Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Why do bad things happen to good people?

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Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, March 5, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. It's the first sermon in a series entitled, "Why: Answering Some of Life's Hard Questions." You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

I know Heather and Rocky Campbell just had a new grand baby, which I think more than compensates for the sprained ankle. And although that’s really exciting, what makes it even better is that this is the second one in the last year, right? And that’s great. I mean, Debbie, Maggie and I were all excited about the coming of Coco Channel, the dog not the person. I just can’t imagine how great it is to have two grand babies, both of whom you can hold and cuddle and snuggle until they get fussy and then you can send them home. The best of all worlds. Now I know this is an odd way to start a sermon entitled “Why do bad things happen to good people, but hang with me for a minute.

You see, I’ve always been fascinated by how babies learn language. I mean, for me to learn a new language, man, it would take months, maybe years of focus, concentration and study. But for babies, who haven’t had any of my education, good night nurse, they can pick up language in a heartbeat. And I find that amazing. In fact, I can remember like yesterday the time Maggie said her first word. Of course, it was “dada,” which didn’t make Mama all that happy, but what can I say; sorry about your luck. And after those two syllables, man, she was off and running. And with each word, I could feel this little twinge of excitement, that is until she got to one particular three-letter word that nearly drove me to drink. And I think most parents know what word I’m talking about: W-H-Y, why.

 Now outside of that “God is dead” part I think that’s pretty accurate. That’s just what kids say.

But I’ll tell you, I really don’t think we ever outgrow asking why. As a matter of fact, I believe we may do it more when we’re older than we do when we were kids. Of course, as we get older, the questions, well, they seem more focused, because they’re questions I think folks tend to ask when something bad happens to them, you know, something that they just don’t understand and sure didn’t expect and probably don’t deserve. We ask, “Why? Why did this happen? And why did it happen now? And why did it happen to me? Why?”

And you know, even though that three-letter word is the same one we used as kids, the stuff that follows seems to get more intense as we age. I mean, while a little girl at a breakfast table may just end up saying, “ok” and then move on to something else, our whys can keep us awake at night and distract us during the day, even when we’re trying do what God has created us to do. I guess you could say that this is the power of the “why.”

And I’ll tell you, for that reason, for the next five weeks, we’re going talk about some of these difficult “why” questions, starting today with the big Kahuna itself, Why do bad things happen to good people? And as we’ll do with the other questions, we’ll use the story of Job to help us focus. And to consider this first question, we’re going to look at the first chapter. Now it’s printed in your bulletin, but instead of reading it all, let me summarize what’s going on here. And remember, this is story, you know, like a long parable; In other words, I don’t think it’s a historical event. I mean, if this really happened to a specific man at a specific time, we’re looking at a lot more issues than I can cover in a twenty minute sermon.

Anyway, in the beginning, there was a man named Job. And as it says in the book, Job “was a truly good person, who respected God and refused to do evil.” And his life reflected his goodness. I mean, he “...had seven sons and three daughters. He owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pair of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a large number of servants. He was the richest person in the East.” And so everything was pretty sweet for Job.

That is until God and Satan have their little conversation. I mean, “the Lord asked, ‘Satan, where have you been?’ Satan replied, ‘I have been going all over the earth.’ Then the Lord asked, ‘What do you think of my servant Job? No one on earth is like him—he is a truly good person, who respects me and refuses to do evil.’ ‘Why shouldn’t he respect you?’ Satan remarked. ‘You are like a wall protecting not only him, but his entire family and all his property. You make him successful in whatever he does, and his flocks and herds are everywhere. Try taking away everything he owns, and he will curse you to your face.’ [Now if Satan were a ten-year-old boy, he’d say “I double do dare you.”] The Lord replied, “All right, Satan, do what you want with anything that belongs to him, but don’t harm Job.’ Then Satan left.” Now that’s what it says.

And as a result of Satan’s challenge, Job losses everything. Sabeans steal his oxen and donkeys, and everybody knows how sneaky those Sabeans are. And then fire comes down from heaven and barbeques his sheep and servants. And then a bunch of Chaldeans stole his camels, including the one named Joe. And as the cherry on top of the sundae, Job’s whole family, except for his wife, get smashed in a house. And I’ll tell you, in chapter two, it gets worst, at least for Job, not his sons and daughters, but for him. You see, he’s given this horrible disease that resulted in boils all over his body. And I’ve got to tell you, by the end of the second chapter, Job is pretty discouraged by this whole mess, that, remember, started with Satan kind of daring God to test the faith of this righteous man, something that Job will never find out.

And although I don’t want y’all to leave thinking that our suffering is the result of some weird waging between God and Satan (remember this is a story), I do believe it may say a lot about why good people often end up experiencing suffering they really don’t deserve. You see, I think there are three broad reasons why good people suffer, and the first two aren’t mutually exclusive. You see, first, sometimes we cause our own suffering, and that can happen to the good and the not-so good. For example, if I drink and drive and then run into a tree, I don’t have to struggle with why I’m picking splitters out of my forehead. All I have to do is look in the mirror. And second, sometimes others people cause us to suffer. And that kind of thing isn’t hard to find. I mean, just open either a newspaper or an app and read about the inhumanity humans inflict on one another. Although it’s in no way fair to the ones suffering, the reason is, at least, understandable.

But I’ll tell you, there’s a third kind of suffering, you know, the kind we see in Job, that isn’t caused by the sufferer nor inflected upon him by someone else. Some suffering, maybe not most but certainly some, man, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. In other words, there just aren’t any reasons we can understand. And I’ll tell you, I think this kind of suffering causes the most confusion and frustration, especially when it’s happening to us. I mean, a tornado hits one trailer but not the others. And a person who’s never inhaled a cigarette develops lung cancer. And a righteous person loses everything, even though he’s done nothing, and I mean nothing to deserve it. Now try to example that to your kids or grand kids. And even though we might say something that sounds spiritual, you know, like God must have his reasons and we’ll understand later, that’s the kind of stuff we say when it happens to happens to someone else, not when it happens to us and those whom we love. I’ll tell you, right along with suffering that’s self-inflected and imposed by others, some suffering is so confusing and so frustrating that, if we’re honest with ourselves and others, all we can really say it that we don’t know why good people suffer; sometimes they just do.

But you know, regardless of the reason, I mean, whether it’s deserved or not, whether it makes sense or it doesn’t, I do think there are three things that we might need to remember as we face suffering in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love. And even though these three things may not give us all the answers we might want, they may help us live with the questions until we get to the other side. Three things, and let me tell you what they are.

First, regardless of the reasons, I think we need to remember that,  because of the Son, our past has been cleansed. And this is how it happened. When Jesus was hung on that cross, he died to save the men who drove the nails. And as a result of that death, they were freed, freed from the power of sin, freed to live for God. They were freed; and brothers and sisters, so are we. It’s like the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Your sins are scarlet red, but they will be whiter than snow or wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) Now that’s cleansing. And according to Paul, “We know that the persons we used to be were nailed to the cross with Jesus. This was done, so that our sinful bodies would no longer be the slaves of sin. We know that sin doesn’t have power over the dead. As surely as we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. We know that death no longer has any power over Christ. He died and was raised to life, never again to die. When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God.”  (Romans 6:6-11) Now that’s what Paul wrote. In other words, when Christ died on the cross, we died too.

And I’ll tell you why that’s important to remember as we face suffering especially when the suffering is self-inflected. You see, because of what Jesus did, we’re no longer bound to our past. We’re no longer bound to the mistakes we made but can’t seem to unmake. We’re no longer bound by all those stupid things we did to ourselves and to others, things that we’ll never be able to undo. And we’re no longer bound to reputations that we created for ourselves but that we no longer want. We are free. Now, don’t get me wrong, we may always have to deal with the consequences we picked up along the way, but we’re no longer bound to continue making the mistakes and being stupid and justifying our reputations. In the sight of God, we’ve been freed through the blood of Christ. And ultimately, God’s not going to hold the garbage we did against us, even if our teachers and our bosses, even if our spouses and our kids, even it our city and state continue to hold us accountable. We’ve been forgiven. Through the Son, our past has been cleansed, and that’s the first thing we need to remember.

And second, I think we also need to remember that, because of the Father, our future is secure. You see, when the Father raised the Son to new life, we got a glimpse into our own coming attractions. Again, it’s like Paul wrote, “Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life. Just as we will die because of Adam, we will be raised to life because of Christ. Adam brought death to all of us, and Christ will bring life to all of us. But we must each wait our turn. Christ was the first to be raised to life, and his people will be raised to life when he returns. Then after Christ has destroyed all powers and forces, the end will come, and he will give the kingdom to God the Father.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-24) And this is how John of Patmos described it in his revelation: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and so had the sea. Then I saw New Jerusalem, that holy city, coming down from God in heaven. It was like a bride dressed in her wedding gown and ready to meet her husband. I heard a loud voice shout from the throne: God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever. (Revelation 21:1-4)

You see, the resurrection locks in our future. Which means that we can trust, we can believe, we can have faith that any pain, any separation, any suffering we’re facing right now is temporary. Now again, don’t get me wrong, it may also be difficult and frustrating, it may dominate our attention and undermine our confidence, man, it may even tempt our faith, but it’s still temporary. Believe me, it’s going to end. And I can’t think of better words to describe how this feels than the ones Paul wrote to the Romans: “In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us. I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:37-39) Through the power of the Father, our future is secure, and that’s the second thing to remember as we suffer.

And third, because of the Holy Spirit, we can trust that God is with us all the time. And I’m telling you, that presence just might get us through to the other side. Remember, Jesus said this to his disciples before his crucifixion: “If you love me, you will do as I command. Then I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit who will help you and always be with you. The Spirit will show you what is true. The people of this world cannot accept the Spirit, because they don’t see or know him. But you know the Spirit, who is with you and will keep on living in you.” (John 14:15-17) And our good friend Paul wrote, “God’s Spirit doesn’t make us slaves who are afraid of him. Instead, we become his children and call him our Father. God’s Spirit makes us sure that we are his children. His Spirit lets us know that together with Christ we will be given what God has promised.” (Romans 8:15-17)

You see, it’s the Spirit that flows around and through us that brings God’s presence and his love and his strength into our lives. And it’s also the Spirit that brings us together into the church, the Body of Christ, a community where we’re commanded to love one another as we’ve been loved by God and where we’re expected to build one another up and not tear one another down and where we’re obligated to offer real help to all those who have a need, especially to the widow and the orphan, the alien and the stranger, in other word, to least of those who are members of our human family. As we struggle with and through suffering, I think it’s important that we remember that, regardless of where we go or who we’re with, the Holy Spirit is always with us. And in my opinion, that’s the third thing we need to remember.

Now, as we go through this series, we’ll use the Book of Job to consider other questions, you know, like why don't people understand me and why don't I understand what's going on; why is God allowing this to happen and why doesn’t God make things clear? But that’s what’s coming up. As we grapple with why bad things happen to good people, in other words, why do we suffer, I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes we cause our own suffering and sometimes others cause it for us and sometimes, well, sometimes our suffering just doesn’t make sense. It just happens; that’s just the way it is. But I believe that if we remember that our past has been cleansed and that our future secure and that God is always with us, even if we never understand the reason why good people suffer, we’ll be able to live with the question.

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