Monday, April 28, 2014

April 27, 2014 Real Life, Real Faith - Keeping the Faith When Life Falls Apart

April 27, 2014
Job 1:1-12

When I was in college I was often overwhelmed by the amount of reading we were assigned.  In Humanities class, for instance, we had about a week to read Crime and Punishment, which seemed to me to be about 50,000 pages long.  Some years after finishing school, I decided to go back and read some of those books assigned in college that I either didn’t finish or never started.  I found many of them to be very interesting and insightful.

One of those books was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which set a template for books such as Divergent and The Hunger Games, if you have read any of those.

Brave New World is fascinating in several ways, but mostly because it portrays a world of the future where suffering is absent.  The world of the future, in Huxley’s view was designed where everyone would have everything they need, everything they wanted, and are always satisfied and comfortable.  What’s interesting is that Huxley paints such a world not as an ideal, but as a very bleak place.  Even more interesting is that Huxley wrote from an absence of religious faith, so in his future world, where religion does not exist, such a world is seen as bleak and undesirable.

It’s an interesting thought to consider.  Can we truly appreciate companionship if we have never known loneliness?  Can we truly appreciate bounty if we have never been in need?  Can we truly appreciate love if we have never felt unloved?  Would life be as rich and as meaningful if we have not known suffering and difficulty?

This morning we begin a new series of messages – Real Life, Real Faith.  The messages come from the book of Job, a book that leads us to think very deeply and carefully about the difficulties and suffering we face in life.  As we journey through this series I should note that this is not the first time we have studied the topic of suffering.  You are in one of three places in regard to suffering this morning – you have suffered, you will suffer, or you are enjoying a respite from suffering, and because of this, I think it is helpful for us to consider this topic from time to time. 

Job gives us an interesting view of suffering and struggle.  On the surface, the book of Job doesn’t appear to give us many specific answers, but I believe that when we dig a bit deeper we find there are some very important answers contained in his story.
It is necessary to talk about some of the most difficult aspects of what it means to be human because the book of Job forces us to confront one of the most difficult aspects of what it means to be human – that we will struggle and suffer.  Isn’t that a cheery message?  If not, it is at least an honest message.

I will add that today’s message doesn’t fall as easily into the usual category of being positive and upbeat.  You may not like this one, because some of what the book of Job has to tell us is tough to hear.  Not all of this message will come across as cheerful, but if I said that your life would always be great and always be wonderful, I would be lying to you, and I don’t want to lie to you, and I don’t think you want me to lie to you.

Our text for this morning is the first twelve verses of chapter one of Job.  I encourage you to take time in the coming days and weeks to read through the entire book of Job, especially if you have never done so. 

In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
He had seven sons and three daughters,
and he owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys, and had a large number of servants. He was the greatest man among all the people of the East.
His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.
When a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified. Early in the morning he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, “Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular custom.
One day the angels came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.
The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”  Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”
“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied.
10 “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.
11 But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”  Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

That’s a bit of a strange setting isn’t it?  There are a lot of things contained in the book of Job that we won’t have time to consider, so I hope that if you have questions that I don’t address that you will feel free to discuss them with me.

There are three basic sources of suffering –
As consequences of our own actions.
As consequences of the actions of others.
As consequences of…we don’t really know what.

The test that Job faced was one that would reveal whether or not his faith was real or just a product of his blessed life.  That’s an important test – what happens to our faith when our life is tested by adversity?  Does our faith withstand the test, or does it whither and die?

The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor is featured on the cover article of the current issue of Time magazine, and in the article she affirms the importance – the necessity – of struggle, writing that contemporary spirituality is too feel-good, that darkness holds more lessons than light and that contrary to what many of us have long believed, it is sometimes in the bleakest void that God is nearest (page 38).

We talk a lot about what we call the entitlement mentality in our culture.  We talk about the ways in which people feel entitled to certain things.  But here’s the truth – we all feel entitled.  We feel entitled to a blessed life that is free of tragedy and suffering.  It’s a sign of our tremendously blessed lives that we come to think life should always be that way.  And don’t get me wrong; I wish life could always be filled with blessing and free of tragedy and suffering, but it’s just not going to happen.

There is no hedge of protection we can build around our lives that will save us from the difficulties of life, and the Bible doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free life.  Somewhere, a lot of people got the idea that it does.  I blame the prosperity gospel for that erroneous view of Scripture.  Just a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that difficulty and struggle are a part of life.

Job did everything right.  He left nothing to chance, even offering sacrifices on behalf of his children in the event they had done something wrong.  So why should Job have to be subjected to suffering?  And, more importantly, what would be his response?

Struggle is not always a negative, but we see it is one.

As an example, do you know what my generation does?  When our grandparents talked about their experiences in the Great Depression, what did we usually do?  Roll our eyes.  It’s true, isn’t it?  Why did we do that?  We should admire and seek to emulate their great strength and character.

Struggle and struggles are experiences in life that can shape us in important ways, especially when it comes to our faith.  That is my hope, that we are strengthened through those difficulties.

Hope is instinctual to us.  I look forward to going to the mailbox every day.  Does anybody else get excited about going to the mailbox?  I don’t know why I do, because it’s almost exclusively junk mail or bills.  But I always have hope.  Maybe tomorrow will be the day that somehow, some great news will arrive in the mail.  Or, even better, a big check.  I have no idea why I would expect that to happen, but there’s always hope.

I’ve done a lot of weddings over the years, and my favorite was a wedding for the oldest couple I’ve married.  I have a picture of Thelma and Bill in my office, taken on the day of their wedding, when they were both well into their 80s when they married.  I love their story because they had some Job-like moments. 

Thelma and Bill first met as students years ago at Georgetown College.  They dated a few times but graduated and life took them in different directions.  They both married and the years went by.  Thelma and her husband, many years ago, were coming home from a trip to Florida and stopped at a rest area to stretch their legs.  As Thelma’s husband was walking he was hit by a car and killed.  Thelma’s loss was devastating but she was sustained by faith and the love of family and friends.  Bill also lost his wife some years ago.  Then, years later, they met again at a reunion, started dating and were married.

There were so many things that happened to them throughout the course of their lives, and I doubt that in their 80s they would have ever expected to be married.  They had a couple of years together before Bill passed away, and a few years later I officiated at Thelma’s funeral.

I had known Thelma much longer than I did Bill, but I was greatly touched by both of their lives.  After all the ups and downs of life, after decades of living, they found so much joy and happiness.  It was a great ending to the story of their lives.

I will go ahead and tell you that the story of Job has a happy ending as well.  Fortunately, for Job, he held to his faith.  The adversity that Job faced did not crush his faith, but made it stronger.  This is the great irony of suffering – it can produce one of two results, either the weakening of faith or the strengthening of faith.

The happy ending doesn’t minimize the pain of his loss, just as the happiness that Thelma and Bill found didn’t minimize the pain and loss they had suffered.  But though suffering and hardship is going to happen, the good news is that it does not have to break us, it does not have to bring us to despair, and it does not have the final word in our lives.  This, God has promised.

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