A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 29, 2012
Job 1:1, 6-11; 2:1-10
The character Job is a paradigmatic figure. That is, Job serves as a paradigm or an example or model for all of us. I am Job; and you are Job. Most of us, while enduring what seemed to be undeserved suffering or trouble, have felt like Job. And there is no greater challenge to religious faith than undeserved suffering.
The Book of Job has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible. It is a philosophical book that raises a lot of philosophical and theological questions that all of us wrestle with. And one of those primary questions is, Is it possible to be religious and live a good, ethical life (as religion defines it) with no strings attached? Can men and women be in relationship with God altruistically, without ulterior motives? Can humans be good for nothing?
It is easy for many to feel good about their relationship with God when things are going well in their lives. A family is happy and prosperous. Both partners have good-paying jobs they love. The bills are paid and there is plenty to eat. The children are healthy and doing well in school. Life is good. So it is easy for such to feel good about their relationship with God and go to church with a smile on their faces. It is easy to be confident in our religious beliefs and rejoice when things are going our way.
At this point enter the argument of the accuser in the story of Job. Now, you know that we are not to take this story literally. We are not to believe that there was an actual time when the heavenly council came together and God gave Satan the go-ahead to bring all kinds of trouble upon Job. The meaning is deeper than that. The name “Satan” means accuser, by the way, and the Satan character in the Book of Job should not necessarily be equated with the Satan we see in the New Testament. But in today’s story Satan accuses Job of honoring and serving God because of the earthly wealth God has made possible for Job to accumulate and the good health and prosperity he enjoys. “You have always protected him and his family and everything he owns,” the accuser rails. “You bless everything he does” (1:10 GNT). Of course Job (or any man or woman for that matter) can live in loving relationship with God when he is abundantly blessed, when everything is going well for him.
Some are motivated to be in relationship with God with an eye on future benefits. When God makes mention of the faithfulness of Job, Satan replies, “Would Job worship you if he got nothing out of it,” (1:9) and if he didn’t hope to get something in the future? If you take away all his earthly gain and blessings of life and hope of future gain, Job will surely curse you and turn his back on you.
There were those of ancient times who said that obedience and faithfulness to God’s precepts, or keeping the covenant, would bring prosperity, health and safety. We see this in some of the other wisdom literature of the Bible. And one reason that Job may have been written was to be a counter-argument to such a line of thinking. Much contemporary T.V. preaching still makes this claim: honor God and send in your tithes and you will be blessed with worldly goods. If that were unequivocally true, it would be easy to always be in a comfortable relationship with God, wouldn’t it?
Many people (whether knowingly or unknowingly, spoken or unspoken) operate on the assumption that God is bound to protect them from tragedy and trouble because they have been good. Religious faith or attending church is seen as another form of life insurance—a way to be protected from sickness, suffering and trouble. If faith does not protect us from life-threatening disease, or tornadoes or hurricanes or senseless violence, then what is faith good for? Such goes the thinking of many. But the Book of Job questions the line of thinking that one should be “good for God” (for lack of a better term) on the basis of the benefits it might bring to us.
Consequently, maintaining our religious beliefs with no hope of gain or when times are tough can be a much greater challenge for some. How many people can respond as righteous Job did who said, “When God sends us something good, we welcome it. How can we complain when” we receive trouble (2:10)? “I was born with nothing, and I will die with nothing,” Job said. “The Lord gave, and now he has taken away. May his name be praised!” (1:21 GNT).
The accuser’s argument is that Job is willing to stay loyal to God, but only up to a point. Job is even willing to leave this world penniless, with nothing. But if Job’s body were harmed—if those medical tests come back bearing the worst of news—his faithfulness would go flying out the window. But both God and Job’s wife characterize him as one who “persists in his integrity” (2:3, 9) in spite of all that has befallen him.
Could we identify with that? Even in the lowest times of despair, when everything has gone wrong, when the bank account is in the red, when everything is falling to pieces, would our relationship with God or our religious beliefs stay intact? Not for the hope of financial gain and not for the trouble God might keep away from us. But simply because of who God is and what God has done in creating the universe and giving life and because of the relationship we have with God? How many of us have reached the point of religious maturity when our view of God and our beliefs about God and life remain stable in spite of life’s circumstances? Why is it that undeserved suffering is such a challenge to religious faith? Could it be because God often is seen as a Being that is constantly passing out rewards and punishments? Or because God is believed to be the All-Powerful problem fixer?
Many years ago a farmer had an unusually fine crop of grain. Just a few days before it was ready to harvest, there came a terrible hail and wind storm. The entire crop was destroyed. After the storm was over, the farmer and his little son went out to the field. The little boy looked at what was formerly a beautiful field of wheat, and then with tears in his eyes he looked up at his dad, expecting to hear words of bitterness or despair. Instead, his father started to sing, “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.” Years later, after the little boy had grown to manhood, he said, “That was the greatest sermon I ever heard.”
What we really believe becomes evident when we face a challenge or crisis. Whether to be good for nothing, and to be in relationship with God for nought, is a question that everyone may wrestle with.
In the year 1770, a unique English preacher by the name of John Murray landed on the New Jersey shore and began to preach a new gospel. It was the gospel of Universalism. Actually, the doctrine of Universalism is as old as the Bible itself; there are verses in the Bible that support it. Some of the early church fathers, such as Origen, held Universalist beliefs. But for centuries Universalism was virtually invisible. But in the 18th century, the gospel of Universalism reappeared in large part in reaction to the harshness of hyper-Calvinism, which predestined most people to hell. [As a sidenote, for church history buffs, in the early part of the 20th century the Universalists and Congregationalists seriously considered a merger]. At any rate, one of the primary teachings of Universalism was that God would not cast into hell—a lake of fire—any of the creatures that God had made. The God as revealed by Jesus Christ is a God of love, mercy and grace.
Well, when John Murray and others like him began preaching their Universal gospel, it didn’t set well with mainline denominations, because they were preaching hellfire and brimstone. Consequently, Murray and others were often persecuted for the faith they proclaimed. One of the main criticisms against Universalist teaching was that you can’t take away the idea of hell. If you take away the threat of hell, why people will just go wild and do anything they please. The whole world will fall into mayhem. If you dispense with the threat of hell, there will be no reason for people to believe in God and do what is right. But the Universalists replied, “Not so. People can and should be good just for goodness’ sake, simply because it is the right thing to do.” And it is true. One of the statements the Book of Job makes is that “disinterested piety, a full unconditional love of God, is both possible and commendable.”1
One of the big questions of Job is, Do we seek an experience with God or the Sacred and strive to live a good, ethical life, not because of what we might hope to gain from it, but simply because we long for a relationship or experience with the Sacred, and because living a good, ethical life (as religious teaching defines it) is the right thing to do? When we truly have an experience with God-the Sacred, it really has nothing to do with getting rewards or avoiding punishment. It is about being connected to God, the Sacred, the Source of all life. It’s about stepping outside the smallness of our humanity and becoming engaged with something larger, more wonderful, that Sacred at the heart of the universe. The answer that the book of Job gives is, Yes, we can be good for nothing. Amen.
1New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, vol IV, p. 354.