Weekly Preaching: World Communion Sunday 2018

October 5th, 2018

World Communion Sunday — for which there are no proper for-the-day lections in the RCL! Any of our texts could work well (as I’ll try to explain). I fretted a few years back when my daughter Sarah, for the sermon she was to submit for ordination, preached on Mark’s divorce text on World Communion Sunday. Turned out to be entirely fitting and lovely; check it out. I’ll let her words stand as my preaching suggestion for the Gospel reading. It's not hard to add that churches should be one and not divorcing, loving, resolving their dilemmas; notice how, right on the heels of speaking of divorce, Jesus turns to children, who can be the most pained victims of divorce, and speaks of welcoming them. This text, in my view, doesn’t solve the church’s homosexuality wars at all — although it gets used that way.

Two of our texts present the preacher with an opportunity to engage in a preaching series — not a topical series, but a series on a biblical book. I love this (as topical series, for me, wind up feeling forced, and more about some stuff I want to say than what God might be saying to us... although I’m sure others do this very faithfully). I’ve done series on a Gospel, starting at Advent and running through Easter, and on Acts, Psalms, Philippians and some others. It gives people a chance to work through a book themselves (hopefully reading during the week, laboring over the book in classes, etc.), and it reminds our people these are actually books — longer contexts, a beautiful and deep sea of material — instead of the shallow dives we take week to week. I’ll take up Hebrews first, but then my personal preference, Job, second.

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Hebrews runs through seven Sundays in the RCL. Hebrews is a tough book, unless you’re like the early Christians who seemed to groove effortlessly with Melchizedek! I adore Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary above all others I’ve read. He says “Hebrews proposes as real a world that most of us consider imaginary.” Who wrote it? Johnson avers “It was the sheer usefulness, the sheer truthfulness of Hebrews that ensured its place in the canon, despite lingering and never-resolved doubts about its authorship.” Noting its refined Greek, and that it was written to be read aloud, in toto, in one sitting, he reminds us that as Scripture, Hebrews isn’t an ancient text “that throws light on the present, but the voice of the living God.”

How God speaks is clarified wonderfully in this Sunday’s text (Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12). After speaking in many ways, “in these final days, God has spoken to us in a son.” Boom. The Gospel.

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Scripture as God’s Word is a bunch of words of immense value, but the real speech is the Son, Jesus. Hebrews could not have a higher view of Jesus; it reminds us of George Lindbeck’s “rules” regarding how we do Christology.  Scripture, theology and the church delineate that we say maximally amazing things about Jesus. Hebrews, not after centuries of theologizing but within a couple of decades of his execution, ascribes to Jesus the creation and shaping of the world. This is God. He is the imprint, the radiance of God’s glory, bearing all things. 

The sermon can just bask in the wonder that is God in Jesus. There’s no take-away, except perhaps amazement and awe. We extol God in Jesus, as Hebrews does, and the sermon has achieved more than a thousand with little trite to-do lists. This God above all gods, the one whom language fails to depict except with embarrassed but amazed fumbling, makes us holy but calls us brothers and sisters. Wow.

I so wish more sermons would dare to do this (as I argue constantly in The Beauty of the Word). I call it Transfiguration Preaching. When Jesus shimmered and glowed, the disciples didn’t start a mission program or decide to go on a diet. No, “they fell on their faces in awe” (Matthew 17:6). Many think the first readers of Hebrews were second generation Christians who were exhausted. We preach to exhausted people. What they need isn’t more stuff to do, but to be caught up in something way larger than themselves, to be lost in wonder, love and praise.

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Back to the OT: Job offers us four Sundays for a potential series. Given people’s constant questioning about the problem of evil, the sufferings of today’s world, and the bogus views of God Christians carry in their souls that are exposed and overturned in the book, Job is well worth preaching through. The lectionary choices are curious, skipping most of the momentous chapter 1, and skipping entirely Job’s conversations with his “friends” (maybe the most important portion of the book). I’m going to adjust, preaching on Job 1-2, then 3-14 or 15 which probes the lousy theology of the friends who aren’t friends after all, and then poke around in God’s whirlwind speech in 38-41.

Job works for World Communion, as the book is ultimately about relationships and God (see next week’s blog!), and problems of evil in the world. Plus, Job is a foreigner, and the story takes place outside the Promised Land and treats universal problems.

For this week’s reading (and including all of chapter 1, without which chapter 2 makes zero sense…), here are some thoughts from a commentary I am writing just now on Job.

The opening phrase of the book, “There once was a man,” tips us off that we have come upon a folktale. This fable-like story takes place in a strange place, the land of Uz, which isn’t in Israel or anywhere else we can pinpoint on a map. Vaguely to the east, Uz is a foreign place, and Job is a foreigner too, not an Israelite at all.
More importantly, the theology of this opening scene in chapters 1-2 is entirely foreign. The preacher can and must explain why. The God portrayed here is not the God we believe in, not the God revealed in the rest of Scripture, not the God whom Jesus intimately called Abba. This folktale’s god is moody, capricious, with henchmen prowling around, a bit of a gambler, thrown off balance by a snarky remark from an angelic being, a god who rolls the dice. Chapters 1-2 give us a caricature of God, a straw man that will be exposed and torn down by the rest of the book. We needn’t be flummoxed and ask why the God of grace and goodness would behave so sophomorically. The point of the book is to correct such a flawed notion about God.
Job’s god is a braggart. The Job character in this folktale is as good as humanity can get. He is good, holy, and pure. Job “fears” God — not meaning he’s scared, but that he is reverent, devoted, in awe of and entirely latched onto God. Of course, the small-minded god of chapters 1-2 is flattered by such obsequious devotion, and boasts... but to whom? God here has a heavenly host attending in heaven, a divine entourage, a squadron of advisers and assistants. And at least one of them is nosy: Herodotus tells us about “the eyes and ears of the king” of ancient Persia, secret police ready to tattle on anything they might find. One of this god’s entourage is called “the satan.” Many translations use the name Satan, but the Hebrew has “the,” and it’s not the devil, God’s evil and implacable foe we know from later centuries. The word satan means something like prosecuting attorney, adversary or intelligence agent. His mission is to find fault.
Knowing the satan has just returned from some surveillance, this god preens a bit and asks if he’s noticed Job, his most spectacular specimen. The satan’s cynical reply? “Does Job revere God for nothing?” — which is a pivotal question the book asks all of us. Do we serve God for what we get out of it, whether it’s health or success now or eternal life later? Do we love and adhere to God even if the hoped-for benefits seem lacking, or if we’re taking it on the chin all the time?
Job, after all (as the satan points out), could be the poster boy for a “prosperity Gospel” message. He seems “blessed” (which we’ll see isn’t the right word at all) with dizzying wealth and a giddily happy, healthy family. The satan accuses this god of doing all of this for him as a reward — or as a motivator! Of course, the book will eventually show what we should know: the true and holy God doesn’t lavish favors on some and not others, and certainly not as a reward for righteousness.
The satan proposes a wager, a game of sorts: take it all away, and see how devoted Job will be. God agrees to this vicious gambit. This is not prevenient grace, but prevenient caprice, prevenient fickleness; such a god is devoid of love. And so the Lord tells the satan (whom the fairy tale writer assumes has unlimited power!) to do with him as he wishes, with the lone proviso that he not harm Job himself. Leslie Weatherhead, in his classic Will of God book, ventured the idea of God’s “permissive will.” But if Job could lose everything, and learn this god only permitted it but didn’t do it, would he find solace in such a thought?
The dramatic skill of this folktale author is impressive. Instead of narrating the onslaughts live, the storyteller plops us down next to Job as wave after wave of terrible news rolls in. Each messenger is breathless. One hasn’t finished his bad news when the next rushes in and blurts out even worse news. They barely survived themselves, so swift and violent was the terror. How many great stories in history and literature repeat this theme? In Moby Dick, all on the Pequod was lost and only Ishmael survived. John Wesley, the proverbial “fire plucked from the burning,” barely survived that rectory fire at Epworth.
Of course, the greatest horror, the grotesque climax to the satan’s ruthless attack, is the slaughter of Job’s ten children. Unspeakable. To lose a child is the most numbing sorrow. But ten? Again, it’s a folktale, so we expect that story to be of grandiose proportion. The richest, best man ever loses the most ever. Worst of all, the folktale pictures a sham of a god who could, after the pointless murder of a holy man’s ten children, beam with pride over his unfaltering piety.
Job’s pious oath, his persistence in devotion to this awful god, rings hollow, and is a comic-book perversion of what prayer and a real relationship with God are about. Fortunately, chapters 3-41 were added by the far wiser poet, or Job would be a cardboard spirituality of absurd denial, so much garbage. Job’s words, reminiscent of “You can’t take it with you,” are true, and yet ridiculous and utterly inhuman. Yes, Job’s alleged patience and forbearance have been held up as the ideal of piety, the gold standard of faith. But as we will see, the larger book of Job has a far better and profounder idea.
The bell rings for round two. The folktale resumes in heaven. The satan has again been out on patrol. God, with no trace of grief or compassion, brags even more cockily about Job. Again, this is not the God Jesus tenderly called Abba. Refusing to concede, the satan points out that perhaps Job’s piety is only skin deep. Go at his skin, afflict his body, the satan suggests. The logic seems to be Job doesn’t mind losing his vast possessions, or even his children; but the health and comfort of his own body? This he will cling to, or abandon his faith. What a low opinion of Job this satan has! Even the most pedestrian parent would prefer to suffer in place of their children. And think of the martyrs, and Jesus himself, who bore physical harm willingly, even eagerly.
And so the macabre test intensifies. Job is struck with “severe sores.” And it’s not just his back or legs, but the burning is all over, “from the sole of his foot to the top of his head.” He couldn’t sit, or stand, or get any slight moment of relief. Entirely pathetic and barely alive, Job is reduced to scraping himself with a potsherd — to relieve itching? to release pus? or lacerating himself in a ritual of grief
The cameo appearance of Job’s wife is puzzling. She’s like a Rorschach test; is she overwhelmed by sorrow, sharing in her beloved’s agony? Or is she a nag, blaming the victim, sure that her husband who was to protect her and her children has violated the order of the universe somehow? Does she want him to curse God and die to escape his and her misery?
Why was she spared when everyone else was killed? St. John Chrysostom suggested that she was yet one additional curse, one more burden for Job to bear! St. Augustine called her the devil’s assistant. And in the Qur’an, she was in cahoots with the devil, who promised to restore all she had lost if she would only worship him. Job’s wife, never mentioned again in the book, is forced to share in suffering Job didn’t deserve, but neither did she. Collateral damage: we fixate on the suffering victim, but then there are other victims, as the agony ripples out to the web of family, community, and world.
Still he persisted. With a superhuman, or utterly unhuman dint of will, Job refuses to curse God. The folktale does shift an inch though, adding that he didn’t curse God “with his lips,” making you scratch your head and wonder if some cursing was welling up in his heart. Jesus would be fascinated by inner, attitudinal sin — diagnosing anger as a kind of psychic murder and lust as intangible but very real adultery — dreaming of liberating us from what ails us not just in word and deed but also thought. Was the editor of the larger book of Job preparing us for Job’s cursing to come? Or was he meeting a sufficient standard simply by keeping his mouth shut?
The whole premise of chapters 1-2 is the mistaken belief Job, his wife, and a great many Christians today share: that God is the great inflicter, the heavenly smiter. As we’ve seen, it’s too flimsy a defense of God to pigeonhole suffering as something God even permits — as if we could peer into heaven and learn that God didn’t do it, God just allowed it, and we’d find solace? We lunge toward half-truths and bogus lies, like Everything happens for a reason, or God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. Have you read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason - and Other Lies I've Loved?
For now, two aspects to that grappling emerge. After both rounds of the satan’s attacks, the narrator declares that Job did not sin by cursing God. But would it be sin to curse God? Job is about to sin repeatedly, vehemently and unrelentingly (and frankly with good company). The Psalms, Jeremiah, and Jesus himself do not shy away from railing against God in prayer. The folktale seems to feel the darkest sin would be to curse God; the rest of the book will debunk this. The greater sin would be  covering-up, pretending, or perhaps just refusing to talk to God at all.
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