Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Bethel Lutheran Church, Sweet Home, OR
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost + August 13, 2017
Text: Job 38:4-18
You may notice the portraits of two hymnwriters inside the bulletin. The hymns which they wrote are more than “songs for a heavy heart” or platitudes to feed someone after a terrible loss. These hymns were borne out of their own bearing the crosses of injustice, longing, and deep tragedy.
Georg Neumark, was a recent graduate in Thuringia, Germany in the autumn of 1641. He was on his way to university at Königsberg to study law. He was traveling with a number of others from Leipzig to Lübeck. Shortly after Magdeburg they were plundered by a band of highwaymen. They robbed Georg of all he had with him, except his prayer-book and a little money which he had sewed up in the clothes which he was wearing. He returned to Magdeburg, but could obtain no employment there, nor in Lüneburg, nor in Winsen, nor in Hamburg—gradually working his way north nearly 200 miles. The friends he had made along the way passed him on.
In the beginning of December 1641, he went to Kiel (another 60 miles north), where he found a friend in the person of Nicolaus Becker, chief pastor at Kiel. Day after day passed by without an opening, till about the end of the month the tutor in the family of the Judge Stephan Henning fell into disgrace and took sudden flight from Kiel. By Becker’s recommendation Georg Neumark received the vacant position, and this sudden end of his anxieties was the occasion of the writing of his hymn. In Henning’s house the time passed happily till he had saved enough to proceed to Königsberg, where he began university in June 1643, as a student of law. While studying at university, he again lost all of his property in a fire, but later went on to work as a poet. He was noticed by Duke Wilhelm II and was appointed court poet among other duties. He worked for the Duke until his death in 1681. (adapted from hymnary.org)
Early on, Georg Neumark found himself vulnerable. Through no fault of his own, he was cast into poverty and left to wander from city to town looking for work. But when God lifted him up, Georg found that he had never been truly alone or without help. What he found to be true was that God brings low and God lifts up, but His love and care are constant. He allows sins to happen against us that are unfair and unjust. Think of how Joseph was betrayed by his brothers and yet became second under Pharaoh. David was pursued by King Saul but later ruled Israel. Jeremiah preached the true Word of God and God’s people beat him and put him in a cistern, but the Word he preached came true. Jesus was truly the promised Messiah, the one to redeem Israel but they nailed Him to the cross. Yet, on the third day, God even raised Him from the dead.
This is the undeserved fatherly goodness which inspired Georg Neumark to write, “He’ll give thee strength whate’er betide thee, and see thee through the evil day.” In those anxious and ever colder months, he learned, “What can it help if thou bewail thee over each dark moment as it flies?” But without his knowledge, God knew the time when He would lift up His child and give him times of gladness, coming to him “all unaware, to make thee own His loving care.”
Horatio G. Spafford was a successful lawyer and businessman in Chicago with a family — a wife, Anna, and five children. However, they were not strangers to tears and tragedy. Their young son died with pneumonia in 1871, and in that same year, much of their business was lost in the great Chicago fire. Yet, God in His mercy and kindness allowed the business to flourish once more.
On Nov. 21, 1873, Mrs. Spafford and her remaining four daughters travelled aboard a French ocean liner bound for Europe. Although Mr. Spafford had planned to go with his family, he found it necessary to stay in Chicago to help solve an unexpected business problem. He told his wife he would join her and their children in Europe a few days later.
About four days into the crossing of the Atlantic, the ship collided with an iron-hulled Scottish ship. Anna hurriedly brought her four children to the deck. She knelt there with her four daughters and prayed that God would spare them if that could be His will, or to make them willing to endure whatever awaited them. Within approximately 12 minutes, the ship slipped beneath the dark waters of the Atlantic, carrying with it 226 of the passengers including the four Spafford children. Anna Spafford was rescued by a passing sailor. Nine days later, she landed in Wales. From there she wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”
Mr. Spafford booked passage on the next available ship and left to join his grieving wife. With the ship about four days out, the captain called Spafford to his cabin and told him they were over the place where his children went down. According to his daughter born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey. (adapted from a biography by Dr. Lindsey Terry)
Spafford could likely identify with Job, after he had lost all five of his children while being completely helpless to save them. How could it possibly be God’s will to bear such pain? It would have been easy and understandable if Spafford and his wife had become angry at God for such a lot. Instead, his faith was strengthened because it wasn’t built on the shifting sands of day to day life. Horatio Spafford found comfort and hope in the words and promises of his God. That is how he was able to believe the words, “When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say: It is well, it is well with my soul.”
That brings us to Job and the Word of the Lord. (Read again Job 38:4-18.)
At first, these words from God put us in our place for judging God’s ways. Are we wiser or stronger than He is? Do we really know what’s best for our lives when all we can see is an infinitesimal sliver of time? How can we project into the future, or be so certain that God must hate us because of a passing storm?
What’s more, who are we to talk back to the Almighty, we who are but dust and ashes? (Gen. 18:27, Job 30:19). When we say that we are destroyed and can’t take any more, the unspoken assumption is that we deserve better from God. But the clear response in this passage is: What makes us qualified to judge good and evil? Can we answer why even the righteous must suffer, or why the wicked get off scot free? “Declare, if you know all this, O man!”
Yet, this almighty God against whom we’ve spoken, against whom we’ve grumbled, who we’ve despised and ignored in our daily decisions. This God has also had mercy on your dust and ashes. His Beloved Son is the one who received what you truly deserved. Now, the Almighty Judge has also declared your sins forgiven. Though the thoughts of your heart and mind testify against you, the blood of Christ speaks stronger and has gained your pardon.
Now that this is the case, these words of a gracious Father become comfort for us. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
The God who speaks is now your heavenly Father. It is He who laid the foundation of the earth, who sets boundaries for the sea, who commands wind and wave for your good, who rules over the nations and over men so that your cries under injustice do not go unanswered. It also He, your God, who burst the gates of death and Hades and now holds the key to them (Rev. 3:7, 20:1-3). He whose understanding surpasses the expanse of earth holds your whole life in His Almighty care. What can man, or weather, or health do to you when you have God on your side?
This is no small matter! This is the difference between peace and despair, between comfort and worry. But even if you struggle to believe it, do you think He is unable to break through? “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” Amen.
 Proverbs 25:20
 Romans 8:31
 Matthew 14:27