Sermon for March 29th, 2020

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Job 35:1-16

1 Elihu continued and said:
2 “Do you think this to be just?
    You say, ‘I am in the right before God.’
3 If you ask, ‘What advantage have I?
    How am I better off than if I had sinned?’
4 I will answer you
    and your friends with you.

5 Look at the heavens and see;
    observe the clouds, which are higher than you.
6 If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him?
    And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him?
7 If you are righteous, what do you give to him;
    or what does he receive from your hand?
8 Your wickedness affects others like you,
    and your righteousness, other human beings.

9 “Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out;
    they call for help because of the arm of the mighty.
10 But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker,
    who gives strength in the night,
11 who teaches us more than the animals of the earth,
    and makes us wiser than the birds of the air?’
12 There they cry out, but he does not answer,
    because of the pride of evildoers.

13 Surely God does not hear an empty cry,
    nor does the Almighty regard it.
14 How much less when you say that you do not see him,
    that the case is before him, and you are waiting for him!
15 And now, because his anger does not punish,
    and he does not greatly heed transgression,
16 Job opens his mouth in empty talk,
    he multiplies words without knowledge.”

The Book of Job: (Un)Worthy

Most of you who know me know that I often like to start off my sermons with a joke, something lighthearted before we get into the heavy stuff. But since today's worship service is a Locke family production, I thought I'd give my youngest son the opportunity shine with a few of his favorites. A warning here: I can't promise that they will have anything to do with the sermon itself!

(Jonah's jokes)

Thank you, Jonah. For the past four weeks, we've been reading through the Book of Job--without a doubt my favorite book of the Bible. In this story, a man named Job, who is described by the Bible as "blameless and upright" loses everything: his family, his wealth, his home, and even his health. In his despair, he is visited by this three best friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. They sit in silence with him, they try to comfort him, they argue with him (like good friends do) and then, unable to help any more, they fall into silence again.

But then in chapter 32 of the Book of Job, a new character shows up. His name is Elihu, and he appears out of nowhere and begins to speak with authority and confidence. I imagine that Job and his friends are scratching their heads, saying "Who is this guy, and who does he think he is?" Those questions are never answered, and by the end of chapter 37, Elihu disappears just as mysteriously as he came.

Our text today--chapter 35--is right in the middle of Elihu's speech, and in this chapter, he speaks directly to a question that Job and his friends have been debating. It's a question I think many of us have been debating in the last week, too. In a nutshell, the question (verses 2-3) is this:

If we try our best to be good, to play by the rules, to do everything that God (or the law, our teachers, our parents, our employers) ask of us...but things still go wrong (we get punished, we get blamed, we lose our job, our investments, our health), then why bother being good? What advantage do we have over those who knowingly and willfully break the rules?

It's a great question. And Elihu says to Job and his friends in verse 5, "look up at the clouds and see." The clouds here are a metaphor for nature, for God, for the universe. When you break the rules...does it bother the clouds? When you follow the rules, do the clouds applaud you? Does God benefit in some way from your obedience? Or does God suffer from your disobedience?

Clearly the answer is no. BUT...and this is important...that's not what the rules are for! They aren't for God's benefit. They are for yours. Verse 8: "Your wickedness affects others like you, and your righteousness, other human beings."

Most of us spend a lot of time spinning our wheels trying to please God, or at least trying to avoid God's anger. Some of us spend a lot of time trying to please ourselves. But what truly pleases God is when we take care of each other, when we think of each other. It doesn't change God, or the course of the universe, and it may not even change our circumstances. But being kind, being thoughtful, "following the rules" does have the capacity to change me, to make me a better person, and the kind of person that others want to be around.

In the second half of Elihu's speech, he says something a little shocking. He says in verse 13 that "Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it." We're used to thinking that God listens to our prayers no matter what. But Elihu says that what God disregards is an "empty" cry.

Every parent at some point learns to recognize the difference between the cries of their children that indicate pain, or fear, or sadness, or a need for help on one hand...and on the other hand those that indicate a temper tantrum, or stubbornness, or just the fact that it's way past bedtime. A seasoned parent knows when to jump to the rescue...and when to ride out the storm, or simply rock our little ones to sleep. We learn to take the shouted "I hate you! You're so mean! It isn't fair!" with a grain of salt.

I think it's the same with God. But the fact that "his anger does not punish and he does not greatly heed transgression" (as Elihu says in verse 15) doesn't mean that he doesn't love us. It just means he's patient with us, even when we don't exactly deserve it--even when we open our mouths in empty talk, and multiply words without knowledge." Elihu directs those final words right at Job, and they sound harsh, until you realize they are almost the exact same words that God himself speaks to Job a few chapters later, when speaking from the whirlwind, God says "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" and Job--having thought about it some--finally agrees and says "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know."

So who is this mysterious stranger, Elihu, who walks right into a conversation among friends and then disappears? His name, Elihu, is Hebrew and it's actually a contraction of the two Hebrew names for God: El (or Elohim) and Yahweh (which is sometimes shortened to Yahu). Who is this mysterious messenger who shows up in the Book of Job right before God shows up? Scholars have all sorts of theories, but there is a long tradition in Judaism, Christianity, and in many religions of God showing up disguised in human form, speaking wisdom through the voice of the humble stranger. You look again, and he's gone.

I want to leave you with this question: How does God speak to us, today, in the midst of challenging times? Is it through our circumstances, even hard ones? Is it through the silence? Is it through the counsel and the arguments of our closest friends and family? Is it sometimes through random encounters and mysterious conversations with total strangers? Or is it straight from heaven, out of the storm and the whirlwind in an audible voice?

We find all of these examples in the Book of Job. Listen for them in your own life, in your own trials and temptations. But know that God loves you, God watches over you, and God is always closer than you think.