A Sermon By Richard Clewell
August 15, 2010
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
SCRIPTURES: Job 19: 25-27, Romans 8: 31,35-39
Listen to podcast

The thought that immediately came to mind as I considered today’s YOU ASKED FOR IT topic about disappointment and its management was the incident this summer on July 5th with the announcement of “The Decision” on national television by a not to be named athlete who for seven years plied his trade here in northeast Ohio: “I’m taking my talents to South Beach!” The response was one of gigantic disappointment expressed in various ways from the Cavaliers’ owner, the fans, Cleveland business interests, to the population of the metropolitan area. Anger, disbelief, a sense of betrayal, rejection and abandonment were reactions voiced loudly and seemingly forever in the media and by people with much or even little interest.

Disappointment is a common human occurrence which we all experience when our expectations, realistic or not, are not met, and we no longer feel in control like we imagined ourselves to be. We think that things ought to be fair, especially when we try hard to do the “right” things and we run into the wall of life’s reality which is clearly unfair. We have our own concepts of how things should shake out; of how we would do it if we were God. And that is at the very core of disappointment and our human dilemma in trying to explain the seeming inequities of living.

This disappointment with God is an age-old question which appears both in dramatic circumstances and in mundane everyday experiences. A mother in grief asks why her newborn dies a day after birth. A man of faith, with on-going bouts of depression, loses his job and his wife and kids leave him. My car won’t start and prayer makes no difference as it still won’t turnover. These examples bring about feelings of frustration, anger, disillusionment, and abandonment. Where is God? Where is the divine action of deliverance? Does God really care? Is there a God? These are reasons I hesitated to preach about this disappointment issue. I knew, in doing so, I would have to confront questions that have no easy answers – that may in fact, have no answers. Also, I didn’t want to focus on failures for fear of undermining anyone’s faith. But I decided to take the risk of providing a perspective on disappointment out of my own faith struggles and from my pastoral love and concern for so many who battle with the same issues.

It seems to me that the most important questions which are lodged somewhere inside of all of us, can become focused in a single moment of dashed expectations or undesired outcomes. “Is God unfair?” “Is God silent?” “Is God hidden?” Faithful people have these questions because as human beings who have committed their lives to God, no matter what, we instinctively expect something in return. Are these expectations wrong? Why doesn’t God answer those questions?

Our Scripture texts today hopefully give us some insight into these questions which may help us in the ups and downs of our faith journeys. The story in the Book of Job is the Scripture’s prime case study of disappointment with God and seems to anticipate whatever disappointment any of us might feel. A number of years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner, after losing his fourteen year old son to a fatal condition, wrote the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He explored many of the questions of human disappointment. Job’s story portrays the very worst happening to the very best person. The first two chapters provide a glimpse into the cosmos where God is challenged as to whether created humanity is really free and, if humankind is, will they trust the Creator? With the presence of evil unleashed by choice can anyone in the randomness of events really trust God unless that person is protected from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?” In the healing of a broken world, God’s new work is re-creation starting with human beings and their trust relation with their God. So Job deals not primarily with disappointment and suffering, but rather with the testing of faith.

Chapters 3 through 37 describe Job’s loss of possessions, his children, his wife’s support and his very health. His friends give him platitudinous answers and blame him for what has happened. His young friend uses logic to dismiss the others’ rationalizations but fails to ascertain that when God is indescribable and yet a factor in the problem, no answer can or need appear. Yet the unexplained presence of faith can minister to the heart while the mind goes without understanding. Through the entire book Job remains faithful despite crying out for God to speak to him. When finally God speaks and Job’s questions are satisfied in the majesty and connection made, Job’s affirmation of his redeemer (Job 19: 25-27) acknowledges the embodiment of family solidarity in the need of a mutual relationship. The Hebrew word “redeemer” signifies the nearest male relative protecting one’s interests when the person is unable to do so. For Job believes there is someone with power and presence to take up his case with God after his death, but what he desires (v.26,27) is vindication and relationship before he dies. He wants to see for himself now and shows his determination to carry his case to God. Present alienation is Job’s perspective; from God’s perspective there is no alien outsider; there are only children of God.

God’s words are affirmation that Job is not alone. God may not always speak in the ways we want to hear, nor come to us with the assurance we cry for, but God comes with an invitation to a relationship of mutuality and interaction. God affirms in the 40th chapter, “You are man! You are my beloved creation, made in my image.” (40: 10-14) In the interaction Job’s perspective is transformed and his faith strengthened. (42: 1-6) Blind faith and traditional belief have now become a matter of personal encounter and thorough trust and a living faith in disastrous circumstances.

Very often, disappointment with God begins in Job-like circumstances. The death of a child, a tragic accident, loss of a loved one or the unexpected termination of employment may bring the same questions Job asked. Why me? What does God have against me? Why does God seem so distant? The Book of Job gives no satisfying answers to the question “Why?” Instead it raises another question, “To what end?” By trusting God through his trials, Job helped abolish the very pain and unfairness of this world that he had protested so vigorously. In knowing he is not alone Job discovers new hope and strength to go on – his redeemer is present and accepts him as one of his family. In Archibald MacLeish’s poetic drama J.B., a modern version of Job, he looks for an answer to this question of why bad things happen to people. If we mean “is there an explanation which will make sense of it all? – then there is probably no satisfying answer. We, like Job’s friends, can offer learned explanation, but in the end, the pain and the sense of unfairness will still be there.

But the word “answer” can mean “response” as well as “explanation,” and in that sense may offer us direction in managing the tragedies in our lives. The response would be Job’s response in MacLeish’s version of the biblical story – “to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to others around us, and to go on living despite it all.”

The ability to forgive and to love are what make for on-gong relationship and are strengths given us to enable us to live fully, courageously, and meaningfully in this less than perfect world. Without our response of love God is not God, but only Creator. Love is the one thing no one can command, not even God. It is a free gift and is it’s freest when it is offered in spite of pain, of suffering, of injustice, and of death. “We love God because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19)

It is to this demonstrated love that we can respond in love. There remain no satisfying answers to pain, suffering, injustice of living in this world. But there is the assurance of “God with us” seen in the fabled response in Job and in the life, death, and resurrection in Christ to new life. We can question and seek better understanding; we can cry out to God in our disappointment and perceived isolation for that can also be a genuine prayer. The God who loves us promises to never leave us and the Comforter, the Spirit of God intercedes for us appealing to God’s on-going love and grace.

Our New Testament text brings God’s full revelation of the divine relationship to humanity in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In him genuine grace and mercy are exhibited. Divine love is poured out in his suffering (“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and in his humanly tragic death which is transformed into resurrected new life. God demonstrates his presence in our suffering and pain and provides the promise of presence and the power for meaningful life and relationship in the midst of this world’s problems and pain. This is why the Apostle Paul, transformed from a persecutor of the church to the witness of God’s grace and mercy in Christ can say, “If God is for us, who is against us? Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? – no, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved (s) us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8: 31,35,37-39) Nothing can separate us from God’s demonstrated love in Jesus Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love as keystones of life in relationship and says the greatest is love. It is certainly true that we don’t know and probably there are no satisfying answers to why terrible things happen. But in growing faith based in steadfast love we can find hope to go on living and loving despite it all. A prayer by Robert Raines in his book, Creative Brooding, speaks to us in such “no answer” situations, “My hopes have been disappointed again. My frustration is making me bitter. I’m not getting anywhere. What do I do next? What can I do? Answer me, Lord. Give me faith to recognize your Yes when it comes to me. Lord, give me courage to trust my hunches, and patience to take one step at a time. I belong to you. I will walk with you. Yes.” Amen