mississippi floodWhen the Storm Comes

Sometimes a picture says it all. This is Mississippi, but it could be anywhere, USA. This woman is carrying clothing out of a flooded house. She is wading through standing, muddy water that is under everything, and yet she has not thrown up her arms in despair. She is doing what she can … grabbing clothes and items that can still be used. It is a picture of perseverance in the aftermath of a storm.

Alabama tornadoIn another picture, a woman goes through what is left of her home, standing beside a bed that no longer has bedroom walls around it. It was the aftermath of a tornado that had swept through Alabama. What was left to do? Give up? Instead, she decided to sort through what remained. It is another picture of how one person weathered a devastating storm.

I grew up in tornado country – Oklahoma. One of the things we were taught on a regular basis was how to weather a storm – particularly, a funnel cloud coming your direction. Here is the question I want us to wrestle with today for a few more moments. The storm will one day come for us. The question is, “how will we weather it?”

Starting Fresh

What do you know about the book of Job? What questions does it raise for you? There are many, right? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do some insist Job was patient? (James 5:11) These are all good questions, but I want to suggest we suspend our questions and thoughts about this book so we can give Job a fresh hearing over these next weeks. We need to hear Job on Job’s terms … not on ours. So to do that, let me share just a few things that I believe will be important.

  1. Ask the right questions. Instead of starting with our laundry list of questions about suffering, pain, and the big “Why” questions related to calamity, lets first listen to the questions the book of Job wants to ask us. Along the way, it may also be helpful to identify the questions Job never intended to answer. For example, did Job really exist? Perhaps, but does the answer really matter in terms of the truth the story of Job tells? Not really. Is the message of Job true? This may be the better question, and I believe the answer is an unqualified yes. This story begins like many other stories that are trying to teach us something about life, about God, and about our relationship with God.  “Once upon a time” … or in this case … “A man in the land of Uz was named Job.”
  2. Notice the prose bookends and the large amount of poetry in-between. This is not a minor detail. The poetry in this book makes up more than 90% of the story. Let me share with you one definition of poetry that may be important for understanding why the book is written this way and not another. Poetrythe measured language of emotion. Lofty thought or impassioned feeling expressed in imaginative words. When you think about it … it makes sense why Job is poetic. What is more complicated, more confusing, more frustrating, or more emotional than the experience of suffering? There is great biblical truth and insight right here … before we even engage the story in detail. Suffering is beyond words … so we are actually following a biblical impulse when we turn to songs, to lyrics, to poetry, and to artistic verse to help us give voice to things that are beyond our comprehension. I love the blues. Job reminds me that God invented the blues. Incidentally, that means that when you are experiencing deep pain or suffering, you may need to find yourself a song (I have one for you today, but hang on … that is coming a little later so keep reading). Why turn to poetry? Because poetry helps us to wrestle with the hard questions that defy our futile attempts to give simple, pat answers. I love the way Lee Schott puts it: “the questions of Job are questions that lurk at the heart of our faith: about storms, faithfulness, and the character of God.”

Righteousness and Suffering on Trial

The first two chapters of Job are set up like an ancient court trial, complete with a clearly innocent and righteous person falsely accused, a prosecuting attorney (ha satan … The designated Accuser [the Msg], the Adversary, the Satan), the judge, and the various witnesses and competing voices that each have their own perspective on Job’s guilt or innocence.

If the story’s premise sounds too odd and other worldly to you … lets not forget that we today continue to put suffering and righteousness on trial today … all the time. Take AIDS. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, many Christian leaders stated emphatically that AIDS was evidence of God’s judgement on sexual sin. As one famous evangelical TV personality once put it (I’ll leave out the name to protect the guilty): “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.“ This kind of thinking has not gone away. Some other Christian leaders said similar things about the Ebola crisis a few years ago … it was God’s punishment, for immorality, for a divided Jerusalem, for … well you name it. These are the kinds of voices we will be hearing in the book of Job … from people like Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu. Remember this – when we do the same – when we paste simple prose answers on top of complicated questions about suffering and pain, we are imitating ha satan – the Accuser, not God.

We still judge suffering. We also still judge righteousness. Here are some actual quotes from various preachers and Christian leaders: “Poverty is from the devil and God wants all people prosperous.”“If you live as a blessing to others God will bless you abundantly.” What people often hear in this statement is its opposite. If your life feels more like a curse, does that mean you are NOT living right? The book of Job doesn’t just take on contemporary televangelists … Job also takes on other priests and prophets from Israel … other thoughts and ideas that are already in the Bible. Take this verse from Deuteronomy 11: “Pay attention! I am setting blessing and curse before you right now; the blessing if you obey the Lord your God’s commandments that I am giving your right now, but the curse if you don’t obey the Lord your God’s commandments and stray from the path that I am giving you today by following other gods.” Both Job and Deuteronomy are God’s word … but clearly we have to take the whole witness of Scripture into account when we step to the edge of the chasm that marks the end of our understanding and the beginning of something beyond.

The BIG Question

carrot and stickI am sure you have heard of the proverbial donkey motivated by either the carrot or stick? If you want to motivate the donkey, you need to use a carrot (promise of reward) or a stick (threat of punishment). This is the primary question Job wants to ask us as people of faith. Is our faith, trust, and service to God only present because we fear punishment or anticipate reward? Do we just serve God because we desire blessings? Do we just obey God because we are afraid of punishments or have a fear of hell? This is at the HEART of the big question in Job, and make no mistake about it … it is HUGE. Everything hinges on the answer. Why? Because a real relationship of love cannot be founded on fear (avoiding the stick). Because a real relationship of selfless love cannot be founded on self-interest (what’s in it for me … the carrot).

The BIG question is found directly in the text: Does Job revere God for nothing? (Job 1:9) Think about that question. Why are you a Christian? Wait … don’t answer too quickly. Why Jesus? Why Church? Why pray? Why study scripture? Why serve others in Jesus’ name? To make it pain: what’s in it for you?

This insight gives birth to an odd, but wonderful truth: The book of Job is about love. Love between God and humanity. Love that cannot be reduced to carrots or sticks. Love that goes deeper, that means more, that burns within our souls come hell or high-water. Scripture often refers to the image of marriage to describe God’s relationship with God’s people. In the New Testament, we envision Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as his bride. To use that metaphor, we might consider Job as a poetic exploration of our marriage covenant and our baptismal vows made with God, the lover of our souls. Do we freely and heartily yield all things to God’s pleasure and disposal? Do we love God in sickness and in health? In good times and in bad? For better or for worse? So long as we shall live? THAT is a big question. Does this mean God doesn’t want to bless us? No. But a relationship based on our desired “bottom line” is not love. Does this mean that there are not consequences for disobedience and sin in the world? No. But a relationship based on fear of punishment is not true love.

Love – true love – has to be an act of free will. It can’t be based on coercion, fear of punishment, or pure self-interest. Does this one insight answer all the other pressing questions around suffering in the book of Job? No … but it does do one thing … it invites us to think about this story differently. It invites us to see Job as a love story about a love that can endure, hold on, and persevere, even in the face of the greatest storms life might unleash on us.

My Soul has been Anchored

The storm will come for us – literal storms, spiritual storms, relational storms, you name it. How many of you have experienced a devastating storm of one kind or another in your life? How many of you are going through a major storm right now? I don’t have a lot of answers for why that may be happening to you (and neither does Job), but I can tell you one thing. Get you a song. Find you some poetry. One my “go to” songs is “My Soul has been Anchored.” The author is unknown – but the experience that he or she gives voice to is known by many. The lyrics echo a passage from Hebrews 6:17-19: “In the same way, God desired to show even more clearly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose … we who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us. We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

My Soul Has Been Anchored
Though the storms keep on raging in my life, And sometimes it’s hard to tell the night from day; Still that hope that lies within is reassured, As I keep my eyes upon the distant shore, I know He’ll lead me safely to that blessed place He has prepared.

But if the storms don’t cease, and if the winds keep on blowing … my soul has been anchored in the Lord.

Oh, I realize that sometimes in this life, we gonna be tossed, By the waves and the currents that seem so fierce. But in the Word of God, I’ve got an anchor, And it keeps me steadfast and unmovable, Despite the tides.

The pillars may roll, the breakers may dash, I shall not sway because He holds me fast; So dark the day, clouds in the sky, I know it’s alright ’cause Jesus is mine

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