posted May 8, 2011

Text of 2011 Baccalaureate Sermon

Hope College Baccalaureate
Sunday, May 8, 2011
Dimnent Memorial Chapel

Job 42

By the Rev. Dr. Blaine Newhouse
Executive Director, Geneva Camp and Retreat Center

And so Job died old and full of years. In our contemporary context we would probably say it like this: “And Job lived happily ever after.”

In just a few hours, you’re going to walk across the threshold called graduation, and my sense is that you desire that same outcome for your life: that it would be said of you one day: “He or she died old and full of years.” That you could look back on your life one day and say, “I did life well. I was able to use my gifts and the opportunity that God entrusted to my care. And even more so, I was able to overcome adversity, trial, defeat and loss, and become a better person, leverage these for some redemptive purpose.”

See, my sentiment to share with you this morning is that’s what God desires for you as well. But that kind of graduate-level learning does not come without the gift of wisdom and the experience of others. And to that end I want to draw from our teacher Professor Job because I believe that Job was able to live and die well because he made his peace in three important areas. First and foremost, Job made his peace with God. Second, Job made his peace with disappointing people. And finally, Job made his peace with the possibility—and I underscore the word “possibility”—that life can be good again after defeat, after tragedy, after loss.

Let’s consider first of all how Job made his peace with Almighty God.

We know how the story ends. Perhaps you’re not familiar with how the story begins. You see, we are told in the first few chapters of Job that Job was an uncommon kind of man—that he was blameless and upright, that he feared God and shunned evil. And because of that, he was a prosperous man. He had sheep and donkeys and cattle, more than anyone in all the world. His life was going exceedingly well, we would all agree, until one fateful day when Satan appeared in the presence of Almighty God and pushed God a bit in the way of understanding, “Why does Job love you and fear you after all? I mean, have you not built a hedge of protection around him? Have you not protected him, provided for him, made him prosperous? Of course he loves you and serves you, because there’s a benefit to faith. But take that benefit away, and Job will be like every other person. Job is going to curse you to your face.”

So, profound mystery of mysteries, God allows Satan to torment Job, and in short order Job loses everything near and dear to him. He loses all of his wealth. He gets the news that all of his children—seven sons and three daughters—have been tragically killed. His standing in the community begins to crumble. And in the midst of this unspeakable loss, Job finds himself in the experience of mourning—like we all do. It is often said, “When we love deeply, we grieve deeply.” And Job was overcome with grief, such that he could not comprehend how life could possibly get any worse.

And yet in the midst of that state of loss, misunderstanding what exactly was going on at that moment in his life, Job made a conscious decision to worship God, saying, “The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

And yet Satan was still not convinced of Job’s integrity, that Job’s faith really had merit. He goes to God a second time, and he says to God in effect, “Skin for skin. A person will betray everything he has and everything he believes in to protect his own life. But let me stretch out my hand and strike his very flesh, and you’ll see, God: these people you’ve created in your image, they don’t really love you, they don’t really serve you. Only because it’s of a benefit to them. You take away that faith benefit, and they’re going to curse you to your face, Job most of all.”

And so, Satan is allowed to torment Job himself, and we are told that Job is covered ultimately with sores from the tips of his toes to the top of his head. Job is in such utter torment that he can do no other but sit in a heap of ashes. He’s covered in sackcloth. He takes a piece of broken pottery and he starts to scrape his skin. He just doesn’t know what else to do, he is in such utter torment and pain.

It is at that very moment when Job’s wife comes to confront him. She says to Job, in effect, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? In other words, this faith thing you’re all committed to, this faith thing that you’re committed to, Job, I don’t see that it’s giving the kind of desired return. Look at you there. You’ve lost everything. This God you say you love, that you’re so devoted to: look at where you are in life. Why don’t you just curse God and die?”

To which Job replies, with profound wisdom: “You are speaking like a foolish woman. Should we expect from God only good and not trouble?” See, that is a profound statement and an important question: “Should we expect from life, from God, only good and not trouble?” My sense is that many of us who live by faith kind of expect that life is supposed to work that way: that we live in a nation of prosperity and opportunity, and that’s just the way life works. That, “I’m a person that’s been gifted, and more often than not my gifting seems to produce the desired outcome, and that’s just the way life works.” We have this sense that if we do life God’s way, that God has a responsibility to kind of hold up God’s part of the bargain. Now, God never agrees to this, but we have this sense, “If I deny myself, if I put the needs of others ahead of my own, if I try to be loving rather than self-centered, the very least God can do is to protect me, and provide for me, and allow my life to be prosperous and productive in all the ways that matter most to me.”

My contention is that doing life well means that we engage life from a healthy point of reference. The experience of Job would challenge us this morning to understand the way the world works. That we should expect in life both good and trouble. And the way we respond to both will say much about the kind of people we ultimately become.

Now, we can step back and we can agree that this world is broken, that in life we have both good and trouble, but when it becomes personal—that’s when things become more difficult. I mean, we can look at this world, and we can say: tsunamis and earthquakes halfway across the world. Yes, in this world we’re going to have good and trouble. We can look this world and see tornadoes in the South and realize: yes, in this world we will have good and trouble. In this community called Hope College, we know that beloved professors in the moment of greatest joy, bringing new life into this world, are struck down, and we scratch our head and we wonder about such things, and yet we know: in this world, we will have both good and trouble. We understand that from a broader point of reference, but what we struggle with is when trouble comes our way. That’s what Job struggled with, because, after all, Job was trying to do life and faith the right way. We are told that Job was upright and blameless. He was a man who feared God and shunned evil. In other words, the sense was, “I’m doing life to the best of my ability. The very least that God can do is come through and encourage that kind of faithfulness in the leaves of those who endeavor to love God.” And yet Job’s so-called friends come alongside of Job in the midst of his struggle to understand to suggest that the world works in a way that’s pretty predictable: that you get what you deserve. That bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people: “Therefore, Job, if you’re life isn’t going well, there must be something bad there. There must be some sin you committed. There must be something wrong with your life because that’s the way the world works.”

Job struggles with his understanding of his faithfulness and the reality that God seems to be tormenting him, and he cannot make sense of it. And he struggles in the presence of God to wrestle and to ask God questions and to ponder what exactly is going on. At the end of the book, at the end of the account, what we really want, more than anything else, is a nice answer. We want God to step up and explain everything, but that’s not what God chooses to do. Basically God takes Job to task. After Job wrestles with God for 40 chapters, God speaks to Job out of a storm and says, “Who is this that obscures my counsel with words without knowledge? Listen now, and I will speak. I will question you, and you will answer me.” And for the next three chapters God goes on to ask Job all kinds of questions: “Where were you when I did this? Can you tell me how to do this? Where were you when this happened, or this happened, or this happened?” And at the end of it all, all Job can do is cover his mouth and say, “I spoke once, but I will not speak again. I’ve spoken a second time, but I will speak no more.” Job says, in effect, “I heard about you with my ears, but now that I’ve seen you with my eyes, all I can do is repent in dust and ashes. In other words, I’ve come to a place of acknowledging that you are God, and I am not.”

Graduates of Hope College, you have been given the privilege to probe the mysteries of life and the universe. I believe that God is honored in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, but at the end of the day, each of us has that opportunity to make our peace with what we know and what we don’t know. To make our peace with the reality that there are certain things that we can know, and that there are certain things that we surrender to God, and we call that faith. Job was able to live and die well because first and foremost, he acknowledged that there were things he knew and things that he did not know, and that he could find a peace in the faith that rested in God alone.

The second reason I am persuaded that Job was able to live and die well is because he made his peace with disappointing people.

I find almost humorous verse 10 and following of Job the 42nd chapter, because we are told there that after Job was made prosperous again and God gave him twice as much as he had before—do you remember what happened next? All of his brothers and all of his sisters and all of his friends showed up and they wanted to eat at Job’s table. They didn’t invite Job over to their house for dinner. No: “Job, you’re wealthy again. Now we’re going to knock on your door. What have you got to give us?” For 40 chapters, we don’t see anything of Job’s brothers and sisters and friends except for the four that are mentioned—and they’re not really friends at all. They want to condemn Job, they want to criticize him. And so when Job becomes prosperous again, everyone shows up and wants to have a party.

You know, that tends to be the way life works. I remember my sophomore year in high school, going through a season of great difficulty and loneliness in a way. My parents were struggling with their marriage, and I was injured and couldn’t participate in athletics, and school was very challenging that year, and I remember feeling exceedingly lonely. It was a time of kind of trying to discern who I was and what I was going to do with my life. Fast forward a couple of years later, and life is just going well for me. You know, sports are going well, I’m getting recruited by all kinds of colleges, and popularity and doing well in school, and suddenly I’ve got all these people around me, and I’m asking myself the question: “Where were all of you two years ago?”

You know, that tends to be the way life unfolds. Sooner or later, we encounter persons who disappoint us, persons who want to grab onto our coattails in order to get promoted, or to advance in some way that they desire. Somewhere along the way we share a trust with someone else, and that trust is betrayed. And the easy and natural thing to do in those moments is to make a list. The easy thing to do in those moments is keep a record of wrongs. The easy thing in those moments is to say in our own spirit, “I’m going to repay evil for evil.” That’s very human. People hurt us, people let us down, we think, when we have the opportunity, we’ll repay them in the same way. But I find fascinating and helpful that Job didn’t do that. He was let down in an extraordinary way by his brothers and sisters and his friends, and yet when the Lord restored his standing and his wealth, he welcomed them back.

See, that’s the choice that all of us have to make when we are disappointed by other people. The natural response is to allow our heart to shrink, and to trust people less. But the Word of God encourages us to forgive, to allow our heart to grow larger, and to believe that people can change and that relationships can improve. You see, the challenge for us is to hold that desire for revenge or to repay evil for evil in our own heart. And over time, that experience creates a toxin called bitterness. And ultimately bitterness is going to destroy the vessel in which it’s contained. You know, I can be exceedingly upset about a person on the other side of campus. When I see that person, my heart starts to race, and my frustration starts to grow, but she’s not feeling that at all. And so it is the wise person who learns the value of forgiving, who does not keep record of wrongs, but continues to open the door to hospitality, relationships and love.

That brings me to the final reason I am persuaded that Job was able to live and die well: namely, that he made his peace with the possibility that life could be good again after loss, after failure, after tragedy.

This past Friday, as a number of you were enjoying your time together out at Camp Geneva, I was gathered together with a family just a few miles from here to mourn the one-year anniversary of the loss of a husband, a father and my very best friend. You see, one year ago on Thursday night, I took a walk with my friend, who was struggling with the challenges of cancer and depression. He was struggling, and it seemed to me that he was losing his grip on hope. And so we took a long walk together, and we talked about all the reasons that life is worth living, and all of the things that he had to live for, and the desire was to strengthen and encourage him. And I remember at the end of the walk realizing that I just was not able to break through. I reached out and embraced him. I looked him in the eyes and I said, “Lee, I know that you’re in a dark place, but I also want you to know that there are so many who love you, and we can get through this. We’ll just take it one step at a time.” Early the next morning, I received a phone call. The person on the other end of the line was in a panic. I went to the home and realized that my friend had lost his battle with cancer and depression.

I share that story one year removed from that tragic event not to add heaviness and sorrow to this festive celebration, but to remind us of the importance of leveraging and responding to the failures, the tragedies and the losses that are common in human experience. See, you know and I know that if we are going to succeed in life, we’re going to have to come to terms with failure. We’re going to have to come to terms with loss. We’re going to have to come to terms with tragedy.

And this thing we call hope, the thing upon which this institution is grounded, is indeed a great gift in that regard. We are told that the greatest of these, by the Apostle Paul, is faith, hope and love, but when it comes to overcoming tragedy and failure, I would suggest that hope is most important of all. Because hope allows us to believe that though life will never be the same again after loss—as Job was given seven sons and three daughters, God’s sentiment was not like, “These are to replace what you’ve lost”—no, life will never be the same again after we fail, after we lose, after we experience tragedy. But hope asks us to believe that life can be good again. And that we need not be defined by our failures, by our tragedies, or by our losses, but by our belief in a God that is working a redemptive purpose even in the midst of things that are difficult and the things that we do not fully understand.

It is my sincere hope and desire for all of you, as you cross the threshold of graduation in just a few hours, that you live life well. That it will be said of you one day that, “He or she died old and full of years.” If that is also your desire, my encouragement to you would be to make your peace with God, to make your peace with people who disappoint you along the way, to make your peace with the possibility that life can be good again after defeat, after loss, after tragedy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.