Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Adventers--God's Malachis in the modern world . . .


     Sometimes, you have to smile at God’s providence during the course of church work.  First, I managed to have way too many conversations on the idea that shame was nailed to the cross and left in that tomb during the week, that there is no way I should have been able to finish the administrative work of the parish AND still get my first day off so I could surprise Robbie and watch him in a play at college.  Then, on a week we are reading about the eschaton or end times, we get our wonderful Collect for the second time this church year AND I get a sign of the end times.  I mean, Robbie played a middle aged Jamaican bartender.  If you have never met my second oldest son, he is as Scandinavian as they come.  Blond hair, pale skin—the very picture of a Jamaican bartender in your minds, right?  Of course, the Collect is way more important because it inoculates us against a temptation we have when we speak of the eschaton.
     There is always the danger to try and figure out the “when,” when it comes to end times discussions, right?  Some of the most crazy conversations I have had with people over the years that I have been a priest have been over their interpretation, and insistence of their correctness, regarding the date of the eschaton.  You’d think, given what Jesus says in red letters about not knowing the mind of the Father and in teachings like today from Luke.  “Don’t follow the people who say they know!”  But what happens?  Somebody, usually a guy because we are more stupid, comes up with a date.  And when that date passes and Jesus has not returned, they mine the Scriptures again looking for the error of their calculations, as if they forgot to carry the one or dropped the negative sign by accident.  Then they have a new date and are just as certain as they were about the last one, and they are single-minded unable to understand why I won’t support their math or scare my people with their prediction.
     Apparently, our spiritual forebears, and Anglican ones especially, understood our tendency to place ourselves above Scripture rather than below it.  Twice a year we have the Collect of learning and inwardly digesting Scripture, reminding us that we sit UNDER Scripture and are in no way wise or powerful enough to cherry pick.  God caused it to be written; God caused it to be edited; God caused it to be collected.  The collection we call Scripture, then, is the Church acknowledging what God wanted us to know about Him, about life, about Truth, and about His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  So it is good when we talk about end times today that, before we begin, you and I sit under God’s teaching.  He is authoritative to us, not the other way around.  And, please, don’t come in next week telling me you’ve figured out the date after this sermon.  If that’s your takeaway from this sermon, you were not listening to me, let alone God.  In fact, you were doing the very opposite of what I said and He constantly says.  Yes, you have a puncher’s chance of getting the right date in the future by picking one.  But I sure would not bet money on it.
     The book of Malachi is an interesting book.  For those of you who like to pretend to be holy, it’s a great book to read for Lent and impress your friends and family who are not in church here today.  What are you doing for Lent?  I’m reading the book of the prophet Malachi.  Whoa!  I’ve never even heard of that book!  You must be serious about your faith.  You can strike your most impressive pose and assure them you are.  Why the laughter?  Tell me none of you ever tried to impress friends or clergy like that?  Ouch!  Too sharp?  It’s going to get worse.
     Malachi, whose name means “My messenger,” wrote sometime around 500 years before the birth of Jesus in Nazareth.  Experts argue about the dating.  For our purposes, it is enough to know he wrote sometime after the return from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah, but four centuries before the Advent of John the Baptist.  His book, which is only four chapters long, deals a lot with justice.
     You’d think, given the peoples’ recent return from the Exile, that folks would be serious about their faith, right?  After all, the foreign king has decided to pay for the rebuilding of the Temple and for the wall of the city.  It is, to put it mildly, odd.  Babylon and Assyria showed their gods’ power was superior to the God of Israel by conquering both Israel and Judah and carrying the survivors off into Exile.  The Jews heard another story.  Earlier prophets reminded them that they caused their Exile.  God promised if they kept His torah, He would bless them; if they failed to keep His torah, He would cause the Land to disgorge them.  Their Exile, according to the prophets, was the outward and visible sign of their covenant disloyalty.
     Now they are back!  Things are as they should be!  Except the Temple is a pale imitation of the one built by Solomon, and some of the luster is off the newly re-founded city of Jerusalem.  Those who rebuilt them mourn over the glory that has been lost.  Surely their kids and grandkids would keep the torah to make sure no Exile is ever experienced again, right?  Wrong!  Injustice reigns again.  The rich are grinding up the poor.  Widows and orphans are neglected.  In short, nothing has changed for the people . . .  or for the professional clergy.  In fact, for the latter, things may be even worse.  God accuses the clergy of sacrificing blind animals and animals with skin diseases and other blemishes and selling the unblemished animals out the back door!  Are they behaving as if they understand the reason behind the Exile and the grace behind the return?  Of course, not, they are just like their ancestors who crossed the Red Sea, witnessed God destroying Egypt, and decided to hold an orgy and make a molten calf, as a result.  And they are just like their descendants, you and me, who, although we live on this side of the Passion, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus, still sin, who still practice injustice, even though our Lord is justice.
     Speaking of which, that sure served as a spiritual wedgie for some folks last week.  Apparently, during the sermon, I made the comment that God was just, holy, and other adjectives every bit as much as was love.  That unsettled a few folks, as it probably should.  We would not know that God was that had He not chosen to reveal it to us.  Be He did, so we do.  We just forget.  Heck, we don’t even know what the terms mean anymore. 
     What is justice?  That’s not a rhetorical question.  What is it?  Most of us, if we were awake, would come up with a definition that was more in line with fairness rather than justice, truth be told.  To move things along this morning, somebody pull it up on a dictionary site.  Administering or judging between right and wrong or good and evil.  Great.  How do we know what is right or wrong or good or evil?  That’s right!  God!  God instructs us what is good and evil or right and wrong.  It makes sense.  He’s the Creator; He knows.  He knows what’s best for us.  To put it in the terms of Wrestling with Faith, there is no way that you or I could reason to the ideas of good and evil.  Oh, we might think we can.  We might align with God’s teaching sometimes accidentally, but it would only be at those times when our interests happened to align with His.  No, He is the arbiter of what is just and what is unjust because He has revealed to us that He is just.  He can no more act unjustly than you and I can cease to breathe or we can cease to blink or we can cause our hearts not to beat.  Anthropomorphically speaking, that is, speaking about God as if He was a human being, by nature, He destroys sin and evil and unjustness, what we call sin, whenever He comes into contact with it.  Part of the problem our sin creates for us is how we can come into His presence without Him destroying us.  The sacrificial system allowed human beings to be righteous . . . for a short time.  If you or I lived in the days of the OT, we could make appropriate sacrifices and be righteous, until we sinned again.  The problem, of course, was that we sinned again and again and again.  Our hearts, to use the language of Scripture, were turned away from those things He loves and, often, toward those sinful things He hates.
     Malachi gives several examples, chief among them are the perversions of justice.  But Malachi also recognizes that there is still unjust suffering present in the world.  Those doing Psalm 44 on Monday’s can really speak to this, but there is this problem where God’s faithful suffer through no fault of their own.  Does God see?  Does God know?  Does God care?
     Our reading today carries the resounding answer of “YES!” from God.  Better still, Malachi is teaching God’s people that one day, one glorious day in the future, God will act definitively to judge the earth.  Those who rejected God will be burned away like chaff; those who claimed God’s mercy will feel that heat as a healing, restoring, wind.  Put more simply, God cannot let evil stand forever.  At some point, He will act to judge.  Those who reject Christ as Savior will be cast from His presence; those who accept Christ as Lord will be completely, totally restored or redeemed.  It’s His nature, to use that anthropomorphic language.  He will not allow injustice to exist forever.
     I was watching one of those geeky science shows about space I like to watch—it always makes for great conversations at Wrestling with Faith when we begin to consider the transcendent claims of God.  Anyway, scientists were going on and on about how relatively few, given the numbers of planets now discovered, that live in the so-called “Goldilocks Zone,” the range where they think life might be possible.  That scarcity had caused the scientists to ponder whether life would be possible in other worlds and moons—the real point of the show.  Suns are tough because they are basically big, bright nuclear reactions.  Too close and not enough atmosphere and magnetic field, and life is burned away or irradiated.  Too far and there’s not enough warmth.
     As they droned on about other places that might support life, I was, as you might imagine, drawn to the prominence of the image of the sun in the ANE.  In many cultures it was a god.  In some cultures, the rulers were viewed as descendants or favored of the sun.  Not unsurprisingly, the Scriptures use the sun to describe God.  God’s glory is brighter than the sun, but the image helps us understand.  Too close and lacking the proper protection, we get burned.  But clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we can see God face to face.  It’s an appropriate image in light of God’s consistent revelation to His people, especially as described by Malachi today.
     The question left hanging of Malachi’s audience and us is how?  How will this be accomplished?  Malachi, as you should but probably do not know, ends his book with the promise that the Lord will send Elijah!  Malachi’s prophesy ends with this warning and promise: “Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel.  Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.  He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole Land with utter destruction.  Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.”  What is the answer to the problem of justice and sin?  Jesus!  How is God able to bring us back into His presence, back into full communion with Him as we were in the Garden without utterly destroying us because of our sin?  Jesus!  God can no more overlook our sin than you and I can overlook our need to breathe or blink.
     So, to solve that problem, He sent His Son, who lived an unblemished life and who chose to die in our place, willingly chose.  I don’t think we truly understand that Jesus had to will to hang there and die for us, that His blood might cleanse us from our sins.  Had He, at any moment, changed His mind, we would have been utterly and irredeemably lost!  But He did not.  And so we give thanks and glory for what He did for us.  He made it possible for our hearts to be transformed.
     And we understand, of course, that He was the Elijah of whom God spoke in Malachi.  For God’s people, Elijah became the source of hope that would precede God’s Day of Judgment.  Now you know why the Elijah seat is empty at seders.  Now you know why, when Jesus asked the Apostles who people said He was, some said Elijah.  Now you understand the appearance of Elijah and Moses at our Lord’s Transfiguration a bit better.  He was and is the promised Figure; He was and is the perfect sacrifice for the whole world, not just for our own sins, as our Prayer Book reminds us!
     So, why did I spend so much time and energy explaining a couple short verses from a book nobody reads or knows?  We are Adventers.  It is our calling to proclaim Christ’s first coming, the Incarnation, and His Second Coming, the Day of the Lord or the Day of Judgement.  You and I are called to have an eye to the past and an eye to the future.  Our message is not unlike that given to Malachi.  In fact, we are His messengers, His heralds, every bit as much as Malachi was in his day.
     One tidbit of history I left out was the fact that Malachi was the last voice of God in the Old Testament.  Once Malachi speaks, God seems to go silent.  Israel will wonder as the years drag on whether the Covenant is still in place.  Are they still God’s chosen people?  Will salvation be made possible for the rest of the nations through them?  As the years turn to decades and the decades turn to centuries, those fears will grow.  That’s part of the reason when John the Baptist comes on the scene, to proclaim a baptism of repentance, that people flock to him.  The messenger who prepares the way for the Lord is the first prophet since Malachi!  John’s preaching and teaching gives hope to a people who fear God has forgotten them, who fear that God has abandoned them because of their stiff-necked, willful ways.
     You and I live in a world that bears all the signs of that coming day.  We see and hear of wars constantly.  Our leaders serve their own interests and not those of those who voted for them.  Disease runs amok.  Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, and whatever else ravage us and the earth.  The poor are chewed up and spit out by a bunch of our systems.  We live in the wealthiest land the world has ever known, and yet people hunger among us, struggle for health care among us, get a less than acceptable education, have no hope among us.  Even among the new Israel, the Church, things are run amok.  Theologians can confess publicly that their teaching is heretical, be called out by a faithful priest, go to a bishop and complain their feelings were hurt when they were chastised for teaching heresy, and have the bishop spend the first few minutes of the conversation with the priest chewing the priest out for denouncing heresy, until the priest got through to the bishop that such is ours and the jobs of bishops.  And, even after the bishop recognizes the truth of those words, still admonish the priest that we don’t want to make too big a deal about heresy, that it does not lead away from God and to eternal death, as if sin is not a big deal to God.
     Newsflash, folks: God takes sin so seriously that He sent His Son to deal with it!  And lucky for us, because only His Son could deal with it for our sakes.
     All that, of course, brings us back to the call of our patronal season.  We are Adventers.  We proclaim that the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, has come into the world.  How do we know this to be true?  All the Scriptures teach us about Him.  All of His disciples and Apostles testified to His Resurrection from the dead.  And those in His closest circle witnessed His Ascension into heaven after His promise to return again.  Our choice, like that of Israel, is simple.  Do we believe what God has taught and promised, or do we reject Him in lieu of whatever bauble catches our eye or whatever melodious song catches our ear?  That decision has consequences, eternal consequences.
     If you find yourself arguing with my words in the back of your mind, ask yourself if you are sitting under God’s Word or placing yourself above His Word.  What has He taught?  What has He revealed?  I know it’s unpopular.  I know the world is put off by the “exclusivity” of the Cross.  The world is full of good people is a popular lie.  No one, no one save Jesus of Nazareth, was good.  The rest of us sin.  And that sin has a consequence.  That sin separates us from the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen.  That He sent His Son to make it possible for us to get back is the greatest summary of His grace.  Guess what?  The world has always been put off by the Gospel, yet here we are!  You and I gathered here this day are a testimony to the power of God’s grace in the world!  His Gospel has survived emperors and despots and all sorts of anti-Christian rulers.  His Gospel has survived the indifference or outright rejection of the world.  His Gospel has survived even the death of countless martyrs.  So here we stand!
     And as a result, it falls to us, to Adventers and all Christians, but especially to Adventers, to remind ourselves and to teach the world that He will, one glorious day, return!  One day, He will come with healing and redemption and vindication for His people consequences for those who, in every generation, have rejected Him.  We live in an age that sees wars, sees natural disasters, sees and hears of martyrs for the faith daily, sees plagues, sees famines, and all the other signs of those things that will take place before His return.  Those signs, that so leave the world clucking their tongues about suffering and pain and death, ought to inspire in us a real passion to share the Gospel because, one day, time will be up!  Like the thief in the night He will return to claim what is and who are rightfully His.  Our work is of that kind of salvific importance.
     Is it a hard teaching to remind ourselves that God is love and just and righteous and holy and patient and whatever other adjective we most want or need Him to be?  Sure.  Is it fair that those who reject Him are burned away, leaving no root or branch?  Think of it like this: Is it fair that we get to dwell with Him eternally because Jesus died for my and your sins?  I know it was not for Jesus.  But that’s why it’s good news of great joy!  That’s why it’s Gospel!  God loves us!  God wants us to return to Him because one day He will return to us!  The question for us and for those whom we know and love is whether His presence will be the healing warmth of His love or the destructive fire of His wrath!  It really is that simple.  It really is that offensive.  It really is that wonderful!
     The people during Malachi’s time and certainly after wondered whether God cared, whether God would act, whether they would be vindicated for choosing Him, and whether evil would be punished.  Just as the people of our time, just as you and I do today.  Our Lord’s answer is far more glorious than we could ever have hoped or dreamed on our own.  Malachi prophesied, and so we proclaim, Elijah (Jesus) will come.  And on that day when He returns, those who reject God will no longer prosper; more important to us, though, those who claim His Son as Lord will receive healing and blessing and life beyond imagining!  And that promise, brothers and sisters, is why we, we who call ourselves Adventers, exist.  It falls to us to remind the world that love and mercy of God is every bit as real as He has promised, as is His promise to return and dwell with us, driving away all the consequences and servants of sin!  Christ has come!  Christ WILL come again!

In His peace,
Brian

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Oh, that my Redeemer lives! He does!


     It is with a bit of trepidation that I enter the pulpit this morning and preach on the Gospel according to Job.  Visitors are wondering if I have lost my mind.  I may have.  I do take seriously, though, Jesus’ claim that all the Scriptures are about Him.  So, in a real sense, even the Old Testament books point to His redeeming work and purpose—the Good News, to use the language of the New Testament.  My trepidation is two-fold.  First, I spent some significant time this week in Birmingham considering and reflecting on homiletics.  More importantly to each of you gathered, I spent a significant portion of my time reflecting on my homiletics, or preaching if you prefer.  Preachers like Vaughn Roberts of St. Ebbs in Great Britain and Dr. Robert Smith of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, and others in between, reminded us of some basics and shared more of their own reflections about what works and does not work in this age.  With three days of intense study, y’all know you are in trouble!  I’m fired up!  With our patronal season and Christmas right around the corner, I am in a good spot spiritually, but y’all might not be there with me.  So, there’s some concern.
     It’s good that most of us gathering are laughing.  I understand that some of you really value my preaching.  Some of you share your thoughts and reflections; others of you share what you think are distractions as constructive criticisms.  8 o’clock Adventers, in particular, are great about offering constructive criticisms.  “I wish you’d said more on this and less on that.”  “Could you explain ______ better?”  The Liturgy of the Word is supposed to be important.  It is during that part of our gathering that God begins to prepare you, to teach you, for the work He has in store for you in the future.
     The other cause of my trepidation, though, is the clear sense I had to preach yet again on Job.  This will be the third time this year that I have preached on Job.  Those new to Advent may not know this, but in a prior life, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away to use the language of the upcoming Disney channel launch, I did a MA in religion at the University of Dallas.  My MA thesis in religion was on the book of Job.  I spent way too much time studying the book, dissecting the book, looking at the bark on each of the trees in the forest we call Job.  Sometimes, my sermons on Job can be exciting to me but bore folks in the pew to death.  That is not the trepidation today, though.  Not at all.  I have that calm confidence from knowing this message I have is from God.  I am so calm and so confident that I am certain more than one Adventer needs to hear this sermon.  But that means we will revisit the discussions from earlier in the year, when quite a number of Adventers asked me to consider a Bible Study on Job.  I was too busy then.  With Tina gone now, though, there’s no chance . . . unless y’all pack the Tuesday evening Bible Study and convince them to move on to Job after we finish with Luke.  But seriously, there is nothing more frustrating and worrying as a pastor than hearing that your flock has a bit of a hunger, but there are limits to what can be done.  And so I know, if I preach this sermon faithfully, and if it is from God and for a number of Adventers, I will be disappointing them again if I discern I just do not have the time to teach Job.  So yes, there is some trepidation about this.
     Now, that all being said, I am always available for questions.  If you are one of those kinda wishing I would do that class, read the book on your own.  Read a chapter a day.  Read a story a day.  I’m always willing to answer questions as they arise.  It is a rich book, an important book, and I wish we spent more than three or four weeks in it during our three-year lectionary cycle.
     Our assigned passage today takes place in the middle of the book.  To remind you about the story of Job, the story begins with Satan, whose name means accuser in Hebrew, in the heavenly council, challenging God.  Satan, we learn, has been going to and fro’ over the earth.  God asks if Satan has considered Job, His faithful servant, Job.  Satan downplays Job’s faith and righteousness.  Job only worships You because You bless him.  Eventually, God allows Satan to have his way with Job.
     Satan has Job’s family killed, Job’s flocks—we should think wealth—pillaged and stolen, and Job’s health taken away.  To make matters worse, of course, all these catastrophes cause Job to lose standing, to be shamed really, in the eyes of those whom he loved and respected and who, in turn, love and respect him, at least until now.  His wife will give him that wonderful advice to curse God and die.  We understand her pain, right?  She has just lost her children and grandchildren?  She has lost the family farm and all the wealth.  God has done nothing to help her or her husband or her family as the invading army and bad weather accosted them.  Job has done everything asked of him by God and what does he, or she, have to show for it?  Similarly, Job’s friends know he has sinned terribly against God.  They KNOW that God only punishes those who sin.  If we experience terrible things in life, it’s because God is cursing us.  Conversely, they believe the corollary to be true as well: If we are blessed, God is clearly pleased with us.  In reality, their comfort, their sympathy is an accusation.  “Job, buddy, this is all your fault.  You need to confess your sins to God.”  When Job protests his innocence, the friends are, at first, shocked, and later, angry with him.  In fact, our passage today is part of that initial protest made by Job that he has done nothing wrong.  He has made the appropriate sacrifices.  In fact, he has made sacrifices on behalf of his children in case they forgot a sin.
     There is, following our assigned passage today, a back and forth between the friends and Job.  God blesses those whom He loves and curses those whom He hates.  Since Job is clearly cursed, God hates him for his unrepentant sin—that will be the argument of the friends who are trying to help him.
     Job’s continued protestations of his innocence eventually cause what we might charitably call righteous anger on the part of his friends.  They truly think they know God and His ways.  Worse, they think God needs defending against the accusations made by Job.  Poor Elihu, the youngster of the group.  He makes the most passionate, the most sincere, the most angry defense of God and His ways.  And Elihu is so misguided that his argument prompts God to appear in the whirlwind among this human gathering.  How would you like to be making your best, most passionate defense of God and be so wrong that, as a result, God appears and thunders “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  Would that more of us thought that might happen if we misrepresent Him and his ways!
     What follows is a question and answer with Job that drives some commentators nuts.  God reminds Job, and the friends, and us, that we cannot apprehend Him unless He condescends to reveal parts of Himself to us.  God fashions the stars, the earth, and all that is contained in the sky, on the earth and seas, and under the earth.  He plays with leviathan like a fisherman plays with a guppy and leads behemoth around life a puppy dog.  God is orders of magnitude beyond us, and we can only discern what He reveals to us.  Put simply, we only know what we know about God because He wants us to know it.
     Job, of course, realizes the truth of God’s statement and says he spoke of things he did not understand, of things beyond him and too glorious.  That personal encounter with the Lord has reminded Job of all that every bit as much as God’s questions.  In what absolutely tickles me when I read it, God tells the friends that, unless Job makes a sacrifice on their behalf, His wrath will consume them and their families.  They are each to bring Job seven bulls and seven rams and ask Job to intercede on their behalf.  I chuckle at this because I wish, sometimes, God still did this.  I loathe poor counseling during times of mourning or lamentation.  Every time I hear someone say “God needed another angel” or “they are in a better place“ or “they deserved that natural catastrophe because people there sin against God” I wish and pray that God would do the whirlwind thing again.  Can you imagine how much pastoral care would improve?  But, then I come to my senses and realize the whirlwind would likely be following me around in the world, and so I give thanks that Jesus bore the consequences of my sins on that Cross two thousand years ago.
     Really, that’s what this book is about.  Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.  That’s why I said it was a Good News book of the Bible.  As Episcopalians we cannot read this passage from Job 19 and not hear our Burial liturgy.  God knows we do so many funerals nowadays that this is etched in our collective memory.  It serves as the source of the middle paragraph of the beginning of the service, when the priest stands at the back of the church, asks the congregation to stand, and begins with the words . . . “I am Resurrection and I am Life.”  I see the nods.  It’s only been a couple weeks since Joan’s funeral, so we should all be familiar with the beginning of the liturgy.
     Job’s longing desire is the same of all of us who follow God, who claim Him as Lord of our lives.  He and we want to be vindicated, honored, recognized for our choice to follow God.  We recognize that we live in this world where death happens as a result of sin, but we believe, we truly believe, that Jesus has destroyed death.  Those in the world outside these walls either wonder or mock us for believing that we can believe we will live forever and yet still die, that we can sing an alleluia at a grave, all the while proclaiming a God, a Lord, who has the power to prevent all bad things from happening.  In many ways, that is the fundamental cognitive dissonance we have in their eyes.  You claim God has power over all things, even death.  Then why does He not do something about the bad things, and death especially? 
     I see the nods.  You’ve heard the questions, the agonizing “why’s?”  Hell, let’s be perfectly honest, we’ve all asked them.  Like Job, we have all wondered why the bad things have happened to us or why God did not intervene.  If He has power and loves us, should He not?  Ah, but see, now you know the voice of the accuser, of Satan.  What happens?  If God does not act, what does Satan whisper?  Is God real?  Does He really care about you?  Is He really worth worshipping?  I can take your pain away.  I can help you numb it.
     Heck, I am the professional Christian among us and I ask the same questions and I hear the same whispers.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, I have stood faithfully before each of you proclaiming God’s love and redeeming power to you.  In one sense, it’s an easy job.  I cannot go wrong proclaiming His promises to you.  But then life and death and pain and suffering get in the way.  Do you have any idea how agonizingly frustrating it is to know that God could wipe away the suffering, the pain, the tears of those entrusted to your care and yet Him not?  Do you know what it is like to pray over the dying entrusted to your care and see one raised to health and another allowed to die?  Can you imagine the experience of praying faithfully for someone entrusted to your care to be healed, knowing God could with a mere thought erase their hurt, only to see Him withhold that grace time and time again?
     In one sense, the answer to our pain and hurt is the same answer given to Job.  We cannot know the purposes of God unless He chooses to reveal them to us.  You cannot know the purpose of your suffering, the complete and fullest picture of the purposes of your suffering, unless God makes it known.  That’s a large part of why I pray that He give us eyes to see and ears to hear how our suffering glorifies Him.  Take a couple deaths in my tenure here.  David Kline’s funeral was literally standing room only and included atheists and people of other faiths.  David’s witness, and Mary’s after his death, caused people to re-examine what they believed or what they were told about God apart from their faith and witness.  Joan Vollmer’s has been one about dwelling, which is precisely what she most wanted.  She wanted me to get through to her friends and family that dwelling with God was, well, orders of magnitude above and beyond what we could ask or imagine.  It’s not a hotel room in a mansion.  It’s not just an eternal church service.  God took a bridge game illustration, as crazy as it sounded, and ran with it in the hearts and minds of those who heard it.
     Hanging over the wonder and witness of His faithful servants at Advent and over the promises this priest declares is that problem we call death.  Every single person who has reached out to me because of those funerals has eventually gotten back to the “but” of death.  I could worship his God, Father, but why did his God let Him die?  I so want to believe, Father, but why let Joan die?  Why not heal her and let me see the miracle?  Why not save David from the accident and let me hear of the miracle?  Oh, that my Redeemer lives!
     Though Job lived however many years before Jesus of Nazareth, and though he had no real understanding of a Redeemer who would die on a cross for him, Job had complete and utter confidence, faith, in God.  God knew that.  That’s why, in the heavenly council, He pointed out Job to Satan.  Job trusted that one day, long after his body was destroyed, he would see God face to face, as a friend, as an advocate, and his eyes would behold Him.  God is every bit as much just and holy and righteous as He is love.  We forget those attributes, and so the world never hears them, or seldom hears them.  We need to hear them more so that we can share that glorious news around us.  Jesus’ death and Resurrection teaches us that God has the power to redeem all things in our life; now, we just wait on the fulfilment of His promise, assured of His power to keep them, and of His will to do them.  Put in simple English, God will vindicate and redeem all our suffering.  Period.  The end.  That means, all of us who are baptized into the death of His Son will be raised into His Resurrection with Him.  But the Gospel is like a gem.  There are many sides, sparkling facets, to that grand promise.
     Take, for instance, God’s dealings with Satan.  Was Job’s suffering only for our benefit, or was there a lesson for Satan?  Can you imagine that God so loved Satan that He tried to get through to him?  Why would He not?  He was the glorious angel called Light.  In the end, of course, Satan made his choice to reject the love and worship of God, and God allowed that choice to stand.  But what happened as a result?  He was expelled from the heavenly councils.  When you and I eventually stand before the throne in judgment, who stands there to accuse us?  Nobody!  Job’s prayer has been answered.  When we appear before the Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, we will see our Advocate, Jesus Christ the Righteous, and no one, no one will be there to accuse us!
     You see, Jesus has already conquered the Accuser on the Cross.  What is one of the chief weapons of the Accuser?  Put it like this: when you were a child and mom caught your hand in the cookie jar and slapped it, what did you feel?  A slap?  Sure.  Yep, that would be a shocking rather than hurting pain.  But let’s talk emotions.  What did you feel getting caught?  That’s right, ashamed.  Some of us grew up in a culture that valued honor more than our culture does today.  How many of us were more worried about mom or dad finding out than we were about the punishment, if caught?  Shame was a powerful tool.  Mom’s and dad’s parented some of us to fear them more than getting a tongue-lashing or paddling at school, to fear their consequences more than a police officer’s ticket for speeding or a crash, and heaven help you if you were caught a bit too amorous in your making out!
     We laugh, but it’s a rueful laugh.  Shame was and is a real feeling.  We hate to let loved ones down.  What will they think of me now?  How much more so, do you think, does Satan use that when we think of our Father in heaven?  I mean, those of you who have argued with me these last five years that your sins are the exception to God’s redeeming power, what is Satan’s real hold over you?  Shame!  You fear you disappointed God and, as a result, His promises are not extended to you.  How many times have I told you that you are not alone?  Last week, we read the story of Zacchaeus, who heard the whispers.  Before that, we read the story of the tax collector and Pharisee.  Anybody remember the story of the Prodigal Son?  We are all ashamed when we dwell on our sins; we all are certain we have let God down.  But the glorious news is that He knew we would!  And still He went to that Cross for us, and still He willed Himself to hang there and die there!  You know why, because He took that shame to the Cross with Him and nailed it there, too!
     We don’t talk a lot about the Crucifixion and Passion the way we really should.  It’s hard.  I only have so much time of your attention, and the Easter season brings a number of visitors.  But Jesus came into the world in a shame culture.  The spitting, the beard pulling, the crown of thorns, the soldiers’ mocking—all of that was a shaming of Jesus.  Who do You think You are to claim to be the Son of God?  And the Crucifixion . . . y’all know He was nailed to that Cross naked as the day He entered the world, right?  These paintings and sculptures that show Him with a tunic covering His genitals are fanciful.  He was nailed naked to that Cross to show just how impotent He and his friends and culture were to do anything about it.
     Part of it we understand in a deep level.  When Adam and Eve sinned, what was the first thing they did to hide from God.  Right, covered themselves with leaves.  What was the first thing God did for them after telling them they were banned from His presence in the Garden?  Gave them skins to cover their nakedness.  There’s a reason we cover up, ladies and gentlemen, it’s to hide our shame.  Add to that understanding the Roman worship of sex, whom they called Venus, and you can well understand why they nailed their victims naked to crosses, exposing them, humiliating them, laughing at and scorning them.  You are so weak, you should be ashamed of yourself!
     Jesus took even that shame upon Himself, though He’d done nothing wrong to deserve it.  He understood that shame needed to die every bit as much sin and all the other things He took upon the Cross for our sake.  As a result, Satan holds no power over us.  Oh, Satan is still about the world going to and fro’ and sowing doubt and animosity where he can.  He tries and tries to convince us that our Father does not really love us, that our Father is ashamed of us, that we are unlovable.  I’m certain he is engaged in spiritual warfare we cannot see.  But his weapon we call shame died on the Cross on Calvary.  And as a result, we have no reason to feel shame when we approach our Father in heaven.  Like Job who came before us, and all the saints about whom we read, we need only approach God in joyful thanksgiving, grateful that His Son took our deserved place and our deserved punishment, that He might see His righteousness in each of us!  Like Job and all those saints who have come before, we stand before the graves and we stand before the calamities of our lives, confident that He will redeem us, that, in truth, it is His nature than He can do nothing other!  And you and I live in this reality each and every time we gather here!  We are giving joyful thanks for what He has done for us and what He promises He will do for us!  And just to be clear, He is not now nor is He promising to shame us!
     See what I mean?  I was fired up this week.  Without raising your hands though, who needed to hear this reminder?  Who needed this teaching?  Who among us is afraid they needed it because someone in their life has been caught up in shame to the point they cannot hear the story of God’s love for them?  My guess is, given your attention for these last few minutes, nearly all.  We are not alone.  Remember those inscrutable purposes and suffering statements I made near the beginning, how neither Job nor we can really understand God, except for what He reveals to us?  Yes?  Does Job ever learn the purpose behind his sufferings?  Does Job ever learn that Satan uses him as a test case on humanity?  No.  He doesn’t.  Though we may think of Job as a paragon of righteous suffering, never once does God share with Job the manifold purposes of his suffering.  Oh, Job understands better now that the whirlwind has appeared that he was telling the truth, but he has no idea that God could use his suffering to reach us seven thousand miles away and three thousand years later.  Nor does Job have any idea that his suffering was, perhaps, an incarnated sermon for the accuser.  Knowing that, do you not feel your burdens lifted?  The same God who used Job to teach His people about unjust suffering and, yes, messianic suffering, has His hand, His eyes, and His heart upon you and upon me.  And just as it was enough for our brother Job in his trials, so must it be for us.  But one day, one glorious day, Job will be proved utterly and completely correct.  One day, we who call Him Lord will stand upon the earth, in the presence and glory of our Redeemer, and we will see Him with our eyes!  No matter life’s vicissitudes, no matter our deaths, no matter what happens in the intervening time, at the end, we shall see Him on our side, just as He always was and is!

In Christ’s Peace,
Brian