Last week I invited you to send me sermon ideas: a favorite verse or a question. That will teach me to be careful what I ask for – because there were some great ones – keep it up!
You can see that today’s sermon is on Job – the great conundrum of the Hebrew scripture – which is placed right in the middle of the canon. I wish Tim Beal were preaching, because he is writing a commentary on this most difficult of books. I find this very telling that at the heart of scripture is the biblical book that asks the $24,000 indeed the $24,000,000 question about theodicy – God and suffering. Why bad things happen to good people – How God could allow Job to experience all this horrible stuff when Job had been “…blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” And not only allow – but have Job be a betting chip in a wager with Satan (who, by the way, is not the devil here – but in Hebrew called ha satan – the accuser). God gambles on how Job will respond if he is deprived of his wealth, health and prosperity.
So here we go…
I myself am not into gambling. I am aware that gambling can be addictive. I am also of the opinion that casinos and gambling are a very regressive ways to raise income and it produces false hope. Having said that I will admit that gambling fascinates me; I like watching other people do it. I had the privilege of chaperoning the Heights High Barbershoppers trip to Las Vegas three years ago. No names please – but there was an Elder of one church that was a very good Black Jack player and a Deacon from another church who knew the dice games. I loved watching them at the tables. We had a good laugh at the thought that an Elder, a Deacon and a Pastor in Vegas.
And, as some of you know, when you confess to me that you are heading to Las Vegas or Reno, or Detroit, or Monte Carlo (I wish) or the Casino downtown I demand that you tithe your winnings , as punishment, tithe your losses. One day a beloved church member dropped $2.50 in coins on my desk with a loud thump – she had lost $25.00. I am glad someone does what the pastor says!
But whether you gamble or not, our culture is awash with the language of gambling and wagering. Most of our transactions are wagers: If I do this, what will she do? If I take this course, what will happen? “Doc, what are the odds of my coming through surgery?”
Prayer is often a game of playing the odds, a transaction: “Dear God, if you get me through this test, I will not lie to my parents anymore.” “If you get me through surgery I will stop drinking or whatever.” We play the odds of faith – thinking that if we hit the right word, or do the right thing, or play the game of life a certain way – we will win.
So why wouldn’t the author of the book of Job use this vernacular of daily experience, to dig deeper into the mystery about God and God’s relationship to us?
Remember, Job is a story by an author who, no matter how “inspired” was writing fiction. Now fiction doesn’t mean “false” – it means, “I am going to get to the deeper truth but by an indirect route” – not with the language of math or science – but the language of tale, of story…. Just listen to how Job opens: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” Reads like the beginning of a bedtime story… We are not supposed to read this literally – seriously, YES, literally NO.
Job is right in the middle of the Hebrew canon – the Hebrew scripture – for, I think one purpose and one purpose alone; and that is to shake us up, wake us up, agitate, disturb, and trouble us.
Some have the notion that life is all about knowing the odds of how to please God and win rewards, how to learn to count the cards so to speak – so you can win the jackpot and get into heaven. If you play the game in the right way; be righteous and you will be rewarded. For so many Christians this is what faith is all about – do I win the Mega-Million, and get to go where the streets are paved with gold, and the buffet is free?
But the book of Job reminds us that it doesn’t work that way. While you may be invited to have the mind of Christ – you can’t get higher than God. YOU are not the Creator, but the created. What would happen if everything you had worked so hard for was taken away – what then would be your attitude towards God? How would you describe your faith then? Is faith a transaction for you, or the foundation of your identity? Does God owe you anything, or do you owe God everything?
You know the story of Job – this blameless and just man – loses all, but refuses to curse God. He ends up this pathetic mess of a man. And his friends criticize him and tell him that he must have sinned, because God wouldn’t punish him this way if he hadn’t. Finally, in chapter 38, God appears in the whirlwind: “who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, (God says to Job) I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
God is God. And you can wonder, and you can question, and doubt and engage in all manner of speculation – I think that is a good thing – but in the end you are left before the mystery of God – you “look through the mirror dimly,” “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand.” (Psalm 139)
And yes, standing before the mystery of God, it does seem as if, sometimes, you are just a stack of chips in the hands of the divine player, or God is the unseen eye in the ceiling camera – watching to see if you are counting cards.
BUT ALSO, along side of this mystery of God’s total otherness, we bump into the mystery of another kind – we come to a table with bread and cup and I am reminded of another story (this one not fiction) of a man who was just and righteous; a man who laid all his chips on the table, and went to the garden and perhaps tried to hedge before it was too late – “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; (one last roll)… but not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
And sometimes, I wonder if Jesus was not God’s wager on us – “maybe, just maybe” –God was wagering: “if I show how much I love, perhaps if I show that even suffering and death is not beyond the realm of redemption, perhaps if I GO ALL IN – people will have a new way of seeing and being – people will know that love wins, grace has been given to all – and everyone is playing with house money!”
God has put her cards on the table, God has showed his hand – Come on, split your aces and double down, and come have something to eat…with Jesus Christ.