Sunday, November 25, 2012
Here is good news. We have the hope of new life. Do things look bleak? Is life hard, depressing, and unfair? God promises there will come something better. Are the troubles are due to our own bad choices? Do we suffer from mistakes we have made? There is one who will pray for us and God will listen when that one prays and we will receive forgiveness.
That’s the message the authors of the book of Job wanted to leave with the readers in the last chapter. We don’t know a lot about where this book came from. We don’t know if there was a man in history named Job or if wisdom writers in Israel or Jews in Babylon wrote this book. The origins of the book are uncertain. But we can look at the final product and see that this book intends to leave us – the readers – with an unmistakable truth. God sees and knows us, including our worst flaws. God will forgive us and invite us into fellowship. The book of Job hits on an array of topics. This idea of forgiveness and restoration is among the most important. We are left with this reality. God is a forgiving, restoring God.
In Job chapters 1 & 2, we see God and the Satan locked in a debate in some otherworldly place. This is God’s first set of speeches. The 2nd is the whirlwind speech in Job 38-41. In what is one of the longest sets of God-speeches in the Bible, God recounts for Job His creative power and His creative interest. The last of the speeches of God in Job is shorter. It’s found in Job 42, verses 7-9. God has spoken to Satan. God has spoken to Job. Now, once more God speaks, this time with one of Job’s friends, Eliphaz.
Eliphaz has along with Bildad and Zophar sat at the side of Job. He grieved over Job’s pain. For a full week, he was silent beside his wounded friend. Then Eliphaz spoke, expounding theology they all trusted. He knew of Job’s virtue, but he, Job, Bildad, and Zophar were committed to retribution theology. If you are righteous your life is good. If you suffer it is a sign that you weren’t righteous. You must have sinned. You must now admit your sin and repent. Eliphaz preached this gospel to Job. Job rejected it with everything that was in him. In the end, God vindicated Job. Uh-Oh.
Now, God speaks to Eliphaz.
Who wouldn’t want to hear the voice of God? Who wouldn’t want to be Noah or Moses or Jonah or Paul? God speaks audibly, or in some way that we can’t miss it. That was the experience of Eliphaz. The Lord spoke to Him. The Lord said to Him, “My wrath is kindled against you.” Uh-Oh.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned in this series on Job that bad theology is a more serious error than we might think. We can be casual with our speculations about God, but God takes speech seriously. God puts a lot on the words of our mouths, thoughts in our brains, and the reflections of our hearts. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had done a lot of preaching, said much about God. Now God looks to them and says, “My wrath is kindled against you.”
What do we do with that?
We spend a lifetime reading the Bible from a certain point of view. Then, through prayer and new teaching, we discover that our reading has been so thoroughly mistaken, what we thought about God we now discover was the opposite of what is actually true about God. We practiced misguided theology.
We raise our families according to what we think Christianity teaches and we do this over the course of years. Then we read the scriptures with greater care and we pray with more receptive hearts and it dawns on us that we’ve been horribly mistaken about many truths. We’ve been living a mistaken faith.
We make choices in life based on what we want – what we desire for ourselves. We live and choose and construct a morality, and then when our lifestyle is confronted by the Gospel, it is clear we’ve been totally adrift, far from God’s ways in the major areas of life. We have operated under false truth.
Finally God speaks and speaks clearly. “My wrath is kindled against you.” At this point agnosticism sounds nice. You know agnosticism – I don’t know if there’s a God or a Heaven or a Hell, and I am quite happy in my ignorance, thank you very much. Eliphaz discovers, yes Virginia, there really is a God, and this God’s wrath is kindled! Eliphaz doesn’t say a word which is good because this angry God didn’t invite a response. God had heard enough from Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.
“My wrath is kindled against you and your two friends for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly” (42:8).
What does God do when his anger is burning against these guys? Is this a fiery, Sodom and Gomorrah situation? Does God at least go Moses on Pharaoh and unleash some plagues on the three friends. No. He invites them to worship. In the process God restores the very community their misspoken words disrupted. They sinned against Job and against God by speaking wrongly about God to Job. This sin is grievous enough to warrant a personal appearance by God.
Probably, the writers of the story of Job were hearing all sorts of really bad prophecy spread throughout war-ravaged Israel and among the exiles in Babylon. To combat such destructive theological speech, they presented God’s rebuke of Eliphaz, but the story does not end with Eliphaz writhing in pain that God has inflicted as a punishment for sin. God allows the loathsome sores to fall on Job, the righteous one, the one who can take it. Job suffers and his faith stands. These weak-souled ones who spout erroneous ideas about God are invited to worship! They mumbled uniformed thoughts about a God they did not know. They are ushered into the presence of that God.
Eliphaz has to tremble. My wrath is kindled against you. But then he is summoned to worship. Worship is fellowship with God and with the community of God’s people. God tells these three sinners to do what they had been telling Job to do: repent and turn back to God.
As we follow this movement – announcement of wrath, invitation to worship – we come to a key moment. This is the human response. Job 42:9 - “Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite went and did as the Lord had told them.” We fall into trouble and are confronted in our sin. That serious trouble becomes absolute, out-of-control calamity when our response to confrontation is to try to cover up, make up stories or excuses, or to shift blame. When we do everything but accept the truth of our sin and when we try to escape the punishment, then our trouble mounts and builds until we are crushed.
Job’s friends did exactly as God commanded. They humbled themselves with a guilt offering and they asked Job, the one they’d sinned against, to pray for them. The humble response of these three is extremely important.
So too is Job’s response. The narrator does not tell us his words or his attitude. Maybe a part of him was thinking, “O sure, you jerks. Now that I am vindicated, you three clowns who did not suffer what I suffered – now you want me to pray for you, now that you’re in trouble.” The narrator doesn’t say any of that. He does not tell us Job’s speech at all. We simply know Job prayed. Whatever emotions boiled up in the man, he acted on behalf of his friends. He prayed for them just as in chapter 1 he had sacrificed and worshiped for the sake of any sins his children might have committed.
God accepted Job’s prayer. God restored Job’s fortunes. Friends and extended family came around Job. His was a happy ending that included 10 more children.
Much of Job topples the conventional theology of retribution – the righteous are rewarded with prosperous lives and the sinful are punished with bad fortune and bad health. But that theology is operative in other Old Testament texts that are concurrent with Job. And at the end, righteous Job is richly blessed. Theology is never simple. There’s never one set of ideas that disproves all others. God is bigger and more complicated than that.
But that reality – the complexity of truth and complexity of God – is all the more reason why this encounter with Eliphaz that begin with God’s wrath in the end is such good news for you and me. Job the righteous man prayed, and God forgave. One more righteous than Job prays for each one of us.
In John 17, Jesus prays that God would protect his followers. We read the scripture. Because of the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the word we have from the scriptures, handed down from the first Christian communities, we are Christ-followers. We are disciples. Jesus prays that we would be protected from the evil one. He says, “Father, I desire that those you have given me may be with me where I am, to see my glory” (John 17:24).
And we read in Romans,
We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because[a] the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (8:26b-27).
And in the book of Hebrews,
Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (9:24).
The community that preserved the story of Job for Israel knew, in spite of all the losses Israel endured, that God is good and that God’s anger is not the characteristic that predominates. Yes, Israel had sinned, but in seeing Eliphaz and the others forgiven and restored as Job comes to a close, Israel can hang on to the hope that they will be restored and forgiven.
Do we make the mistakes that Eliphaz made? Do we produce wrong ideas about God? Do preach when care is what is needed? Do we try to force God into our previously held ideas instead of humbly seeking God daily? We sin. And it costs.
But it is not Job who is praying for us. It is Jesus, the Son of God himself. As we close the book on Job for now, we open the book on hope. We look to Advent, the season of celebrating Jesus’ birth and anticipating his coming at the end of time. We know God will do new things in our lives – as individuals and as a church.
Job’s life is doubly blessed. In Job we see that that God is unpredictable. We also see that God can be trusted. Life is full of twists and turns, ups and downs. In all of it, God forgives, calls us into worship, and into fellowship with Him and with one another. When we forget that, Jesus steps for us. We have the Holy Spirit calling both us and the Father back together because God truly wants relationship with us. That is the good news of Job and it is the witness of the entire Bible.