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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 7, 2012

Finding God in the Good and the Bad

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Hebrews 2:5-12

             Yesterday afternoon Jack came by with a pickup truck filled with firewood.  I have known Jack for over five years.  He has a look that says life has not been easy; he works hard, and there is a sad kindness in Jack’s eyes that makes me always glad to see him.  As we were lifting and stacking wood together, he started to talk about a friend he had lost that week.  Actually, it was an old friend’s only living son, a man only forty years old, who had a seven-year-old son of his own.  The man used the money he had inherited from his father to buy tractors, and he built a successful business cutting the grass along highways in Tennessee and Kentucky.  Last week one of his employees backed up a tractor right over him, and he died two days later in Vanderbilt Hospital.  “Preacher,” he said, “it just don’t make any sense to me.  I knowed him all my life, and he was a good man.  His son needed him.  I just don’t get it.”

             Let me add that I don’t get it either.  I do not know why there is so much innocent suffering in this world.  Neither did the author of the Book of Job.  Nowhere does the Book of Job attempt to explain the mystery of suffering or to offer a valid reason for human pain and suffering.  On this World Communion Sunday, if there is one thing that holds the world together, it is that all human beings suffer.  None are spared.

             The Book of Job is doubtless a story much older than the life of Israel itself.  It was probably borrowed by the Jews and written down in Hebrew at the time of David and Solomon.  Then during the Exile an anonymous poet took this ancient story that deals with human suffering and used it as a setting for the discussion between a sometimes impatient Job and his three so-called friends.  (“The patience of Job” is a phrase found in the New Testament letter of James, not in Job.)  But while the story of Job is ancient, it addresses a timeless human dilemma, and it speaks a profound word that is as true today as it was when it was first told.

             Job is introduced as a man who has it all.  He is described twice in the opening two chapters as “a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil….”  We read these words and we just know that we are in for a rough ride!  It is like one of those movies that begins with the depiction of a happy family dwelling in a loving home.  You just know that things are going to change!  We learn in the course of the story that Job had seven sons and three daughters, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys and “very many servants.”  We learn these staggering numbers of how richly blessed this “blameless” and “upright” man was because Job loses it all.

             The level of Job’s righteousness and his blessings are the issue in the story for Satan, a word which means “the Accuser” or “the Adversary.”  Satan talks to God at the beginning of the story and says, “Of course Job is upright and blameless and fears God…  Who wouldn’t be all these things if they were blessed with such abundance?  But take away all Job’s blessings, make him suffer, and ‘he will curse you to your face.’”  So God permits Satan, “the Adversary,” to reach out his hand and to strike Job, not simply taking everything from him: his children, his wealth, but even his health, sending down upon him “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.”

             In the first chapter, Satan asks a question that is the critical question for the whole book.  “Does Job fear God for nothing?”  According to the wisdom of Israel, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Does Job, and do we, fear God for no good reason?  Is faith in God finally a waste of time?  That is what Satan, “the Accuser,” is asking in this magnificent story.

             John Calvin said there were two kinds of religious fear: servile fear and proper fear.  Servile fear is fear for one’s own sake.  Most people, Calvin said, fear God’s punishment.  This is servile fear, and it is finally a self-serving, self-saving fear.  Proper fear, Calvin said, is respect and reverence for God himself.  True believers, Calvin said, fear offending God more than they fear punishment.  To put it another way, true believers live to please and to glorify God.  They do not serve God for what is in it for them, or for what God can do for them.  They seek “to live a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called.”

             Many Christians I meet have a fear of God that is servile, and finally betrays a very narrow view of God, or at least a utilitarian view of God.  “I believe in Jesus because if I do, He’ll save me and I can go to heaven instead of hell.”  James Gustafson coined this notion of “utilitarian faith” in his Ethics.  He said many people in a consumer society inevitably turn their religion into a consumer-driven product.  They believe because of what God can do for them.  That is what Satan accused Job of having.  “Does Job fear God for nothing?”

             Calvin thought a genuine piety was centered in God alone.  Calvin thought we should serve God for God’s sake alone, because this is our only real vocation, to glorify God and to serve God’s grand purposes.  This is what James Gustafson called “theocentric living,” living a life centered not in what God can do for us, which for all our pious talk, is still self-centered living, but living our lives for God.  Paul was getting at this in his letter to the Romans.  “If we live, we live unto the Lord.  And if we die, we die unto the Lord.  So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

             So Job’s wife sees him, sitting among the ashes, scraping his loathsome sores with a piece of pottery.  She views this good man who has lost everything, and she says to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity?  Curse God, and die.”  But Job said to her, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

             This is the model of faith and trust in God for God’s sake alone.  Job will later question God.  And he will finally affirm those words that most of us know because we have heard them sung so often in church.  “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”  But for today, let’s allow Job’s profound question to sit with us for a while.  Like so many questions in the Bible, it is one worthy of your best thought, your deepest devotion.  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

             In C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Wormwood, the prince of the underworld, says to his nephew and trainee, Screwtape: “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s (God’s) will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of God seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”  Jesus, of course, from the cross, cried, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”  And then He was obedient to God, even unto death.

             I had a dear friend, a very accomplished architect, who helped to build a large, very successful engineering and architecture firm.  He had a beautiful wife, and daughter whose life was filled with sorrow and sadness, much of it of her own doing.  And as he faced a terminal diagnosis for the illness he had fought for many years, he smiled at me on his back porch one afternoon, gave a little laugh, and said, “God doesn’t owe me anything.”

             “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  This friend voiced what I shall always view as the wisdom born of a proper fear of God.  “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

                                                                                     Amen.

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