Plymouth United Church of Christ

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This sound file is our klezmer version of Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan's “God’s Word is Among Us”, copyright by him, and available from him (but not this klezmer version) via his website (permission to post this sound file given by Richard). Many thanks to Richard for permission to post this. Right click to download to your computer.

Sermon, Year B, Proper 24, October 21, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Job 38, 39, and 40; Mark 10:35-45

God can be sarcastic sometimes.

Both the Book of Job and certainly Jesus teach us very much that the reward for being faithful is having been faithful. It is its own reward.

And they teach us that our beliefs or our non-beliefs are not a ticket to heaven, or a ticket not-to-heaven, or our good actions or bad actions are not tickets to heaven or not-heaven. Being faithful is its own reward. Being a disciple is its own reward. Because faith is not a commodity exchange. It is not something that God says “You do this, and I will give you this, or not give you this”. God is not a shop-owner that dispenses salvation to us if we pay enough of whatever that is in belief or right action or some combination of that. Luther protested what had become a quite literal commodity exchange, through the indulgences.

It does seem like in human history, before Job, before Jesus, and even in Jesus’ time and today, that there are those who seem to profess this kind of faith-as-mercantile-exchange or commodity exchange. So it might look like those that so we have to go to God’s till every day to profess a belief or do a good act to repurchase a ticket to grace. And that if there is any day we fail to do that, or any day that we sin or go into error, then we get a ticket to hell or to punishment. And once we have that ticket then it is impossible to ever get a ticket to grace again.

Or others seem to run it like this, where you go to the till and profess your belief, and you get your ticket to grace, then stamp it with the date and time that you got it and now you have a free pass to do whatever you want for the rest of your life because you’ve already received your ticket. So you don’t have to do, really, anything. You can just do whatever you want.

Or maybe it looks like this, where you go to the till and get as many tickets as you possibly can because you can’t read them. You can’t tell if they are stamped “ticket to grace” or “ticket to punishment.” So you spend your entire life in anxiety and stress wondering if you have ever been good enough for God. If you have ever earned grace tickets to make up for the others.

Or this one. You go get a ticket, and you don’t look at because it doesn’t matter what it says because you aren’t going to read it. You’re just going to assume it says “ticket to grace.” And you will also assume that it is one of very, very few that God will ever hand out. Then you spend much of your life, and see some of this happening from the television preachers, telling others that they have the wrong ticket and you have the right ticket. If they just follow you, do what you are doing, they will be okay.

Or maybe you get your ticket and then you blow it up to billboard size and publicly display it with 400 megawatts of spotlights showing the world how incredibly faithful you are, and deriding anyone who has a smaller ticket for their lack of faith or because clearly God does not favor them.

Or maybe, maybe look at this way: Don’t bother looking for a ticket. Because it isn’t a commodity exchange. The ticket is Jesus. It’s already been handed out to everyone, freely, without any cost to us. And with no constraints or caveats or conditions. And since there is no ticket, it cannot be lost or stolen or run through the wash. It cannot be taken away or rescinded. It has no expiration date. And its cash value is “priceless.” It is a ticket that we could never, ever purchase by anything that we do. It is given to us. Given to us by God.

That is part of the lesson that Job and his friends learn in this book, and part of the lesson that Jesus’ disciples and through them, us, learn. And Job maybe knew that all along. Maybe Job knew that all along, that God’s grace or God’s love can’t be purchased in any way. But, he did have a moment of forgetting. But his forgetting came in the midst of incredibly suffering, so I think we can give him a bit of a pass for having a moment of doubt. Because Job is a man of great faith and righteousness. That is set up at the beginning of the book. He is wealthy, has a family, and he has never complained against God. He was righteous.

But if we look at Job’s life he’s also never had any reason to complain. He has had a fairly easy life, at least from what it would appear. A nice family, lots of cattle, other livestock, lots of land, lots of money. And I think there is a truth that it can be easy to be faithful when life is easy. When there is no struggle it can be much easier to be faithful. It can also be easier to forget about God. When one is not worrying about money, health, safety, love, there is no reason to struggle with God and ask questions about sickness, death, hunger, poverty, violence, loneliness.

Part of faithfulness is to be in that struggle. To ask those questions that have no easy answers. The adult Sunday School has been going through a program called “Living the Questions”. That is very much what faith is; to ask the questions and live into them, knowing probably not any really good, perfect, wonderful answers. But to live into the questions. Faithfulness is to be in that struggle to look at the pain in the world and say, “I believe anyway.” Maybe I don’t know fully what I believe, and I hope that we are never so confident of what we believe that we say “I have it perfectly nailed down. I know exactly what I believe, and what we ought to believe.” The struggle is the faith.

And so Job has everything. He has no struggle. He has no complaints God. Everything is good. But then Satan shows up. And remember that the book of Job is literary fiction. It is a morality story, a morality fable. And so satan is not a real person or a specific being. The Hebrew word “satan” just means “adversary,” which could be even one’s self. One’s own sinful nature or proclivity to give into temptations. Whatever it is that might lead us astray. But, in the story, Satan is one of God’s angels. And Satan thinks Job will stop being so righteous and so good if his life becomes imperfect. God thinks otherwise, so they make a bet. They make a wager. And God lets Satan whatever he wants to do with Job.

So Satan kills Job’s family, except his wife. Kills thousands of livestock and has thousands other stolen by neighbors. And so Job’s wealth and his legacy are gone. But Job remains faithful and righteous. So then Satan inflicts him with disease, with sores. And still he remains steadfast, even though he scrapes at his boils with broken pottery to find relief.

Then three of his friends show up: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They show up and come to Job, and they sit with Job for seven days. And they say nothing, because Job has not said anything. There is a tradition that you don’t speak to those who are suffering until they speak first to you. It’s that minstry of presence which is so powerful. If you would like to see the power of ministry of presence go out some night with us on the street ministry, and you will see how powerful it is simply to be there. To be present with someone. So they sit with Job, and after seven days, Job speaks and he curses the day he was born.

Then his friends who have been good ministers of presence for seven days, now provide a really awful ministry to him. Because now, “Ah! Job has spoken! Now we can tell him what’s wrong.” And they say to him, clearly you did something wrong. You must have sinned that you are suffering and they tell him what he must do to get beyond to rectify the situation. Because clearly he must have sinned. You don’t suffer unless you have sinned. Suffering is always God’s punishment.

They are still in this childish thinking in this mercantile God idea that God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinners. And so if there is reward, you are therefore righteous, and if there is suffering you are therefore a sinner.

Job’s friends are incapable of going beyond their thinking to make room for God to act any differently than that. They have God confined to a very small box of reward and punishment. They don’t have room in their thinking for mystery or ambiguity or the struggle. Job, too, has some of that outlook. He knows that he is innocent, and so he sees all of this suffering that has come upon him as a complete injustice from God. He wants God to account for this injustice. Job wants to know either what he did wrong, or he wants God to admit that this is unjust and to rectify the situation.

And as I mentioned this is not a literal story, it is a morality fable. And it comes from a time when the Hebrew people are like Job. They had lost their country, lost their identity, lost their temple, and many were sent into exile. They had everything, and now had very little. And this book is very much a product of that situation. A people trying to put that into a narrative form, into a story form, as they struggle through a theological evolution of thought going from thinking “God rewards righteousness and punishes sinners” to a more truthful theology that says it doesn’t always work that way. And then ask, Why? Why does it not always work that way? What is going on here?

They are developing a new way of thinking to deal with good people being punished and bad people being rewarded. Their faith is becoming a religion of self-examination. Not just a black and white kind of thinking, list of points that you must believe or do, that God is this and God is not that. It is becoming a faith of self-examination, of asking questions.

So Job’s friends offer all these very unhelpful speeches. And then his fourth friend, Elihu, arrives and gives a final speech in which he condemns the thinking of the first three and of Job. Elihu is also, the text says, the youngest of all of them. He has remained quiet, he says, because he is the youngest and felt he ought not speak before any of them. So here is a new way of thinking about the faith being represented in this story by the youngest person, by the newest person amongst this group. And Elihu says that God is just, yes; but also mighty enough to do what God wants, even if that means bringing love and forgiveness to places where it shouldn’t be, or even if that means that sometimes there is suffering amongst those who are faithful and righteous. It’s a much more realistic framework.

We have gone from this first framework where the integrity of God’s justice was the most important thing: that God can only be seen as rewarding and punishing. From that, to a new framework that allows for the specific life stories of individuals. That some people suffer for no reason, through no fault of their own. And that some people have rewards through no fault of their own.

So Elihu says Job is suffering AND he did nothing to deserve it. That’s how things are. God is free to act however God wants. Which is often not how we want it, but that is how it is. And to it is the beginning of a reformation that continues through Jesus against this idea of the mercantile God of reward and punishment.

And Jesus’ disciples learn numerous times that the faithful may very well suffer and that bad people might very well gain rewards. Jesus is teaching the disciples that being faithful might lead to some suffering, but they will have been faithful. And that is the reward. That they will have been faithful. There is no greater or least, except the greatness of being a servant. It’s not about coming out on top, but about relationships. About individuals. James and John say to Jesus, “We want you to do something for us.” That’s that mercantile God idea. “Let us sit at your right and left hand.” And Jesus responds much as God did to Job and his friends: “You don’t know what you’re asking. Can you do what I do?”

Then at the end of God’s rhetorical harangue against Job, of God showing how much more mighty God, Job responds with the words, “See, I am of small account.” Compared to God, so are we all of small account. And yet we are big enough in God’s heart that God listens and responds. We are big enough in God’s heart that God cares. God loves. God draws in relationship. We are big enough that God cares enough to take our concerns seriously, because we matter to God. We matter.

God listens. God cares. We matter to God enough that God came to us in Jesus Christ. And that is the only ticket that we need.


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