February 3 & 4, 2018 Epiphany 5
“Does not man have hard service on earth? Are not his days like those of a hired man? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired man waiting eagerly for his wages, so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me. When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss till dawn. My body is clothed with worms and scabs, my skin is broken and festering. My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and they come to an end without hope. Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath; my eyes will never see happiness again.”
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
One of the particular strengths of true Lutheran teaching is that it lets God be God. When we aren’t able to wrap our minds around something God says, Lutheran teaching doesn’t take out a red pen and edit it into something understandable. It lets God be God when Jesus takes bread and says, “This is my body” and takes wine and says, “This is my blood.” We can’t understand how he does that, but if he says it, it’s true. It lets God be God when Jesus sets little babies on his lap and praises their faith. We can’t understand how infants who can’t even talk can still believe and how God can give them that faith in an instant through baptism, but if God says it, it’s true. We recognize that there are things God says and does that are bigger than we are, and the test of their truthfulness is not whether or not our brains can process them to our satisfaction. Isn’t that why Jesus praised the faith of little children? They let God be God.
But it’s one thing to digest everything in the Bible and say, “This is what God says. This is what we believe.” It’s a far different thing when God puts it to the test. Take one of the best-known passages in all the Bible, we heard it in the Second Lesson: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. And we just sang the same thing in the hymn just now: What God ordains is always good. Absolutely everything, from the earth’s orbit around the sun to the traffic flow on I-10 to the hairs on my head to the bacteria in my body, everything in the past and the present and the future, is perfectly coordinated and completely under God’s control. And he uses all of it, always, to serve us. That’s what God says. That’s what we believe. Yes, What God Ordains Is Always Good.
We know that what God ordains is always good and can see that clearly when times are good. But it’s a far different thing when God puts it to the test. Remember Job? He was one who had it all: the big family that always got along, the wealth that made him the envy of the ancient world. God himself praised his faith just like Jesus did with the little children. Everything in his life made sense. What God ordained for him was good.
And then all in a day, all of it was gone. Here’s where the misery comes in. Job lost all his wealth and servants to thieves and marauders. He was reduced to poverty almost overnight. He lost all his children when a tornadic storm flattened the house in which they were feasting. He lost his health too, suffering with a leprosy-like skin disease that left him in constant pain, and disfigured with gross, festering sores. He also lost the support of his wife who told him to curse God and die. In all of this, Job contemplated the futility of life in this world: “Does not man have hard service on earth? Are not his days like those of a hired man? Like a slave longing for the evening shadows, or a hired man waiting for his wages, so I have been allotted months of futility, and nights of misery have been assigned to me.” Hard service. Slave labor. The old treadmill. You can’t wait for the day to be over so you can rest; you can’t wait for the week to be over when you get paid and enjoy the weekend. Job had worked so hard and had it all. And for what? He lost it all in a heartbeat.
And he felt miserable: “When I lie down I think, ‘How long before I get up?’ The night drags on, and I toss till dawn. My body is clothed with worms and scabs, my skin is broken and festering.” Ever felt that way? You can’t wait to get to bed in order to sleep, but then you toss and turn and can’t wait for the dawn to come. And why? Job was in pain. His words tell you exactly what was going on. Additionally, we know he lost weight, and his appearance was so altered that his friends could hardly recognize him. This was his lot in life. What a difficult journey he had. It would have almost been better to never have been so richly blessed in the first place; Job knew what he lost, and that added to his pain.
Can you relate? Who here has no problems in their life whatsoever? Who here has everything their heart desires, not only money and wealth, but relationships, health, and everything else are all absolutely wonderful? We all have problems. We’ve all faced losses in life, whether losses of jobs and wealth, losses of relationships, losses of loved ones to death, losses of health, strength and stamina, whatever. And those things hurt. When we face a loss that alters our life badly, we call it a crisis. And at those times we, like Job, can wonder what it’s all for. Why does God give blessings only to take them away? What’s our point for being here in the first place if it’s just to suffer? We ask, “Why me, why now, why isn’t it getting better, what kind of good could ever come from this?” Faith gets tired.
Job got to the point where he could hardly take it. He couldn’t stop thinking about it. It changed the way he saw the world, the way he saw himself, the way he saw God. Can you hear the depression in his words? To paraphrase: “Life on earth is miserable—and mine is the worst of all. My entire existence is like a man who hates his job and all he can look forward to is the end of the day and the paycheck, but the workday never ends and the paycheck never comes. You’d think that at least I’d get some relief when I go to sleep, but I can’t sleep. All I do is toss and turn and hurt and think and wait for the sun to come up. I get no relief. I have no hope. It will never get better.”
This is the same guy who said just five chapters earlier, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, may the name of the Lord be praised.” What changed? It wasn’t at all his belief in God’s almighty power, that in all things God works. It was the “for the good of those who love him” part. He knew that God was in control, but God was beginning to look more and more like his enemy. Later on in this chapter he basically asks God, “Why am I so important, that you pay so much attention to making my life miserable?”
God doesn’t let us in on Job’s words as an example of how a suffering child of God should talk. It’s to show us how a suffering child of God sometimes does talk. The book of Job isn’t only about God. It’s about Job. It shows us how even the strongest Christians can crack under the weight of hardship so that they don’t even sound like Christians. There’s more to Job’s words than, “Life is miserable and then you die.” The way he says it also gives us a glimpse into his heart. He says, I…me…my—eleven times in 120 words. He hunkers down in his misery and all he can think about is himself. I don’t point that out to be self-righteous, that we’re so much better. After all, the book of Job isn’t only about Job, either. It’s about us. We can crack too and think that our lives prove the Bible wrong. God isn’t love, he’s just plain cruel. The further we go down that path, the more self-absorbed we become, the only one we see is the me.
And that self-absorption is a powder keg of questions waiting to explode into anger: Why is God doing this to ME? Why can’t anyone understand what I’M going through? How could this ever work for MY good? And with all my attention zeroed in on me and my problems, I no longer remember that God is paying attention to the same thing, me and my problems. That in all things, and that includes this suffering, God is at work for ME. And he didn’t just start working on it after things got bad. In a way that I cannot comprehend, God plotted out my life before I even existed. He planned not only how he would send Jesus as Savior for me, but also how he would bring me to Jesus, how he would make me his child through baptism, how he would strengthen my faith through his Word, how he would even use my sins and other peoples’ sins to show me the danger of sin, how he would preserve me in faith and bring me to heaven at the end. God didn’t only know the twists and turns and dark valleys of my life, he uses them there for me. He did this to bring me to him, to keep me with him, to bless me and to make me a blessing. No child of God should ever expect it to be easy, but every child of God can trust that it’s good. Even when I’ve raised my fist at him under it, he suffered and died for me to forgive that sin too. And he continues to bless me with his love in all things. And he does the same for you. God has promised to work everything for your eternal good. What God ordains for you is always good.
Do you know what good God worked through all that Job suffered? For as long as that book is, forty-two chapters, he never says what the good is. I might assume that it was to strengthen his faith or to strengthen our faith. But still, God never says. And why Job and not someone else? He never says. And why the particular twists and turns and diseases and heartache and uncertainty and dark valleys that we’ve each seen and have yet to see? He says that every one of them is under the control of the heart of the one who sent Jesus to save you on the cross, the same heart that sends the Holy Spirit to pick you up through his Word, the same God who knew you before you were even born and hasn’t forgotten about you since, who forgives you and loves you and holds you close. That’s what he says, thus that is true. And that’s enough. What God ordains is always good. Amen.