This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.
“Vicar,” you ask, “why the heck are you reciting some lines from a Christmas carol in Lent? The time for that was months ago. What’s the big idea?”
Well, I’m not going to preach on Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber’s Christmas hymn, but I do want to think about the idea of sleeping in heavenly peace. Apparently the baby Jesus got to if this 19th Century carol is to be believed (though I imagine that a cattle shed is not terribly conducive to a peaceful first night, but what do I know?), but can we ever experience such a sleep? How many of us have a tough time even getting normal sleep at night? [Show of hands.] I know I often do. I ruined my sleep schedule in graduate school with a potent combination of late nights, early mornings, and massive quantities of caffeine. And though I’ve tried getting back on track, I often find myself up and awake at 2 AM. Sometimes I find myself awake with racing thoughts, other times it’s a leg cramp. Sometimes it’s just too warm in the bed. Maybe you have the same troubles sometimes. Maybe you have trouble falling asleep because you keep hearing every little noise at night, or your mattress doesn’t support you properly, or your pillow cocks your head at a weird angle, and your neck and body start to ache. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night with the dog’s foot jammed in your throat and can’t fall back to sleep. It happens.
And of course, making it harder to sleep, we now have screens in bed. Our phones and tablets are constantly by our sides, and if what sleep scientists say is correct, the blue light generated by those screens keeps us awake by stimulating our brains to produce cortisol, which our brains use to feed our wakefulness. It makes it harder for us to get our minds turned off so we can actually fall asleep and sleep through the night. It seems we don’t necessarily get to sleep in a lot of peace any more, let alone in heavenly peace.
Which leads to our main reading tonight from the book of Job. Job was not at peace, not at all. He was the unwitting subject of a wager between God and Satan— God had held up Job as the prime example of a blameless and faithful servant, and Satan bet God that, were God to allow him to oppress Job, Job would curse God and sin against him because Satan believed that Job feared God not because of God’s righteousness, but because God had blessed Job with many things and a good life. “Job’s only worshiping you in order to get stuff!” was the thrust of Satan’s argument. God, knowing that this was not the case, took up the wager and allowed Satan to harass Job and his family. At this point in the book, Job has still proven that he worships and fears God and has not sinned in anything he has said (though he will overstep himself later when trying to justify himself before God). But here, Job is lamenting his estate. His children are dead, his land in ruins, his livestock dead or carried off by bandits, and his body wracked by boils and illness. He just wants his suffering to end— he doesn’t know why it’s happened, but he cries out to God, asking God to leave off his suffering and to show him his offense. He cries out,
11 “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
12 Am I the sea, or a sea monster,
that you set a guard over me?
13 When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,’
14 then you scare me with dreams
and terrify me with visions,
15 so that I would choose strangling
and death rather than my bones.
16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. (7:11-16, ESV)
Job cannot find temporal rest for his afflictions. He thinks that his suffering will end when he lays down to sleep, that he may find some rest from his suffering. But he does not find any. Though he is a righteous man in the eyes of God, he is still subject to the dangers of living in a sinful world ruled by Satan. Why can he not find any rest? Why is his sleep tormented, and why does God allow it? Why can he not find temporal peace even though he fears God?
This is a question we often ask ourselves— why does God allow suffering? Why does God allow us to experience pain and tragedy and fear? Why are we beset day after day by physical and spiritual pains and assaults? Why are we subject to illness and pain and death? Why are people constantly under the threat of war and economic distress? Does God care? Is he with us? Why can’t we find peace? Why do we not experience this “heavenly” peace? Why do we still feel the sting of sin in the world and in our own flesh? Why do we still sin? Why hasn’t God taken all that away?
Of course, we’ll never get the answer we want to this question. God is God. You are not. (Read your Bible, read it a lot–you’ll often hear Dr. Joel Okamoto say this at Concordia Seminary.) When we ask the question “why” with regard to suffering, we seek to try to know something that God has not told us. We seek to understand his hidden will, what Luther calls the Deus absconditus or “hidden God.” And when we do that, we start projecting ideas of what we think God is like onto him. We make him look the way we want him to. And it’s very easy to create an image of God that is merely based on one of his attributes— his justice or his all-goodness or his wrath or his divine love. Of course, that’s not God— it’s a terrible idol based on him. This is the pitfall Job himself eventually falls into when he begins to fear that his death is imminent (it’s not). He sees God in his justice and his wrath, and comes to believe that what God has been putting him through is unjust and that God himself is not treating him the way a just God should. He asserts his innocence and says that he does not deserve the lot he has been given.
But in his anger and pain, Job fails to fully realize that even in suffering one should trust in God’s mercy, because God is indeed merciful and has said so. God is God, Job is not, and when in the midst of suffering, Job should trust God and draw near to him rather than curse him. Job cannot see the whole of God’s plan. In his limited frame of reference, Job cannot see how God works all things to his good purpose, and that rather than try to rationalize what God is doing (like Job’s friends who try to “help” him)— saying that God must be doing x for y reason— Job should trust God in his wisdom. This is what God desires of his children and what Job ultimately learns. God rules an immense creation full of beauty and complexity far beyond the ken of mortal man, and though suffering is now part of the fabric of this creation due to mankind’s sin, God is still in control of all of it. And Job learns that God is still gracious and merciful, even when we don’t necessarily perceive it, so we should trust him when the sinful world starts bearing down on us, when we cannot find rest from our afflictions, when we ourselves struggle with our sins. He is not like other gods who are fickle and capricious, who will, on a whim, abandon those who call on them to destruction. He will ultimately bring those who trust and fear him rest and peace, and even if that peace is not physically experienced in this life, those who trust him can rest knowing that they will experience it with him.
King David understood this, that God delivers those who trust and fear him and gives them peace in their suffering. He writes in Psalm 4:
1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
7 You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4, ESV)
David trusts God’s purposes without seeking to understand his ways. He knows that if he trusts in God and relies upon his mercy, God will deliver him. And we have that greater assurance now in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We can look to the cross and see God at work. We can see his mercy. We do not have to try to divine the work of the “hidden God” here— here is God revealed to us (the Deus revelatus), his love for us shown to us most plainly in its starkness here. Job hints at this (“I know that my Redeemer lives”), but now we see the finished work. For God so loved us that he took on human flesh, lived the sinless life we could not, and then died in our stead, taking all of our sin and its punishment upon himself here. Knowing this, seeing this, you and I need not despair or fear those nights when we can find no rest or peace. On the cross, God draws near to us and forgives all our sins and takes away their consequence. Here, he gives us something to trust in— himself! When we trust in his work, we know that we can indeed lie down and sleep in peace, because even though the world rages around us and sin may harass us, the Lord ultimately keeps us safe and delivers us from them. He rescues us when we call on him, though we may need to deal with the world for a while. It is he who ultimately makes us to dwell in safety. And if our consciences are burdened with guilt and our sins convict us, he invites us to run to him and confess our sins. He will restore us. Trusting in that in spite of what the world and our sinful flesh tell us, as his redeemed and trusting children, he does make us to lie down and sleep in heavenly peace.