On Being a Victim | Sermon from 10/14/18

Scripture: Job 23:1-17

The darkness settled in.

All around, snow fell, in an increasingly heavy way. I had never experienced anything quite like this. The darkness was total.

Ahead, only several yards, I could make out the faint glow of taillights. I just tried to keep those in focus.

For the darkness had settled in.

I was on my way to the airport on this January day, a trip that I knew had some risk, but I didn’t realize what I would encounter. Interstate 64 crosses over the Blue Ridge mountains as you move from the Shenandoah Valley toward Charlottesville in Virginia. As I ascended, the snow fell harder. As I ascended, the fog grew thicker. As I ascended, the darkness settled in.

I had a job interview to get to. Mercer University had asked me to come and visit with them to talk about a job. I was in my last semester of graduate school and looking for a job. We wanted to stay in the Shenandoah Valley, but some banks had gone bust just a few months earlier, and with the recession having fully settled in, no universities were hiring in Virginia. Governor Tim Kaine had declared a hiring freeze on all state jobs, so that included any jobs at my beloved James Madison University.

The economy had tanked and we were in a recession. The darkness settled in.

So there I was, on the interstate, just trying to maintain my distance from the car in front of me, what little of it I could see. The faint glow of taillights was like an ever moving lighthouse in front of me. Beside me, I knew from experience, was a sheer drop off on the other side of a guardrail. To my left, more traffic. I could just make out the car next to me, also trying to keep pace.

Underneath me, I could feel my tires at times struggling to grip. The snow fell so quickly it began to form slush, and then ice, on the road.

The darkness had settled in, but I had to keep moving.

I felt the car struggling to keep its grip, struggling against a force it couldn’t quite reckon with. How often in life has that been the case? When a force comes along, like the winds that howled that day, like the snow that shrouded the world in darkness, like the bank failures that led to economic downturn, how often has life been characterized by struggling against a force we can’t quite reckon with. We try, but the darkness only seems to grow, shrouding everything we can see.

The shroud of darkness covers and blinds as we reckon with reality. The darkness settles. And Job cries out “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me!” For Job, the force that he can’t quite reckon with is God. It is God who has brought calamity upon he and his house. It is God who has destroyed everything. Job hears his friends say “agree with God and be at peace,” (22:21) meaning accept that you’ve offended God somehow and move on with your life. God has destroyed you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The darkness is total.

But Job keeps moving. He says, “Oh that I knew where I might find [God], that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” Job will keep moving, he will not be still; he will make his argument for why God has been unjust. He will keep moving.

On the mountainside, I kept moving, although I wanted to stop. I wanted to pull over on the side of the road and stop, wait things out. If I missed my flight, so be it. There would be another flight to Atlanta. I wanted to stop and allow the darkness to win. It was too hard, too scary, too risky, too frightening, to keep going.

The darkness had settled in, and it called out to me, “stop!”

Stop your nonsense. This is your fate, you must simply accept it, called Job’s friends. For the bulk of the book of Job, his friends tell him why he must simply accept his fate at the hands of God. They fill him up with all of their standard sayings: “it’s God’s will…God has better things in store for you…God has a plan for your life…you have sinned and thus you deserve it…God purposes all things for our good…” Stop your arguing, stop, Job! The friends plead, they make their case that it’s useless to argue against God. They make their case with a bunch of platitudes, stating that, as Bruce Hornsby would say, “That’s just the way it is, somethings will never change.” We must simply accept it and stop fighting.

Stop fighting. Stop fighting against the storm. Pull over. It’s not worth the danger and the risk. I was scared, the darkness surrounded and now felt total. I remembered that I was going up hill, on what was increasingly ice, and that my car was old. This seemed like a recipe for disaster. I should pull over on the side of the road, stop fighting. The storm would pass. Things would get better eventually. My job was to accept my lot: I was in a bad storm and I needed to let the storm win for a while. Let things just be. I couldn’t do anything about it. It was useless to fight against it. It was time to stop and pull over.

In the midst of storms, there comes a point it feels useless to fight back. Why bother? The storm has come, the hardship has settled in, the death has occurred, the job loss is real, the relationship failure is total; there’s no going back, so why fight? We are victims of whatever has occurred and there’s nothing we can do about it. Why keep fighting our way up an icy mountain in the darkness where danger lurks all around. Pull over, stop fighting, live in the darkness until it passes, accepting your fate. The past can never be again, so why fight?

Why fight, Job? His friends ask with all earnestness. They want his suffering to come to an end. They want him to just be able to live life. And their prescription is to stop fighting. He’s a victim of God’s actions. Maybe God’s actions were unjust, but okay, God gets to do what God gets to do, so just accept it and move on with your life. You’re a victim, Job; there’s nothing you can do about it. This is the advice of his friends: there’s nothing you can do about it.

Nothing you can do about it. You’re a victim. Pull over. It’s not going to get any better if you keep fighting. It’s like C.S. Lewis when he remarked: “I know that the thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get.” C.S. Lewis pulled over one day, stopped fighting, accepted his victimhood. He said, in regards to the recent passing of his wife, Joy: “The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the arguments…the tiny, heartbreaking commonplace [things]. On any view whatever, to say, “[Joy] is dead,” is to say, “All that is gone.” It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and Heaven itself is a state where “the former things have passed away.” Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” Shrouded in the darkness of grief over the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis pulls over, stops fighting, understands that the past can never be his future, and thus accepts his status as a victim.

A victim of forces he can’t reckon with. A victim of forces that, like many storms, come on suddenly, ferociously, catching us off guard, leaving us traumatized. A victim of forces of injustice, of death, of relationship failure, of job loss, of financial ruin, of hopelessness, of simply loss; a victim of forces of sadness, despair, grief, anger. A victim, regardless of how we label it; a victim of the storm of life that has viciously taken hold.

Job’s friends say to us, “what point is there in fighting? It’s God’s will…God has better things in store for you…God has a plan for your life…you have sinned and thus you deserve it…God purposes all things for our good…” Stop arguing, stop fighting, stop talking, accept the darkness. Pull over. Accept your fate. Even if it’s terribly unjust, accept it. As Job’s friend pointedly said, “Agree with God and be at peace.” It’s God’s will. There’s no use arguing anymore. There’s no use in talking any more.

[Pause]

“Yet, I am not silenced by the darkness!”

Job refuses to pull over. He will fight. He is defiant in the face of God’s actions; actions he is convinced are unjust. “Yet, I am not silenced by the darkness, or by the thick darkness that covers my face.” Job will argue, Job will keep talking, Job will not pull over.

To pull over is dangerous. As the car slipped and slid, as I increasingly struggled to see the taillights in front of me, as the snow fell harder and harder, as the fog settled in thicker and thicker, I weighed pulling over. And then I remembered the advice of colleagues who had grown up in the Shenandoah valley: don’t stop. If you pull over, the danger increases. The shoulder is narrow and you may hit the guardrail because you can’t see just where it is. Or you may not get your car fully out of the lane because you can’t see where the lane is. Or you may cause someone to rear end you as you slow down to pull over because they can’t see you slowing down. Or, if someone loses control and skids, you’re a sitting duck.

To pull over is more dangerous than to keep going.

Job knows that. Innately, he knows he can’t just pull over. “I would…fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what [God] would say to me…There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.” Job knows he can’t pull over. He’s got a case to make. He’s been treated unfairly. God is the God of justice and has committed an unjust act against him. He is righteous. He will plead his case. He will make it known to God. “Yet, I am not silenced by the darkness!” He yells into the thick shroud that covers his life. I am not silenced! I will make my case known. I will not pull over. I will stand up for myself. I am NOT a victim!

Job will keep moving. The road may be slick, the way forward almost impossible to discern, the lights ahead faint if sometimes not present at all, the winds howling, the darkness unbearable; but Job will keep moving. And so I did, up the mountain and then down, down toward the airport, down toward the job interview, down toward an unknown future. Would the darkness let up? Would the snow abate? Would the roads be better down at the bottom? Would I even make it? I thought of Dana at home, I thought of the life we were just beginning to build together, I thought of my parents, my brother, I thought of all that I loved. I thought of my mortality. And I knew that all I could do was move forward. I would not be a victim of this storm.

Defiance in the face of the storm. Job will not be silenced. He will not be the victim. He will push forward. He doesn’t know what the future holds, he doesn’t know if God will be just to him, he doesn’t know if God will ever hear his case because he can’t find God to plead his case. He doesn’t know anything except that he will not be silenced; he will not be the victim. He will keep pushing forward in the midst of the darkness. He yells into the darkness, “I am NOT a victim.”

The storms rage, but he pushes forward. He pushes forward through severe relationship loss in the death of his family. He pushes forward through severe relationship strain in the dubious advice of his friends, whose useless platitudes he rejects. He pushes forward through the pains of his body, now wracked with diseases abundant, he pushes through financial ruin, he pushes through job loss, he pushes through grief and anger and despair. He pushes through the darkness of disorientation, the darkness of trauma, the darkness of life.

For life gets dark. Storms come. They rage. They threaten. They create within us fear, anxiety, and despair. And we want to stop, give into the storm. It wins, we think subconsciously; there’s nothing we can do about it. We fill ourselves with useless platitudes that stall our forward progress, platitudes that stop our movement, platitudes that turn us into victims, “It’s God’s will…God has better things in store for you…God has a plan for your life…you have sinned and thus you deserve it…God purposes all things for our good…” Platitudes that tell us that there’s no point in arguing, no point in fighting, no point in moving forward, no point at all. Agree with God, the platitudes say, and be at peace.

But there’s no peace in storms. Submission to the storm only means that we get battered and bruised more by the storm. We put ourselves in grave danger, there, on the side of the mountain road with snow and wind and fog all around. The danger of becoming a victim of our circumstances.

Shall we be a victim of our circumstances? On a different road, many years prior, a storm of hatred raged. That storm wrongly accused a man of a grave sin. That storm wrongly accused him of hatred for his people, of misleading his people. He was too different, he was a threat, he must die. They brought him to his own mountain, where they nailed him to a cross and tried to kill him.

But they failed. Jesus would not be a victim. Resurrection was coming.

Resurrection, the dawn of a new day, the clearing of the storm, comes for those who say, like Job, “Yet, I am not silenced!” Jesus shouted from the tomb, “Yet, I am not silenced!” And he shouts to us today, too, in the midst of our storms, in the midst of our darkness, when loss swirls around us like chaos, when we feel defeated, when we’ve pulled over, “do not be silenced! Victimhood is not of God! Behold, I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth.” No matter the thick darkness that covers your face, resurrection is coming.

Resurrection is coming. On the other side of the mountain, the storm lifted, the way forward became clear, the sun began to break through the clouds, and the snow let up to a pleasant, wintry day, snowfall. I relaxed; I had made it, I had fought my way through it and made it. The storm was clear and I awoke to a new reality.

Job, as we will explore next week, gets his moment with God. And on the flip side, his fortunes are restored. The storm clears, he awakes to a new reality; he experiences resurrection.

And the only way that happened is Job refused to be a victim. “Yet, I am not silenced” are powerful words that speak the truth of our existence: so long as we refuse to silence ourselves in the midst of the storms of life, so long as we keep reaching out to God, we will find resurrection.

We will find resurrection, new life, which can only mean that victimhood, the death of life, is not of God. Victimhood, when we choose to say that we’re just a victim and nothing can be done about it; victimhood when we decide that job loss will never rectify itself, when we decide that our health problems will always keep us down, when we decide that relationship loss will always plague us, when we decide that no good will come our way, when we decide that “Life sucks, and then you die,” when we really believe that all that we can expect from life are the twin guarantees of death and taxes, when we think that everyone’s out to get us, when we decide that joy is a fallacy, when we decide that no one is ever really happy, when we blame everyone around us for all our troubles, when we decide that we’re going to sit on our ash heap in misery and wail, “woe is me;” when any or much of this characterizes who we are, we have adopted victimhood. We have decided that we are victims, and we thus refuse God’s offer of resurrection. We have decided that our lives are over, they are dead, and that not even God can grant us new life.

We tell God by our wallowing in misery, “no thanks, I don’t need you, I’ll just be miserable.” And then we make ourselves feel better by telling ourselves that “it’s God’s will…that God purposes all things for our good…” and other useless platitudes that justify our status as a victim. All the while, God says to us, “do not be silenced! Victimhood is not of me! I offer you new life!”

This is the power of Job’s example: “Yet, I am not silenced by the darkness, or by the thick darkness that covers my face.” no matter the terrible storms he knew. Resurrection, new life, was coming, just as it always comes. To not be silenced is to keep looking for the answers, to keep pursuing understanding for why things went wrong, to keep asking the storm to explain itself, to keep asking, arguing, pleading for a new truth that will set you free from the current storm. To not be silenced is not complaining; it’s the power of saying to God and to the storm, “explain yourself!” The new truth that emerges may not be the truth you sought, may surprise you, but that new truth will, undoubtedly, resurrect you.

In my life, I have known many terrible storms. I sometimes think that, in my thirty-five years of existence, I have known more than my fair share of dark, terrible, storms, that threaten to overcome me. And in my experience, when I have refused to succumb to the storm, when I have refused to pull over, when I have refused to be a victim, resurrection has always come. A new, surprising, truth has emerged that has set me free from the storm and born me again into new life. I am better for all the storms that have raged and, in the storms that currently rage in my life, I will be better in the end, I have no doubt. Because my savior lives, my savior came out of the tomb yelling, “Yet, I am not silenced,” and thus showed me the way to not be silenced and granted me the power of his resurrection in my life. God gives birth to new life through the storms of our lives. We must simply fight back against the storm; we must not be silenced.

God gives birth to new life through the storms of our lives. That’s God’s transformational power at work, that’s God’s resurrection power at work in our lives, that’s God fulfillment the promise, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the ends of the age.” But if we settle down in the midst of the storm, pulling over on the side of the road of life, we, in effect, say no to God’s offer of resurrection. We decide for ourselves that life can get no better, when God offers a better way. The storms of life can be transformational, can bring us to a place of great personal peace, but we must fight through the storms.

We must not tell ourselves what to believe, like the useless platitudes of Job’s friends. We must not tell ourselves how we’re supposed to act, or be. We must simply be, for when we simply are as we are, defiant that the storm will not defeat us, then we give God our souls, like clay in the potter’s hands. God molds our souls into something beautiful through the process of the storm; we are changed, made better; we are resurrected.

Too many of us play the victim today. Some time ago, maybe years ago, we pulled over. We succumbed to the storm of injustice, of death, of relationship failure, of job loss, of financial ruin, of hopelessness, of losses of many kinds; a victim of forces of sadness, despair, grief, anger. A victim, regardless of how we label it; a victim of the storm of life that once upon a time viciously took hold.

And now we are grumpy, irritable, constantly negative, self-centered. We’re the kind of person no one really wants to be around and, maybe, we now avoid people. We have made for ourselves an ash heap and there we sit, saying “woe is me” in a variety of ways as we make sure everyone around us understands how miserable our lives are and how much of it is someone else’s fault. We pick fights over silly matters, we get irritable over trivial affairs, we get unreasonably angry with people whose opinions offend us, we get withdrawn and sullen even from those who love us the most. We decided, in the midst of that storm, no matter if it was days ago or decades ago, that no one could save us, not even God. There is no new, surprising, truth waiting for us on the other side. Resurrection will never come, God is not for us, and we will simply be miserable all our lives long, simply waiting for death and taxes to prove us right.

If that’s you, this morning say defiantly with Job, “Yet, I am not silenced by the darkness!” Ask the storm to explain itself. Ask God to explain himself. Do not be silenced. Keep pushing for that new and surprising truth. It will come.

Come down the mountain. It’s dangerous, it’s risky, it’s hard, it’s terribly frightening, but you are clay in the potter’s hands. The new dawn is coming, the storm will abate, there will be release, for resurrection is coming.

You are not a victim. You are a child of God. You are of value. Push forward. Don’t pull over. Don’t give up the fight. Yet, you are not silenced by the darkness. Yet, I am not silenced by the darkness. Yet, we are not silenced by the darkness. Resurrection is coming.

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

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