Were You There?

Sermon delivered on Trinity 20B, Sunday, October 18, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Job 38.1-7, 34-41; Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c; Hebrews 5.1-10; Mark 10.35-45.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are we to make of God’s response to Job’s anguished why questions and his cries for justice (and by extension ours)? As Christians, can we have any confidence that God has done or is doing something about the evil that often seems to strike capriciously and afflict the innocent as much as the wicked? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

Last week we looked in part at Job and his anguished cries for justice. Job, a righteous man by all accounts, had inexplicably been afflicted by all kinds of evil: loss of property, family, and health, most of the things we tend to hold near and dear to us in this world. Why had it happened, Job wondered? What had he done to deserve this? Job’s wife wasn’t much help. She had cursed God and encouraged Job to do likewise. Job’s three friends who had come to comfort him ended up making his suffering even worse by accusing him of doing evil and therefore deserving of his loss. After all, conventional wisdom of Job’s day (and ours to a lesser extent) argued that God rewards righteousness with good things and punishes evildoers. All these catastrophes in Job’s life suggested to them that Job wasn’t as innocent as he claimed to be, that he was getting his just desserts for his evildoing. This only made Job angrier and serves to this day as a model of how not  to try to comfort someone who has suffered catastrophic loss. Of course, no one but the reader was in on the joke: that Satan, with God’s permission, had caused all the damage to Job in an attempt to get Job to curse God.

We saw too that Job cried out for answers. Why would a good and just God allow these terrible things to happen to a good and righteous man? It just isn’t supposed to work that way and these kinds of questions have caused many to turn away from God out of anger and bitterness. Job wants his day in court with the Judge, to question the supreme Questioner so to speak. But as we saw last week, he is afraid because he knows God is sovereign and will do what God is going to do. And besides that, God apparently was making himself absent to his loyal but anguished creature. What to do?

Now in today’s OT lesson, Job finally gets his wish (careful what you wish for, Job). God’s appearance to Job is both off-putting and gracious. God appears to Job out of the tempest, biblical language that usually means death for the recipient. But God does not kill Job. Instead, in a series of rhetorical questions, God quickly puts Job in his place. Were you there, Job, when I created the world? Are you able to control its creatures so that they do your bidding as I do? What kind of questions are those, we wonder? I remember reading this passage for the first time and being really irritated at God. Nice non-response, God. Why won’t you answer Job’s why questions? They’re legitimate. We’ve got a right to know why you allow evil to afflict folks, seemingly at random. We demand answers, dude!

But of course the point behind God’s questions to Job is to remind us all that God is God and we are not. Of course we were not there when God created the cosmos. Neither are we given the answer as to why God made the audacious decision to create image-bearing creatures with the intent of having us run God’s good world on his behalf. Given human nature, that makes no sense at all! But as Isaiah reminds us, God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts. This is so true that not even the immeasurable limits of the cosmos can begin to bridge the divide between God’s wisdom and ours (Isaiah 55.8-9). God is simply reminding Job (and the rest of us ever since), that we are not able to understand the answer, even if God chose to give us one. In other words, in answering Job the way he did by reminding Job that God is the only Creator, not Job, God invites Job and the rest of us to assume an appropriate posture of humility when dealing with our Creator. It isn’t that God does not want us to ask tough questions. God doesn’t want us to waste our time asking questions about which we can’t possibly understand the answer. We weren’t told why the Satan was allowed a seat at the heavenly council at the beginning of Job. And here, God reminds us of the cold, hard facts. You ain’t me, folks, so stop trying to act like you are. You don’t have the perspective I have. You don’t have the knowledge I have. You don’t have the power I have. Trouble is, you think you do! But it’s kind of like trying to explain quantum mechanics to a two year old (and not a few adults as well!). It’s just impossible for them to understand the answer so why bother trying? The only difference is, our pride makes us think we can understand, that we are God’s equals when it comes to his good creation and how it runs. But as God reminds Job, we simply are not and this calls for wisdom and humility on our part.

But if we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts and minds to believe, God is not entirely silent about the issue of evil in his good creation. And so besides humility, a proper response to God’s were you there question is to reflect deeply on what God has chosen to reveal to us about the operation of evil in his world because there are some things that apparently we can understand. As we have seen, God consistently refuses to answer our why questions about evil. But God has chosen to reveal to us what he has done and is doing about evil in his world and this is worthy of our attention and faithful consideration. As the writer of Hebrews alludes to in our epistle lesson, the answer to our questions about what God is doing about evil in his world point us to Jesus, specifically his death and resurrection.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? asks the old Negro spiritual. No we weren’t because in some ways Jesus’ death is as impenetrable as the mystery of why God allows evil to operate in his world. But one of the things the writer of Hebrews surely wants us to see is that God has defeated evil in his world, as well as the dark powers behind it, by becoming human and taking the full brunt of evil on himself. As Paul reminds us in Colossians 2.15, on the cross God disarmed the rulers and authorities, triumphing over them. We want to shake our heads in disbelief at this. Are you crazy, Paul?? Look around you! Seems like evil is doing quite nicely, thank you. But Paul wrote these words while he was languishing in prison, himself the victim of injustice and evil brought against him because of his faith in Jesus. Paul knew the score. So have the multitude of Christians who have suffered persecution and martyrdom at the hands of God’s enemies. Yet they believed that somehow, someway, evil had been defeated on the cross of Jesus, if not yet fully vanquished. That will have to wait for the Lord’s return at the Second Coming for the latter to be fully accomplished.

And as the writer of Hebrews points out to us, Jesus also apparently struggled with God’s plan to defeat evil. Alluding to his cries and prayers and tears, presumably in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died, the writer tells us that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. But what does that mean? Jesus had been obedient to his Father’s will throughout his entire ministry. It wasn’t like he had been disobedient and now that he was facing death had to learn obedience. That just doesn’t fit the record.

Rather, what we are seeing in the Garden of Gethsemane is the fully human Jesus coming to grips with what he must do to save us from our sins and overthrow the evil that has corrupted his Father’s good creation. To do that, Jesus must suffer in our place. He must die our death. And that means he must inevitably be cut off from communion with his Father. The writer of Hebrews wants us to see how a perfect and sinless man could feel our own weakness and sins. Think about it. Is it not terrifying enough for us to consider what will become of us if God had never entered history on our behalf to rescue us from his just wrath on our sins? The thought of our fate is a terrible burden for us to bear, made even more unbearable by the shame and guilt we often feel when we contemplate our sins. These feelings inevitably make us believe that God cannot do anything but hate us for our evil. Now multiply that feeling by a gazillion-fold and we can begin to appreciate the agony Jesus struggled with in the garden. Surely there is another way, Father. Please. But there wasn’t. Jesus had to suffer for us so that we could live. In effect Jesus became Job for us. And so he ended his prayer with, “Not my will, but yours be done.” This is how Jesus was made perfect in obedience. He could have walked away from his awful task of bearing the world’s sins but he didn’t. He chose to obey his Father and did something that was impossible for the rest of us to do, thanks be to God!

But there’s more to this story than our own personal salvation, massively important to us as that is. Jesus also broke the power of evil over this world, enigmatic as that may seem to us, and he calls us to obey him as he obeyed his Father. He calls us to deny ourselves and take up our cross as we follow him. He calls us to the same humble obedience to his Father that he lived out while a mortal on this earth. I’ve died so that you can live forever and broken the power of evil over you, he tells us. And when I was raised from the dead by my Father, I ushered in God’s new world because I also defeated evil when I died. And now I call you to follow me, to be my agents of new creation. You are to bring God’s love and healing power to others. You do that, not by lording it over them and hating them. You do this by following my example. The world hates me and it will hate you if you follow me. The powers, while defeated, still pack a powerful punch and they will try to hurt and kill you if possible. You must do this by returning their hate with love and by forgiving them. You must overcome evil with goodness. I can’t tell you fully why this is so because you are not able to hear the answer. I must simply ask you to trust me and suffer when evil rears its ugly head against you. It will scare you like it scared me. But I am your great high priest. I can help you endure and overcome. Evil’s day is done. Your day is just beginning and you have an eternity awaiting you when God’s new world comes in full. You need each other’s help and support. That’s why you need to love each other and be humble enough to look out for each other’s needs. But you also need my help and support because I am your Lord and Savior. I have overcome evil and death and can help you do likewise if you let me. Will you?

Our immediate reaction is often one of revulsion. This makes no sense to us, Jesus! Why can’t you just bring in the tanks? You’ve got the power to take down evil. Why don’t you just do it? No, we’re more at home with James and John’s request. We don’t want to learn obedience through suffering. We don’t want to change the world like that. We want to be the higher ups in your organization, Jesus, with privilege and power and honor and glory. This surely isn’t how you intend for your kingdom to come on earth as in heaven!? Say it ain’t so!

But it is so. This is the Lord’s answer to our questions about what he is doing about evil. This is how the kingdom comes and we are invited to be more than bit players in the unfolding of that kingdom, unlikely or enigmatic as that seems to us as finite, mortal humans. We must look to Jesus, to his cross and resurrection. We must look to his presence in our lives, collectively and individually, in the power of the Spirit so that we have the power to obey him in his call to our suffering love. That’s quite a challenge, my friends. But our Lord is up to it and promises to be with us every step of the way if we are willing to learn obedience through our suffering for his sake. And as unlikely and counter-intuitive as it sounds, when we learn obedience through our humble, suffering love for God and his world, we proclaim the loudest that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

Were you there when God created the world and when they crucified our Lord? No we weren’t, we answer in appropriate humility. But that’s not important because we believe that our present and future hope, along with the hope of all creation, is secure because of the love, goodness, and faithfulness of God made manifest in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.