Sermon for March 26th, 2017
1 And the Lord said to Job: 2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” 3 Then Job answered the Lord: 4 “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. 5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” 6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 7 “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. 8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
1 Then Job answered the Lord: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job's Prayer of Repentance
Larry the painter would often water down his paint to make it go further. One day, the church in Larry's neighborhood decided they were in need of a new paint job for the exterior of the church. They put out a request for bids, and Larry, being the low bidder, got the job. As always, he thinned down his paint with turpentine in order to keep his costs low.
Larry had almost finished the job, and was up on some scaffolding, when he heard a horrendous clap of thunder, and the sky opened up and the rain began to pour down. The thinned-out paint washed right off the church walls. Just then, a strong gust of wind blew Larry right off the scaffolding and landed him in the church courtyard, at the foot of the cross, in a puddle of thinned out, worthless paint.
Larry knew that this was a warning from the Almighty, so he got on his knees and cried: "Oh God! Forgive me! What should do?"
And from the thunder spoke a mighty voice: "REPAINT! REPAINT AND THIN NO MORE!"
Today we are examining Job's prayer of repentance in chapter 40 and 42. I'm calling it a prayer of repentance, because that word, "repent" actually appears in the final line of the prayer. But before we jump into the text, it might be helpful to understand what exactly we mean when we say "repent."
In English, the word repent comes from Latin by way of French, and is closely connected to the word "penance." Doing penance is the act of making something (that was wrong) right again.
In the New Testament, whenever we come across the word repent, it's a translation of the Greek word μετάνοια. Meta means around, and Noos or Noia is one's conscious mind. Incidentally, the word paranoid is related--para means irregular, so an irregular mind). So a "Meta-noid" is a changed mind. To repent in this sense is to change one's mind.
But in the Old Testament, the word we translate as repent is נָחַם (naham) and it means to be sorry, to grieve, to comfort/console one's self.
Hopefully you can see how all three of these senses of the word are related, but also distinct.
It also might help us understand why Job, after 30 chapters of insisting that he is innocent, that he is being unjustly punished, suddenly out of nowhere, says, "Just kidding, I was wrong. I'm sorry. I stand corrected." If you've been paying attention to the deep, heartfelt cries, to Job's anger and bitterness at his situation and at his God, this seems almost out of character for Job. It just doesn't fit.
Unless you read closely, of course.
First some background. Job's prayer of repentance begins in chapter 40, but God actually showed up in a whirlwind two chapters ago, in chapter 38, and has had quite a few things to say to Job, before allowing Job to respond. Before that, for thirty long chapters, Job has been doing three things: Blaming God for his situation, protesting his innocence, and demanding an audience with God.
On the first point--Job has been blaming God for his situation, for his suffering and loss--God does not defend himself, or for that matter even deny that he is, in fact, the cause of all Job's grief and suffering.
On the second point--Job has been protesting his innocence--God does not argue with Job here either. In the very first chapter and in the very last chapter, God declares Job to be blameless, and nothing God or Job says in between indicates anything different. So if Job says he's innocent, and God says Job is innocent, why does Job repent? More on that later.
But on the third point--Job's demand for an audience with God--that's the one point where something different happens. For 36 chapters, God was silent. Now God speaks, granting Job's request. So what has changed since the last time Job spoke and the beginning of his prayer of repentance? He's had a face to face encounter with the Divine Creator of the Universe, that's all.
A couple of weeks ago, during Spring Break, I took some time off to go camping by myself up in the Franklin Mountains. Grady was on a trip somewhere else with the scouts, and I'm grateful to Amy for watching Jonah and Abby so I could do this. My intent was to get away for awhile, do some studying, and do some sermon planning for the coming year. That didn't happen. What did happen, however, was one of those encounters with the Divine Creator of the Universe.
Jesus went into the wilderness fasting and praying for 40 days and 40 nights. Job grieved and fasted in the wilderness for 40 chapters. I'm not nearly as blameless as either of those two, so I only attempted 4 days and nights in the wilderness. I didn't exactly fast, but I sure at a lot less than I usually do in a typical week of American super-sized fast food meals, potluck lunches and pizza dinners.
I did spend time praying and thinking, but mostly I listened. For most of the week I turned off my cell phone and my devices, didn't check my facebook profile, only responded to a few emails or calls, and surprisingly, the world didn't fall apart.
Somewhere in the long stretches of complete silence, in the whisper (or roar) of the desert wind, in the shade of the massive mountains, or the boldness of a tiny desert mouse that came right up to my campsite, somewhere in the faint light of a billion stars at night, or in the perfect stillness just before the morning rays of sun broke over the mountaintop... Somewhere in the midst of all these things, the God who created them (and me!) was present in a powerful, profound, way. And when God shows up like that, you really can't help but change your mind, your heart, your life.
I went into the wilderness by choice, perhaps with some kind of sense that I needed a break, that something was missing or out of place in my life. Jesus also went into the wilderness by choice, as preparation for his time of public ministry. Job, on the other hand, did not go into the wilderness by choice, but rather in response to the loss of his family, his possessions, and his health.
I think it's the same for most of us. Some of us go into wilderness experiences by choice, to retreat from the world, to prepare for something, or just to rest. Others are forced into a time of wilderness when their world comes crashing down through tragedy, loss, or because there's just nowhere else to go.
A wilderness experience can be different things to different people. Although I highly recommend the *actual* wilderness, being surrounded by God's creation, for some people it's just finding a way, for a while, to leave behind all the things that clamor for our attention and time, all the things that distract us from what's really important, and who God has created us to be. For others, it's the isolation that accompanies grief, loss, or the fact that our world is forever changed from what it used to be.
The good news is this: God likes to show up in the midst of our wilderness experiences, especially if that has been our desire and our prayer. When God shows up, it's not always pleasant, or what we expected. But it is life transforming.
So finally, let's look at our text, and look at what happens to Job, at least, when God shows up.
Verses 1-3: And the Lord said to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Then Job answered the Lord.
So the first thing that happens when God shows up is conversation. Back and forth. God has been talking for two chapters now, but then God pauses and waits for Job's response. Yes, God's tone sounds combative, but that's because God is meeting Job right where he is, and Job's tone has certainly been combative for the last 30 chapters. But there is dialogue here, there is give and take.
Job's response, in verses 4-5 is appropriately (although perhaps surprisingly) humble: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”
It actually reminds me of my dad. My dad had a fierce temper, and I remember him flying off the handle at some bill that he would receive in the mail, over some inaccuracy, or unjust price increase--and he would pace back and forth across the kitchen yelling about how he was going to give them a piece of his mind, and how dare they, and on and on, while he was furiously punching the buttons on the telephone to call them, fuming all the while, and then as soon as someone answered on the other end, he would say (in the most polite reasonable voice), "I think there's been a misunderstanding, and I'm sure we can resolve it."
Notice that Job does not take back anything that he's already said...he just acknowledges his very real position on the food chain in comparison to God.
And in verse 7, God does not tell him to sit down and shut up--actually the opposite: “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me." In other words, let's keep this conversation going. It's what you wanted, after all.
Then in verse 8, God (without ever condemning or contradicting Job) subtly lets Job know what's at stake: "Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?" In other words, do you really benefit from condemning me? Do I have to be wrong in order for you to be right?
God continues, but not with accusations like Job has made. Instead, God asks Job a series of rhetorical questions, designed to draw his attention away from his own situation, and to the bigger picture of the world and all creation. God does all of this without diminishing Job's situation and his grief, but putting it all into a much larger perspective.
Finally, in chapter 42, Job speaks again. Twice in this passage he acknowledges that he has actually been listening to God by repeating back what God has said to him--that's a great and necessary conversational skill!
In verse 3 says "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know."
It's pretty easy to criticize someone with whom you have no relationship. But a funny thing happens when you actually start to talk to someone, to listen to their point of view. You learn things you didn't know before. You grow, as a person, and you are forever changed.
Job tells God in verse 5, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you." This is (again) not an acknowledgement that he was wrong, but rather an expansion of his understanding. Something is added, something is gained in the very act of simple conversation.
Job's prayer (his conversation with God) ends in verse 6 with repentance: "Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
This is the part of Job's prayer that is (I think) is most often misinterpreted, and misunderstood. First of all, the "therefore" is pretty ambiguous. In English, the word therefore implies cause and effect: Because of this conversation, I despise myself."
But a more literal translation of the Hebrew here would probably be simply "and now." And now I (continue) to despise myself. Job has been saying this all along. BUT, I repent in dust in ashes. Remember that in Hebrew, the word repent is נָחַם (naham), which can also mean to comfort or console. In other words, I am still grieving all that I have lost, all that has changed (dust and ashes), but now I am comforted, I am consoled, I am somehow... changed.
The Greek, or New Testament understanding of repentance, metanoia, applies here too: What has changed? As Job has engaged in conversation with God, his mind has changed, his heart has changed, his life has changed. Not his situation, or his innocence, but his attitude. And this small change, this simple openness to the viewpoint of another person (in this case, God) has become the first step toward making the relationship between God and Job *right* again (the English sense of the word repentance!).
Sometimes, repentance does involve recognizing where we are wrong, and resolving to do better. But sometimes--and this is the case in Job's situation--it just means an openness to being transformed, being changed through an encounter, a conversation with another person. Because of all that Job had been through, he needed that person to be God. So do many of us today.
As I close, my prayer for you is that you might be open to that conversation with God which we call prayer, but even more so, to a back-and-forth, give-and-take relationship with the Creator of the Universe.
Where will you find God? Probably not in the business of your routines and the demands of everyday life, but more likely in the silence and stillness of a wilderness experience, whatever that looks like for you.
What will God sound and look like? Probably a lot like you, at first. If you're curious, God will speak to you in curious questions. If you're angry, God may respond in kind. If you're a doubter, listen for the voice of God in your doubts, and if you're a dreamer, listen for the voice of God in your dreams. God meets us where we are, but rarely does God leave us there. Every encounter changes us, transforms us in some way.
If you truly seek an audience with God, be prepared. Your life, your world, may never be the same again.