Why I Chose to Preach on Job

Article by   October 2009

"You're not going to preach right through Job are you? This is going to be so depressing!"
Such, at first, was the reaction of one or two of my congregation at the church door on Sunday morning after I began a series of twelve sermons working through this great book. Not the most encouraging of beginnings, it should be said. Neither did those comments do much to allay some of my own fears. I found myself wondering, and not for the last time during this series, "Why did I select Job? What madness had seized me that prompted me to choose Job of all the books to work through?"
In answer, I wish I could say in this forum that I was driven to preach on Job by a clear sense of divine guidance, but in fact, my first reason was simply that I did not feel that I really understood the book for myself and wished to get to grips with it. Now, I have known many good men, some of whom I'd call mentors, all of whom are models of a faithful preaching ministry, who took the view that one ought never to preach on a book whose depths we have not plumbed thoroughly and whose heights we have not scaled completely. "If you don't understand it, don't preach on it", would be their advice.

While I'd certainly agree that we mustn't preach our ignorance, and freely admit that it may simply be the perversity of my nature that leaves me disinclined to follow their advice, nevertheless when I encounter a text or a Bible book that I struggle with I feel sure that there will be those in my congregation who will not understand it either. I'm sure that there will be people who, when they come to Job in their own private reading, muddle through as best they can, grasping something of what is going on in the first two and the final chapters, but wonder what to make of these strange dialogues in the middle. Sometimes they simply give up on the deep seas of Job or Deuteronomy or Ezekiel or Galatians and head for the more familiar, apparently less threatening waters in the Psalms and the Gospels instead. And I therefore feel a sense of burden and pastoral obligation to them to open those parts of the Word, like the book of Job, that are less clear so that the people of God among whom I have been called to serve might be equipped to read it intelligently for themselves.  I recall with a sense of responsibility a comment one of those above mentioned mentors and models of ministry made to the effect that as preachers our calling is not only to expound the text to our people but to model how to read and understand the text for our people. One goal of my ministry, God helping me, is to try to equip our little congregation to handle the Bible well for themselves.

My second reason for selecting Job was more directly pastoral. In the course of pastoral visitation and counseling I became increasingly aware of the numbers of people in the congregation who were hurting, confused, depressed, wondering where God was in their trials. While none endured the depths of misery into which Job was plunged, our wee church was sad and sore and needed the message Job could bring. This book simply seemed, in my best judgment, to be the most fitting portion of God's Word for the needs of the flock at that time. It was an experience that reinforced a growing conviction that unless pastors visit their people and know them, their ability to pastor them well from the pulpit will be greatly impaired.

For some the message of Job came as a relief and a surprise. It brought more than comfort. It brought instruction on dealing with trials and pain and loss. It forced us to reckon with the reality of Satanic attack in a day when we are tempted to view life as entirely mundane. It helped us to wrestle with the sovereignty of God over and in our trials. Job recognized the divine hand in his earthly sorrows, and the book demands that we face and learn to embrace the seeming tension between God's goodness and his sovereignty when he permits our pain. Perhaps one of the most significant things Job did is give us language to adopt as we cast around looking for some way to voice our grief and anger and confusion from a posture of faith rather than unbelief. It helped us see how bankrupt our prayer and worship language can be when it is populated only with doxology and empty of lamentation. And thus we found fresh arguments to commend the singing of the Psalms as we learned to pray with David in Psalm 130 "Lord, from the depths..."

In short, the book of Job not only helped us think through our sufferings and sorrows realistically and provided theologically robust comfort while we did so, it also helped us think through what our piety ought to look like in a world where such things are not anomalous but normal. Job began to teach us that life is for God and that the greatest mystery of all is not how a good God can let such pain penetrate my life, but why a good God bears with me in my sin so long with such patience and grace.

And that takes me to another reason for preaching on Job and that is its polemic and apologetic value. We minister in a context where Christians are bombarded with books and resources offering them their best life now. It can therefore be a deeply disillusioning experience to discover that the program for health and wealth and happiness we have bought into was void of real resources to deliver on its promises. More subtly, in our corner of the South, a bright, smiling, positive Christianity is so much the norm that anything that appears to deviate from that can be considered unspiritual. To lose your smile is to embrace unbelief. But the cost of maintaining that façade is not cheap.

Job helped us see that tears fit as well as, and often better than, smiles this side of the eschaton. Job gave us permission to sing songs of lament. It affirmed that 'just pray about it' is too often empty counsel, and called us instead to rest our hope, not in our performance, but in God's sustaining grace. Job helped us, when we found ourselves admitting, 'I can't find Him', nevertheless to say in faith, "But He knows the way that I take; and when he has tried me I shall come out as gold." (Job 23:10)

And finally we turned to the book of Job because, when read in canonical context, it is impossible not to find lines of connection with the central story of scripture focused on Jesus Christ. In short, Job is a gospel book. The book depicts Job as God's righteous servant, whom Satan is permitted to afflict. As Job obeys amidst these temptation and trials, God displays his glory and defeats Satan who contends with the LORD in the heavenly courtroom. It is impossible not to find a shadow here of the temptations and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and the ultimate and final crucible in which the cosmic conflict between the LORD, his Righteous Servant, and Satan was played out and where, at the Cross, Satan was utterly defeated and the goodness of God vindicated.

In the details too, as well as in the big picture, Job is replete with gospel themes. Job's responses to his four interlocutors ring with the need for a go'el ,  a redeemer, and for a mediator who can lay his hand on both God and man (9:33). Job asserts, in sometimes quite extraordinary ways, his confidence in the resurrection, in the mercy and grace of God, and in a final resolution to his conflicts and trials. And at the last Job becomes for his friends what he himself had prayed for during his trials. Job becomes an intercessor and a mediator. Only when Job intercedes for his companions are they forgiven. Job himself is a picture to us of Jesus, both in his suffering, and in his intercessions.

As we explored those themes together we discovered to our collective surprise that the LORD ministered his comforts to us as a congregation through the book of Job. So to sum up, how did I come to choose Job? I wanted to understand it better, and felt sure others in the congregation needed to understand it too. I was driven by pastoral concerns, knowing some of the trials endured by the congregation and hoping to minister to them effectively in their pain. I was driven by apologetic and polemical concerns. I wanted to protect the flock from the theologically simplistic and pastorally disastrous errors that abound when it comes to dealing with suffering.  And I was driven by gospel concerns. I wanted to set Christ and him crucified before the people and apply him to their sorrows as well as their sins, believing it is vital that Christians understand that the gospel is for all of life, not just for conversion, and that it speaks the only lasting comfort available into our sharpest afflictions.

If there was a single lesson preaching Job has reinforced for me it would be that pastoral care informs the pulpit, and when it does the pulpit in turn accomplishes effective pastoral care.

David Strain is Senior Pastor of Main Street Presbyterian Church in Columbus, MS.

Why I Chose to Preach Job,
Reformation21.org (October 2009)

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