Summary: When we are in distress, we do not want doctrine. We want a fresh encounter with God, we want listening friends, and most of all, we want, and have, a Redeemer.
Years ago the church of which I was then a member had an evening ice-cream social and service out on the church grounds one summer Sunday. It was a gently warm night, and as the sun went down and a little chill crept into the air, as the stars began to come out and faces began to disappear into the shadows, someone began the service by singing. First gently, then more clearly, finally loudly and vigorously we all sang: "Give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion, give me that old-time religion; it’s good enough for me."
I remember feeling just a little uncomfortable that night. I thought at the time I knew why, but I didn’t, not really. I thought I felt uncomfortable about singing "Old-Time Religion" because I knew better. I knew better. I had been to seminary, I had learned wonderful things about the Bible and where it came from, I had learned at least to spout the names of assorted German theologians, even though I may not have understood them. At least I was equipped to impress you with quotes from Barth, Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Braunschweiger, and Baloney. I thought that I didn’t want to sing "Old-Time Religion" because I knew that the old-time religion was not intellectually good enough for me. Emphatically not up to date enough for me.
But, to tell the truth, that is not really why I felt ill at ease with that song.
Last fall, we held a revival here at our church, and the Diaconate selected the theme, "Give Me That Old-Time Religion", and we sang that song again. Every night we sang that song. And, though I never said anything to anyone about it, again I felt a little uncomfortable. And again I thought I knew why. But I didn’t. Not really.
I thought I felt uncomfortable because we might be indulging in a nostalgia trip. I thought I felt uncomfortable because we might have been tempted to answer all the old questions that nobody’s asking any more. I supposed my discomfort with singing "old-time religion" had something to do with a fear that we were bypassing those who were too young even to know what the old-time religion was. I thought that I knew why I was uncomfortable, but I didn’t.
In truth, none of these was the real source of my concern. None of these were the cancers gnawing away at my brain last fall. The old-time religion: it just felt … not quite right. Why not?
Out on the town garbage heap, where rats play and scavengers feast, centuries ago there sat a miserable man named Job. He had not always been miserable. Once Job had been a prosperous merchant, landowner, farmer, and businessman.
But now he was deprived of everything that he owned. He couldn’t even afford the piece of pottery he was using to scratch where it itched.
Once Job had been a family man, surrounded by admiring children.
Children, after all, will admire you when you give them everything they could want. He had been a husband, adorned by a doting wife, whose doting got a little fierce when the adornments went away. But practically nobody follows you to the garbage dump; that’s where you are alone with your problems, your sores, and the vermin. Job has lost it all: his wealth, his family, his health, his community, his prestige, and, worst of all, Job has lost his peace of mind. Job wants to be left alone to die.
But out to the garbage dump come a few friends, drawn by old loyalties to a place they must have loathed.
The Scripture tells us: "Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and to comfort him. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great."
After this week-long silence, it was Job himself who spoke the pain that was in his heart, and the first of his counselors, Eliphaz, offered up a theological nostrum intended to cover the situation. As we saw last week, Eliphaz said to Job, "You, sir, are in trouble, because if you had not sinned so badly, God would not have done this to you. And so, Job, since you are in such horrible shape, you must have sinned very greatly. And there is no other explanation. None, nada, zilch, zip. That’s it".
Job, however, as I trust you recall from last week, will not have it that way. Call him naive if you will; call him unrealistic, call him unrepentant; but Job does not believe that he deserves what he is getting. For Job, Eliphaz and. his cash-register religion, in which you get out exactly what you put in, that is spiritually lazy, that’s looking for simplistic answers; and Eliphaz thinks that you can, in the last analysis, earn God’s favor, and Job knows better. Job sees that this is a world in which bad things do happen to good people and bad people sometimes get good things, and the whole thing is topsy-turvy.