Sermon for April 3rd, 2022

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Job 22:1-30

1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
2 “Can a mortal be of use to God?
    Can even the wisest be of service to him?
3 Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are righteous,
    or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?
4 Is it for your piety that he reproves you,
    and enters into judgment with you?
5 Is not your wickedness great?
    There is no end to your iniquities.
6 For you have exacted pledges from your family for no reason,
    and stripped the naked of their clothing.
7 You have given no water to the weary to drink,
    and you have withheld bread from the hungry.
8 The powerful possess the land,
    and the favored live in it.
9 You have sent widows away empty-handed,
    and the arms of the orphans you have crushed.
10 Therefore snares are around you,
    and sudden terror overwhelms you,
11 or darkness so that you cannot see;
    a flood of water covers you.

12 “Is not God high in the heavens?
    See the highest stars, how lofty they are!
13 Therefore you say, ‘What does God know?
    Can he judge through the deep darkness?
14 Thick clouds enwrap him, so that he does not see,
    and he walks on the dome of heaven.’
15 Will you keep to the old way
    that the wicked have trod?
16 They were snatched away before their time;
    their foundation was washed away by a flood.
17 They said to God, ‘Leave us alone,’
    and ‘What can the Almighty do to us?’
18 Yet he filled their houses with good things—
    but the plans of the wicked are repugnant to me.
19 The righteous see it and are glad;
    the innocent laugh them to scorn,
20 saying, ‘Surely our adversaries are cut off,
    and what they left, the fire has consumed.’

21 “Agree with God, and be at peace;
    in this way good will come to you.
22 Receive instruction from his mouth,
    and lay up his words in your heart.
23 If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored,
    if you remove unrighteousness from your tents,
24 if you treat gold like dust,
    and gold of Ophir like the stones of the torrent-bed,
25 and if the Almighty is your gold
    and your precious silver,
26 then you will delight yourself in the Almighty,
    and lift up your face to God.
27 You will pray to him, and he will hear you,
    and you will pay your vows.
28 You will decide on a matter, and it will be established for you,
    and light will shine on your ways.
29 When others are humiliated, you say it is pride;
    for he saves the humble.
30 He will deliver even those who are guilty;
    they will escape because of the cleanness of your hands.”

Other Voices in the Book of Job: Eliphaz

For the season of lent we're studying the Book of Job, and we're giving Job's friends a closer look, listening to their words, and giving them the benefit of the doubt as true friends and comforters. Since we're also talking about friendship, I have a story to share.

As many of you know, my mother was in the Army, so when I was in the third grade, our family moved overseas to Belgium, where she was stationed. My parents enrolled me in the local Belgian school, which was a French-speaking school. I didn't speak a word of French. It was a scary, lonely, isolated time for me, except for one bright spot: There was another American student from a military family enrolled in the school. Her name was Mari. For about two months, Mari translated for me; I clung to her words (and her friendship) gratefully. And then one day, out on the playground, Mari came up to me and said, "You're not learning French this way. Not only am I NOT going to translate for you anymore, I'm not even going to speak to you in English anymore either."

I was devastated. I was angry. What kind of unsupportive friend says something like that? What kind of friend abandons you in a strange place among strange people? Well, as it turns out, a pretty good one. It didn't take me long to learn fluent French after that, and when I did, I made plenty of friends--many of whom I'm still in touch with today. But at the time, Mari's words were far from comforting, and I judged them pretty harshly.

As I have noted in the past few weeks, we tend to do the same with Job's friends. This week we come to friend number three, Eliphaz. And Eliphaz is the first of Job's friends to do something different, something unexpected, something dangerous... something that Zophar and Bildad avoided very carefully. They talked to Job in general terms about wicked people and what would happen to them. But Eliphaz takes it just one step further.

Job has been saying over and over again, through several chapters, that he is innocent, blameless and righteous before God. And that's why Job can't understand how God could possibly allow all these bad things to happen to him. But Eliphaz--and remember that this conversation has been going on for 20 chapters now, and is getting exasperating for everyone--Eliphaz finally cuts in and says, in effect: "Job, you're not exactly a saint."

He goes on to accuse Job of a laundry list of things in verses 6-9, most of which are related to Job's relationships with his family, his management of his wealth, and his failure to help people as much as he could. Ouch! What a friend, huh?

Biblical scholars have tended to read these accusations through the lens of God's words in the beginning of the story, that Job is "blameless and upright." If God himself said that Job is "blameless" then Eliphaz must be lying, right? Job couldn't possibly be guilty of these things. That word translated as "blameless" in Hebrew is the word תָּם (tam). Sometimes it can mean innocent, or free from guilt. But just as often, it can mean things like "peaceful" or "pleasing" or "complete." In Genesis, Jacob is described as תָּם (tam) but there the NRSV bible translates that same word as "quiet." Jacob was a quiet man.

I don't think Eliphaz is making up a list of false accusations about his friend. What reason would he have to do that, in the presence of two other people who know Job just as well as he does. I don't think he's even saying that Job is an entirely "bad man". But for most of his life, Job (like his three friends) has been lucky, fortunate, blessed with great wealth and privilege. You know, kind of like most of us who live in America today.

Let's try something: Raise your hand if you have always, at every opportunity, done everything you possibly can to help the people around you--or if you have given absolutely everything you could, of your time, your money, your property, to help the poor in the world? Yeah, me neither. Now raise your hand if you probably could have done just a little bit more, a little bit better. Yeah, me too.

Job may be, on the whole, righteous, but he isn't blameless...because no one is, not completely. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this in his letter to the Romans when he says that all have sinned, and therefore fall short of the glory of God. We all miss the mark sometimes; we all fail in some ways; we all need God's grace and forgiveness.

Why does Eliphaz remind Job of his shortcomings in the middle of his suffering? Why would a friend do that? Because Job is completely hung up, stuck on this idea that bad things shouldn't happen to good people, unless God is in fact a bad God. And so Eliphaz says, in effect, "Wait a minute, Job--there are no perfectly good people. If God is truly good, then we all deserve a whole lot worse than we usually get." Or maybe Eliphaz is saying "these things are not connected in the way that you think they are."

Just like my friend Mari, in the story I shared with you at the beginning of the sermon, Eliphaz is delivering a harsh truth to his friend, in order to jar him out of a pattern that is clearly not helping him. Thankfully, like a good friend, Eliphaz doesn't stop there.

In the second part of his speech, beginning in verse 12, he turns Job's focus away from himself, away from his suffering, and upward, to God in the heavens. "Look at the highest stars, how lofty they are." For Job, that means God is far away, distant. But Eliphaz reminds him that even those who run from God, who say to God "leave us alone," -- God still "filled their houses with good things."

Jesus said something very similar in the gospel of Matthew. He said that God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good; God sends rain to the just and the unjust. This is profound wisdom: God doesn't give us good things because we're so good--nor does God withhold from us things we need just because we've been so bad. I'm actually pretty grateful for that fact. Yes, wickedness and evil bring about their own consequences--in this world or the next--but our job is simply to do the best we can with what we've been given, and then to trust in God's grace and love when we fall short.

Eliphaz brings his message home in verse 21 by reminding Job that what he's really seeking is not justice for all his losses, but peace for all his sorrow. And peace comes from acceptance: "Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you." What follows after that is a list of promises: If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored." (By the way this is prophetic, and exactly what happens at the end of the book).

If you pray to him, he will hear you. You will decide on a matter . . . and light will shine on your ways . . . because he saves the humble, and he will deliver even those who are guilty." That's probably the most hopeful, all-inclusive, and all-encompassing statement on God's mercy and forgiveness in all of the Old Testament.

May all of us be so lucky to have a friend like Eliphaz. And in our darkest moments, may God give us the wisdom and the courage to listen, to hear, and to be at peace..