Sermon for March 5th, 2017
1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He 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. 4 His 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. 5 And 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.
Job's Daily Prayer
For the past five years it has been my custom during the season of Lent to preach from the Book of Job. While I personally enjoy this tradition (Job is my favorite book of the Bible), I realize there are some who are not so thrilled , and keep waiting for me to run out of things to say or move on to something else.
I'm reminded of the story about the new preacher who arrived at his new church to preach his very first sermon. It went over quite well, and the congregation was pleased. But the following Sunday when he got up to preach, he preached the exact same sermon, word for word, that he had preached the previous Sunday. This went on for several weeks, and the congregation began to get worried. Maybe this preacher was a one-hit wonder? Maybe he really didn't have anything else to say?
A group of them went to the Executive Presbyter to complain. The Executive Presbyter, a wise, old man of God, listened patiently to their complaint, to their fears that their pastor was somehow deficient; that they might have to listen to the same sermon for the rest of their lives! After they finished their complain, the Executive Presbyter leaned back in his chair a moment, closing his eyes to think. After awhile, eyes still closed, he asked the congregation members, "What exactly was the point of his sermon? What was the message?"
They paused awkwardly, looking back and forth at each other for help, but it was apparent that no one could quite remember; no one could answer his question. When they finally gave up, the Executive Presbyter just leaned back in his chair again and said, "Let him preach it one more time."
For at least one more time, then, let us delve once again into the Book of Job; this ancient story of perseverance, suffering, faith lost, and faith restored.
There are only two individuals in the entire Bible who are described as perfect, free from sin and blameless in every way. One of them, no surprise, is Jesus--the Son of God, the Messiah and savior of humanity. But the other one, and this may come as a surprise to you, is Job. The narrator, in verse one, describes him as "blameless and upright," a man who feared God (in this case that means "respected" God) and turned away from evil." Not just sometimes, not even most of the time, but all of time. In chapter 2, even God himself affirms this, saying to the heavenly court that Job is "blameless," and that "there is no one like him in all the earth."
This idea that Jesus was not the only sinless person in the Bible led some ancient interpreters to conclude that Job was not in fact a real person--that the Book of Job was a fairy tale or a parable designed to teach virtues. Some modern scholars have come to the same conclusion.
But at least one actual, historical figure from the Bible (who was familiar with Job and quite familiar with Jesus) seems to think highly of them both. That would be James, the brother of Jesus, the one who led the church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death. In his letter to the early Christian churches, James singles out Job as a model of faith and endurance in chapter 5, a chapter devoted to the subject...of prayer! I think there is an important connection here, between prayer, and leading the kind of exemplary life we find in these two blameless individuals--Jesus and Job.
In fact, right after lifting up Job as an example, James says that "you should pray for one another, so that you may be healed." The word "heal" in English comes from the same root as the word "whole." To be healed is to be made whole. And in Hebrew, the word "blameless" that is used to describe Job is the word תָּ֧ם (tam) which also means whole. In other words, according to James, prayer has the ability to make us whole, or complete. That makes prayer, and understanding prayer, a pretty big deal. James goes on to say that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
Two years ago, in 2015, we sent several weeks examining the model prayer given to us by Jesus, also known as the "Lord's prayer." This year, for the next five weeks, we're going to look at the "other" blameless guy, Job, and see what we can learn from him about prayer that makes us whole. With Jesus, it was easy. He pretty much said: "pray like this" and gave his disciples the Lord's prayer. With Job, it's a little more tricky.
There is no one model prayer in the book of Job. In fact there are almost 20 chapters full of Job's prayers, some of them tortured, angry and anguished at the fact that he has lost everything--his health, his wealth, and his children. But they are heartfelt prayers, and God does not reject them, though he is slower to answer than Job would like, and his ultimate answer is not what Job expects and hopes for. We're not going to look at all twenty of those chapters, but instead we'll take a few that represent different stages on his descent into darkness.
But today, we begin on a lighter note: Job at his happiest, when all is well, when his health and his business and his family are all prospering greatly. And that's significant. Most people tend to pray the most fervently when things are tough--right before a test, or when a loved one is sick, or when we really, really need God's help with something. And that's okay, but when things are good, when we are doing well, we also tend to forget God and give ourselves the credit.
There's the story about the guy who was late for work, and couldn't find a parking space. So he drove around the block several times, and then in desperation prayed "God if you'll just help me find a parking space, I promise I'll put $100 in the offering plate Sunday morning!" Right as he finished praying, a spot miraculously opened up right in front of him, and he said, "Oh, wait--never mind, God. I found one!"
Job, we read in verse 3, is considered "the greatest of all the people of the East." And the people to the East of Israel, in the Bible, were the Assyrians and Babylonians--the wealthiest people in the world at the time. In addition to his collection of livestock and servants, Job has ten children that have lived into adulthood and are now prospering, each one able to host lavish parties at their own respective houses (verse 4). Usually in the ancient Middle East, only the eldest son inherited the father's wealth. If Job has enough wealth for all his children to inherit while he's still alive, and ALL of them to be considered wealthy in their own right...that's pretty wealthy. By today's standards, Job would be considered a multi-millionaire at least, if not a billionaire.
What need does someone like that have for God? What need does someone like that have for prayer? What would you even ask for?
And yet we read that Job would "rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings" for his children. Why? “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” The fact that he's not sure they've sinned, and the words "in their hearts" indicates that probably, at least outwardly, his kids were actually pretty good people, too. Which isn't surprising if they have lived in the shadow of their father's example.
Burnt offerings, it should be noted, are the Old Testament equivalent of prayer. Neither Jews nor Christians today continue to offer animal sacrifices. For what it's worth, the prayer request cards that some of you turn in on Sunday mornings stay in my office for several months while I pray for them, and then eventually I do burn them in my chiminea on the back porch. As the smoke rises into the air, it makes a nice symbolic image of all our FPC prayers rising up to God and disappearing into the heavens. Watching it all, I can understand how the ancients observed this practice for so long (although the presence of my dog, Buddy, reminds me that the animals are probably very grateful they are no longer included in the symbolism!).
At the end of verse 5, we read that "This is what Job always did." In Hebrew, the phrase is כָּל־הַיָּמִֽים׃ (kal-hamayim), or literally, "all the days," which is kind of ambiguous. It could mean every day, or it could mean throughout the days, continually. It kind of reminds me of the apostle Paul's recommendation in 1st Thessalonians that we should "pray without ceasing" or be continually in a state of prayer.
So to wrap up today, I think we can make a few observations about Job's prayer life during his "happy season" as a baseline for what prayer should ordinarily look like in our lives, before we move next week into the more challenging prayers that come when tragedy strike. Some of these observations may seem like common sense, but unless we hear them and consciously remind ourselves of them, it's easy to take them for granted and forget.
1. Job prays every day. Whether you rise early in the morning like Job in order to do this, or whether your prayers are the last thing on your lips before you drift to sleep at night, or whether you "pray without ceasing" throughout the day, the point is this: If you want to be whole, make prayer a part of your whole life. Pray on a daily basis.
2. Job prays for others. It's okay to pray for yourself, and Job's later prayers are very much focused on his personal situation. But here at the point where his own needs are at their least, he still remembers the needs of others, and even prays for needs that he (or they) may not even know about yet. You don't have to know how or what to pray for when you pray for someone. It's enough to just remember them, and to pray.
3. Job prays with others. This one is less obvious from the text but it's there. At the beginning of verse 5 we read that "when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them." In other words, he would send for them, they would come to him, and together they performed some kind of ritual of religious sanctification, most of which involved what we would consider today as prayer. So Job prays in private, but he also prays in public with other people.
This is not the kind of prayer Jesus accuses the pharisees of--outer prayers tailored specifically for others to see, while your inner prayer life is absent. That's hypocrisy. But when you pray together in community with the very people you have been praying for in private, then there is harmony and consistency between your public and private prayers.
That's why regular participation in worship is so important to the life of the church. You can't just pray for the church without also praying with the church.
It's interesting to me that Job always gathered together with his children to pray with them right after they had gathered together for a feast, for a meal around a table.
Likewise, one of Jesus' most famous prayers is in the garden of Gethsemane...right after he had gathered with his disciples around a table for his last meal together with them.
And just like those two righteous, blameless men, Jesus and Job, through the centuries and right down to the present day, we (the church) also gather together with those we love around a common table, to share a heavenly feast, to pray with and for each other, to be healed, and to become whole again. Come to the table of the Lord.