COVID-19 and the reaction to it has caused deep divisions in our societies, and right down the middle of Christian communities as well….When we come back to meeting together, as a full church, or as an LCC family, or as societies reckoning with the effectiveness of policies (as I hope there will be investigations and evaluations, based in actual scientific understandings of how these viruses work that we had at the time), there will be anger and resentment that has to be dealt with….If we don’t, we could have a permanent division in our communities, which would be tragic.
…As we build back our lives, and build back our church community, can we think of our process as parallel to this—and also see it as an opportunity? Can we articulate our losses, express our anger and our sorrow, hear the anger and sorrow of others, and pray that God would help us to direct it and deal with it appropriately? Can we accept that nothing happens outside of God’s knowledge or control?February 28, 2021, in 2nd lockdown
Note: This is part of a series of pieces providing a pastoral response to COVID and lockdowns in the church. Read more and subscribe here.
As part of my project, “Pandemic, Church, Society, and the Gospel: A Pastoral Response,” I’ll be reposting sermons that I preached dealing with the pandemic, sometimes with comments or updated reflections. (Check out my Sermons page for audio/video.)
Today I’m reposting a sermon preached in-person at our Lithuania home church, Klaipėda Free Christian Church, on February 28, Second Sunday in Lent. The sermon is titled, “Receiving Double from YHWH’s Hand.” The main text is Job 42:10-17; I also make reference to Isaiah 49:14-23.
This is perhaps one of my most personal and vulnerable sermons ever. It was one of the most difficult sermons ever to write; a lot of angry and sorrowful words were thankfully left on the cutting room floor–and maybe I still said more than I should have. But it was from the heart, and hopefully resonates with some of you all as well. In real ways, I find myself still in the middle of the emotion and loss that comes out in the sermon–it has only been four months, after all, and too soon to understand how things will shake out with response and relationships. Time will tell, and it’s in God’s hands. Soli Deo gloria!
It’s a great joy to be worshipping with you this afternoon, and to be sharing with you from God’s Word. Two weeks ago we were in Kaunas, worshiping at the Free Christian Church there, and we greeted them on your behalf! We also bring with us greetings from my mother, Susan, who we saw when we were in the US during Christmastime.
And speaking of our visit to the US, I mentioned that I had many thoughts to share from our time there. Well, I’ve been processing through some of those thoughts and feelings, and I will share some of them today.
I think everyone would agree that this has been a hard twelve months. It’s amazing that March 15 was when we had our first online service during lockdown. Since then there have been some joyful times of reunion, but for most people it has been difficult. Some people have gotten seriously sick, and even lost family and friends. Others are suffering from loss of income. All of us have experienced some sort of separation from people we love or activities and places that are important to us.
Today I want to share with us some observations from the books of Job and Isaiah that have come to me over the last few months. I usually like to have very fully-formed ideas and messages to share with you from the Bible; today, some of the things I share will be more personal and reflective, so be especially cautious as you receive them! As we say in English, “take them with a grain of salt.” But I hope that you can draw something from where I am after wrestling with these passages, and hopefully we can look back on this moment as a “snapshot” in our process of growing closer to God in faith.
First, I want us to read Job 42:10–17. This is the very ending of the book of Job. Job is a righteous man who lost everything, including all his stuff—measured in livestock and servants—and his ten children. All of this happens because, without Job knowing, God has made a wager with the Adversary that Job would not curse God if he suffered. Job questions God’s justice, but in all this does not sin. God then shows up, and rebukes Job’s three friends who have slandered Job and God. Now in these final verses, we read about Job’s restoration.
10 After Job had prayed for his friends, the Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. 11 All his brothers and sisters and everyone who had known him before came and ate with him in his house. They comforted and consoled him over all the trouble the Lord had brought on him, and each one gave him a piece of silver[a] and a gold ring.
12 The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. 13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 The first daughter he named Jemimah, the second Keziah and the third Keren-Happuch. 15 Nowhere in all the land were there found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.
16 After this, Job lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation. 17 And so Job died, an old man and full of years.(NIV2011)
Job’s Exile and Job’s Children
Let me make a few points here. The book of Job is about suffering and God’s justice. But even more specifically, there are little hints that connect the story to the Babylonian exile, the experience of the Israelites in the 6th century. Verse 10 says in most English translations that “the LORD restored the fortunes of Job.” But I see in one Lithuanian translation that it says, “the LORD turned the captivity of Job” (VIEŠPATS pakreipė Jobo dalią), which is what the Hebrew literally says: shuv shevi. This is technical term used in Deuteronomy and in the Prophets to refer to the end of the Babylonian exile. Next, we see that Job receives double of all that he had before his suffering, before his “exile.” He gets double of all his livestock, his animals. And he lives 140 years after this moment, which seems to signal that he may have been 70 years old when all this happened. 70 years is the length of the Babylonian exile, according to Jeremiah the Prophet.
There are many intriguing things about Job’s restoration, and possible connections to Israel’s return from exile in Babylon. One thing that always puzzled me, though, is why the Lord didn’t give Job twice as many children as he had before the catastrophe. The answer came to me this past semester, when I had a guest speaker in my course to talk about the book of Lamentations and suffering. This scholar was speaking about lament and suffering, from his own studies, and from his own experience, having lost his eight-year-old son to a sudden illness a few years ago. He said in the class to my students, “I’m Christian Brady, and my wife and I are the parents of two children.” He went on to explain that their daughter is in university, and their son is in heaven.
Maybe it seems so obvious, but Christian is the father of two children. Death does not change that aspect of his identity. I have heard others who have lost children speak of themselves in this way. When we think about the story of Job, the fact is that at the end of Job’s story, he is the father of twenty children, fourteen sons and six daughters, which is double of what he had before his “exile.” The fact that three of his daughters and seven of his sons have passed away does not change the fact that they had names, experiences, birthdays, joys, sorrows—all of which Job continued to treasure in his heart as their father.
The reason why Job doesn’t receive twenty additional children after the end of his exile is that children aren’t replaceable. Sheep and goats can be replaced. (In the story, even servants can be replaced—but we don’t have to unpack that too much!) Job is the father of twenty children, ten dead, ten living, and he lives the remainder of his life before God, with both blessing and loss.
This is a really subtle point, perhaps. But I think it’s very deep. When God brings us through suffering, and out the other side to blessing and joy, we always carry with us the memories and scars of that suffering. In fact, the joy would not be as joyful if it did not come as healing and restoration after suffering. And for the rest of our days, as we tell of the joy and blessings that God has given us, the suffering is always going to be part of that story.
Naming our Lost “Children”
For this reason, I think it’s a necessary step to describe our losses, to bring them before God, and to memorialize them for the future. I’m going to describe some losses, and some of my own sadness, anger, and frustration. Don’t worry, there is a point to this, and we will come back to the text!
For those of us who work at LCC, even though we appreciate our friends and our community outside the university, the fact remains that the university is the main reason why we are here. If the university went away, we’d have to leave the country. We are here to minister to students. But for a year now, our ability to be with students has been blocked and our whole ministry model has been undermined. We can’t have them in our homes. We can’t have conversations in our offices before and after class. We can’t do fun things that form the basis of familiarity, which then lead to spiritual conversations. We can’t worship with them in chapel, or lead worship alongside them. Most of our students aren’t even currently in Klaipėda. Teaching online is a rather poor substitute, especially when the students are scattered all over the world, away from their classmates, drawn into their lives there, distracted from studies. Some are doing OK with their studies, but other students are doing badly (I won’t name names!).
I’m sure that Susan, who is watching online, feels this way about her teaching and mission at KU as well. It occurred to me that now more than half of AJ and Michelle’s time at LCC has been like this: blocked by lockdown and restrictions.
Then there are those of us who have family in other countries, who have not been able to see one another. Speaking of AJ & Michelle: baby Aaron has still not met the rest of their family. Raimondas and Alina and Nojus as well have children and siblings in other countries, whom they have not seen in over a year. I’m in weekly contact with our graduate, Edgar, who is doing PhD studies in the UK, and has been unable to travel to see his mother in Kaunas since 2019. Many of you have similar stories.
Let me also say something from my heart on behalf of those of us who live cross-culturally. To my Lithuanian brothers and sisters, I like to joke that your language is like the peace of God: it surpasses all understanding! But seriously, life in another country, in another language, is hard. Corrie and I figured out that in order to survive and flourish here, we would have to find ways to plug into life outside LCC. We sent our kids to school, instead of homeschooling. We loved to be involved in church, and this is a home for us now, too. Corrie joined the KU choir with Naglis, and met many wonderful young people, and toured Lithuania singing choral music in Lithuanian. I was invited to teach at Evangelinis Biblijos Institutas. And we have tried “at many times and in various ways” to get better at understanding Lithuanian language. Well, lockdown has taken most of these things away from us, in addition to LCC community.
And speaking of LCC community, to make it very personal again: I have always struggled to believe that people could like me because of who I am, once they get beyond the fact that I can do “visible” things pretty well, like playing music, preaching, or academics. In my adult life, three or four years is about the longest I’ve ever been in one institution or church or ministry. Well, this is the end of four years at LCC, and there is the nagging question for me: Will people still like me when this is all over? Will they just keep me around because I’m useful at some things we need done? In fact, talking with some LCC friends a few weeks ago, I realized that I need to do some work in my heart at “forgiving” people for “offenses” that they have not actually committed! I have sort of internalized, come to believe in my heart, that because my friends, my colleagues, my students haven’t been spending time with me, that they don’t want to be with me, even though that is not the case. They haven’t done anything wrong, but I guess that is the psychological wound of absence, whatever the cause of the absence.
This testimony is personal. Others have it much worse: lost jobs, lost businesses, living alone with depression, or sick family members, or lost family members and unable to see them before they died. I don’t want to overstate our suffering through this time—but these are sufferings that do need to be named along with all the others.
Suffering: Human Cause, Natural Cause, Divine Cause?
And, one more thing as we move back towards the biblical text. When we look at the ways that Job lost everything, there are different proximate causes of his suffering. Sometimes it’s human evil: the Sabeans and Chaldeans sinfully attacked his servants and his livestock. Sometimes it’s what we might think of as “natural causes”: a hurricane wind causes a house to collapse, and it kills all his children; or Job gets painful sores all over his body, a form of sickness.
COVID-19 and the reaction to it has caused deep divisions in our societies, and right down the middle of Christian communities as well. Everyone agrees that COVID is a nasty virus, and falls into the category of “natural causes” of suffering—sickness and death, and the prudent separation of many vulnerable people from others. But there is a lot of disagreement about the justness and effectiveness of the measures taken by governments to try to stop the spread. To make it simple, there are reasonable people who think that maybe 80% of the suffering is caused by “natural causes,” which would be mostly unavoidable, and 20% of the suffering is caused by human mismanagement or error. There are other reasonable people who think that the balance is more like 20% unavoidable suffering due to the virus, and 80% of the suffering is due to lockdowns and other management errors that have unintended consequences. You can probably guess which of these camps I fall into.
When we come back to meeting together, as a full church, or as an LCC family, or as societies reckoning with the effectiveness of policies (as I hope there will be investigations and evaluations, based in actual scientific understandings of how these viruses work that we had at the time), there will be anger and resentment that has to be dealt with. Some of my colleagues, I know, would think of me and others as reckless and not doing our part to contain the spread of the virus. Others would push back and accuse those of imposing pointless isolation on people under 60 who aren’t vulnerable and are already facing a mental health crisis—in this country that already has high rates of suicide and alcoholism, we need community. We may have to all get together and hash this out, say our opinions, and ask for forgiveness, and give forgiveness. If we don’t, we could have a permanent division in our communities, which would be tragic.
But here is the thing: whatever we think of the human activities that made COVID better or worse than it otherwise would have been, we have to reckon with this basic fact: God has been in control of it all, and God has let this happen. In the story of Job’s tragic suffering, there is one cause I didn’t mention: Fire came down from heaven and consumed Job’s sheep and servants. This represents a cause that cannot be interpreted any other way: God is acting against Job. The fire from heaven and the suddenness of everything else means that whether it’s human sin and error, or “natural causes,” nothing bad ultimately happens without God knowing or permitting it—or in this case, causing it.
What does this mean for us? Well, the short answer is, I don’t know what God is doing through this. The long answer is, the problem of evil is an ancient philosophical question that we can’t resolve in one hour.
But I want to leave us with two points to ponder. First, we see from the book of Job that God hears, God sees, God feels. Every time a human being, made in his image, dies—of COVID, or of suicide, or some other cause—he sees, feels grief. Every person who suffers depression and discouragement alone—God sees. Every person who loses his job and spends all he has to survive because police have shut down his business by force—God hears that person’s cry for help. And God has given us the Psalms, to lament, to call out to him, to give words for our cries for salvation and justice. God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who experienced injustice and poverty, depression and loneliness, and even death. Jesus prayed the Psalms to his Father, including: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” God knows, because he has experienced it.
And second, coming back to Job’s children: as we are struggling with loss, can we hang onto that hope that God will bring “more children”—not to replace what we’ve lost, but to build back even more fruitfully? Here I’d like to read the passage from the book of Isaiah, chapter 49, verses 14 to 23. In this passage, Israel is in the Babylonian exile, just as Job’s suffering represents the exile. “Zion” or “the daughter of Zion” is another name for Jerusalem, the capital city. Here, the Israelites are tempted to despair, and to think that God has abandoned them. Like Job, “children” are Daughter Zion’s blessings of fruitfulness that she has lost.
14 But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.”
15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.
17 Your children hasten back,
and those who laid you waste depart from you.
18 Lift up your eyes and look around;
all your children gather and come to you.
As surely as I live,” declares the Lord,
“you will wear them all as ornaments;
you will put them on, like a bride.
19 “Though you were ruined and made desolate
and your land laid waste,
now you will be too small for your people,
and those who devoured you will be far away.
20 The children born during your bereavement
will yet say in your hearing,
‘This place is too small for us;
give us more space to live in.’
21 Then you will say in your heart,
‘Who bore me these?
I was bereaved and barren;
I was exiled and rejected.
Who brought these up?
I was left all alone,
but these—where have they come from?’”
22 This is what the Sovereign Lord says:
“See, I will beckon to the nations,(NIV2011)
I will lift up my banner to the peoples;
they will bring your sons in their arms
and carry your daughters on their hips.
23 Kings will be your foster fathers,
and their queens your nursing mothers.
They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground;
they will lick the dust at your feet.
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”
Daughter Zion is pictured as a grown woman, and everything about her “exile” and loss is turned around. Even though she was divorced and abandoned, she will put on jewels as a bride. Even though she was robbed of her children, suddenly those children will return—and she will have more than she knows what to do with! She will say, “Where in the world did all these kids come from?” (That’s how I felt last week when we met for church!)
But of course, “children” are not just having more babies—though as a congregation, we did a lot of that during 2020! “Children” includes our communities, our fruitful work, flourishing in our families, relationships with one another that help us grow, evangelism, discipleship, baptism. For me, I’ve enjoyed spending a lot of time with my biological children this year—but I miss my students so much! Of course, they will all eventually graduate and go out into the world. But this COVID exile has robbed me of this precious year with some of them. That will never come back, and some of them have graduated or will graduate through this, and move on.
Coming back to Job’s loss: when Job was restored, he lived as the father of 20 children: 10 surviving him, and 10 who had passed away. Job would always live with the blessings and the sorrows of those 10 children who had died. I’m sure there were days when he cried over those 10 children, even though he had 10 living children—those were different children.
As we build back our lives, and build back our church community, can we think of our process as parallel to this—and also see it as an opportunity? Can we articulate our losses, express our anger and our sorrow, hear the anger and sorrow of others, and pray that God would help us to direct it and deal with it appropriately? Can we accept that nothing happens outside of God’s knowledge or control? And can we trust that God will “give us children” again, when this is all over? I was speaking with Antanas about this, this week, and he highlighted the last line in the Isaiah passage: “Those who hopefully wait for me will not be put to shame.” Can we believe this?—not that God will replace exactly what was lost, but that if we wait in hope, we will see how God will grow back what has been lost—and so much more?
For more in this series, click here.
 Compare: “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD’S hand Double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2); “Instead of your shame you will have a double portion, And instead of humiliation they will shout for joy over their portion. Therefore they will possess a double portion in their land, Everlasting joy will be theirs” (Isa 61:7)
Audio and text: ©2021 by Benjamin D. Giffone. Reproduction and distribution are permitted, providing that the author is properly credited and that no fee is charged.