Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Job 1-2 On the Ash-Heap

Why do bad things happen to good people? When you open your newspaper or turn on the TV, you’re quickly confronted with bad news. And it makes you wonder. Why do bad things happen to good people?

Sometimes we can be very clinical, very philosophical, very detached from the question. It becomes a theoretical plaything, to return to and argue about back and forward. For some it can be a compelling reason to remain an unbeliever - as they point to suffering and say, surely God is either not powerful or not good.

But as we sit with Job, we’ll come to see that there are no easy and quick answers. You see, Job isn’t a casual observer, able to recline on his armchair and consider the plight of others. No, Job is no armchair theologian, rather he is, if you like, he is a wheelchair theologian. Job wrestles with these questions (and his so-called friends) from on top of an ash pit, having been personally afflicted.

The first verses of the book of Job provide us with a fine introduction to the man. What was it struck you about him as the verses were read earlier? Was it his big family (seven sons and three daughters)? Was it his thousands of livestock (sheep camels, oxen, donkeys)? His servants? Maybe it was the declaration in verse 3 that he was ‘the greatest of all the people of the east’. Yet I want to suggest that the most important thing we’re told about Job is found in verse one: ‘that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.’

It’s not saying that Job never sinned. He’s not blameless by being perfect. Rather, he is blameless and upright because he ‘feared God and turned away from evil.’ He is one who fears and therefore trusts God, and turns from evil. Those two words, blameless and upright describe his standing before God - blameless; and his dealings with other people - upright. Job is someone you would want on the church eldership, or to serve on the Select Vestry. A model Christian, a pillar of the community.

Yet in just one day, his world is turned upside down. It’s like a personal 9/11, a day he will never forget, as the devastating blows continue to rain down on him, with the out-of-breath arrivals of four of his servants. One of the events would be tragic, but together, Job has his disaster day. First the oxen and donkeys are taken by the Sabeans. Then the fire of God (thunder?) consumes the sheep. Then the Chaldeans capture the camels. Then the word arrives of the simultaneous death of all ten of his children. What a haunting refrain echoes in his ear: ‘And I alone have escaped to tell you.’ Left with just these four servants, and his wife. Total devastation.

How would you react? Would you do what Job does next? Verse 20: ‘Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped.’ His first response is not to curse God, but to worship God. His security was not in his possessions, but rather in his God.

This is brought out in his words, in verse 21: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’ Notice that this isn’t a Stoic kind of que sera sera, whatever will be will be kind of attitude. He’s not saying, well, whatever happens we can deal with it, that’s luck or fate or chance.

No, what Job expresses is a firm, unwavering faith in the face of terrible events. He recognises the Lord’s sovereignty, both in giving, and in taking, and will bless the Lord either way. Remember what Paul says in Philippians 4 - I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. Plenty or hungry; abundance or need - ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’

Now as if all that wasn’t bad enough, another day comes soon after, in chapter 2, and Job’s body is covered by loathsome sores. Can you imagine the pain, the misery? It’s so bad that his only comfort is to scrape himself with a piece of broken pottery, while sitting in the ashes.

It’s too much for his wife to bear. Her solution is simple: ‘Curse God and die.’ But look at how Job responds: ‘You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’

You might be wondering how Job could be going through such a painful period. Why did all this bad stuff happen to him? In popular thinking, there’s the idea of some kind of cosmic karma. What you give is what you get. So do good things and good things will happen to you. Or do bad things and watch out.

But even inside the church we can see this kind of thing - if you pay in, or attend every meeting, or be nice to people, then good things will happen to you. And if something bad happens, then God mustn’t like you - or you must have done something really bad. In later weeks we’ll see this come up in the book as Job’s comforters (poorly named, I know) try to use this kind of prosperity theology against Job. There truly is nothing new under the sun.

So did Job do something bad? Was he a secret sinner which led to his sudden suffering? Is there a simple correlation between goodness and prosperity, between badness and bad health?

It would be so easy if there was. But it’s not like that. We see Christians who go through immense suffering, or who are cut down at a young age, while the wicked go from strength to strength. We see believers struggle to eke out a living on sparse crops while sinners waste more food than they eat.

Behind the scenes, unknown by Job, there is another series of events occurring. We see this in both chapters. It’s as if the TV programme cuts from the earthly scene to the heavenly throne room, then back to earth. One commentator suggests its like stage left and stage right in a theatre play. We see the whole thing, but Job is unaware of what has occurred. Our behind-the-scenes all-access pass helps us to understand more than Job can know, and helps us to see at least a little better how this could happen, and why we sometimes are faced with suffering.

Verse 6 presents us with the heavenly throne room. The sons of God (angels) are present, and Satan is there too. Satan literally means the accuser, and seems to be the DPP of heaven - the Director of Public Prosecutions. His job is to investigate if God’s people are as they should be, accusing them of wrongdoing.

God brings the conversation round to Job, and Satan reacts in fine form. Of course Job worships God - after all, look how he is profiting from his faith. If God is protecting him and giving him so much, then Job would be a fool not to side with God. But Satan’s opinion is that if his wealth was gone, then Job will curse God. It’s a challenging question, isn’t it? Why do we worship God? Are we only in it for what we get out of it? How would your motives stack up? This is the question that runs through the entire book: what sort of believer is Job? Is he genuine, or phoney?

God lays the challenge, and allows Satan to take away all that Job has, but without afflicting Job himself. And so Satan goes off and arranges the day of devastation. Job doesn’t know why it has happened, and yet he passes the challenge - Satan said in verse 12 ‘Touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face’ but verse 22 affirms that ‘In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.’ That would be 1-0 to God, then.

Then the second challenge follows swiftly. ‘Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his own life. But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.’ Even with his wife’s provocation, ‘In all this Job did not sin with his lips.’ 2-0 to God.

So even though Job doesn’t know what’s happening in the heavenlies, what can we learn from it? There are three important things to notice here, and to carry through the entire book.

1. Satan has real influence. Satan is indeed the accuser of the brethren, and is heard by the LORD. But let’s be clear:

2. God is absolutely sovereign. Satan and God are not two equally powerful agents who are in constant battle, getting the better of each other as things move back and forward between them. No, God is sovereign - the LORD reigns, and Satan answers to him. It is the LORD who first mentions Job and brings him into view. It is the LORD who invites Satan to consider him. And it is the LORD who sets the limits of Satan’s activity - verse 12 ‘Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.’ Luther called Satan, ‘God’s Satan’ - like a dog on a leash. Yet God in his sovereignty gives a terrible permission. This might just be the most scandalous aspect of Job. God sometimes gives terrible permissions.

3. Job really is blameless. We’ve already noticed this earlier, but it’s essential to mention it again. The LORD affirms the verdict of verse 1 as he talks to Satan: ‘Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?’ Job is blameless, has no unforgiven sin to be punished for, yet these things happen to him. Sometimes in the Bible we do see people suffering for their sin, perhaps even instantaneously - the Israelites grumbling in the desert being bitten by snakes; or Ananias and Sapphira dropping dead after lying to the apostles about the proceeds of the sale of property. But not all suffering is as the result of sin.

Satan has influence, Job really is blameless, and God is truly sovereign. Job doesn’t know why this has happened, yet he remains faithful to the LORD, continues to trust in him. As we begin in Job, let me challenge you to take some time over the next few weeks and read through the book. You’ll find the text challenging, perhaps surprising. But for us to journey with Job, we have to sit with him, listening to his pain, and sharing in his faith.

Perhaps you’re suffering right now. Job is a companion, a fellow sufferer, who points us to faith in the LORD. Job is described as ‘my servant Job’, yet that is no guarantee of immunity from suffering. Isn’t that what we see in the cross? The servant of the Lord, his own dear Son, losing everything, suffering and dying - yet through his suffering we receive healing; through his dying we receive life; through his forsakenness we receive hope and welcome.

This sermon was preached as part of the 'Out of the Storm' series in the book of Job on Ash Wednesday 10th February 2016 at the Lent Midweek service in Aghavea Parish Church.

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