to

having done–is justified by God’s requirements, and that it is acceptable.

The Book of Hebrews makes a big point of Jesus as a model of accepting

everything which humans know, including suffering and injustice, in order to transform human

experience and expectation. Whether or not the way the story of Job is told makes God

look good, the story is true to the facts of human life. Whether or not the demands Jesus

places on his disciples make Jesus look reasonable, the devotion and cost of discipleship

to any person or cause, in order to achieve something significant, are true to human

experience. Whether or not we can see ourselves being able to do what Jesus does in

the Garden of Gethsemane and say to God, “not my will but thine be done,” we can see

that Jesus had either to choose that daring posture of faith and submission or be false to

what he had been saying and doing all along.

The strain on Jesus, the pain of Jesus, the Book of Hebrews understands as

redemptive with regard for us, because the anguish which is part of human life now has

informed the heart of God, through Christ’s incarnation. We don’t have a judge in heaven,

the way Hebrews puts it, who is unfamiliar with our weakness, but one instead who in every

way understands the challenge of being human. We should have an advantage on Job,

whose partial conviction that God would agree with him about his own suffering faltered on

the distance between himself and God. We should, as Hebrews urges us, approach the

throne of grace with confidence not only of a fair, but a sympathetic hearing. The hardship of

being human, the difficulty in entirely relying on God, God knows; and so, as Jesus said

about all of us who follow the Rich Young Ruler in turning away from the call for giving over

everything to God, with us salvation may not be possible, but with God all things are

indeed possible.

 

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