Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why . . .

            It became clearer to me as the week went along that I had done us a bit of disservice last week, not really focusing my sermon on Job.  By the time Tuesday had rolled around, I realized that I had been guilty of forgetting the warnings of George Gallup to us in seminary.  As some of you know, but probably most of you don’t, Mr. Gallup was a member of my seminary’s Board of Directors.  He was one of those individuals charged with the responsibility of maintaining the founders’ vision and seeing it implemented even as the world around changes.  During one of his discussions with seminarians, Mr. Gallup reminded us that the number one question afflicting people in our pews and people not yet a member of the Church is the question of innocent suffering.

            Mr. Gallup shared how he and other pollsters were amazed at the consistent data.  No matter how many statements they offered in their polls about Christianity, the question of evil and the existence of a good, holy, righteous, just God was sure to get the best result.  No matter how the question was phrased, it was a problem that plagued a great number of non Christians and Christians alike.  A great example of such a question would be “If you could ask one question of God and demand an answer, would it be:  ?”  And the pollsters filled in a number of possible answers.  To their surprise, fewer people consistently wanted to know when the world would end, when they were going to die, what life after death was like, the eternal fate of a loved one, and a host of other answers over the years than why evil was allowed to exist.  Promptly ignoring his advice this past weekend, I did not address that question with you this past week.

            But God is always quick to show mercy.  Rather than moving on entirely to a new topic in this week’s readings, we are still left to contend with the existence of evil in our midst.  The author of Lamentations has just witnessed the destruction of Israel.  A hemorrhaging woman has been denied her community of worship for nearly a dozen years!  Jairus has been forced to face the despair of having lost a child.  Coming on the heals of Job’s encounter with his friends and with God and with the disciples’ panic in the midst of the storm on the Sea of Galilee, we have a nice cross-section of the effects of sin and our often hopelessness in the face of those consequences.

            What do I mean by that statement?  Take the reading from Lamentations this week.  By the way, I often suggest this book in the Old Testament for those who are struggling.  It is amazingly crafted.  And while I would love to talk about some of the literary devices with the English majors among us, such is not our purpose today.  The author, presumed to be Jeremiah, has witnessed the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  We might think we are unable to relate, but I doubt that we are truly not able to relate to the author’s despair.  While it is true that culturally, the world around us no longer accepts that what happens here on earth is a reflection of the battles among the gods in the spiritual world, we can still relate to this national catastrophe.  The people who have survived the battle and who have avoided being killed or captured and transported throughout the ANE as slaves now face a stark reality: their good luck charm is gone.  Culturally, it was believed that because the Temple was inJerusalemJerusalem really had nothing to fear about the enemies of God.  After all, what god would allow his temple to be torn down, if he could do something about it? And clearly, Yahweh could do whatever He wanted whenever He wanted.

            Truthfully, it is not unlike those among us who like to claim that God’s favor is with us.  Throughout our country’s history people have claimed the mantle of the newIsrael.  We were founded, in part, to give people the freedom to worship God however they saw fit.  It was our destiny, we claimed, to own all the land between the two great oceans.  In various wars against evil, our might was compared by politicians and preachers alike as the hand of God.  This belief that we were protected and used by God gave us a unique optimism.  No matter what happened, no matter what befell us, we knew we would win, conquer or whatever, in the end.

            Then a couple events hit us.  One was the attacks of 9-11.  An outside enemy, an enemy of Christianity, successfully attacked us.  Where was God then?  The more recent event has been the economic crisis of the past three or four years.  For generations Americans considered it part of their legacy to leave their families in a better position for success.  As a society, we were not unlike those described in the book of Job.  Want proof of God’s favor towards us?  Look at our wealth.  Look at what we had to pass on to those who come after.  How many of us gathered here remember that goal of our grandparents?  Our parents?  How many of us here gathered are certain that we will be able to give that gift to our children?  Our grandchildren?  Our great grandchildren?  For the first time in many decades Americans wonder whether we will exist as a country in a generation or two.  Yes, we can begin to empathize with Jeremiah’s despair.

            So, too, can we feel the hemorrhaging woman’s pain.  All of us here gathered know what it is like to be excluded.  As I have heard your stories these past six years, I know we have lots of black sheeps of the family gathered together in worship.  I know we have victims of bullying.  I know we have people who have been ridiculed for who they are.  Heck, how many of us now are excluded simply because we are perceived to be religious?  Four or five decades ago it was assumed that everyone went to church.  If you missed church, the whispers were about you.  Nowadays, the whispers are about those who faithfully go.  “She goes to church every week, be careful how you act around her.”  “He goes to Bible Study, like he can’t find a better use for his time.”  “Those two believe that nonsense that there is a God and He can do miracles.” Yes, we can all relate somewhat to the isolation and exclusion felt by the hemorrhaging woman.

            And death.  All of us gathered here have been touched by death.  A few of us have walked closely with death.  We have fought for our very lives at death’s door.  And for what?  To continue to experience the isolation, the hurt, the pain, and the scorn that this world offers?  All of us have had to deal with the death of a loved one.  All of us here gathered at a grave or more to proclaim our Alleluia, when the world is so quick to laugh at us for thinking that life is not ended, but changed.  Yes, as a group we understand the consequences of sin.

            But that understanding is what makes us perfect tools for His use!  Were the stories that we read the past couple of weeks to end without the view of God’s redemption, we would have every reason to despair.  Like Job, we might feel frustrated and betrayed.  Like Jeremiah, we sometimes have every reason to wonder if God is truly still aware of our suffering and if He truly cares about us.  And like the lady or Jairus, when left to fix those problems on our own, we are often impotent to do anything about them.  We can spin our wheels and see no real impact from all our effort.

            But you and I live on this side of the work and person of Christ.  You and I live on this side of the lens which serves as the focus for all that God is doing in the world and in our lives.  Yes, as we read this week, Jeremiah reminds himself of the hesed, the steadfast love of God.  And he reminds himself and us that he must hope in the Lord.  Hope or faith in anything else, including our fellow human beings or even ourselves, will disappoint.  But, at some time in the future, Jeremiah trusts that God will act and show His favor towards His people.  He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love.  Brothers and sisters, you and I live in the shadow and hope of that ultimate display of His love for us and His compassion towards us!

            You and I are called to live our lives in light of the cross and of the empty tomb.  Unlike Job and Jeremiah and the woman and Jairus, who trusted that God would one day act; you and I live knowing His act has been completed.  How can we face economic uncertainty?  Because we know that the God who died for us, was raised to life for us, and who promised that we would be with Him one day has promised He will provide for our needs.  How can we hope in the face of isolation or pain or hurt?  Because we know, we absolutely know, He knows what we are feeling and that He has promised to redeem those evils in our lives just as He did in that of His Son.  How can we face the threat of physical security and even death, content and secure that life is not ended but changed?  Because we know the tomb was empty that Easter morning!  And let’s face it, if He can conquer death, if He can bring the dead to life, is there anything else in our life more hopeless?  Anything which seems to be a greater threat than our death?  Conquering a lack, providing a need, healing a disease seems like a peace of cake when compared to the seeming permanence of death.

            So, back to our beginning question: Why is there innocent suffering?  Hopefully, as you have reflected this morning, you have come to the realization that there is no such thing.  As we looked at last week, none of us are truly innocent and none of us can isolate ourselves from the consequences of sin.  All of us have sinned and fallen short.  Only one man in history ever was truly innocent and suffered.  Yet His example serves for us a reminder of our calling.  Jeremiah reminded us this morning that God never willingly afflicts or grieves anyone.  He always intends good for everyone.  Still, we live in a world full of the consequences of our sins and the sins of those around us.  Sometimes, God acts immediately to ease the consequences of those sins.  Sometimes, however, our suffering can be redeemed in a way that brings glory to Him and testifies to those around us about His healing power.  Sometimes, he uses our suffering to remind us that we need a Savior, that we cannot save ourselves.  And just as Job life did for his friends, just as the hemorrhaging lady did for those who knew her and her story, just as God did with the exile of His people, and just as Jairus did with those in his life, the redemption of our particular circumstances becomes a testimony to the power and love of God.  When the circumstances of God’s people are redeemed in inexplicable ways, the world is left to wonder.  Why should Job trust Yahweh?  What causes a king to return a people to their land and to rebuild a temple?  What heals such a lady?  How can death be overcome?  Brothers and sisters, it is those redemptions in our lives which become the most powerful testimony of our Father’s love and power to those in the world around us.  It is those amazing restorations and redemptions which give us the opportunity to share the hope that is within us, to share His Gospel narrative, and so give hope where exists despair and promise joy where there is only sadness.

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