Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 14)

Text: Hebrews 11:1
To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see.

When life is unfair!

Douglas was successful in his work and a man who loved God.  He is what the Bible calls “a righteous man” but several years ago things started to go wrong.  His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Surgeons removed the cancer but it returned two years later in her lungs.  Douglas took over running the house as his wife underwent chemotherapy.  Sometimes she couldn’t keep down food.  She lost her hair.  She always felt tired and was vulnerable to fear and depression. Just when it seemed the cancer was beaten, more spots appeared on her lungs.

One night, in the middle of this crisis as Douglas was driving down a city street with his wife and twelve year old daughter, a drunk driver swerved across the centre line and smashed head-on into their car.  Douglas’s wife was badly shaken, but unhurt.  His daughter suffered a broken arm and severe facial cuts from the windscreen glass.  Douglas himself received the worst injury, a massive blow to the head.

After the accident, Douglas never knew when a head ache would strike and couldn’t work a full day.  Sometimes he was disoriented and forgetful. In addition his eyesight was badly affected.  He developed double vision and couldn’t pursue his passion for reading books, in fact could barely get through reading a page.

Philip Yancey met with Douglas over breakfast and explained that he was writing a book on disappointment with God and so asked him, “Could you tell me about your own disappointment?  What have you learned that might help someone else going through difficult times?”

Douglas was silent for what seemed like a long time.  He stroked his peppery gray beard and gazed off into the distance.  Yancey thought he was having one those “gaps” in his thinking.  Finally he said, “To tell you the truth, Philip, I didn’t feel any disappointment with God”.

That threw Yancey for a minute because he knew Douglas to be a thoroughly honest person and had always rejected the easy formulas like the “turn your scars into stars” and other throw away lines that Christians often give and so he waited for Douglas to explain a bit more.

Douglas went on to explain that he was as upset as anyone could be about what happened to him and his family. He felt free to curse the unfairness of life and vent his anger and grief.  He believed that God was just as grieved and angry about his wife’s cancer, the accident and his ongoing disability.  He didn’t blame God for what had happened. 

Then Douglas gave Yancey a lesson about faith when he said, “If we develop a relationship with God apart from our life circumstances then we may be able to hang on when the physical reality breaks down.  We can learn to trust God despite all the unfairness of life.” 

What he is saying is that faith is not a means by which we can manipulate God into making everything ‘fair’ for us in this life when we consider things to be getting out of control.  Faith is not a contract that states, “I’ll follow you God if you treat me well”.  Rather it’s a relationship that rises above any hardship. The words that go along with faith here are trust, loyalty, commitment, love, hope, grace, faithfulness. 

I should add as a footnote that what I say today is with the assumption that faith in God and trust in his love is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. Faith is not a mere human virtue; it is a gift of the Spirit to reach out and hold on to the promises of God.

As Douglas was about to leave for an appointment he leaned forward to Yancey with one final thought, “I challenge you to go home and read again the story of Jesus.  Was life ‘fair’ to him?  For me, the cross abolished for all the time the basic assumption that life will be fair.”  (Philip Yancey, Disappointment with God, 1988).  Douglas had that right.  The cross exposed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have. We live in a world of gross unfairness.  We have a God of sacrificial love; a God whose love can be trusted regardless how unfair the events of our life might seem at any particular moment.

Douglas is a modern Job, the character in the Old Testament who lost everything – his property, his home, his family, his health and was left with nothing.  He is a picture of the radical unfairness of life.  One moment he is wealthy and surrounded by family and next he is alone and sitting in ashes.  “How can God be on his side?” he wonders.  “Can God be so unfair?”

His friends come up with all kinds of suggestions,
“God is trying to teach you something – feel privileged”. 
“God is trying to strengthen your muscles of faith.  Don’t worry.  God won’t test you beyond what you can endure”. 
“Don’t complain so loudly!  God is providing you with an opportunity to demonstrate your faith in him”. 
“There’s always someone worse off than you.  This is an opportunity to give thanks to God”.
No matter how you look at it, you have every right to say, “But God, this is all so unfair.  There is an element of truth in each of these but at this moment this kind of advice does nothing to take away the pain and the hurt and the grief.”

Job and Douglas come to the same conclusion.  It’s not God who is unfair.  Life is unfair!  It’s the world we live in that is unfair. 
It is sin that causes trouble and crime in our community, on our roads and wars among nations.
It is the frailty of our bodies that brings sickness and pain and disease and the need for hospitals, surgery and medicines.
It is death that causes us anguish and grief and heart ache as we are faced with the loss of loved ones from this life. 
It is our own selfishness and focus on our own needs and wants that causes us to ignore the poor, the hungry, the homeless and perpetuate the unfairness that exists in our society.
It’s life that is unfair.

Job wants to know why God doesn’t intervene in the unfairness of this world and of his life.  For a reason known only to God that question goes unanswered. There is no miracle.  There is still sadness and grief.  There is something sadly wrong with our planet.  Douglas could well testify to that.  His wife’s cancer didn’t disappear and his injuries from the accident weren’t miraculously healed.  He would live with them for the rest of his life.  And if his wife should die from cancer, he and his daughter would have to live with that loss for the remainder of their days.

We may not understand the trouble that is happening in our lives and we may be overwhelmed with doubt that everything that is happening is so unfair and that God isn’t playing by the rules of what we think is fair, but the last word in all of this is the Bible’s call to see beyond all that is happening and see in faith the love of our God and his call to eternal life where all the unfairness of this life will come to an end.  To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see”, we read in Hebrews.  This is what Job meant when he said, “The Lord gave and now he has taken away.  May his name be praised!”  In other words, “I have been subject to some extremely unfair treatment in this life and even though I don’t understand why, in faith I can look beyond all that and see God's loving face”.  Job trusted God's love for him regardless of his present circumstances.   Job’s hope for the future was not diminished in any way as he said, “I will see God face to face.  I will see him with my own eyes.  That thought overwhelms me” (Job 19:26).

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 weren’t bitter or angry that a disease had taken control.   
They trusted God as their loving heavenly Father; he made them and has provided for them all their lives. 
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 didn’t make much sense from their point of view, God’s love for them was as strong as ever.
They were certain of the things to come.  They were going to a new country where there will no longer be the troubles of this life.  They were certain that Jesus had done everything that needed to be done to open the way for them to praise his name forever in heaven. 

The Bible never belittles human disappointment or the agony and trouble that we have in this life but it does add one key word – temporary.  What we feel now, we will not always feel.  We are here for a while, travellers passing through longing for our real home.  As Yancey says, “Faith, in the end, is a kind of homesickness”.

In Jesus, we see the perfect example of what it means to have faith. He faithfully carried out his work in an unfair world, opening the path for each of us to have eternal life.  When we are weighed down with worry and our sinfulness and we feel like giving up and feel as though he has let go of us, in truth he has his arms firmly wrapped around us.  He will not let us go in spite of the way we feel and will walk with us until that day he leads us into the Promised Land.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
11th August 2013

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