The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHEN GOD IS GONE

Delivered 10/15/2000
Text: Job 23:1-9, 16-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Job. Fascinating character. Fascinating story. Scholars tell us it is one of the oldest in scripture. And it wrestles with one of the oldest questions encountered by people of faith: WHY? Why me? Why my kids? Why my marriage? Why six-million Jews in the Holocaust? Why 17 US sailors in Yemen this week? Or even those poignant words of Jesus from the cross, "My God, my God, WHY have you forsaken me?"

Not to bore you Bible scholars, but for the benefit of those who missed that day in Sunday School, the book of Job comprises 42 chapters in the Old Testament, much of which is an epic Hebrew poem to which there is a prose introduction to set the scene. Job is presented to us as the richest man in the Middle East, deeply religious, "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil."(1) As the story opens, Job is the subject of a conversation between God and Satan (not the Satan of pop theology with horns, a pitchfork and a tail, but this one tantamount to a celestial prosecuting attorney). God says to Satan, "Where have you been," and Satan responds that he has been checking things out on the earth.

God asks if he had noticed Job and his unfailing faithfulness. Satan replies No WONDER - Job has it made! "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."(2) So God and Satan strike this strange deal with poor Job in the middle - Satan gets to give Job the shaft just to prove the point. In six short verses, the man loses everything ­ children, barns, livestock. Despite it all, Job is philosophical. "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised."(3) Cheer up, Job, things could be worse...and, sure enough, things got worse - Job is struck down by a hideous skin disease. In utter misery, Mrs. Job advises, "Curse God and die."(4) Not Job. He kept the faith. Miserable... but faithful. "I will complain in the bitterness of my soul...I loathe my life."(5)

Meanwhile, our hero's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, hear about the horror story Job is living through, and, just as you and I would probably do, they come to the house to offer assistance. "Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?"

To their credit, they did not come in with pious platitudes or explanations about how this would somehow be "all for the best." As the scripture reports it, "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."(6) They just SAT with him.

But sitting in silence soon proved to be more than even the ancients could bear and the legendary "patience of Job" which has become a cliché in our culture we find is a bit overstated. Job is VERY unhappy, and he says he regrets that he was ever born.

Have you ever felt that way? Probably. If you did, I hope you had friends who offered comfort and counsel, but I hope they did a better job than Job's pals. First, Eliphaz courteously suggests, "Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it."(7) In other words, "Job, you must have brought this on yourself." Then Bildad suggests that perhaps Job is suffering because of the sin of his children; if Job will only pray, the Almighty will intervene and make everything right. Friend Zophar finally says this misery is simply the sentence after a guilty verdict. In their own ways, each tries to explain Job's suffering on the grounds of the justice and righteousness of God and the orderliness of the universe. This could not have just "happened;" Job had to have done something or someone near and dear had to have done something for him to deserve his pain.

We understand that thinking. Some kinds of suffering CAN be explained. Life-long smokers get lung cancer; people who drink to excess get cirrhosis of the liver; folks who work long hours in the sun unprotected get skin cancer; deaths on the highway are caused by drunk drivers.

But there is another side to that coin. People who have never smoked get lung cancer; people who have never touched alcohol get liver disease, drunk drivers kill the innocent along with themselves, and natural disasters take their toll on all of us. Who can explain why a certain 17 were killed this week on the USS Cole while over 300 others were not?

For his part, Job is not satisfied with his friends' explanation. At this point in the story, Job is just as much convinced of the justice of God as his friends. In his own situation, he is convinced that God has made a mistake, that's all. What he wants is his day in court. He wants to brief his case before this righteous judge and get the sentence overturned. But the problem is this: as the lectionary text has it, "if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him." God is gone - east, west, north, south, look where you want - God is gone. How can you present your case when the judge is nowhere to be found?

Ever feel that way? That God is gone? I recently read of a woman who came to see her pastor on her lunch break. A nicely dressed, dignified, late-thirties woman whose face revealed a mixture of indignation and great sadness. There was another woman in her Sunday School class, a teacher, who was always talking about how wonderful it was to walk and talk with Jesus. She would tell how everything she asked Jesus for she received. She prayed that her blueberry muffins would be perfect and they always were. Jesus, she would say, is wonderful to have around. She told of rushing somewhere to do the Lord's work and she would say, "Lord you know that I am coming down here to do your work and I am running late so I need a parking space and always someone would be pulling out of the space at exactly the right time." Jesus was so good to have around, she would say! But the woman who had come in on her lunch hour did not know whether to be angry at God or crushed because God never answered her prayers. She admitted she had never pestered God for tasty muffins or parking spaces, but for ten years she had been praying for just one thing, a baby - she and her husband wanted a baby. She wondered about this strange kind of God who was always there for the silly requests of one person but who was never around for the really serious deeply-felt requests of another.(8) For what it is worth, I would wonder too.

Listen to the eloquent expression of identical wonder from the mouth of a migrant farmhand mother:(9)

Last year we went to a little church in New Jersey. We had all our children there, the baby included. The Reverend Jackson was there, I can't forget his name, and he told us to be quiet, and he told us how glad we should be that we're in this country, because it's Christian, and not godless." Then my husband went and lost his temper; something happened to his nerves, I do believe. He got up and started shouting, yes sir. He went up to the Reverend Mr. Jackson and told him to shut up and never speak again -- not to us, the migrant people. He told him to go on back to his church, wherever it is, and leave us alone and don't be standing up there looking like he was so nice to be doing us a favor. Then he did the worst thing he could do: he took the baby, Annie, and he held her right before his face, the minister's, and he screamed and shouted and hollered at him, that minister, like I've never before seen anyone do. I don't remember what he said, the exact words, but he told him that here was our little Annie, and she's never been to the doctor, and the child is sick...and we've got no money, not for Annie or the other ones or ourselves. Then he lifted Annie up, so she was higher than the reverend, and he said why doesn't he go and pray for Annie and pray that the growers will be punished for what they are doing to us, all the migrant people...And then my husband began shouting about God and his neglecting us while he took such good care of the other people all over.

Then the reverend did answer - and that was his mistake, yes it was. He said we should be careful and not start blaming God and criticizing him and complaining to him and like that, because God wasn't supposed to be taking care of the way the growers behave and how we live, here on this earth. "God worries about your future;" that's what he said, and I tell you, my husband near exploded. He shouted about 10 times to the reverend, "Future, future, future."

Then he took Annie and near pushed her in the reverend's face and Annie, she started crying, poor child, and he asked the reverend about Annie's "future" and asked him what he'd do if he had to live like us, and if he had a "future" like ours. Then he told the reverend he was like all the rest, making money off us, and he held our Annie as high as he could, right near the cross, and told God he'd better stop having the ministers speaking for him, and he should come and see us for himself, and not have the "preachers" -- he kept calling them the "preachers" -- speaking for him.

He stopped after he'd finished talking about the "preachers" and he came back to us, and there wasn't a sound in the church, no sir, not one you could hear -- until a couple of other men said he was right, my husband was...and everyone clapped their hands and felt real funny.

This migrant family sums up the dilemma of pain and suffering about as well as it can be expressed. Why does God allow a world of sick children and no money and no hope? Why cancer? Why do families fall apart? Why? Why? Why? These problems are not abstract and philosophical. They are profoundly human, and people see no solution. Does God care? Is God there?

I can say on one point the angry farmhand was dead wrong. Holding his child up, he demanded that God come down and see what this world is like. God did that already. God came down, entered humanity and saw and felt it all. He was lonely, tired, hungry, besieged by demanding crowds, persecuted by powerful enemies. His friends and family questioned his sanity. Those who followed him were a motley crew of fishermen and peasants, among whom that migrant farmworker would have felt very much at home. Then at the end, the bloody death - an execution quite unlike the quick, sterile lethal injections or gas chambers we know today, one that stretched on for hours in front of a jeering crowd. Deserted...by family, by friends...even "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Ultimate abandonment. But wait. Those words were as well known in Jesus' day as "Mary had a little lamb" in ours - they were a part of the ritual of the Day of Atonement, the opening lines of the 22nd Psalm, a psalm that is anything BUT a song of doom and despair. No, a psalm of victory and deliverance even from the most powerful of enemies. Listen to the way it ends:

You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help...The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD will praise him...Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn -- for he has done it.(10)
YES!

Forsaken? Abandoned? Hardly!

Without question, the cross of Jesus has become the most common image in the Christian faith. That cross is proof that God cares about our suffering and pain. Christ died of it. Today the image of that ancient executioner's rack is coated with gold and worn around the necks of beautiful girls, or is polished bright and worn on the chest of preachers, a symbol, not only of our faith, but also of how far we can stray from reality. And perhaps that is where our problem lies - we wonder where is God in our pain, but we might wonder less when we recall that, in the midst of ultimate pain, God was right there...hanging on that tree. For you. For me.

When God is gone. Yes, there are indeed times when that seems to be the case. For Job. For you and me as well. All the "Why?" questions remain. But the good news I bring to you this morning is more than, because of the cross, God knows and understands pain and suffering. The good news is that the cross is not the last word. Remember, after the cross, there is resurrection, new life.

And where is God? A day is coming when we will never have to ask that again. In the magnificent words of Revelation, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now, the dwelling of God is WITH mortals...with Bill and Bob and Jane and Susan, with Jean and Joan and John and Jack...and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be WITH them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain..."(11) GLORY! That IS good news!

Amen!


1. Job 1:1

2. Job 1:10-11

3. Job 1:21

4. Job 2:9

5. Job 7:11, 16

6. Job 2:13

7. Job 4:7-8

8. Robert Bohl, sermon, "What Has Religion Done For You?" The Protestant Hour, 4/20/97

9. Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts, (New York: Walker & Co., 1988), p. 253-256 quoting Robert Coles in his book Migrants, Sharecroppers and Mountaineers

10. Psalm 22:23-31

11. Revelation 21:1ff.

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