Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say October 24? 22nd after Pentecost

   Job 42:1-6, 10-17. To preach chapter 42 you’d have to establish the context of the previous 41 chapters… Not impossible! Especially after Job’s extensive misery, met only by extended silence, and then the whirlwind tour of the wildness of creation, Job’s final words to the Lord, “I know you can do anything,” are a sober, hard-won affirmation of divine omnipotence, which was never doubted by Job or anybody else. The shape of that omnipotence, what God does with God’s unlimited power is always the question. Omnipotence is hard to love. God’s power is expended in creating life in the thick of death, relationship in the midst of loneliness, a dazzling dance of light and darkness. God “can do anything,” and so God is not imprisoned by human notions of right and wrong; God isn’t stuck rewarding the righteous or punishing the wicked. God quite freely reigns. Only when God is thus free can God be a God of mercy.

   Job quotes the Lord’s own opening volley: “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?” He realizes it’s not that he lacked knowledge or was wrong in his knowledge. He’s now been granted now a fuller, deeper knowledge. He’s learned plenty about frost and goats and lions, stars and alligators. But the great lesson for Job is there in 42:5: “My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.” How often do churchgoers and Bible students know things about God, without knowing God? Job and his friends had been clinging to a god who was nothing but their notions of right and wrong, the great retributor. The true God is greater, better, more mystifying, and wonderful.

   Job humbly declares “Therefore I relent.” Not repent! but relent. Job doesn’t confess his sin; and God never asks him to. Job gives up his mistaken understandings of God. He is disillusioned – as in his illusions have been shattered, as now he sees the true God who isn’t the righteous judge but the profligate creator of life and mystery, the one who speaks, and is with us.

   Then God turns on Job’s fake friends. Had they overheard the whirlwind business? God is angry because in speaking glib half-truths about God, they spoke falsely. Stunning. This, coupled with Job’s intimate realization in 42:5, is very close to the point of the book. Job, railing relentlessly against God, accusing, blaming and demeaning God, has spoken correctly about God! – while the friends, with their holy, righteous, even biblical defense of God’s honor, have spoken falsely. In such a messy, complex world, God prefers outcries and blatant honesty to smug piety.

   God affectionately calls Job his “servant” twice in 42:8 – and then, with some amusing irony, says that he will ask Job to pray for them. They had, after all, urged Job to lift up his hands in prayer. It never dawned on them (until now) that those prayers needed to be for them, not Job himself.

   The prose ending to the tale, in 42:9-17, is dissonant, almost corny, virtually anticlimactic. Remove the poetry in chapters 3-41, and you get this dumb plot the larger book is designed to subvert: God brags on Job, the satan challenges God, then inflicts Job with horrors; but Job is resolutely pious – so God wins the bet, and restores Job’s vast possessions, even doubling them.

   Our listeners know their own fantasies are a lie. You’ve never met anyone who lost everything and suffered horrifically who then wound up richer and with ten more children. Speaking of whom: Elie Wiesel, chronicler of the Holocaust, was mortified by this hokey ending to the story; remembering Job’s ten murdered children, he imagines Job chillingly telling God, “I forgive you, but do my dead children forgive you?”

   Christian theologians would not be lying if they read into this conclusion things the author never intended. After all is restored, Job’s family gathers to break bread in his house – just as followers of Christ gather around a table, not to hear about God, but to see and taste God. And then 42:12: “Then the Lord blessed Job’s latter days more than his former ones.” The creator God who will try anything, the one who springs life on the earth in every place, is the good God who insures we will have our “latter days” of blessing, not as any sort of reward for good behavior or right belief, but because God just can’t stop making life happen. And then the very last word of the book is “satisfied,” which Job was. The satisfaction isn’t the doubling of his stuff or even the restoration of his health. Philip said to Jesus, “Show us God, and we shall be satisfied” (John 14:8 RSV). Job has seen God, no longer “in a mirror dimly,” but “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

   I wrote a short commentary (just 23 pages!) on the whole book of Job - and it is a whole, not just parts! - for the Wesley One Volume Commentary. Check it out!

   Hebrews 7:23-28. For me, Hebrews, by now, is getting repetitive. So I’ll focus on…

   Mark 10:46-52. Last stop before Holy Week – for Jesus, even if we’re in October. He has made his way from the far north, where he spoke ominously at Caesarea Philippi about being handed over and suffering, all the way down the Jordan River valley to Jericho, where even today you hang a right and wind your way up a steep incline to Jerusalem.

   Jericho: a rich oasis in the middle of barren desert. No wonder prehistoric people settled there – making it the oldest known occupied city in the world, some 10,000 years old! It was the first stop for the Israelites on entering the Promised Land, and King Herod had spied the springs and lush vegetation and fruits to build a personal resort there. Zaccheus legally ripped people off while accumulating a small fortune, climbed up that sycamore tree, had Jesus over for dinner, and then gave his fortune away.

   A blind man named Bartimaeus (which simply means “the son of Timaeus” – so he had a dad but we aren’t sure of his given name!) is begging by the road leading out of town. Beggars get pitied, or blamed, or shunned, or mostly ignored. Jesus doesn’t toss him a few shekels. The disciples try to shush him – the way they did children! But Jesus listens. Jesus sees. Jesus cares. Notice (reading slowly!) little details. To the shushers, Jesus says “Call him.” Not “Help him.” Call. Jesus is all about calling people. He’d called the shushers, and they had followed. Jesus’ dreams for Timaeus’s son are way beyond having enough funding, or even the recovery of sight.

   They call him by saying “Cheer up” (in the NIV, inferior to the RSV’s “Take heart”). And it’s not You’re about to see! But rather, Cheer up, take heart, he is calling you. Want good cause to be happy? Jesus calls you. That apparently is sufficient.

   Bartimaeus “threw off his cloak.” What do we have weighing us down that we probably need to cast off to rise up and get closer to Jesus? Then Jesus’ question to him! “What do you want me to do for you?” Duh, isn’t it obvious? But maybe Jesus is asking him, and us, to go deep, not merely to think What hankering, what desire do I wish Jesus would satisfy now? Is there some thing deeper I really want, I really need, that would genuinely bring profound, lasting satisfaction and even joy?

   Jesus gives him sight. A staggering moment. If you lost your sight you’d be tickled to get it back. If you’d never ever seen though? Back in Mark 8:24, Jesus healed such a blind man whose first words were “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” The first thing Bartimaeus saw? Certainly it was the face of Jesus, who hadn’t shushed him or dropped a few coins in his cloak.

   What does this last healed person in Mark’s story do once he’s healed? He didn’t go home, or throw a party, or even get a job. No. “He followed Jesus along the road.” He was called before and after he was healed. And he followed – and don’t forget what was next on that road! He traipsed off with Jesus and the crowd to Jerusalem and into Palm Sunday and Holy Week. In his first week of seeing, Bartimaeus saw Jesus crucified – the one who’d loved, healed, and called him. Let’s go with him. 

 Check out my book, not on how to preach, but on how to continue preaching, The Beauty of the Word: The Challenge and Wonder of Preaching.

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