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Monday, May 23, 2016

His Arm Around Our Shoulders



“Jesus wept.” That’s what St. John tells us in the 11th chapter of his gospel as Jesus stood beside the grave of Lazarus. Verse 35 is the shortest verse in the Bible, but I think it is among the most profound.

Live long enough and you will soon conclude life and suffering are nearly synonymous. And so for the Christian I think it fair to ask, “Where is God in all of it?”

I used to think He was in the shadows, always ready to come to us, to comfort us. But over the last decades I have slowly come to a different opinion.

Where is God in the loss, the rejection, the suffering? He is not in the shadows. He is there beside us, His arm around our shoulder, weeping as we weep. If nothing else, that is what John 11:35 demonstrates.

God beside us. As a Father.

I like what St. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome. “ . . . But you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”  The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ . . .  And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. . . . (Romans 8:15-28).

Please read that last sentence again.  If you have not memorized it, perhaps you should. Until we believe the omnipotent God really does cause all things – all things – to work together for good to those who love Him, we will never know peace and assurance in the face of the most desperate – or even the simplest – of trials.

God is right there at your side, even as you read this. Scripture gives many examples of God-With-Us in our sorrows. Leah is only one. We find her story beginning in Genesis chapter 29.

When Jacob visited her family, Rachel's beauty captured him – so much so, he agreed to work her family's farm for seven years to marry her. But on the eve of the seventh anniversary, her family pulled a classic bait and switch. When the new groom awakened the next morning he found himself lying next to Leah, Rachel’s older sister. If Jacob wanted Rachel, he'd have to work another seven years.

He worked another seven years for his beloved Rachel, but it's not difficult to imagine how Leah felt – unloved, unattractive, unwanted, knowing her family had to trick Jacob into her marriage bed.

The story grows even more poignant. Scripture tells us: “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb . . . and [she] gave birth to a son. She named him Reuben, for she said, ‘It is because the Lord has seen my misery. Surely my husband will love me now’" (Genesis 29:31-32).

But Jacob’s feelings toward her did not change.

Ever the optimist, Leah conceived again. And then, again. "Now at last my husband will become attached to me," she said, "because I have borne him three sons."

Yet even after six sons, Rachel remained the light in Jacob's eyes. Leah longed for her husband's embrace, his touch, and to know he loved her. Yet, Jacob was deaf to her heartache and blind to her sorrow.

But God was not.

Over the years I had read these chapters in Genesis dozens of times, but several years ago my eyes froze at the list of Leah's six sons – Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun.

Levi and Judah.

Although Rachel’s beauty captured everyone’s attention, Leah didn't know Almighty God would measure life and death through her offspring – not Rachel's.

Levi and Judah: ancestors of Moses, Aaron, David, Solomon, Ezra, Ezekiel, Zechariah . . . on and on the list would grow. All of Israel's religious and political leaders would spring from her womb.

Including Jesus the Messiah.

Leah’s story is only one of dozens revealing God-With-Us in our heartache. Let’s look at just one more.

There is probably not a person reading this who does not know of Job, the man who suffered nearly unimaginable loss – loss not too unlike some of you reading this have experienced in your own lives.

Scripture tells us Job had seven sons and three daughters, that he was exceedingly wealthy – and God considered Job uniquely blameless.

On a certain day Satan stood before God, and God said to him, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side?. . . . But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.”

Satan left the Lord’s presence and in rapid fire succession – happening so fast Job didn’t have time to catch his breath, disaster fell:

“A messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans attacked and took them. They also slew the servants . . . and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

 While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three bands and made a raid on the camels and took them and slew the servants . . . and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

While he was still speaking, another also came and said, “Your sons and your daughters were eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a great wind came from across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people and they died, and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

If all this wasn’t enough, in the next chapter we learn of the terribly painful sores that suddenly broke out all over his body.

What did Job do? He “arose and tore his robe and shaved his head, and he fell to the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Despite and through it all, Job would not rail against God. I love what he said in the sixth chapter of that book (verse 10):  “But it is still my consolation, And I rejoice in unsparing pain, That I have not denied the words of the Holy One.”

Job’s suffering and his unrelenting anguish and confusion has for nearly 4,000 years provided children of God like you and me a measure of comfort when our own lives lay around our feet like ashes after a house fire. For 4,000 years men and women of faith living through their own bewilderment and loss and terrible suffering have found in Job consolation and hope and their reason to persevere through it all to the glory of God.

God tells us through Jeremiah, by the way, another of Leah's descendants, "For I know the plans that I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11).

Hope.          

St. Paul tells us the things written in Scripture are for our benefit, and that through the encouragement of God's word we can have hope (Romans 15:4). That's what Leah's story and Job’s story are all about – great, inexpressible hope and confidence and perseverance. It’s about God beside us, about God who loves us, and who knows our deepest hurts.

Back to John 11:35.

When the Holy Spirit inspired St. John to include the story of how Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus, God did so to ever remind His children He is very much aware of our suffering. And that His heart breaks with ours.

But He also reminds us – as He did through St. Paul’s letter to the Romans cited earlier – “God causes all things to work together for good, to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”

That is why we can trust Him.

God is not in the shadows waiting for us to call Him to come close. He is already close – as close as our breath. He promised to never leave us in our loneliness or confusion or grief. And God never breaks His promises.

This 18th century hymn by Catharina von Schlegel said it well.

Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end. . . .

Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last

Christian, be encouraged. God is beside you. He weeps with you. And His arm is around your shoulders even now as you read this.

2 comments:

Barb Schoeneberger said...

This is a message we need to hear often.

Rich Maffeo said...

Yes, Barb. Again and again.