A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on October 7, 2012.
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Job: 1:1, 2:1-10
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
2One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips (NRSV).
Imagine a world where religion is rewarded, where the quickest way to get rich is to read the Bible, and say your prayers, and go to church. Imagine a world where the righteous live in the nicest homes and drive the newest cars, where they enjoy happy, healthy marriages and their children always do well in school. And while you’re at it imagine that in that same world sinners always suffer, that they are the ones who stand in line at the free clinic and beg on the streets. They are the ones who live in cardboard boxes in back alleys alone, without friends or family to make their lives more bearable. Imagine a world where you can tell who the righteous are, and who the sinners are, simply by looking at the outward circumstances of their lives. If you can do that, if you can imagine a world like that, then perhaps you can imagine the world described by the biblical Book of Job, where God sits on a throne in heaven and hands out rewards for the righteous with one hand and punishment for the wicked with the other.
Today we begin a four-week journey through that book. It’s one that comes to mind for many people when they think about innocent suffering, when they wonder why “bad things happen to good people.” Sometimes we talk about people having “the patience of Job” when they are forced to deal with incredibly difficult circumstances. But other than that we don’t talk about it much. We leave Job back there in the Old Testament and turn our thoughts to the New. We can’t imagine that Job has much relevance for Christians. But in his introduction Dr. James L. Crenshaw writes, “The central theme of the Book of Job is the possibility of disinterested righteousness. The author asks whether virtue depends on a universe that operates by the principle of reward and punishment. At stake is the very survival of religious faith. If people will serve God without thought of the carrot or the stick, then religion will outlast any eventuality. Even innocent suffering will not quench the fires of spiritual devotion.”[i] What Dr. Crenshaw doesn’t say is that, if people won’t serve a God who doesn’t reward them, then religious faith will not survive, and that’s where I’m afraid we’re headed in America.
I’ve had email from friends in the past week asking if everybody else’s church attendance is down, or if it’s just theirs. On Facebook some of my colleagues are saying their churches are way behind in giving, and wondering how to catch up. I saw statistics recently that suggested as many as 95 percent of the people in this country still claim to believe in God, while in Europe only 35 percent of the people do. But I’m wondering if we are about to go the way of Europe, if we are standing on the very edge of the abyss, about to give up on a God who doesn’t reward us more than he does. I sometimes say, “If Christians never got sick, if they always had money in the bank, if they were admired and respected by their peers, then everybody would be Christian. The churches would be packed, and the offering plates would be overflowing.” But it’s not like that, is it? Not by a long shot. I think there are Christians in America who are beginning to lose their faith in God, simply because Christianity isn’t paying off for them in the way they had hoped it would. In times like these maybe the best thing we can do is take a long, hard look at the Book of Job.
The author begins by asking us to imagine the kind of world I’ve described: a world where righteousness is rewarded and sin is punished. The most righteous man in that world is a man from the land of Uz whose name is Job, “a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil,” and you’d better believe he was rewarded for it. He had seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels. He had five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys and very many servants. The author says he was “the greatest of all the people in the east,” meaning that he was the richest man in the land. And just in case you missed the point that he was rich because he was righteous, the author tells us about the feasting his children used to do—long, loud, extravagant parties just like you might expect from the children of the fabulously wealthy. But when their feasting was over Job would send and sanctify them, and then he would get up early in the morning to offer sacrifices on their behalf, “burnt offerings according to the number of them all,” for, as Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” And this is what Job always did. The smoke of those burnt offerings rose like sweet perfume to tickle the nostrils of God, who sat on his throne in heaven.
One day the heavenly beings came and presented themselves before the Lord, and Satan came along with them. Now, you need to know that in this world Satan is not the devil. He’s not the one we usually think of, with horns and a pitchfork. In fact, in this story, he is called “The Satan,” with the definite article, the way you might talk about “the mailman” or “the dogcatcher.” He is one of the heavenly beings who has an official role, and this is it: he is supposed to go to and fro on the earth, to walk up and down on it, and to see what people are up to. His title means, “The Accuser,” and if he finds someone doing something they are not supposed to, he accuses them before the Lord so that the Lord can mete out the proper punishment. So, picture the Accuser if you can, looking not so much like the picture on a can of Underwood Deviled Ham, but more like a prosecuting attorney.
He stands before the Lord who asks him, “Where have you come from?” “From going to and fro on the earth, and walking up and down on it,” Satan answers. “Have you considered my servant Job?” the Lord asks. “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” And then Satan asks the question anyone might want to ask in a world like that: “Well, why wouldn’t he love you and serve you? Every time he does you reward him! You’ve built a hedge of protection around him, and blessed everything that he does. He keeps piling up more and more and more possessions. But if you took all that away from him, if you left him with nothing, he would curse you to your face.” And maybe we need to stop right there for a moment, because I’ve known too many people like that, people who love and serve the Lord until something terrible happens to them and then they give up their faith. “He used to come to church every Sunday,” we say. “Used to teach a Sunday school class until his wife died in that car wreck. Now we don’t see him much anymore. I hear he’s not going to church anywhere.” Sometimes that happens to people: adversity makes them bitter rather than better. But God has faith in his servant Job. He believes that he will remain faithful no matter what. And so he says to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him.”
Which brings us to the worst day of Job’s life.
It might have happened just after breakfast. He might have been having a second cup of coffee, looking through the business section of the local newspaper, when one of his servants came barging through the door.
“Bad news, sir. The Sabeans have attacked. They stole your donkeys, all 500 of them. They stole your oxen, all 500 yoke. And they killed all of us who were watching them, all except me.” While he was still gasping for breath another servant rushed in.
“Bad news, sir. There was a big electrical storm. Lightning has killed all your sheep, all 7,000 of them. Not only that, it killed all your servants who were watching them. I’m the only one left.” While he was still panting another servant stumbled through the door.
“Bad news, sir. The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on your camels, and carried them off, all three thousand of them. Not only that, they killed the servants who were watching them. All except me. I’m the only one alive.” But no sooner had he said it than another servant pushed into the room, out of breath.
“Bad news, sir. The worst kind of bad. Your children were eating and drinking in the oldest son’s house. A big wind blew in off the desert, hit the corner of the house and knocked it flat. Everybody inside was killed—all seven sons, all three daughters—I barely got out in time and came running here to tell you.”
And that was it. That was the complete ruin of Job. Everything he had—everything—had been lost in a single morning. And yet, as we’ve been told, “he was a blameless and upright man, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” He got up from the table and said something that sounded both pious and brave: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all of this, we are told, Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
But then we come to today’s reading from chapter two. Once again the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and once again the Accuser was with them. The Lord asked him, “Where have you come from?” And Satan answered, “From going to and fro upon the earth, and walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth; a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” God is winning his bet, and he’s proud of himself, proud of Job! “He still persists in his integrity,” God says, “although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” But Satan says, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” And again God takes the bet. “Very well,” he says. “He is in your power; only spare his life.”
And so began the second-worst day of Job’s life.
Almost overnight he was covered with loathsome sores, from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And what did Job do? Did he curse God to his face? No, he did not. He went out to the ash pile with a piece of broken pottery and sat there, scraping himself. It’s about the most pitiful picture of a human being you can imagine. And while he sat there his wife came out and said, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” But Job looked up at her through his scabby eyelids, and spoke to her through his blistered lips: “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” In all of this, the author says, “Job did not sin with his lips,” which sets him apart from almost all the rest of us. We’re pretty good about loving and serving God as long as he loves and serves us, but if we begin to get the feeling that he has turned away from us we often turn away from him.
Which brings us back to Dr. Crenshaw’s opening statement. Do we think we live in a world that operates on the principle of reward and punishment? Do we really believe that God rewards the righteous and punishes the sinner? If so, then all our so-called righteousness is called into question. It begins to look like nothing more than a way to win God’s favor and secure our own success. Tell me: is there anyone among you who loves and serves the Lord simply because you suspect he will reward you if you do? Is there anyone among you who loves and serves the Lord simply because you’re afraid he will punish you if you don’t? What kind of religion is that? A friend of mine used to tell the story about the man who went around with a flaming torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other and when people asked him why he would say, “I want to burn up heaven and quench the fires of hell so that people will serve God because he’s God!” Is that what we do? Do we serve God because he’s God? Or do we serve him because we think we might get something out of it, or because we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t?
In this story, God allowed the Accuser to take away everything Job had, and to afflict him with a horrible disease, but in all this we are told, “Job did not sin against the Lord, did not speak one word against him.” How many of us would do the same? That’s the question the Book of Job asks us to consider, and in these next few weeks we will do exactly that.
[i] From the introduction to the Book of Job in the HarperCollins Study Bible.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.