Monday, July 22, 2013

Job's Unwise Friends

"Bible Characters You've Never Met Like This:
Job's Unwise Friends"
Sermon, July 21, 2013
"Unusual Characters of the Bible" Series

So, for the summer, we're checking in with some of the characters of the Bible - our ancestors in faith - who are a little less known...  Maybe you haven't heard their names before, maybe you don't know their stories...  And maybe since we don't talk about them a lot we think we have nothing in common with them...  But as we've been learning this summer - I think, as human beings, we have a LOT in common with them!  The flaws, the quirks, the surprisingly redeeming qualities...  Even in these little known stories, we can see glimpses of ourselves - and glimpses of God working through some difficult circumstances.

Today we get to venture into the Book of Job.  Have you ever read the entire book of Job?!  I highly recommend it!  Especially, from "The Message!"  A couple of weeks ago, I started preparing for this sermon and spent a day in my office reading the story - and found myself laughing out loud at some of the passages - and running into Pastor Penny's office - "Can you believe Job said THIS?!  And his friends actually said THIS?!"  It read like a soap opera...  One where you hiss and cheer and gasp at the scandalous things said!  If you have time today or this week - take a gander.  Read it.  It's entertaining - and you get a glimpse at some remarkable faith, through Job, in the midst of horrible trials...

But today - we're focusing on Job's friends.  Oh dear.  At some points, I thought "friend" was a pretty inaccurate word...  But, we've all experienced friends being "helpful" in unhelpful ways...  And we've probably said the wrong things and shown concern in poor ways, too.  So, Job's friends give us a chance to take a look at what friendship means, how to be a good friend, and certainly how to be a friend of faith.  Especially in times of trial and struggle.

So, let's start with what exactly is happening with poor Job...  If you'd like to follow along, we're starting with chapter 1, v 1.  Here's an intro into who Job is:
1-3 Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion. He had seven sons and three daughters. He was also very wealthy—seven thousand head of sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred teams of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a huge staff of servants—the most influential man in all the East!

4-5 His sons used to take turns hosting parties in their homes, always inviting their three sisters to join them in their merrymaking. When the parties were over, Job would get up early in the morning and sacrifice a burnt offering for each of his children, thinking, “Maybe one of them sinned by defying God inwardly.” Job made a habit of this sacrificial atonement, just in case they’d sinned.

This is Job:  Honest.  Devoted.  Passionate.  Father.  Wealthy.  Influential.  Thoughtful.  Careful.  Protective.  Seemingly, a good man...  But then things change...  Reading at verse 6:
6-7 One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan, who was the Designated Accuser, came along with them. God singled out Satan and said, “What have you been up to?”

Satan answered God, “Going here and there, checking things out on earth.”

God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him—honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil.”

9-10 Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose!

11 “But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

12 God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.” Then Satan left the presence of God.

13-15 Sometime later, while Job’s children were having one of their parties at the home of the oldest son, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys grazing in the field next to us when Sabeans attacked. They stole the animals and killed the field hands. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

16 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Bolts of lightning struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them—burned them to a crisp. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

17 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Chaldeans coming from three directions raided the camels and massacred the camel drivers. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

18-19 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Your children were having a party at the home of the oldest brother when a tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house. It collapsed on the young people and they died. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”

20 Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

21 Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
    naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.  God’s name be ever blessed.
22 Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.
Job lost his livestock, his wealth, his position in society, his servants, occupation, children...  Satan would take his health next...  Job would be struck with terrible sores - ulcers and scabs that itched so badly he used broken pottery to scrape himself.  He'd go to sit on the trash heap, among the ashes, as he felt lower than low...  His wife's response?

His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

10 He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.

At this point, Job doesn't even really have his wife by his side...  He's lost everything.  Except...  A few friends?  His friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have heard the news of their friend's recent misfortunes...  They leave their homes and fields to come and offer support...  They've probably traveled several days to be with Job - and they start off as wonderful friends!

11-13 Three of Job’s friends heard of all the trouble that had fallen on him. Each traveled from his own country—Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, Zophar from Naamath—and went together to Job to keep him company and comfort him. When they first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how rotten he felt, how deeply he was suffering.

They start out well...  Who of us doesn't crave someone to hear of our suffering and "show up?"  Who of us doesn't want a friend to be with us in our sadness and fear?  These friends dropped everything, came to Job, couldn't believe the extent of his suffering - and joined him in it.  The definition of "compassion" is to "suffer with."  At this moment of the story, these friends are true examples of compassion.  For seven days and nights, they sat with Job, in silence - just "being" with him.

Think of your darkest days...  Did you have someone willing to "just be" with you?  Do you wish you had?  Have you been able to do this for someone else?  Sometimes...  That's all we need.  And it's the biggest gift we can give...

Unfortunately, the story of Job's friends doesn't end there.  I wish it ended on this high note!  But alas...  Like me.  Maybe like you.  Job's friends weren't perfect.  Maybe not even as wise as we would have hoped...  They each made the mistake of opening their mouths.  Multiple times.  Oops.  Talk about ruining the whole mood!  But this is where I can relate...  How many times have I opened my mouth - hoping to help and heal - and only making the situation worse?  Yep.  I've done it.  Maybe you have, too?  Let's take a look at Job's friends as they try to "help" him out of his suffering...
1-6 Then Eliphaz spoke up:  “Would you mind if I said something to you?  Under the circumstances it’s hard to keep quiet.  You yourself have done this plenty of times, spoken words that clarify, encouraged those who were about to quit.  Your words have put stumbling people on their feet, put fresh hope in people about to collapse.
But now you’re the one in trouble—you’re hurting!  You’ve been hit hard and you’re reeling from the blow.  But shouldn’t your devout life give you confidence now?  Shouldn’t your exemplary life give you hope?"
Eliphaz starts out well enough...  Telling Job what a great person he has been - helpful and kind, trusting and faithful - you should be able to have hope, right?  Unfortunately, Eliphaz continues...
7-11 “Think! Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?  Do genuinely upright people ever lose out in the end?  It’s my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble.

...Don’t blame fate when things go wrong, trouble doesn’t come from nowhere.

Eliphaz confronts Job three times...  Each time, insinuating that God is mad at Job and Job better darn well figure out what he did and ask for mercy!  (Nothing like a friend telling you God is mad at you, right?!)  Job didn't think much of Eliphaz's insights...  Here was his response...

When desperate people give up on God Almighty, their friends, at least, should stick with them...

...You pretend to tell me what’s wrong with my life, but treat my words of anguish as so much hot air.  Are people mere things to you? Are friends just items of profit and loss?

"You treat my words of anguish as so much hot air..."  Bildad then takes his turn...  Once again, confronting Job three times.  Bildad's theory is Job's misfortunes are his fault - naturally!  These bad things must be happening because you have become a bad person.  So stop talking all this "I'm innocent" nonsense!

Bildad says, "How can you keep on talking like this?  You’re talking nonsense, and noisy nonsense at that.  Does God mess up?  Does God Almighty ever get things backward?  It’s plain that your children sinned against him—otherwise, why would God have punished them?  Here’s what you must do—and don’t put it off any longer: Get down on your knees before God Almighty.  If you’re as innocent and upright as you say, it’s not too late—he’ll come running; he’ll set everything right again, reestablish your fortunes." 

Yikes!  Zophar decides to give his input three times as well...  Telling Job that he must be being punished - and probably deserves so much worse!  He thinks the only way to make things better, is if you turn your life around for once and for all and quit sinning.  Then, God will make your life whole again.  Job didn't like this take either - and let Zophar know it!  Job says...
I’m sure you speak for all the experts, and when you die there’ll be no one left to tell us how to live.  But don’t forget that I also have a brain—I don’t intend to play second fiddle to you.  It doesn’t take an expert to know these things.
I’m ridiculed by my friends: ‘So that’s the man who had conversations with God!’
Ridiculed without mercy :‘Look at the man who never did wrong!’ 
After each attack from Job's "friends" - Job feels the need to say 'why are you treating me this way?"  And he even goes so far, sometimes, to tell his friends what would help...  What he would do to be a good friend to them...  But do they take the hint?  Not so much...  Job goes on...
I’ve had all I can take of your talk.  What a bunch of miserable comforters!
Is there no end to your windbag speeches?  What’s your problem that you go on and on like this?  If you were in my shoes, I could talk just like you.  I could put together a terrific harangue and really let you have it.  But I’d never do that. I’d console and comfort, make things better, not worse!
... Now listen to me carefully, please listen, at least do me the favor of listening.
Job's friends, dropped everything, came, suffered with him...  They started out so well.  But in the end, it was clear they came from their "perfect lives" where all was well and couldn't relate or even try to understand Job's perspective...  We tend to do that - don't we?  We tend to see a friend's suffering and want to explain it away - want to make "sense" out of it, want to know the "why."  Instead of simply sympathizing, we decide to analyze - making the world black and white, good and bad...  Which in the end, can break down relationships and community.  If we can explain another's suffering - then we can avoid falling into it ourselves.  This may be helpful to those of us on the outside - but not to the suffering friend...  Instead, it comes across as being judged.  The last thing we need when hurting!
Jesus, himself, wanted none of this philosophy...  We see it in the story of the blind man, John 9:1-3.
1-2 Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?”

3-5 Jesus said, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.

Jesus, instead, urged his followers to stop judging people, to stop jumping to conclusions...  Because sometimes the hardest thing is realizing that not everything is black and white...  We have to live in the uncomfortable middle ground of not knowing the "why..."  (For our own lives - and those of our friends!)

I read a great quote this week by author, Richard Rohr...  He said, "What I believe is that the character, the very heart, of biblical faith is not to reach resolution and not to gain closure, but to live without resolution...  and to be okay with that."

Ahhhh...  My life in a nutshell.  And,  I think, my way of being a friend...  And my favorite part about my closest friends...  When we can put away the need to know why, the need to be right, the need to fix...  and just "be" with our friends in their heartache...  That's when God is fully present!  Eugene Patterson writes that suffering is a mystery (for sure) - and that Job comes to respect the mystery.  Beautifully put...

By now, most of you know that Mike and I are expecting - I realized this week that I can't really hide it anymore (even if I wanted to!).  So if you hadn't heard the news - you might have been wondering by now...  It's true!

This is a very unexpected surprise for us...  After ten years of marriage, many miscarriages, two ectopic pregnancies, and a diagnosis of cervical cancer - we truly thought kids were not in our future.  For a while we decided not to even try - due to the possible risks a pregnancy could pose to my health...  And then when a few healthy years went by and we decided to casually try - we knew there would be no forcing it.  No in vitro, no hormone therapies, no surgeries, no nothing - if it wasn't meant to be, we were ok with that.  We were ok with "living in the mystery."  We knew full well that God would find other ways for us to live full, meaningful lives - and make a difference in the world with God's love.

But that doesn't mean there weren't days of sadness and drear.  Every time a friend would tell me that she was pregnant...  Every visit we'd make to a hospital to visit a new born...  Every birthday party, picnic, holiday celebration with nieces and nephews, god-kids, and friends...  Every Mother's Day and Father's Day.  Every Christmas and Easter...  All of those days that centered around family and children brought a little ache.  Watching my husband, Mike, play with the little kids in our life - his eyes sparkling and his excitement and energy - that was hard, knowing he may never get to play that way with his own...

We all have things in our lives we struggle with - sadness, grief, frustration.  We have the things that grab on, hold tight, and make us wonder "why me?"  Reading Job's laments...  I knew some of that pain.  I knew some of that need to ask "why?"  To challenge God.  To let God know that yes, I am disappointed and little angry at the circumstances.  Job made sense to me.

But the friends...  The friends I don't get.  And I don't get how some of the people in my life behaved the same way...!  As the years went by, and Mike and I weren't having kids, we weren't the kind of couple to talk about this openly.  It was our story to share with each other.  And since, in the biggest way, we were ok with what ever happened, we didn't wear our sadness on our sleeve.  We chose to find joy in the places where we could - in the kids here at church, in friends' kids, in family.  And that was ok for us.

But, once in a while...  A friend or family member - I'm sure with the best of intentions - would make a comment, speculating why we didn't "want" kids...  Speculating what we must have done wrong to not "get" kids.  What had I done to have so much bad luck in the health department?  I must not have been taking care of myself...  And on and on and on.  Just like Job's friends, we had friends who wanted to explain the problem; figure out the "why;" make it "fit" their view of the world...

Some of the things assumed and said were more hurtful than people probably realized...  And while I may not have made a big deal out of it - looking back, the comments put a small wall up in our friendships.  There were times I felt judged for something that was so far out of my control, and times I felt like other people made my struggle a black and white issue, or a good person bad person thing.  The funny thing?  I never felt that myself about our journey...  I was content living in the mystery...  Knowing there might never be a resolution. 

The good news?  I had some pretty fabulous friends through this all, too!  I had friends willing to hear the latest doctor reports with me - offering hugs, tears, and words of love and comfort.  I had friends that reminded me where God was through the sad days - and rejoiced with me when I felt God on the good days!  I had friends who believed in redemption - and that good comes out of every situation - and who were willing to help me find the good when I couldn't see it.  I had friends who would just be with me and listen.  I had friends who had experienced similar heartbreaks - and knew how to share their stories of wounded hearts with me.  I had friends who knew that hardships very rarely make any sense - and therefore didn't try to explain my problems away.  I had friends who "showed up" when I needed them - and were there when there were no answers to give.

Job's friends taught us a lot about what friendship is about.  They gave us a glimpse at what we can do - and what we shouldn't do!  In Eugene Patterson's intro into the Book of Job, he summarizes the teachings of friendship beautifully...  Hear what he has to say...

In our compassion, we don't like to see people suffer.  And so our instincts are aimed at preventing and alleviating suffering.  No doubt that is a good impulse.  But if we really want to reach out to others who are suffering, we should be careful not to be like Job's friends, not to do our "helping" with the presumption that we can fix things, get rid of them, or make them "better."  ...When we rush in to fix suffering, we need to keep in mind several things.

First, no matter how insightful we may be, we don't really understand the full nature of our friends' problems.  Second, our friends may not want our advice.  Third, the ironic fact of the matter is that more often than not, people do not suffer less when they are committed to following God, but more.  When these people go through suffering, their lives are often transformed, deepened, marked with beauty and holiness, in remarkable ways that could never have been anticipated before the suffering.

So, instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering - which we simply won't be very successful at anyway - perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able - entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and - if they will let us - join them in protest and prayer.  Pity can be nearsighted and condescending, shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing.  As we look at Job's suffering and praying and worshipping, we see that he has already blazed a trail of courage and integrity for us to follow.

The good news?  Job's story has a happy ending!  God admits that Job has remained living in the center of God's will; his friends are told to make sacrifices to atone for their judgmental attitudes; Job retains his faith and light that he is able to share with those around him; and Job is blessed with an even fuller life than he had before!

And yes, it looks like my story is on its way to a happy new beginning, too!  (But one thing I know...  Through it all - whatever may come my way - I'll be surrounded by wonderful friends - who make the mystery of life, the mystery of faith, the mystery of God's love - all worth the ride!)

Will you pray with me?

Gracious God,  we thank you for the story of Job - for his respect of the mystery and his example of following you in even the direst of circumstances.  And yes, we thank you for his friends - for the ways they did well, and for the lessons we learn from where they went wrong.  Help each of us, Lord, to be better friends.  Help us to "be" in the moment, to listen, to comfort, to share in the suffering - and not try to fix it.  Guide us in how to be compassionate and in how to use our old wounds as we help heal a friend's.  Bless all of our friendships as we go forth today, Amen.