Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Frankin, TN + 5th Sunday after Pentecost + June 24, 2018
Readings: Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41
Three weeks ago, you blessed a small group of St. Andrew people — mostly teenagers — before we set off for Affirm, a summer youth camp for our synod. We spent the next week at the University of West Alabama with about 200 other people from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Our kids spent most of their time in different units that delved deep into issues of faith and life specific to their age group and interests. But every night all of us came together for worship, which was centered around the year’s big theme: Together. Each day had its own mini-theme — worship, serve, work, and love — and our worship team explored how the Church does all those things “together” with God and one another.
I got to spend most of my time with the worship team, helping high school juniors and seniors craft liturgy, music, and a sermon (usually in skit form) based on study of our daily scriptures and theme. The first theme we worked on was “worship together,” so we began worship planning with a conversation about why it’s important that we come together for worship, even though we can worship God on our own. Each person shared what they found most meaningful about being part of a church community. And it was inspiring. Almost every kid said that their church was a place where they felt like they were welcome just as they were; a place where they could get together with other people who were struggling and help support one another; a place where God worked through all our human messiness to create something better than we could do on our own.
But one teen described church life in a totally different way: he called it “a place of tension.” What he meant was that he spent most of his week out “in the world,” hearing all these different messages and advertisements and judgments — and then when he came to church he heard God’s word. And what he heard God saying through the church was different than what he was hearing in other places in his life. And so church was a place of tension, where he worked to navigate through all those different messages and to figure out how God was calling him to live. The community helped challenge him in ways that wouldn’t happen if he only worshipped on his own.
I’m pretty sure I told him right in that moment that I was going to borrow that for a sermon.
Because I’m sure all of us have felt that kind of tension as we’ve worked to sort through all the different messages we receive in our lives. Often what we are sorting through are all these contradicting moral messages: ideas about how we should behave, what our families and communities should be like, what our priorities should be.
Today’s Bible readings draw us to a different set of messages: messages about how we should interpret our experiences — especially experiences of suffering or fear — and what we might think of God based on those experiences.
Our first reading is from the book of Job. You probably remember the basics of his story: Job was rich both spiritually and physically. He had a big, loving family, a huge, fruitful farm, and lots of servants to take care of things. All these blessings did not make him arrogant or lazy; Job remained “blameless and upright; [he] feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). But suddenly all Job had was taken away from him: goods, servants, family, his own health. He was left to wallow in suffering.
His friends tried to convince him that he must have committed some secret sin to make God curse him so. That was the only way they could make sense of what was happening to Job; if someone was suffering, they must have done something to deserve it. Admit you’ve sinned, they said to Job, confess, and God will make things better for you. Other people tried to convince Job to turn his back on God, to curse God right back.
But Job knew that he has been faithful to God, and he trusted that God was just. Standing firm in that faith, Job begged God to come to him and explain why he was being made to suffer so severely.
And finally God did answer Job. Our reading for this morning is part of God’s answer. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asked Job. Who controls the wild sea, who made the stars, who is Lord over all Creation? In essence, God’s answer came down to: Who are you to try and understand how I run the world?
Ok: taken on its own, that is not the most comforting answer. It’s not very compassionate (how it just downplays Job’s suffering and questions) and it points us toward the mystery of things rather than giving us answers or even much hope. But when we put this response in tension with how Job’s friends responded to Job’s suffering, it is definitely the more hopeful answer. Job’s friends blamed him for his own suffering, rubbing salt into the wound; God assigned no blame, only pointed out that suffering is one of many things that humans cannot understand.
When I was a hospital chaplain, I talked with many patients who were struggling with the question, “What did I do wrong, to earn this disease or this injury?” When people ask that question, coming to accept that their pain is not their fault, but is rather one of the great, infuriating mysteries that we are struggle with…that may actually be the first step towards a better outlook on their situation. And at least it doesn’t make God out to be this scary judge just waiting to get us back for every wrong we’ve ever done; it just leaves us wondering about what exactly God might be up to. That’s the window for hope.
But perhaps the most comforting thing we see in Job’s story is Job’s faith in who God is. Job has a vision of a more hopeful future. As Job’s so-called friends accused him and accused him, calling him wicked, trying to get him to admit how horrible he must really be…as Job felt like he was getting kicked around by God and everyone around him (Job 19:21-22)…in that very moment Job uttered the words that we now sing in Easter hymns: “I know that my redeemer lives” (Job 19:25). That Hebrew word we usually translate “redeemer” also means things like “advocate” and “avenger.” So even in the midst of his sufferings Job held fast to his belief that God would, ultimately, show that God was not only just, but also caring, that God would make meaning out of Job’s suffering, that God would redeem that horrible time, that God would make things right. From a human perspective, all of that seems really impossible. Yet Job believed that in the end he would see that God was on his side after all:
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another. (Job 19:25-27)
And maybe we can find hope in Job’s faith because we see it proved true in Jesus Christ. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection show us that God does come to redeem and avenge wrongful suffering. Jesus is the redeemer Job prayed for: the face of God on earth, showing us that God stands on the side of those who suffer wrongly or without apparent reason — not accusing them, but standing up for them, standing on their side.
In Jesus we see that great, mysterious, high-above-us God of all Creation that responds to Job: remember how in today’s gospel reading Jesus tamed the storming winds, leaving his disciples wondering, “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” That’s the Jesus-is-fully-God thing showing through. And in the person of Jesus God went to those who were suffering — suffering from disease and poverty and prejudice and injustice — and told them God was with them, and helped them.
And in Jesus we also see Job: an innocent man given over to suffering and cursed by people who didn’t understand what was really going on.
And God redeemed Jesus’s innocent suffering; we might even say that God avenged Jesus’s innocent suffering — just not in the way we usually expect redemption and vengeance. God did not answer suffering and death with more suffering and death, by, say, zapping Jesus’s killers with lightning bolts. Instead, God avenged Jesus’s death by raising him to new life. God showed the world that Jesus was not cursed or crazy or wrong; Jesus was God’s chosen one…and even more: that Jesus was God made flesh.
The God we see revealed in Jesus consistently chose to avenge victims of innocent or senseless suffering — and God always avenged them in life-giving ways: by insisting that they were not cursed, that they were blessed and beloved in the eyes of God; by healing them, by restoring them to community; by commanding others to love and care for them, too. And even those who we might say deserved suffering…Jesus forgave them their sins and freed them.
When we are suffering, it’s easy for us to wonder if maybe God is that Watchful Judge out to even the score. The voices of Job’s friends speak in our heads, telling us we must have done something wrong to justify what we are going through. When we see others suffering, sometimes Job’s friends speak up again, making us wonder if those other people must have done something to deserve their suffering: their poverty, their lack of health care, the violence enacted upon them. Often those are the messages we receive not just from inside our heads, but from lots of different places in our world as we try to make sense of the suffering we see and experience.
If we come to church — if we come together with other believers — and have those kind of thoughts inside our head…If we come together wondering if God is judging us, if we are suffering for our sins, if we come judging others too harshly…then I hope the Church is a place where all those ideas are brought into tension with what we know about who God is. I hope the Church is a community that helps us believe that God does not send us suffering because of sins. I hope the Church is a community that holds us as we face down the great and frustrating mystery of suffering. And I hope the Church is a community that helps us hold on to the faith that God will redeem us in the end.