Based on Job 23:1-17, Psalm 22, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31
It is obvious to state that the last 20 months have been extraordinarily painful for all of us. Fear, anxiety, isolation, loneliness, unresolved grief, boredom, distrust, paranoia, violence, unpredictability, and a lack of civility and communal cohesion have all crashed down upon us like so many tsunamis, each wreaking their own havoc and leaving us with little on which to cling. To be painfully honest…it has called into question our theology, that is, our understanding of God and God’s activity in the world. Here in America, prior to March 15, 2020, we had been used to having everything we need and being able to come and go as we pleased. Overnight, gathering in groups was forbidden for the health of all concerned. Many panicked and bought up all the toilet paper, cleaning products and other life essentials – leaving most of us (and especially the most vulnerable among us) sitting like Job in the ashes, wondering what just happened and questioning the future. In the wake of that, for many people, God seems distant, uncaring and impotent in the face of the viral assault, disorientation and resulting reactionary human behavior. Another painful truth is that many Christians have moved farther away from God and thus are easily misled by voices speaking incompletely and incorrectly about God.
Injected into this painful and uncomfortable place are our scriptures today. They show once again that these poetic narratives, written many thousands of years ago, have the power to inspire and heal in our time. The witness of Job speaking honestly and forcefully against the misguided “wisdom” of his three friends. The Psalmist moves from cries of abandonment to words of praise and faithfulness. Jesus confronts a rich, young man and speaks the painful truth about needing to give up attachment to worldly things to be rewarded with eternal life. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews teaches that the word of God is alive and active and able to pierce our dishonesty about how we are living. Friends, only God is large enough hold such pain…let us go now to God in prayer, offering up our pain to be shared with the one God who brings relief…
The Psalmist and Job are in synch with their call for us to be faithful in times of great sorrow and perceived disconnection from God. Chapter 23 of the Book of Job is the beginning of Job’s answer to one of his companions, Eliphaz, who has weighed in on Job’s plight. All three of Job’s “friends” have now given their opinions to Job about what he needs to do to make amends for what has happened to him. As is often the case with well-meaning friends in the face of calamity, they have shared cliches, platitudes and misinformation about God – and thus have been wholly unhelpful to Job. Out of his pain, Job speaks honestly of his perception of the absence of God. He cries out for an audience that he might lay out his case before God, about how he has followed God’s way and has not sinned against God and how he would like to hear God’s answer. Yet he continues in silence and darkness.
Jesus is dealing once again with people misunderstanding how the kingdom of God operates. A rich, young, pious man comes to Jesus seeking to know how to inherit eternal life. Jesus speaks the painful truth that in order to enter the kingdom of God, one must be truly free; free from the shackles of attachment that bind us to the things of the world. Until our hearts are free from attachments and the desire to be first, we are not fit for the kingdom.
The five verses from the letter to the Hebrews remind us that God’s word is alive and well, whether we realize it or not. It has the power to transform us from lives lived in servitude to worldly things – but this will require some painful dissection. Thankfully, we have Jesus to advocate for us and to guide us, and grace enough to help us through all our times of need.
More than one person has confided to me over the years that they are uncomfortable speaking angrily or in a painfully honest manner to God. Yet 50 psalms are lament psalms – songs that sing honestly of our feelings of abandonment by God (like Psalm 22). We also have the lives of the saints to guide us in understanding that God is big enough to handle our anger, disappointment and suffering. Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa) is a model of the long-suffering servant of God. A book entitled, “Mother Teresa Come Be My Light” edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, contains this story of her journey through darkness and perceived painful dissociation from God. He writes, “…Mother Theresa struggled for long periods of her life where she dealt with an acute spiritual darkness and depression. This personal letter to a friend shows just how much she suffered: ‘…Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor with my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. There is no God in me. When the pain of longing is so great – I just long & long for God – and then it is that I feel – He does not want me – He is not there. Heaven – souls – why these are just words – which mean nothing to me. My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls – to go where? Why all this? Where is the soul in my very being? God does not want me. Sometimes – I just hear my own heart cry out – My God, and nothing else comes. The torture and pain I can’t explain. From my childhood I have had a most tender love for Jesus…but this too has gone. I feel nothing before Jesus…You see, Father, the contradiction in my life. I long for God – I want to love Him – to love Him much…and yet there is but pain – longing and love….’”
By her own accounts, Mother Teresa lived a Job-ian existence in the slums of Kolkata. She was surrounded by the poorest, most marginalized and most reviled people in all the world. The suffering she witnessed and patiently ministered to is beyond our imagining. It would be difficult enough to do this ministry when we are feeling well connected and energized by our relationship with God – think about doing it in the darkness and pain which led her to write, “There is no God in me.” She cried out like Job, wanting to hear from her God why she had been abandoned – when she strived daily to persistently serve God to the best of her ability.
We are living through a challenging time, no doubt about it. We have endured a pandemic that has killed more than 700,000 people in our country – a number equal to the population of San Francisco or Austin, Texas. Worldwide, the infection has killed almost 5 million as of Wednesday this week. In Madison County, 20 of our neighbors have died. Like Job in Chapter 19 we “…scream ‘Outrage!’ and we (I) are (am) not answered, we (I) shout and there is no justice…” We wonder aloud, where is God in all this suffering and death? Some people, those who understand God as primarily retributive and vengeful, say that we have sinned and that this is our consequence. They echo the empty words and mistaken impressions of God as uttered by Job’s friends Bildad and Zophar. Impressions that at the end of the Book of Job God puts to rest saying, “…My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has….”
One of my duties as your pastor is to speak to you all about God with an honesty that is often painful. To tell you about how far many Christians have wandered from the fullness of God as revealed in the Bible. How they have forgotten that God’s love is almighty and will in the fullness of time be triumphant over human sin and the forces of evil. How God’s word is alive, active and able to “judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”. How though this life is often unjust, difficult, filled with pain and suffering, and it appears to be impossible for us mortals to find relief, that “for God all things are possible”.
It is time for us to stop blaming God for the natural consequences of our choice to live as worldly people disconnected from a living and transformative faith. It is time for us to stop listening to the foolishness of others who speak falsely about God, and instead spend our time reconnecting to God. It is time to trust that there is no where that we are that God is not present. It is time to ask God to show us for what we were made and then to get to work with God to live fully into that job description. It is time for us to be painfully honest about our unhealthy worldly attachments, to repent before God, and to ask humbly for God’s forgiveness for our sins. May God be merciful to us all! Amen.