Date: 9am Worship. 22August, 2021
Preacher: Grahame Rosolen
Bible Reading: Job 1:1-12
A reflection on Fences and the Book of Job with our student minister. Grahame is taking an alternative look at the story and pondering the idea of fences … how fences can protect us from danger but also can confine us. Job uses this analogy of fences both ways – as a way of God surrounding him and his family but also of feeling trapped by them. Grahame will be helping us to consider how God’s purposes far exceed any fences (physical or in our minds) that we might establish.
Do we fear God for nothing? – What fences do we desire?
Turramurra Uniting Church
22nd August 2021
Fences – (various types of fences is a possible theme for a children’s address)
In the modern world we have a lot of fences. This fence paling is an example of the typical suburban backyard fence. We have fences to define the boundaries of our properties and also to keep children and pets inside. Other fences are designed to keep other animals and strangers outside. Sometimes there are signs to reinforce the message. Fences are usually effective barriers, although the only creature for whom the fence presents no barrier is the domestic cat.
Fences may be designed to keep us safe from outside dangers.
The fence next to me is designed to keep children safe from the water in a pool. There is another type of safety fence just across the road from the church to keep people safe from the high voltage electricity.
When you go to the zoo you are usually glad there are fences between you and the carnivores. Although this zoo is more concerned about the diet of its animals than the visitors. Other fences protect us from venturing inside where there are dangers such as this fence around a pool.
In rural areas we have barbed wire fences again to define property boundaries and to keep animals inside. The people who build this fence thought it would keep the elephants out although this elephant has other ideas, and succeeds in crossing the barrier. There are famous rural fences in Australia such as the rabbit proof fence (3256 km) or dingo fence (5614 km). These are the longest fences in the world.
Most cultures have fences either as physical boundaries or as virtual boundaries. In Europe many fences are made of brick or stone. The Berlin wall was an example of a famous fence which was built after the Second World War. and removed in recent history. [Some have calculated that the number of so called fragments of the Berlin wall sold to tourists would be enough to build the wall several times over.] In the English countryside dry stone walls serve as a boundary between properties and are used to keep animals confined. There are historic fences like Hadrian’s wall erected by the Romans to protect themselves from the Scots. The Great Wall (fence) of China (8850 km) was a defensive barrier so massive whole armies could march along it and it is so large that it is the only man made structure visible from space.
Fences were significant in the ancient world as well. There are biblical accounts of walls and barriers for the protection of cities. The book of Joshua describes the walls of Jericho which were destroyed as the Israelites advanced. The remains of the walls of Jerusalem which have been destroyed multiple times throughout history are still visible today. These walls used to set the boundary of the temple courtyard. After the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon the book of Nehemiah focuses on the struggle and difficulties associated with rebuilding the city wall.
Physical and Virtual or Fences in the Mind
However fences are not just physical. A simple keep out sign may act as a fence. Even the knowledge that an area is a so called “no go zone” creates a virtual fence. In the pandemic we have had virtual fences in the form of local government areas as well as boundaries as to how far you can travel from your home.
There are many fences that we construct in our minds. Places we won’t go or people we do not engage with. These virtual fences can be just as effective barriers as the physical fences. The creation narrative in Genesis 2 describes the virtual fence around the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.
Purpose and Motivation
Sometimes fences are designed to keep out, other times fences are to keep within. Fences can separate us from danger as well as trap us and block our ability to flee. Fences can be both beneficial and harmful.
There are many motivations for building fences. Many are of practical necessity but others have deeper motivations. Fences may segregate on the grounds of race such as in Apartheid South Africa or by religious practice as in Northern Ireland. The fence between Israel and the Gaza strip is an example of controversial fences in our times.
The notion of the “security fence” is both a physical description and a metaphor for the mental practices we adopt to help us feel protected from whatever we feel threatens us.
So everywhere we look there are both real and virtual fences. It would be hard to find a place on earth that was free of fences either physical or virtual.
Job and Fences – Character of Job
I imagine Job was a man who had a lot of fences. He would have needed fences for his vast collection of sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and his many family homes.
2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants.
Job was a wealthy man so I imagine he had good quality fences and I suspect these physical fences were important to him. If we look again at the early verses of Job we can speculate that Job also had some virtual fences as well.
4 His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.
Job was keen to ensure that any sin be accounted and atoned for, even ones he did not know about. Job adopts a just in case attitude to his sacrifices. I suspect Job was a man who would have had a lot of insurance. He was a risk averse man. Insurance is an old concept and there is evidence of “insurance premiums” as far back as 1750 BC. Job’s sacrificial practices show that he was very careful to mitigate risk. If Job had wooden fences he would probably have had his termite inspections done regularly.
Security fences both physically and in the mind were important to Job.
Given this picture of fences and a window into the character of Job the narrative moves to depict a meeting in the heavens. The picture we have is of a routine meeting of the “heavenly beings” as described in verse 6. No agenda or purpose for the meeting is given although specific mention is made that Satan is there. The narrator puts us right in the meeting as if we are an observer. The meeting starts informally when The LORD asks Satan perhaps with a casual tone, “Where have you come from?” Satan’s reply is rather vague and non-descript perhaps like a teenager replying to his parents about his activities, Satan says “going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
Then the LORD introduces the central character perhaps with a tone of triumphalism “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” The subtext of the question is that Job is one of the best. At this point the others in the meeting may be starting to pay more attention to listening into this conversion.
Given Satan’s previous answer you might expect a reply, “No sorry can’t place him. In all my wandering I came across many people doing lots of evil, showing no fear of the Lord but I can’t recall anyone by that name.”
However Satan is fully aware of Job and his lifestyle and his reputation. Satan replies “Does Job fear God for nothing?” A rhetorical question that is rich with cynicism and sarcasm. At this point the meeting goes silent and all eyes are trained on the Lord and Satan wondering with expectation what will come next. Satan’s reply forms the basis of the challenge to follow and sets up one of the themes for the rest of the book. [It is reminiscent of the response of the serpent to eve in the garden, “If you eat from the tree you will not die, rather you will become like God.”]
Satan ups the ante, “Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.”
Satan is suggesting that Job’s upright character is an insurance policy with God for protection and prosperity. Satan asserts that Job’s fear of the Lord is a means of payment for the insurance policy for a virtual fence around Job that will ensure his earthly prosperity and happiness.
As we shall see one of the key messages of the book of Job is that any notion of a correlation between service for God and a blessed life and easy circumstances is false.
Satan suggests that Job may not be sincere in his devotion to the LORD and proposes a test for Job.
11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
At this point the heavenly beings are watching the LORD, the stakes raised still further and they are all silent and tense.
The LORD replies “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!”
Themes of Job
The remainder of the narrative is well known to most. Job faces a series of catastrophes; his family perish, he loses all his possessions and following a further discussion between Satan and the Lord, Job loses his health. Job is plunged into despair.
Job’s plight becomes the main items of discussion in that part of the ancient world and news reaches Job’s friends. They decide to visit him perhaps as an act of kindness and solidarity however their visit turns out to be counterproductive. Their misguided view of God (theology) serves only to increase Job’s suffering.
The most effective actions they carry out are to simply sit with Job in silence which conveys the magnitude of the grief Job is experiencing. (Job 2:13) 13 They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. Subsequently his friends unhelpfully attempt to draw a link between Job’s predicament and some sin in Job’s life. Job correctly protests at this notion and this exchange continues back and forth for many chapters.
Job is ultimately vindicated by the Lord and by contrast Job’s friends are rebuked for their errors. This is one key message of the book of Job that prosperity in life should not be attributed to a lack of sin and that conversely troubles ought not be attributed to sin.
In his suffering the theme of fences returns as Job expresses his despair:
Why is light given to one who cannot see the way,
whom God has fenced in?
The fence has turned inwards and Job now feels trapped. He has gone from feeling protected by a fence to now being trapped by a fence. He expresses his grief and acknowledges that what has happened to him is what he dreaded but knew all along was a possibility.
24 For my sighing comes like[c] my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.
25 Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
26 I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes.’
Job knew that his sacrificing was not an insurance policy. He knew it would not result in a protective fence. Job knew about the potential for calamity. He was worried about disaster coming his way. He wanted an effective and well maintained fence. Job built a fence because he knew what was out there. He was fearful that his fence may not offer the protection and security he sought. What Job feared did come to pass.
Comments for today
When you have a family, 7000 sheep and 3000 camels it is easy to become preoccupied with fence building and insurance. The need for security transcends time and is just as relevant to us as it was to Job. The question raised in these early chapters of Job is relevant for us. What fences are we building? Or what insurance are we taking out in a futile attempt to obtain security? Do we want to secure blessing?
The text asks us “Do we fear God for nothing”, or to put it another way, “What is our motivation for our regard for the things of God?”
One message from the book of Job is that God is not in the fencing business. We may seek security in fences of both a spiritual and earthly characteristic however ultimately none is to be found. Our attempts to create fences or earn fences from God are futile. Like Job we offer our worship to God not as payment for a fence as Satan alleges but for who God is.
So next time you encounter a fence, which for most of us is every day, be reminded of these early chapters of Job and observe that God’s purposes far exceed any fences we may wish to have.