"The Results of Unshakeable Faithfulness"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 10/08/2000
Psalm 26: Job 1:1; 2:1-10
This morning's lesson will help us examine the major theme that held the life of Job together, a theme that sustained him when his life experiences abruptly traveled well beyond his control. His secret was that he did not associate his "successes" in life with his relationship with God. Consequently, when massive "reversals of fortune" occurred there was no need to doubt that relationship.
Not many of us approach Job's level of understanding. When life becomes painful, we find it difficult to take responsibility for the way we respond. When such events occur we want to blame someone. We want to write our member of Congress. We want to vent our anger through letters to the editor in our local newspapers. We line up with others to struggle for our version of justice.
When we ventilate our frustration in such ways, we often produce excellent results. For example, the world has watched as masses of people recently took to the streets in Pristina and Belgrade. Many of the military and the police joined the crowds. The massive protests played a central role in bringing an end to the 10-year rule of Slobodan Milosevic. We cheer their cause as Serbia now tries to heal itself.
Even on the local scene, there is a call for citizens of Bowie to join forces and protest the way our city is being treated by County officials. The front page headline of The Bowie Blade-News read, "Hundreds Stage Protest at City Hall." Imagine the impact if 30,000 of us marched on the Administration Building in Upper Marlboro to protest our perceived lack of fairness by the hands of Wayne Curry, the County Council and our County's Board of Education.
We love such struggles. We love it when "right" prevails over "wrong." We love it when our will resoundingly defeats those who hold an alternate point of view. An interesting question is this? "Are we merely actors reading lines of the same script that has dominated life on earth for thousands of years?" Sure the specific issues are different but the well-scripted play is basically the same. And people line up to read the same parts over and over again as various societies rise and fall.
We have the teachings of Jesus as well as those from the Apostle Paul. They teach a far different response to life. Their teachings lead us away from the Broadway drama. We love the New Testament. In fact, we love it so much that we enjoy discussing its insights into life as often as we can. Currently, our crowded new Christian Believers class is discussing the classical teachings of our faith every Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. But does studying what we believe motivate us to leave the stage so that we respond more creatively to life experiences?
Today we tend to place ourselves into two categories. To society's critics we either appear passive, apathetic, and indifferent or we appear aggressive, passionate, and committed to our cause. Many of us have labels for people who live peacefully and happily when the world appears to be in turmoil. Such labels are not always complimentary.
One of the interesting surprises of the Vice Presidential debate on Thursday evening was the manner in which the candidates respectfully disagreed with each other. After their debate, they could be seen smiling and being genuinely cordial to each other. The candidates spoke to each other's wives. They were acting as old friends, which they are. I thought it was a great debate. I thought it was a powerful witness to the rest of the world how democracy works. Maybe some of you did too, but there were others who saw the debate much differently.
The candidates were criticized because they did not attack each other. When news commentators discussed their impressions on Friday morning, they made some observations: "When are the candidates going to take off their gloves? The American people want to see passion in their leaders. Both the Republicans and Democrats are embarking on strategies that are going to backfire. Focus groups yawned through the debate."
We have to decide which voice we are going to listen to. In whom are we going to place our trust? The ultimate outcome of the world's long-playing drama will only change when we choose our relationship with God over all the other voices who cry out for the control of our thoughts. Mind you, if we choose to live what Jesus was teaching we will stand with a small minority. The drama humanity has enjoyed for thousands of years is very seductive. It is not going to go away. We enjoy a good fight. We enjoy the competition. We enjoy winning. Such desires have given this Broadway smash its long run.
As we look at our lesson today, Job was in a very challenging place. Listen again to the litany of his hardships. One day during a family gathering, a runner came with these words, "We were plowing the fields when suddenly we were attacked by a tribe of wandering raiders. They massacred everyone except me." At that moment another runner arrived and said, "Lightning struck your sheep and shepherds. All of them are dead. I, alone, have survived."
Job sat there in shock as a third runner came. He said, "Three groups of Chaldeans swept down upon us, stole your herd of camels, and killed everyone except me." Just then a fourth runner came with even more bad news. "Your children were all having a feast at the home of your eldest son. A fierce storm swept in from the desert and killed all of them. I am the only one who survived."
Remember, Job had been faithful to God his entire life. He did not allow the quality of his experiences to interfere with that relationship. Job was struck with profound grief. As was the custom, Job stood up, tore his clothes, shaved his head, and threw himself face down on the ground. Then he said, "I was born with nothing, and I will die with nothing. The Lord gave and now the Lord has taken away. May God's name be praised." Could we praise God during a moment like this?
As incredible as it seems the worst was yet come. Next Job lost his health. Painful, infected sores covered his body. But worse yet, his last source of support questioned his faith. Job's wife said to him, "You are still as faithful to God as ever, aren't you? Why don't you curse God and die?"
At that moment Job found himself in the same spiritual testing arena where Jesus would be standing many years later. Jesus= closest friends would abandon him, and his faithfulness to God would not prevent his being nailed to a cross. Could we do the same? We tend to want more from God. We want our version of how love is expressed to be a two-way street. That did not happen for Job, Jesus, and countless others.
People of every generation have looked for reasons that explain their experiences. We cannot accept the fact that life is filled with random incidents that call for our response. That is the way the drama unfolds. By holding fast to our faithfulness to God, we grow. By assigning blame, we find something to attack. When we attack the play continues.
As you may recall, some months ago a person discharged a weapon five times in the direction of our home. We returned home from vacation and found the damage. Who could possibly explain such a random incident? Do Lois and I now live in fear? Did we train our minds to think that Bowie has become an unsafe place to live? Or, did we simply continue with life remembering that what is important is our response to the event and not the event itself?
As we return to our lesson, Job said to his wife, "You are talking nonsense! When life was good we had nothing but praise for God. How can we complain and blame God when trouble comes?" Job displayed an unshakable faithfulness in times of plenty and during times when he was overwhelmed by poverty, sadness, and ill-health. He took control of his thoughts and would not listen to the explanations that others supplied. They were encouraging him to return to the play.
What is so interesting about this cosmic drama is that it remains the same whether we experience it individually, as a nation, or as a world community. The nature of the play will only change for us when more of us choose to live in what Jesus referred to as the Kingdom of God. In spite of how we characterize that Kingdom, it remains a choice that is extremely challenging to make.
Think of something painful that is active in your life right now. Think of something that is absorbing your energy and time while it remains beyond your ability to control or change. Once you have that issue firmly in your mind, transport yourself back in time. Think of the time when Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, carried into Egypt, jailed though innocent, and betrayed by a wine steward. His life was totally beyond his control.
Joseph never surrendered to the thought that God had abandoned him. In fact, he believed just the opposite. He believed that his life was unfolding exactly as it should. Joseph could not have developed such thoughts had he linked God to his perceived successes and failures. Yet he also knew that God had a purpose for his life regardless of the quality of his experiences. (Genesis 45:5)
It will always remain true that we can accomplish great things in this world by choosing to remain active in the play. Alexander the Great accomplished great things. The Europeans who drove the Native Americans off their land played a primary role in what we enjoy today. The stone masons who built the Washington Cathedral built a true masterpiece.
Yet think about something else. Has the spirit by which people live appreciatively changed from the attitudes and spirit of our ancestors? Have our accomplishments and our technological creativity given us the opportunity to live more at peace with each other? We might say "yes" because most of us are surrounded by the abundance supplied by our American culture. But think again. It is all an illusion.
Our current culture, as powerful as it is, is held together by the thin thread of electricity. Think of what would not work if electricity were suddenly taken away permanently. How quickly fear would sweep across our land. Do you remember the response of many to Y2K and the hoarding that took place?
Even being surrounded by great abundance, it is fear that drives the stock market down. It is fear that causes us to put our priorities on military preparedness, relatively free health care for the elderly, Social Security, and small class sizes for educating our children. We could add 20 more areas that we feel need to change.
We always want someone else or some government agency to take care of the details we fear we cannot manage ourselves. As it has in every culture in every age, the long running Broadway play teases us with the thought that only when the world is the way we want it, will we finally feel more safe, secure and happy. That carrot has kept us struggling for thousands of years. In fact, this very illusion is what lies at the heart of the current Middle East crisis.
Jesus came and said, "Follow me." He did not say, "Study what I said." Oddly enough, Job and Joseph knew his truth centuries before Jesus was born. We have his truth, but where are we? Will we be among those who enjoy participating in the longest-running play in history, or will we choose to write different lines by remaining faithful to God regardless of the quality of our circumstances? We do have that choice.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We thank you God for your patience with us. We thank you for knowing who we are along with all the frailties that make us afraid. Our trust in you has helped us during moments of doubt. Your love has sustained us when life was far from certain. Your opening our eyes has given us vision to see unexplored alternatives. Your allowing us to struggle has given strength to our spiritual wings. Your inability to let us go has restored our hope. Help us give away to others the very qualities we have experienced from you. As you have nurtured us, so may we gently guide others with patience, acceptance, and understanding to find the peace they desire. As we are lifted up by you, so may the world be transformed. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, each time we capture a glimpse of your creativity. Only you could create a leaf that supplies a tree with what it needs to live, and then just before it falls to the ground, it radiates a beauty that no human artist could possibly capture. We thank you for the many gifts that Fall provides. We thank you for reminding us how life cycles. We thank you for reminding us that all the things on the earth change their forms. We have come to understand that the tallest mountains will one day become silt and sand while the movement of the earth's crust will produce new ones.
May we learn, O God, that we, too, pay a price for the faith we enjoy. Each of us has a time when we are unsuccessful at moving the mountains of hardship. We find it difficult to stop worrying and we cannot rise above being anxious and afraid. Yet, as we follow Jesus Christ and bring the confidence of faith to the small areas of life, we will one day bring such confidence to the areas of life that now frighten us. Bless us, Lord, with the courage always to move forward with our trust in you. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . . .