August 2, 2015

When God Shows Up

Do you remember the worst lecture you ever got from your parents?  While I confess that I fall to it way more often than I should with my boys, my folks either weren’t much for lecturing or else I’ve forgotten all of them (which really isn’t very comforting news for all the wisdom parents depart to their children through the vehicle of a lecture…).  Still, though, there are times when as parents we need to impart a great deal of important information to our children in a rapid-fire fashion.  And, coincidentally or not, these times often happen in conjunction with something they’ve done that wasn’t perhaps totally on the up-and-up and when we are in a state of mild to extreme anger.  Now, if that happens to come across as a lecture, is that our fault?  Well…probably…but that much is not where I want to go this morning. I’ll come back to this idea in a second.

This morning we are in the third and final part of our series, Grace in Hard Times.  For the last couple of weeks we have been taking a sprint through the book of Job.  Given Job’s experience, we have been working to glean some of the wisdom contained in these pages for dealing with hard times in our lives and in the lives of those around us.  Two weeks ago we watched as Job’s perfect life fell completely apart and wrestled with why horrible things seem to happen to apparently undeserving people.  What we said then was that we have to keep the bigger picture in mind when thinking about things like this.  There is more going on in this world than we can either see or know and if we limit ourselves to what we can see and know we’ll be able to make sense out of very little of it.  We must keep ourselves firmly convinced of the character of the God revealed in the pages of Scripture and trust that He will faithfully lead His people to a glorious future even if the road to that day passes through some very dark places.

Going on from there, last week we breezed through the conversation that is recorded as happening among Job and four of his friends…frenemies, really…as they wrestled together with why all these awful things had happened to Job.  Well, “wrestled together” might convey the wrong idea.  It was more like these four guys who were probably always at least a little jealous of Job coming to secretly delight in his misfortune and explain to him why it was really all his fault.  I mean, they went from telling him that if he would just repent things would straighten out to telling him that his kids getting killed in a natural disaster (really a supernatural disaster, I guess) was their own fault to asserting that God wasn’t being nearly as hard on him as he deserved.  They all pridefully assumed they knew how the world worked, how God worked, and were trying to squash both Job and God into their little box.  Job wouldn’t go which just made them angrier and God up to this point was silent and so we didn’t know what He thought.

By the end of the conversation, though, even Job had started to lean into pride in his assuming on his knowledge of God and the world and while he wasn’t blaming God for anything, he was growing more and more despondent as neither of those two assumptions seemed to be working like he thought they should.  What we gleaned from all of this is that there is no relief for pain in pride.  When we or someone else is hurting, pride is the last thing we need.  Instead we need a humble trust that God has things well in hand even if we don’t understand it at all and will one day make things right.  In the meantime, He’ll walk with us and even carry us through the hard to the life on the other side.  None of that means, by the way, that we can’t still be incredibly honest about our feelings in the situation, about not liking the route He’s taking us on to get to where we’re going.  Even Jesus did that.  Humility allows for that.  As long as we remember who God is and who we are in light of that, we’re good.

This hard conversation between Job and his friends was not the end of the story, however.  In our stories it sometimes feels like God stays silent far beyond when we would like Him to speak up.  In Job’s story, God was silent for a long time, but eventually He spoke up.  After listening to Job and the bozos try to work out why all of this bad stuff had happened to him long enough, God finally broke into the conversation.  But, rather than coming with gentle comfort and reassuring answers to all of Job’s hard questions, God had something else in mind: a withering barrage of rhetorical questions aimed at making a point.  Now, if we’re not careful in our reading it can come off an awful lot like a lecture.  But I think there’s something more important going on here.  Something that if we can get our minds around it we will find ourselves in a much better place when it comes to facing hard times in our life, whatever form they happen to take.  You’ve got to see this for yourselves.  Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Job 38.

From 38:1: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said…”  Okay, what whirlwind?  We don’t know.  But somehow there was a whirlwind and God spoke out of it.  We don’t know if Job’s friends were still there.  We don’t know if they could hear this too.  We don’t really know much at all about what this would have been like.  But the point is that God finally broke His apparent silence on the situation and Job was able to hear it.  And what does God say?  Well, let’s just say that you and I probably wouldn’t have wanted to be in his feet.

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.”  Can we just utter a collective, “Yikes,” here?  Yikes!  What do you do when God comes to you and basically says, “Suit up, Junior.  I’m going to ask some questions for you to answer now.”?  Well…I guess you suit up and hang on tight.  Listen to this: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.  Who determined its measurements—surely you know!  Or who stretched the line upon it?  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no father, and here shall be your proud waves be stayed?’  Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?  It is changed like clay under the seal, and its features stand out like a garment.  From the wicked their light is withheld, and their uplifted arm is broken.  Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?  Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of the deep darkness?  Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?  Declare, if you know all this.”

On and on and on He goes.  Did you make the world?  Do you know how it works?  Can you care for it by yourself?  How about the creatures in it?  Did you design them?  Do you understand their natures and know well their needs for survival?  “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?  He who argues with God, let him answer it.”  Well, Job can’t answer these questions any more than we could.  He finally meekly offers a promise to keep his mouth shut in 40:4: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?  I lay my hand on my mouth.  I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.”  Surely the Lord hears him, but He’s not done yet.  He goes on to ask Job about two specific creatures, the Behemoth and the Leviathan (probably a hippopotamus and a crocodile), which are given semi-mythical descriptions as creatures vastly more powerful than us but which are fully submitted to God.  If Job is not mightier than these then how could he hope to question God?

Well, let’s go with that for a minute and hold off on questioning God, but I do have a question of my own and it’s one you very well may be asking too: What do we do with this?  Job’s been asking a lot of hard questions about God hoping to get some clarity on his situation.  I said this a bit ago, but let’s make the point again.  When God finally answers it’s with this unrelenting barrage of rhetorical questions whose collective weight makes a very clear point: “I’m God and you’re not.  Until you know what I know and can do what I do, don’t think you know better than me what’s just.  In questioning Me like this you’re so far above your pay grade that you can’t even see it anymore.”

I don’t know about you, but at first blush this strikes me as kind of a debate shut-down from God.  As I was wrestling with this text over the past few weeks it took some time to get beyond this initial impression.  We shouldn’t question God at all but should merely take whatever He gives, good, bad, or otherwise, give Him a big “thank you,” and sit down with our portion.  Where’s the compassion?  Where’s the help?  Where’s the love we naturally associate with God?  I’ll be honest…if we’re thinking like that it’s pretty hard to see.  If this is really just a “sit-down and shut-up” from God, that doesn’t exactly make us want to turn to Him in our troubles.  And yet (though this probably comes as no surprise), I don’t think that’s where God is pointing.  I don’t think that’s what He’s trying to do to Job.  I’m convinced this is the case for a couple of reasons.  First, that’s not how Job receives it and if he doesn’t, we don’t have any business receiving it like that.  That would be kind of like people who lose their faith by watching someone else go through an apparently unexplainable tragedy even though the victim doesn’t lose their own faith through the experience.  If I don’t lose my faith because of these bad things that have happened to me, why are you losing yours?

The second reason is that while God does challenge Job’s presumptuous assumptions to know how He works, He does not condemn him for asking the questions in the first place.  This is a rather different response from God than Job’s friends got when they were told to beg Job to intercede before God on their behalf in hopes of receiving forgiveness for their totally mischaracterizing Him.  What God is really doing here, though, is essentially saying, “You’re asking big questions there, Job.  Take a look at things from my perspective.”  Job’s response?  Look at 42:2: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’  Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’  I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  In other words: “I see things more clearly than I did before.  There’s a whole lot more going on than I understood or than I can handle.  You be God, I’ll be Job.”

So you see, this is actually a great deal more hopeful a response to Job than it initially appears.  God wasn’t simply lecturing Job as we parents far too often do with our kids.  He was giving Job a gift: a glimpse at the bigger picture.  In spite of our occasional prideful assumptions otherwise, running the universe is a much bigger job than we can even begin to fathom.  If we could really see things from His perspective all of our concerns—even the biggest of them—would immediately seem utterly petty by comparison.  That God even bothers to listen to us, to allow us to bring questions to His throne, much less to even consider answering them reveals Him as humble beyond our ability to grasp.  God designed and created the universe.  He sustains it.  We sometimes can’t even handle managing our lives.  And yet He desires a relationship with us.  It is literally impossible to overestimate what an incomprehensibly glorious truth that is.

Friends, God welcomes our hard questions when our circumstances are painful beyond our ability to reconcile because it means we are seeking Him.  The child who comes to his mom or dad with hard questions about life’s difficulties is doing so in pursuit of a relationship.  The child who has no desire for a relationship doesn’t bother asking in the first place.  So we should absolutely bring God our hard questions, but we should do it with two things in mind.  First, we’ve got to stick around for the answer.  Too many folks ask hard questions of God and then reject Him and run off on their own without ever waiting for Him to answer as if the asking itself absolved them of their duties to Him.  What good is it to ask hard questions if we don’t really want an answer?  It’s dishonest.  If we are only using them as a smokescreen for our prior rejection of God, shame on us.  Better to be honest and simply say we’ve rejected Him than trying to ask a bunch of questions we don’t really want answered.  Because rest assured: there isn’t a question you or I could ask that hasn’t been asked before and answered before.  As the wisest man in the world once wrote, “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

Second, we can’t forget who God is.  We serve a God whose ways and thoughts are higher than ours.  Job learned this in a particularly powerful way.  God is infinite.  We aren’t.  And just so we’re clear: the difference between infinite and finite…is infinite.  God is the Creator of everything.  He doesn’t owe us anything, not even an answer to our hardest questions.  We are foolish to expect anything from Him.  Anything we receive from Him is a gift.  But, He does want our hearts; more in fact than just about anything else in the world.  He created us for the purpose of sharing Himself with us in a loving relationship.  If we’re willing to give Him that, He’s glad for us to wrestle with Him because He understands our limitations and the angst that can easily cause us.  He experienced those directly in Christ.  For our part, we need to get to a place where we are satisfied with the affirmation that He is God because sometimes, like Job experienced, that’s the only answer He’s able to give us because we’re not able to handle anything more.  If we can receive that with grace, we’ll find ourselves in a pretty good spot.  And you know, as I thought about a way I could leave you with a single idea that you could take with you and would help you keep all this in mind this occurred to me: When trouble comes, let God be God.  When trouble comes, let God be God.  Here’s the truth: you stink at being God.  So do I.  You don’t run the world.  Neither do I.  You won’t be able to make any sense out of most of the things that happen in life.  Neither will I.  But God doesn’t, He does, and He can.  So why not let Him have the job?

When trouble comes, let God be God because He knows what’s going on and sometimes, when the situation allows for it, He does let us in on the big picture.  We see a glimpse of that in Job’s life.  At the beginning of his story we saw the behind the scenes look at what was going on (which, incidentally, didn’t help us make a lot more sense of it shedding a bit of light on the wisdom of God in not giving us that view very often).  Here at the end we don’t find out what happened to Satan, but we do find out what happened to Job.  Look at 42:10: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends.  And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.  Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house.  And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.  And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold.  And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning.  And he had 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 female donkeys.  He had also seven sons and three daughters.  And he called the name of the first daughter Jemimah, and the name of the second Keziah, and the name of the third Keren-happuch.  And in all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters.  And their father gave them an inheritance among their brothers.  And after this Job lived 140 years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations.  And Job died, an old man, and full of days.”  Pretty happy end, no?  God restored Job and made everything right once again.  He rewarded him with even more material blessings than he had to start with.  We do indeed serve a just God who will always make things right in the end.

Now just so we’re clear, things don’t always end that way.  Sometimes a hard story ends hard and we are stuck waiting a long time before finding out why it went the way it did.  Sometimes we don’t find out on this side of eternity.  But sometimes, sometimes we get a gift.  Remember the story of Jim Elliot from a couple of weeks ago?  He and Nate Saint and three other men were working to spread the Gospel to the Huaorani people, a notoriously violent Ecuadorian jungle tribe and were massacred for their efforts leaving behind their wives and children to make sense of the apparently senseless tragedy.  I told you then I’d tell you the rest of the story…and so as we wrap up this series, I will.

After a period of mourning for their lost husbands, Elizabeth Elliot, Rachel Saint (Nate’s sister), and their children journeyed back to the place their husbands and fathers and brothers had been killed…and continued their Gospel-proclaiming work.  Eventually, a great many of the Huaorani became Christians mostly because of the powerful example of forgiveness extended to them by the grieving family members of their victims.  There’s more.  Nate’s son, Steve, spent a great deal of time visiting his family members and spending time with the Huaorani people.  Eventually, the Gospel began to penetrate his heart and when he had made a confession of faith in Jesus Christ he was baptized by a Huaorani tribesman named Mincaye.  Steve’s baptism was a bit more powerful a proclamation of the glory of the Gospel than usual for a very special reason: Mincaye was the tribesman who had killed his dad Nate.  His father’s killer was transformed by the very Gospel his father had come to share and now was baptizing the son of the man he murdered.  When Mincaye murdered Nate, he arrived safely in the arms of Jesus.  And now, his son would one day join him with the help of the very man who had unjustly sent him there in the first place, who would himself be there to celebrate with them when the time came.  Steve and Mincaye are best friends to this day.  Short the power of the Gospel there’s simply no way to explain that.  The murder of Jim and Nate and the others was an apparently unmitigated tragedy…until God pulled back the curtain on the bigger picture.  When trouble came they let God be God and what a job of being God He did.

Believe it or not, though, there’s even more.  Years later Steve was following in his father’s footsteps as a missionary pilot, bringing the Gospel to hard-to-reach people groups.  He found himself lost in Africa and in need of a ride.  He was pointed in the direction of a local Christian pastor who was willing to help him.  Upon inquiring as to the pastor’s story, the man shared how when he was growing up he and some friends would often steal vegetables from the garden of a local missionary because they knew he was supposed to forgive them and not turn them over to the authorities.  Eventually they were caught, but instead of throwing the book at them, the missionary made them stay and help him work the garden.  Along the way he taught them to read and shared the Gospel with them.  This particular pastor was driven to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior because of a story he read in a book the missionary shared with him that was a collection of stories about Christians who had been killed for their faith.  If they could follow Jesus in spite of all they faced then surely he could as well.  And of these stories there was one that had always stood out to him as the most powerful: the story of a group of missionaries who were killed while trying to bring the Gospel to a notoriously violent tribe in the jungles of Ecuador.  Then, after the murders, the families of the martyrs came back to the tribe bringing a message of forgiveness and…the Gospel.  If these people, including one named Nate Saint, could serve Jesus in the face of such hostility, surely he could do no less than to commit his whole life to doing the same.  Here, decades later and on the other side of the globe, Steve was given the gift of seeing the even bigger picture behind the unfair and unjust death of His father.  When tragedy strikes, there is a bigger picture.  And if we’ll let God be God, one day we’ll get to see it.

When trouble comes, let God be God and trust Him to do it.  If He could bring such good out of a situation like that, if He could see the Gospel ripples from one act of tragedy met with trust spread that far and wide, what can’t He do?  Indeed, as Job exclaimed, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”  Trouble will come in this life because sin is still loose in the world.  But we serve the God who can not only absolutely carry us through the trouble, but who will advance His kingdom because of it.  When trouble comes, let God be God.