Sermon for “Literature and the Gospel”

[The following is a sermon I wrote for a class.]

“He takes and He takes and He takes”
Job 1: 20-21

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“All the glory that the Lord has made/And the complications when I see His face/In the morning in the window/All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders, and He shook my face/and He takes and He takes and He takes.” That is how Sufjan Stevens ends the song “Casimir Pulaski Day,” about a girlfriend who is dying. “Goldenrod and the 4-H stone/The things I brought you when I found out you had cancer of the bone.”

Maybe you don’t want to admit it because you know it’s not how Christians should think, but have you ever found yourself caught on the horns of that particular dilemma? Have you ever felt the weight of the seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty, that nothing happens outside of His will, and the existence in this world of what we call evil? In fact, that very paradox is at the center of what some people find the most compelling argument against the existence of the God we believe in. Even if God does exist, they say, He cannot be good and loving. Or if He is good and loving, then He cannot be all-powerful. Like Job’s wife, they mock and taunt: “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). Look around you at this world we live in! A world of bone cancer and AIDS; a world of Alzheimer’s and starvation; a world where children die too soon and the suffering can’t die soon enough. Your God, He takes and He takes and He takes.

It is easy for us to get God off the hook when people are dying on the other side of the world. Earthquakes in Pakistan? Tsunamis in Indonesia? Suicide bombers in Iraq? Of course God doesn’t have anything to do with those things. But, as in the song, things get a little more complicated when we see God face to face. When you are face to face with the fact that you could expire at any second like smoke in the wind; when you are face to face with the fragility of human flesh and blood; when you are face to face with the fact that you and the ones you love live this life by pure grace and if God were to so choose, you’d take your last breath in this instant—then it is not so simple. That’s when God seems to take your shoulders and shake your face. Do not be deceived: God is sovereign over His creation, and it is only by His word of permission that the things we call evil can take place.

Take Job. Bad things happened to Job. He lost everything. He didn’t know it, but Satan and God had a deal. Satan could do anything he wanted to Job, with the exception of taking his life, and God would allow it. If God had said “no,” Job would still have had his livestock, servants, sons, daughters, house, and health. If ever there was anyone in the history of the world who had the right to speak about God taking and taking and taking, it was Job. Thus the completely rational response of his loyal, loving wife. Not only does Job not blame Satan, he never has any doubt about Who is in control of the situation. Does Job weaken or falter in his faith? No, “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD’” (Job 1:20-21). He takes and He takes and He takes; blessed be the Name of the Lord.

How Job-like is your faith today? During the funeral of a husband who died in the prime of his life, is your first inclination to fall on the ground and worship? Staring at a casket that is far smaller than any casket should ever be, could you speak the words of Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”? As your mother’s mind withers away until she doesn’t recognize her own children, is your faith such that you could refrain from cursing the One who alone has the power to give life or take it? I am not sure that my faith could withstand the blows that Job’s must have taken. Sometimes God takes and takes and takes until you have nothing left on which to rely, nothing that is certain; sometimes He allows, for reasons only He knows, pain and suffering to continue until you are at the verge of doing just what Job’s wife suggested, only you don’t have the strength.

God takes and takes and takes, indeed. He takes life from the one who deserves it most. He takes a child from him who has only one to give. He makes the one who is most innocent look the most guilty. He takes the life of the good while the lives of the wicked go on and on and on. But, again, do not be deceived: the things I’ve said about deserving and innocence and goodness do not apply to a single one of us, no matter how good we are at fooling ourselves into thinking we deserve life, or health, or children, or prosperity. We suffer because we are sinners; because sin is the way of things in this fallen world. Yes, God allows it, but do we have any right to complain? The better question would be, not “why am I suffering so much,” but, “why do I, sinner that I am, not suffer more?” We, who think that God exists to satisfy our whims and to play Santa Claus to our Christmas lists! We, who take for granted the overwhelming abundance of God’s good gifts to us and lose faith at the slightest consequence of our rebellion against God.

But God continues to take: yes, He takes the life of Jesus, who alone deserves life, and He gives that life to us. He takes the life of His only Son and He makes us, who are children by creation, children by Blood. He makes Jesus, the most innocent, guilty with the sin of the whole world, and He washes us innocent and guiltless. And He takes the life of His good and holy Son, and makes our lives to go on and on forever. He takes and He takes and He takes; blessed be the Name of the Lord!

Dear friends in Christ, I cannot give you reasons or answers from the hidden mind of God. I cannot tell you why God allows certain things to happen, or what things God has prevented from happening out of His grace. God has not revealed everything about His sovereign will, but He has revealed His will toward you: He does not hold your sins against you. Hear Him as He speaks to you, you who are paralyzed in body and soul: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2). There is nothing left that can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ—not sin, not suffering; nor pain, nor even death itself. True, they remain with us in this life, in this creation yet infected with the sins of humanity. True, we will still suffer and die. But the day will come when we will see with our own eyes the victory over sin and death that Christ won on the cross. Job said it! “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me” (Job 19:26-27). We ourselves shall see death pass away: “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). Our Lord takes death to Himself, and He gives to us Resurrection.

Brothers and sisters, though you have taken from God by doubting and by sinful questioning and by cursing, those things are not charged to your account, nor do you have to pay for them. Instead, our Lord Jesus has paid for them on your behalf. He has taken your sin, taken your death, taken your Hell; and He gives you His purity and holiness, gives you His Life—even Life abundant, gives you His eternal Kingdom. The Lord has taken away and the Lord has given so much more; blessed be the Name of the Lord!

“All the glory that the Lord has made/And the complications when I see His face/In the morning in the window/All the glory when He took our place/But He took my shoulders, and He shook my face/and He takes and He takes and He takes.” Blessed be the Name of the Lord! Amen.

— [Timotheos], 10/30/05

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