(Psalm 1: 1-3, II Corinthians 1:2-7, and the Book of Job)
Many years ago, when I was still working in a garden center, I found a very large caterpillar attached to a tree. I thought it looked cool, so I took it home to my children where we placed it in an old aquarium with some grass and sticks. And, as you might guess, it wasn’t too long before the caterpillar attached itself to one of the sticks and formed a cocoon around itself. Now this was fascinating to my kids. They kept checking that cocoon every morning and night (and probably fifty times during the day), but nothing happened. Day after long day, nothing from our caterpillar. Until finally, one morning, after a blood curling shriek of excitement, we observed movement within the cocoon. But even though we knew our caterpillar (and soon to be moth) was still alive, the process was still a very slow one.
Now, my kids, especially my son Russell, were increasingly becoming impatient with this lack of progress, so he took a pencil and was about to poke a hole in the end, when his sisters stopped him. But what a wonderful teaching moment this became. You see, Russ’ impatiens had given us the perfect opportunity to discuss why the moth needed to struggle to get out of the cocoon. As you may already know, the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to escape, forces fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it’s ready for flight once it comes out of the cocoon; a freedom and autonomy that can come only after a struggle. By trying to help him along, Russ would have deprived the moth of his struggle thus robbing him of the ability to fly. The moth needed to struggle to survive.
An Exegetical Perspective of the Text
Now, like our moth, humankind has always had to struggle as well. In our text for today from the Book of Psalms, we see the Psalmist take on this subject of the human condition by comparing us to trees which are firmly planted by streams of water.
Now, on the surface this may seem like a strange comparison. If I am in crisis mode, wondering if my affliction will ever end, how is being planted by a creek going to help? Well, this is where symbolism comes into play. People who are open to God’s instruction, even those who are currently struggling in life, are never without a resource to sustain them; namely, God’s live-giving waters. “What the tree imagery highlights, then, is not primarily the aspect of fruitfulness but he importance of a stable rootedness. The root is in precisely the proper place, beside a water, which represents God life-giving instructions. And It’s this deep rootedness in the proper ground that allows the tree to withstand drought and to always bear good fruit”[i]
In other words, if we are rooted in God, no matter what our struggles consist of, we have a resource to help us as we fight our way through to the other side. Not that God fixes everything for us, no one ever said life would be without difficulties, no ever said that we would not have “cocoons” of our own to struggle out of, but we are given the opportunity, a fighting chance, because God is struggling along with us
A Theological Perspective on the Text
So, what this all boils down to then, is God’s faithfulness. Even in the tough times, God is faithful. Now, you may want to say to me, “that all well and good, pastor, but what do you really know about my suffering?” And the truth is I don’t. Not fully anyway. I can relate to what you may be going through and I can hold your hand and be there with you as you go through it, but I finally can’t fully understand how your affliction affects you.
But here’s the thing. God does. God understands completely. Let me give you a couple of concrete examples from the Bible about what I mean. First, our lesson from Paul for today. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says:
“… the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction.” [ii]
Now, on the surface, this may seem kind of cliché, platitude-ske, even insulting if were not careful. Does Paul mean God sent the lightning bolt at me just so I could show someone else, at some unknown time in the distant future, how to put the fire out? Really? That’s why I’m suffering? Well to give you an ambiguous answer: yes, but no. Here’s what I mean. I read an alternate translation of this passage this week which might help us to shed some light on this text. Paul says of God:
“…[God] comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, [God] brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”[iii]
What a difference. When we read this version, instead of accusing God of afflicting us so we can comfort someone else in the future, Paul tells us that God walks alongside us in our distress, and as an aside, we may encounter others who are walking that same path. Interesting, according to this passage, suffering comes then not because of anything we have done or left undone or because of anything God has done to us, but rather as a circumstance of the human condition. In other words, “stuff happens” and how we deal with the “stuff” matters; including reaching out a compassionate hand to others when they are dealing with their “stuff.” And all the while, God is walking alongside both of us.
That’s the first Biblical example of God’s faithfulness, and the second is this: Job. You all remember the Book of Job. Job was righteous; he was healthy, wealthy, and wise; and Job was blessed with children whom he loved. But in an instant, Job lost everything. All his animals died, his children were killed and he found himself covered with boils from head to toe. And the rest of the book is basically about Job’s response to his friend’s and his wife’s advice about how to approach God in his suffering.
Now, to this day, Job’s very name is synonymous with suffering. But Job’s response to God isn’t necessarily what one might expect. You see, we have come to see Job as the benchmark for faithfulness; and rightly so. Because even through all his sufferings, he remained faithful to God. But if you haven’t read the story I would recommend it. Job was faithful but not silent. He demanded answers from God and he asked the same kind of questions you and I ask God.
In a commentary I read this week, the author said of Job: “He asked, ‘Why?’ He asked, ‘Why me?’ He asked his questions persistently, passionately, and eloquently. He refused to take silence for an answer. He refused to take clichés for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook. Job did not take his sufferings quietly or piously. He disdained going for a second opinion to outside physicians or philosophers. Job took his stance before God, and there he protested his suffering, protested mightily. Now, it is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us. It is because he suffered in the same ways we suffer – in the vital areas of family, personal health, and material things. Job is also important to us because he searchingly questioned and boldly protested his sufferings. Indeed, he went to the very top.”[iv]
Application to REAL Life
So, what do we do with all this; suffering and moths, Paul and Job? And what in the world does all this have to do with trees? Well, the point of all this is for us to remain “firmly planted” in the Word and Way of God. Notice I said both Word and Way? Living out our faith entails both reading and reflecting on Scripture and then taking that knowledge out into the world. Paul challenges us to walk alongside others who are suffering with struggles that are like our own, just as God continues to walk beside us. And Job, Job is a continuing, but deeper, contribution to this message.
Maybe think of it like this. “In our compassion, we don’t like to see people suffer. And our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering. No doubt that is a good impulse. But if we want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to do our ‘helping’ with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them better.”[v]
If we follow the Book of Job’s lead, however, maybe we could shift our focus from trying to alleviate the suffering of a friend, which isn’t going to be very successful anyway, to entering the suffering with our friend, participating, insofar as we are able. And if we do that, then we can walk alongside our friend, joining them in protest and prayer. “As we look at Job’s sufferings and prayer and worship, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.”[vi]
Friends, As the Psalmist says, happy are we when we delight in God; and when we meditate on God’s Word and Way we will indeed be like trees planted, firmly rooted, by streams of abundant and everlasting water. As we go forth today, May all your struggles, all your cocoons, make you even stronger and even closer in your walk with God as God continues to walk alongside all of us.
Let us pray. Loving, Ever-Present, Still-Speaking God… Walk with us this day, weep with us in all our afflictions and shout cheers of joy with us in all our celebrations, and show us, God of all Compassion, how to walk alongside our neighbor in their sufferings and celebrations. In the name of the One who keeps us “firmly planted” Jesus the Christ. Amen.
[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible. (NIB) Vol. IV, Commentary on the Psalms (Abingdon Press: 1995) 685.
[ii] II Corinthians 1:3, The New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible (NRSV)
[iii] II Corinthians 1:3, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Eugene H. Peterson
(NavPress Publishing Group, Colorado Springs, Co. 2002)
[iv] Introduction to Job. The Message, 631.
[v] Ibid, 633.
[vi] Ibid. 633.