God’s Unwanted Gifts
October 07, 2018*
By Pastor John Partridge
Job 1:1; 2:1-10 Mark 10:2-16 Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Have you ever gotten gifts that were more exciting to unwrap than to receive?
You know what I mean. You’ve opened gifts, and been all excited, and the gift turned out to be an ugly sweater. Our kids would occasionally get gifts from relatives that were things that they really liked… three years before. A Dora the Explorer backpack would’ve been welcome in elementary school, but it just wasn’t what our junior high daughter had in mind. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of those kinds of things in all degrees of severity. Lovely gifts of wine or scotch whiskey… to friends that don’t drink, hair coloring to people who prefer natural color, a white sweater to a platinum blonde that never, ever wears white, a Bible for an atheist, and so on. But the next level is when your boss tries to do you a favor and gives you a raise and a promotion, but it means that you must sell your house and move. You interview for a new job, get hired, and move to a new city, only to discover that the company that just hired you has declared bankruptcy and your new job is gone.
Some gifts are not what we wanted and others, that we thought we wanted, turn out to be much less valuable or pleasurable than we thought they would be when we asked for them. And the stories that we find in scripture often reflect this same idea, and sometimes we find that the gifts that God wants to give us, are the kinds of gifts that make us run screaming from the room. We begin in the story of Job. An honest, upright, and faithful man of God, to whom horrible things would happen, for no apparent reason. (Job 1:1; 2:1-10)
1:1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.
2:1 On another day the angel came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”
Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”
3 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”
4 “Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. 5 But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”
6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. 8 Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.
9 His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”
10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
For the record, I understand that it was Satan who afflicted Job and not God, but God knew about it, God knew what Satan intended, and not only did God allow it, God seemed to invite it. And, while a study of the book of Job can, and has, result in volumes of sermons with a great many valuable lessons, the takeaway here is Job’s rhetorical question, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
If we trust God, and if we trust that God cares about us, knows everything about us, and knows everything that happens to us, then do we demonstrate a lack of faith when we wonder if God is aware, or if God cares, when we go through times of trouble? Job’s question is as relevant to us as it was to his wife, if we accept good from God how can we not accept trouble as a gift from God when it comes? Trouble, pain, suffering, difficulty, and trials are not gifts that we ask for, and are sometimes gifts that cause us to run screaming from the room, but many times, not always, but many times, these difficult situations are indeed gifts from God that are intended for a higher purpose.
In Mark 10:2-16 we find a story that may give us some insight into how we accept difficulty in our lives.
10:1 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again, crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.
2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.
4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
This passage seems a little odd because it starts with a conversation about divorce, but if we take a moment to consider what it meant to the people in the story, it helps us to understand it better. The pharisees were having an argument over what criteria needed to be met in order to grant a divorce. Historically, some rabbis made the case that the slightest infraction, like burning your breakfast, was enough, but others argued for a much higher standard. Jesus rightly points out that all of this came about because Moses had said that it was okay for people to divorce and the rabbis throughout history had argued over how high a standard should be met before giving permission to do so. But Jesus wades into the dispute like a bull in a china chop and upsets every vested interest, by saying that God is never okay with divorce, that it is always a sin, and that Moses only allowed it because human beings, even faithful, churchgoing humans, are a miserable, stubborn, disobedient, hardhearted bunch and would disobey God no matter what he said.
Instead, Jesus says, we ought to be more like the children that came to meet them. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, belongs to people who are like children and, what’s more, if we don’t receive the kingdom like a little child, we can’t enter the kingdom at all.
So, what does that mean? Let’s unpack it a little bit.
Anyone who has spent any amount of time at all with children knows that children are both innocent and trusting. If you say come, they come. If you say go, they go. If tell them to do this, or don’t do that, they do what you tell them to do (certainly not always, but as a rule, they are far more trusting than adults). For our purposes today, it’s important to note that children accept teaching, rebuke, and correction from their teachers, mentors, and parents better than adults. In short, they are teachable and correctable and if we adults want to get into the kingdom of God, we need to be like them.
In this passage of scripture, Jesus contradicts the teaching of the pharisees on the subject of divorce, but this isn’t unique. Time after time, Jesus makes it clear, that we aren’t as good as we thought we were. The rules are stricter, and God’s standards are higher, than we thought they were. Over and over again, Jesus makes it clear that we aren’t as perfect as we thought we were or as good as we imagined ourselves to be.
But if God is so demanding, and we are so deeply flawed, shouldn’t we despair and give up even trying to be good? No. And in Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Paul explains why.
1:1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
2:5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
7 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
8 and put everything under their feet.”
In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.”
Paul reminds us that Jesus came to earth to provide purification of our sins before God. Jesus now rules over the angels in heaven because he suffered death for us, to pay the price for our sin and rebellion against God. Jesus was, and is, the pioneer of our salvation and rescue so that we could be made perfect through suffering.
But if we read Paul’s words carefully, it says, “10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.” Paul is reminding us that Jesus was the pioneer, the first, and through him God chose to make our salvation perfect through suffering. But by using the word “pioneer,” in this way, it seems as if Paul is also reminding us that suffering was not unique to Jesus. Jesus made us perfect, in the eyes of God, through suffering, but we face our own suffering and at times, God intends for our discomfort, our inconvenience, our pain, and our suffering to change us. Sometimes, pain and suffering cause us to leave our comfort zones and discover new truths, sometimes suffering leads us to new discoveries about ourselves, about others, about our world, and about God’s mercy, grace, and love. And sometimes, our pain and suffering are the means that God uses to move us toward perfection, toward a better version of ourselves, toward the person that God created us to be, and toward the person that God needs us to become.
Trouble, pain, suffering, difficulty, and trials are not gifts that we ask for, or gifts that we ever wanted. But rather than fight God tooth and nail, rather than demanding that God immediately rescue us, consider that we might want to be like little children before God and consider that God has indeed given these to us as a gift. Consider that God may intend for us to learn something from our pain. Remember that God loves us enough to sacrifice his own son, loves us enough to personally suffer the agony of persecution, flogging, crucifixion, and death. If we trust God, and if we trust that God cares about us, then we should consider that no matter what joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain, comfort or suffering, that God allows into our lives, each of them is a gift that is intended to shape us into something better.
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