This past Saturday I was honored to speak at the funeral of one of the most beautiful people I have ever known, Sylvia Chapman. Sylvia loved the Smoky Mountains, and so I decided to center my remarks around the theme of God’s presence with us during times we may otherwise feel alone. Kristi and I will miss Sylvia very much.
Sylvia’s love for the mountains is well known. In the mid 1970s the family bought a place up in Gatlinburg, and many of you here today have been to that cabin. Sylvia was gracious enough to allow my wife and me to stay there this past spring. It will be no surprise to you that in our last conversation, one of the things Sylvia talked about was Gatlinburg.
Many people feel the same way about nature that Sylvia did. Its sheer beauty, its delicate order, its enormous scope, all point to the glory of God the creator. Most of us feel closer to God when we are surrounded by the wonders of creation.
In Scripture, though, the rugged hill country of Palestine that resembles the Smoky Mountains often suggested something different. These regions were sparsely populated, inhabited primarily by wild animals. If there was any place that seemed deserted by God, it was the mountains.
This is why the LORD asks Job in the climax of the book, “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” (Job 39:1). The implied answer is, no, Job doesn’t know much about the mountain goats because of their reclusive habitat.
A few verses later God says that the wild donkey “scorns the tumult of the city; he hears not the shouts of the driver. He ranges the mountains as his pasture, and he searches after every green thing” (39:7-8). The wild donkey has to forage for food up in the mountains because there are no people there to feed him. The same is true of the eagle, who spies out his prey from “his nest on high,” “on the rocky crag and stronghold” (39:28-29).
Why is it that this list of animals focuses on wild animals, animals that nobody cares for, animals that in many instances live so far up into the mountains that they are inaccessible to men? Because there is someone in the book who feels just liked one of these animals, deserted and left to fend for himself – Job. In 30:29 he says, “I am a brother of jackals and a companion of ostriches” (two more animals associated in Scripture with desolation and abandonment).
So what is God’s point in rehearsing this litany of wild animals to Job? Job can’t see them, they dwell unobserved by man, and yet they are being fed. And who is feeding them? God. God provides food for all of these animals. Job can’t see that happening because of his limited vision, but God’s work is not limited to what Job can see. And if God is taking care of the wild animals, the animals that Job may think are forsaken, then guess who else God is taking care of – even though he thinks he is discarded by God? Job.
Isn’t this the very same point Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount, when He said:
Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? (Matthew 6:26-30)
In the midst of suffering, it is easy to feel like a wild animal, left to fend for itself, unknown and unloved by God. But our vision is narrow and incomplete. The LORD reassured Job that although the wild animals that roam the mountains are untended by man, they are cared for by the Creator. And when we feel isolated and alone in our suffering, we are just as surely still in the care of our God, if only we open our eye of faith to see Him. That’s how Job ends, right? “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).
So many of you have commented on the resolve with which Sylvia faced her illness. Maybe the reason she possessed such steadfast strength was all those trips to the mountains, all those occasions where she could see God caring for animals in the wild. Sometimes, she got too close a look – when bears would come in the front yard! But high in those hills in Tennessee she was surrounded by testimony to God’s providence. She could see firsthand the same truth God pointed out to Job long ago.
And our hope is that last Friday, she could say with Job, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”