Skip to content

11.26.17 Being Led by the Spirit Job 37:1-5 Sermon Summary

by on November 27, 2017

Embedded in an easily overlooked passage of the Bible is one of the most profound theological insights I’ve found in a while.

Summary Points

  • The message of Job and his three friends
  • The surprising insight of Elihu
  • Reasons we miss God’s speaking to us
  • An application to the giving of gifts at Christmas

Many people know the basic outline of the book of Job. We are introduced to a man who has everything, but then has it all taken away—his wealth, his family, finally his health. Then he’s visited by three friends whose attempts to cajole him into confessing his sin fail. Then God shows up at the end and passes judgment on everyone.

Job’s three friends talk about God in terms of rewards and punishments. Their God supervises a mechanistic universe where sin is punished and obedience is blessed. For some, this perspective on God brings comfort. The justice of it is certain. People get what they deserve. If they suffer, it is the result of their choices.

The problem with this perspective is that God may as well not exist. But God does exist, and he shows up in Job 38-41 when God finally answers from a whirlwind. God opens his defense by booming out, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And for the next four chapters God says to Job, “You’re complaining without the full picture.” And he says to Job’s friends, “You’re explaining without the full picture.”

What most people haven’t notice, and I was one of them, is that a fourth speaker enters the stage just before God speaks at the end. His name is Elihu, which means “He is my God.” We learn he’s a younger person who has been listening with deference to Job and his three friends. He criticizes them all (but also affirms the perspective of the three friends).

The presence of Elihu is a literary set-up to God’s speech (other narratives from the time follow the same formula: Three speeches, a fourth by a newcomer, and a final). The major point of his speech is to urge everyone to listen for God’s voice. But embedded in his speech is a jewel I’ve never noticed before.

Part of Elihu’s argument is that neither our righteousness nor our sin is all that important to God. He says to Job, “Your righteousness doesn’t impress God,” and to his friends, “Our sin doesn’t hurt God.” Consider these words from Job 35:1-9: “Look at the heavens and see; observe the clouds, which are higher than you. If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against God? If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Your wickedness affects others like you, and your righteousness, other human beings.”

Elihu goes on to say that what actually concerns God is the consequences of our sins upon others. This is what God cares about. This is why when victims cry out to God, God hears it. What about the cries of Job and his friends? Elihu says, “Job opens his mouth in empty talk, he multiplies words without knowledge.” Sound familiar?

The profound theological insight is that God cares more about the impact of our sins, than that we commit them. This is why apologies without repentance and restitution ring hollow—(just ask any of the #metoo victims).

Elihu’s insight corrects the perspective of Job and his three friends. He proves that God isn’t mechanistic. God cares about victims of sin and tries to communicate to us. Because this is true, Elihu urges us to listen.

Why do we miss it? Why don’t we recognize it when God speaks to us? One reason is that like Job and his friends, we’re too preoccupied with rewards and punishments, with our own righteousness (or not) or with the sins of others.

Another reason is that we simply don’t recognize God’s voice. When the Bible refers to God’s speech, it’s often in the contexts of lightning and thunder, burning bushes, earthquakes, clouds that roll back, trumpet blasts, solar eclipses, torrential rains, and the like. This sets up the expectation that this is how God will speak to us. That’s what we expect, and when it doesn’t happen, we conclude God isn’t talking to us.

Elihu uses one of the most popular of these images, that of lightning and thunder. Remember Saturday morning cartoons, when a character got an idea? A lightbulb appeared over his head. Today we still refer to good ideas as “bright ideas.” It’s the same thing with lightening in the Bible.

We don’t recognize God’s voice because we make the same mistake fundamentalists and atheists do: We take the Bible too literally. We shouldn’t expect lightning and thunder, but we can expect God to speak to us. The correct interpretation of these passages is not literal, but figurative. Lightning and thunder are metaphors referring to flashes of insight followed by rumblings of affirmations.

The Bible uses extraordinary but natural occurrences to depict God’s speaking to us. It’s a clue to pay attention to the natural events in our lives, for God may be speaking to us through them. It may come as an impression, or a comment someone makes, or an observation we make that others miss, or in conversation with trusted friends. And it can happen in nature. If we’re open to it, we’ll discover God speaks to us all the time.

This is important to remember when we’ve found ourselves in the dark wood, another metaphor from nature, that spiritual place where we feel lost or alone, perhaps confused and afraid. Some of us intentionally enter the dark wood, hoping to hear God’s voice away from everyday distractions. In either case, a lightening flash of insight truly inspired by God will be followed by rumbling affirmations of thunder—but only if we interpret the Bible metaphorically.

Besides fundamentalists and atheists, there’s another group that takes the Bible literally, and it’s especially important to know this at Christmas. It’s advertisers. They have taken the lightning and thunder images and transferred them to the bright lights and loud noises of ads, all designed to make you think it’s God’s will for you to have their products. “You need this! Your kids need this! Your spouse needs this!”

As a more faithful way to give gifts this Christmas, consider listening for God to guide you to someone’s needs, not with lightning and thunder, but with discernment. Pray you will be sensitive to what God wants in someone else’s life. And don’t underestimate that you may have a unique insight based on your relationship with someone. Such a gift is most truly a gift because it is a gift of your self and arises from your relationship.

And after all, this is how God gives to us at Christmas. God does not offer a general salvation to the world, but one that is characterized by individual redemption. The whole world may be saved, but each of us experiences it fully in our own unique way as God leads us throughout our lives. But this is true for us only if we will listen for God’s voice in the dark wood and follow.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: