"No Roller Coaster, No Adventure"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 24, 2006
Psalm 26:1-8; Job 2:1-10
King Solomon came to power at the age of 20 shortly after the death of his father, King David. Beginning in 961 B.C., Israel enjoyed a golden age that featured 40 years of unprecedented stability and prosperity. Solomon had the most powerful military in his region, an army that featured 12,000 horsemen and 1,400 charioteers. In spite of his superiority, he never went to war during his reign. He did not have to. He was a shrewd politician and negotiator. He focused his energies on a very aggressive domestic program.
Solomon was a master architect of an extremely efficient government. He built fabulous buildings and fortresses, owned copper and iron mines and controlled all the sea and land trade routes. The king, if you can imagine, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Just to feed his family each day required 150 bushes of fine flour, 300 bushels of meal, 10 stall-fed cattle, 20 pasture fed steers, 100 sheep and a large number of deer, gazelles, roebucks and poultry. (I Kings 4:23) Again, this amount of food was required every day. Do the math on these quantities. His wealth staggered the imagination of all monarchs. Economically, this was one of Israel’s finest hours.
On the surface Solomon’s life experienced no roller coaster ride, no ups and downs, no periods when his external environment challenged him. In fact, he experienced just the opposite. He managed the affairs of his people so well that he devoted considerable amounts of time to a unique hobby.
During his tenure as the head of state, Solomon collected more of the world’s wisdom in one library than any other individual of that period, e.g., 3,000 proverbs, 1005 songs. (I Kings 3:32) Tradition indicates that he compiled sayings that later became the book of Proverbs and he wrote Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon and the Wisdom of Solomon, a work not included in the Bible. When the Queen of Sheba visited, Solomon’s wisdom and wealth were well beyond what she had been told. (I Kings 10:4f)
In spite of all of this wealth, power, prestige and wisdom, however, his conclusion about the meaning and purpose of life was that none of it mattered. He reasoned that he would meet the same end as someone who had no wealth, power and wisdom, as someone who left no legacy to his people. “Why engage in good, decent and helpful activities,” he thought, “if the end result of living was the same as an individual who lived most of his life outside of the law?”
In the process of indulging his numerous appetites, Solomon had forsaken the substance for the shadow. He honored God with all the rituals and ceremonies of his faith – much like many Christians do with their participation during Christmas and Easter -- but Solomon’s love for his appetites did not leave much room for remaining attached to the vine of creation.
Even though there was no roller coaster ride in his external world, that ride nevertheless took place within him. Negotiating the demons that live within us is often far more frustrating and frightening than dealing with the challenges of our external world.
When we turn to our lesson today, we find the second character to place under our microscope. Job was also a person of means. His wealth certainly had nothing in common with that of King Solomon, but he was more than comfortable economically. He had seven sons and three daughters. He owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 1,000 head of cattle, 5,000 donkeys and was the “richest man in the East.” (Job 1:2) In the mere blink of the eye, however, Job lost everything.
Enemies entered his domain and stole his herds. A storm swept in from the desert killing his children while they were enjoying a feast. To this roller coaster experience Job 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.”
In spite of the theology of the writer of the book that bears his name, Job appeared to have incorporated into his life an understanding that King Solomon did not have. Job’s power, strength and faith were not linked to his successes, his possessions, his relationships, or to his power and reputation. Job’s strength of spirit and character came from understanding that God is faithful in spite of life’s roller coaster ride.
His wife approached Job as he sat on a garbage dump, scraping his boils with a sharp piece of pottery and said, “You are still as faithful as ever, aren’t you? Why don’t you curse God and die?” Job responded, “Stop talking such nonsense! When God sends us something good, we welcome it. How can we complain when he sends us trouble?”
Lois and I had just returned from a wedding Friday night when we learned that our nephew had been in a very serious car accident that totaled his car. An intoxicated woman missed a stop sign at an intersection and hit his car on the driver’s side. He could have easily been killed. In fact, the police have no idea how Craig extricated himself from the car. All we know at this point is that he is in a neck brace and is very sore. The woman backed up her SUV and sped away from the scene of the accident. Two alert drivers who witnessed the accident followed her. They cornered her in a cul-de-sac until the police arrived to take her into custody. Under these circumstances, thank goodness for cell phones.
We never know when life is going to present us with a dip in our roller coaster ride. We always have the two extremes as possibilities. Either our external world is constantly communicating, “everything is bright and beautiful,” like Solomon’s, or we are impacted by something unimaginable – forcing us to adjust to losses as did Job. Most of us have experienced both sides of this equation.
How do we negotiate our roller coaster ride? Exactly how does our knowledge of God’s faithfulness add to our skill level for living creatively? In our nephew’s circumstance, catching the driver who left the scene of the accident and having the authorities see that justice is done will not help with the inner homework he has to do. Suppose this accident had left him paralyzed?
Remaining resentful and bitter will define us until we choose to move beyond the dramatic event that invited such a response. Blaming someone will not change what has happened. Hostile responses happen over and over again when marriages dissolve, when our children choose friends of questionable character, when someone steals our identity or when a microburst causes a large oak tree to fall on both of our cars. Job said, “How can we complain when life is not to our liking?” Where did he find the strength to say such a thing?
We know the wisdom of turning our lemons into lemonade, of convincing ourselves that the glass is half full rather than half empty, of seeing every problem as an opportunity, of believing that every cloud has a silver lining and of letting our light shine in the midst of darkness as Jesus taught. Sayings like these were well known to King Solomon.
The divine dimension of life, the aspect that reminds us of our eternal nature and of God’s faithfulness can teach us to respond with gratitude for all of life’s ups and downs. The Apostle Paul taught this. The author of James offered such guidance. In Job we read, “God gave to us, and now God has taken away. May God’s name be praised.” (Job 1:21)
It is fascinating that Job blamed no one. Job accepted his experiences for what they were and let go of his losses. His experiences carried his now tested faithfulness to even greater levels of skill. Had Jesus been a witness to Job’s response, he would have said, “Job’s house was built on a rock where it was tested by the powerful winds and rains. The winds and rain did not prevail against it.”
When we define ourselves as spirit beings having a momentary physical experience on the earth, it is not that difficult to train ourselves to create such responses as Job. Solomon missed understanding how God hard wired us with highly creative abilities when we choose not to become side tracked by the pleasant or unpleasant experiences of our external world. We are eternal beings whether we believe so or not. God is faithful to all of us even when we do not understand life from this perspective.
The story line of the wager between God and Satan, featured in the first chapter of Job, was designed to see if human faithfulness to God could be broken by external circumstances. Job’s life was bent but it did not break. When we advance this drama to Jesus’ day, we find the same theme. Job had overcome his world in the same manner in which Jesus overcame the circumstances of his world. Recognizing the eternal quality of our lives and staying with that perspective will produce this result.
Many of us are inspired to shoulder the painful aspects of our lives when we see others responding to life with remarkable courage and fortitude. One role model at the age of 7 had to forego attending school so he could support his family that had been evicted from their home. He loved his mother with every word and action. She died when he was 9. At the age of 22 he lost his job. He could not attend law school because he lacked a formal education. A woman he deeply loved suddenly died just before their wedding day.
He and a friend borrowed money to open a store together. The friend died leaving him with the entire debt to pay. He dated another woman for four years only to learn that she had found another. He was 28 at the time. At 37 he ran and was elected to Congress but was defeated two years later. At 41, he buried his 4-year old son. At 45, he ran for the Senate and lost. At 47 he failed as a candidate for the Vice Presidency. At 49 he ran for the Senate and lost again. At the age of 51 he was elected to the highest office in our land and immediately faced a civil war he would have given anything to prevent. Every defeat offered Abraham Lincoln two choices, stay defeated or move into the future unafraid of yesterday’s delays.
Not long ago one of our members gave me a plaque that hangs in my home office. She said, “I think this describes your philosophy of life better than anything I have ever read.” It reads, “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body. Rather, it is the experience of skidding in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
The adventure of living has nothing to do with believing God has uniquely blessed us because we find ourselves living on easy street. A diamond was not formed from a lump of carbon that happened to be lying on a beach. A life adventure is produced when we grow our character in the face of temptation, when we say “no” to being consumed by circumstances over which we have no control, and when we instantly let go of painful dramas instead of choosing to be held prisoner by them.
Living the adventure means thanking God for all the riptides, the losses of support, the failures, the challenges, as well as praising God for a wonderful, warm church family, for opportunities to spread our wings and fly and for the privilege of having a group of loving friends.
Life is good when we learn to appreciate every moment of our journey, not just the times that produce fun and laughter. This is why theme park roller coasters seem to attract only the adventurous. God was, is and will always be faithful to all God’s children whether we believe it or not. Understanding this and internalizing its truth is what makes life the wonderful adventure it is.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Gracious and ever present God, we thank you for the magnificence and bounty of your physical world. We confess how easy it is to allow our senses to guide our appreciation. Often we do not pursue with equal enthusiasm what heals our spirits, what mends our broken dreams and what deepens our understanding of life’s frustrating themes. How often we need to be reminded that “to have faith, is to be sure of the things we hope for, and to be certain of the things we cannot see.” In our haste for material success, we can easily neglect developing what greater patience would bring. In our quest for certainty, we can easily neglect the power and courage that trust in the unseen world would enhance. O God, teach us how to bring peacefulness into every realm of our living. Amen