Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Seeking the Friend in the whirlwind . . .

     I have heard rumblings that I am a bit aloof or distant, that for my whole nine months with you, some people feel as if they do not yet know me well.  First, let me say that works in reverse.  I do not yet know all of you well either.  I am beginning to get to know some of you, but I think we are all only scratching the surface when it comes to learning about one another so far.  Second, and of far more importance to me, I want to say “good.”  More than one person has grumbled to me that I need to spend more time talking about me, especially during the sermon.  The sermon is not the place to learn about me.  The sermon is not the place that I am supposed to talk about me.  I will meet you in my office, over coffee or drinks, or even for a meal and answer your questions until you are convinced the Vestry made a mistake calling me, but I try to avoid me as the subject in the sermons.  The reason is simple, but Bishop John reminded me of its importance during my discernment period last year.  I am not here to build a cult of personality.  I am here to participate in the life of a group of people called to glorify God in worship and service of others in our community.  Put in stark language: if you are placing your faith in me, Brian your priest, you will be sorely disappointed in the future, if you not are already.  If you are placing your faith in God through Christ, then you are guaranteed that, at some point, you will see God face to face and know all that you have suffered, even those disappointments at the hands of all your clergy, will have been redeemed.
     That being said, today you get to sit back and get ready for a possibly hours long sermon.  I see that got your attention.  I’m kidding.  I understand that the Titans play at noon.  I would never dare to interfere in our love of all things football.  But, I will warn you, many of you for the first time, that Job is one of my most favorite books in the Bible.  It was also the subject of one of my Master’s thesis and oral defenses at the University of Dallas.  You might say I did an extensive Bible Study of this book, led gently by a Cistercian monk.  I love when I preach on Job because I feel like I have already done a great deal of the prep work in a galaxy far away and a long time ago.
     Job is an incredibly rich book.  I wish we spent more time reading the book in the lectionary because it speaks to one of the angsts of Christian life.  For those who do not yet know the story, Job is described in the beginning of the book as a righteous man.  The one who describes Job is none other than God Himself.  How would you like to be judged today by God as righteous?  If you have not read the story, God speaks of Job’s faithfulness to none other than Satan, who has been going to and fro around the earth.  Pretty cool idea, is it not?  God telling Satan that a person is righteous.
      Satan, for his part, rejects God’s judgment of Job.  In effect, he tells God that Job is righteous because Job is rich.  Since Job lacks for nothing, Job can afford to be righteous.  God, of course, sees the heart.  He tells Satan that he can mess with anything external to Job.  So, Satan has all the livestock killed or plundered and calls up a great storm to collapse the family house and kill the entire family.  We are told that, in all this calamity, Job did not sin.
     Fast forward to Satan and God’s next discussion.  God points out how Job did not sin, even absent the accoutrements of wealth and the loss of his family.  Satan says that Job still has his health, so, of course, he still worships God.  Again, God, who sees the heart, gives Job over to the power of Satan with the limitation of sparing Job’s life.  Satan torments Job by giving him an extreme leprosy of sorts.  Job has itchy boils and scabs and is miserable.  Still, we are told, Job does not sin.
     It is at this point that the holy rollers enter the picture.  We are, of course, speaking before Jesus’ ministry, so these men who approach Job are not Christians.  But they, like Job, claim to love God.  At first, they sit in silence with Job and mourn his losses.  Then, in what we know is an effort to “help” Job, the men begin to encourage Job to repent of the horrible sin that has earned the wrath of God.  Job, the one judged by God as righteous, rightly claims he is righteous.  He has not defrauded anyone, he has not gossiped, he has given his choicest to God.  Job has done everything within his power to do as God commands.
     We see this play out all the time in modern churches.  The worst example I can recall was at a snake-handling church I attended in north central WV as a kid.  A few weeks before our class visit, an elderly lady was bitten by a copperhead or rattler and died.  Everyone mourned her death.  They mourned her death not because she was gone, but because she had clearly failed to repent of her sin since God had let her die.  They wondered how she could appear so righteous on the outside for so long, and so rotted on the inside.  You can probably think of more common examples.  Like as not, you may have received those kinds of people and their advice in your own hurts and miseries.  Heck, you may have played the role of the friends in someone else’s life.
     The friends respond with the good ole “sure you have.”  They entreat Job to look around and to see the consequence of his sin.  The more that Job protests his innocence, the more they use his circumstances to prove his guilt.  We understand this logic, don’t we?  We really only need God when something is wrong.  So long as we can pay our bills, have good health, are in no bad relationships, we believe that we are favored by God.  Put a little more bluntly, we like to think our material blessings signify our relationship with God.  How do I know I have a better relationship with God than my neighbor?  Because He makes sure I have whatever I need while my neighbor suffers!  How do I know I have a better relationship with God than my friend?  Because, bless her heart, that storm cloud follows her in whatever she does.
     You are laughing, but we know people who like to judge their relationship with God based on the circumstances of life.  Heck, some of us do as well.  I always go nuts when I hear that attitude expressed to prospective Christians during efforts to evangelize.  If you’ll just give your heart to Jesus, He will make everything right.  You won’t want for nothing.  He will heal your diseases.  He will provide you with all that you need.  When we or others say that nonsense, think of the harm done to the person coming to faith.  I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of us who believe in Jesus have broken family relationships?  Issues of provision?  Suffer significant health ailments?  Experience bad luck?  I always remind people newer to the faith that our Lord was rejected, tortured, and killed.  We are called to pick up our cross and follow Him.  If God allowed those events to happen to His only begotten Son, what might He allow to happen to those He adopted?  It is not that God is mean or that He loves us any less; it is that He has chosen to work through suffering to redeem us.  Suffering reminds us of our own inadequacies, our own impotence, our own lack of understanding, of our real dependence upon Him.
     The whole book of Job exists to remind God’s people that our life’s circumstances in no way reflects our relationship with God.  Job praises God in the good and the bad, just as God knew that he would.  Bildad, and later Elihu, two of Job’s “friends,” are adamant that suffering leads the sinful back to God.  Theirs is a vapid theology, a theology that will still be hanging around when Jesus walks the earth (Lord, was this man’s blindness caused by his sin or that of his parents?), and is still with us today.  Their attitude speaks to another loss that Job has endured, one that we do not often get.  As a rich man with a happy family, Job is accorded tremendous respect.  As shown by his friends’ counsel, though, Job’s circumstance has caused them to be anything but a friend.  In fact, although Job insists he is the same man as the day before, they refuse to accept his testimony.  Respect among his friends was truly fleeting.  Elihu, in the chapters before our reading today, launches into what he thinks is a wonderful soliloquy about God.  God rewards the just.  God punishes the wicked.  Sometimes God punishes so that the wicked will turn to Him.  It is really that simple, according to Elihu.  God, of course, disagrees with Elihu.
     Throughout the book, Job has longed for an advocate.  He has desired a courtroom setting so that he could present his case to God.  Whether arguing with his wife, his friends, or even himself, Job knows he has not sinned.  If his suffering is punishment, then he is suffering unjustly and wants to take his case up with God.  Now, after Elihu’s rant, God appears out of the whirlwind and thundering with sarcasm.  Were you there when the morning stars sang together?  Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Can you play with behemoth and toy with Leviathan?  Elihu cannot answer these questions that are put to him in rapid fire succession.  Before Job, Elihu and the others have claimed to know God’s inscrutable motivations and actions.  And God, answering Job’s claim for an advocate, shows them how vapid their understanding of Him really is and how bad their counsel was to Job.
     God is, of course, not done after dealing with Elihu and the others.  He turns His focus upon Job and instructs Job to gird up his loins and answer Him.  Job, of course, realizes now, in the presence of holiness and righteousness, that he is mortal.  I am of small account; what shall I answer You.  Some commentators like to argue that God just thunders away in this book.  From their perspective, God is the ultimate windbag.  Because He did all these things, He seems to think we should never question Him or His motives.  Again, notice that God never claims that Job is unrighteous.  If suffering was supposed to be a sign of wickedness or broken relationship with God, then Job rightly understood his punishment to be wrong.  Job’s struggle is real.  Better still, Job’s struggle is accepted by God.  But, if carried to its logical end in those terms, in order for Job to be vindicated, God would have to be placed in the wrong.  Job never accuses God of being evil.  He never sins against God despite all the ridiculous advice of his “friends.”  Job finds himself between a rock and hard place.  God is good, but so is he.  How can his situation be explained in light of those two understandings?  Now Job, and we, needs to rethink his understanding of material circumstances and one’s relationship to God.  To use Job’s words after God’s instruction, he spoke of things too wonderful for him to completely understand.  He sees now what he had only heard.
     Of course, even in that seeing, Job still does not get the complete picture.  God does not tell Job why his farm was destroyed, why his family was killed, and why he lost his health.  Job never hears that his suffering was the focus of Satan’s efforts to turn him from God and that God knew his heart, knew that his servant Job would not turn aside.  Job only learns that his suffering was not related to his standing before God.  We as readers and hearers of the story, know the background.  But Job is kept in the dark.
     One last note on the story.  God’s wrath is so kindled against the four friends of Job that he tells them He will not accept an offering from them.  Can you imagine that conversation?  As wonderful as it would be to imagine God telling Satan that we are righteous and faithful, it would be terrifying to hear God say to us that He will not accept our prayers and offerings.  In a note that hints at the redemptive suffering of Jesus, God tells the friends to take the bulls and rams to Job.  God says that Job will intercede on their behalf, and He will accept the offering and prayers on account of Job.  Not unsurprisingly, Job offers the sacrifices and prayer for his friends who wronged him, reminding us one last time that God’s judgment of His servant Job was correct.
     Why do the righteous suffer?  Worse, why do the wicked seem so often to prosper?  It is a question that is left unaddressed in the book of Job.  Our passage for today’s reading clearly hearkens us back to the beginning of the Bible.  Those who have been in the Genesis Bible Study cannot help but be reminded of the imagery the read a couple months ago.  But is the thrust of God’s answer simply, I am God and you are not?  No.  Job has stumbled onto the seeming chaos of his worldview or his perspective.  Like many of his time, Job believed that the righteous were rewarded while the wicked were punished.  Certainly, that was a promise of God’s.  But God did not promise that every single moment of every single day of every single week of every single month . . . you get the picture.  God, I think, takes Job back to the beginning to remind Job and us that He is the God who brings order to chaos.  God reminds Job and us that He need only speak, and the stars, the planets, and all that is jumps to obey Him.  One day, that Day of the Lord, all things will be set right.  But today is not really that day.  Job gets more than the answers that he seeks; Job learns he has not been asking the right questions.  Job learns one additional significant item: he does not face calamity or chaos alone.  The friend that he so longs for to advocate on his behalf has appeared to him out of the whirlwind.  That Job’s life might seem insignificant when compared with earth’s foundations or the singing of stars is not the understanding of Job.  Job now understands the Lord is none other than the friend he has been seeking during his suffering.
     How that applies to us, I think, is obvious.  Looking around this group gathered here today, I am aware of some significant suffering.  My guess is, as we get to know one another in the months and years ahead, I will become aware of even more suffering.  Suffering is terrible.  The Bible never takes suffering lightly, and we would do well as God’s people never to take our suffering or the suffering of others lightly either.  But held out against the chaos and suffering of our life that the God who created all things, the God who made all that is, seen and unseen, will be the One whom we see face to face as a friend, when that glorious day is upon us!  Better still, that friend, that Lord, has promised that He will redeem all things in our lives.  There will be no melancholy, there will be no sadness, there will be no wrath on our parts, there will be no tears.  He who spoke order into chaos will speak healing into us, and we who claim Him as Lord, will share forever in His eternal glory!
     Brothers and sisters, I know there is terrible suffering in some of your lives.  I know that some of you believe yours is of the “garden variety” kind.  Like you and me in our situations, Job would never have been satisfied with a philosophical explanation of his new poverty and destroyed family.  How can we accept philosophically some of the struggles we have faced?  We and he want only to know that God is there, that He still cares for us, and that He has not given up on us because of our sins and failures or because of the seeming chaos of the world.  We have that best reminder, of course, in the face of our Lord Christ, who walked a greater path of suffering, that we might know our path, one day, will end, and that the crosses we have born for His glory will be exchanged for that “well done” blessing He has promised to all who continue in Him.  One day, we will see Him clearly, not in the whirlwind, but with outstretched arms proclaiming to the Father that “this one is mine, too.”  Then, and only then, will our suffering begin to make sense.  Then, and only then, will we be completely healed.  Then, and only then, will the answers we and Job seek be truly found.



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