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Archive for the ‘Thinking Biblically’ Category

Longing for the Good Old Days

 

Job 29:2

 

 

 

A Sermon Preached on October 11, 2009by the Rev. Dr. S. Randall Toms
At St. Paul’s Reformed Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

A few days ago my wife and I were listening to some old songs from the 50s and 60s, and I got the bright idea of looking on the Internet to see what had happened to some of these performers.  I’ll mention some names that most of you will not even remember, but I looked up Little Peggy March who sang “I Will Follow Him.”  She is 61 years old now.  Marcie Blaine who sang “Bobby’s Girl” is 65.  Bobby Vee,  “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” is 66.  And Ringo Starr of the Beatles is 69.  Can that be possible?  I didn’t have the heart to try to find current pictures of them, because I prefer to remember them the way they were.  Sometimes, I wonder if these teen idols ever wish that they were still like they were in the 50s and 60s—young, handsome, beautiful, popular.  A few Sunday nights ago, I got out one of my old high school yearbooks and showed our Youth Sunday School class some pictures of me when I was 17.  I’m sure that none of them would have recognized me if I hadn’t said, “That was me.”  As we get older and think back on our younger days, I suppose it is only natural to say, “I wish I was that young again.  I wish I was that strong and healthy—that full of energy.”

In your readings for Evening Prayer for the past week, you have been reading, and for the next few coming weeks, you will be reading the story of Job.  In our text for this morning, Job cries out, “Oh that I were as in months past.”  I suppose that there are many times in our lives when we say that.  I say it almost every morning when I  first look in the mirror.  “Oh that I were as in months past.”  Many years past in my case.  Many people long for former days, and not just because they are getting older.  Many  long for former days when things were going well in their lives.  They were prosperous, perhaps with a good job and what seemed to be a secure future, but then they lost everything.  Some people wish for the former days when they were healthy.  Some people have terrible accidents, injuries, or illnesses, and they do not know what it is to have a day that is free from pain and discomfort. Who can blame them for saying, “Oh, that I were as in months past.”  Some people have had terrible things happen in their families, relationships broken, and the joy of family is just not something they get to experience any more.     Those who are prone to serious bouts of depression look back on the days when there seemed to be no clouds of any kind on the horizon, but now the light of day seems to be constantly darkened by a gloomy gray, and we say, “Oh that I were as in months past.”    For some people, great tragedies have touched their lives.  Perhaps they have had to endure the loss of loved ones through death and it doesn’t seem as though there will be any more happy moments in their lives.  Oh that I were as in months past.  And then, some of us can remember the times when it seems that our relationship with the Lord was richer and more meaningful than it is today.  Some people can think about times when it seemed that God was so real to them, it felt as if they could have  reached out and touched him.  They walked about with that wonderful sense of God’s presence, every thought was absorbed with him, loving him, and desiring to serve him with all of their being.  But now a  kind of spiritual coldness has crept into their lives.  God’s doesn’t seem to be as near as he once was, and it appears that their love for him is not as strong as it once was, and their desire to serve him is not characterized by the same fervor as in days long ago, and they can’t help but say, “Oh that I were as in months past.”

Job is experiencing almost all of these same feelings.  We all know the story of Job.  Job was a wealthy and prosperous man—man who feared God and shunned evil.  But in spite of the fact that Job was a holy and righteous man, he lost all of his possessions, his servants, and even his seven sons and three daughters in a single day.  Then, he was afflicted with a horrible disease.  He had boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.  His disease disfigured him so badly that when his friends came to see him, they didn’t even recognize him.  No one proved to be a good comforter to him.  His wife told him to curse God and die.  His friends told him that he was suffering that way because he had sinned against God.  No wonder that Job cries out, “O that I were as in months past.”

If you read chapters and 29 and 30, you see Job remembering the good old days– how it used to be before he had lost everything.  Job remembers the times when God was watching over him and protecting him.  You remember how Satan had told God that God had built a hedge around Job so that nothing bad could happen to him.    But God took down the hedge, and Job suffers loss.  In chapters 29 and 30 he compares his life now to what it had been.  One of the things that Job seems to miss the most is how much people respected him.  He talks about how the elders and leaders of his people kept silent when he was around because they wanted to listen to the words of wisdom that came from his mouth.  He was known as the man who helped the fatherless and the widows.  He helped the sick, the strangers, those who were oppressed, and he comforted those who were sad.  Everybody praised him for what he was and for all the good that he did.  But now, how different things are!  In chapter 30 he describes how the young people make fun of him.  How humiliating!  Job says that he wouldn’t have allowed their fathers to help his dogs keep his sheep, and now these people think he is so disgusting that they spit in his face.  But that’s not the worst thing.  For Job, the worst thing is how God appears to be treating him.  As the Good New Translation has it, God throws him down in the mud, and when he pleads with God for help, God doesn’t answer him.  Rather God continues to persecute him with all his power.  Well, who can blame Job for saying, “Oh that I were as in months past.”

Why can’t we be as we were in months past?  Why can’t we turn back the clock and be like we were in better times?   Why can’t we always be young, healthy, filled with energy, successful, prosperous, admired and respected by everyone?  Of course, one of the reasons is that we live in a fallen world.  Ever since the fall in the Garden of Eden, death and decay have been built into the world.  If Adam had never sinned, we would have always been strong, healthy, and exuberant.  But still, even though we live in a fallen world, couldn’t God protect us from some of the things that happen to us?  After all, there seem to be so many inequities in God’s providential dealings with us.  Doesn’t it seem that some people just seem to get more than their fair share of this world’s trouble, especially those who try to serve God and please him?  Why doesn’t God just stop time for us, as it were, and just let things always stay the way they are?

God hasn’t revealed to us all the answers to those questions.  Even Job never got an answer to the question of why he had to suffer the way that he did.  The most simplistic answer to the question is that this suffering, as terrible as it was, was for Job’s good and God’s glory.  But how could all of this loss been good for Job?   If you had gone to Job and tried to comfort him by saying, “Job, I don’t understand why you are complaining so much.  After all, don’t you know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose,” Job would probably thrown a bloody piece of pottery at your head.  Job would want to know, “How could this work together for my good?  Would you explain that to me?  You tell me how losing all my children, losing all my possessions, losing my health and the ability to do good to others—you tell me how that is going to work together for my good?”  Why didn’t God allow Job to always live his life as it had been in the good times?  You couldn’t give Job a satisfactory answer.  This is something that Job would have to find out for himself.

Part of the answer is that  no matter what we think we know of God and his purpose for our lives, we have to grow, we have to mature, we have to move on, and it is only through moving on from times past that we can come to a deeper understanding of God.    Instead of looking back and longing for the good old days, we have to learn from our present experiences and move on.  As difficult as it may be for us to comprehend, whatever is happening to us right now is preparing us for something better than the good old days.    I remember that some years after the Beatles had broken up, someone asked John Lennon, “When are the Beatles going to get back together,” and John replied, “When are you going back to the second grade.”  What John was saying was that that phase of his life was over.   For him, getting back with the Beatles would have been like going back to elementary school.  As we say now, he had been there, done that.   It was time to leave that behind and move on.     In a spiritual sense, when we have a longing to go back to these former days, we are wanting to go back to a time of immaturity.  Some of you remember the 1962 film with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.”  It’s certainly one of the most disturbing films I ever watched.  Bette Davis plays an old woman who lives in the past, remembering the days when she was a child star.  She still dresses as a little girl.  In one scene she looks into a mirror, and it dawns on her that she is an old woman still trying to be a child, and she breaks down in tears.    So much of our longing for the past is just like that.  We are wanting to go back to the days when we were children.    But it is not God’s will that we should be spiritual children, so he brings us through some very rough, very difficult times, so that we might grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sometimes, it is so easy to love God and serve him.  There are times when God builds the hedge around us and blesses us in every possible way, and we sing his praises and never doubt his love and favor towards us.  But what about when God takes down the hedge?  Can we continue to love and  serve him when we are poor and sick?  Are we not guilty, at times, of loving him because of the loaves and fishes that he provides for us?  Can we continue to have faith in him when there are no outward comforts to convince us of his love and favor towards us?

Our women on their Thursday night Bible studies have been studying this concept of the “dark night of the soul,” described so eloquently by St. John of the Cross, but experienced by most Christians at some point in their lives.  There are times, particularly at the beginning of the Christian life, when we are very sensible of the presence of God.  We feel that our sins are forgiven.  We have very high emotional experiences where we know the Holy Spirit is leading us and guiding us.  But then, there comes that time when we feel totally dry and barren.    God seems distant.  Prayer, which used to be such a joyful time of fellowship and communion becomes a dull exercise.  We have no emotional or outward experience of the comfort of God.  That is the dark night of the soul.  Can you continue to love God when you have absolutely no inward or outward evidence that God loves you?  Can you continue to love and serve God though it seems, as Job put it, that God has thrown you in the mud?

As the book of Job begins, Satan tells God that the only reason that Job serves God is that God has blessed him.  Satan challenges God to take away everything from Job, and he will find that Job just serves him because of what he can get out of him.   There is always the danger for the Christian that he will love the blessing more than the one who gives the blessing; that he will love the creature comforts more than the creator.    When Job loses all his blessings and loses the respect of the people around him, he is convinced that God has deserted him, and even worse,  that God has actually become his enemy.  But in the end, Job sees God for who he really is and worships him, in spite of all that he has lost.  Through all of this, Job has gained a clearer sight of God and has come to a greater faith than he had in times past.    And we are told in Job 42:12, “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning.”    In the end, Job’s experience will be ours.  No matter how wonderful things may have been in the beginning of the Christian life, it is going to be better in the end.  No matter what the trial, at the end of it, we are going to know God better, we are going to be more mature, and our faith is going to be stronger.  To go back to the former times, before the trial, would be to go back to a time of immaturity, a time before we had come to know God in this richer and more meaningful way.  Should we live to be very old, and at last all our strength and vigor completely taken from us, it will be only a short while before we will be given a body like the glorified body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sometimes, we must leave the things that are past, so that we can see what God has planned for us in the future.  We may get so attached to things here, that we lose sight of God and his glory.  There is always something greater than the times past.   Remember how the Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  Spiritually speaking, the same has to happen to us.  There was a time when we were babes in Christ, and that was a wonderful time, a time to be looked upon with fondness and joy.  But we cannot remain babes.  When we were babes in Christ, we received sweet comforts.  Quite frankly, they were comforts for babies.  We would think it strange if a fifty year old man wanted his mother to cradle him in her arms and make cooing sounds.  The spiritual comforts are different now than when we were babes in Christ–different, but much more meaningful, much richer.    We must grow into mature Christians, for as wonderful as childhood might have been, there is something better—a deeper, more mature faith in Christ.  Even the loss of physical health, beauty, strength, possessions, respect, and prestige can be used of God to mold us into the mature people he wants us to become.   Our motto should not be, “O that I were as in months past,” but rather, “Forgetting those things which are behind , and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”  We shouldn’t want to turn back the clock, because God has something even better in store for us than the times past.

Amen.

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