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Last Sunday's Sermon
October 14, 2018
Contending with God
Rev. Jeffrey Cheifetz
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In this reading Job has been persuaded that the old God he thought he knew
and loved and followed has disappeared or perhaps never existed at all.
Yet, his desire remains to speak to this inexplicable deity.
In this reading Job has been persuaded that the old God he thought he knew and loved and followed has disappeared or perhaps never existed at all. Yet, his desire remains to speak to this inexplicable deity.
23:1 Then Job answered: 2"Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. 3Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! 4I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. 5I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. 6Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. 7There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. 8"If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; 9on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. 10But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. 11My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. 12I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.13But he stands alone and who can dissuade him? What he desires, that he does. 14For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind. 15Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. 16God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; 17If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!
We need to unburden ourselves of whatever might be keeping us from relying
on God. Which is why Jesus comes and makes these demands, naming whatever
idol we've created and asking us to give it up, throw it away, for the sake
of our neighbor and ourselves.
We need to unburden ourselves of whatever might be keeping us from relying on God. Which is why Jesus comes and makes these demands, naming whatever idol we've created and asking us to give it up, throw it away, for the sake of our neighbor and ourselves.
17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" 20He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" 27Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible." 28Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." 29Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age - houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions - and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."
This relationship with God can feel like a wrestling match or a mind-puzzle. No matter; stick with the Way, for in and through it we are formed into the people of God.
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You know Job's story: the righteous one whose suffering is almost beyond imagining, and engages in debate with his friends, who believe that he deserves his suffering due to his sins.
This is the problem of evil - why do good people suffer, and bad people prosper?
And if God is good, and wise, and powerful, and knowing, why is there evil and suffering in the world?
Is it due to our sinning? Jesus' teachings and healings of afflicted people point away from that conclusion. Our own experience teaches us that our choices sometimes make our lives more difficult; that we ourselves create conflict and suffering where none existed before. We know that our choices sometimes make our lives easier; that we ourselves create goodwill and stronger community. And we know that life just happens; that accidents happen, that our best intentions can lead to harmful ends; that the earth shakes and the winds blow and the seas overflow their shores, bringing death and injury to many.
Is God not really that good, or that powerful, after all? So it can seem.
Is God really present, or has he/she taken a long vacation at some distant sunny seashore retreat after setting the clockworks of creation in motion?
No doubt all of our mind pictures of God, and all of our theories about God's nature, fall short of capturing what cannot be fully pictured, or explained, or imagined; and that is just the way it is, God being God after all.
The book of Job is the Bible's most pointed exploration of this question, and despite its lengthy and repetitious dialogues, it is indeed a beautifully poetic and challenging presentation of what it means to wrestle with the unknowns of the human experience, while one's very life is at stake.
The author of Ecclesiastes wrestles with it in a different way, taking a philosophical attitude about the 'vanity' of this life and all of its strivings, concluding: " 11 [God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil."
Which conclusion may seem more useful, or just as useful, than that of Job's tale, which is to surrender to the overwhelming authority, power, and wisdom of God, who ends up restoring to Job all that he lost and more. However, each book speaks to us as we have ears to hear and mind to understand and heart to follow.
In the end, following the breadcrumbs of experience, accumulated knowledge, and hard-won wisdom, in the context of the seeking community, both in the past and in the present, is the way to go forward as we too wrestle with this ultimately unknowable God, who, according to our sacred texts, became blood and bone and flesh in the person of the Jewish carpenter Jesus of Nazareth in northern Israel, at the very hinge point of history.
His teachings drive us, as they drove the wealthy young man in the story, to contemplate what it means to turn away from all of our idols - those things that charm us most - thus losing our life, that we might gain true life, eternal life; the problem being that we have no idea what that looks like until we walk the path and discover it as we go two steps forward and one step back. It is an adventure of intellect and emotion. It is a journey of belief and doubt. It is a pilgrimage that involves both contemplation and action. It is the sacred way of asking questions, of worship and prayer, of serving our neighbor, of losing one's direction and finding it again as we build souls that reflect God's call on our lives, of learning what it means to be human in the image of God, the cosmic creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all things.
Each one of us could literally write a book about our life with God - in fact, that might be a good title: "My Life With God", followed by our own choice of subtitle.
My book title might be: "My Life With God: A Long and Winding Road". It would be about my teenage journey through my parents' divorce, my Conscientious Objector application, and the books I read and people I talked with at that time in my life. It would be about the tension between being Jewish by lineage and Christian by faith - oh you know: the parent religion gives birth to a daughter religion that periodically tries to commit matricide. It would be about my cousin's death by drug overdose; my mother's mental illness; the widening and deepening of my faith understanding through seminary and beyond; the unquenchable resilience of humanity; the existence of mosquitos and hummingbirds; the loving comfort of family and friends during difficult times; the beauty of sunsets, and the magnificence of the Milky Way on dark and clear nights; the present rise of the wicked forces of authoritarianism and nationalism at the same time when so many people are determined to love the world back into a sane place of heart and mind; and the dying and/or re-formation of the larger Christian Church, as well as of local bodies of believers, and my career-long attempt to be a positive force within all of it.
Any ideas for book titles anyone wants to share?
You and I are Job: at times confused about our path, and at other times certain about it; anxious about what might be asked of us, and also knowing that God is with us through it all; bold in prayer and also not sure sometimes what prayer has to do with anything; wanting answers, and just trying to find the right questions; in pain, and also drawn by the beauty and promise of the Good News, of the blue sky and green trees and the vast ocean.
We are the young person in the story, hurrying to Jesus and blurting out "Good Teacher, what [else do I have to do to earn God's love and be admitted to the place of peace and belonging]?" And when we hear that it's not about piling up points, but rather about giving up all claim to the points we have spent our lifetime gathering together, the points that justify our existence and give us a sense of meaning and security, then we too are shocked, and we resist, and we turn aside wondering if there is anyone else we can ask who will give us the answer we want to hear.
In our wrestling match with God, hopefully we eventually learn to hand over everything, absolutely everything, to the One who wishes to free us from all that holds us bound, and deliver us by his grace and power into new life.
In Christ, the wrestling match is hard, and it is good. It is the place in which we are formed into the people God means for us to become.
Wrestle with God out of who you are. So, you may be like Job with his energetic and even desperate questioning of God. Or perhaps you are like philosophical and even fatalistic Ecclesiastes. Be like Sarai ('my princess') who became Sarah ('mother of nations'); be like Deborah ('bee'), the prophet and judge whose wisdom led the Hebrews to freedom; be like Mary, who said to God, 'I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.' Perhaps you are the earnest and wealthy law-abiding man who runs up to Jesus with his well-intentioned question, and goes away challenged to his core.
Whoever you are, whatever your life issues and hard battles may be, come. Follow Jesus of Nazareth, today, and tomorrow, and the next day. He sees you. He loves you. He knows the way. He is the Way.
May it be so.