October 21, 2012
A couple of weeks ago I promised you a sermon on Job. Here it is.
We’ve had three readings from the book of Job these past few weeks. I assume that the editors of the lectionary thought these three readings sufficed to introduce church-goers to this particular book of the Bible. It’s not. The first week, we heard the setup; the conversation between Yahweh and the Satan about Job. Last week, we heard some of Job’s complaint. This week we hear from God. As a condensed version of the book of Job, these three readings aren’t enough to give us a sense of what’s really going on in this book, one of the great works of human religious reflection.
Most of you know something of the story of Job. He was a righteous man, wealthy, had a large family, and suddenly all of that was taken away from him. His cattle and property were destroyed, his children and their families killed. After all of that misfortune, he continued to believe in God, saying, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then he was beset by some sort of skin ailment, so painful that he took a potsherd, a piece of pottery and scratched himself in hopes of getting some relief. At this point, his wife told him, “Curse God and die.”
But Job refused. As he sat in the street scratching himself, three friends came to visit him. They offered counsel. They were convinced that Job’s misfortunes were due to something he had done wrong. He was being punished for his sins. They told him that if he confessed his sins to God, perhaps God would forgive him and release him from his suffering.
But Job would have none of it. He asserted his righteousness. He was a good man and his sufferings were not caused by something he did wrong. This may be the point where the story of Job as you’ve heard it diverges from the story as written. And this hinge point brings us to the heart of one of humanity’s great questions—why is there evil, or suffering in the world? It’s a question we ask in the abstract about natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis; or horrific suffering like the holocaust brought on by human action. But it’s also a question we ask about things that happen in our own lives or in the lives of loved ones—why cancer? Why did she have to die?
We scramble for explanations of such suffering but the answers for which we reach often seem inadequate, even laughable, as when televangelists explain a hurricane or tsunami on the evil of the place and the people who have experienced the wrath of nature. In our own lives, the answers we offer, as inadequate as they may be, help us fit our suffering and pain in a larger narrative. God may be punishing me, we think.
Job rejected such easy answers even though the culture and religious world in which he lived assumed that wealth and prosperity were signs of God’s blessings, signs of his goodness. If that’s the case, then pain and suffering have to be a sign of one’s wrongdoing. Job insisted on his righteousness. We might be inclined to condemn him right there, for it seem rather presumptuous, arrogant, to assert one’s righteousness. But remember, God had already deemed Job righteous, back in chapter 1. And Job would continue to insist on his righteousness.
His friends, on the other hand, assumed he had sinned. We didn’t hear from them in this set of lectionary readings, but there’s a certain comic element to the story at this point. Three friends come, ostensibly to commiserate with Job. They sit with him in silence for seven days. It would have been better if they had maintained their silence. Instead, when they speak, they chastise Job for his arrogance and his refusal to admit his sins and beg forgiveness. Job, on the other hand, refuses to listen to them and he turns to God.
In the course of a lengthy series of speeches, Job turns from a focus on his own fate (he begins by cursing the day he was born) to address God directly. He speaks from the depths of his experience, from his pain, anger, despair. He addresses God with all honesty. He begs God to answer him. And in this move the author of Job reflects his genius and his deep humanity. Job’s words are the words of one who suffers; they are the pleas of anyone who suffers great pain or loss. They are words of despair, but in the midst of that despair, they are also words of hope and faith. For even if it seems that God has given up on Job, Job has not given up on God. In chapter 13:15, Job says, “Though he kill me, yet I will hope in him. I will defend my ways to his face.”
And finally, after all of those speeches from Job’s friends and from Job; after all of Job’s complaints and his friends’ criticisms. After chapters in which it seems the same themes and ideas are repeated over and over again. After all of Job’s suffering. For chapters, we have heard from everyone, but God has remained silent. Finally, finally, God speaks. And this is God’s response to Job:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
And what a response! What is God saying? In short, shut up. Remember who you are and who I am. I’m God, the creator of the universe, and you are a lowly human being.
Now what sort of answer is that? How does that explain what Job has suffered? Well, it doesn’t and on one level, the answer is unsatisfactory. On the other hand, God’s answer to Job remind us of who we are, who God is, and the world in which we live. God’s speeches describe the awesome beauty of creation, the diversity of animals, the majesty and beauty of nature. By reminding Job of his place in creation, God also reminds Job that he is not its center. To put it in the words of the great film Casablanca: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”
Unsatisfying? Perhaps, but there’s something else as our gospel reminds us. The God we know as creator is also the God who came to us in Jesus Christ, the God who died on the cross. That death on the cross, a death of great suffering in the midst of terrible oppression, is a symbol of God’s love for the world. It is also the good news that God is present with us when we suffer, God is present in the midst of suffering.