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God's Reputation

On November 4, 1979, the United States Embassy in Iran was overtakenby rebel students. For 444 days, they held about sixty American hostages captive. Efforts by then President Jimmy Carter to rescue them, failed miserably. The reputation of the United States Embassy of being a haven for anybody who seeks shelter and asylum was severely tarnished. The reputation of the United States in the Middle East would never be the same again. The U.S. lost its state of high esteem it once had in that region.  What was God saying about the U.S. nation at that time?

Leo Tolstoy asked similar questions  about God in 1879. He observed that the more educated elite social classes of people in his time used religion and church dogmatics as a way to manipulate and control the illiterate serf masses, who held to Russian Orthodox beliefs about their traditional God.  Organized religion is a tool of the state to maintaining the then current power structures who (secretly) viewed religious beliefs as out lived superstitions in lieu of science and medicine. The author’s public calling out of the religious power structured resulted in Tolstoy being excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. If the church speaks for God, then God’s reputation is tarnished.

Finally, in a classic book by Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, there are strands of argument which essentially say educated, financially stable and psychological mature western civilization people no longer have a need for a traditional God. Materialist accumulation of wealth and goods, along with science and technology have replaced any practical use for a transcendent God. For example, two families may live next to one another.  Neither will be any less or more likely to be struck down by lightning or a natural disaster, as the other regardless of whether they attend church or take a family day off on Sunday instead. Again, God is an option, but practically unnecessary is one of Taylor’s recurring themes.

In each of today’s texts, God’s reputation is on the line. Job’s wife tells him to, “Curse God and die.” Hebrews suggests that being a pioneer of the faith entails suffering. Finally, Mark warns that those who get divorced and remarried, are committing adultery. On this Sunday, at first glance of these texts—God has a reputation problem as many who live in modern secular society might suggest. We are ambassadors for our Christian faith in this Pentecost season. Have our embassies been stormed beyond repair of our reputation? Each text speaks to such concerns in nuanced and reflective ways which are fruitful in preaching challenging sermons. [Sources: Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA; Belknap Harvard University Press, 2007); Tolstoy, Leo, A Confession and Other Religious Writings, New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1987)]

Job 1:1; 2:1-10
“Then his [Job’s] wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’” (Job 2:9). At first glance, this statement sounds like blasphemy, and Job’s wife should be quickly excommunicated like Leo Tolstoy from the Russian Orthodox Church. Upon closer reflection, historically many Jewish rabbis have attempted to rehabilitate her name for many reasons. Written by an unknown author in 1650-1600 BCE, the worship practices pre-date those of ancient Israel in the Torah or first five books of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). Job is probably not an Israelite. Thus, the book has universal appeal to readers of all times. Job’s wife has many allies throughout history.

Some scholars have suggested this to be a sequel to Genesis 3. That being a narrative where the righteous persons do not follow  Satan’s ideas, but still suffer dire consequences as did the man and woman who get banished from the Garden of Eden. Thus, it is a creation story part two. Either way, God’s reputation remains on the line. Job’s paradise is thus shattered as was that of Adam and Eve in Genesis. Job’s wife has reason to be angered and alienated from God.

 A righteous man named Job’s piety is being tested by the Satan who suggests that Job’s worship to God would crumble without practical benefits of his idyllic lifestyle. Removing any hedge of protection from Job will result in apostasy. While the reader is privy to this conversation between God and Satan, Job is not aware of this before the four disasters come upon, he and his family.  Job does not curse God. However, Job’s wife will suffer the same consequences of loss of close family and property as Job. She also is not privy to the conversation between God and Satan either. Thus, can one blame her for doubting a God who is both good and sovereign? Even after the restoration of the family fortunes later in the book, there remains the loss of the first set of family members. A woman with a strong maternal instinct will not be able to easily forget the first family’s deaths. Hence, some rabbis have been sympathetic to Job’s wife in this account.

Job persists in his worship of God. The Satan wants still another challenge to God regarding Job’s allegiance. God is to stretch out his hand to afflict Job’s body to any length short of taking his life. The Satan disappears from the scene and Job is immediately physically afflicted.  The man of faith now sits outside of the city in an ash heap with horrifying looking sores while scraping pus off his body with potsherd pieces.

Jobs’ wife articulates the arguments of practical atheists of all ages. What kind of God makes deals with the Satan while using his creation as “pawns?” Is this God still worth worshipping? Does righteousness even matter if one is either banned from the garden or afflicted with natural disasters, loss of family and illness?

Job rebukes his wife and remains faithful. What is at stake here is Job’s integrity. Job scolds his wife and maintains both his innocence and faithfulness to God. In this text, Job’s integrity has three traits. First, he maintains his quality of wholeness as a human who is God’s creation. Second, his relationship to God does not change. Finally, Job’s acts of piety and worship remain steadfast and consistent. In modern times, Job still participates in active worship at church regardless of the calamities heaped upon him.

This text is witness to authentic integrity in belief to God or any other belief system, even when there are no practical rewards for such loyalty, and it may even result in loss of health. What sort of God or reason for living is worthy of one’s integrity being tested as with Job? Job’s wife articulates a reasonable set of doubts regarding a loving God who not only allow evil but permits  Satan to afflict it upon God’s creation. Gods’ reputation is a stake here. Later in Job 3-39, Job’s faith journey will entail some doubts, a desire not to live and efforts to put God on trial. However, at book’s end, while the question of righteous suffering may not be satisfactorily answered, the man of God now has a transformed mature faith. During the season of Pentecost, such texts as this challenge Christians to be unafraid of asking difficult questions, as well as experiencing the real pains and major obstacles that are a reality in life.

While God’s reputation may be questioned, faithful believers need to not worry that God still sustains them during any times of blessing and tumult on the spiritual journey toward a mature faith. Sermon paths for this text might include, what does integrity look like when people and institutions which have been a foundation or bedrock to our lives purposefully disappoint us? Also, maybe the families of people in public positions who see their loved one abused, may be thinking like Job’s wife to “curse God and die”, but don’t say it. Finally, does calamity make us or break us as people of faith in this season of Pentecost, when we are as much ambassadors for our God? How do we differ or are the same as those workers in the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979? [Sources: Balentine, Samuel E., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Job, Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys 2006); Janzen, J. Gerald, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary or Teaching and Preaching: Job, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987)].

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Written by an anonymous author in the 80s CE, this epistle does not contain the usual greetings or salutations as the Pauline or Johanine epistles in the New Testament. Historically, ancient church fathers have suggested that either Paul or Apollos might be authors. However, the complex Greek language structures and internal evidence within the book have left authorship as unknown.

The book takes on a sermonic form to an audience of Christian readers who have digressed into being  slack and weary. Their once fervent convictions are in danger of seeking worship in another deity or philosophy. Ongoing persecution, the delay of the second coming of Christ and other forms of ongoing suffering for them in their families has resulted in lethargy, sluggishness, and weariness in living the Christian journey. One main theme of the book of Hebrews sermon is the promise of eternal salvation; and a future in God’s house of rest. Mercy and sanctuary make the faith journey toward maturity well worth living in a heavenly country and homeland.  Hebrews likes to draw on the enthronement psalms to point to being with the Christ who sits at the right hand of the throne of God. The readers, who only had access to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) would recognize the words of the psalms as people today night recognize popular songs such as “Happy Birthday”, “Old McDonald Had a Farm”, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and a national anthem, or school alma mater or fight song. (c.f.: Psalms 2, 8, 18, 22 and 110).

The first portion of the text is a very long one-sentence prologue that says God has spoken to his people in an ultimate form of a son. This son in Jesus is superior to former voices from God in the prophets, dreams and angels. Formal voices were partial, yet real.  Similar to John’s gospel, Hebrews points hearers to Jesus’ role as being present during the pre-existent creation of the universe process. Why would anybody want to worship any other deity? This book and text were used by the early church fathers to write the Nicene Creed to assure people of faith. The same glory (Greek: “doxa”) that Christ has while being at the right hand of God is reflected or an imprint on the saints in the church.

The nature of resurrection is to be exalted (2:10). This might be support for the afterlife being a time of heavenly reward. It would support the old church camp song tune, “I Have a Home in Gloryland That Outshines the Sun.”

Hebrews’  response to the concerns of the Book of Job with echoes of Psalm 22:1. Here is the suggestion that Jesus as the great high priest has suffered similar loneliness, abandonment and pain as Job and his family. However, new life in the resurrection is final word for people of faith. Suffering is a reality of life. Jesus is God who took on the moral frailties of human beings.

The same God who allows shocking, gruesome, repulsive events into the lives of God’s people has also participated in such suffering as a  son. Hebrews insists that this is fitting. The way to eternal joy and glory is only through humiliation and shame in the theology of the Book of Hebrews. While many people do not see God’s ultimate dominion and control over creation, we do see the Jesus of the cross and resurrection. Hence, we will not see eternal death as people of faith in Jesus as God’s final revelation. Death and that which represents death to us is no longer a threat to our existence as saints of God. Current suffering is temporal and spatial compared to the eternal glory which awaits us.

Why do people suffer such as in Job the above lesson? Hebrews points to a cosmic battle between God and evil occurring, and such difficulties transform the human spirit toward a complete or mature faith. Where is God?  God is in the first person of the suffering Christ, God experiences unjust suffering alongside believers. However, eternal glory awaits those who have ran the journey that Jesus the pioneer of the faith has ran ahead of them.

In modern athletic terms, Hebrews would want tired, sore, Christian runners to take the marathon baton and run the next distance ahead until they pass the baton onto the next generation of believers. Christ’s priesthood is a result of suffering as the forerunner of the faith in the God of creation, whom Job and his family worship.

Some sermon paths here include what is a “priest” or intermediary that provides life in our times? Could living out a Christ-like life take the form of healthcare workers, food suppliers, caring neighbors, and delivery and cleaning people who perform the lower waged jobs in our society with little benefits or recognition? Where can a church be part of the solution in problems a given community faces at any given time?

Another path might be to explore what glory and the afterlife might look like and where do we get this image or vision? Does every obstacle always result in a reward? Can we live with delayed rewards? How does one reignite the spirit of a group of people who have been beaten down and prefer not to continue onto the mission and journey of the church, organization, or support group?

Two key texts to use as interpretative lens’ in preaching any text in Hebrews include: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible” (Hebrews 11:1-3). “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Both point people of faith to a larger, cosmic picture of how faith is defined as well as how the ancestors and Christians of past time remain a “cloud of witnesses who surround us.” [Sources: Johnson, Luke Timothy, The New Testament Library: Job, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); Smith, Robert H., Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Hebrews, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1984)].

Mark 10:2-16
At first glance, Jesus is being tested by insincere Pharisees who wish to entrap him. Matters of marriage and divorce were in dispute. There were no clear cut, black and white answers to marital matters at the time. Also, Gentiles permitted women to write a certificate of divorce from their husband, but Jewish woman were at the mercy of their husband’s wishes on any given day.

The text seems harsh in suggesting that any divorce is a sin and remarriage is adultery. This might point to a reputation of a harsh God in matters or marriage and divorce.  Matthew’s Gospel provides a qualification of unfaithfulness or unchastity (Matthew 19:9). Most scholars agree that Matthew probably took this Mark account and edited it for the Matthean audience. In Mark, the law for divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 remains intact.  Jesus simply explains the rationale for the marriage and divorce laws which are a necessity after the fall of the first man and woman in Genesis 3.

This text essentially reminds men in a patriarchal society where women do not have the right to file for divorce, that the burden of sin for both the man and woman falls upon his shoulders. In modern times, the text might seem archaic. However, in 65-75 CE when Mark is written, Jewish wives could not hire a lawyer and file for divorce as Gentile woman often practiced. In this text, Jesus acts as a prophet in disclosing God’s will for the people, though it is not always honored in marriage and divorce arrangements.

The second portion of the text is an admonishment to accept the little people or those who are weak and vulnerable into the kingdom of God. Children had fewer rights than women, thus making them more vulnerable and available symbols for lack of power and authority. Having the humble attitude of a child is one theme to explore in this text. Also, clergy from sacramental church traditions have suggested this as a possible text to support infant baptism into God’s unconditional grace of the kingdom of God (Acts 16:33-34, the jailer’s family baptized). Use of only this Mark 10 text for such arguments can also be contested. [Source: Boring, H. Eugene, The New Testament Library: Mark, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

On this Sunday, I might suggest we worship a God who is with us in all of life’s complex issues in family, health and difficulties that would cause one to question their faith in the Christian God. Job allows us to ask hard the questions, if we maintain our integrity and remain consistent in the application of principles we apply to other people. We all have our own problems or skeletons in our closets. Why do the righteous suffer is the theodicy question that many religions ask in some form? Judeo Christianity is willing to say God can handle our critiques and anger. Also, the faith journey is worth it.

The value of the faith journey is found in the Hebrews text also. One theme I enjoy is applying any text in this epistle to the question of, “How might my deceased Christian ancestor have handled this (who is now one of the ‘cloud of witnesses’” looking down unto us)?

The Gospel of Mark lesson provides two directions. Marriage and divorce laws vary in time and in many states and nations. I once served a church where a wife had a husband who was in a polygamous relationship in another country where such arrangements are legal. How does one do pastoral ministry in this situation? Also, the humble spirit of a child could be of use during marital conflicts. What is best for the children of the relationship?

Second, what does it mean to allow those who are weak, powerless and without many resources into the community of faith? In recent years, this has brought up the immigrant issues in western nations. It also suggests exploring the differences between ancient laws of childhood powerlessness with those of a child going to school and calling a social worker or the law on a parent who has just scolded them the night before? How have things changed and what sort of gospel direction is provided? Jesus in Mark’s Gospel has the mission stated in Mark 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Alternative Application
What theological debates occur now that possibly the early Christian church writers could not have anticipated? The same sex relationship question has ignited the fuse that has divided many church denominations. Can a child “divorce” his or her parents?
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Reader B:

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