June 29, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript for my sermon for Sunday, July 3, 2016.
This is the first in a sermon series in Job that will run through August 7. The text for this sermon is Job 1.1-22.
An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.
When you’re out on a limb, it’s no time for gymnastics
The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.
According to whoever wrote down Job like we have it in our Bibles, that’s what Job said on the day he lost everything. His flocks. His herds. His servants. All ten of his children. All wiped out—one right after another—in a single day. And that was Job’s response. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.
And ever since those words wound up in our Bibles, they have been on the lips of people who have suffered misfortune or disaster or tragedy or terror. It’s understandable that people would latch on to those words when there is nothing else to be said. If for no other reason, than to grab at some reassurance that God is sovereign; and this is still, after all, God’s world.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. Not too far yet. I will go farther out on it. I invite you to come with me. I promise the limb won’t break. And you won’t fall. At least, I don’t think you will. Okay, here we go. It is never a good idea to tell someone whose world has just collapsed in a heap around them that: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name. No one has the right to say that to anyone else; for anyone else; or about anyone else. When someone else has lost their income. Or their home has been strewn across the county by a tornado. Or their spouse has filed for divorce. Or their child is stillborn. You do not have the right to say to them: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.
There, we’re out on the limb. How is everyone doing? See, the limb is sturdy. Come with me a bit further out on this limb.
Not only do you not have the right to say to or for or about someone else that the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away; I’m convinced that Job shouldn’t have said it about himself.
God is a giver, for sure. Indeed, God is the giver. James puts it like this in his letter: Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all (James 1.17). Now chew on this: If God gives us all good gifts; and if God’s character doesn’t change—and that’s what we’ve just heard James say—then God isn’t a giver one day and a taker the next.
Don’t try to do any mental gymnastics while I have you out on this limb. You will fall, and it will hurt.
Job’s world had just been obliterated by invaders; by lightning; and by the four winds. It’s like the entire universe had turned against him and attacked him. In the midst of the chaos, Job reached out for the only solid thing left, and that was God. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken. Those were the only words that made sense to him in the moment. But Job was wrong.
And it’s okay that Job was wrong. He could have said much worse, after all.
He mocks at the slaying of innocents?
I’m going to tell you a story now. It’s a tragic story. An evil story. And it’s true. When I’m finished, you’ll probably wish I hadn’t told it to you. You’ll wish you didn’t know this thing happened.
I bet God wishes he didn’t know about it, either.
A little Jewish girl named Zosia lived in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Little Zosia had stunningly beautiful eyes—like black diamonds. Those dazzling jewels of eyes caught the attention of some German soldiers. And that’s where the story—as told by an eyewitness—picks up. One of the soldiers says:
“I could make two rings out of them … one for myself, and one for my wife.”
His colleague is holding the girl.
“Let’s see whether they really are so beautiful. And better yet, let’s examine them in our hands.”
A shrill screaming and the noisy laughter of the soldier-pack. The screaming penetrates our brains, pierces our heart, the laughter hurts like the edge of a knife plunged into our body. The screaming and the laughter are growing, mingling and soaring to heaven.
O God, whom will you hear first?
What happens next is that the fainting child is lying on the floor. Instead of eyes, two bloody wounds are staring. The mother, driven mad, is held by the women.
This time they leave Zosia to her mother …
At one of the next “actions,” little Zosia was taken away. It was, of course, necessary to annihilate the little blind child. 
Think of little Zosia’s missing eyes. Imagine her mother, missing her child when she is taken away. Now lay Job’s words over top of those images. The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name.
What do you think? Did God carve that little girl’s eyes out of her head? Did God steal her from her mother? Did God ordain what happened to that child?
We’re way out on the limb, now, sisters and brothers. I have warned you not to try and do any mental gymnastics while we’re out here. So I hope and pray you’re not trying to imagine all the reasons why God would take out a little Jewish girl’s eyes.
Fact is, the storyteller’s goal isn’t to get us to agree with Job. Yahweh gives, and Yahweh takes—as the Lexham English Bible puts it—isn’t a timeless truth that can be applied to any and all senseless tragedy. As we shall soon see, it wasn’t even entirely true in Job’s case.
The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name is hardly the only thing Job has to say about God in this book. For instance, in Job 9.22-24, he says this:
God destroys the blameless and the sinners.
If calamity suddenly kills,
he mocks at the slaying of innocents.
The earth is handed over to the wicked;
he covers the faces of its judges.
If not God, then who does?
According to what Job says about God here, God may very well have laughed when the Nazis took little Zosia. Should we agree with Job about that? Is that what we’re supposed to believe about God?
I hope you all answered, No! Of course not!
So Job isn’t always right. He got a lot of things wrong about God. One thing the book of Job does for us is to show how limited his understanding was! His theology wasn’t big enough or strong enough to handle the raw realities of real life.
Job wasn’t even entirely right about his own suffering when he said: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken. We know this because we know more about the story behind Job’s suffering than he did!
Let’s take a closer look at that story now.
God (and more) on trial
Job is described as an exemplary tribal chief from the bygone days of the patriarchs. His flocks and herds numbering in the thousands. With a bustling household of servants. And ten beautiful children—seven boys, and three girls. Our storyteller makes sure to tell us from the beginning that Job was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.
In those days, most people believed that the moral universe ran according to the doctrine of retribution. In other words, you get what you give. You find this worldview expressed a lot in the book of Proverbs. A sample summary can be found in Prov. 10.3: The Lord doesn’t let the righteous starve, but he rejects the desires of the wicked.
According to this worldview, the universe runs on a simple system of cause-and-effect; rewards and punishments.
Job was probably the picture perfect example of the positive side of the doctrine of retribution. He was the most moral man around, so he was also the wealthiest.
Our narrator goes on to tell us about a meeting of the divine council. That is, God—the king of kings and Lord of Lords—and his divine servants, his heavenly armies, and his messengers. We usually just lump them all together as “angels,” but it’s not that simple.
One day the divine beings came to present themselves before the Lord, our narrator reports, and the Adversary also came among them. The divine beings are literally the sons of God. This idea of the divine council is all over the Hebrew Bible. We don’t have time to get into it too deeply right now, but these sons of God show up later in Job. Job 38.7 says that when God created the universe, all the sons of God shouted for joy (RSV). Point is, the sons of God here aren’t humans. They were present even before God made our world. And the Adversary—that is, the satan—also came among them. Two things. First, Satan is not yet a personal name. It’s a title: the satan. The Adversary. The accuser. Second, notice that the satan is with the sons of God; but he is not one of them.
God asks the satan where he came from. And the satan answers: From wandering throughout the earth. I think that’s what inspired the warning in 1 Pet. 5.8: Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. This seems to be exactly what the satan had been doing before reporting to the Lord in our lesson today.
God knows that the satan—the adversary or accuser—takes a rather dim view of humankind. So God takes this opportunity to brag on a human the satan can’t make any accusation against. Have you thought about my servant Job? God asks. Surely there is no one like him on earth, a man who is honest, who is of absolute integrity, who reveres God and avoids evil. God is proud of Job.
The satan is not impressed, however. Does Job revere God for nothing? Haven’t you fenced him in—his house and all he has—and blessed the work of his hands so that his possessions extend throughout the earth? But stretch out your hand and strike all he has. He will certainly curse you to your face. The satan is accusing God of bribing Job to love him. Job only serves you because you don’t let anything bad happen to him, and give him lots of cool stuff. By extension, the satan could be talking about anyone who loves and worships God. They’re not freely choosing to love God. They’re only in it for themselves.
Here’s something I think we often fail to notice. Job isn’t really the one on trial: God is. The satan has really called God’s goodness into question. In the presence of the whole divine council, the satan has just accused God of not ruling the world in a just and wise manner. God’s character is at stake.
God could have chosen to simply ignore the satan’s challenge; to silence the satan; to banish him; or even obliterate him with a single word. But that would only suggest that the satan was right—that those God can’t manipulate with gifts, he can control with fear; and those he can’t control with fear, he can overcome by power. So God takes on the satan’s challenge regarding Job. Look, all he has is within your power; God says. Only don’t stretch out your hand against him.
Notice what God does here. The satan challenged God to stretch out your hand and strike all he has. God won’t do it. He tells the satan to do it. That’s his way of saying, This is on you, buddy! God also puts a limit on how far the satan can go: don’t stretch out your hand against him. The satan can do whatever he wants to whatever belongs to Job. But God won’t allow him—yet—to harm Job himself.
Then our storyteller says that the Adversary—the satan—left the Lord’s presence. That phrase is also an important detail in helping us to understand what’s happening. When the murderer Cain was exiled in Gen. 4.16, it says that he left the Lord’s presence. When God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, but he went the opposite direction toward Tarshish, it says that he went away from the presence of the Lord (Jon. 1.3 RSV). In other words, just like Cain and Jonah, what the satan is doing is outside the jurisdiction of God’s will. God didn’t actually want the satan to mess with Job anymore than he wanted Jonah to run off to Tarshish.
This is why we need to be careful how we hear Job’s words: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken. Job was only half-right. The Lord had indeed given; but it was the satan who took. We only know this because it’s been revealed to us in scripture. Job was never told.
All Job knew was that in the matter of a few hours, marauders murdered his servants and stole his herds. A lightning storm incinerated his sheep along with their shepherds. And then the four winds blew a house over on his children, crushing them to death during his oldest son’s birthday party.
All Job knew was that his righteousness, his goodness, his fear of God, his prayers, and his sacrifices had not protected his family. He was a good man, but it seemed that God was punishing him like the worst of sinners.
Like I said, Job is not the only one on trial in this story. So is God. But so is the doctrine of retribution. The idea that we only get what we give; that the world runs according to predictable outcomes of cause and effect. So far, Job is holding up. God will certainly hold up. But the doctrine of retribution will not.
Job’s theology breaks down (and that’s a good thing)
The narrator tells us that, In all this—
The loss of his wealth and livelihood—
The loss of most of his household workers—
The loss of all his children—
In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God. Literally, it says that Job didn’t say that God was wrong.
This doesn’t mean that the narrator thinks Job got everything right about God. We have seen already that Job hasn’t got everything about God right. We’ll be seeing that some more as we continue through the book.
The narrator doesn’t say Job was right. The narrator just says Job didn’t sin. Last time I checked, it’s not a sin to be wrong. At least not most of the time.
The narrator is only thinking in terms of the satan’s challenge to God concerning Job. He will certainly curse you to your face. That’s what the satan has bet God that Job will do. And Job has not done that. In fact, Job did just the opposite. Job blessed the name of the Lord. No matter what has happened, Job has not cursed God.
The satan has unleashed his fury on Job, and made his life a living hell. The satan bet that Job would curse God. But Job has refused to curse God. The satan has lost. Job has passed every test the satan put him to. And so God has won.
What we shall see as the story goes on is that the most brutal test is yet to come for Job. It’s not the satan’s testing—the loss of all his possessions, and all his children, and then his health. It’s not when his wife tests him through her loss of faith.
Job’s most brutal test will come from his three friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. When they hear of the tragedies that have befallen Job, they come to visit him at his home. And they spend most of the book trying to convince Job that what has happened to him is all his fault. That his suffering is from God because he has sinned. And since his theology comes down to: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken, he believes he has no one to pin his misfortune on but God.
Job’s theology tells him that God did this to him. His theology—and his three friends’—also tells him that if God is doing bad things to you, you must be bad. Or at least have done something bad. But Job knows he hasn’t done anything wrong. Certainly not to deserve all this.
And as the book progresses, his theology breaks down entirely. And that’s actually a good thing, because his theology is wrong.
But Job comes closer and closer to cursing God as the book progresses. And that’s a very bad thing. But that often happens when our theology breaks down. When our theology can’t handle what’s happening to us. We end up confusing God for our ideas about God.
But just when Job is on the brink. When Job and all his friends have run out of words to say. God shows up in a whirlwind.
And God rescues Job from his bad theology.
But that’s another sermon.
I don’t know (and you don’t either)
What the satan did to Job shook up everything. Turned his world inside-out so that nothing he believed made sense anymore.
Sometimes that’s exactly what has to happen to us for our relationship with God to grow and deepen and mature. Let me make this plain, though. I’m not saying that this is why bad, frustrating, painful, senseless, evil things happen to us or to those we love. God wasn’t trying to teach Job a lesson when all those terrible things happened to him. It wasn’t God who took from Job. It was the satan.
God didn’t tell Job why he was suffering, and why he had lost everything, or why this terrible, senseless tragedy had befallen his children. We know what Job didn’t. As far as we can tell, God never shared this with Job. I’m not even sure that knowing the why would have made things any better for Job. Maybe that’s part of the point. Maybe sometimes the why is none of our business. Perhaps sometimes the why is that we still live in a war zone where the satan is going to and fro upon the earth. Accusing. Looking for victims. Making scapegoats. Convincing people to do things like what the Nazis did to little Zosia. But who knows? Maybe some of us can get that twisted up on our own.
I don’t know. And you don’t either. And that’s okay.
What I do know is that when confronted with an opportunity to disclose all the whys, Jesus refused. In John 9.2ff, Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who had been born blind. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” The disciples saw suffering, and they wanted to know whose fault it was. Who to blame. Where to point the finger. Jesus refused to go there.
Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.” Then Jesus healed him.
It’s not anybody’s fault, Jesus was saying. No one is to blame here. No one is being punished. God wasn’t trying to teach anyone a lesson. A suffering person isn’t there for us to speculate over or assign blame. They’re an occasion for comfort and healing and restoration in God’s name.
Jesus met thousands of people in his life who were living in all sorts of hells—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. Never once did he blame God; or say that God willed or ordained the shape they were in. He did throw some shade at the devil and their unkind peers a few times, though.
And maybe that’s where we ought to leave things for now.
 P. Friedman, ed., Martyrs and Fighters: The Epic of the Warsaw Ghetto (New York: Praeger, 1954), 166-67. Quoted in Greg Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Warfare (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001), 33-34. Boyd’s book informs much of my current perspective on Job, especially his treatment in pp 144-52. For a quick web resource, see his “The Point of the Book of Job” at http://reknew.org/2008/01/the-point-of-the-book-of-job/