• Edit

Print this Sermon

11th Sunday after Trinity 2016 - Deacon Wyall Boutwell

It is a joy and a privilege to worship with you this morning. I extend greetings from Bishop Morse, Dean Thompson and your brothers and sisters in my home parish of Holy Trinity in Fairfax. We are excited about the work that God is doing here. It is an encouragement for us. I must say this is a most beautiful building and it shows your commitment to the faithful proclamation of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many of your neighbors and many of your co-workers need to hear the Gospel

This morning is the 11th Sunday after Trinity and we are roughly halfway through Trinity season. After Trinity Sunday, the Church turns her attention from the doctrines of the Gospel to the practice of the Gospel.  Orthodoxy, right belief, which is expounded in the first half of the year, must be brought together with Orthopraxy, right living, for the Christian to be fully formed.  During Trinitytide, the Propers direct us to take upon us the mind and character of Christ.

For instance, the Love of God is the focus of the first two Sundays of Trinity while grace, peace and mercy are featured in the next three Sundays in sequence.  Union with Christ and the life of discipleship are the key doctrines exemplified in the Sundays between Trinity 8 and Trinity 10.

In this the 11th Sunday after Trinity, we get a reminder from today’s Old Testament lesson that life is accompanied by suffering and affliction.  We are reminded that the peace of God means little if there aren’t challenges and attendant difficulties in this fallen world.  Today, we are brought into the extraordinary challenges of Job.  So I invite you to turn in your Bibles to the Fifth Chapter of the Book of Job. We will look at this passage while also considering the entire book of Job for context.  After examining the text, I hope to draw some conclusions and applications that may help us in the days and weeks to come. I put before you two questions: What can we learn from today’s Old Testament lesson that may equip us to minister to those who are suffering? What can we garner from the passage that will help us in our time of affliction and adversity?

One of the strongest apologetics for the truth of Holy Scripture is its transparency in regards to the failures and weaknesses of its characters. Its most important characters were men and women in need of God’s grace.  Abraham, on a couple of occasions, was willing to sacrifice his marriage relationship with Sarah for fear of Pharoah and the Philistine king Abimelech.  Jacob was the great schemer who stole the birthright of his brother.   King David, a man after God’s own heart, broke most of the Ten Commandments with his seduction of Bathsheeba.

When Holy Scripture is so clear about human sinfulness, we should expect no less clarity on the subject of human suffering.  The account of Job is the oldest narrative within Holy Scripture. In this most ancient of stories is a theme that has vexed mankind since the Fall - why do the righteous suffer. We read in the Chapters that precede today’s OT lesson of Job’s standing, his prosperity, his affliction and the response of his friends.  I would imagine all of you are familiar with the story of Job. He was a man of great wealth and righteousness.  He served God and turned from evil.  He was a man of great prosperity whose wealth didn’t blind him to the needs of his family.  He was so concerned for the spiritual health of his children that he would make sacrifices before God just in case his children ‘had sinned and cursed God in their hearts.”  In a mysterious exchange between God and Satan, God agrees to allow Satan to afflict Job. In a compressed sequence of tragedies - any one of which would overwhelm many of us - Job loses his wealth, his children and his health.  In this narrative we are told of the heavenly conversation surrounding these events, but from a human perspective, the participants only see Job’s immense loss.  It appears God has forsaken Job to such a degree that even his own wife advises him to go ahead and curse God and die.

Job has three friends who come to visit him.  They sit silently with Job for seven days, which, arguably is the high point of their ministry.  Finally Job speaks and laments his birth and at this opening, his friends begin to respond to him.   Today’s first lesson, which is found in Job chapter 5 is the response of Job’s closest friend, Eliphaz.

We read in verse 8 - “I would seek unto God and unto God would I commit my cause.”  The Hebrew says, “But I would seek unto God”- Eliphaz is responding in contrast to Job’s lament with a statement of what he would do if he were in Job’s position.  In this brief verse, Eliphaz proves that religious platitudes have been with us from the earliest of times. By offering this corrective statement, Eliphaz is minimizing the agony of Job. Job had lost his children - all of them in one moment. He lost his wealth, which was significant and the fruit of his entire life’s work.  He was abandoned by his wife;  his health was deteriorating, his flesh in pain.  Eliphaz wants to minimize a loss that would have crippled most of us. He believes it is high time to redirect Job toward God.

Eliphaz says he would seek unto God.  The implication here is that Job hasn’t been doing so. Eliphaz disregards all the legitimate challenges that surround this situation and tells Job to get his act together and get some perspective.  God is in control and Job needs to acknowledge that reality and submit himself to God. 

We will come back to the insensitivity of Eliphaz’s statement, but let us step away from this for a moment to consider the content of Eliphaz’s statements about God.

After telling Job that he would seek God, Eliphaz gives the grounds or reasons why Job should do so. These fall into two primary categories – God’s attributes and his works among men. In verse 9, Eliphaz speaks of the almighty power of God as it is expressed though his works of creation and providence.  Eliphaz speaks of the benevolence of God “which doeth great things and unsearchable, marvelous things without number.” He gives a practical and important example of God’s goodness in that he sends rain. In verses 10 and 11, we see that it is God, “who giveth rain upon the earth, and sendeth waters upon the fields: to set up on high those that be low; that those who mourn may be exalted to safety.”  Here in northern Virginia, we rarely have significant drought. In fact, we are more likely to worry about flooding than the failure of rain.  We need to bear in mind what rain meant for the people of the arid regions of the Middle East.  In that region, everything hinged on the coming of rain for the climate is so very dry.  If the rains didn’t come, there would be lost crops and famine. Those who would be affected the most would be the poor.  Therefore, the coming of rain brought relief and celebration.  For the poor, it meant that the crops would come in and there would be abundance. By the coming of rain, the poor would be, in the words of Eliphaz, “exalted to safety.”

In addition to God’s almighty power and benevolence, Eliphaz tells us that God is supremely wise and brings the counsels of the ungodly to naught. In verses 12 through 13, we read “He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise. He taketh the wise in their own craftiness; and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong.   In other words, God’s power is shown in beating the wise of this world at their own game.  St. Paul has this passage in mind when he says in I Corinthian 3 “the wisdom of men is foolishness with God.” All the craft and wiles of wicked men are utterly destroyed by God.  Think of Haman’s scheme to destroy all the Jews.  God foils his evil plan and he is hung on the very same gallows that he designed for destroying Mordecai.

Verse 14 continues, “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night.” For the Hebrew hearer, the concept of “groping in the noonday” would have brought to mind events like the divine blinding of the men of Sodom in Genesis 19:11 in which the wicked wearied themselves in finding the doorway of Lot’s house. They would also remember the divine darkness which fell over Egypt when Pharaoh resisted Moses’ appeals on behalf of God’s people.

While God’s goodness is shown to all men, God’s compassion, as we read in verses 15 and 16, is directed toward the needy and oppressed.  Here Eliphaz says, “But he saveth the poor from the sword, from their mouth, and from the hand of the mighty. So the poor hath hope, and iniquity stoppeth her mouth.”

We see examples from Holy Scripture of God’s acts on behalf of his people. Israel, for instance, was saved from Pharaoh’s mighty hand in Exodus 18:10. St. Peter was delivered from the hand of Herod and Jewish authorities who were opposing the Apostle in Acts 12:11. II Timothy 4:17 records that St. Paul was saved from the mouth of that lion Nero.

God is at work to confound the work of the ungodly while working deliverance for his faithful people. For Eliphaz here, and for many saints elsewhere, this mark of deliverance is one of the defining characteristics of God’s works in this world. All the powers of this present age may array their weapons against the will of God and His servants but He brings their plans to nothing.

Eliphaz continues to point out in verse 17, "Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth;  Therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: For he maketh sore, and bindeth up; he woundeth, and his hands make whole.”

Eliphaz is drawing attention to the blessedness of God’s correction. We learn that suffering has a divine purpose. It is not the punishment of a judge for transgressions but it is the discipline of a child by a loving Father. Truth be known, the Christian life is characterized by the discipline of God. St Paul tells us this in Hebrews 12:6-7 - “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?”  We also learn that it is for our improvement. The correction of God maketh sore but it can lead us to repentance. It can wound us but it is the tool that God uses to purify us. Here Eliphaz makes the point that God uses pain to heal us. To bind up carries with it the idea of securing a wound or amputating a limb. It is just the amount of pain necessary to bring about wholeness to the body.

As we see from other passages within the Bible, the statements of Eliphaz to Job in this morning’s Old Testament lesson are full of wisdom and do reflect God’s actions in this world. We should, as our guide Eliphaz instructs, turn unto the Lord in all circumstances, particularly when we are suffering. We should keep in mind God’s attributes and his work in setting right the affairs of men. And, most importantly, we must remember that the presence of any affliction can be redeemed by God’s loving purposes. It is most certainly true that he is the Great Physician of our souls and will do what is right for our souls’ best interests, even if it necessitates great pain in the process.

Let us return for a time to consider what is wrong with Eliphaz’s approach.  What Eliphaz says is true, but we know there are problems with his presuppositions because in the end, it is Job who intercedes for Eliphaz’ failures before God, while he himself is vindicated.

First, Eliphaz makes the mistake of uncharitable assumption. When he says, that if he were in Job’s circumstances, he would submit to the Lord, he is implying Job has not already done so. Eliphaz believes he is entitled to such a conclusion because of a simple formula related to suffering.  Suffering is a punishment for sin; Job is a great sufferer; therefore, Job must be a great sinner.[1]

Affliction isn't as simple as this. There are varied reasons for suffering in this world and the Bible discusses four specific types of suffering.  The first is the suffering of unbelievers, which God uses to turn them to Himself.  We see this in the message of imminent judgment for sin announced by Jonah to the ungodly city of Ninevah.  Affliction for sin is God’s design to save people from the final consequences for unrepentant lives. They were able to avoid the suffering by repenting.

Additionally, Scripture outlines three types of suffering that are peculiar to the people of God.  One purpose of suffering is sanctification. God sends difficulty to purge away sin in the faithful. It is directed at sin but is motivated by love. We have already looked at this fatherly chastening meant to turn us away from sin.  Another purpose of suffering is the adversity of trial, which is related to sanctification but also serves to display the fruit of a more mature faith.

We see it in the life of Job in which God allows Satan to afflict Job with extended pain and difficulty with the intent of allowing Job’s faithfulness to be demonstrated. This suffering comes upon the godly while they are faithful in their service of God. From the outside, it looks a lot like the punishment of God for the ungodly. Hence, the difficulty Job’s friends have in discerning, but it is a mark of a developed faith in God.  The third type of suffering is one of testimony.  It is endured because the faithful have identified themselves with Christ and results in persecution and even martyrdom. Psalm 44 reflects this type within the life of Israel. In the New Testament, our Lord speaks of this in the Sermon on the Mount.[2] We read in St. Matthew 5:11 “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven….”  So, we see that the mandates of Holy Scripture require us to be more nuanced and indeed more charitable in our understanding of suffering. 

For those who minister to those who are suffering, we can learn from Eliphaz.  When we encounter people who are afflicted, we should listen. St. James instructs us in trials to be “swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath.”[3] Job’s friends ministered to him best when they were silent. The problem with silence is that it is uncomfortable for us.  We would rather believe we can say something to ease the person’s suffering than join them in it.

When we listen, we enter into fellowship with the sufferer. There is a humility in silence that helps the sufferer.  Furthermore, we should be exceedingly charitable in our assumptions about the circumstances surrounding the suffering one.  We should remember that we may soon be in the seat of suffering ourselves. We should take opportunities to direct people to Christ during periods of difficulty. Gentleness is required but adversity is often the seed of a needed change of heart. It took a crisis in the life of my father before he committed himself to Christ and his church. My observation of his commitment, borne in adversity, has had a profound effect in my own life. It would seem for my father and, I would suspect, a few people in this parish that God has used significant pressure and strain to bring them to Christ.  As you are out among your co-workers, family members, and others, keep in mind that suffering may be the means for you to lovingly tell them of Christ’s love for them..

For the suffering, it is reasonable and advisable to make your first response to the suffering  a spiritual self-assessment. We should ask “ what have I done? Am I being punished for sin?”   It may be that you have never truly examined your sin before God.  It may have been that we who know God have unconfessed sin or have turned our affections away from Christ and have allowed other things to vie for the affection that is only due him.  It may be that you may need to meet with your priest and seek spiritual counsel and hear him extend to you those healing words of absolution. 

Once you have examined yourself and been reconciled to God, think no more about it. God loves to receive those who run to him.  He delights in it. God’s delight in penitent sinners is the theme for the Gospel appointed for today. Although we didn’t read it this morning, many of you will remember the story of the Publican and the Pharisee.  The Publican knew his sinful failures and all he could do was plead to God for mercy.  Yet, it was he that went to his house justified before God rather than the Pharisee.  Our Lord focuses on the repentant heart not the actions that necessitated the penitence.

As I mentioned earlier, there are numerous reasons for suffering besides God’s direct punishment of sin. It takes faith to believe that God is at work in a way that is going to be ultimately beneficial to you.  For the suffering, the immediacy of the circumstances can keep one from seeing any pattern to God’s work.

It would seem that our difficulties cannot be understood immediately but we may be able to look back and see the purpose of God in our difficulties. Troubling as it sounds, we may never have satisfaction in knowing what God is doing. We must take Eliphaz’s counsel and turn unto God. We must remember his attributes. He is all powerful and provides for the needs of his people. He protects his people and vindicates them. Along the way we must concede that his timing may not be our timing. Often, it is not. We are called to patient attentiveness.

We have to believe that God is going to make things right. It may not be immediately or in the time of our mortal lives but all will be restored and perfected. It is only path of healing and restoration.

In suffering, we must remember that God is near. He is not remote and disinterested. Jesus Christ who accepted unwarranted suffering for his great love for you has brought you near to him through his perfect sacrifice. He identifies with you in suffering and intercedes for you every moment. He prays perfectly and his prayers never fail. God the Father and God the Son sent us the Holy Spirit who gives us the spirit of adoption as St. Paul says whereby which we cry Abba father. He incorporated us into His Church that we might have tangible reminders of our union with him through the Body of Christ and he feeds us with the manna from heaven that is to us his very flesh and blood. In our suffering, we must call to mind God's overwhelming nearness even when our circumstances cause us to worry that he really cares.

For the sufferer, we must chose to believe that the pain of suffering is working a greater good.  Eliphaz said to Job, “Don’t despise the discipline of the Almighty”. For he wounds and he binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.”  God is working a better good for you even in immense pain. He is making you more like Christ in these circumstances as disorienting and irrational as they may seem. 

Note that the suffering for Christians as I’ve described it is progressive: to purge our sin, to prove our faithfulness and perhaps to ultimately have us die in the manner of our master, but we rarely experience suffering in tidy categories.  We seem to struggle with different things at different times; sometimes the types of suffering overlap. We are often suffering while ministering to those in suffering. Corporate worship and fellowship must be a priority so that the body of Christ is built up.  In this context, we find meaning and comfort in the midst of our difficulties and it is here that we are able to comfort with the comfort we have been given. As you dedicate this new building to the worship of the true God, commit yourselves to parish life. Parish life is not merely beneficial to the individual Christian rather it is the foundational reality for all Christian life – whether it be in joy or in sorrow.

In conclusion, at this midpoint in Trinity season, let us remember that the God of love, grace and peace is our comfort in the adversities in the Christian life.  This story from the sufferings of righteous Job reminds us of our responsibilities in suffering.  We are to be charitable in our assumptions towards those around us who are suffering.  We are to be available even in awkwardness of long silence.  On the other hand, when we suffer, we should test our hearts to see if we need repentance and take the opportunity to confess our sins. Once that inquiry is done, we are to wait on God in our difficulties finding comfort in his perfect attributes and his justice. We are to remember that God is near us in our difficulties and is working a greater good for us in the process.  May God grant us his grace to trust him in the midst of our suffering. May we be a comfort to those who are suffering with the comfort we have received from our Lord in our own sufferings.  Amen.

[1] Gibson, E.C.S. The Book of Job, 19.

[2] F. Delitzch, Biblical Commentary on the Book of Job, pp. 105-107.

[3] James 1:19