Sermon delivered at Payson Park Church, UCC, Belmont MA; August 23, 2009
It was the evening of Friday, May 4th, 1991. My life was at a crossroads. Worries that had been looming over my family on every side for months, getting ever darker and more worrisome, hit as full blown crises – all at the same time.
At home, my marriage appeared to be on the rocks: divorce seemed to be unavoidable. Compounding this was a financial situation that was dire, due in large part to our buying a house that had far more problems than we’d been led to believe, or could have imagined.
My career was also up in the air: I had been managing a very successful two year-long project, but the economic recession of 1991 (sparked by the first Gulf War) hit just as we completed the effort. This resulted in a hiring freeze at my company: I was given a temporary assignment, but was also told I would be laid off if things didn’t improve soon.
I felt very alone. I felt like I had no one to turn to. I have not been in a more challenging situation either before or since that time.
Let’s skip all the gory details and just say that the result was I found myself driving in my Subaru on that May evening from Rochester, MN to Chicago, to seek refuge with my parents for an undetermined amount of time. My two year old daughter was at my side, sitting in her car seat, quiet and content, nibbling on the monster M&M cookie I’d bought for her.
It was quiet and peaceful as we drove along I-90 towards La Crosse, Wisconsin; yet, I felt I was imprisoned: surrounded by dark walls on every side. The uncertainty that surrounded our lives seemed to be exemplified by the magnificent thunderhead I saw ahead of us as we descended the bluffs into the Mississippi valley. It was huge. It was threatening, dark and turbulent. Yet, it was highlighted by the most beautiful, brilliant, double rainbow I’d ever seen: bright against the blackness ahead as the sun sank behind us.
We caught up with that storm just as the sun set, as we approached Tomah, Wisconsin. It was the worst storm I’ve ever been in. Rain was coming down so hard that my windshield wipers were bending under the force of the water. I slowly crept along the road, not saying a word to my daughter as the headlights struggled to pierce the wind-driven rain and darkness ahead: hoping to find a bridge under which we could take refuge from the storm. We were all alone: not a single vehicle was on the road besides us.
My inner darkness was matched by the darkness that was ahead of us, behind us, and all around us as that torrential rain and wind beat against our car.
The only bright spot in the world was my daughter sitting there with her cookie, peacefully looking out the window at the dozens of lightening bolts, and listening to the thunder boom as we slowly rolled forward on that deserted highway.
Suddenly, a lightening bolt hit right in front of me, not more than 20 feet away. I happened to be looking right at the spot where that jagged bolt of light hit the ground, right next to the road in the highway median. I saw burning grass kick up where it hit. It was an incredible flash with a simultaneous and deafening boom. Needless to say, I was terrified.
While I was still recovering, shakily gripping the wheel, my daughter turned to me and said “Do it again, Daddy!”
I took a deep breath and then replied “… Not now little bun … maybe later.”
Then, I smiled: not just because of her incredibly cute request, but also because for the first time in a long time I felt at peace again. I realized that God was teaching me a lesson.
God had started my lesson with that rainbow I’d seen an hour or two earlier: the book of Genesis tells us that God first put a rainbow in the sky as an everlasting promise to Noah (and us) that life on Earth would never again be wiped out in a Flood. God was saying, long ago, the same thing that I was being taught at that minute: that God cares. No matter how dark and stormy it may get, God always remembers the covenant made with Noah (and us) so long ago.
Yet, I had been so lost in my misery that I didn’t learn this lesson at first. God needed to shove a bolt of lightening in my face, and allow my daughter make an innocent and charming request, for me to “see the light,” for me to learn the same lesson that God had taught to Job in the Bible.
Most of the book of Job consists of Job petitioning God, asking “What did I do wrong?” Job had done the right thing every step of the way. He was a man of faith, a man without fault before God.
In Job, once we get past the prolog (where Satan is given permission to afflict Job and then takes everything from him) the book is laid out as if it were a legal pleading before the Court of God. Job lays out his case: he had done nothing wrong, not a single thing. His so-called “friends” try to convince him that he must have done something wrong, and even his wife, seeing how miserable he was, tells him to “curse God and die.” Yet, Job doesn’t. Job proves he’s done nothing wrong and asks God to explain himself.
Now, I should point out that many believe Job exhibited the sin of pride by claiming he had done nothing wrong and challenging God for an explanation. This reminds me of Benjamin Franklin’s famous list of 12 virtues – a list he compiled as a young man to help him focus on achieving each of them, one at a time, in a quest to achieve perfection. A friend suggested he add “Humility” to the list as a 13th virtue, which he did: Franklin then realized that his quest was fruitless, since successfully achieving the first 12 would automatically mean that he could never achieve Humility.
Yet, we never see Job pump himself up. He never publically proclaimed his righteousness, nor took pride in it. He never boasted about how good a person he was: his focus was always on the welfare of others and on his own relationship with God. In the story, all he does is lay out the evidence proving his innocence and asking God to show where he (that is, Job) had gone wrong. Job is simply asking “What have I done? Why is this happening to me?” — A question we’ve all asked ourselves at one time or another.
In Chapter 38 of the Book of Job, The Lord finally answers Job’s challenge: speaking, as it says, “out of the whirlwind.” (Which I think I’d take over the bolt of lightening God used on me!)
In this passage, God says…
‘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 heavenly beings shouted for joy?’
…A little farther on, and just as with Noah and with my own experience that night – the Lord also told Job of both the destructive power and lifegiving nature of water, saying…
‘Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? ‘
One thing God is saying here is: “Hey Job, it isn’t all about you!” We learn in this passage that Job, and we, are microscopic, insignificant specks within the Lord’s Universe. There is so much more that God needs to attend-to all the time, even in places where there is no human being to witness it. In this speech, God shows Job that we, as humans, can’t possibly know how it all works, nor can we expect God to put our needs ahead of the needs of all the rest of Creation.
As a famous Rabbi once said: “If you see a fire truck go speeding by towards a column of smoke rising from the neighborhood where you live, and you pray that it isn’t your house that’s on fire, aren’t you then asking God to afflict your neighbor instead?” That Rabbi was asking the same question: Is it right for us to ask for special treatment from God, even though this means we might be asking God to allow harm to come to others? I don’t think so.
In this passage of the Bible, God made it clear to Job that Job’s needs are only a tiny portion of all the uncounted and ever-changing needs that God must attend-to at every moment of every day.
Yet, God is also saying something else. Despite Job’s insignificance, despite his being but one of the countless needs of the moment, God still came down. God answered Job. To God, Job matters.
So the first part of the lesson I learned that “dark & stormy night” in Wisconsin 18 years ago is that to God, we all matter. We will all face fearsome challenges, we will all experience hard times, and that won’t change. But, God cares. So, I know that ultimately God has our best interests in mind, and already knows what it will take to get us there. We only need to trust in Him.
This brings us to the second part of the lesson I learned that night: My daughter didn’t have the slightest idea of all the challenges, both physical and spiritual, that I was facing that night, those challenges that seemed to be closing in on me from all sides. To her, Dad could do it all: she believed in me. Deep down inside, even though surrounded by storm and darkness on all sides – both physically and spiritually – she was absolutely certain that everything would turn out OK as long as I was with her. To her, that stormy night was just another great adventure in her young life.
This is what Jesus means by “Childlike Faith.” In the Gospel of Matthew (18:3), Jesus says:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He then defines what he means by “become like children” in the very next verse:
“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
What Jesus is saying is that childlike faith is not about being naïve, about being blind to the facts, or being uninformed. It’s about being humble. — The very thing that blocked Benjamin Franklin’s hope of achieving perfection. Yet, Jesus is saying that Humility is all that is required in God’s eyes. You don’t need to achieve perfection in anything.
Job had such “Childlike Faith”. In his day and age he was a wealthy, powerful, sophisticated man. He was not naïve, nor was he blind to the facts. He had the facts, and was holding up every one of them to God; calling on God to account for God’s actions.
After God showed Job how infinitely huge and complex the universe really is, and how small a part Job had in it, Job said (Job 42:2-3):
‘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.’
Job finally understood. God wasn’t beating up on Job. Even though the universe is too vast, too wonderful and too complex for us to fully comprehend, God knows exactly how it all works. God is the Creator, and is at the center of everything.
Realizing this, Job then adds (42:5-6):
“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.”
Job is saying he learned about God in the same way that most of us do, by hearing about him. Yet, now he really saw God. For a brief moment, God had given Job the extraordinary blessing of seeing how vast and awesome God’s universe really is. Job finally realized that there was nothing he could do as a human being to merit God’s favor, or even attention. Yet, there God was, talking with Job, taking the time to help Job understand how it all worked. In other words, God cared for Job. That God cares for us despite our insignificance is – as they say – a humbling experience. Certainly, it was so for Job.
And that, just by itself, is enough: If God cares about us, if the Creator and Lord of the Universe is concerned about us, then how can things turn out badly for us in the long run?
It was the same with my daughter. She knew I’d always been there for her. She knew that I always had her best interests at heart. So, even though things seemed scary and dark all around, she knew that everything would turn out all right in the end. That’s why she was not scared as we drove through that horrific storm. That’s why that lightening bolt was a fun thing, not a fearful event.
Like Job had at first, she thought that Daddy could do anything – otherwise why ask me to throw down a second lightening bolt? She was still too young to learn what Job had, that all that really matters is that God cares about us; and cares about what happens to us. She just knew that I was there, and always would be, and that was enough. Her childlike faith in me didn’t comprehend all that was going on, but she knew that I would be there the whole way through. She had that faith in me that Jesus asks us to have in God.
The writer of the following Psalm, thought by many to be King David, had that “Childlike Faith” too:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his names sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Let’s stop there for a second: God was with David. God restored his soul. God enabled him to have the peace and rest he needed, despite passing through the valley of the shadow of death. David then goes on to write…
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Psalm 23 teaches us that no matter how bad it got, no matter whether he was face to face with his enemies or not, David knew that God would be there for him, and would bless him even in the worst of times; and ultimately, he would dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So, when storms and darkness rage all around you and the walls start closing in, remember Jesus … Noah … Job … David, and my daughter: God is with you. No matter how bad it gets, God is always there. The Bible teaches us that you can be absolutely certain that our Lord will never forget you, and will never abandon you. God is with you every step of the way, side by side with you through every valley, until you arrive safely home, to dwell in the House of the Lord, forever.
Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).