"When Life Makes Little Sense"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/12/1997
Hebrews 4:12-16; Job 23:1-9
And yet, we were not beginning our day with any spiritual focus. We were not even reading a page from The Upper Room devotional. We were not talking to God very much, and we attended church only when our parents did. And the youth fellowship was an obligation we assumed when it was convenient and if "the right people" were there.
Yet, there was never any question about the existence of God. We knew God was everywhere, but life was such that we really didn't think about our faith very much. There was never any cause to doubt. And, of course, we loved Christmas and Easter not only because of the celebration but also because of our vacation from attending school. Most of us can remember those years. Some of us right now are in the midst of them.
This unchallenged belief that "life always matches our self-interest" may have stayed with us into our twenties and thirties as we plunged forward into our careers. Our marriage and family began with all the required distractions. There was the excitement of getting into our first home, purchasing that initial car of quality, and feeling all of the comforts of doing well. Life had a way of feeding off of itself as our personal satisfaction soared.
Eventually, however, something always happens that offers an insightful corrective to our fairy- tale experience. It can happen in the most subtle of ways. A young family was eating supper one night when the youngest asked, "Mommie, why don't we ever pray before we eat?" And the mother with a quick glance at her husband asks, "Honey, what makes you ask such a question?" And the little girl says, "When I ate with Jennifer's family on Saturday, we all held hands as her Dad asked God to bless the food."
Or perhaps we have grown careless in modeling to our children how to nourish their spiritual roots. A day came when one of our children was invited to Sunday School by a friend. Something happens during such moments that allows us to remember what took place in our homes years ago. We realize we have been missing something. It makes us evaluate where we are in life.
Let us take another look at that teenager who is sitting on top of the world. Suppose her boyfriend develops a more than casual relationship with her best friend resulting in the two of them no longer seeing each other. Suddenly her self-perception and her world view may change. She begins to ask, "Why did he need her? Why wasn't I good enough? Why would my best friend betray me? Why do I now feel so awkward around my friends? I want to run away and hide forever." For the first time her life doesn't make sense. She doesn't know how to react.
There does not need to be a major reversal for us to realize that life does not always make sense. Sometimes life can be unfolding extremely well and there comes into our mind a minor dissatisfaction. We cannot put our finger on the cause. All that we know is that our personal magnetism, our charm and our skill at getting the job done efficiently no longer produce the joy in living that they once did. We develop a mild unidentified misery.
In our lesson this morning, Job finds himself right at this cross-road in life. As we discussed last week, Job had every success that life could offer. In a very short period of time he lost everything. Up to a point he had enjoyed an unchallenged faith in God. But in our lesson today, Job is showing signs of weakening. Our lesson begins with, "I still rebel and complain against God; I cannot keep from groaning." Job is starting his search for God, but this time his motivation comes from a moment when life no longer makes any sense.
Most of us do not know how to distinguish between the happiness and joy that grows out of our sense of accomplishment and that which grows out of our timeless nature and our relationship with God. The comparison is difficult because the feelings are initially the same. They are the same until life becomes challenging and we find ourselves surrendering our sense of well being immediately. Such an immediate release of happiness provides insight.
If we go back to our young teenager whose boyfriend established an exclusive relationship with her best friend, the source of her joy becomes clear. Examine what her questions were communicating, "Why wasn't I good enough? How could my best friend betray me?" Now suppose this young woman had discovered the joy and happiness that comes from confidence that God is molding and shaping her life through all her experiences?
She might now say, "I love Tom so much that if he finds greater happiness with my best friend, I am happy for him. I will continue to be a supportive friend while I will remember with joy the wonderful times we spent together." Please note, no jealousy, no envy, and no sense of betrayal. After all, if she truly loves him, why would she want to be possessive or want to prevent him from anything that he believes will bring him a greater satisfaction?
We can laugh at this illustration and say, "Dick, I don't know of any teenager, let alone many adults who could easily respond that way." That is precisely the point. Reaching such an awareness may be uncommon but that does not mean such cannot be reached. In fact, the reason we have such insane headlines in our newspapers of late is because many people have not begun the journey to reach the point where they can respond that way.
When we consider the losses of Job and compare that to how emotionally fragile so many people appear to be today, we get the point. Last week we all read how a car bumped a bicyclist and that was enough for that cyclist to shoot a young student driver in the head, ending her life. That headline and others like it make us wonder what is happening to people. The United States of America is the envy of the world in terms of its material accomplishments. And yet, we are also known as being one of the more violent cultures on the face of the earth. Why is this so?
The message of Job may hold the answer. Throughout Hebrew history, people were reaching to God from their neediness. Either they were being dominated by Pharaoh, yearning for freedom from Babylon, or crying out from the taxation and tyranny of Rome. They began as a nomadic people and only held political power briefly during the years surrounding the reign of King David. Job, however, began his faith journey from the pinnacle of material success. And that is where many Americans are today.
Economic prosperity and personal success can easily disguise or cause us to forget our need for having God as a vital aspect of every waking moment of our lives. In fact, many people today do not make space for such a consciousness at all. Jesus knew well what he was doing when he said, "Do this in remembrance of me." Our responses to life often tell us everything we need to know about our relationship with God.
For example, how fast can some reversal in our social life diminish our level of self-worth? How skilled are we in dealing with angry and manipulative people? How often do we allow defeat to define us? How difficult is it to negotiate change with enthusiasm, confidence, and peace? Life is always holding a mirror and asking, "How are you doing? Is anything missing?"
We can have enormous economic security and still miss the mark on spiritual stability, all because God's presence is only a thought and not a way of life. All that is required of us is to stand forth in our circumstances without defining them and trust that God's will is being done. Most of us do not know how to do this. It is such openness to the presence of God's Spirit that allows us to negotiate successfully all unexpected circumstances by understanding them as being rungs on the ladder of our growth.
The reason Job was searching for God in every conceivable place was because he failed to understand how God was working within the present moment. How could Job have known that his story would be a part of the Old Testament and serve to provide hope for millions of people during the next several thousand years? How could he have known how God was using his experience to enable others to transform every minus into a plus, every misfortune into an opportunity, and every fear of abandonment into a moment of God's closest presence?
Most of us can look back on our lives and see where some silent force was pushing us, stretching us, molding us, and we did not know it at the time. We can remember feelings of disillusionment, anger, frustration, of being forgotten, passed over, and abandoned. But, were those feelings coming from our relationship with God or were they given birth by our fears? At first we wanted to resist, curse, and cast blame. The circumstances, however, were too powerful and we had to face what was not of our choosing.
I can remember, as if it were yesterday, when Lois and I were driving to meet a District Superintendent at a truck stop. He was going to take us to our next church. As we crossed the Potomac River we were greeted by a sign that said, "Welcome to Wild and Wonderful West Virginia." I said, "Lois, we are lost! We should have traveled north on I-81. We are no longer in the Baltimore Conference." We did not know at the time that our Conference had 46 churches in West Virginia and that we were being appointed to one of them. Talk about feeling abandoned. Yet, we spent eight incredible years there and leaving Arden was like tearing off our skin. But, during those moments of driving to Arden, we did not know what our future would hold.
Sometimes when life makes little sense, all we have to do is give our experiences time to unfold and all will be made clear. Think of all the fretting, worry, and anxiety that we could rise above if we only understood that God's Spirit surrounds each of us and delights to help us grow. Like little children, however, we often kick and scream, crying "foul" because we want what gives us the most security without thinking that perhaps, just perhaps, God wants to give us the gift of what will make us grow.
As episodes come when life doesn't make any sense, that may be God knocking on our door reminding us that there is more to us than material well being, that there is more to us than our need for security, and that there is more to us than our need to carve out a name for ourselves in some hall of fame.
When life doesn't make any sense, that is often God's calling card. That calling card reads, "When you are finished with all your marvelous plans for vocation, health, family, and wealth, I'll be here to teach you how to get out of the starting gate. It may come as a surprise to you that we have not yet begun our journey together."
We get so busy at living and our journey can be so disguised by our material successes that we can forget that our spiritual roots need nourishing. A lot of azaleas were lost this summer because people didn't water them. That can easily happen to us. When life doesn't make any sense, try to remember that God is the potter and we are the clay. Have confidence that we do not need to know the end result before placing our trust and confidence in the Potter. That response to life requires that we have faith enough to live without fear.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Our lives recognize the beauty of all creation. We see the color of leaves no human artist could create. We see the beauty of diamonds, the snow capped mountain peaks and the magnificence of the Grand Canyon. We marvel at all that you have made. And yet, O God, we can easily forget how you created all that bathes our eyes with beauty. We want for ourselves stability and confidence without the pressure, stress and erosion that created the diamonds, the mountains and the canyons. We confess that as you form us, our lack of trust in your creative process makes us afraid. We confess to taking our cues for living by what brings us pain or pleasure, instead of the knowledge that you are refining us with every experience. We run, hide, and curse the darkness without remembering that there can be no sunshine without the shadows. Help us not to be afraid of what we do not understand. Lead us to the discovery that in spite of what we sense, all is well. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
It is so nice to be here, O God. We do not know each other as we should, and too often we do not reach out to each other as we could, yet being here together is such a support for all of us.
As we have silently prayed for loved ones and shared our joys and concerns, you have heard our much deeper prayer. You have seen our lifted cups yearning to be filled. You have sensed some
of our confusion with life. You have seen us during some of our best moments and during some of our worst. Thank you for allowing your love to be something we need never doubt.
Too often we hide our fears behind masks of faith, confidence, laughter, and personality, while we are earnestly seeking the pathway that will lead us to being more peaceful, loving people. We look for that pearl of great price, that treasure in the field, that rock upon which to stand, and we forget that it is you who comes looking for us in some of the most unlikely places.
You are always nudging us to awaken from our sleep, inspiring us to look beyond our preoccupations and giving us so many opportunities that often we are too blind to notice. Thank you for believing in us when we are too tired, too frustrated, and too fearful that we have misplaced the energy that used to infuse our every experience with such enthusiasm and happiness.
May all of us find joy in trusting you completely with our lives so that all your calls for growth may be made visible and become understood by us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of
Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...