Sermon for February 25th, 2018
Job 1:1 - 2:13
Today's scripture reading is the entire first two chapters of the book of Job. Since it's a pretty long reading, I'm actually going to break it up and intersperse it with the sermon itself.
In my two decades of adult life on this earth, there are very few things I have stuck with for more than five years. College, for me, was five years. After college, I jumped back and forth between working as a public high school teacher and a church youth director, but did both of those things for a total of five years each. Then seminary, which was almost five years (if you count the summers on both ends of my four years there). Clearly, I don't know how to do anything longer than that.
So imagine my surprise (and fear) when I realized a few months ago I am now halfway through my sixth year as your pastor. I've now been a pastor longer than I was a teacher, longer than I was a youth director, an undergraduate student, a graduate student...longer than anything I've ever done, really.
And I found myself asking myself the question...what now? Is it time to move on to something else? To start over again? Because that's my pattern. That's what I'm used to. But I didn't really want to do that, and my family REALLY didn't want me to do that. I am right where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing.
But maybe there is something to five year cycles. When I look at the faces in our congregation today, we are clearly not the same people we were five years ago. There are a few of you who were here then, but not many. In many respects, we are an almost completely new congregation. And so I've come to see 2018--for me, and for you--as a year of starting over, starting fresh, going back to the beginning, back to the basics and the things I might say to you if you were walking into this sanctuary for the very first time...or if I were walking into this sanctuary for the very first time.
And for me (as some of you really DO know) there is no better place to start, no more foundational story, than that of the Book of Job--perhaps the most profound, poetic, and complicated book in all the world's sacred scriptures. In the past five years, I've preached on Job's friends, Job's wife, on the monsters in the Book of Job, on the prayers in the Book of Job, on truth, beauty and wisdom in the Book of Job. I could assume that by now, you (like me) are really familiar with the Book of Job.
But it's actually been a really, really, long time since I've actually preached about, you know, Job. The guy the book is named after. And about the other main character in the story, the God whom Job loves...and hates, both for good reasons. So this year is a "back to the basics" year for us, and for the Book of Job.
Twice in today's scripture reading, God asks the question, "Have you considered my servant Job?" And for the next four weeks, I invite you do do exactly that. If you've been around for longer than five years, I hope you can listen again with fresh ears--there's always something new to learn; and if you're new here, I hope you can listen with an open heart and mind to this timeless story of joy and sorrow, rejoicing and suffering, absurdity and wisdom; of the man who had everything...and lost everything, and in losing everything, gained more than he ever could have imagined.
Let's start at the very beginning, with chapter 1, verse 1.
1There was once a man in the land of Oz whose name was Job.
Let's stop here for a moment. The Book of Job begins with a classic storybook opening: "Once upon a time..." or "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." But is it really a story, told in narrative format like Genesis, or like the Gospels? If you turn the page in your bibles, you'll see that the narrative part actually ends with chapter two. Then there are thirty-nine chapters of poetry, dialogue, and philosophical speeches until the last chapter, chapter forty-two, where the narrative picks back up just in time for the happy ending. Except for those three chapters, Job is not like Genesis or Matthew.
The Book of Job actually belongs to the genre of writing known as "wisdom literature" along with Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. Wisdom literature, at the risk of sounding obvious, is primarily concerned with the pursuit of wisdom. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job all three attempt to answer, each in its own unique way, the question posed in Job 28:12--"But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?"
I have a theory that Proverbs is "Wisdom for Beginners," the Book of Job is "Intermediate Wisdom," and Ecclesiastes is "Advanced Wisdom for People Who Have Lived a Long Time." Obviously, I'm not prepared to teach you Ecclesiastes yet, so that will have to wait. But I'd like to give you a really quick crash course in Proverbs and then move on to the "Intermediate Wisdom" of the Book of Job. First, let's read a few more verses:
That man (Job) was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt-offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did.
Up to this point in the story, Job is the textbook model for the kind of wisdom we find in the book of Proverbs. Where shall wisdom be found? Proverbs 9:10 famously says that "The fear (obedience, respect) of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Throughout the book of Proverbs is the idea that the righteous will prosper and the wicked will be punished...not in the next life, but right here in this one. And so far, we see that principle at work in the Book of Job: Job fears the Lord, turns from evil, and in return, God has richly blessed him. Proverbs wisdom is as simple as A+B=C. Got it? Good, you've graduated! Let's move on to intermediate wisdom, where things get a little more complicated.
6 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ 8The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’ 9Then Satan answered the Lord, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? 10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.’ 12The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
Some rather sticky things to notice here: First, it is God who initiates this whole business, by saying "Have you considered my servant Job?" This is a little like when a teacher says to her class, "Have you all noticed what a super A+ student Johnny is?" High praise, but it usually doesn't turn out so well for Johnny on the playground later that day. Another sticky thing to notice: God says that Job is upright and blameless--in other words, God sees and acknowledges that Job is an innocent man! And then God proceeds to authorize everything that is about to happen to Job:
13 One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ 16While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ 17While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ 18While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ 20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. 21He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
I'm going to give you a spoiler alert here and tell you right now that eventually Job does charge God with wrongdoing, and who can blame him? Especially those of us who, as readers, see behind the curtain to the heavenly council where God and Satan seem to be casually tossing aside the lives of children, servants, and livestock, all in order to settle some cosmic bet. It's incomprehensible and absurd. But before we get stuck in that mess, I want us to focus on Job. Here's why:
Some day you will face a tragedy. Whether or not it's quite on the same scale as Job's tragedy, it will seem to you in that moment just as unbearable, just as incomprehensible and absurd. Maybe it has already happened to you. When your tragedy strikes, you will be tempted to ask the question, "What did I do to deserve this?" The answer is, you didn't. It's not your fault. Bad things happen to good people, to bad people, to rich people, poor people, young people, old people, and everyone in between. We can't control them, and most of the time we can't explain them either. The only thing that remains within our reach is how we respond. Job's response is worth looking at: Yes, Job does bless the name of the Lord, but that's not what I want to draw your attention to, because just a few chapters later Job gets pretty ticked off at God, too. Look before that, in verse 20: "Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped." I think "worshipped" is an ancient Hebrew word that is best translated as "cried his eyes out like a baby." When tragedy strikes, we react like human beings who hurt, who love, who feel real grief and loss. And that's Ok.
2:1One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ 3The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.’ 4Then Satan answered the Lord, ‘Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’ 6The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.’
Satan has a good argument here, and it's one that unfortunately is becoming more and more popular in our culture. The argument goes like this: What makes the world go round, the only reason any of us do anything, is self-interest. You worship God because either God has blessed you, or else you want God to bless you. Or you worship God because you want to go to heaven when you die. So in the end, it really is all about you. Even things that seem good, like giving to charity or helping someone--still self-interest: You like the feeling you get when you do something good, and that's why you do it. So you can feel good. All about you.
But God says, No. Job isn't like that. Job loves me for who I am, not what I give him, or what I do for him. Job loves me more than he loves all his possessions, more than he loves anyone else, even his family, even when he doesn't understand why I act the way I do. Job loves me unconditionally. Whether or not God is right about Job, this is an interesting perspective. Because isn't that exactly how we want to be loved? By others? By God? We want to be loved for who we are, not what we have, not what we can do. We want to be loved above all others, even if it seems like we don't deserve it, unconditionally. I can't explain God's actions--why he allows Job to go through all that. We'll come back to that question later in this series, but it's too big to address here. At the very least, however, even if we can't understand God, I hope we can identify with the desire to be loved unconditionally.
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9 Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ 10But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips. 11 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They met together to go and console and comfort him. 12When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. 13They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.
Job's wife and his three friends tend to get a bad rap in most interpretations of the Book of Job. I prefer to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, Job's wife has lost everything that he has. Job criticizes her "foolish speech," but his own foolish speech gets him in trouble with God in chapter thirty-eight. And for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, Job's wife sticks with him right up to the very end of the story.
We tend to remember the friends for their long-winded and somewhat condescending speeches later in the book, but notice that before they ever open their mouths, they sit with him on the ground in silence for seven days and nights. When's the last time you did that for a friend? Job's friends and Job's wife are all reminders of how incredibly blessed he is, even in his worst moments.
But if we stop to think about it, we are incredibly blessed as well. If you live in a house with multiple bedrooms, have one or more cars in the garage, and eat three meals a day (sometimes super-sized ones), and live within 20 minutes of a fully equipped hospital emergency room... then you are among the wealthiest people in the world today. We are Job at the beginning of chapter one.
We are not immune to tragedy, and some of you have already experienced more than your fair share of that. We can't control when tragedy strikes. But no matter how hard we try, how hard we pray, or whatever silent bargains we strike with God, we can't control how long our blessings last, either. Our health, our children, our possessions, our wealth. But we can do one thing. While they last, we can share them. Not just our resources, but also our time, our skills and talents, our friendship, our compassion.
Job, in reflecting on his past, tells us in chapter 29, "I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger." And then he became all of these things (blind, lame, needy, a stranger), and had to rely upon the help of others.
My prayer for you today is not that you might live a life free from tragedy. My prayer is that as you live your life, as you make your way through this world, that you might remember all of those with whom you share it--those who have much and those who have little; those who are healthy and those who are sick; those who rejoice as well as those who grieve; those who have love to give in abundance, and those who desperately yearn to be loved unconditionally.
My prayer for you is that whatever road you walk, you may never walk alone. And may you never allow any of God's children to walk alone, either.