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 A Matter of Integrity

Sermon - 10/21/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Job 2:1-10

I want to begin a very short series this morning, this Sunday and next, just two Sundays, to look at the story of Job. Because that story, I think, is one of the most challenging as well as one of the most rewarding stories in scripture.

This morning we're going to look just at the prologue of Job, that is found in the first couple of chapters, and then next Sunday we'll look at the poetic section of Job that runs from chapter 3 through 41 (there's a lot there, I'm not going to cover it all, don't worry :).

The story of Job begins by telling us that Job is "blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil". So in other words, Job, in the eyes of God, is the perfect human being. Can't get any better, you know. And that's the irony of the story, because that's what gets him into trouble! It's his un-doing. For God is so confident in his goodness and his faithfulness to God, that God engages in sort of a divine wager, a little 'bet', so to speak, with a member of the Divine Council, the Satan (pronounced 'Say-Taun'), that Job will remain true to his faith no matter what.

Now, we have to stop right there and deal with the first thorny theological issue this raises. I suspect there is someone out there thinking "Wait a second, did you just say what I thought I heard you say? There's a Satan in God's Divine Council? What is that, and how can that be?"

So right here, we have our first clue that this story is not always what we think. And furthermore, it's going to shake some people up. And what it's going to shake up the most is the conventional wisdom about God -- the very notion that religious life is about a reward for the good and punishment for the evil. And if such a notion is important to your religious beliefs, then you need to read Job. But you may not like it, because it's going to challenge some of those things.

So in regards to this whole issue of Satan that appears here in this text, what you need to know is that there is no correlation between this Say-Taun (as I call it), and the Satan that is more familiar to us (you know, that horned, red-devil beast that appears on Halloween). This Say-Taun is not that Satan. The word here is simply the Hebrew word for "the accuser". And so this is the, so to speak, the prosecuting attorney in God's court, whose job it is to find the law-breakers and to bring them to justice. So in other words, it is Say-Taun's job to punish the evil-doers. And I would suspect that's how the whole concept of the Satan, or the Devil, as the one who does that, in a way, for God. But that notion does not exist when this was written. Indeed, that kind of notion of a Devil, the head of the underworld, does not exist in the Old Testament at all -- it's not found anywhere. You have to be creative to read that into the scriptures. That concept of a devil, the Satan, does not emerge until the inter-testimal period, between the writing of the Old Testament and then the New Testament. So yes, it's very prevalent in the New Testament, very prevalent thought in the time of Jesus, but did not exist during the time of the writing of the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures.

So, in any case, this Say-Taun, then, doubts that anyone can be as pure and as good as God thinks that Job is. And so the Say-Taun challenges God, and says "Oh yeah, prove it, let's see". Now, if that idea upsets you, that God would respond to such a notion of testing someone, just to prove something, I mean, that should upset you. I find it a very troubling notion, but we'll come back to that later. For now, just note that to prove how faithful Job really is, God takes away all of his wealth, all of his cattle, his herds, his means of living. And then takes away his entire family -- kills off all of his sons and daughters, their spouses, their children wipes them all out, leaving him destitute and childless, a fate worse than death for those in ancient times.

Now, that raises a troubling issue, doesn't it? Immediately we have to ask ourselves -- would God really do this? Does God do that kind of thing? And then as we'll see in chapter 2 that I'm going to read in just a second, to then, in effect, torture someone, just to prove how faithful he is?

Now, to ask that question -- it's a good question, it's a question we have to ask, we should ask -- but to ask that of this story really misunderstands the nature of the story. Does anyone ask, "You know those stories Jesus told about the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son? Did that really happen?" Or do we way "Those are stories that Jesus made-up, and therefore we don't have to pay attention to them, because he made them up". No, we don't say that. Of course those stories are important to us, even though they are stories that Jesus made up. They reveal very much to us about the nature of God's love, and about our duty.

So too here with Job, this is in essence a parable. We can ask: "Did it really happen?" Well, that misses the point. I would have to say, no, I don't believe it did, at least not like this. There may have been an exceptionally good person who suffered greatly, that happens all the time. And that's the point -- it takes that notion of a person who suffers, who is good, and takes it to an extreme to then explore what that teaches us about God and our suffering and faith. It does not take away from the truth of this story, even if it isn't historical.

So, this character then of Job, after he has lost everything, except his wife (and he still has his health), at the end of chapter 1, we are told he praises God, and then it says "In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing".

Huh. I would have charged God with wrong-doing :)  And then we continue, in chapter 2:

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord [this is the Divine Council], and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord [he's a member of the Divine Council]. 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.’

7 So 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.

9 Then 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.

 

The bride sent out 250 invitations to the wedding. The sanctuary held maybe 100. I suggested to her that we might want to think about a larger venue for the wedding, and she said "No. This this is my church. I grew up here, I'm going to get married here". One thing I learned very early on in my pastorate: you don't argue with brides :). It's her day, she gets what she wants. So we went ahead.

Fortunately, the church had a big yard, so they arranged to rent 250 chairs, we were going to have an outdoor wedding. This was Fresno, after all, where the annual rainfall is about 10 inches (and that's on the wet years), and half of that is from the dew that collects from the fog that collects in the winter. So we figured it was safe.

I began to fear trouble when the 5-day forecast called for storms that weekend. So I called up the bride, and suggested, you know, we might want to think of a backup plan. She said "No. This is my church, I'm going to get married here. God would not do that to me!". So, we continued. When the 3-day forecast called for thunderstorms, I decided to take matters into my own hands -- I mean, I had to stand up there too, right? So I called another church, made the arrangements, called her up and said "Hey, great news, I got another place just down the street". She said: "No! I'm going to get married in my church. I trust God!". Wooops :) Oh Pastor of little faith :)

So, when thunder woke me up on the day of the wedding, I went into my emergency mode -- quick trip to "Jerry's" (Home Depot), and bought 500 feet of rope and 200 feet of clear plastic. And then using those knot-tying skills I learned in Boy Scouts and all the engineering training I had in Seminary (yeah, that's right :), erected this tent over the 250 chairs. And after the total of Fresno's annual rainfall fell in those two hours before the wedding, and the tent collapsed (drenching everything underneath, including the preacher), I decided we were going to have to hold the wedding indoors. So I went to talk to the bride. And her tears surpassed that of the annual rainfall of Fresno. All she could say was "Why is God doing this to me?" What do you say?

Well, we got through the wedding. All 250 people showed up. Fortunately the Fire Marshal did not receive the invitation (it was a very close wedding, to say the least). That little church has never seen a crowd like that, before or since, but it was a wonderful wedding. The one post-script to it, is that when I directed junior-camp several years ago, I had the daughter produced from that marriage in camp. It helped -- there's something about going through adversity that makes for a good wedding.

My father tells the story -- my wife and I, some of you know, took German kids with us on our honeymoon across the United States, and my Dad (who presided at the wedding), said that if you survive the next two weeks your marriage will survive anything :)

Rabbi Harold Kusher asks the perennial question: "Why do bad things happen to good people?". Why indeed. It haunts our nights, it stalks our days, it rains on our parades, and our weddings, and our confidence. So some 2500-3000 years ago, one of the greatest theologians of all time (probably several, actually) struggled with that question and gave us this story of Job.

Alfred Lloyd Tennyson says "It's the greatest poem whether of ancient or modern literature". Thomas Carlyle said "Nothing written in the Bible, in or out, is of equal merit". This morning I'm only going to deal with the prose section that narrative that provides the framework for the poetic section, Chapters 3-41. I invited you to read that, not right now, but this week in preparation for next Sunday. As I've already suggested, the first thing that is evident in the story is that it raises serious questions about this conventional wisdom about God. What we thought we knew about God, namely that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. This is the basis of the Hebrew covenant with God -- be good and God will bless you, sin and God will punish you. And it's a premise that many people hold still today.

One of my favorite stories of the great Disciple preacher Fred Craddock makes light of this notion. He was traveling to a convention, flying somewhere, and after the plane took off, a gentleman across the aisle from him pulled out this big, fat, ugly, nasty-smelling cigar. And lit it up! Fred called the attention of the flight attendant and said "Am I seated in the wrong section?". She asked "What section section were you supposed to be in?" Fred said "The non-smoking section". Tells you how old this story is, back in those days when there was a smoking section on planes. And she said "No, this is non-smoking". And Fred says: "Well, what about that?" She turned around and saw the guy, and said "Sir, this is the non-smoking section, you can't smoke here". And he continues to puff away. "Sir, if you want to smoke, you'll have to move to the rear of the plane into the smoking section". Just ignores her, puffing away.

She shrugs her shoulders, and figures she can't kick him off the plane, and goes about her business. So Fred is sitting there thinking dark, evil thoughts about this guy as this foul smoke is filling the air, calling a curse of God upon him even if it brings down the plane. He doesn't care, he's angry, he wants justice here. When the flight-attendant came back with a tray of drinks, just as she reaches that spot in the aisle, the plane hit one of those air-pockets (you know, that causes your heart to jump and your stomach to go up in your throat). And the flight attendant and drinks go up into the air. And the drinks turn over and they fall down on top of the man and his cigar :) And the flight attendant falls into the lap of Fred! And Fred says: "Now don't you tell me there is no God" :)

On a more serious note, we see that same kind of thinking in judgments that people make. Questioning whether or not the victim of rape did something to entice their attacker, and therefore "deserved" it. Claiming that HIV and AIDS was God's punishment for lifestyles. Or that terrorist attacks on this country and hurricanes are God's punishment on us for some terrible sin like equal rights for women. But then when bad things happen to us or to other good people, well then it's not God, it's that other Satan trying to undo our faith.

So you've got to admire Job -- at least he never blames anyone or anything else. He simply asked how can you accept the good from God, and not also the bad? And note that God's affirmation of Job --"he still persists in his integrity" -- is repeated in the words of Job's wife, only as a derision -- "do you still persist in your integrity?! Curse God and die".

Hence the real question here is not so much why do bad things happen to good people (we'll come back to that later, probably next week), the question here is: can good people remain good when bad things happen? Or do we give in to that temptation to return evil for evil?

If God's shining example of faith and integrity and goodness should waver under pressure, what hope is there then for us? Will our faith survive the storms of life? Can we persist in our integrity?

Dave Dravecky is a modern-day Job, a successful pitcher in the major leagues for the Padres and then later for the Giants. He developed cancer in his pitching arm. Had the cancer removed by surgery, and then made this incredible comeback when everybody had written him off. Worked his way through the minors back into the majors. Pitched a pretty good game when he came back, won that game. Second game, had three innings, perfect no-hit innings. Then began to struggle, and in the 6th inning, trying to overcome his struggles, throwing as hard as he could, he broke his arm, pitching. They later discovered that the cancer had returned, and eventually had to amputate his arm and his shoulder.

And so here is this young man with a promising career, wiped out. Then he becomes an inspirational speaker and goes on the speaking circuit telling his story, especially for Christian groups. He came to Eugene to share in our prayer breakfast a number of years ago, and I'll never forget him telling stories about fishing. He was left-handed, now he's had to learn to do everything with his right, he talks about how he'd fish, cast out and then put the pole under his arm to reel in. People would ask him: "Have you ever caught anything that way?". And he said: "Yeah, I caught on this big!" (while holding up just 1 arm to show the size of the fish :). One-arm humor :)

Wonderful guy, great story teller. In his autobiography that he wrote with his wife, they say: "We learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God's presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by his absence. Both places should bring us to our knees -- the one in utter awe, the other in utter dependency". Said by one who knows because he's been there.

Habit for Humanity ran a story in one of their newsletters that really impressed me, and clipped it out and saved it, of another modern-day Job (or Job-ess), Janice Henderson, who at the age of 30 discovered that she had multiple sclerosis. When she got over that shock and the inevitable depression that comes with such a diagnosis, she began to get on with her life, doing the things she always dreamed of doing. She went on a grueling Outward Bound expedition in the wilderness. She volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, to go down to Peru to build homes for others, and then continued as volunteer locally for the organization. She plays the piano at a nursing home. She sings in the church choir. She's a volunteer firefighter, as well as a full-time nurse. All the time wearing braces for her legs and sometimes a back brace. She says in reflection: "You would hardly think that MS can be rewarding, but it has taught me to do today what I want to do". Because, you see, Janice Henderson does not have the luxury to put things off.

The story of Job is not unlike that of Janice, and Dave Dravecky. And it's not unlike the story of many of you, that I have come to know. People who see the presence of God even in the worst of times, and not just God's absence. People, who in times of adversity, do not lose faith, who persist in their integrity. You see, Job is not an ancient story. It's a very modern story.

And because of Job, because of people like Janice and Dave, because of people in our lives who have inspired us by their faith and integrity, we know that no matter what adversity life may throw at us, there is no mountain higher that faith in God.

There is no valley deeper than the love of God.

There is no river wider than the reach of God.

In such faith, we rest secure.

 


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