Proper 18 (B)
September 7, 1997
Defending the Poor
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
In the movie The Bear, a large, wounded male grizzly befriends a small, orphaned grizzly cub named Youk. Threatened by sounds of distant gunfire, they begin a desperate quest to escape their most feared enemy, man. Along the way, Youk wanders away from the protection of his large pal and is spotted by a prowling mountain lion.
A chase ensues and ends with Youk backing out onto a dead tree limb, over a raging river. Without warning, the limb breaks, sending the cub into the rolling current. He struggles to remain afloat, is washed downriver and eventually makes his way to shore. There he finds the still hungry mountain lion waiting. He had followed the floating cub down the river bank. Youk is cornered. There is nowhere to go. In defense, he emits a feeble growl. The lion responds with a roar of its own. When it appears as if the little cub is about to become lunch, suddenly a large shadow falls over the lion and cub. The lion looks up to discover the large grizzly, standing on its hind legs, behind Youk. Unaware of his presence, Youk watches as the lion flees. Youk’s life is saved.
The Bible portrays God in a similar light, as the protector of the poor and the needy. Proverbs 22:23 in the Contemporary English Version states, “The Lord is their defender….” The history of Israel is testimony to the vengeance of God against those who mistreat the poor and disadvantaged. The prophets Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah all reiterated God’s vengeance visiting on those who abused the poor.
God expects His children to be concerned about the treatment of the poor, needy, disadvantaged, and vulnerable.
I. Because of the Warped Values in Our Society.
As Tony Campolo indicates, Americans have “switched the price tags” as it pertains to social values. Power, possessions and position are inherent in attaining the American Dream. Wealth often takes priority over personal character. But Proverbs 22:1 proclaims, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
Sadly, many are more concerned with earning a good living than earning a good name. God says a good name and the reputation it brings is of more value than worldly advantages.
What is the value of a good name? Ask O.J. Simpson or Billy Graham, Princess Di or Mother Teresa.
Someone once said “A man has three names: The name he inherits, the name his parents give him and the name he makes for himself.” The tragedy of our materialistic age is that while many are caught up in accumulating and hoarding material entrapments, the testimony of their lives is their only lasting legacy in this world. Voltaire was right when he noted that the only way to compel men to speak good of us is to do good.1 It is also the only way a believer lives up to the name of “Christian.”
Another reason God expects his children to be concerned about the treatment of the poor is
II. Because of Misappropriated Self-worth in Our Society.
Twenty years ago, author Alex Haley touched a strong chord in the American psyche with his work Roots. Today, multitudes are researching their family tree, seeking to discover and touch base with their ancestors.
In our “have and have not” world, there is a tendency to focus on those things that divide us, such as economics, education, and racial identity. In the process, what is ignored is the commonality of our “roots” as human beings. Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Of a truth, men are mystically united; a mysterious bond of brotherhood makes all men one.”2 Proverbs 22:2 states it another way: “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.”
Another reason God expects His children to be concerned about the treatment of the poor is
III. Because of Evil Actions in Our Society.
The poor lack the political and economic “clout” that empowers those within our society. This leaves them at the mercy of others and defenseless. Consequently, the poor become easy targets for all manner of evil practices, both socially and personally.
Their plight and tormentors are regarded by God. Proverbs 22:22-23 issues this stern warning: “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the Lord will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them.” Galatians 6:7 says it more succinctly, “A man reaps what he sows.”
Concern for the disadvantaged goes hand in hand with genuine faith. For the Christian, faith calls its adherents to not only love the Lord God supremely, but also love their neighbors as themselves (Luke 10:27). Even Jesus, speaking of the eschaton, indicated that His “sheep” will be branded by their willingness to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, be hospitable to strangers, nurse the sick and visit the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-36).
Christians are called to imitate the example of the Master (Mark 8:34). The early believers were clearly committed to the needs of the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. They provided for the needs of each other by selling all they had (Acts 2:44). The biblical writers went so far as to proclaim that one’s faith was legitimate only if it included a concern for the poor (1 John 3:17-18, James 2:15-17).
We must never forget that the gospel is “good news,” not just to the “well to do”, but especially to the needy and vulnerable. As Jesus proclaimed, at it’s essence, the gospel is to be “good news to the poor… [and a means to] release the oppressed.” (Luke 4:18-19). (Tim Najpaver)
1Voltaire cited in A Treasury of Wisdom and Literature, David St. Leger ed. (New York: The New American Library, 1954), p. 112.
2Thomas Carlyle, “Essays: Goethe’s works”, cited in A Treasury of Wisdom and Literature, David St. Leger ed. (New York: The New American Library, 1954), p. 229.
Proper 19 (B)
September 14, 1997
Controlling the Tongue
Robert Fulghum writes that “in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, some villagers practice a unique form of logging. If a tree is too large to be felled with an ax, the natives cut it down by yelling at it.”1 In our scientific, technological world it seems ludicrous to believe that a giant redwood might be felled more efficiently by the bite of the tongue than the bite of a chain saw. Then again, when you look at our world, who knows. We have all seen the effects of broken spirits in people. Words carry powerful influences.
Perhaps the old “sticks and stones” needs an update. In reality, “sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will break our hearts.”2 Many are plagued with memories of brutal comments directed at them years ago that time has not been erased: “Tubby,” “Four eyes,” “Ugly,” “Stupid,” “Clumsy.” Proverbs 18:21 says “The tongue has the power of life and death.”
James 3 focuses on the power of the spoken word and the importance of controlling it. James contends that if we are going to behave as children of God, we have to be able to learn to control our speech.
I. The Tongue Has Power to Mold Lives.
Preachers, coaches, advertisers, politicians and teachers alike know thatawesome power. Through words, soldiers have been strengthened in conflicts and battles have been won. Through words, players have been motivated, risen above their normal abilities and defeated better teams. Through the words of a preacher, people have fallen under conviction, found Christ and have had their lives forever changed.
Through the words of a teacher, minds have been shaped. It is no wonder James warns “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1) He is reminding us of the responsibility inherent in teaching.
My third grade teacher was a young woman named Miss Brodie. I cannot remember what she looked like or whether her hair was brown, blonde, or black. I cannot recall the location of my third grade classroom in the hall of St. Francis DeSales Elementary School. Neither can I remember what concepts I learned that affirmed that my 8-year old mind was ready to advance beyond the third grade. But one fall afternoon, a single sentence uttered by Miss Brodie forever changed my life. The task of each student that afternoon was to take turns reproducing letters from the alphabet in cursive on the blackboard. To my misfortune, I was assigned the capital letter “T”. My heart sank. No letter in the alphabet gave me more trouble than capital “T”. To the delight of a few girls in my room and flushed with embarrassment, I erased one chalk attempt after another. Sensing I was near tears, Miss Brodie stepped in. Taking my hand in hers, she showed me how to make an alternative to the cursive “T”. Before the entire class, she said to me, “Tim, if this is easier for you, make your “T”s this way. Never forget, you don’t have to be like everyone else in life.
That afternoon in 1964, Miss Brodie may have been teaching everyone else writing. But in my mind she planted the philosophy by which I approach life. I learned that afternoon I could be an individual.
II. The Tongue Also Has the Power to Direct Lives.
James 3:3-5 says: “When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.” For its diminutive size, the tongue has disproportionate power to direct.
Every May, the Kentucky Derby is run in Louisville. Riding on top of those powerful thoroughbreds is a 100 pound or so jockey. The task of the jockey is to direct where the strong, agile steed runs. What controls that half-ton of sheer muscle is a two-pound bit under the control of a master horseman. Without that bit, all of the horse’s size and speed would be worthless.
Just a few weeks ago, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide. Washing down barbiturates with alcohol, their leader Marshall Applewhite had convinced them that it was time to “shed their early containers” and to “go onto the next level.” Nick Cooke, whose wife Suzanne was among the dead, claimed still to believe in the tenets of the cult, which offered salvation by way of a UFO trailing in the Hale-Bopp comet.3
Words direct lives. Someone once said: Better that your heart would have no words than for your words to have no heart.
III. The Tongue Has Power to Devastate Lives.
At the end of verse 5, James says, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”
Smokey Bear reminds us of the importance of preventing forest fires. In recent years, we have watched as fires devastated Yellowstone and Malibu. We have watched as thousands of acres of forest have been consumed. Yet nearly every year, someone carelessly throws a cigarette out a car window and drives on, having no idea of the devastation they have left behind.
James says that a carelessly spoken word is like a spark. Thrown out without thinking or in heated conversation, few have any inkling as to the damage that word will do. Like a spark in the forest, the psychological and emotional damage grows and consumes.
IV. The Tongue Has the Power to Destroy a Life’s Witness.
James 3:10-12 says, “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. The tongue is inconsistent. It produces words which can soothe or destroy.
Like James, our testimony may be that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), especially as it pertains to our words. Listening to the voices around us everyday would make even the cynic declare that “no man can tame the tongue” (James 3:8). But God can help us clean up our speech. David prayed in Psalm 141:3 “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.”
The world would be a better place if the motto of the church was: The teeth may be false but let the tongue be true. God help us to suppress our speech and control our tongue. The consequences for not doing so are too great. (Tim Najpaver)
1Robert Fulghum, Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (New York: Villard Books, 1988), p. 19.
2Ibid., p. 20.
3Sandra Skowron, “Former Cult Members Come Forward, Express Regret”, Daily Times (March 31, 1997), 1.
Proper 20 (B)
September 21, 1997
Ask God’s Advice
James 3: 13-4:3, 7-8a
The classic book by C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, pictures Satan with his demonic forces of evil. As they huddle together, like a football coach talking with his players, the Devil attempts to explain the opposition to his demons as they fight God’s will for all humanity. Satan states that God really loves humanity, even with all of their weaknesses — as disgusting as that may appear to the demonic forces. God’s desire is to circumvent Satan’s plan because the Almighty really wants the human race to be happy. His architectural design is to win humanity’s free, unforced recognition of divine love and their free response of acceptance to those plans. If God can have that acceptance then humankind has the freedom to ask God’s advice at any time!
The text from James expounds on God’s good advice.
I. Build a Good Reputation.
The word reputation means the character of an individual that is observed by others, or peoples’ estimation of you! Reputation can either be good or bad, depending upon the choices you make.
The good reputation is the result of a good life. Goodness is as persistent as evil. Although it appears that evil is omnipresent, the Bible reminds us that where sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
A good reputation includes wisdom of discernment and comes from “the breath of the power of God, and a pure influence flowering from the glory of the Almighty.” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:25).
True wisdom that builds a good reputation is open to God’s scrutiny and conviction. False wisdom desires to escape from God’s search light. Christians welcome true wisdom.
A good reputation includes humility, not a mean spirited ambition that destroys others. As Charles Hodge penned, “The doctrines of grace humble man without degrading him and exalt him without inflating him.”1
II. Build on Honesty.
Tremendous benefits are gained with honesty . . .
– Honesty eliminates guilt and fear of God.
– Honesty provides a foundation of accomplishment.
– Honesty stops the cycle of deceit.
– Honesty experiences solid human relations not false feelings.
– Honesty gives and refuses selfish ambitions.
– Honesty tells the truth without twisting truth to fit ones own needs.
Remember God’s people are honest!
III. Build on Holiness.
Holiness and spiritual health blend together. Holiness is wholeness with a Christ-like spirit that bears fruit because the Holy Spirit is revealed in our lives.
Holiness is an experience. P. F. Bresee wrote, “Truth has not had its full force upon the heart unless we hate the remnants of sin, and so long for it that we are ready to part with everything according to the will of God, to be made holy. The truth, sharper than a two-edged sword, has divided between us and every idol, and we cry to God for complete cleansing.”2
Jesus has come in power to liberate faltering stumbling humanity filled with carnality and unspeakable sin!
Charles Swindoll wrote, “In Christ, through Christ, because of Christ, we have all the internal equipment necessary to maintain moral purity…the challenges and attacks against purity have never been greater…”3
Heart holiness simply means yielding of self to God and allowing the Holy Spirit to cleanse our hearts by faith. Purity follows our yieldedness to God’s will. The Holy Spirit enters the moment we say yes to God’s salvation and continues.
James declares, “So give yourselves completely to God. Stand against the devil, and the devil will run from you. Come near to God, and God will come near to you. You sinners, clean sin out of your lives. You who are trying to follow God and the world at the same time, make your thinking pure.” (James 4:7-8, New Century Bible). (Derl Keefer)
1G.B.F. Hallock, Five Thousand Best Modern Illustrations (New York: Richard Smith, Inc., 1931), p. 374.
2Harold Ivan Smith, The Quotable Bresee (Kansas City, Mo.: The Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1983), p. 58.
3Charles Swindoll, Strengthening Your Grip (Waco: Word Books, 1982), p. 57.
Proper 21 (B)
September 28, 1997
Beauty and the Beast
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22.
An enchanting story comes to life right off the pages of the Old Testament. It’s a real life Beauty and the Beast story starring Queen Esther and Haman, the terrible. Like all good stories, there is a main cast — Esther the Queen, Haman the Beast and Mordecai the Jew. In addition, the Supporting cast includes King Ahasuerus and thousands of Jews living between India and Ethiopia.
The story goes like this.
King Ahasuerus calls for an elaborate banquet lasting six months thrown for all the male officials in his court. Near the end of that bash the King calls for his Queen to come stand by him with full pomp and circumstance. His selfish motive infuriated Queen Vashti who refused to be his “Barbie Doll” and make a spectacle of herself. She might be the first in the feminist movement. Unsure what to do because of her rebuff, Ahasuerus asks for “wise counsel” from his male friends. Afraid their wives would get out of control because of Vashti’s example, these counselors advised him to kick her off the throne. He unwisely followed their advice.
His male ego and drives rose up and he realized what he had done and how he missed Queen Vashti. Trying to get their boss out of a state of depression, his servants suggested a beauty contest to replace the displaced ex-queen. He thought, “What a great idea!” A call went throughout the kingdom for all the single beautiful women to participate in King Ahasuerus’s First Annual Beauty Pageant. After a year of preparation with oil of Myrrh, cosmetics, and perfumes the pageant began. The solo judge was King Ahasuerus!
When Esther’s turn came, every other contestant paled in her beauty. She won King Ahasuerus’s heart and she became Queen Esther.
The drama thickens as an official at the King’s court receives a promotion that will affect the new queen. His name is Haman. All people were to bow and scrape before this man. Everyone did except Queen Esther’s foster father, Mordecai, the Jew. Haman is furious because his ego has been deflated. He was so angry that he persuaded the king to sign a petition to annihilate the entire Jewish race from India to Ethiopia! Little did Haman or the king realize that edict included Queen Esther, a silent Jew.
A review of the three main actors and their characteristics offer some practical lessons.
I. Introducing Actor Mordecai.
Mordecai’s label throughout the book was Mordecai, the Jew. He was proud of his spiritual and cultural heritage. It is demonstrated by fact comes through his constant effort to exterminate the Jewish race.
A second characteristic is the esteem for Mordecai by all the people. He constantly searched for the good of his people and promoted the welfare of future generations.
Third, he refused to bow to evil as personified in Haman.
II. Character Actor Haman
The author of the story reveals nothing mysterious about him. His transparent character identifies his motives, drives and attitudes.
Mordecai’s refusal to bow disturbed Haman’s ego so much that it fueled his racial and religious prejudice. Esther 3:10 targets Haman, “the enemy of the Jews.” His wrong perception of his importance led to his hanging.
III. The Beautiful Character of Esther
Here is the story of a woman admired for her beautiful appearance, and nothing else. She moves from a non-entity to become the woman with everything. After hearing of Haman’s plot she devises a plan to dislodge him from King’s favorite to King’s fool. Her courageous leadership saved a nation. She was a woman who believed in prayer, refused despair, organized plans and becomes the victor.
There are ten positive lessons from Esther for today’s Christian.
1. Be proud of your religious heritage.
2. Be at your best for others.
3. Be a good person by avoiding evil.
4. Be unprejudiced.
5. Be careful of self-pride; it will stunt your growth.
6. Be a leader.
7. Be a person of prayer.
8. Be a person of conviction.
9. Be a victor throughout life.
10. Be a person of determination.
Proper 22 (B)
October 5, 1997
A Useful Life
How can my life be useful? Any reflective, thoughtful person will ask himself or herself that at some point. A dedicated young person who is genuinely seeking God’s best for his life will ask, “In what profession or avenue of human endeavor can my life be the most useful for God’s kingdom?” A person who is in the twilight of her career will say, “I’m not ready yet to retire. I still feel that I can be useful and make a contribution.” Everyone longs to be useful.
There is another side of usefulness that is not as fulfilling. In a dating relationship, a young lady may say, “He’s just using me to make her jealous.” It’s even conceivable that a church member could say something like, “I wonder sometimes if the pastor really cares about me as a person or if he’s just using me to further his agenda.” As I read the prologue to Job closely, you get the feeling that God is “using Job” to make a point with Satan.
Is it possible that God would “use” His children — particularly one who is blameless and upright as Job — to make a point with Satan? The story of Job probes some of the deepest mysteries of life. Job poses questions that have baffled even the most brilliant minds throughout the centuries. Though we often say that the purpose of the book of Job is to answer the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?”, I have heard it said that Job is really attempting to answer, “Who is the wise person?”
In part, that question is answered, the wise person is the one who trusts God even when God’s mysterious ways are beyond our finding out. The wise person is the one who has learned to count it all joy when facing trials be-cause they not only refine our faith, they allow God’s glory to be seen in and through us.
Job is described in the very first verse as a “truly good person who respected God and refused to do evil.” That such calamitous events could happen to a person like this challenge our motivation for serving God. Don’t we often view salvation as “fire insurance,” faithful discipleship as “brownie points,” and financial stewardship as “protection money” to avoid some financial disaster? Why not serve God if such service puts us on “Easy Street”?
Yet Job is the focal point in a dialogue between God and Satan. First, Satan accuses Job of serving God because of all of His blessing. God says, “Hit him with your best shot. Take anything and everything he’s got. Just don’t touch him physically.” After the opening salvo, Job says, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away.”
Satan comes a second time to stand before the Lord and God Himself ups the ante. With Fatherly pride in Job, God says, “Have you considered Job. You’ve been able to take away everything he’s got — his children, his herds, his flocks, his servants — and he still praises My name!” What is interesting is that God says, “You’ve persuaded me to destroy him for no reason. What kind of a God does that?
“Ah, skin for skin,” replied Satan. He’ll do what he has to do to preserve his own hide.”
God then grants Satan permission to inflict physical pain on Job. It is at this point that even Job’s wife says, “Why don’t you curse God and die?”
Job simply had the mindset that said, “I must accept difficulty from God if I am to accept His blessings.”
What troubles me though is Job’s unwitting participation as some kind of a pawn in a cosmic game of chess between God and Satan. God allows Job to suffer immeasurable agony simply so that His glory may be revealed in him. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for one who is indifferent to God’s ways. It’s not a pleasant experience for one who loves God. But, there is a mystery here that the book of Job doesn’t even attempt to answer. God is God and I am not.
I pray that my life will be useful to God. Preaching to stadiums full of people would be one way for my life to be useful — or so I think. Becoming a wealthy, successful business man who is able to support missions and Christian causes would be useful. My perspective of usefulness differs from God’s, though.
What do I do though, when my usefulness lies in bringing glory to God through suffering? I trust the sufficiency of God’s grace through every trial. I love Him. I trust Him. I hold to the hope that the sufferings of this life are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us through Jesus Christ. I look forward to the day when I hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 23 (B)
October 12, 1997
Dare to Draw Near
Steve and Sally were about to throw in the towel on their marriage. Steve was a nominal church-goer but never really took seriously the claim of Christ on his life. He had loved Sally deeply at one time but, for whatever reason, the fires of passion had begun to flicker. His head was easily turned by the secretary in his office whose gentle touch and listening ear reminded him of what had first drawn him to his bride. So much so, that he became much more emotionally involved with her than he should have been.
Sally loved Steve. She yearned for their marriage to be a model of love, devotion, and faithfulness. By the time Steve got home from work in the evening, though, she was worn out from chasing preschoolers all day. While Steve wanted to vent about what had happened at work, Sally was too worn out to listen. She wished Steve would spend some time with the kids instead. It seemed anymore, all they did was yell at each other rather than communicate. They both realized their marriage was in serious trouble.
Their pastor was a wise and caring man. He spoke frequently about relational issues from the pulpit. Steve and Sally remembered what had first attracted them to each other and re-solved to do what they could to fix their marriage before it was too late. Pastor Caldwell listened to the messages, spoken and unspoken that each partner in the marriage was sending. His discerning ear was able to pick up on things that were blocking communication. Little by little, Steve and Sally’s marriage was repaired. A funny thing happened though. Their marriage was better and their home was becoming a sanctuary of peace rather than a hot-house of tension. In spite of this, they began to feel uncomfortable around Pastor Caldwell. It seems he knew too much about them.
There is a danger in intimacy. If you really knew my secrets, would you still like me? It’s ironic that sometimes when a pastor helps a person through a difficult time of life, that person will suddenly believe that their pastor knows too much about them. They no longer feel comfortable in his church or around him.
If we have a hard time handling it when humans know too much about us, what do we do when God knows everything about us? His word searches out everything about us. His word cuts to the quick about all that is wrong — and right — about us. It judges our hearts and lays them bare before Him. God’s eyes see everything about us. Nothing is hidden from Him. The word translated laid bare was used in wrestling circles to designate seizing an opponent by the throat in such a manner that he could not move. It suggests, we may evade God for a time, but, at the last, we will be gripped and held fast by Divine Hands. We will be forced to look into His all-seeing eyes. The only thing that finally matters is what God sees in us.
Isn’t it ironic then that rather than fleeing, or shirking back from Him, we are exhorted to draw near to Him? That’s because the God the Son is our High Priest. The chief responsibility of priest is to hear confession — to be a mediator between God and humanity. This mediating High Priest is not Someone who will “think less of us” by knowing all about us. He already knows all there is to know and loves us so much that He wants to forgive us — to draw us near. He can identify with our temptations because His temptations were greater than ours. He didn’t sin, though. Because of that, He invites us confidently to approach His throne so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us.
You may be tempted to shy away from someone who knows too much about you but the One who knows everything says, “I can give you mercy and allow you to find grace if you’ll draw close to Me.” (Mark A. Johnson)
Proper 24 (B)
October 19, 1997
A Time to Be Silent
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Job’s friends had it all figured out.
They knew exactly how the world works, how God works, and — best of all — they knew why. They were the neighborhood theologians of Uz. So, in Job’s days of distress, it was his privilege to receive gleanings of their wisdom. And, what a privilege it was — for the first seven days, when they were silent. Then, for 29 chapters, Zophar, Bildad, and Eliphaz (B.A., M.Div., Th.D., E.S.P.N., A.A.R.P.) repeated one message: “Job, you’ve sinned a great sin. Get it off your chest, and God will make everything okay!” Never mind that Job’s slate is clean. Never mind that their theology isn’t working in real life.
Finally, Job’s three friends (if I may use that term loosely) give up: Job is a heretic. Elihu, a young M.Div. student who has been sagely silent so far, is shocked: “How,” he asks, “can you three give up after only twenty-nine chapters of debate?” So, we hear the same arguments again (Job 32-37). But now they sound worse: Stale air is still stale, through an old fan or a new one.
Then, over Elihu’s left shoulder, something new, something truly different, emerges. As Elihu’s words expand, so does the cloud, until we’re having a hard time hearing Elihu at all.
Then, Elihu is silent.
Someone has arrived in the whirlwind. And all Heaven breaks loose.
The whirlwind’s theology doesn’t make as much sense as Elihu’s, but it’s a lot louder. The voice in the whirlwind doesn’t explain: It explodes. Suddenly, everyone loses the urge to play theological ping-pong: The Whirlwind may not be giving all the theological answers, but it’s asking a lot of interesting questions. And in the light of God’s questions, none of the right answers are making sense anyway.
“Who is this,” I-am-who-I-am demands, “that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man . . .” (New Revised Standard Version). In other words, “Your attempts to disclose my designs have only darkened them. Roll up your jeans, Job. You’ve gotten yourself into something deep!”
Oddly, God’s questions have nothing to do with Job’s circumstances. “Can you send forth lightnings?” God asks. Job is screaming out from an ash heap, and God wants to talk about electricity! Worst of all, Job can’t answer any of God’s questions. He can only shake his head in silent wonder.
Job has asked for an explanation. God challenges, God cajoles — but Job’squestions remain unanswered. Yet, somehow, God’s words satisfy Job. (I suspect God could have read definitions from Webster’s Dictionary and still satisfied Job!) Why? What Job needs isn’t an answer but an assurance. An assurance that God is still his friend.
In the whirlwind, Job gets his assurance. Yes, God criticizes Job’s ignorance. But the tone isn’t angry: It’s spirited . . . playful . . . a reminder of God’s power. When you’re friends, the nearness of the one you love counts far more than the subject of your conversation. Maybe that’s why Job didn’t ask any questions once God arrived on the scene. And, maybe, when someone is suffering, what matters isn’t theological answers but the silent realization that God is still their friend.
Job and his three friends spoke their most eloquent words in the seven days of silence and in the few moments of stillness that accompanied God’s self-revelation. Those were the times when they didn’t think they had all the answers. That could be the central message of Job: To be slow to say, “God did this because …” and quick to say, “I don’t understand why this happened. But God is near, and so am I.”
I guess Job’s friends didn’t have it all figured out.
Oh … and, incidentally, neither do I. (Timothy Paul Jones)
Proper 25 (B)
October 26, 1997
God, Where Are You Now?
As I ran down the sidewalk, Bernie — our local police officer — met me. The ambulance lights painted a kaleidoscope of shooting stars across the houses and trees and cars. “How’s Jerry?” I asked.
“It’s your turn now, preacher,” he replied. “It’s your turn now.”
When I walked into the apartment, Jerry’s wife met me. She spoke softly, “They said he’s gone.” I placed my arms around Leona, fighting my own whirling feelings. “God,” I thought, “where are you now?” No immediate answer came. No whirlwind. No parted waters. No resurrection. Nothing.
In moments like those, I hate the last chapter of Job. Why? It’s a happily-ever-after ending in a world where things don’t always end happily. Sure, Job had to wait forty chapters to be restored. Sure, Job admitted he was wrong while he still sat in dust and ashes. But God blessed Job beyond belief.God doubled Job’s wealth! His wife had ten more children! Couldn’t this same God do something unbelievable to lessen Leona’s pain?
Yet, when I despise Job 42, I’ve missed the point of the chapter. The final chapter of Job isn’t a guarantee that everything God takes away will be restored in this life. (That’s what Job’s friends believed!) It is a reminder that, for God’s children, pain cannot last forever. At a time when a resurrection and final judgment were distant dreams, how else could the author express this hope?
As Job surveyed God’s creation, he was able to confess, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (v. 5). The awareness of God’s continuing presence — not newborn babies or renewed wealth — is what comforted Job. I’m sure that, even after God restored his resources, a lump rose in Job’s throat when he recalled his absent children. Surely, he still wondered, “If mortals die, will they live again?” (14:14a). Only in Jesus Christ can we find a satisfying resolution to Job’s story. For in Christ, the hope — a hope at which Job only hints — was fulfilled.
Like Job, Jesus suffered unjustly. Like Job, Jesus screamed to the heavens and heard no immediate answer. Yet there is a profound difference between them. In Uz, it was the tortured face of humanity turned to God, asking, “Why?” On the cross, it is the agonized face of God turned toward humanity, sharing our sorrow.1
The cross is not an easy answer to the problem of pain. But the empty tomb does give our pain a different perspective. For in the empty tomb, we see not only (as in Job 42) that our pain will not last forever. We see also that, by sharing our pain, God has conquered every power that conspires against God’s will. We can, therefore, share in God’s life.
Job 42 promises that Leona’s pain will not last forever. The empty tomb promises that, beyond this life, her joy will be renewed. And to all who have asked, “Where are you?” God will answer, “I was with you then in your pain. I am with you now in your joy. And I have shared both of them with you.” (Timothy Paul Jones)
1The language in this paragraph alludes to, Peter C. Craigie, “Wisdom, Wisdom Literature,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 2153.
Sermon Briefs are written by Tim Najpaver, Pastor, Liberty Baptist Church, Pekin, IL; Mark Johnson, Managing Editor, Preaching, Jackson, TN; Derl G. Keefer, Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI; Timothy Paul Jones, Green Ridge Baptist Church, Green Ridge, MO.