During a season of struggle, you might want to consider a sermon series on Job which comes up in the lectionary in October. What follows are Rev. Mark Westmoreland’s thoughtful introductions to these texts along with four sermons. Mark is the pastor at Fayetteville First UMC.
The four Job texts offer the possibility of a four-part series of sermons, although it is certainly debatable whether any of us would want to do this during October and the stewardship season. Still, the story of Job gives us a chance to look at some issues that really touch people’s lives and explore allegorically some important Christian theology. If we follow the story of Job, we can look at:
• prosperity theology, our longing for magical control and our use of religion as a hedge against danger and suffering;
• the “silence of God” and the distance we feel;
• the importance of honesty before God even if that includes anger with God;
• the experience of God’s grace that passes understanding;
• and the new life we find by God’s grace.
I have led a couple of Bible studies of Job, basing the essential ideas and flow on a translation and commentary by Stephen Mitchell.
There are at least a couple of myths about the book of Job.
• The “patience of Job”: After the initial conversation with his wife in chapter 2, Job is anything but patience, demanding a hearing before God and angrily professing his innocence to friends who accuse him of some unknown sin.
• The question of suffering is the main focus of the book: Really, suffering is the entry point for a look at the questions of human control, the mystery of God and the journey into spiritual transformation. To use a term from Alfred Hitchcock, the question of suffering is the “McGuffin” of the story, the object of the search that becomes, in the end, secondary to the search itself.
Job forces us to look at our belief systems and how those systems can actually hinder our experience of God’s grace and truth. Job’s friends find their beliefs under attack by Job and are terrified (There is initially one key difference between Job and his friends; Job is suffering.). If the system of sacrifices and rituals they and Job have used to protect themselves from God’s wrath have proven ineffective for Job, then what will happen to them? If Job is suffering despite his innocence, then no one is safe. In order to defend their beliefs, they must make Job guilty and resort to lying for God.
Job’s struggle with his friends brings light to a similar struggle between Jesus and his opponents concerning the balance of law and grace, justice and mercy.
Job’s suffering isolates him completely and forces him to ask questions about his own control and God’s justice. His rage also forces him to a new level of honesty with God. He has to abandon the lies he has lived by.
October 4: I would change this text, using 1:1-5, instead of the lectionary text of 1:1, 2:1-10
If we use the 1:1-5 text, we can get to know the pre-suffering Job, a person who was extremely wealthy and also extremely afraid of losing what he had. He was so afraid that after feast days with his family, he would offer burnt offerings for all of them, “for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ That is what Job always did” (1:5b).
The story of Job’s losses—the lectionary text—can be told during the course of the sermon.
Job was a person who sought to build by his religious devotion a hedge around himself, his family and his possessions.
Download full sermon notes.
October 11: 23:1-9, 16-17 This is an expression of Job’s rage in the face of God’s silence.
This speech by Job follows a speech by one of his friends, Eliphaz, in chapter 22.
From Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary:
Eliphaz’s solution ... is simple: Job must give up his claim to innocence and interpret his suffering as deserved punishment, so that he can get on track with God. This is a powerful argument: It accentuates the absolute power of god; it advocates a piety about human evil and unworthiness before God, which gives the appearance of humility; and it addresses the problem of suffering. It is flawed because it lets God off the hook with the simple solution that good things come from God and evil things come from humans. But if this is true, then what is the point of making allegiance with God, because there is nothing permanent or transformative for humans in such actions? In other words, it is not possible to become a new person through the power of God. And this is why Job cannot agree with Eliphaz, but instead claims his innocence in the contest of suffering. Job is saying at least thrree things: One, that divine goodness has lasting effects on humans. This conclusion leads to two others that are interdependent: God does, indeed, delight in human righteousness as an end in itself; and that suffering, therefore, cannot be a reliable indicator of divine motive.
... [As a representative of orthodoxy] Eliphaz claims to speak for God ... and Eliphaz’s advice is presented as a clear statement of divine motive by one who should know about such things in a situation where experience certainly appears to support his argument. Job is presented with the unsavory choice of being religious and letting God off the hook, or of hanging on to God and being a heretic. The central point of tension in chapters 22-23 is this: The seemingly pious choice of interpreting disaster as justified punishment is, in fact, another way for Job to concede that God has had no lasting or transformative effect on him. ...
The lectionary text is Job’s response to Eliphaz. The power of this text is that it completely ignores the arguments of Eliphaz, which, quite frankly, are too strong given Job’s present circumstances. Instead, Job addresses the silence between himself and God. The language takes on legal connotations. Job has a complaint against God (v. 2), and he wishes to lay his case before God (v. 4). The rebelliousness of Job’s language appears blasphemous against the piety of Eliphaz. Yet it is the directness of Job’s complaint against God for being absent that demonstrates his integrity and allows him to pass the test momentarily.
What is God’s intention toward us? What does God want? Righteousness? Relationship? And how do we best find that?
And how does God reveal God’s self? Is it through messages via events in this world, as Job’s friends seem to argue? Our Christian gospel certainly applies here, especially as it relates to God’s message in the midst of suffering.
The PRCL comment above is interesting: “Job is presented with the unsavory choice of being religious and letting God off the hook, or of hanging on to God and being a heretic.” Job is not willing to surrender either his integrity or his relationship with God, a relationship that right now is marked by anger on one side and silence on the other.
The control sought by Job in his earlier days—a desire to control God through manipulation and placation—is no longer an option. He is in a new place now with no illusions or delusions. Stripped bare, he will settle for nothing less than a genuine encounter with God and an opportunity to press his case. “Tell me what you really want of me, God. No more games.”
Download full sermon notes.
October 18: 38:1-7, 34-41 (These verses could also be adjusted.)
This passage is part of God’s response to Job from the whirlwind. It really isn’t much of a response, if we judge it by the questions Job has been asking. No reasons for suffering are given. Instead, we are reminded that God is God, and we are not.
God is not a big version of us, working by our rules of fairness or justice. The silence of God is broken, but what Job ends up with is an experience of God beyond words.
This is a beautiful and poetic passage, carrying us into the primordial presence of God in creation. We are drawn into God’s mystery and power, into a place beyond logic and law.
Job’s friends sought to account for suffering by talking about God and by clarifying a singular divine motive in an ambiguous situation. Note how in the theophany God doesn’t actually talk about God or divine motive. One suspects that if god did, God would become one of Job’s friends by also attributing singular motive to situations that are inherently ambiguous. The test of the godly person is to trust divine motive and demand divine presence even when suffering is unjust. ... The literal questions that God places to Job in the lesson for this week underscore once again that Job is not a puppet of god, but has active influence in the creation. But how and when? The book of Job suggests that the integrity of the godly person—in a situation of innocent suffering—is one of the primary ways that humans aid God in controlling the chaos of creation.
Download full sermon notes.
October 25: 42:1-7, 10-17 (I have added verse 7.)
This is a remarkable passage. The first few verses, by the way, can be read as a dialogue between Job and God.
First, we have Job’s surrender (not submission necessarily, but surrender to a new understanding and experience of God). He did not find the answers he sought, but he found communion. There are limits to our understanding, a point at which we must let God be God and trust God’s grace.
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job’s lies and misconceptions have died, and he is reborn to a new understanding and experience of God. His honest struggle has brought him to this place of encounter with God. His friends, on the other hand, are scolded by God, “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”
The epilogue (vv. 10-17) is nothing less than a resurrection scene. All is restored, and more is given.
But the resurrection scene is not simply a restoration of what was: Again, Job has seven sons and three daughters, but now the daughters are given an unusual (for that day) prominence. They alone are named, and their names are whimsical—Dove, Cinnamon and Eye Shadow. And we are told that they are given an inheritance along with their brothers.
Why this emphasis on the daughters and why such interesting names? The closing scene is definitely more feminine somehow, and perhaps Job himself has come to a more “feminine” experience of God, less controlling and more open and receptive.
There is a definite contrast with the opening—from anxiety to peace and from a desire to control to an experience of grace.
There is something very “Christian” about Job’s experience. New life comes from honesty before God, not ritual purity, and grace is an experience of God’s presence. Job finally has to trust God to be God and realize that life and salvation are gifts.
Download full sermon notes.