Sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Job 1:21
"The Lord gave, and now he has taken away. May his name be praised!"
Flooded town of Karumba in north Queensland

I donít understand but praise the Lord!

You may or may not have heard of Ivan Southall. He was born in 1921 and died last year. He was a writer of childrenís books and one of his most celebrated books is Ash Road. A part of the story goes like this. It was a hot day with a hot wind. Three teenage boys camping in the bush inadvertently start a bushfire and it quickly spreads.

87-year-old Grandpa Tanner had been left in charge of his 4-year-old granddaughter, Julie, and Mrs Robertsonís baby. With the fire fast approaching there is no chance of escaping so Grandpa Tanner takes the children to the well he had dug 44 years earlier and with great care puts the baby in a basket and lowers both the baby and his granddaughter down the well. He gently talks to Julie reassuring her that God will take care of her but thinks that it would be too much to ask God to take care of an old, old man. He had to cover the well to protect the children and with a strong wind blowing it took all of his strength to manoeuvre two sheets of corrugated iron over the well and put a couple of heavy stones to stop them flying off. He kept on calling down to his frightened granddaughter in the darkened well, "Iím still here little darling". He was not going to leave the children alone for one minute and kept letting the children know he was at the top of the well and that they would be all right. As the fire rushed towards him he sat down on the leeward side of a stump with a wet blanket wrapped around him and bit down hard on the stem of his pipe.

The story has a happy ending. The children are kept safe thanks to the love and watchfulness of Grandpa Tanner. Stories like these reminds us of the watchfulness of God over us when our happiness, safety and health are threatened. The children trusted Grandpa Tanner as he lowered them into the darkness of the well and covered it over until they were in complete darkness. Julie, especially, knew that her grandpa loved her and that all that was needed was his reassuring words and presence.

This story is not so unfamiliar as we reflect on some of the miraculous escapes in the recent bushfires in Victoria. Remember reading about the woman who hid in a wombat burrow, the family that took shelter in a cellar, or the people who jumped into dams as the fire swept over them destroying everything else in its path.

With the eyes of faith we can see the hand of God at work in rescuing people from the horror of a raging bushfire. Ivan Southallís story about Grandpa Tanner is almost a parable about the way God cares for us in the most extreme circumstances. When everything is dark and threatening his voice reassures us that he is close by and that he will never leave us alone. By the way, Grandpa Tanner also survives the fire. As he was about to be overwhelmed by smoke and fire as he hid under his blanket, suddenly a shower of rain reduced the fire into hissing steam and smoke. In a realisation that God was not far from him he said, "God sent the rain" and he quickly uncovered the well and found the children safe and sound.

Thatís a great story and we recall times when we have felt God ever so near as our physical, mental and spiritual safety is threatened. We know how God guides doctors as they perform surgery, or somehow helps us avoid a car accident. Your stories may be similar to mine. Sitting waiting for traffic lights to change and all of sudden an out of control car that fails to turn the corner and starts heading straight for me. I could see terror frozen on the driverís face and no doubt he could see mine, but somehow, I donít know how, our two cars came so close but didnít actually touch. I have no doubt that God grabbed hold of the steering wheel of that out of control car and steered it right past me.

When we experience God's presence and power we find it easy to praise God. We feel about God the same way as the Israelites did after they had crossed the Red Sea. The Egyptian army had been in hot pursuit and with their back to the sea the Israelites were facing certain death. But God opened a path for them through the sea and destroyed the enemy. After such a rescue the people sang this song,
"The Lord is my strong defender; he is the one who has saved me.
He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God,
and I will sing about his greatness.
The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name.
He threw Egypt's army and its chariots into the sea;
the best of its officers were drowned in the Red Sea.
Your right hand, Lord, is awesome in power (Exodus 15:2-6).

Thatís all fine and Iím glad that there are times when we can praise God for the rescue that he provides but what about those times when things donít turn out the way we would have like them to. What about those people who lost loved ones in the fires and floods or the damage to their property, homes and possessions so extensive, their future and their livelihood just swept away by the uncontrollable force of nature. You hear of stories about people just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. A moment earlier or later, or few centimetres to the left or right and they would have been all right.

Events like these lead us to scratch our heads and wonder what on earth was God thinking when he allowed this to happen. But you know that there are lots of examples of people who suffer extreme circumstances and yet they are able to come up smiling - singing as confidently as those who had been miraculously rescued.

Remember Job in the Old Testament. A great wave of tragedy has just swept over his life. He was wealthy and happy and then suddenly he receives report after report that all his servants had been killed along with all his sheep, cattle, and camels. A storm swept in from the desert and destroyed the house where his children were gathered and everyone was killed. And to add to Jobís problems sores break out all over his body making him feel miserable.

Reeling under all this tragedy, Job is urged by his wife to curse God but in the midst of his grief Job speaks these amazing words, "I was born with nothing, and will die with nothing. The Lord gave and now he has taken away. May his name be praised!"

Is he serious? He has lost everything and he says, "Praise the Lord!"

In the New Testament we hear of Paul and Silas being stripped, beaten, flogged thrown into the deepest dungeon and their feet put into stocks and yet at midnight the sound of singing hymns and praying is heard from the depths of the dungeons (Acts 16:22-25). The apostle Paul sitting in some musty prison cell wrote to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"

During the Second World War we hear of those dying of starvation in Auschwitz. Death at the hands of their enemies was inevitable; it was a terrible way to die, and yet other prisoners could hear singing. They could hear hymns about God, and his love for them drifting up from those underground cells. They were expressing exactly what Job said when he lost everything. "The Lord gave and now he has taken away. May his name be praised!" How is it possible to praise the Lord in the face of so much pain and anguish?

This kind of confidence and praising of God in the face of all kinds of tragic circumstances is not unusual. Some people may think it strange to be able to praise God in the face of trouble, but it does happen. Even in the face of death, I have known many people who were not afraid of what was about to happen. They werenít bitter or angry that a disease had taken control.
They knew God, he made them and has provided for them all their lives.
They trusted him as their loving heavenly Father.
They believed that God's love as shown in his Son, Jesus, was as strong for them as ever.
They were confident that even in the face of disaster; nothing can separate them from the love of God.
They knew that even though their tragedies and pain didnít make much sense from our point of view, God had not abandoned them and that his love for them was as strong as ever.

The question that faces us is this: can we continue to love and trust God - in pain, in sickness, in grief and in any bad times?
Can we love God in spite of the cards that are dealt out to us in life?
What will our reaction be when something hits us that really rocks us. It strikes us so deeply that our love and trust in God is shaken. We don't have the human resources to hang on to God and to keep on trusting. We donít have the trust that Job had that firmly believes that God knows what he is doing.

When tragedy strikes, when we donít understand, when we think it is unfair and we blame God, thank goodness God keeps hanging onto us. Even when our trust is low and our doubts are overwhelming us, God keeps on loving and keeps on holding on to us and supporting us and helping us through that crisis.

We are not given answers to the questions that we have about the tragedies and crises in our lives, he simply gives us his Son. He gave his body and spilled his blood for us on the cross. He reminds us of the powerful love that God has for us. He promises that he will always be with us through times of hardship and tragedy. This is the way he responds to our questions - not with answers that make the world simpler than it really is, not with slick and neat answers to the question "why", but he answers with his love, with his life given for us, that we might more fully give our lives to him.

As we think about the trouble that has fallen on our country in recent times, the economic downturn, the floods and fires what are we to make of all of us? We may easily be confused because the God we know is a God of love so how can these things happen in the world he created and the people for whom he has died. We are troubled by those who say that this just goes to prove that there is no God and if there is a God then he is heartless and cruel.

There will be times when we will seriously question God's wisdom.
We will struggle to make sense of the disasters.
As long as we are on this earth we will find ourselves saying again and again, "I donít understand".
But one thing we do understand is that God's goodness and love can be trusted and thatís all that counts.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
22nd February 2009

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