Just a Game
Have you seen the recent movies "The Matrix" or "EXistenze?" In these movies people confuse being in a game with reality? Even if you haven't seen these movies, you all know the story line. The plot is the same as that found in the 1939 movie "Wizard of Oz." Judy Garland, playing Dorothy, is caught up in a make-believe world she thinks is real. Friends, this is the plight of the Christian day in and day out in this fallen world.
The startling thing I'm saying is that the sickness, suffering and even death that the Christian lives with every day are not reality. I know what you're going to say. "Isn't this the error of the Christian Scientists and to some extent the Pentecostals? Don't they teach that sickness and suffering are not real? It's simply a mind over matter for the Christian Scientist. The Pentecostal, on the other hand, believes, if he has enough faith, he's really healed even though he can't see it. This is not what I'm saying.
I'm saying that sickness and suffering though actually with us daily aren't our reality. Scripture tells us these afflictions are but for a moment. They are things that we are passing through. We are but strangers here; heaven is our home. When you drive through Waco, you don't get caught up in the politics and public issues there because you don't live there. You're just passing through. The many tribulations we go through are only weigh points on the way to the kingdom of heaven.
The Christians reality is not sin, sickness, suffering. The Christians reality is life, health, forgiveness, and salvation. Yes, yes, I know. Death is at work in these bodies relentlessly. Sickness attacks these bodies in more ways than any of us can imagine, and we can't separate ourselves from our sins anymore than a leopard can separate itself from its spots. Death, wrath, and judgement hang heavily over us. Yet, I'm telling you these are just a game. They are not our reality. They are no more your reality than when you play computer games. You are not really flying, driving a car, or slaying monsters. Or for you non-computer people, when you play Monopoly you are not really the owner of railroads, utilities, or fancy hotels on Boardwalk. It's just a game.
But here's the rub. When you're in the midst of a game it feels real; it feels realer than reality. This is easy to illustrate for those of you who play computer games. Computer games or video games have gotten better at making you think you're really in them. Do you remember the old style ones at arcades? You would drive a car in a road race from outside the car. Then you could drive the car while looking through the windshield. Then you were able to not only look through the windshield but through the sides and back windows. Now you are able to feel the bump of the steering wheel as it goes over rough roads and feel the resistance of the turn as you make it.
Even if you've never played such games, I can still give you an idea of the point I'm trying to make. Girls play with Barbies, and they speak and move for them. They put themselves in the game. They look through the eyes of the Barbies. Boys do the same thing with army men or action figures. They get so wrapped up in the game that it's their reality for a brief time.
Now friend, when sickness and suffering come upon us, they become the only reality we know. Didn't you hear that in the Old Testament reading? All Job knows in the depths of his suffering are "months of futility and nights of misery." His "body is clothed with worms and scabs." His skin "is broken and festering." His days are flying by in this game of sickness and suffering "swifter than a weaver's shuttle." You can see this same thing in the Psalms. In the midst of sickness and suffering the Psalmist feels like God has forgotten to be merciful. God appears to be deaf in heaven, unable to hear prayers. God seems far off wrapped in a blanket of clouds that prayers can't get through. The psalmist feels forgotten.
You know these feelings, don't you? You've been in hospital rooms, sick rooms, funeral homes where the only reality you knew or felt was disease, death, and damnation? It didn't feel like a game when your loved one slipped away into death. You've been ill where it didn't feel like there was any other reality aside from the sickness you were in. All your senses, all your sensations seemed to testify to you that the only real things were you're sickness, your sins, your guilt, your decay.
Friends, that's what happens when you confuse the game with reality. A game can become so intense, feel so permanent, that there's nothing else besides it. It becomes your reality. Kids are oblivious to the sights and sounds of reality when caught up in dolls or army men. I'm oblivious to what is going on around me when I'm flying a computer mission. The only reality I know is what is pictured in front of me on that computer screen. I am, for the moment, living in the game, not in the real world. And that's what happens to us when we are caught up in sickness and suffering. Nothing seems real but that.
What's the solution? Play the game but live in reality. But first I have to convince you that the sickness and suffering you live with each day are really only a game. They are because these horrible things do not indicate God's real attitude towards you. Luther said that sickness and suffering an even cruel death itself where just God's way of playing with you. He said God was doing exactly like a father does who tosses his toddler up in the air only to catch him again. When the child is hanging their in the air, before the father catches him again, it feels scary; the child might even shriek. But that lasts only for a moment until the loving father catches the child safely in his strong arms.
Dear children God is but tossing you into the air for a moment when sickness and suffering and even death enters your life. These momentary things are but a game. They don't reflect God's real attitude toward you. Consider the Gospel reading. After an evening and night of healing people and casting out devils. Everyone was looking for Jesus to do more of the same. They had journeyed for miles with their sick, dying, demon tormented loved ones. Jesus could heal them, but Jesus leaves. Do you think that was because Jesus, love incarnate, had ceased to love them? Consider St. Paul's thorn in the flesh. Three times he prayed for the Lord to remove this painful "stake" in his body. The Lord didn't. Was that because God had forgotten to be gracious? No, on the contrary, the Lord assured Paul he indeed had His grace with that thorn and that was sufficient for him!
Shall I go on? Do you need more to convince you that when God allows sickness and suffering into your life He is only involving you in a game? Are you convinced he doesn't want you concluding that you're forsaken or under His wrath and judgement because of your sins? I think you need more. All right, consider Job. Did any man, other than Christ, suffer worse than he? All ten of his children died in a weather disaster. All of his property was stolen. He got deathly sick with a foul disease. Surely, God hates this man! Surely, God is punishing this man! Read Job chapters 1 and 2. God calls Job His servant, "blameless and upright." He boasts of Job to Satan. There is not an angry molecule in God towards Job. But if Job only looks at what is happening to him, if Job only looks at himself being thrown in the air, if Job only looks at the game, if Job considers the game reality, he must conclude that God hates him.
Dear sheep of the Good Shepherd. Our Lord tells us in both Old and New Testament that we're sheep counted for slaughter. But note, we don't cease to be sheep. We do not cease to be in the hands of the Good Shepherd. We do not cease to be under the care of the loving shepherd who gently tends His sheep. The slaughtering is part of the game. The reality is that we are sheep, and, therefore, goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever!
I know the game can be so real, so intense, that we are frightened, fearful, worried, and despairing. But dear children, dear sheep, we are assured of winning the game. When a loving father plays with his toddler, can he or she ever lose? Or to go back to the computer game analogy, haven't you ever played a game where it was set up for you to be indestructible? No matter what happens in the game you can't lose. That's how it is for us children of the heavenly Father.
Don't believe me? Doesn't Jesus say in John 10, "I give eternal life to My sheep, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.?" And doesn't St. Paul in Romans 8 enumerate what some of these things are that can't snatch us out of His hand? He says neither tribulation or distress, persecution or famine, peril or sword; neither death nor life, angels nor devils, nor anything in all creation is able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Yes, the fight is fierce; yes, the battle is so very long, but victory is assured. The outcome is never in doubt. That's why in the midst of the battle Paul could taunt death saying, "O death where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory?" The knowledge that he couldn't lose is what enabled Job to say "though worms destroy my skin yet I know that my Redeemer lives and I will see him again in my own body."
Still the game is so intense, so threatening at times, we feel certain we are going to lose to sickness and suffering, sin and Satan. It is like that with games. So sometimes you have to put the game on pause. You've got to step out of the game that seems so real and back into reality. This is so very crucial when you're talking about the game of sickness and suffering. Do you know where the pause button is for this game? Right here or wherever the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments administered.
Word and Sacrament bring you back to reality. The reality is that your sins are not lasting and permanent, but forgiven. The reality is that your aging, graying and decaying are not forever but for now, in the game. In reality you are new creatures full of light and life. The reality is that your Baptismal waters were not just plain water but a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. The reality is that the Holy Communion you eat and drink is not just bread and wine but the very Body and Blood Christ gave and shed on the cross for your sins. The reality is that He comes into the game to save you from it.
Now there's a picture worth hanging on to. In the movies where people get caught up in a game and can't get out, the game becomes their reality. Often someone leaves reality to come into the game to rescue them. Christ left the reality of heaven, where God reigns supreme and came into this world where Satan, sin, and suffering seem to rule. We saw that in the Gospel reading. Jesus came into the world and started pulling people out of the game of sickness, of demon possession, of sin. Jesus came and got you too. He defeated the monsters of sin, suffering and Satan, and pulled you safely into His kingdom where forgiveness and life reigns. Pause today and rejoice that this "Oz" of sin, suffering and Satan is just a game. Reality for you through Jesus is the kingdom of God where Words forgive sins, Water brings eternal life, and Bread and Wine bring you your Savior. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Epiphany V (2-6-00) Job 7:1-7