Sermon: Job’s Prayer UPDATED

Here is the conclusion of our series on Job: Job’s Prayer

As we entered into the story of Job three weeks ago, the heavenly beings came and presented themselves to God. And the accusing angel came to, at God’s provocation, present his case against Job. And Job lost everything. He lost his children, his wealth, his marriage. Even bonds of friendship are severed over Job’s suffering as Job’s “friends” take up the roles of God’s defenders and Job’s earthly accusers.

His children dead, covered in sores, the object of his wife’s scorn, being hectored by the few men whom he trusted, Job makes his complaint known to all. And he hopes that God is listening. Not wishes. Hopes. It’s a strong word and it’s used on purpose. Although Job is at points terrified by both God’s apparent absence and the possibility of his presence, he never surrenders entirely to despair. If there is any hope of relief, it is to be found in God. “Even if he kills me, he alone is my hope,” is what Job says of God in Job 13:15. Perhaps you know this verse in the more poetic rendering of the King James Version of the Bible, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”

Job, even at the bottom, at his life’s lowest ebb, refuses to give up on God. We encountered this strange persistence when we heard Job’s complaint two weeks ago: “My feet have held fast to his steps, I have kept his way, I have not departed from his commandment.” He is going to hang on to God whatever the outcome. One commentator described Job’s disposition quite powerfully in these words: “With one hand, Job clings desperately to God even as, with the other, he shakes his fist at him.”

This desperate, defiant hope if powerfully expressed in perhaps the most famous verses of the entire book: “I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold and not another.” Job is a man, from first to last, in relationship with God.

And last week Job’s hope was realized when he did see God with his own eyes. When he saw the whirlwind and heard the voice. God spoke, and in speaking, offered Job a description of creation that was vast and wild. A creation that even contained powerful enemies that had yet to be subdued. Implied in that description was an invitation to trust God even if no answer to Job’s complaint came.

This morning, we come to the book’s conclusion. To see just what kind of response God’s speech elicits. Job, in the first six verses, withdraws his complaint. His hope has been realized. “Now my eye sees you,” he says. And he is satisfied. Verse six of chapter 42 is a very difficult verse to translate. Our version today renders it in these words: “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” So translated, it does look like, after the description given to him by God, Job does agree with his friends and repents of some hitherto unconfessed sin. But that is very odd. It fits neither with what has come before—Job’s unrelenting cry for justice and the narrator’s estimation of the justice of that complaint—and what comes after. Listen to how a modern Jewish translation puts it: “I recant and relent being but dust and ashes.”

In other words, Job grants the validity of  God’s speech. I am not the center of the universe. The universe does not revolve around me. I withdraw my complaint. In other words, withGod’s non-answer, Job is satisfied.

Our text then turns to Job’s friends—a part of the chapter skipped over in our lectionary reading, but absolutely vital to our understanding of what’s going on in the text. For now we know who sinned. After speaking to Job, God turns his attention to the three friends and says, “Thank you for defending me. You were mistaken, but you gave it your best shot.” No. That is not what God says. This is what God says, “My wrath is kindled against you for you have not spoken of me what is right as my servant Job has.” Then God commands them to offer sacrifices for their sins and to beg Job to pray for them so that they will not—here’s irony—be punished for their sin. They offer sacrifices. Job prays. And God accepts Job’s prayer. That’s interesting too. No word at all on whether the sacrifices were accepted. But Job’s prayer was!

What’s going on here? The key, it seems to me, is prayer. Job, throughout the book, never stopped praying. With that one hand, he clung to God. God alone remained his hope. And with that other hand he shook his first. He called on God to answer, made plain before God his anger, shouted his distress. And God was the object of it all. Job was a man whose relationship with God never wavered. Rabbi Arthur Waskow described this kind of relationship in this way: “wrestling feels a lot like making love. It also feels a lot like making war.” Job has wrestled with God. He has made war—I don’t think that puts it too strongly—on God. And God has responded in love to Job and in some way, both defeated and satisfied him. All of this because Job never stops praying.

And all the way through the book, Job’s friends never start. They sit with Job in silence—a good thing!—for an entire week. Then words spill over words. Speaking for God. Defending God. Explaining God’s ways. Piling burden after burden after burden upon Job in their ever more strident calls to repent. Words and words and words and more words. And. They. Never. Pray.  37 chapters of the most powerful poetry in the entire Bible spoken largely by Job’s three friends. And not one word of it is prayer. Only Job prays. Only Job is in a relationship with God.

And because Job has a relationship with God, because Job never stopped wrestling—making love and making war—with his transcendent Creator and living Redeemer, Job is called upon to be the mediator here. Job is called upon to stand in between God and the friends who failed. To intercede for them so that they might be spared.

And now comes the troubling part of the book for many of us. It ends with a prolonged description of God prospering Job a second time, and much greater than the first. Twice as much in fact. The family that was strangely absent during the days of his suffering now come out of the woorwork, “Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters who had known him before. And they comforted him.” More flocks, more money. Seven new sons. Three new daughters.

Has Job been bought off? Is this a reward for having endured what was a private bet between God and the accusing angel? (A bet, by the way, that remains private throughout. Job never ever hears about it).

I don’t think so. We are back to Job’s question to his wife—Shall we accept the good and not the bad from the hand of the almighty. There is no explanation of the Lord’s blessing for Job. Like his suffering before, it just happens. This is not an explanation. This is just another part of Job’s life. One that is prosperous.

What we need to see is that, Job really was satisfied with God’s answer. Having agreed with God that he is but dust, having agreed with God that creation is vast and wild and at times at war with God, Job has decided to live. He will enjoy the prosperity that is now coming his way. He will share it with his brothers and sisters even though they were nowhere to be found while he was suffering—he gives them each a piece of money and a gold ring. He reconciles with his wife—I know the text doesn’t say that, but well, he does go on to have more children. Indeed, that is the most striking thing of all—he has more children! He decides to live so fully that he cannot but bring more children into this world, even now that he has seen just how vast and wild and at times at war it can be.

Job throughout remains in relationship with God. Job becomes the mediator between God and his friends. Job enters fully into joy and shares the prosperity God gives him even to the point of bringing new life. Job accepted the bad, now he accepts the good. Job decides to live again.

And now, what does this, in the end, have to do with us?

Two things—first of all, and most importantly, the story of Job points us to the One in whom the story of Job is fulfilled, Jesus the Christ. Who entered into a vast and wild creation, who, where Job could not, took on the mighty Leviathan and conquered him. Who persisted in his obedience to God even as he prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Who stood between God and his own tormentors with the prayer, “Father forgive them.” Who entered fully into death, and yet arose in his flesh not simply to see, but to be the Redeemer of all who are his. Who rose again to receive a name that is above every name and who, having ascended into heaven, showers his people with gifts, including the gift of new life. Now we must be clear, Job is not Jesus. But Job points us to him. He is, to quote Karl Barth, “a witness to the true Witness.”

But if Job points us to Jesus, where do we find ourselves? If we do not find ourselves in the man from Uz, where do we? We find ourselves, when we come to the book’s end, in the place of Job’s friends. Who presume to know about God. Who presume to speak in God’s defense. Who presume to know what God is up to. And all the while our mouths are full of lies. We speak wrongly. We speak falsely. Our “knowledge” is falsehood. And the wrath of God is kindled against us.

But God, who is rich in mercy, does not leave us to his wrath. Instead, he comes to us as he came to Job’s friends and says, “Ask my servant to pray for you and I will relent.” Turn to the Mediator, who alone can take away your sins and restore you to relationship with me. He will stand between you and me and when he has prayed, you will be restored.

And this, of course, is the image that has been driving our Epistles these last weeks, taken from the book of Hebrews. Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest, in whose name we come boldly to the throne of Grace, who is the guarantee of a better covenant, who, as we read this morning, is a priest forever and who is able “for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” Unlike Job’s prayer for his friends, Jesus’ prayer for us and for our salvation never ends. His prayer, which has been from all eternity, which was enacted in our history in his incarnate life, death and resurrection, continues even now in heaven, where in his ascended humanity, he continues to pray for us. To take our presumptuous speech, which is always tainted by our sin, and sanctify it and present it to his father as the prayers of the faithful.

So, “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbor and intend to lead the new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways, draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.” The High Priest has prayed for us. And now he invites us to his talbe, that we, like Job’s family and children, might share in his blessings and in his very life.

 

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