Thin red line (sermon – part 2)

Sermon by Rod Benson, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sunday July 22, 2001 (Part 2 of 2) [continued from here]

Job 1:1-3:26

In the midst of his unimaginable pain and anguish, Job’s three friends arrive to sympathise with him and comfort him.  They are shocked by his changed appearance, and they begin by sitting with him in the rubbish tip for seven days and nights – silent, observing, assessing (2:11-13).

Chapters 3-37 record the words of Job, the three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar), and a fourth person, the young man Elihu (the next four sermons in the series examine what they say).

In 3:1-26, Job breaks the silence, revealing the torment of his mind and the depth of his depression.  He curses the day of his birth (3:3-10), and asks a series of existential questions (3:11-19 – “Why?  Why?  Why?”).

Job concludes with a cry of bewilderment, pushing his formerly robust faith in God’s goodness to the limit, but not abandoning his faith: “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil” (3:26).

It is easy to see why Job cursed the day of his birth (3:3ff), came to believe that God was his enemy despite his blameless record (3:25), and arrived at the point where he believed death was more desirable than life (3:20-21).  “Living in paradise, Adam and Eve faced a best-case scenario for trusting God, who asked so little of them and showered down blessing.  In a living hell, Job faces the worst-case scenario: God asks so much, while curses rain down on him.”[1]  It is a long way from Garden of Eden to the rubbish tip outside Uz.

Generally the Old Testament assumes a “contract faith” where, if you do good you receive blessing, and if you do bad you are punished.  The best example of this is Deuteronomy 28.  But for Job, this way of viewing life’s experiences did not make sense.  He is a blameless, upright, God-fearing, evil-shunning man who suffers unimaginable disasters, psychological trauma and spiritual testing.

Job knows his sins have not brought about this suffering, but he can’t explain it.  Job’s wife concludes that God is a capricious tyrant, and urges him to end his life quickly (2:9).

Job’s three friends conclude that Job has sinned and simply needs to identify and confess the sin.  Job faces an impossible dilemma: to reject God would shatter his faith in a living God (his core value); but to admit that suffering is deserved would compromise his integrity (27:5-6).

Job’s dilemma has no easy solution.  And it recurs through history: God’s people in exile; Christ on the cross; the martyrdom of thousands of early Christians; the slaughter of the First World War; the holocaust; aborted babies; passive smokers; cancer sufferers; birth defects; Alzheimer’s disease; Africa’s AIDs orphans; the list is virtually endless.

How can an Almighty and loving God permit such suffering?  This is an important question that millions of people have asked through the centuries, and are asking today.  The biblical book of Job does not directly answer this question.  But there are some important truths to discover here – some unpalatable and discomforting truths – to recall when we suffer.

First, our world is no paradise.  We live in a “fallen” world.  Our physical environment, our physical existence, our psychological health and our spiritual identity will from time to time be buffeted by waves of our own making, and by waves whose source we know, and by other waves whose origin we know nothing about.

Second, though we may think we are the centre of the universe, and though we may wish to be, we are not the centre of the universe.  God has a multitude of concerns that have nothing to do with us, and he cares for living things we cannot begin to imagine (see especially Job 38-41).  We are made in God’s image, and God loves us, but we are part of his great creation, not separate from it.

Third, we rarely see and understand the big picture.  For example, try as he did to comprehend the reason for his suffering, and the meaning of it, Job seems never to have known what the narrator tells us in chapters 1-2.  There is no suggestion from Job’s dialogues that he is even aware of the existence of evil angels or malevolent spirits seeking to increase his suffering and shipwreck his faith for their own diabolical ends.  Nor do you and I see everything.

Fourth, God is merciful.  Note God’s fatherly pride in Job’s righteousness, his personal awareness of Job’s existence and situation, and the way in which, to defend his honour, God puts a “fence” around Job that the Satan is forbidden to cross (1:12; 2:6).

Elihu is a younger man who appears in chapter 32.  We will meet him in an upcoming sermon in this series.  The most profound thing Elihu ever says is, “Those who suffer (God) delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction” (36:15).  And God restores Job magnificently in chapter 42.  God is merciful.

Finally, we learn from Job that it is okay to speak honestly, candidly and bluntly to God.

In Disappointment With God, in reference to Job, Philip Yancey writes, “you can say anything to God.  Throw at him your grief, your anger, your doubt, your bitterness, your betrayal, your disappointment – he can absorb them all.”[2]  That kind of relationship with God betrays either a shallow and superficial knowledge of God, or – like Job – a rich, deep, trusting knowledge of God.  May we all grow to become like Job.

I want to finish tonight with a contemporary twist.  What if the Satan presented himself before God tonight with a challenge.  What if he said to God, “These Christians at Blakehurst only believe in you, and only follow your ways, because that belief satisfies their felt needs.

“But give them everything they want, provide them with secure, well-paid jobs, lead them into rewarding and satisfying relationships with pagans, fill their leisure hours with attractive and absorbing entertainment, and turn their religious experience into a consumer product – and they will live as though you don’t exist; they will replace your sovereignty with their own.”

How would you respond to the accuser’s challenge?  Will you say, along with many professing Christians – old as well as young – “I have all these things; God must be so pleased with me.”  Or will you say, with Job’s wife, “Curse God and play.”

Or will you say, with Job, “These things will never satisfy my deepest needs but only lead me away from my God and my responsibility to him.”

Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away: May the name of the Lord be praised (1:21)

Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson.  Sermon 406b, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday July 22, 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] Philip Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 51.

[2] Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God (New York: Harper Collins, 1988) 284.

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