Sermon for March 15th, 2020

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Job 15:1-35 (OT p. 464)

Our scripture reading is a little longish today, so I'm actually going to intersperse it throughout the sermon. We're going to go through this chapter pretty thoroughly, so this would be a good one keep your Bibles open and follow along as we go. But first, let us pray...

The Book of Job: (Un)Hinged

After a week like this one, I think a little humor is in order. Since we're talking about becoming unhinged today...and hinges are are usually connected to doors...

  • Knock knock. Who's there? Broccoli. Broccoli who? Broccoli doesn't have a last name, silly.
  • Knock knock. Who's there? Tank. Tank who? You're welcome.
  • Knock knock. Who's there? The FBI. The FBI who? Listen buddy, we'll ask the questions here!
  • Knock knock. Who's there? Spell. Spell Who? Ok, W-H-O.
  • Knock knock. Who's there? To. To who? Actually, it's "to whom..."
  • Knock knock. Who's there? Control Freak. Control Fr--Ok, now you say control freak who!
  • Knock knock. Who's there? Broken pencil. Broken pencil who? Nevermind, there's no point.
  • Knock knock. Who's there? Amish. Amish who? No, you are not a shoe.
  • Ding Dong! Who's there? Wind. Wind who? When did we get a doorbell?

Speaking of wind, in the opening lines of our scripture passage today, Job's friend Eliphaz poses a question, in which he references the wind:

1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
2 “Should the wise answer with windy knowledge,
    and fill themselves with the east wind?
3 Should they argue in unprofitable talk,
    or in words with which they can do no good?

That's a great question--I'm tempted to tape it to the screen of my computer as a reminder to myself before I engage in any conversations on social media.

With these words, Eliphaz calls into question the usefulness of the entire conversation that Job and his three friends are now very deeply engaged in. Eliphaz began this conversation, back in chapter four, in an attempt to be helpful to his friend Job, who has suffered great tragedy. But Job is, understandably, inconsolable. Now, what began as words of grief and words of comfort, has escalated into a full blown, heated argument. I'm sure we can all think of times when our own well-intentioned words were not so well received by a friend in need, or when we ourselves have snapped, over-reacted to a friend who was just trying to help us.

What's really bothering Eliphaz here is the realization that his friend Job, in his grief and anguish, is starting to come unglued, untethered, unhinged--but in a dangerous way. It's the shocking irreverence of Job's words that draws his attention:

4 But you are doing away with the fear of God,
    and hindering meditation before God.
5 For your iniquity teaches your mouth,
    and you choose the tongue of the crafty.
6 Your own mouth condemns you, and not I;
    your own lips testify against you.

These may sound like harsh words to say to a grieving friend, but there's a fine line between comfort and concern. For example, if you were comforting a friend who had suffered a great tragedy, and your friend started talking about going out and buying a gun, threatening harm to himself or what point do you stop saying "It's okay to feel that way" and start saying "Hey wait a minute, we need to intervene, we need to get you help."

It might be hard for us to understand, but for Job's friends (and indeed for Job himself, before his tragedy) reverence for God is a life and death matter. Job has already expressed a desire to end his own life, but in last week's passage he went further, and turned his accusations against God--the equivalent, in the eyes of his friends, of pointing a loaded gun at the creator of the universe and threatening to harm the moral order that held all of their communities together. This is crazy talk. And so Eliphaz tries desperately to bring Job back from the brink:

7 “Are you the firstborn of the human race?
    Were you brought forth before the hills?
8 Have you listened in the council of God?
    And do you limit wisdom to yourself?
9 What do you know that we do not know?
    What do you understand that is not clear to us?
10 The gray-haired and the aged are on our side,
    those older than your father.
11 Are the consolations of God too small for you,
    or the word that deals gently with you?
12 Why does your heart carry you away,
    and why do your eyes flash,
13 so that you turn your spirit against God,
    and let such words go out of your mouth?

The reference to the gray-haired and aged is very important here, and it marks the key philosophical difference between Job and his friends. The Book of Job is part of an ancient Middle-Eastern genre of literature known as Wisdom Literature. Wisdom Literature is concerned with the questions, "What is wisdom, and where does it come from?" To that latter question, there are generally three different answers:

  1. Nature and the natural world -- In some ways this is the ancient forerunner of modern scientific observation and analysis. Job says in chapter 12, "speak to the earth and it will teach you, ask the birds of the air ... the plants of the earth, and they will tell you. Job and his friends agree on this source of wisdom. In just about every chapter, Job and his friends all point to examples from nature, plant life, animal life, weather patterns, to draw conclusions about the way things work.
  1. Tradition, or collective experience handed down through the generations -- this is the ancient forerunner of educational systems, the idea of teacher and student in an ongoing chain of accumulated knowledge. This is where the friends of Job place the bulk of their emphasis: "The gray-haired and the aged are on our side, those older than your father." We are speaking with the combined authority of all we have studied, all we have learned.
  1. Direct Revelation from God -- this is the realm of dreams and visions, God speaking to individuals from the heavens, or a burning bush, or these days, appearing in a piece of burnt toast. Also in our era, this would be listening to your inner voice, trusting your gut, your instinct, and finding God on your own terms. This source of wisdom is highly individualistic, and is definitely making a comeback in our era. It's also Job's philosophy: He appeals directly to God, and demands that God answer him directly. Job has little use for tradition, which puts him at odds with the philosophy of his friends.

Back to Eliphaz, who says to Job:

14 What are mortals, that they can be clean?
    Or those born of woman, that they can be righteous?
15 God puts no trust even in his holy ones,
    and the heavens are not clean in his sight;
16 how much less one who is abominable and corrupt,
   one who drinks iniquity like water!

True to his philosophy, Eliphaz is simply reiterating a very long-standing tradition in Judaism:

  • Psalm 8 - "What are mortals that you are mindful of them?"
  • Psalm 14 and 53 - "The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise . . .They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
  • Ecclesiastes 7:20 - Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.

And of course this tradition continues past Job into our own tradition, Christianity, where the Apostle Paul writes that "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." This is what we believe, too--no one is perfect, no one has it all together. That's why we say a prayer of confession every Sunday, and remind ourselves that we need God's mercy and grace.

But Job has been going on and on for several chapters about how blameless and righteous he is, and therefore how he doesn't deserve all that has happened to him. Eliphaz sets the record straight: Everyone misses the mark, Job, even you. But then Eliphaz shifts in his argument. Up to this point, he has been speaking directly to Job, criticizing Job's careless speech. But now he goes indirect. Now he begins to speak in broad terms about the fate of the wicked person. But first, he cites his authority--the combined wisdom of the ancients:

17 “I will show you; listen to me;
    what I have seen I will declare—
18 what sages have told,
    and their ancestors have not hidden,
19 to whom alone the land was given,
    and no stranger passed among them.

And then he launches into his diatribe, his soapbox, about the fate of the wicked person. Is he talking about Job (subtly, indirectly) or just wicked people in general? Judge for yourself:

20 The wicked writhe in pain all their days,
    through all the years that are laid up for the ruthless.
21 Terrifying sounds are in their ears;
    in prosperity the destroyer will come upon them.

This is coded language, here. It sounds on the surface like Eliphaz is saying that wicked people ARE writhing in pain, currently. Terrifying sounds ARE in their ears. But that's only because there's no future tense in the ancient Hebrew language. There's no past tense, either. Only present. You had to use context to figure out the tense. The clue here is the second half of verse 20: "through all the years that are laid up (or stored up) for the ruthless." And in verse 21, the NRSV translation helps you out by going ahead and translating what should read "the destroyer comes upon them" as "the destroyer will come upon them."

So basically, Eliphaz is painting a picture of some future day of judgment--which is also a thing in Ancient MIddle Eastern culture, and especially Jewish tradition. It is the יֹום יְהוָה (yom yhwh), the Day of the Lord. Sometimes it's also called the "age" or the "era" of the Lord, or, for those on the wrong side of the judgement, the "day of darkness." Eliphaz calls it exactly that in the next few verses:

22 They (the wicked) despair of returning from darkness,
    and they are destined for the sword.
23 They wander abroad for bread, saying, ‘Where is it?’
    They know that a day of darkness is ready at hand;

By the way, this is not the same thing as our modern notions of Heaven or Hell. That hadn't been invented yet. The Day of the Lord is something that ancient Middle Eastern people believed would happen on this earth--that both the living and the dead would stand before God to account for themselves and their actions. And, remember, they also believed that everyone was pretty much toast. So this is a fearful thing:

24 distress and anguish terrify them;
    they prevail against them, like a king prepared for battle.
25 Because they stretched out their hands against God,
    and bid defiance to the Almighty,
26 running stubbornly against him
    with a thick-bossed shield;

This is also an inevitable thing--trying to fight it or change it would be as useless as an earthly king charging into battle against the creator of the universe with only a shield and an outstretched hand. But the day of the Lord has a positive side, too. It wasn't just a day of darkness and destruction. It was also a day of justice--when the high and mighty would be brought low, and when the poor and those who suffer would be raised on high. Eliphaz seems more concerned with the high and mighty, the rich and the powerful...which is interesting, because that's probably exactly what he is, what all three of Job's friends are, and certainly what Job was before he lost everything.

27 because they have covered their faces with their fat,
    and gathered fat upon their loins,
28 they will live in desolate cities,
    in houses that no one should inhabit,
    houses destined to become heaps of ruins;
29 they will not be rich, and their wealth will not endure,
    nor will they strike root in the earth;
30 they will not escape from darkness;
    the flame will dry up their shoots,
    and their blossom will be swept away by the wind.

I don't think Eliphaz is judging or condemning Job. That wouldn't make any sense, because Job is no longer rich or powerful. If Eliphaz is judging anyone, it's himself and the other two friends, Bildad and Zophar. Perhaps Eliphaz is afraid of God's judgement, precisely because he has enjoyed so much. I think in a strange, convoluted way, he's offering hope to Job, who is suffering now...and therefore in the day of judgement will be lifted up, while Eliphaz is struck down (by the way--spolier alert--this is more or less exactly what happens at the end of the book, right?).

But then in verse 31, Eliphaz comes back to Job's issue, although still in an indirect, third person sort of way. Job has accused God of wrongdoing, and is in danger of rejecting God altogether. If you've already lost everything else, and you reject God, what do you have left?

31 Let them not trust in emptiness, deceiving themselves;
    for emptiness will be their recompense.
32 It will be paid in full before their time,
    and their branch will not be green.
33 They will shake off their unripe grape, like the vine,
    and cast off their blossoms, like the olive tree.
34 For the company of the godless is barren,
    and fire consumes the tents of bribery.
35 They conceive mischief and bring forth evil
    and their heart prepares deceit.”

I think Eliphaz, in his own special way, is telling his friend that "getting rid of God won't fill the void in your life, it won't bring back your possessions, your children, your health, or your happiness. It will just create another deeper emptiness. But all that emptiness within you might, just might, draw in some other things. It might create space for... mischief... bribery... evil... deceit.

I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon that today we'd be talking about hinges, and the expression "coming unhinged." Usually in modern speech, "unhinged" refers to someone who is mentally unstable, or deranged. Sometimes Job seems like that, but despite his grief, most of his points are at least coherent. They are radical, but not delusional.

There's an earlier definition of the word unhinged, though. It used to simply mean, a person who was disconnected. Someone detached from others, or from the things that used to hold them up. When you think about the function of a hinge, holding a door onto a wall, that definition makes a lot of sense.

What are your hinges? What are the things that hold you up, that connect you to what's important?

Eliphaz's door has two hinges: That wisdom is found in the traditions of our ancestors, and that God's justice always prevails. These two things are unassailable, even when they don't work out in our favor.

But some people--and I think Job might have been one of these people--don't like being bolted to anything. They see their hinges as restrictive, holding them back. It's worth remembering that a door without hinges is not a liberated door--it's just a wall. Or it falls down and becomes just a hole in the wall. A hinged door, on the other hand, even though it is limited, still has some freedom of movement. The door can swing both ways--from closed to open, from judgement to justice, from poverty to prosperity and back again.

Or maybe Job's hinges were different than his friend's. Maybe the things that kept Job hinged, connected, held together were his relationships...with his children, his employees, his God. Now he has lost all of those things, and all he really has left is one, little relationship hinge, upon which perhaps everything hangs: His three friends, and he's in danger of losing that, too, and becoming completely unhinged.

What are your hinges in this life? What are the things that hold you up, that connect you to what's important?