Grace Under Pressure - Week Four: Happily Ever After?

 


Today we are concluding our sermon series for the month of October, and we're using select readings from the oldest book in the Hebrew Scriptures as our guide. 

This series is entitled Grace Under Pressure, and as I mentioned, we're going to be studying the oldest book in the Bible from the Hebrew Scriptures (OT), the story of Job, which is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood books in all of the Bible. 

Job seeks to answer a question that we have all asked at least once in our life:  Why do bad things happen to good people?"

When we are facing trials and tribulations, challenges, and problems, it’s easy to wonder where God is in the middle of everything.  We may even start to wonder why God would allow the things that have happened to us, to happen.  

But what if we were able to see the challenges we face in life as chances to grow stronger in our faith, to learn to trust God more, to surrender our need for control?  

Maybe then we would discover the kind of grace under pressure that could transform our lives. 

Today we're going to be talking about how even when it seems as though everything is going to end poorly---that we won't get our happily ever after ending---that we need to be courageously patient because there's a new beginning just around the corner. 

"And they lived happily ever after..."  

That's the kind of ending that we seem to prefer, isn't it?  We all want that happily ever after ending.  And yet, we also know that not everything turns out "happily ever after." 

I was thinking about this whole idea of happily ever after, and I decided to make a list of movies that ended in "reality," films that didn't give us our nice, neat happy little ending.  

List of movies... 

Joshua Loth Liebman once wrote: 

“And they lived happily ever after” is one of the most tragic sentences in literature. It is tragic because it tells a falsehood about life and has led countless generations of people to expect something from human existence which is not possible on this fragile, imperfect earth... Life is not paradise. It is pain, hardship, and temptation shot through with radiant gleams of light, friendship, and love.”

But here's the rub... Your brain seems to want the happily ever after ending.  

I was reading a report the other day on a major psychological study conducted on why our brains seem to be wired to desire happily ever after.  It comes down to cognitive dissonance, essentially.  We want things to end well, and probably think they should.  

In fact, we most often think we deserve for things to end well, for conflicts in life to go in our favor.  And when they don't, our brains try to resolve things for us, and that never works out that well. 

The reality is, the happily ever after ending that we imagine we deserve isn't the "norm" for most of us.  But this doesn't mean there isn't joy, new life on the other side of what might feel like the death of our hopes and dreams.  Quite the contrary. 

In fact, in our story today we'll see that Job's response to his trials and tribulations is extremely raw and real, and because of his honesty, his faithfulness in the midst of a time of real struggle, everything changes for him. 

Recap

I need to say here that Job actually did doubt God---it was nuanced, but he did.  Job's doubts were centered on God's justice, not God's power.  Job demands to be head by God to plead his case to the Almighty. 

He thinks that if he can only correct God's assumptions about him, which he feels were due to misinformation--that God will sort everything out. 

And then he learns something from the ash heap that he's sitting on, bemoaning his fate, and struggling with God and God's seemingly arbitrary and capricious actions.  

What Job discovers is that his old ways of thinking/talking about God fail and that he needs to learn something new---and these new things transform him and his story.  

As we prepare to dig into the text for today, and we find out what happens in Job's story, we need to focus on one very important thing---the one thing I want you to take away from this sermon more than anything: 

GRACE UNDER PRESSURE TRANSFORMS WHAT SEEMS LIKE THE END OF A STORY INTO A NEW BEGINNING 

Job 42:1-6

1 Then Job replied to the Lord:
2 “I know that you can do all things;
    no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
    Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me to know.
4 “You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
    I will question you,
    and you shall answer me.’
5 My ears had heard of you
    but now my eyes have seen you.
6 Therefore I despise myself
    and repent in dust and ashes.”

10 After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. 11 All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver[a] and a gold ring.

12 The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. 13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. 15 Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.

16 After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. 17 And so Job died, an old man and full of years.

It's pretty obvious that the first part of this passage is poetic and the last part is prosaic.  Let's sit in the poetic for a bit, shall we?

Job's realization of God comes down to a couple of lines.  "By the ears rumor, I heard of you... but now my eyes have seen you."  Job makes a shift from knowledge to experience here.  And this wouldn't have happened if he hadn't struggled. 

Because by lamenting and complaining to God throughout his ordeal, Job keeps his relationship with God alive.  It's no coincidence that the people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures are known by the name Israel---the one who wrestles with God. 

Then Job says, "But I recant, or repent in dust and ashes." This is the translation that is often used because it's a simple one.  Or it has also been interpreted as Job saying, "I repent of [sitting in] dust and ashes." and gets on with his life. 

But when you dig deeper into the meaning of these words in ancient Hebrew, you will find that a more accurate translation is: 

"But I recant--because I am dust and ashes."  This is a different view.  Job is acknowledging his lack of knowledge and understanding of a God who is infinite and mysterious.  

And at this point, God validates Job's resistance to reducing God to a transactional deity the entire time he was being put through all of the sufferings he endured.  His friends never figured it out. 

Job discovered new ways to think and talk about God that weren't based on any of his friend's assumptions or his own.  The old ways of understanding God failed him, so he changes his expressions. 

Job teaches us to hold our theologies loosely so that we can be able to receive and reflect new expressions of God that can transform our life of faith.  

So... how do we interpret what happens at the end of this story?  Does Job get rewarded for getting it right?  

Is this really a "Happily Ever After" ending?  I mean it looks like it, doesn't it?  Job gets back everything he lost and then some.  And he has more kids--seven sons and three daughters (numbers that connote divine favor, and completeness), who are named Dove, Cinnamon, and Eyeshadow, which speaks of their desirability and beauty. 

There are some subtle things going on in this restoration part of the story... there are some changes in Job.  Not only does he discover new ways to think/speak about God, he also discovers a new way of seeing the social order. More on that in a bit. 

But first... what do we do with all of this today?  It comes down to two things for me. Thoughts and Actions. 

Grace Under Pressure—Discovering the truth about God in Our Story

Transform your ideas/language about God  (Thoughts)
Every time I have a conversation with someone who is an atheist, I will ask them to describe the God they don't believe in.  Invariably, I don't believe in that God either. The transactional God.  The God who makes wagers, who acts in capricious and arbitrary ways.  The God who demands and demands.  The God who encourages hatred of others.  The God who lets (or worse causes) horrible things happen to good people. 

At every stage in my life, I have discovered new ways to think/speak about God that is life-giving, restorative, and exactly what I needed and could handle at that stage in my life.  I haven't always gotten this quickly, mind you.  I also have a hard time shedding the old God that I should have fired a long time ago.  

We all need to have our ideas/language about God transformed.  Michael Gungor once wrote a song entitled God Is Not A Man that had these lyrics: 

God is not a man
God is not a white man
God is not a man sitting on a cloud
God cannot be bought
God will not be boxed in
God will not be owned by religion

Second... 
We need to learn the difference between “rewards” and “grace” (Actions)
This brings us back to good old Job and the happily ever after thing.  

I get what the passage of Scripture seems to indicate.  Job stayed faithful, so Job got his fortunes restored even more than before.  

But it wasn't so much to do with Job's faithfulness as the fact that he was the only one in the whole story who had the temerity to struggle with God over all of the big questions. 

This brings me to the following observation... perhaps what Job experienced in the second half of his life was not a reward... it was grace.  

It was grace to live the second half of life with a new way of seeing, a new kind of faith, a deeper more real relationship with God based on the kind of trust that only comes from struggle.  

The second half of Job's life was also lived with a new kind of social order.  Job prays for his friends---the ones who basically threw him under the bus.  He gives his daughters a full share of inheritance in a culture when that was not something one did.  

In a culture where it was believed that the effects of a man's sin could be visited upon even the fourth generation of his offspring... the length of Job's life is significant.  He saw his fourth generation in this story, and then died content that he had done his best to leave a lasting legacy. 

You have to understand that the long lives reported in the Old Testament are not to be taken literally.  They are symbolic and have meaning.  We don't know exactly, but we can make pretty good educated guesses based on studies done on Mesopotamian culture and similar extra-biblical sources with similar issues. 

So Job experienced grace in the restoration of his life.  What was dead came to life.  

This is such transformative good news---imagine what it would look like if Christians figured this out?  What kind of world might emerge?


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