Job’s accusations and God’s response: A sermon for Proper 7, Year B,2018

As the horrific tragedy continues to unfold before our disbelieving eyes, perpetrated by men and women claiming to act on behalf of the nation of which we are citizens, my grief and anger continue to mount. We are learning a great deal about the values of our fellow citizens and the commitments of fellow Christians. In shock and disbelief, and growing fear of the future of our nation, indeed our planet, I feel my faith in God begin to waver, certainly my faith that “justice will roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-rolling stream,” is shaken by the growing tide of hatred, injustice, and oppression.

In times like this, the book of Job offers not a comforting, but a challenging read. It’s not a book that comes up often in the lectionary—I went back through my files and discovered that it’s been more than five years since I’ve preached on it, so it’s worth taking the time to take a closer look at it. In the first place, if your only encounter with Job is through a Sunday School class decades ago, or through the still fairly common phrase, “the patience of Job” try to erase from your mind anything you might think you know about the story or the book.

Let me offer a brief overview of the text as a whole as background to the verses that we read today. Job is a complicated text that in its in present form reflects a good bit of editing. It begins and ends with narrative; in between are many chapters of dialogue and poetry. The basic story is quite simple. It begins in heaven, with a member of the divine court, the Satan, the adversary or prosecuting attorney, discussing with God the righteousness of God’s servant Job. The adversary asserts that Job is righteous only because he’s had it easy and is wealthy. God invites the adversary to test Job. Job’s daughters and their husbands are killed, his herds and flocks destroyed. But Job continues to assert his faith in God. Finally, Job himself is beset with boils on his skin. He sits in the middle of the street, scratching the boils with  a potsherd, a fragment of pottery.

His wife tells him to curse God and die, but Job refuses. In his terrible distress, three friends come to comfort him, or perhaps gloat over his reduced circumstances. They tell him repeatedly, over several chapters, that Job is punished for some sin he has committed, that he should repent of that sin, and ask God’s forgiveness. But Job persists in claiming his righteousness, refuses to accept his friends’ assessment of his situation.

Finally, in his despair and frustration, Job changes tack and the book becomes something of a trial. Now God is in the dock and Job is the prosecuting attorney. Again, over a series of lengthy speeches, Job demands to know of God why all this has happened to him. Throughout all this, God has been silent since first allowing the Satan, the Adversary, to test Job. As Job presses his case, leveling the charges against God, God remains silent, absent even. This brings us to the end of chapter 37.

After all of that, after all of Job’s suffering and anguish, after chapters of Job’s charges against God, finally God replies:

The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.”

And that’s that.

After all of that suffering, after all of the insufferable comments from his wife and so-called friends, after his anguished speeches appealing to God to explain why all of this was happening, now finally God speaks. And what is God’s answer?

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?”

What kind of an answer is that?

Well, I would like to go back and lay another level of interpretation on this drama. The book of Job is a challenge to our assumptions that our lives and the world make sense. In the biblical tradition, there’s a strong tendency to equate faithfulness to God with material prosperity. You see it in the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs especially. They are faithful, and they are rewarded with land, flocks and herds, abundant wealth, even offspring. The book of Job, although it was written rather late, seems to be set in the patriarchal period, and in the beginning of the story, Job as a righteous man is also wealthy.

In so many ways the worldview, the theology of Job and his friends is not that different from our own. We believe that if we work hard we will be rewarded, that our success is a sign, not only of who we are but is also a sign that God has blessed us. And when we see people less fortunate than ourselves, we often attribute their fates to the decisions they made. We look for rational reasons for personal success and failure, and even something like illness, cancer, can be viewed as punishment—what did I do wrong that caused this? What behavior led to this?  What is God punishing me for?

 

It’s a seductive theology, pervasive not only in the recesses of our minds, but perhaps, like Job’s friends, when we judge the situation of others. It’s a theology, a worldview, as I said, that assumes the universe operates according to laws, that things happen for a reason, that we can make sense of it.

But then something comes along that calls such a rational, well-ordered universe into question. It could be a natural disaster, a profound injustice, or a personal setback. And suddenly none of it makes sense, and we’re with Job, calling God into the dock, trying to bring God to explain why things have gone so wrong for us or the world, or perhaps, our faith is so utterly shaken that we begin to doubt God’s very existence.

We want the world to make sense. We want evil to be punished, good to be rewarded. We want the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. But it may be that all of that is only our fondest hopes, grasping at straws as we’re fleeing a sinking ship. Maybe the universe is chaotic, arbitrary.

But there is a certain faithfulness in questioning God. Job might have taken his wife’s advice early on his ordeal. He could have “cursed God and died.” He might have accepted his friends’ assessment of his situation, sought in his past behavior some key to explaining his plight. But he did neither of those things. He questioned God; he challenged God.

And in response, God came to him in a whirlwind and spoke. Job had a profound, moving, life-changing encounter with God. Later on, Job will say, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5)

The answers that the book of Job offers to the perennial questions of human existence: Why do bad things happen? Why is there injustice and suffering in the world? Does any of it mean anything? May not be particularly satisfying or reassuring, but they also don’t try to candy coat or evade the difficult issues.

God responds to Job in two ways: first by reminding Job of the vast gap between Job and God: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe?” God tells again the story of the creation of the universe, and of God’s power in creating it. God is omnipotent, and far beyond our comprehension.

But there’s another response in God’s words. As God describes the act of creation, God uses language and imagery that emphasize its plan and orderliness: “Who determined its measurements, or who stretched the line upon it? … who laid its cornerstone…”

It’s not only that God created the universe in its beauty and mystery, and human beings in it; it is also that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is in charge, God is working God’s purposes out. Those purposes may be opaque, hidden to us; they may confuse and confound us; they may leave us in despair and doubt.

But they do not leave us alone. God answered Job, and God speaks to us. God is present with us in the midst of suffering and chaos. Job learned that God comes to us in our suffering, doubt, and need. Nothing need shake our faith in that. Thanks be to God!

God’s Answer to Job: Shut up! A sermon for Proper 24, Year B

 

Have you ever tried to cut a deal with God? Have you ever been in a situation where things looked grim and you said to yourself (and to God), If you get me out of this, or if you heal my loved one, then I’ll (fill in the blank). How did that work out for you? Did God come through for you? If so, did you follow through with your side of the bargain? Continue reading

Consider your servant Job: Lectionary Reflections for Proper 22, Year B

This week’s readings are here.

One of the great problems with the lectionary is that its editors had to pick and choose texts and inevitably were able to include only portions of important works. That was a problem with last week’s reading drawn from the book of Esther. The same is true this week as we move into another book from the Hebrew Bible, Job. We will have a total of four readings from the book: this one, from the first and second chapter that sets up the problem. Later readings will introduce us to Job’s challenge of God; essentially Job puts God on trial. Later we will hear God’s response to Job’s case for the prosecution and finally we will hear how it all ends up (Job is richer than ever). Omitted are lengthy speeches from Job and Job’s friends that raise questions about divine justice and theodicy (why bad things happen to good people) as well as the initial tragedies that befall Job’s family.

This brief introduction to the book fails to do justice either to its literary genius or its theological depth. A careful reading of the whole book is most rewarding and brings a profound challenge to the complacency of our faith. It also helps to overcome the image of Job in popular culture—the patience of Job is a trope, but in fact the Job of scripture is not patient at all, nor does he suffer silently. He demands that God explains why suffering has come upon him.

In this week’s reading, we have the second of two encounters of God with “The Satan.” The portrayal of the Satan in the text is curious. In chapter 1, he seems to be a member of God’s heavenly court and it’s almost as if God and Satan have made a bet (“Have you considered my servant Job?”). God draws Satan’s attention to Job as a righteous man, and Satan responds by saying that Job is righteous only because he’s had it easy. So God responds to the challenge by allowing Satan to test Job, giving him power to take away all that Job has, and in chapter 2, to afflict Job himself, but forbidding him to take his life. Job is left with nothing, riddled with disease, and still he does not curse God.

The book’s answers, such as they are, will come later, in God’s response to Job. In fact, the book’s fundamental question remains unanswered and remains one of humanity’s most basic questions, asked every time there is a natural disaster, or when illness or death comes to a loved one. We want life to make sense, we want the world to make sense, but too often, it all seems meaningless. But as the Burial Office says,

“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Preaching Every Sunday

One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make in my ministry is that I am preaching every Sunday for the first time. My guess is my longest previous stretch was three. The adjustment is not to the work load but rather to thinking how sermons work or do not work cumulatively.

That has really struck me this month as we work through the central section of Mark’s gospel and are also reading snippets of Job.  Of course, I hope my sermons stand on their own, but I am also searching for ways to make connections week to week. Right now, I’m especially looking forward to this week’s propers: the story of blind Bartimaus and the end of Job. Juicy texts both and even juicier in conjunction with one another.

It’s also interesting to make those connections for people from week to week, to help them understand that the biblical texts aren’t single verses, or even short readings, but that they are part of larger narratives which help to shape them.

I’m disappointed that I’ve not been able to do much with Hebrews these past weeks. Perhaps I’ll remedy that situation in three years when Year B comes around again.