While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
The Time of Trial
I have had people ask me about the Lord’s Prayer, and particularly that line “Lead us not into temptation”. What kind of loving God would lead us into temptation? is the way it’s often put.
Part of the answer is simple: that isn’t the best translation of the meaning of the original words. “Don’t bring us to the time of trial”, as our reading today puts it, is a much better wording.
It’s easier to relate to, isn’t it? A time of trial is like saying “hard times”.
It’s a time where we are put to the test; where we have to deal with more than we thought we could. “Spare me!” is how we feel about the situations in life that push our buttons, that stress us out and challenge our very values and our ability to endure.
This pandemic has been a time of trial for the whole world. It is Biblical in scope, at least as bad as any of those floods, droughts, plagues or pestilences we find in scripture. It is as bad as anything most of us have ever seen, and compared to most of the world we are blessed! At least we have vaccines enough to give us a chance at a normal life; so much of the world has it worse.
One of the realities we face is the fact that the pandemic is overlaid on top of real life with all of its challenges and stresses. Medical things unrelated to COVID still happen and treatments are being delayed or cancelled; relationships are put to a stress test as some people have been seeing a lot more of each other than they ever planned, while others have been kept apart.
Everything seems so much harder and we start to wonder if we can survive. “Spare us this time of trial!” is our prayer because we don’t know if we can take it anymore.
In the Bible, Job is the gold standard of a time of trial. The story is brutal: this God-fearing man is literally put to the test. His wealth is wiped out, his children are killed in a freak storm and he himself is afflicted by something that in those days would be called leprosy. His big question is “Why?; What did I do to deserve this?”; “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
The answer to that question is often our focus when we read Job. It’s not satisfying: God says that we can’t understand all the reasons that bad things happen and the reason the story itself gives, of a bet between Satan and God, seems particularly insensitive and unjust.
At the core of this story is relationship. Job’s wife expresses a shared understanding when she says “curse God and die”. She and Job both understood that God is the source of life and she was basically saying that God had betrayed Job; that the relationship was faulty, maybe even abusive, “So, curse God for this betrayal, dump this unreliable friend”.
Job refused. By our modern standards, he used rather sexist language too, so if this is all about sinlessness or perfection, it goes off the rails. But it’s NOT about that either; it’s about relationship.
Throughout the book, God never loses faith in Job. The very reputation of God is put at stake, based on God’s faith in Job. And Job never loses faith in God.
The relationship is sound, solid; it’s also turbulent at this point: Job is furious. He feels unfairly treated. He demands to know: “How could you do this to me? How could you let this happen, if you’re all-powerful and all knowing? I certainly didn’t deserve it!”.
God sounds kind of miffed at the end, too and reads Job a lecture on perspective: “How can you know what my life is like?; How can you question my faithfulness when you can’t even create a whale or know how a mountain works?”.
The whole thing is unsatisfying from a human point of view; it reminds us that we often can’t understand the “why” of things.
But there are some very hopeful parts of this story that we don’t always remember:
First of all, Job passes the test! Job never gives up on God (being angry with God isn’t giving up);
Job didn’t let the terrible circumstances he was facing make him abandon what had been important all his life nor did he let the critics who called themselves his friends bring him down with their tag-team victim-blaming;
He managed not to doubt himself or the principles he lived by;
He also disproved that really cynical thing Satan said: “All that people have they will give to save their lives”. Job demonstrated that he could hold on to his principles even while complaining that God was being unjust.
The generation that went through the depression and WWII knew about challenges: the idea that we have to endure through hard times
and hold on to what we value.
The generation raised by them got tired of hearing that and we have taught ourselves to expect good times; to expect that we can always find a way out of troubles instead of having to work through them. We look for technological solutions or eternal economic growth or some other magic bullet that we haven’t found yet.
The lesson of hanging in, hanging on, enduring, is the one we are learning now. Learning that lesson is one of the things we pray to avoid.
The other lesson of Job that we really need to hear is that God remains faithful to Job through everything. Job can’t always see it; that’s why he gets so mad and starts complaining. But the whole story is possible only because of God’s faithful relationship to Job.
God never lets go and despite his suffering, Job never lets go either. Even when he can’t see a good reason for his troubles, he still hangs on to God’s love, even while demanding that God do more.
God doesn’t give up on us. I hope we can hang on to that understanding.
This time of Pandemic trial, we hope and pray, will be resolved one of these days if we can get enough people vaccinated around the world.
But that won’t be the end; there’s another trial already happening: the climate crisis. It hasn’t seemed as urgent which is why Greta Thunburg and her generation are so vocal, supported by urgent scientific studies and reports.
So we can’t just hope and pray that the time of trial will be over soon; we know that more is on the horizon.
Instead, we can learn from Job. As unjust as this all feels, as much as we have troubles to complain about, God is still there, sometimes hard to see but always faithful, never letting go of us.
We may not get all the answers we want; the question of “why” may never be resolved in a satisfying way, but God will keep hold of us, faithfully, even in the worst times of trial.
God won’t give up on us. Let’s not give up on God.