• Craig Mueller

I Wish I Didn't Know Now What I Didn't Know Then

Watch a video of the sermon.

“I am a different Jew today than I was yesterday. Anti-Semitism was something that happened in history, that happened in other places,” she said, her voice breaking. “Tree of Life used to be a synagogue that my grandparents went to, that my Mom grew up in, that we would go to on high holidays. And today I feel like it’s something different.”

Reminds me of a haunting line from the song “Against the Wind.” It’s about growing up and the loss of innocence. The line that sticks with me is this: “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

The story of Job, the righteous Jew, comes to a close in today’s reading. Job may have wished he could have gone back to simpler times before he lost it all. Job’s pious friends insist that everything happens for a reason. If you’re good, God blesses you—in fact, you will prosper. Job must have done something horrible to bring such suffering upon him.

Through the long ordeal Job rails against God, pours out his heart, and claims his innocence. But he never curses God as everyone assumed would happen.

When the worst things in life happen, we wonder what to think, we stumble over words to say. Kate Bowler is a mother, wife, and divinity school professor. Several years ago—when she was 35—she got a diagnosis for stage four colon cancer. Her world fell apart. Ironically, she had just written a book about the prosperity gospel movement in America. It’s the notion that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith. If you feel blessed then surely you must have done something right. It connects well with the notion that the American dream is all based on hard work—no luck or chance or being at the right place at the right time.

Kate writes of a time, soon after her cancer diagnosis that someone knocked on their door to tell her husband that “everything happens for a reason.” “I’d love to hear it,” her husband said. “Pardon?” the woman said, startled. “I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

Following yesterday’s shooting and in times of anguish, maybe all we can offer is silence or an embrace. Or a few words like: “wow, that’s awful.” But let me say it in this holy place: I don’t think everything happens for a reason. Things just happen. As Kate says, life is both beautiful and hard.

Fast forward to the conclusion of the saga of Job. After Job rests his case and claims his innocence, God speaks from the whirlwind. God says: “Where were you when I created the world? I’m God, and you’re not.” We are connected to all living things that live and die. We see this mystery in the autumn colors and leaves falling from trees.

We can’t conclude our month of Job without mentioning the classic book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Kushner says there is loss when we realize we can’t go back to our old, simpler views of God. That was when we believed that God guaranteed fair treatment and happy endings. But after we have met Job, after we have been Job we can’t believe in that kind of God anymore.

And that leads to the troubling ending to the story of Job. After Job recants and relents on dust and ashes, as the Hebrew Study Bible translates it . . . in other words, after Job faces his mortality and realizes his dependence on God, everything is made right. He gets everything back double. Talk about prosperity. Fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand oxen, a thousand donkeys. And if that weren’t enough, 10 more children—since his first ten had died at the beginning of the story. And they all lived happily ever after. So everything must happen for a reason. Curtain. Applause.

But maybe it’s not that simple. In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gable series, Anne suffers the loss of her first child, Joy, hours after the birth. Eventually Anne is able to go on with her life and bear other children. But as the author puts it, “there was something in her smile that never had been in Anne’s smile before and would never be absent again.”

Each time we say goodbye, each time our heart breaks, each time we cry tears of sadness, we are grieving all the other losses and hurts that have come before. If we don’t go with the prosperity interpretation, perhaps Job is called to reinvest in life, in family, in love.

Bartimaeus, the blind man in today’s gospel pleads with Jesus: let me see again. Maybe that is our prayer, too: let me see again. Even in these troubling times, even in our fear and doubt.

Job knew things about God, but in the end he says: “I had heard about you . . . but now my eyes see you.” With age, with experience, with wisdom, we begin to see differently. We see the cross anew. We see God suffering with Tree of Life synagogue . . . with all victims of hate crimes . . . with all whose hearts are broken . . . with all who will never know what the world calls prosperity.

We see Jesus, despised and broken—our great high priest—who makes intercession for us, as Hebrews puts it. We see God hidden in the swaddling clothes of a baby and the wood of the cross.

At some point we realize we can’t go back. “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.” But that’s not how life is. Job learns it. Bartimaeus learns it. We learn it.

Yet, With Martin Luther, we can now sing “were they to take our house; goods, honor, child or spouse. Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever.”

Everything may not happen for a reason—yet the gospel of Christ calms our troubled hearts. And gives us a reason to live, a reason to praise.

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© 2017 Craig Mueller