Sermon for April 2nd, 2017
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.
Job's Final Prayer
When Ellen Nelson made this stole for me a few years ago, she said that every letter of every word of every sermon I would ever write is right here on the stole. All I have to do is put them in the right order. And with God's help, that's what I hope I've been doing. I'm wearing this stole today because today's sermon is the 200th sermon I've had the honor of preaching for you, and I want to express my gratitude to you all for listening so attentively, for laughing at some pretty lame jokes, for letting me sometimes push you past the limits of your comfort zone, for your encouragement, your constructive criticism, and most of all for your faithfulness as together we have explored what it means to be intelligent students of the Bible, and compassionate members of this faith community.
For the past few weeks, we've been swimming in the deep waters of suffering and agony in the Book of Job, exploring in particular Job's rather tortured prayers and what we can learn from them. And today, we finally breathe a sigh of relief--Job gets his life back again! Job lives happily ever after!
That's what we really like to hear, isn't it? That's what we somehow need to hear. It's the Fairy-Tale, Sugar-coated, Disney-inspired Happy Ending! But I think we should take it with a grain of salt. If we read the first two chapters of Job, then skip to the last two chapters too quickly, we miss the point of the book (kind of like coming to church on Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus, then coming again on Easter to celebrate his resurrection, but skipping all that unpleasant stuff in between--his teaching, his suffering, and the sacrifice of his life on the cross).
The point of the Book of Job is not "Be patient and persevere when bad things happen, and then eventually you'll get everything back and more." Job, after the first two chapters, is not patient. Job does not persevere. In fact, he gives up on God altogether; he turns and walks away. And in the end, God does not reward Job or restore his fortunes "because" of his faithfulness any more than God took these things away in the first place "because" of Job's faithfulness or any perceived lack of it. God does what God does. Sometimes good things happen; sometimes bad things happen; sometimes good things happen again. And not always in that order. There is unfathomable mystery in the workings of the Universe and its Creator. True wisdom, and possibly the true point of Job's story, is knowing when and how far to push those heavenly limits, and when to embrace and accept our own.
That doesn't mean, however, that we can't still learn a few things from Job's story, especially when it comes to prayer. And here in the last chapter of the Book of Job, we find (once again) Job praying. So instead of asking WHY God does the things God does, today I want to look more closely at WHAT God does when we pray, WHEN God does it, and HOW.
But first I want to look at something Job does when he prays, something which apparently his friends have not done.
In most interpretations of this story that I've heard, Job's friends get a bad rap. They are painted as evil, backstabbing, condescending accusers, blaming Job for somehow bringing all his suffering upon himself. I think they get that reputation from people who skip to the end of the story and read God's words in verse 7: "After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: 'My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.'" Reading this, we naturally assume that if God says this, they must be the bad guys. And so we paint caricatures of them in our heads.
But if you actually read the words of Job's friends, they don't say anything outrageous or outside the boundaries of what we would call acceptable theology. They're really just quoting the book of Proverbs at Job. Job is the one saying all the outrageous things, all the borderline blasphemous things, shaking his fist in anger at the creator of the universe.
So why, in the end, does God say Job has spoken rightly about him, and the friends have spoken wrongly? Well, I think it all hinges on a preposition. Yes, I said preposition, not proposition! Remember your elementary grammar here--a preposition is usually a tiny, insignificant word that indicates a relationship between two other words: In, at, to, for, up, over, with, around, above, about...
Only prepositions aren't nearly as insignificant as we sometimes think.
The preposition in question here is the word "of." You have not spoken "of" me what is right, but Job has. Some English translations use "about." Either way, I think they're bad translations. They imply that the theological content of Job's angry words about God is correct, while the theologically grounded and well-established content of his friends' words is incorrect. And really, it's the opposite.
While I was sitting in the coffee shop writing this sermon, Ben Zeidman, the Rabbi of Temple Mount Sinai Synagogue came in and sat down right next to me, working on his message (a sign from God!). He's a great guy; we chatted and caught up some, and then I pulled out my Hebrew text of Job 42:7 and asked him to translate that preposition for me. It's the Hebrew word אֵלַ֛י (eli), and thankfully, the Rabbi confirmed my hunch (also the hunch of my Hebrew Professor in Seminary, Dr. C. L. Seow). That word *can* be translated as "about me" ... but it can also be translated as "to me" ... if you take that approach, it changes everything, and in many ways puts the entire Book of Job into a better perspective.
The problem with Job's friends wasn't the content of their words, it was the direction in which they were speaking. They were saying great, and true things "about" God, but Job was the only one speaking "to" God. "You have not spoken rightly TO me, as my servant Job has." What is speaking TO God? It's what we call prayer. While Job's friends were busy preaching, Job was busy praying. (And the priority of those two things is not lost on me)! When you pray, don't be worried so much about WHAT you are saying--God doesn't care so much whether your words are wrong or right, polite or angry, foolish or wise. God cares far more about the conversation--the fact that you are actually directing your heartfelt words to him, engaging in dialogue with him.
See what a difference a little insignificant preposition can make?
I do want to move on and look at the rest of the passage. I promised earlier that, instead of trying to understand WHY God does certain things, we'd look at WHAT God does, and WHEN.
The WHAT is pretty obvious. God restores Job's good fortunes. In fact, it's so obvious and over the top that we usually ignore the rest. But it might be important to note exactly WHEN God does this. It's in verse 10: "And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job WHEN he had prayed for his friends." This shouldn't be too surprising--Job's story began with his daily prayer for others, specifically for his children.
During Job's suffering and grief, most of his prayers were focused on himself, and that's very understandable. But it's also remarkable that when Job finally emerges from his long night of the soul, when he finally turns his attention and his prayers once again to the needs of those around him...that's precisely the point at which God restores his fortunes. It may not be "cause and effect" but I do think there's some kind of connection here.
The next question is HOW does God do that? Miraculously, of course! Poof! Everything just appears out of thin air, children, livestock and all! Well, not exactly. God most often works in our lives through the compassion and generosity of those whom he calls to be his hands and feet in the world. We read in verse 11 that "there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring."
I find it fascinating that the narrator of this story, like Job himself, actually attributes both the good AND the evil to God. The actual implementation of that evil comes from both human hands (the Sabean raiders that killed Job's livestock and his servants) and from natural causes (the windstorm that killed his children and the disease that afflicted his body). But the implementation of the good comes solely from human hands--Job's relatives and his friends, his community.
And that's a great place for any story to end--with community. It's the one thing that, throughout the entire story, Job never lost. In his most desperate moments, he was still surrounded by his three closest friends. And now in his restoration, he is surrounded and helped by the larger community of those who know and love him. They show up, they comfort and encourage him, they share with him from their own resources to help him get back on his feet, and they sit down at a table and break bread together. You know what we call that? Church. Because those are all the things God calls us to do for each other in our time of need. We show up. We comfort and encourage each other. We share with each other from our own resources to help those who need help. We gather around a common table and we break bread together.
We'll come back to the table in just a moment, but since this has been a sermon series on prayer, I want to close with one final reflection on prayer--it's not from me, and it's not even from the book of Job. It's a poem by an early 19th century American poet by the name of Sam Walter Foss. I don't know for sure, but I'm convinced he must have read the book of Job. The poem is called "Cyrus Brown's Prayer."
“The proper way for man to pray,” Said Deacon Lemuel Keyes, “And the only proper attitude, Is down upon his knees.” “No, I should say the way to pray,” Said Reverend Dr. Wise, “Is standing straight with outstretched arms, And rapt and upturned eyes.” “Oh, no, no, no!” said Elder Slow, “Such posture is too proud; A man should pray with eyes fast closed, And head contritely bowed.” “It seems to me his hands should be Austerely clasped in front. With both thumbs pointing toward the ground,” Said Reverend Dr. Blunt. “Las’ year I fell in Hodgkin’s well Head first,” said Cyrus Brown. “With both my heels a-stickin’ up, My head a-pointin’ down; “An’ I made a prayer right then and there; best prayer I ever said. The prayin’est prayer I ever prayed, a standin’ on my head.”
People of First Presbyterian Church, whether your prayers are right-side up or upside down, may they always reach their destination, and may your conversations with the Lord and Creator of the Universe guide you and sustain you throughout your lives.