Sunday, October 18, 2015
Where were you?
Scripture lessons: Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, and 35; Job 38: 1-11, 25-27, and 39-41, OT pages 484-485 Sermon title: Where were you? It’s frustrating to ask a direct question without getting a direct answer, so I apologize, that the same week of the debates between the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination where many significant statements were made but few direct answers were given, we also have this Scripture lesson from the 38th chapter of Job, where after Job asked a direct question to God – “Why Lord must the innocent suffer?” not even God seems willing to give a clear and direct answer in response. It’s frustrating. What Job wants is the truth, but God seems to be echoing those iconic words of Jack Nicholson when he stared in “A Few Good Men,” “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” Our passage begins: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” This is not a gentle response, nor is it a direct answer, but anyone who asks questions has learned that sometimes you get an answer and sometimes you don’t. I remember well enough a day in Sunday School long ago, we were in 3rd or 4th grade and had just read the account in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child...” “Mr. Thomas,” I asked my teacher, “what exactly is circumcision?” “Well that’s a question you should probably ask your father,” he responded. Now that wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but sometimes an indirect answer is what’s most appropriate, and while it’s disappointing in the moment, there have been times when non-answers did more good than a direct answer could have. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, I was in the middle of my first year of college and having spent most of high school goofing off college posed more of a challenge for me than it did for many of my classmates. Knowing that I was discouraged and wondering whether or not I’d even make it, my grandmother started telling me about long nights in nursing school. She was about my age then, 18 or 19, away from home for the first time, asked to cram more information into her brain than seemed possible, especially during daylight hours, but lights had to be turned off in the dorm by 10:00 at night, the only lights that could stay on were the ones in the lady’s bathroom, so she would study there, sitting on those cold tiles reading on the night before a test, and after graduating she began a 50-year career in nursing. Now that’s perspective – the kind of perspective that only my grandmother could have provided, and every time I’d be tempted to complain about studying hard I’d imagine her there on that bathroom floor and she didn’t seem so far away nor did my lot seem so pitiful. She, my own flesh and blood, had made it through worse. The perspective of grandparents – they’ll tell you that they walked up hill to school, both ways, but nothing can help us see the sufferings of this present age clearly like the experience of those who made it through worse. And if the perspective of a grandparent is beneficial, imagine how helpful is the perspective of God. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” the Lord asks Job. “Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” The Lord answers Job this way, and in one sense this stanza of God’s poetic non-answer makes Job and all his problems seem so very small – the death of his family, the destruction of his home, like a blip in a cosmic time-line - but this account of creation in the 38th chapter of Job is more than that, for in this testimony is the account of the God who laid the foundation of the earth, determined its measurements and stretched a line upon it. It is the story of how God has been in the business of building up beauty out of nothing since the beginning of time. The formless mass of that nothingness that existed before creation was the Lord’s building blocks, and when there was darkness, before there were even lights to turn out, the Lord laid the cornerstone and the morning stars were born to sing together. Just as my grandmother helped me to see that I could study, I could be successful in college, so the Lord is helping Job to see that you can make a life out of nothing – you can rebuild, “for I am with you and I have done that and much greater things before!” Now this isn’t a direct answer to Job’s question of suffering, but there is value in God’s perspective – there is always value in perspective. Back in 2013, researchers from Boston College analyzed data from a long-term study called the Longitudinal Study of Generations. The study gathered data from 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren, and concluded that “an emotionally close grandparent-adult grandchild relationship was associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations. The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health.” And you can already imagine why that is the case, that grandchildren benefit from the perspective their grandparents provide, because they teach you to appreciate the restrooms at every gas station on in the interstate when you travel with them. But you also value those restrooms because you hear about your young grandfather who as a boy tried to relieve himself out an old model A while it was still moving. The story goes that the windows were down back where his sisters were sitting, and unfortunately the wind was blowing the wrong way, and you hear this story and you remember one who has made it through hard times already – who passed through the rough waters of the Great Depression, World War II, unemployment, and still maintained his sense of humor. His perspective alone gives me strength to overcome obstacles that lie before me. He is one who has gone before, but my grandfather’s perspective is dwarfed by that of my God. Think of the stormy seas of life, and then consider the Lord, “who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” The Lord gives an account from the memory of one who is infinite and remembers the sea when she was little baby: “when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and not farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” Can you hear the Lord say, “The sea was like chaos, but I grabbed that great chaos up and changed her diaper – so even now, the chaos that you face, the victimization, the sadness, the despair and the heartache – just as I tamed the sea so I will bring order to your life once more.” Perspective. There’s some comfort in that, because when you are facing hardship for the first time it feels like the end of the world. In 5th grade my nose started bleeding right there in the middle of class. Some kid called me a booger picker, and the rumor spread. I went home that afternoon and made the bold announcement to my mother, “I know you like it here Mom, but we’re going to have to move. I can’t go back to that school ever again.” I can hear her now – “You think they’re mean now, just wait!” But I can hear her just as well saying, “I’ve made it through worse, and I’m here to tell you, this is going to be OK.” “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?” There is such a great benefit to knowing the ones who have seen the desert put forth grass. One who has been a witness to such a miracle is the great CS Lewis, who among other books also wrote one about mourning the death of his wife. It’s called A Grief Observed. It begins with a description: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” And “There are moments,” he writes, “most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life… Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.” The book is valuable, but it can’t tell you why. It can’t tell you why the Lord would create a world in which the innocent suffer. Why the Lord would create a world where the guilty go free. It can’t tell you why there is so much evil and pain and hatred. Why there would be men in God’s creation who would abuse their own mothers, parents who forsake their children, diseases that afflict our bodies and rend us with no thought in our minds beyond pain. You can look, but neither in the Bible nor anywhere else have I found a satisfying answer to the question of “Why there would be cancer?” Why death? And why grief would be so deep and so bottomless? In the book of Job is this: “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?” Is this poetry a direct answer to our questions? Hardly. But in this passage is perspective. The young lions were hungry – and God satisfied their appetites. The ravens cried aloud to God, and the Lord provided. Will He not do the same for you? Amen.