Sermon: When the Wheels Fall Off

Audio is available here: When the Wheels Fall Off

It is Back to Church Sunday. And if you are visiting with us, I hope that you have been welcomed not only by your inviters,  but by others here. I hope too that you’ll stay for a cup of coffee afterwards and that I have a chance to connect with you.

If you are visiting with us (and even if you’re not), you might just be wondering about the first reading for today. After all, it’s Back to Church Sunday. And not only that, but it is the Thanksgiving long weekend. Shouldn’t the readings be a little more uplifting than that? “Welcome to our church. We hope you feel at home here. Now listen to a story about a man who was the victim of a bet between God and the Satan. A man who in three quick blows, lost his wealth, his family and his own health. A man who, when we meet him, is sitting on an ash heap, scraping what the scriptures call his “loathsome sores” with a piece of broken pottery.”

Why this story?

There are several reasons that I could offer. But I’ll only offer one here. This story on this day is, to my mind at least, God’s blessing. There is no better story to have as our lesson when we regulars are thinking especially about visitors, and when there are some visitors with us. Would I have chosen it? No, probably not. It was given to me. And it was a gift I didn’t want on Monday morning when I first began to read and to think. But it was given and so I read and so I thought. And I have come to see it as a gift. It’s a gift because it gets us off the hook right up front about false expectations and false images of what Christian faith might look like.

Perhaps you know the false expectation I mean: becoming a Christian is a guarantee of a great life, full of material prosperity, happy families, great friends and nothing ever goes wrong.

And of course, stuff does go wrong all the time. Christians too get cancer. Christians too get divorced. Christians too have kids who’ve made a mess of their lives. There is no problem or suffering or evil common to the human race from which Christians are immune. Christians too sometimes find themselves like job—sitting in the ashes of loss and scraping the sores of our suffering trying to figure out just what is going on.

There are times for everyone, whether we are Christians or skeptics or adhere to another faith or none at all, there are times when the wheels fall off. When all our plans fall apart because of a job loss, a disease, a death. And we might as well say so upfront.

Job is part of our scriptures because what happens to Job is what happens to all of us. And that is good news, it seems to me, because it tells us that authentic Christian faith is one familiar with suffering, and one that not only allows, but even helps us express, the questions, doubts, anger and frustration that such suffering produces.

So, we’re going to sit with Job. There on the ash heap. Today, and not just today. But for the next three Sundays too. We’re going to sit with Job on the ash heap. We’re going to hear the set-up—that’s today. We’re going to hear Job’s complaint—that’s next week. We’ll hear God’s response in two weeks. And we’ll see how things turn out for Job to end our series.

So today, let’s look further at this fellow named Job, for whom the wheels have fallen off.

When we meet him, he is blameless and upright. He fears God. He avoids evil. He is a fellow who does everything right. You might have met people like Job. They’re the people who have been dealt a good hand by life. They have great spouses. They have wonderful kids. They have good jobs that they enjoy and lives that are the envy of just about everyone. But you can’t be envious of them or jealous because not only do they have it all, but they are generous with their wealth. They’re always at the fundraiser for this church or that charity. Twice a month, you see them helping at the foodbank or soup kitchen. They’re hosting dinner parties for their friends so often that you wonder how they can do it all. They have discovered the secret to the good life. That’s Job.

But then, so suddenly that you can almost feel the jerk in your bones, the scene switches from earth, and the happy Job family, to heaven. The heavenly court is now in session. The angels have come to present themselves before God. And “Satan” is there too. And you just know he’s going to go after Job. It’s what one commentator calls, “Satan vs. the Sweetie in a grudge-style-cage-match showdown of Good vs. Evil.”

But that’s not what’s going on. The word Satan here is not a proper name in the original language in which the story was written. It’s a title. It means, the Accuser. This heavenly being has a role in God’s heavenly court. Try to imagine it. The judge of all the earth has taken his throne. And the prosecuting attorney presents the case against Job—that’s what’s going on.

The accuser, in the story, has a job to do in other words. He serves God as much as the other heavenly beings do. Indeed, God positively begs him, in our story, to turn his accusing eye to Job, to see if he can find some flaw, some fault in this upright, blameless, wealthy and happy man. “Have you considered my servant Job?” asks God “There is no one like him.” And the accuser, doing his job, says simply, “Take away his blessings and see what he does then. He serves you because you have prospered him. But take away his family and wealth and see what happens.” And Job’s wealth and family are destroyed in a part of the story that we passed over today. Then, when Job remains blameless, the Accuser pushes God further. “Take away his health, too.” And God does. That is the part we read today.

Why spend so much time here? Because the writer of the story is not fixated on the Devil as we might be. As far as the writer is concerned, all this comes from God. It is God who is the author of Job’s blessings. It is God, not the Accuser, who removes them. God is responsible for what happens to Job in this story. And that is something we need to keep in mind if we are going to read this story rightly.

Now comes the conflict that will drive the story for the remainder of the book—it is the conflict that lies at the heart of faith. It is embodied in the question of Job’s wife: “Do you still persist in your integrity?” She asks.

The meaning of the question is unclear. She might mean, “Do you still want a relationship with God who has done this to you?” but “Do you still say you have not sinned and yet suffer so?” is also possible. Both make sense. And both lead into her following command: “Curse God and die.” Whether God is unworthy of belief or Job is living in sinful self-delusion, the result is the same. Lie down and die, Job. Lie down and die.

But Job won’t lie down. Listen to his answer:  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” Only fifteen words in English translation, but so much is packed in there! It is not simply a rebuke to his wife—though given what he says immediately before it, it is that. Much more than that it is a rebuke of one strand of theology that finds its way into the pages of the Bible: the idea that God blesses the faithful and punishes the wicked.  That suffering is always to be experienced as God’s punishment for sin whilst prosperity is proof of God’s blessing.

Job knows in his heart that this way of thinking is false. He knows God is in control and is good. He knows that he has lived an upright life. And he knows—does he know!—that he is suffering. And he cannot fit them together.  His question, shall we accept the good and not the bad, is not an embrace of fatalism. Some sort of “God is God. Que sera, sera.”

For as the book unfolds from here it becomes clear that Job is not about to let “whatever will be” come about without questioning. Without arguing. Without—and this  is important—reversing the arrangement of the heavenly court. When the book opens, God is the judge. God asks the questions. As the book unfolds, the arrangement is reversed. Job takes up the role of the accuser. God, as far as Job is concerned, stands as the accused. And he begs for a judge to hear the case. He will take the bad from the hand of God as surely as he has taken the good. But that does not mean that he is resigned. That does not mean that he is stoic. That does not mean that he is placid. No, he is angry. He has questions. He has a case to make. And he wants answers.

This opening scene in the drama that is the book of Job thus sets up what is the question that every person of faith must confront at some point or other if that faith is going to come to maturity. And that question is asked not of the Devil. That would be too easy. To ask it of the devil is to already have it answered. The devil, after all, is supposed to try to make our lives miserable. No the question is God is directed to God. “Why, God, is this happening? This makes no sense!” That’s the question that the faithful person following in Job’s footsteps, asks.

And what is striking to me, as the opening scene closes, is that Job’s asking of this question, Job’s challenge to the theology of his day, is not a sign of sinfulness or faithlessness. Rather, the question is given to us in the pages of Holy Scripture as an expression of a genuine relationship with God.

Will Job’s question be answered? If so, by whom? How will this turn out? We’ll turn to those questions over the next three weeks. In the meantime, we need to paus and ask just what we are going to do with this part of the story. What are we going to do with Job sitting on the ash heap, scraping his sores, being berated by his wife. How on earth is this good news?

It’s good news because it communicates to us—whether we are visitors or regulars—that Christian faith is a realistic faith. It deals in real world problems it does not deny the way things are. Some of you might remember the parody of Christian faith offered in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Do you remember the crucifixion scene, where the victims sing, “Always look on the bright side of life”? What a scathing indictment of so much of faith—and not just Christian faith—that pretends all is well even when it so obviously isn’t. Job in in our Bibles to remind us that Christian faith deals with this world—a world that is lost in sin and full of suffering. When God’s own son utters from his Cross, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” he is dealing with this world, living in this world, dying in this world. Where all is not right far too much of the time.

It is good news secondly because it communicates to us—whether we are visitors or regulars—that a relationship with God is one in which Job’s question can be asked. “What is going on here God?” That’s not a sign of immaturity, or sin. It is a sign of authenticity and deep faith. And here of all places, should be a place where you are free to ask it. Here especially a word to those who might be visiting us today, whether after a short time or a long time or for the first time. You are welcome here. With your version of this question, you are welcome here.

When you can’t ask it, we’ll ask it for you.

When you can’t pray it, we’ll pray it for you.

When you’re not sure that God is listening or is even there at all, we’ll listen and be present as best we can.

Not because we’re perfect. Goodness me, that’s far from the case at least as far as the priest is concerned But because all of us—I hope anyway—have come to know that we are never too far from asking that question ourselves. If Job can ask it, if God’s own Son can ask it, then so can we. And so can you.

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