Job 23: 1-9, 16-17:
2009-10-09 by Matthew Flemming
Job can be a bear to preach. I don’t know of another book in the Bible that drives preachers to attempts such easy facile answers to enormously complicated questions. The beginning of the narrative casts a picture of God’s realm (“the heavenly court”) that is much more reminiscent of pagan images of God than the rest of the Christian canon. One is reminded of Greek mythology where whims of the gods forever change the lives of women and men. Job’s suffering is born of a seemingly arbitrary and frivolous argument between God and Satan. At the conclusion of the book, Job’s fortunes are blessed twofold by God. However, he does not regain his lost family or livestock. They are forever lost. There certainly must be some vindication and even joy in his new family and animals but I cannot imagine that the wound from losing one’s children would ever heal. Many sermons take time to “other” the Book of Job at this point by pointing out its origins outside of Hebrew literature. But I do not think that this is particularly helpful for the vast majority of sermons on Job.
Job is in the canon which means that Israel, and later the church, concluded that it communicated something truthful about God. Along with many facile sermons, it has produced scores of deeply powerful and transformative sermons. I think that it is imperative that we take its images of God and humanity seriously. To do otherwise is to offer an implicit theodicy. This denies people the full experience of a text that has God has used to reveal truth to people for millennia. Counter testimony about God can be deeply edifying to congregants. Few of us live lives that can fit within the smooth lines of an unambiguous faith.
This week’s text (Job 23: 1-9, 16-17) speaks to a moment of faith that is recognizable to many people. The experience of feeling a “heavy hand” despite ones groaning is all too real for many people. It is also reminiscent of the groaning and crying out of Israel because of their oppression in Egypt. It is both an individual and collective experience in the life of God’s people. The fundamental dynamic at play in this text is the experience of the absence of God ("If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him (23: 8-9)) and Job’s deep desire to find God and make his case (Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. (Job 23:3-4)). The combination of both elements paints a profound picture of faith; a continual seeking of God despite the terror of perceiving that God is absence. I think a sermon on this passage needs to tend to that dynamic. Try and think through images and narratives that point to the occurrence of such dedicated seeking of God despite real suffering in the world. I am sure many examples come to mind.
Following the rhetorical arc of the passage will guide the structure of the sermon. Job starts with his groaning and builds through Job’s declaration of his desire to see God. But it is a desire tempered in the reality that Job does not know if he will be able to find God. This enables Job (and creates space for your sermon) to acknowledge how frightening his circumstances are; how terrifying it is to feel God’s absence. As I said in an earlier post, naming that reality is a very important first step in the movement towards providing an alternative scriptural vision that speaks to the difficult place people are in during such times in their lives. The final movement out of the text begins with the acknowledgement that, in the end, Job did not find God; God found him. Although, in some ways, God’s answer was as difficult to comprehend as Job’s question, it contains the root of the response the Bible gives time and again to those that cry out to God: God never abandons God’s people. Although there are times when God seems to withdraw, God always returns to redeem God’s people. This is not a linear answer. Frankly, it raises a lot of additional questions. I highly recommend that you allow people to maintain the tension they feel between the promises of God and their circumstances. Such tension is both honest and important in the growth towards mature faith. But do not minimize the importance for people knowing that God does not abandon people. Of course, if you want your sermon to be more than rhetoric, then the church in which it is delivered must seek to embody what you proclaim. The assertion that the church is the “Body of Christ” is not merely an image in the New Testament; it is a guiding principle for how the church engages the world. Without such a principle we risk making the Word seem like a hypocrite.
Didn't Get the Memo
2009-10-09 by Matthew Flemming
Apparently the Flu and Croup did not get the memo that I was busy blogging in the homiletical Hot tub this week. Maybe they decided to take over my home anyway. I apologize for falling behind my schedule. My two boys (ages 5 and 3) came down with a nasty flu on Tuesday. My eldest developed a case of Croup by Wednesday evening which led to a long and scary night for our family until he was properly diagnosed and medicated. Everyone is on the mend now (he has reaffirmed his status as the bravest person I know) and so I am going to try and catch up. Rather than write long form posts, I am going to provide a few insights into these texts that assist me in proclaiming them. Hopefully by the end of the day we will be caught up.
Thanks from the Softball Pitcher
2009-10-09 by David von Schlichten
First, congratulations to President Obama on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Thanks be to God!
Next, I am grateful to guest blogger Matthew Flemming for his probing reflection in response to my question. I had asked how God fulfills the promise to give a hundredfold to those of us who have made huge sacrifices to follow him. Many people do without, despite having committed themselves to God. Where is the promised abundance? Scroll down to benefit from Matthew's response.
In addition to Matthew's thoughts, I am thinking that the hundredfold abundance comes from our being part of that gigantic family called the Church. We may have to give up our earthly family to follow Christ, and that sacrifice pierces with pain. What we gain, though, is billions of Christians and intimacy with the heavenly Father.
This Sunday, though, I am going to preach on persistence. The rich man in Mark walks away too soon, gives up too easily. God calls us, and then God calls us to be persistent with him. As we do so, the Spirit reveals to us just how gracious and loving God is. If only the rich man had stuck around to hear Jesus say, "For God, all things are possible."
What will you preach?
Not a Nobel laureate (yet), I am nevertheless
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
A Softball Question From Our Moderator.
2009-10-07 by Matthew Flemming
Thank you for your kind words. I am really enjoying participating in the blog. Thank you for having me.
Just in case anyone does not realize I was joking in calling your question a softball, let me just say that this is a profound question about who our God is and how God engages us when we seek to be faithful. It is just the kind of question that we should be preaching about. I always sense a hunger in congregations for pastors to address deep and meaningful questions. It does not mean that we always need to have all of the answers but taking seriously the issues of faith that people wrestle with demonstrates a profound trust in God and each other. It also models for people an approach to bringing all of ourselves to God even when that includes doubt or anger. This is crucial in creating space for people to grow in their faith. In my own preaching, I have found that when I am humble in addressing the difficult issues of God, that God has enabled me to “sin boldly” in the pulpit in ways that were of great benefit to the church. Often the conversations with congregants after I have wrestled (or perhaps the better term is flailed) with difficult questions is far more meaningful than the sermon I delivered. But it would not have been possible without a sermon to begin the conversation.
Enough prologue. On to the question…
When God blesses the faithful in scripture the blessing is always wed to a deeper experience of the presence of God. Even in those times in the Old Testament when material riches (land, wealth, etc) are granted to the faithful, it is always seen as a physical manifestation of the blessing of God’s presence to Israel. The greatest fear of the writers of the Old Testament is that God will withdraw (“Take not thy Holy Spirit from me”). You see this as well in the New Testament, first the disciples and then the church as a whole (on Pentecost) are given the Holy Spirit to lead and empower their ministry. Yet, at the same time, there are repeatedly declarations in the Gospels and the epistles that faithfulness will be met by persecution. How can we understand how these two seemingly contrasting facts (God’s presence and persecution) hold together. Or as David put it, “Where’s the promised abundance?”.
At the root of this issue is the most difficult of questions: “Why evil?”. On one level, this question is unanswerable. The existence of evil demands a great deal of faith as it seems so pointless and unnecessary for our God to allow such a thing. You can count on me being at the front of the line when it comes time to ask God: “Why?”. That said, God seems to demand such faith from us. One of my favorite preachers is Scott Black Johnston of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York. Scott once wrote a deeply moving sermon on God’s response to Job (Job 38-40:2) where he cast God’s answer to Job as an affirmation of God’s love for every inch of creation. I had often read that text as basically God saying: “I am God and you are not so be quiet!” but in Scott’s reading is was God describing his loving engagement with the entire world as if to say, “If I show such care for every cloud, bear and ox, how could you doubt my love for you?”. Now this is not an answer to the question of why evil occurs and as such it can be intellectually unsatisfying. But I think that it is true to life and it provides a profound meditation on the difficult nature of the faith that God requires of us.
When Peter (or Jesus or Paul) states that the faithful will be blessed abundantly, I do not believe that he is talking about a blessing that somehow occurs elsewhere while we remain in the mire of the world. As I said in my post yesterday, the division between the spiritual and the material is a false dichotomy. The God of the Bible is not an otherworldly being. Scripture conveys a story of a God who continually chooses to be for and with us, who claims and loves all of creation. As in the scriptural narratives we preach, the abundance of God is a greater awareness and engagement with the presence of God in the world. There will be times when that presence is followed by material gain; there are times when it is not.
One of the finest teachers I ever had was a New Testament scholar named Donald Juel. His reading of scripture lead him to believe that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was that God did not demand the death of Jesus as appeasement. But that Jesus, death was inevitability in a fallen, sinful world because the a world could not bear the presence of such abundant love and therefore had to destroy it. Juel believed that the resurrection was the destruction of that power and the victory of God’s love. Jesus’ experience with suffering and death did not mean that God’s abundance was not present in his life. Many of you will recognize that this week’s passage from Psalm 22 contains the final words of Christ on the cross: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”. Like the Psalm, the Gospel testifies that God did not abandon God’s servant to death. Many of us proclaim a creed that states that Christ descended into hell. Whatever your image of hell, the fact that God resurrected Christ from there demonstrates that there is no place in creation that is beyond the abundant love of God. As the body of Christ, the church continues to reveal that love to the world.
This does not mean that persecution will fade away. If you read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, you are able to bear witness to a remarkable faith during a period of persecution that only ended with Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom. Yet, his writings swell with the experience of God’s abundance, here and now, in Bonhoeffer’s life. By the time that Bonhoeffer was executed, not only where other witnesses worshipping with him, but his guards as well. This does not pardon evil but it does demonstrate that its power was broken in Bonhoeffer’s life; both in the experience of suffering and the fear of death.
As preachers, communicating this reality is one of our most important tasks. I find that I cannot preach enough about the presence of God with us in the world and the resurrection of Christ. Not because God’s presence and resurrection provide people a ticket out of this world but because they are evidence of continuation of God’s abundant presence and the growth of our engagement with God that suffering and death cannot hinder or destroy. Which is why, like Paul, I believe that: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Scripture tells us that such abundance occurs in this world. I think many of God’s disciples can witness to the fact that they have experienced this reward in a literal way even if their lives have not always been easy.
Ask Matthew a Question; "Lectionary Homiletics" Highlight
2009-10-07 by David von Schlichten
Matthew Flemming, our guest blogger, invites you to ask him a question about this week's lessons. You can read an answer to a submitted question below. I, also, have submitted a question and am looking forward to Matt's response.
Lectionary Homiletics Highlight:
"Exegesis": Jennifer Knust does a sharp job of explicating the socio-eonomic context of the gospel, which is especially germane to understanding the passage. Jennifer also explains text variants, such as the replacing of "camel" with "rope" to soften the hyperbole. In general, she does an intelligent job of highlighting the radicality of the text and the painful reality of poverty and persecution for Mark's original readers.
Grab your hermeneutical rubber ducky and dive into the tub!
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
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