This piece is part of a series called “The Conversation” a longer look at how the prayers of the bible teach us and shape our prayer lives.
Lord hear us. Lord speak in us. Amen.
In this series we have been looking at how we pray, how we speak to God in prayer, how God speaks to us. This week we are going to look at and reflect on the prayers of Job in a time of great suffering and turmoil.
For those unfamiliar with the story Job was a righteous man who cared for the poor and the needy and was careful always to do the right thing. Then in a few moments he loses all of his children, his home, his herds and flocks and everything he owns. Needless to say he is a little shell shocked. At the end of this day of losing all of this what does one say? The words he chose are ones that have become an important part of how we praise God here at the 5:40. When things seem hopeless and even those closest to you tell you to give up hope, remember Job’s answer. Its a prayer to hold on to in desperation: “I came into the world naked, I’ll leave it naked. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 2:21)
Job’s trials weren’t over yet. In addition to all of the loss he had already suffered he gets terribly sick. He contracts a skin disease that makes him frightful to look at, that causes him so much pain he wants to pick at the scabs with broken pieces of pottery. When Job’s friends finally find him he is sitting on a pile of waste and ashes. Then they sit in silence.
When we don’t know things, silence is wisdom. When those we love are suffering silence is holy. When I worked at a hospital at Saskatoon my supervisor told me that its like the night in the garden before Jesus’s death. In silence we wait on God. That is even more true for those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. To sit, without anxiety or fear, in silence before a difficult reality is to wait with God.
But the thing is that these realities are difficult. Its hard to sit in difficulty and not act, or react. As the skit today shows we want to put away difficulty with expedience. We want to make problems that are too big for us small and manageable. We can want to put our experience in a box. So Job’s friends do something that God is often not a big fan of, they start doing theology. In all seriousness what I mean by that is that they try to respond to the suffering of Job by leaning on their own understanding.
They try to explain Job’s suffering by saying that he sinned, or his children, they construct all kinds of theories and solutions that might quickly and easily justify God and give them something they might do to change their circumstances. Let me say this: our God is great. He does not depend on you or I to justify him. Let me say this also: offering God our reason is a beautiful sacrifice and that’s what doing theology is, but in the sight of the suffering of those we love our own reason has limits. The theology that they do neither solves Job’s problems, nor provides him any comfort. In fact it works up in him an anger that leads to this prayer:
Please, God, I have two requests;
grant them so I’ll know I count with you:
First, lay off the afflictions;
the terror is too much for me.
Second, address me directly so I can answer you,
or let me speak and then you answer me. Job 13:20-22
Job goes from waiting on God to demanding to contend with God. Of course this cycle goes further and further. God wants our hearts. When we pray it is good to hold up, to open up our feelings, our desires, our vulnerabilities to him, to hand them over to him. Prayer is a surrender that overcomes and transforms our anger, our confusion, our unknowing. Where in the silence Job surrender, here he is beginning to demand. As the argument continues he moves from prayer to declaring such a fight just and necessary. He wants God to stand trial against him before a judge. Job’s heart is broken, and like many sometimes do when everything seems out of control Job wants to impose control on his situation, including putting control on God.
When I was a child of three or four years old my body reacted terribly to the natural world around me. Different kinds of rashes covered my skin from head to toe. There was a day when I reacted to the overstimulation of all of these itches and sensations by going into a wild frenzy. I was out of control screaming and running around like the tasmanian devil. It took one loud, strong, sudden and certain interruption to bring me out of that frenzy, for me to stand up straight, and silent, and calm. An interruption:
And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:
“Why do you confuse the issue?
Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?
Pull yourself together, Job!
Up on your feet! Stand tall!
I have some questions for you,
and I want some straight answers.
Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that!
Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?
How was its foundation poured,
and who set the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
and all the angels shouted praise?
And who took charge of the ocean
when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
and tucked it in safely at night.
Then I made a playpen for it,
a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,
And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.
Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’ Job 38:1-11
I am glad that we called this series the Conversation. Because our prayer lives aren’t emptiness, they aren’t getting in tune with ourselves, they are not mindfulness. They are so much deeper, for when we pray we are communing with the God of heaven and earth. We are speaking to him, and he is speaking in us. Ours is a God who interrupts us, who takes us out of our own frenzies as he took Job out of his frenzy.
Job’s friends wanted to bring Job to his knees before God. They wanted him to repent and be prepared to receive healing. It turns out that no argument can bring the human heart to fall before God.
You see God interrupted Job by asking who do you think you are? What do you even know about anything? Behold how great, and powerful, and wonderful, and beautiful I am. And you think you’re going to question this, you think you by all your stirring around are going to contend with me. Is that what you think?
God then confronted Job directly:
“Now what do you have to say for yourself?
Are you going to haul me, the Mighty One, into court and press charges?”
“I’m speechless, in awe—words fail me.
I should never have opened my mouth!
I’ve talked too much, way too much.
I’m ready to shut up and listen.” Job 40:1-5
Job falls in silence before God. Not an empty silence of self emptying, but a pregnant silence into which the Word of God spoke. When we pray we aren’t trying to stay empty for emptiness sake. We are opening up ourselves that God will speak into us as he spoke into Job. And that can be soul quaking. The words that God speaks to Job are words of challenge and exhibitions of God’s own power. More than exhibitions, they were in reality that power at work.
“I’m convinced: You can do anything and everything.
Nothing and no one can upset your plans.
You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water,
ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes?’
I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me,
made small talk about wonders way over my head.
You told me, ‘Listen, and let me do the talking.
Let me ask the questions. You give the answers.’
I admit I once lived by rumors of you;
now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!
I’m sorry—forgive me. I’ll never do that again, I promise!
I’ll never again live on crusts of hearsay, crumbs of rumor.” Job 42:1-6
Job’s encounter with God brought him to wonder, out of babbling and confusion and into awe. There are no shortage of things that we don’t know. In the not knowing its not for us to babble but to come to the one who teaches wisdom and laid the foundations of the universe. That means silence. That means humility.
After God had finished addressing Job, he turned to Eliphaz the Temanite and said, “I’ve had it with you and your two friends. I’m fed up! You haven’t been honest either with me or about me—not the way my friend Job has. So here’s what you must do. Take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my friend Job. Sacrifice a burnt offering on your own behalf. My friend Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer. He will ask me not to treat you as you deserve for talking nonsense about me, and for not being honest with me, as he has.”
They did it. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite did what God commanded. And God accepted Job’s prayer. Job 42:7-9
My final words this evening are about sacrifice. God commands Job’s friends to kill fourteen animals as a burnt offering. The animals weren’t sufficient to make the sacrifice acceptable to God, the heart of God’s friend Job was also. The blessing we receive in Christ is that a sacrifice has been made that transforms this. Christ has died that when we die to the world in him, our lives might now be living sacrifices. That’s the miracle of the Christian life. When we pray, we are pouring out everything about ourselves to God. We are giving everything we have, every joy, every struggle, every pain, every hope, every confusion, every moment to him. We are saying to the God who calls us to be his friends “here-take this”
And so what do we learn about prayer from Job? We learn that we come to God in and through sacrifice offering all that we are to him. We learn that God interrupts us in confusion and frantic tempers. We learn that we have a tendency to demand of God instead of surrender to him. We learn the power of silence and humility. And we take these words and let them work in us: God gives, God takes away: Blessed be his name. Amen.