The Answer Job 31:35-37, Job 38:1-11

Job 31:35-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
35 O that I had one to hear me!
 (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
 O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
36 Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
 I would bind it on me like a crown;
37 I would give him an account of all my steps;
 like a prince I would approach him.
Job 38:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
 I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
 Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
 Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
 or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
 and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors
 when it burst out from the womb?—
9 when I made the clouds its garment,
 and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
 and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
 and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
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Job has suffered. Job has suffered for no reason at all except that God has allowed Satan to test Job.
Suffering without cause. Illness for no good reason. Heartbreak for no good reason. Economic injustice for no good reason. War for no good reason. Cruelty for no good reason. Physical and emotional abuse for no good reason.
That’s how the world is.
Job had lived in a world that seemed to promise that righteous living would be rewarded and that sinful living would be punished. It worked for Job for most of his life, until Satan argued with God about Job’s faithfulness. Satan claimed that the only reason Job was faithful was because God was good to Job. Take away those gifts, said Satan, and Job would desert God. God dared Satan and Job became the poster child for bad things happening to good people.
Let me remind you that the events in this story never happened. They are the author’s attempt to understand and explain good vs. evil, punishment vs. reward in a world that is ruled by God. Job is a book about God, a book inspired by God, but it is theoretical rather than historical.
Job’s friends try to help him understand why God has let these terrible things happen to him. Their conclusion is that Job must have sinned. Remember, it is Satan, not God, who orchestrated this entire scenario. But neither the friends nor Job know this.
Job is so faithful, so strong a believer in a good and gracious God that he does not desert God. Instead, he pleads with God, argues with God, complains to God. He does not curse God. He does not give up on God. He does not tell God to go to hell.
Have you ever witnessed so much injustice that you were ready to give up on God? It’s not uncommon. How many people have walked away from God because life was too unfair?
Do people walk away from God because they don’t understand God?
Do they give up on God like giving up on a hard math problem?
Job will not give up. He wants to hear directly from God. And, because this is a story, Job does hear directly from God.
God speaks to Job from the middle of a tornado. That would be pretty impressive, would it not? Think of the overwhelming noise of a tornado and then think of the voice of God coming out of it, drowning out the noise of the tornado. Pretty impressive.
God does not mention one word about God’s bet with Satan. God never explains why Job has to suffer. God approaches from a different angle. Listen to God’s words again.
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
 I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
 Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
 Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
 or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
 and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8 “Or who shut in the sea with doors
 when it burst out from the womb?—
9 when I made the clouds its garment,
 and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
 and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
 and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
God does not give answers. Instead, God asks questions. Seventy questions. But all the questions point to one idea: Job, who do you think you are?
Like many questions, there is an answer within all those questions. The answer is a comforting answer: God created a world that is ordered and organized. God created a world that operates on logical, complex systems.
Let’s take an example: climate change. Many people tell me that climate change is not man made, that it is jut a cycle in nature, like the ice ages. Yes and no. It is a cycle, but this is the first major climate change that is caused by humans. It started with the industrial age, with blowing carbon into the air, and now, we are reaping the consequences. It is part of God’s ordered creation, because that creation includes how molecules interact with each other. God thought of every detail. God added humans to God’s creation and here we are. The amazing thing about climate change is that the world, this beautiful earth will survive and continue to evolve. The sad thing is that humans, like dinosaurs, don’t have much to look forward to. Our bodies are not able to adapt as quickly as many of the other organisms on earth. It sounds funny, but the adaptations that scare me are that animals that can’t survive winters are already moving north. Will our grandchildren have to watch out for boa constrictors and anacondas in their backyards? Snakes scare me. I want them to stay where they belong—in somebody else’s backyard. Far away. Actually, that is not the greatest danger, but it’s easy to understand.
You see, we are not the center of creation. We are not “patent protected” anymore than land and water. We are a part of creation, so when illness strikes, when we are in danger, it is part of God’s creation.
Do not confuse this with God’s plan or God’s will. People often speak of God’s plan when someone dies unexpectedly or some other disaster happens. God’s plan for us is to be happy. God’s creation has it’s own rules. In the twenty-first century, we believe that we know most of those rules, that we understand the science behind buildings collapsing, behind weather, behind disease. And we do know more than our grandparents’ or our parents’ generation. But God’s creation, God’s brilliance is so complex that we don’t know everything.
That is the point of God’s seventy-plus questions to Job. Do you know everything there is to know? Who are you to question me? asks God.
So what does that teach us?
Knowing that Creation is beyond our understanding does not make the pain go away. Knowing that God is ultimately in charge does not stop children being separated from their parents, whether it be by DHS or ICE. Knowing that God is in charge does not stop hurricanes or radicals with AR-15s.
Nothing stops suffering. But suffering and grief are not the whole story of our lives. In those seventy-plus questions, God is describing an incredibly beautiful, brilliant earth and sky and universe. God reminds us that just as we suffer, we also benefit from the complexity of Creation.
Our reaction to suffering can go two ways. It can estrange us from God because we mistakenly think God is punishing us or that God has deserted us. The other direction is to draw closer to God, to seek comfort in God’s immensity and power. You might say that we need to see the bigger picture. Again, the pain does not go away, but, paradoxically, we are also immersed in beauty and joy and love at the same time.
I want to pause for a bit, so that you can remember a time when you were simultaneously immersed in pain and beauty. Think of a time when you found a kind of relief as you enjoyed something wonderful. …
I think of funerals, oddly enough, because even though we are saddened by loss, we are surrounded by the love of family and friends. I think of childbirth, which pain has no equal, but is accompanied by the joy of a brand new baby to hold in one’s arms.
Perhaps these last chapters of Job would be good reading in time of suffering. The next time life knocks you down, read Chapter 38 and 39. If nothing else, you’ll be distracted for a while. God’s final question to Job is this:
2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
 Anyone who argues with God must respond.”
Let us respond to God with prayer, praise and thanksgiving. God’s creation has provided us with illness, but also with penicillin and morphine. God’s creation has provided us with weather, but also shelter. God’s creation has required our labor, but has also provided food. Let us remember that God is with us in every moment, every piece, every sense of our lives.
Beyond those physical realities, remember the greatest gift of all: God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who died to rescue us forever from all earthly sin and pain. Amen.

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Just Trying to Help Job 3:1-10; 4:1-9; 7:11-21

Job 3:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2 Job said:
3 “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’4 Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it.5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.6 That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months.7 Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it.8 Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.9 Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning—10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes.
Job 4:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
2 “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking?3 See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands.4 Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees.5 But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.6 Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?
7 “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?8 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.9 By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
Job 7:11-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.12 Am I the Sea, or the Dragon, that you set a guard over me?13 When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’14 then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, 15 so that I would choose strangling and death rather than this body.16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath.17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, 18 visit them every morning, test them every moment?19 Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you?21 Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.”
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We learned last week that God and Satan made a bet that Job only loved God because God was good to Job. God gave Satan permission to mess with Job’s happiness, as long as Satan didn’t kill Job. Satan had a blast. He sent robbers to steal seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys. The robbers killed all the servants who worked for Job. Then, while Job’ ten children were partying at his oldest son’s house, a storm came by and demolished the house, killing all within. Satan thought that surely Job would curse God after all those losses, but Job merely said, God gives, God takes. Satan took one more shot a Job: he covered him in sores, from head to toe. Job refused to turn against God, even when his wife encouraged him to do so.
At what point would you turn away from God? When you lost your job? When you lost your family? When you lost your health? We’ve all had losses in our lives, but have any of them amounted to absolutely everything good think we possessed?
I’m reading a book right now, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. She grew up in Kansas, the granddaughter of wheat farmers and the daughter of a construction worker and a real estate agent. She tells her story in her voice, but it is a story that could be told by half the country. The American dream is to grow up poor and break away to become rich. At least rich enough to never go hungry, to always be able to go to the doctor, to always have the same roof over your head for more than a year. The American dream means life insurance, no jail time, no addictions, good teachers in good schools, clothes that protect from the weather.
I have heard people complain that poor people just make bad choices. Lifestyle choices, like when your teenager chooses to run around with kids you don’t like. Lifestyle choices. What I am learning from this book is that all the lifestyle choices for poor people are bad. But, like Job, Sarah Smarsh’s people did not turn away from God.
Job had no choice in God and Satan’s big bet to see how long Job would last. Job’s luxurious lifestyle was ripped away from him and a very different lifestyle was thrust upon him. The point of Satan’s experiment was to make Job forsake God. If Job cursed God, Satan would win.
Job does not curse God. He does curse. He curses the day he was born:
2 Job said:
3 “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived.’4 Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it.5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.6 That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months.7 Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Job has not lost everything. He has not lost his friends. They have been true friends. He can’t entertain them anymore, but they still come around. He is disgusting to look at, but they still come around. He is no longer the richest man in the county, but they still come around. In fact, for seven days, they simply sit with him in silence. No one said a word to Job, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.” (2:13)
But after seven days, they try to figure out just what has gone wrong for Job. How could all this happen to one man, and a good and honorable man at that?
Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:
2 “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking?
Eliphaz approaches politely, but frankly. First, he points out Job’s great qualities, those for which he is respected in the community.
3 See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands.4 Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees.
Job has been a leader, a role model for those who haven’t been as fortunate as he has been. But now Job is getting a taste of what other people experience:
5 But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed.6 Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?
Job has been known for his faithfulness to God. By the same token Eliphaz understands that God is the one in control and that Job has prospered because God has rewarded him.
So Eliphaz deduces:
7 “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?8 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.9 By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
Eliphaz is hinting that Job must have done something to anger God. He implies that Job has offended God at some point, even though his life has been exemplary.
That is a common way of thinking about God. Those of us who believe in God believe that God is active in our lives. We also think of God as a parent—-we pray every day “Our FATHER…” What do parents do? They reward us for good behavior and punish us for bad behavior. So we see God that way. But what if we think of “our father” as the giver of all that is good.
.Matthew 7 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
Jesus tells us that God gives what is good, only what is good, just as a good parents gives their children only good things. What does Jesus say about punishment? I’ll give you one example:
John 8:3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Mercy. Forgiveness. Understanding. Not condemnation. Not punishment. That is the God we worship through Jesus Christ. So please do not think that God punishes you for your sins. Those days are over, because Jesus died for our sins and took all the punishment upon himself.
Job responds to Eliphaz by complaining to God”
13 When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my complaint,’14 then you scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions, 15 so that I would choose strangling and death rather than this body.16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever. Let me alone, for my days are a breath.17 What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, 18 visit them every morning, test them every moment?19 Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?20 If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you?21 Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity?For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be.”
Job blames God. Job questions God. Job asks God to just leave him alone.
We can blame God. We can question God. But God will never leave us alone. Remember, the story of Job is not about a real person. The book of Job is a story that questions and examines as it entertains. The story of Job gives us the opportunity to ask those questions about suffering and injustice.
Imagine if you were watching this as a television series. The series doesn’t end after the first episode. We have three more episodes in our series.
Each episode of series ends with some questions answered, but more questions presented. Will Job regain his health? What else will his friends say? Will God answer Job? Stay tuned. Amen.


Repentance is not a requirement but a response. Jeremiah 31

Repentance is not feeling sorry. Repentance is changing, turning, not repeating the same sin.

Reunion: Small Town Cafe Style

Usually the tables and booths are filled with the regulars, but every once in a while, the tables are pushed together and a bunch of people, all about the same age, all the same gender, walk in, obviously happy to see each other, because it is a reunion of sorts.

Today’s reunion is exciting—the last time they got together was yesterday—-to practice for winning the state baseball championship. Twenty young men and their coaches indulged in a hearty breakfast, paid for by the grandfather of one of the team players, to celebrate all the victories and to anticipate the next step: playing on the field of the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines for the high school state championship.

The regulars stop by their tables, leaning on canes, to wish them luck. Advice is positive—-Have fun, no matter what! Play hard! Play smart!

Most of the time, these reunion groups are Social Security recipients, reuniting years and years and years after the last time they took the field as a team.

I can’t help thinking that thirty or forty years from now, these young men will reunite around these same tables, or tables similar, to not only recall the glorious days of athletic ability, but also to reaffirm the friendships that were established with a ball of some kind, on a mat or floor or field of some kind, ghosts of the people lined up in those professional photographs, all wearing the same colors, the same style.

They will be very different thirty years from now, but they won’t notice because they’ll see with their hearts more than with their eyes the colleagues who walked and ran and lifted with them through those formative years. They’ll catch up on details—families, business, vacations, but soon the talk will become story telling. The stories will be specific to those years when they worked so hard together that they practically breathed simultaneously.

I welcome these groups somewhere between anticipation and dread, because one day, a group will walk in who is young enough (old enough?) to be my former students. More anticipation than dread, because I enjoyed my students and it will be good to see them in this later stage of development. Dread because they might not remember me or I might be the one who ruined their four-point. (Yes, I know they collaborated in earning a grad of B grade.)

Story-telling is a symptom of our humanity. Story-telling is civil, because the facts can’t be changed, although they can be embellished and variegated and interpreted. The story still remains, even though it is remembered differently by the participants. Take for instance, the four Gospels in the Christian Bible. The religious authorities did not choose one gospel over another: they chose four (out of six or seven possibilities) . All are valid. All “happened,” even if many of the events cannot be verified through human means. Story-telling is a way of remembering and we each remember differently. Our individual memories are important because our experiences are different. Imagine a house with many rooms and many windows. Each of us is in our own room and we see from our own window. What I see from my room is different from what you see from your room. We both see the blizzard, but my view shows trees bowing over and your view shows drifts piling up.

Storytelling is how we share those experiences that prove (and think of the word “prove” in the older sense of “test.”) who we were, who we are.

Even as I finish this reflection, those darling boys are standing on the field of some people they hope to emulate. They will pitch and catch and run and bat. At some point, the game will end. What will never end is the stories they will have to tell each other after today.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Job 1:1-2:10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4 His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.
6 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The 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.” 8 The 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.” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13 One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
2 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The 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.” 3 The 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.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The 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. 8 Job 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.” 10 But 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.
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Job would have been a great role model. He worshipped God. He owned more cattle and donkeys and sheep and camels than would fit in any Iowa fairground. He had ten kids, who were great partiers. He loved his kids so much that he paid their fines, in case they partied a little too much.
He was rich. He had a good wife. He was in good health.
What could possibly go wrong?
How often have you asked yourself that question? What could possibly go wrong? You get a job, you buy a house or you find an apartment you can afford. You have a car, you have gas money. What could go wrong?
You have kids. They grow up to be self-supporting adults. They give you grandkids. What could possibly go wrong?
You eat food that is not too salty, not too sweet. You exercise. You get regular checkups with your doctor. You use your seat belt. What could possibly go wrong?
And yet. Things go wrong. You lose your job. Your car breaks down. Your kids bend the law to the breaking point. You take a trip to the ER with chest pains.
In an instant, all your wonderful, perfect life—the perfect life you created through wise decisions and hard work—goes all to pieces.
You’re not the first one to lose what you saved for. You’re not the first one to watch your plans fizzle like a July 4 sparkler.
Centuries ago, people wrestled with the same injustice of gain and loss. The book of Job is an amazing story that seeks to explain and understand how our earthly efforts can be dashed to pieces, no matter how good, how righteous, how generous, how hard-working we are.
First of all, we need to recognize that Job is a work of fiction. We know it is fiction because it includes in the story events that no human could have witnessed.
6 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.
This is pure speculation on the part of the author, but it is important to the entire book because by the end of the book, it helps us to see the character of God.
Speaking of the character of God, this God does not sound like the God we worship. We believe in a steady, no-nonsense God, a God who protects God’s creation, especially human beings. The God in this story is willing to gamble on God’s creation.
Why question the character of God? Most of the books of the Hebrew Bible present God as parental, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. But sometimes that philosophy doesn’t follow through.
We all know that. We’ve seen good behavior go unrewarded. We’ve seen bad behavior go unpunished. When we’ve witnessed enough of that, we start to ask questions. Is God really the God we’ve been told about? Does God really care? and that leads to more questions: Why remain faithful to God when prayers go unanswered, when a righteous life is afflicted with pain and loss?
Perhaps you know someone who has given up on God. Perhaps you know lots of people who have given up on God.
Let me clarify: this is not the same as giving up on church. You are reminded every Sunday, just by looking around, that these pews used to be full of people. The people who filled them have not necessarily given up on God. They’ve given up on relationships, on community within the church, but many of them still believe in God.
Giving up on God is quite a different thing. It means that the spiritual part of our selves has been dealt so many blows that we feel abandoned by God. When to even go out of your house brings threats of violence, when working full time does not provide enough money for food and rent, when availing yourself of the best medical care possible does not keep away heart attacks and cancer….God seems to be missing.
So, Job did everything by God’s book. And you know what? He wasn’t even an Israelite, so shouldn’t he get extra points for worshipping the one true God?
Back to the heavenly board meeting:
7 The 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.”
Satan was not the devil-character that we see in horror stories and Halloween costumes. Satan’s role was to look for sinners, not cause sinning. When he spotted a sinner, he reported said sinner to God, who would deal with the sinner accordingly.
8 The 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.”
God seems to be rather proud of Job. Perhaps he wants to point out to Satan that Job will never be in the naughty list. But Satan calls God’s bluff:
9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
In other words, of course, Job worships God, because he knows that God has given him everything he has. Worshiping God is a no-brainer.
But God does a strange thing: God gives Satan power over Job’s blessings. He doesn’t give Satan power over Job’s heart, mind, and soul—just the riches and all the things that give Job pleasure.
Satan loses no time in getting to work on Job. In one day, he takes away everything that Job has worked for.
13 One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
But then something worse than financial ruin occurs.
18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
Did Job curse God? No:
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
But Satan wasn’t finished. He planned to win this bet with God.
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. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Now Job’s wife steps into the story. Remember that all those sheep and camels were just as important to her survival as they were to Job’s. And, further, those ten children had been carried in her womb. Her loss was as great as Job’s, maybe greater. She gives up on God.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But 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.
Even in his great misery, Job replies with equanimity. His faith is not shaken. But how long will he maintain his faithfulness? How long would you maintain your faithfulness?
Amen.
P.S. To be continued…

Generation by Generation

Reunions. The stigma is rampant among the latest generation. Boring old people who have boring stories. People you don’t know talking about people you don’t know. People who have seen better days.
In fact, those people have seen days that the youngsters can’t imagine.
If you sit at the table and listen, you learn about adventures you will never have. Uncle Jake raced horses. Uncle Jake was a boxer, a winning boxer. Uncle Jake served on a submarine in World War—-wait for it—-ONE! He was eligible because he was only 5’5″. He was only 17, too, but that was a secret. He nearly fell overboard while the submarine was deployed off the Coast of Alaska. Figure that one out!
Rex’s second wife wasn’t a favorite, but every body loved his first wife.
Aunt Irma made cherry dills. You mean pickled cherries. No. Cucumbers pickled with cherry leaves and dill. (And before the sun sets, two of us have found a source for cherry tree leaves.) (And one of us promises to bring a batch of dill to the funeral on Wednesday.)
Yes. A funeral so close to the reunion. The first reunion for Lonnie to miss, only because he died on Friday. Lonnie was special because he lost most of his arm when he was seven. Nothing dramatic; more tragic. He fell out of a tree and broke his arm. That doctor put a cast on and said it would be fine. It wasn’t. Gangrene set in. That never slowed Lonnie down; he was an auto mechanic for nearly fifty years. He also played the accordion. Try to picture that. But he’s most remembered for his kindness, his cheerfulness, his generosity.
These are first cousins. They are in their 80’s and 90’s. Even the ones who always seemed like the youngsters of the family are in their 80’s. The next generation, first cousins, once removed, are getting to know each other because they have to drive some of the first cousins to the reunion. But not everybody needs a ride. George and Carolyn still come under their own power. But Lisa brought her mom and aunt and partner? roommate? best friend? Whatever. Nancy always brings enough of her home-fried chicken to give us all leftovers to take home. Because she is so frail these days, that chicken is extra special and extra-appreciated. Kay always makes her apple-sour cream (not sour cream-apple) pie, just like Aunt Irma used to.
These people are not boring to my generation, because we knew the preceding generation, the ones who get flowers on their graves every memorial day. They were our grandparents, our grandparents’ brothers and sisters—our great-aunts and great-uncles.
Some we never knew, especially Van. Van was dragged to death by a horse. He was wearing rubber boots and his foot got caught in the stirrup. The horse ran for home and was waiting at the barn door with the half-dead boy when Grandpa and Grandma Schaefer got home. Every copy of a photograph, notorious among those who have seen it, has been destroyed. It was the custom, back in the day, to photograph the deceased in the casket. Van was badly mauled, and not being embalmed, his face and body swelled and the sight was of a monster instead of the handsome young brother they all remembered.
In our family, on my mother’s side of the family, many of the men (and my mother and her cousin, Gla) served in the armed forces. We spent some time sorting out who was in what war when. My mom is the only WW2 veteran left. George served in the early fifties. His ship was headed to Korea when the truce was signed, so they headed to Japan, to work in the military hospitals.
Then we talked about what wasn’t talked about: the war veterans of WW 1 & 2 and how they never talked about being in the war. Except at some family reunions: the veterans would go off to a room by themselves and talk. Maybe it was a kind of therapy.
We have soldiers all the way back to the War between the States, but no stories remain from those days.
That is the great thing about reunions. Some stories continue to live after their heroes die.
Frank’s wife, Sally was an entertainer, the kind who accompanied herself on a piano or organ. Whenever she played in the Quad-Cities. she and Uncle Frank would have supper with Uncle Everett and Aunt Ivy. Amber was only a little girl then, but she remembers Sally sitting at her mother’s vanity, putting on more makeup than Amber had ever seen, in preparation for the evening’s performance.
Uncle Frank and Aunt Sally had three boys, followed by a sister, who, even though named Merle Marie, was and still is called “Sister.”
Some mention is made of cousins who have not stayed in touch, not with hard feelings, but with a melancholy wonder.
My generation, the first cousins once removed, don’t tell many stories. That’s because we don’t share much more than this reunion and some mighty fine DNA. The first cousins grew up together, played together, celebrated together, so they share the stories, either from their own experience, or from the stories they heard form their parents.
But today, maybe because Lonnie just died, the stories were about that first generation of brothers and sisters—-Helen, Iva, Frank, Bill, Irma, Gladys, and Van. Before long there will be no one to tell their stories, so today, we locked in a few more memories before the memory keepers are gone.

The Spider Story 07.14.19

I leave the house with a crap sermon, no hymns chosen. ( I have a very accommodating organist.)
I get in the car, last driven by not me. Seventy-two miles my fancy old-lady Buick tells me. You have seventy-two miles left for this trip. It’s already Toronto minus 30. But, I only have to drive 52 miles, so I’ll be fine, even though my trip home will be serenaded with a warning light.
But let me tell you about the spider. I reach for the handle of my car door. There, blocking my way, is a perfect spider web, the symmetrical kind that must have at least a mile of thread carefully connected at even intervals, stretching from the side mirror to the door handle to the roof. Perfect. But I don’t even have time to photograph it because I’m running late. So I take off, forgetting about the spider.
About fifteen miles into the trip at 60+ miles per hour, I look out my side window. The spider, sometime in the last fifteen minutes, has crawled into the middle of the web and is hanging on for dear life. I slow to 60. But by the time I get to to Toronto (Iowa), she, and her web are gone.
I hope she bounces.
We have a crowd today. Jake is back from Korea. Six us of us share the sacrament. Because Beulah is in danger of passing out from the heat, we sing just one verse of each hymn. Of the three hymns I choose, two are unfamiliar, so we change to more familiar hymns. Only in a small congregation.
I spend only a short time at the tavern. Everything is pretty quiet. I drink my cup of coffee, then mosey over to the cardplayers to visit a bit. It’s a Sunday tradition. I wish everyone a good week and head south to Dixon. Krista Tippet is on and once again I vow I will relisten to her broadcast. I never have.
I pull into Dixon, open the windows in my office and turn on the fan. Then I choose three hymns. It is so hot that the organist is forsaking the balcony and playing the piano by the altar. Halfway through the hymn after the sermon I figure out how to rewrite the sermon.
Just outside of Dixon the old-lady car tells me I need gas. Ok. And then I realize I’ve left my phone on my desk. Fifty years ago that would have been no problem. The phone wouldn’t have been able to leave the desk. But I need my phone by my side every minute of every day, so I turn back, confident that I still have enough gas. I text Bim my usual Sunday text: “Leaving Dixon.” I like to think it’s so he won’t worry about me, but it’s really about him having dinner ready when I get home.
This Sunday is different because Walter is here. All two-and-half years toddler attitude of him. “Walter, it’s time for lunch.” “Not me.” “Walter, put your shoes on.” “Not me.” Walter, it’s time for a nap.” “Not me.”
I’m not complaining; just observing. I did try to blame my undercooked sermon on Walter. Who can write a sermon when a toddler is snuggled up against you? (If you think I should have had the sermon written hours, if not days before Saturday night, you’re wrong.)
So, it’s evening. The sun is sinking and so am I. Walter has his second wind and he and his brother are arguing over who gets to be the garbageman.
Earlier they were chasing down robbers, building cushion forts to protect themselves from some sort of attack, and now they are making coffee. That means they are drinking enough water to challenge the heftiest pull-up.
When Walter was born, Charlie was five years old. I wondered what they would have in common. The answer: everything. I have never seen brothers play together so well. It took only a few days for Walter to become Charlie’s best friend, and the feeling is mutual. They will protect each other to the death.
Speaking of death, I hope the spider flew off into the ditch and has woven a lovely web between stalks of daylilies and Queen Anne’s Lace. She persisted for fifteen miles and speeds that must have taken away her breath. (Do spiders breathe?) I’m not the kind of person who stops the car to rescue a spider. And I was late.
I preached on Ecclesiastes 8 & 9 today. Pretty pessimistic stuff. But what we have that the writer didn’t have is hope, eternal hope. The spider’s only hope is to reproduce. Our hope is even more long term and more personal. Perhaps by tonight, that spider has become the dinner instead of the diner. She is also a symbol of the Wisdom writings—-observations about the world around us, about what works and what doesn’t work. Weaving a food trap on my car door didn’t work. I recommend that the next spider try her hand at the area around my flowerpots. They won’t be getting any more attention this summer. Best wishes, future spider.

Old Stories, New Ears Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Bible stories. Some of the greatest stories ever told are Bible Stories. Bible stories are famous throughout world, specifically the world that has been settled by Christians.
For thirty-some years I taught literature to high school students. One of the terms I taught them was allusion. There were literary allusions—-references to other great works of literature, like Shakespeare and Dickens. Everybody knew something about Romeo and Juliet before I made them actually read it word for word. Other literary allusions included Scrooge and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There were mythological allusions—-everyone had heard of Pandora’s Box and Zeus; everyone knew what an Achilles’ heel was.
And then there were Biblical allusions. When I shared a poem about Noah’s wife, my students knew the story of Noah and the Ark. One of the stories in our textbook was “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry. In that story are references to Delilah, King Solomon, and the Wisemen. They all explained in a few words what was important in the story, simply by mentioning those names. Beautiful hair was an important part of the story, as were wealth and gifts. Biblical allusions are common in Western European and American Literature (both continents) because Christianity is widespread on those continents.
One of my favorite tricks, when we tackled a Shakespearean play for the first time, was to have students recite the Lord’s Prayer together. We weren’t praying, though; we were speaking the same language, the same style of English, used in all of Shakespeare’s plays. That was because King James I was inspired to gather up sixty scholars to translate the Bible into modern English in the same century in which Shakespeare wrote his plays: the 17th Century. The King James Version was published in 16ll; Shakespeare died in 1616. In the 17th Century, modern was what we now think of as out of date. Language changed, but the Bible used in most of our churches did not change until the middle of the twentieth century. And the KJV is still the most poetic translation.
So we all grew up with some familiarity with Shakespearean language, only we thought it was Biblical language. For instance: Genesis 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.
Psalm 1:1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
So, as a little kid, I heard some Bible stories in the language of 17th Century Shakespearean actors and I heard some in everyday langue as printed on the little Sunday School papers we got each Sunday.
I heard the same Bible stories over and over again, from the time I was three years old until the time I went away to college. When I think about how my school stories changed over the years, how the reading got harder, how I went from Dick and Jane to Great Expectations and MacBeth, it makes me wonder why I never learned anything new about those Bible stories past fourth grade. Even in confirmation, I don’t recall a whole lot that shocked or amazed me. Every story, once told, remained the same. It was as if we were all limited to a fourth grade education when it came to Biblical knowledge.
Eventually, somehow, I was introduced to some of the deeper, more complicate studies of Bible stories and I was eager to study even more. Yet, when I’d sit in church on Sunday morning and listen to the sermon, it was as if the sermons were meant for fourth graders It made me mad; I’d silently cuss out the preacher—-“You went to seminary, didn’t you? Didn’t you learn anything? Are we too dumb to appreciate what you learned?”
The more I thought about it, the angrier I got. Eventually, I solved part of my frustration by teaching adult Sunday School classes, so I could both learn and teach. And I found that other adults also wanted more than a fourth grade Sunday School education. It wasn’t because they were intellectual giants; it was because they were adults who like to think like adults. They had already moved from the Weekly Reader to the New York Times. They wanted to do the same with Biblical reading.
A few years after that, I started preaching, and I’ve tried to keep that spirit of challenge and education and revelation in my preaching. Every sermon I write is a learning experience for me and I hope I’ve shared my learning with you. It is not private property.
The risky thing about sharing what I learn is that sometimes it challenges the traditional telling of stories.
I went to a Christian college, Wartburg College. One of the requirements of going to a religious college is that students have to take religion classes. One of the first classes I took was Introduction to Old and New Testament. I learned that God did not personally write Scripture with a ball point pen and I learned that it was heavily influenced by the ideas of the men who actually transcribed the words. Some people found this to be too upsetting—they wanted to believe that the Bible was totally divinely inspired and written. They were disillusioned, to say the least. I, on the other hand, loved discovering that there was more to the Bible than Jesus loves me.
As you know, I’ve been studying more seriously at Wartburg Theological Seminary—more seriously than I’ve ever studied in my life. I think you should learn some of what I’m learning.
What did I learn in my last class? I learned why Genesis Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were written and when they were first written down.
Those five books are based on stories told over generations; they were finally written down during a low point in the history of the Hebrew people. The stories in those five books weren’t written as they happened, like a cosmic diary. The information in the first five books was about 600 years old before it was written down. Up to that time, the stories were passed from person to person, from generation to generation, by word of mouth, just as we tell family stories around the dining room table on holidays and at funerals and weddings.
Maybe you’ve noticed that the details in those family stories change over time. When Bim and I tell the same story, there are some differences in who said what or where we were. Both of us are right, of course. The same thing is true of the stories in the Bible. And the great thing is that multiple versions were included in the final collection. So we read in Genesis 1 that God created woman and man at the same time, but in Genesis 3, we read that God created Eve from a chunk of Adam. (I’d like to point out that the only time a man gave birth, he slept through the whole thing.) And if you read the story of Noah and the Ark, in Genesis 6, God instructs Noah to take two of each animal, male and female, (19-20 Bring into the boat with you a male and a female of every kind of animal and bird, as well as a male and a female of every reptile. I don’t want them to be destroyed.), 21but when the ark is finally loaded, God suggests taking seven pairs of some animals: Genesis 7: 2 Take seven pairs of every kind of animal that can be used for sacrifice and one pair of all others. 3 Also take seven pairs of every kind of bird with you.
The stories were recorded to cheer up the Hebrew people at a time when they had lost everything. They had been overrun by the Babylonians, they had been hauled off to a foreign land, they had lost all their property and they had lost the one place that was central to their existence as a culture and a nation: their temple. The temple that King David had dreamed about and that his son, King Solomon had built in Jerusalem, was destroyed.
Those five books brought together everything the Hebrew people knew about themselves. It included the stories that they had learned about their ancestors and it included the stories their ancestors had told that explained their relationship to God.
The stories answered important questions: How did we get here? Where did we come from? Who is God? How did God choose us?
The order of the stories is chronological. Genesis 1 starts with how the earth and people and animals came into existence. It is not scientific. Among Bible scholars, the term used to describe the stories in the Pentateuch is “myth.” But we have to define “myth” carefully.
In modern English usage, “myth” is often opposed to factual truth, but this is unfortunate, as it makes it difficult to take myths seriously. The ancient myths are serious but imaginative attempts to explain life in this world. [Collins, John J.. A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: Third Edition (p. 23). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition. ]
Our ancient forebears were just as intellectually curious as we are, and so, like us, they observed the world around them, and based on their best intelligence, they came to the conclusions that are shared in our Bible.
So, does that make the Bible seem like just a bunch of creative writing on the part of a small group of men? Not at all.
The writers of Genesis and Exodus were seeking to make meaning based on their knowledge of who God was and how God interacted with God’s people. Every story in the Bible is about the relationship between God and God’s creation.
The first five books confirm that God is active in the lives of all people. When we read those stories, we learn of a loving God, of an angry God, of a disappointed God, of a forgiving God. Over and over, God decides to give up on the people who turn away from him through sin or idolatry. And yet, God gives them a second chance.
For instance, God tells Adam and Eve, Genesis 2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. Adam and Eve eat from the tree, but they do not drop dead after the first bite. Instead God moves them to a new location, and they go on to have babies and live for a good many years. Next Sunday, we’ll hear the story of Cain and Abel. Again, God has mercy on the sinner. Eventually, God was so upset with his grand experiment that God decided to destroy the whole creation, including human beings. But, he decided instead to make a fresh start with Noah. Time after time, human beings betrayed God, and time after time, God, out of God’s infinite love, had mercy on the sinner and gave them a second chance to stay in relationship with God.
You see, that’s what the Bible is about. It is about our relationship with God, starting with creation and with God’s favorite part of creation, human beings.
It doesn’t matter if you believe that the earth was created in seven days or evolved over millions of years. That’s not important. What is important is that we know the story of a God who created us and who has maintained and supported and nurtured a relationship with us during all that time.
We tell stories to explain ourselves, who we are, why we are the way we are. The Bible explains who we are, not as scientific fact, not even as history, but as the truth of who we are: the children of God.
That story didn’t end with the fall of the kingdom of Israel. That story did not end when the Hebrew nation was conquered by the Persians or the Romans. That story continued because God never quits. God kept forgiving and inspiring and loving God’s people. The most glorious gift God gave us was to God-self, to become exactly like us, so that God could die exactly like us—-and then—conquer death through Jesus’ resurrection.
When Babylonia conquered Israel, they thought they had lost everything. They no longer had any land. They no longer had a king or a government. They no longer had the dwelling place of God: the Temple. But they found out that those physical manifestations of their nation were not necessary. God was present with them, even when they were prisoners of war, even when they were homeless. Even when they turned away from God.
That’s the same God who is revealed to us in Scripture. That same God is our God, every faithful, every merciful, ever loving. The Bible is not a history book or a science book. It is a book about us, God’s children. May we read with open eyes and hear with open ears and follow with open minds the God who walks with us. Amen.