It is meant to be one of the essential offerings of the church: Bible study, an important opportunity to dive even further into the Word; not just to learn more about historical context of the time or the Hebrew and Greek language in which it was first written, but to find out how to apply the Scripture to our life. Now some Bible study groups look at random passages, some will focus on certain books, whether that be one of the Gospels or Paul's letters, but soon enough there will be this uncontrollable urge to dive into the Book of Job.
It is the story of a man who lost absolutely everything: property, crops, family...destroyed. Job feels as if he has no hope whatsoever to the point he wishes he was never born. How eerily similar the feelings for the families of those nine killed at a church in South Carolina last Wednesday night, the families who thought there was no reason for concern that their loved ones were going out that evening for Bible study. They would obviously come back home, even with a sense of renewed spirit after immersing themselves in the Good News. So there would be no need to worry about any disruptions of any sorts: just a routine weekly gathering with sisters and brothers in Christ at the local church.
We have done it here quite often at St. John's over the years, but never did we have to worry about someone walking through those front doors with an intention to do anything else but listen, share stories, and even laugh. Never did we fear someone coming in with a gun. Never did we have to wonder if we would finish the evening alive. Evidently these nine people did, as the pages of hope laid open before them only to have their own lives closed down by a rampage of bullets.
Who knows what verse grabbed their attention that night before the nightmare took over. But if at some point during their life that they did read through the book of Job, they would have also read the part of the story where his three friends tried to offer their own words of calm and assurance, while also putting all his heart-wrenching loss into perspective. And Job heard all the clichés of the human arsenal: "everything happens for a reason." "God has a plan for you." "This is meant for good." "God is teaching you something through this." And even at the time, Job was told in no uncertain terms, "you obviously did something wrong, and God is now unleashing your punishment." The worst part? Those very same explanations are still used to justify what happens in this world, including for a killing spree inside a church.
Nothing these nine people did warranted their heinous murder. God has no plan mapped out that includes killing people while engaging in a study of love and peace. What took place Wednesday night did not happen for a reason, other than despicable hatred took over. God did not send a white gunman into an overwhelmingly black church in order to test our reaction as a nation, in order to force the church to take on a greater role in the tension-filled dialogue of racism in this country. God did absolutely nothing of the sorts.
What God did inspire, what God did provoke, was what happened just down the street after the gunman fled the blood-filled scene; when a group of people across racial lines, across different socio-economic backgrounds, joined hands together. In spite of the hatred, in spite of the evil, in spite of all the violence that plagues this world, they finished what that Bible study group started: they prayed together. That was God at work. That was God bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the scene of a terrifying crime: that no matter how dark that night in South Carolina, no matter how piercing the pain, no matter how intense the suffering, the Resurrection, the triumph over death, the healing of our broken hearts cannot be taken away from us in Jesus Christ, our Savior.
The part we heard from the Book of Job this morning comes when God has simply had enough from all the people who think they have this world figured out, and can explain how everything happens through the divine will. God has had it, and so God reminded Job and all of us of the beginning when all was well with the world. But as the story goes, in due time, humanity unleashed a horror show filled with so much hatred, so much blame, so much awful behavior against one another, a completely appalling disregard to what God intended all along.
After all, the recent events in this country are obviously not what God had in mind. And it has inspired the slogan, "black lives matter," and they most certainly do to this God of all times and places; because, in the end, in the Kingdom of God, that was brought to reality through Jesus Christ, all lives matter incredibly deeply. Jesus died for them all: across all the races, across all the lands. In the eyes of God, nine African Americans did not die Wednesday night. Nine absolutely precious children of God were brutally murdered. And we can most certainly believe the shortest verse that any Bible study group can ever come across, "Jesus wept" (after his close friend Lazarus died), most certainly applied to those cherished lives that night. Jesus wept for them, for their family, for that town.
But every Bible study group must always come back to what makes it not just another book, but the Greatest News of all time: death cannot win, not even in the form of the most brutal violence. Only life can win the day. Only Jesus can ensure that those nine children of God will not be lost in vain, but will be guided along the still waters through the valley of the shadow of death into the Kingdom where all this hatred is completely and utterly destroyed and only the joy of everlasting life remains for the rest of eternity. God be with them all from death to life forevermore! Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Rev. Dennis Smith, Interim Pastor
Office: Tue - Fri: 9 a.m. - Noon