Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Job and the Burning Bush

Yesterday morning, I woke up and read the lessons for this coming Sunday, and, when I encountered the passage of the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-15), I felt the warmth of God's comforting words: "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey..." Then, I came into the office and started preparing for a bible study on Job 22-24, and I felt the dejection in Job's words: "Today also my complaint is bitter; my hand is heavy on account of my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find [the Lord], that I might come even to his seat!" (23:2-3). Perhaps it is a coincidence that I was studying Job and Exodus in the same day, but I choose to see it as an opportunity for dialogue, and I'd like to make something of it.

There is an intentional overlap in the language used in Job 23 and Exodus 2:23ff. Gerald Janzen makes this point in his commentary from the Interpretation series. The words of crying, bitter, and complaint are what the Israelites have uttered, and God has heard them. His calling of Moses at the burning bush is a clear response to the needs of the Israelites. Job uses those same words to say the opposite: God has not heard his cry. Indeed, Job would give anything for only a moment in God's presence so that God might hear him and vindicate him.

Some see Job as a repudiation of Deuteronomy. That might be overstating it but only slightly. Moses' delightful farewell address to the Israelites summarizes well the theology of Deuteronomy:
[16] If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. [17] But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, [18] I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. (Deuteronomy 30:16-18 ESV)
This simplistic logic--do good and good will happen to you; do bad and bad will happen to you--is the focus of Job's skepticism. Despite the traditional Israelite understanding of how God works, as portrayed in the story of the burning bush, God doesn't always work that way. Sometimes unjust suffering is not addressed by God. Sometimes the cries of the oppressed go unheard.

I don't know how that works its way into a sermon. On its surface, Exodus 3 is a wonderful, joyful, powerful story of God's salvation. It should be celebrated. At the same time, though, preachers should be careful not to portray God as the one who always hears and responds to the cries of his people. Hears them, yes. Responds? Well, not in the way we might hope--the way we see in the burning bush. There are people in our pews who are crying out to God for mercy. I believe that God hears them, but the timing of his rescue is, more often than not, delayed.

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