Getting What You Don’t Deserve
by Rev. Brian D. Ellison
A sermon preached at
Parkville Presbyterian Church, Parkville, Missouri
The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, October 26, 2003
Texts: Job 42:1-17; Mark 10:46-52
Johann Sebastian Bach—whose music opened and closes our service today—didn’t really hit his prime as a composer until 200 years after Martin Luther pounded his nail into the door in Wittenburg and began the religious revolution that would change the world. But somehow Bach managed to become thought of as the great composer of the Reformation. Maybe it’s because he set Luther’s words and the Lutheran service to music as so many great Catholic composers had set the words of the mass. Maybe it’s because of the sheer volume of his work—thousands of compositions, entire church services for the entire year at least five times over, not to mention preludes and postludes. Or maybe it’s because the music was of a quality that tends to lift it above mere boundaries of time.
Or maybe it is because of those three little words that appeared at the end of each composition: "Soli Deo Gloria," To God alone be glory. They sound so much like Luther’s watchwords: Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone. In their simplicity they convey the very message of the Reformation—God is the heart of our faith and our lives. God—not the Church, not the music, not the priests, not the rituals, not the robes—God is at the center of our worship and our being. Bach writing To God alone be glory at the top of history’s greatest music is a very Reformed thing to do.
I’ve been unable to find anything that Bach wrote based on the book of Job. But one would think he might have considered it. Bach wrote "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring"—our second prelude piece this morning—in 1723. That same year, his second wife Anna Magdalena had the first of what would be twelve full nine-month preganancies in the next 15 years. All twelve babies were born. And of them eight died before the age of five, many before even a week. One was severely mentally handicapped. Bach kept producing music—it was his most productive period for church cantatas, little choir and soloist and organ packages that would have been the anthem, the offertory and perhaps some of the hymns for each week. He wrote a new cantata every single week for much of that time—and was supposed to teach Latin to the choirboys too. History shows it was not an easy time, it was not a joyful time—but he went on churning out masterpieces, declaring each time: "To God alone be glory."
Today, on this Reformation Sunday, we conclude our study of the Book of Job. Job, you’ll recall, has been raised up by God as an example of one who will be obedient no matter what happens to him, and he has been put to the test, losing his family and his livelihood, his health and finally his hope. Job complains to God, which God accepts with silence. But Job and his friends persist in their inquiry and scrutiny and defending and debating until from the whirlwind God finally speaks. In last week’s reading we heard the Lord’s sovereign questions for Job: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who shut in the sea with doors? Have you commanded the morning since your days began? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Out of the whirlwind, God puts Job in his place.
And the Lord goes on; two chapters God goes on like that until in Chapter 40 Job ventures to respond. All he says is
See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but will proceed no further.
And Job doesn’t proceed because out of the whirlwind, the Lord speaks again: "Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me" and off God goes again this time talking about two monsters of popular fear: Behemoth and Leviathan. God made even these frightening and unbeatable monsters, God says, and Job is left very nearly speechless.
Nearly speechless—but not completely. In the little he does say in this final chapter, what he says is important and truly right. There will be no more talk of suffering, no more questioning of why or how, no more dwelling on the past or the present. No more suggesting that God’s control was somehow slipping or questionable. No more suggesting that Job is getting something that he didn’t deserve. Job’s few simple words: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
This is Job’s new profession of faith. Is it ours? I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
Gustavo Gutierrez, the Latin American theologian who wrote an important commentary on Job, wants us to be clear about what this faith of Job is not. It is not, for example, mere resignation. Gutierrez, a Catholic priest who has spent his entire life doing theology among the poor and oppressed, refers to what the learned often dismiss as the faith of the cleaning lady: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." Job is not saying whatever happens, happens, and it doesn’t much matter to me.
But he is also not a statement of fear—at least not a scared, haunted-house kind of fear. In spite of all the Lord’s talk of Behemoth and Leviathan, the monsters of land and sea, Job is not afraid. If the Lord had wanted to scare Job he certainly could have—but this isn’t what happens. As Gutierrez writes, "[The Lord] does not crush Job with divine power but speaks to him of [the Lord’s] creative freedom and tells him of the respect [he] has for human freedom." In other words by addressing Job on matters of creation and power, the Lord is showing Job great respect, and appreciation for his intellect and will.
So Job’s faith is not a faith of resignation, nor a faith of fear. Rather, it is faith that has found understanding. I know that you can do all things. It is faith with a certain completeness, reached when Job has become confident in the lordship of God. It is as though Job suddenly understands God, recognize God for who God really is. Job knows now that everything—his burdens and sorrows no less than the sun and the moon—belongs to God. This is a reflective, contemplative faith. It is a strong faith. And it is the faith by which God finally gives Job what he deserves—or, perhaps, what he—and we—deserve least of all. That which Job had nearly forgotten about: an abundant life.
But how did he get there? What is it that God says that changes him, or challenges him, or moves him?
It isn’t as though God solved Job’s problem. We are not told that he is felling better. And he certainly hasn’t answered the questions we sometimes try to make this book be about: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there evil in the world? Why does God allow suffering? Instead, God has mostly just re-affirmed his God-ness! In fact, God has not even been especially comforting, offering Job no solace or assurances. No gentle touch on the arm with a "there, there" but rather a "gird up your loins like a man."
But still something has happened in Job. He has chosen to see God’s creative power as wonderful. He has allowed himself not to be distracted by the trees of pain from the forest of glorious creation. He has refocused from high cloud of uncertainty to the vast expanse of blue sky beyond. He knows that God is greater than he has fathomed, and expresses that confidence. And if God has seemed uncomforting, he sees that God has also been uncondemning. God may not have used the words of mercy we expect, but in addressing Job at all, in reaching out to his creature as one with whom to discuss and agree, God has shown mercy without words. God has transformed the horizontal dialogue of the opening chapters—conversations only between heavenly beings (like God and Satan) or earthly ones (like Job and his wife and friends)—and bridged it with a vertical conversation between the human and the Almighty. And this is grace.
Job is convicted—positively smitten—with the greatness of God. And in verse 6 he makes a powerful statement, one even more powerful than our translation of the Hebrew conveys. "Therefore I recant, and repent in dust and ashes." Recant what? The Hebrew doesn’t say—we can guess that maybe he means everything. All the meandering, all the wondering, all the navel-gazing self-examination, all the arguing with his misguided friends. It all has been wrong because it took his eyes off God—and so now he takes it back.
One commentator even thinks that he is repenting—changing his mind—not in the dust and ashes, but about the dust and ashes. Maybe he wasn’t in need of all that humiliation and self-denial at all, they say—maybe what he needed was to be impressed with the greatness of God and cast the dust and ashes aside.
Whatever the meaning of verse 6, it is clear that Job is now focusing very clearly on God. The journey was necessary: the complaining, the confusion, the confrontation—and now, the resolution. We might be tempted to skim the last paragraph of this story as the tidy, happy ending to a long, difficult story. But we would be missing out on the beautiful—and appropriate—reward that Job receives.
Job gets his life back. His brothers and sisters, so long absent, return with what seems to be genuine sympathy and compassion. His wonderful children are gone, but God grants him more children—ten more, in fact. The daughters are especially lovely and—contrary to the practice of the day—are included in Job’s will. He is given great wealth—far more sheep and camels and oxen and donkeys than he had before—and he lives a long, long life where he gets to enjoy his children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, too. If we think that Job is supposed to be a literal account of his life, we might think it a little trite that it ends this way, a little too simple. But if we remember that it is a story, there is a very rich truth here: All that Job receives, all God provides, was potentially there all along: Long-lost family, generously shared wealth, the blessings of the earth, beautiful offspring. They are not miracles—except that they become miracles by God—the same one who laid the foundations of the earth—gave them to Job by grace.
Job gets his friends back. This may seem like a small reward given how unhelpful these friends were, but notice what we are told. By Job’s prayer, these friends are forgiven. Through Job, these friends achieve reconciliation with God. When you receive God’s blessing, when you reach understanding and confidence with God, others will be blessed through you. Even those who have led us astray can be touched by God’s almighty provision, through our newfound faithfulness.
And in all this, Job gets community. In the restoration of family, in the regaining of friends, Job has found among humanity the connectedness in which, we believe, God’s Spirit moves. And even greater than this, in God’s instruction for Job to pray, Job is being invited into community not just with humans but with God. The Lord has said to Job, "I trust you. I will listen to your prayers." And this reward is even greater than the thousands of animals, better than family, better even than life itself. Job has found a relationship with Almighty God. And in that, there will never be an end to God’s blessings.
Friends, the book of Job is a Gospel book—a book of Good News. The Good News is that the Lord does not seek to punish us, nor even to test us; the Good News is that even though "still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe," the longing of God’s heart is to bless us, with life that is abundant and full, a life powered by a relationship with God. When we declare with Job, "I know that you can do all things", when we say it and believe it, we are taking our place among saints, casting our lot with prophets and martyrs and with Jesus himself, and reaping already the promised blessing. When we say with Job "Now my eye sees you," when we make God our vision, we are ensuring that our path no matter how hard will never be dark, that we like Bartimaeus will know healing and a future, as we follow Jesus on the way. May it be so for us, and—indeed—to God alone be glory!Amen!