10-14-18 Losing God

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland, Sunday October 14, 2018 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN. 

Texts: Psalm 22:1-15,19

            Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Losing God 

I feel like I should apologize for the scriptures today. The lectionary provides at least four scriptures every Sunday. Our custom here is to select two of the four. Usually, at least one contains a message of hope, or encouragement, or something positive.  

Not today!   


Not sorry.   

Psalm 22 and Job 23 may lack optimism, but they don’t lack for meaning.  There’s something powerful about the raw emotion and the sharp edges of human suffering on display. When it comes to suffering, it seems to me there’s just no good that comes from pretending or putting on a brave face.   

And Job is suffering.  

Psalm 22 is often noted for being spoken/prayed by Jesus on the cross, “Oh God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  Paired with Job today, one can easily imagine Job speaking/praying these words.  If you’re not familiar with Job, all you need to know about him is that he’s a good, honest man. He worked hard. He obeyed the law.  He was by all accounts a good husband, good father, a good neighbor and member of his community.  He was regarded as a man of integrity and conscience.  Job was also wealthy and accumulated material wealth and property.  In Hebrew culture, prosperity like Job’s was presumed to be indicative of God’s favor.   

But then Job lost everything: his wealth, his property, his health, and worst of all calamity came upon his family and they all died.   

To say that Job was despondent is an understatement.  In his agony, Job cries, Oh, that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling.”  Job gives voice to the most basic question of faith and life: “where are you God?”!   

For many, Job represents the reality that bad things happen to good people.  Leaving aside some of the various theological questions Job often provokes, I prefer today to focus upon on Job.  How he deals with the bottom dropping out from under him. 

In his Introduction to Job in The Message, Eugene Peterson writes  

It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us [but] because he suffered in the same ways we do, in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job searchingly questioned and boldly protested his suffering.…  [he] says boldly what some of us are too timid to say (out loud). … He shouts out to God what a lot of us (keep locked away in silent thought).  Job … refuses to take silence for an answer. He refuses to take cliches for an answer. He refuses to let God off the hook. [1] 

Job struggles to make sense out of the senseless loss he’s experienced.  We can identify with his struggle.  He searches desperately for anything or anyone who might comfort him in the midst of his agony.  Wendell Berry says that "the distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.”[2]  A memorable scene from Job is when Job’s friends first visit him. They sit in silence with Job for seven days (2:13). This speaks volumes about the sacredness of presence, and silence.  

But eventually their silence ends.  And when Job’s friends open their mouths, they manage to do the impossible: they found a way to make Job feel even worse.  They felt compelled to explain this awful turn in Job’s life.  There had to be an explanation. They quickly determined that Job must have done something terribly wrong.  They think they’re being helpful, but they’re only distancing themselves from Job.  One commentator observes that Job’s friends show their own anxiety and discomfort over Job’s suffering, “protecting themselves from the chaos that engulfed their friend.” (Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, see end notes) 

Job is the oldest, most ancient story in scripture. Job’s assertion that his sin did not bring down God’s wrath upon him is a crucial declaration that should reverberate through all of scripture and human experience.  And yet the opposite seems to be true:  Whenever life goes terribly wrong, we impulsively suspect that we did something “wrong” in God’s eyes, that adversity is the result of somehow running afoul of God’s love and mercy.   

Job refuses to believe that his situation is beyond God’s reach. He clearly feels abandoned by God and isolated from human community.  But he rejects the notion that he somehow deserves what has happened to him or that it’s merely his “fate”.  He protests his situation and on the contrary believes that God could and would make a difference, if only he could find God and appeal to God’s righteousness:

I would lay out my case

    and present my arguments.

Then I would listen to [God’s] reply

    and understand what [God] says to me.

Would [God] use his great power to argue with me?

    No, [God] would give me a fair hearing.

Honest people can reason with [God],

    and so I would be forever acquitted by my judge.

I go east, but [God] is not there.

    I go west, but I cannot find [God there].

I do not see [God] in the north, for [God] is hidden.

    I look to the south, but [God] is concealed.

Job 23:4-9 New Living Translation 

Even though Job laments God’s absence, at times Job speaks directly to God.  He refuses to believe or accept that God is unconcerned.  This would have been so comforting if at least one of his friends would have backed him up.  Instead, give Job advice about what he should do. They even claim to speak for God (Job 13:7-12). Not even one of them thought to speak to God on Job’s behalf or even join Job in appealing to God’s mercy.  

I suppose Job’s friends are indicative of how most people react.  We just don’t know what to say to someone we know is suffering terribly.  When people don’t know what to say it’s easy to do like Job’s friends, blurting out things that are more harmful than helpful.  Even though people mean well, it’s common to hear people say things like,

"God must have needed your [spouse, child, relative] in heaven."

"Everything happens for a reason."

"God must be testing you."[3] 

Job models a stout response to our own suffering.  Job speaks directly to God even though he also describes feeling like God “isn’t there”.  Job holds nothing back: he directs his anger, his pain, his grief, and his despair directly to God.  He knows that God is big enough to handle it.  Job’s lament is not mere complaint, it is ultimately an expression of hope.  Implicit in his lament (and lament in scripture) is conviction that what has happened is contrary to God’s covenant of love and community. Lament holds God to account whenever life spirals into despair.  Lament clings desperately to hope. 

In this way, Job has something valuable to teach us.  Job models the importance of lament: speaking our anger, pain, grief and despair directly to God, even when—perhaps especially when—we only feel God's absence.  In this unlikely way, Job teaches us how to cultivate hope in the midst of hopelessness.  Job reminds us that there are times and situations (in our own life and in events we witness) where what happens doesn’t make sense, defies reason, can’t be explained or excused or accepted.  

Sometimes life doesn’t make sense.  

When that happens, lament is the best we can do, and the best we must do to avoid losing God. 

[1] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Introduction to Job, p.822-823  Note: I’ve altered his text; my words are in parentheses. 

[2] Wendell Berry, "A Poem of Difficult Hope," in What Are People For? (New York: North Point, 1990), 59 

[3] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1420.  She adds, “we do the same thing, of course, though more subtly. When we hear of a tragedy, our gut reaction is often to reason to ourselves why it won't happen to us: They built their house in a flood plain. He wasn't watching his child closely enough. She lives in the wrong neighborhood. This instinct begins early. When my 8-year-old daughter heard of a 9-year-old child who had been shot, her first reaction was "But the child was a boy, right?"