Faithful, No Matter What

It’s the kind of question that causes a pastor to break out in a cold sweat, and the query always begins with a simple word: “Why.”

An innocent child is killed; a beloved teacher dies; a freak accident claims the life of dear friend, and with quivering lips and lumped throat, a hapless survivor asks “why.”

Why did this tragedy happen?

Why didn’t God answer “yes” when I prayed for healing?

Why didn’t God step in and stop the heartbreak from happening?

When tragedy or catastrophe is the cause for the funeral, I’d dearly love to stand tall in the pulpit and explain all the whys and wherefores of it all so as to make total sense out of sheer nonsense for those whose lives have been shattered and whose dreams have been broken.

But in all honesty, I’m as clueless as everyone else when it comes to offering the kind of understanding that creates crystal clarity.

Sure, I can stammer through words that provide some measure of comfort – an overall reassurance of God’s good care in the wake of tragedy, a timely reminder that evil still runs roughshod through God’s fallen creation, a frank acknowledgement that the smudge of sin messes up our freewill, an honest declaration that God doesn’t micromanage every jot and tittle of life in a broken and fearful world so as to head off every bad thing that could possibly ever happen.

But despite the truth of all that, whatever comfort that arises from even the best theology that I or any other pastor can muster does precious little to soothe the raw wounds of grief that fester for precise detail and well-defined explanation. And the anguished question of “why” still hangs heavy and awkward like the proverbial elephant in the room:

“Pastor, I know that God doesn’t stop every bad thing from happening, but why couldn’t God have saved my child from getting killed by that drunken driver?”

It’s no sin to ask “why,” and there’s nothing wrong with venting your anger and frustration at God in the face of your suffering.Even Jesus himself cries out an anguished “why” from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And generations before the bloody gore of Good Friday, there was the Old Testament prophet Job, who in our lesson this morning is in a world of hurt and who in later chapters quite literally will lose everything despite doing his faithful best to do the right thing.

As pus drains from the painful boils that cover his body, Job sits atop a heap of ashes – probably wondering why such suffering has befallen him and inescapably listening to his wife urge him to throw in the towel of faith and belief in God.

No, these are not comfortable words to read or hear nor is the scene comforting to imagine. Indeed, the mental picture weighs on the heart and sickens the stomach. With that warning, gird your loins but open your hearts as you listen for the Word of the Lord to you this day – one of the many disturbing-yet-holy scenes in the long-and-often-confusing story of God with us.

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the LORD, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”

The LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.”

Then Satan answered the LORD, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.”

The LORD said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 1:1, 2:1-10

God surely hears prayers of sadness and lament that in one way or another scream and shout the confusion and perplexity wrapped up in our simple and honest asking of “why.”

But God’s replies definitely feel less than forthcoming, surely more than unsatisfying, and obviously shrouded in the most perplexing of unsolved mysteries.

Later in this heartbreaking story, Job’s friends will try and make sense of it all by assuring Job that “everything happens for a reason” and that, in Job’s case, the reason for all his suffering is his sin. One way or another, his friends mistakenly surmise, Job has done something really, really bad in the eyes of the Lord, and his sorry state of affairs is the result of his sin.

Our lesson shoots down that explanation, early on declaring Job “blameless and upright,” one who honors God, an exemplary disciple who turns aways from evil.

The disturbing discovery of this morning’s lesson reveals that it’s actually not God at all who is so directly afflicting Job but rather some shadowy figure called “Satan” who does evil’s dirty work by the permission of God in a high-stakes roll of the dice between the forces of good and evil about which Job knows not thing one.

Possessing that piece of insider knowledge, which you and I do, gives us an advantage over Job, who is naïve and clueless. That’s what some suggest, anyway. But I’m not so sure knowing this actually helps us all that much! To my mind, the idea that our lives could become mere chess pieces in a cosmic game between God and the evil forces who oppose God trends toward the chilling side of the spectrum.

So, let’s hope that the distressing story of Job is less a reflection about how things regularly go in heavenly realms and more a scenario that maybe has happened only once in divine history.

Because it would have been one thing had Job lost his fortune on the stock market, or watched as his house burned down, or had to deal with the heartbreak of psoriasis or itchy, dry, watering eyes.

But to lose all 10 of his children, to watch his animals die and employees slaughtered – well, that certainly ratchets up the confusion by dropping us down into a very deep, dark and scary dungeon of doubt.

Whatever you make of the cause behind the disasters that befall Job – whoever you assign responsibility for birthing Job’s Dumpster-fire of a life, you cannot deny or forget that things very much like the scenario sketched here really do happen on this planet – all the time!

Parents do lose children – sometimes all of them at once.

Disaster and disease come to people who are the most lovely and precious of folks you’d ever hope to meet.

Such chaos is pretty indiscriminate, too. Derechos, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes generally don’t just flatten the houses of mafia types and drug kingpins while leaving untouched churches, synagogues, mosques, and other sanctuaries of the faithful.

Pandemic flu outbreaks like COVID-19 don’t only target the really greasy people who work for a given company while leaving untouched the kind and gentle souls on the payroll.

Disaster and disease befall all without prejudice and strike everywhere without mercy.

And, of course, countries like Russia and leaders like Vladimir Putin all too often invade countries like Ukraine and attack innocents like the Ukrainians just going about the routines of daily life and not looking for any trouble.

So, even if you shear Job of its more-than-a-little-troubling backdrop in the realms of heaven, at the end of the day what you have here is still one very basic scenario that seems endemic to the human condition: The asking of the question “Why?” At one time or another, everybody asks that question!

But, whereas the nonreligious have nowhere to lodge the query, religious people find themselves in the unenviable position of knowing exactly to whom they should pose the question and air their grievances, but then discovering, for that very reason, that the asking of the question pinches and pains a whole lot more than you thought it would.

As Job knew in his heart of hearts, it is actually possible to make suffering worse if you are convinced that, at the center of the universe, there supposedly stands a God with your best interests at heart.

A God purported to be just and good.

A God who created the entire universe. but presumably not merely for the purpose of watching Creation writhe in agony at the end of their various ropes.

As another writes, it’s not that there is no explanation, it’s just that we maybe cannot bear it. It’s not that there’s no rhyme or reason to life, it’s just that we need to trust the God who is ultimately in charge of all life to do the right thing and to bring matters to their proper conclusion in God’s good time.

Of course, you and I now know a little more about God’s surprisingly good and gracious timing. God’s vastly more surprising move is to show us a baby in a manger and then a lowly carpenter’s son.

We’d love nothing more than to see the armies of God marching from the horizon to slay the evils of sin and death, but instead, we see a humble servant agonizing on a cross while his executioners mock and belittle.

If, in Job, you think it’s strangely unhelpful for God to allow evil to attack otherwise faithful Job, then it is vastly more breathtaking to read the Gospels and see God dealing with death by dying himself!

More often than not, the ways of God seem like utter nonsense – ill-timed, almost-comical affronts to common sense and conventional wisdom.

Yet, surprisingly creative, out-of-the-box responses to the chaos of our lives seem to be God’s preferred way to take care of divine business.

No, we don’t know all the answers to all the questions that make for endless nights of fitful sleep, but we do know that the Creator God, has now become the Redeemer God through the surprise that is the risen Christ Jesus.

Considering all the wonders this God has already fashioned in Creation and Redemption, surely this God can and will work a few more wonders someday, and those wonders will be the satisfying of our every question, the drying of every tear from every eye, the creation of a new heaven and earth where the questions of “why” will be things of the past.

That’s what makes God’s grace-filled creativity at once so beautiful and so confounding.

Grace that does a new thing comes when we least expect it and in ways that always surprise and amaze. Our response to God’s graceful innovation comes down to a choice – whether we will live in hope, strength and confidence by that grace or whether we’ll turn our backs on grace and instead muddle along by our own hapless wits.

The choice has life-changing consequences – whether we will live by the kind of grace that always lifts up the fallen spirit or live by the ways of the world that always let down.

It is, as the opening scene from the movie “The Tree of Life” suggests, a choice of following the way of nature or the way of grace:

“I will be true to you, whatever comes.”

That, in a nutshell, is the faithful response to grace, the ultimate answer to our questions of “why.”

We can either let the chaos of our lives suck us into a life of isolating bitterness, or we can let grace be the tie that binds us  true to God and one another, even as God is truly forever bound to us … whatever comes.”

Whatever comes, however confusing, we receive the good at the hand of God – mercy and forgiveness, grace and peace, hope and assurance. And wrapped snuggly in those warm blankets of God’s love for you and me, we also receive the bad – not fretting whether God is the cause but most definitely recognizing and celebrating that God is our Savior.

In that truth, let no one sin with his or her lips.

For death has been swallowed up in victory, and our questions pose not “why” but tease Satan with a slap to the face:

O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?

We dare taunt with such boldness, because brokenness is fleeting, and resurrection is eternal! For that is the way of grace,and no one who follows the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, May 1, 2022. It is part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, Stan Mast, and Carol A. Newsom inform the message.

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