Christ Centered Resources


Rev. Ed Searcy

Hebrews 1:1 - 2:4, Job 1:1 - 2:13
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 5, 1997
"Job". Even the name sounds heavy. Reading Job means reading about suffering. There is no way around it. We steel ourselves for a depressing sermon! Yet, Job is a good human being. Nicest guy you could ever meet. Job is the kind of person that you point to and say "If only we could be like Job". And not us only, but our children as well. Why there's an entire movement called "Job's Daughters" (you'll find the answer to that one at the end of the story when you read it at home this afternoon!). Of course, everyone has heard of "the patience of Job". We use the phrase to this day to heap praise on someone who endures without so much as a peep. So it comes as no surprise that, when the story begins, Job has a succesful business, a big portfolio and a happy family at the dining table. Job's solid character is proof positive that living a good and upright life has its own rewards. Job obviously comes from good parents. He has taken all the lessons learned in Sunday School and put them to good use. His love of God and love of neighbour makes him the model human being. "Everyman" and "Everywoman" at their best. That's why God points him out with pride to satan. Oh, not capital "S" Satan as we have come to know him but satan as he was known long ago. 'Ha-satan' is not a proper noun in Hebrew. It is the word that means 'accuser' or 'prosecutor'. Yes, the satan is God's heavenly prosecutor in the tale of Job. Sent to earth to look for those who have not kept the law of God. Well, the docket is rather long by the time he checks in with the heavenly court. And as this satan smugly points out the thoroughness of his work, God can't help but ask if he has noticed Job? 'At the very least there is one virtuous human walking the face of the earth', says God. 'Sure', replies Satan, 'but you give Job such special treatment. You protect him from suffering of any sort. I'll bet that the minute he has to endure tragedy you will see his naive faith crumble.' 'You're on', replies God. With that, the heavenly wager is set. Is there even one human on earth who can continue to praise and glorify God when their doxologies do nothing to earn a reprieve from suffering? Can anyone serve God without reward? Satan says 'no'. God says 'yes'. And the story has begun. That's how it is in the Bible. Over in the Philosophy Deparment at the university and the Theology Division of the theological school they talk about the problem of suffering and evil in conceptual terms. The complex issues involved are quantified and qualified like some massive mathematical equation that will one day be mastered by some brilliant PhD. In the Bible it's different. In the Bible suffering and evil are the stuff of stories. That's how it is with us, too. When we philosophize and theologize about suffering we tell stories ... our stories. That's how Rabbi Harold Kushner finds himself with a best-seller on his hands. For no apparent reason at all this faithful, practicing, Jewish rabbi and his wife are confronted by the tragic illness and death of their son. The young boy is diagnosed with 'progeria' - a rare progressive aging disorder which leaves him dead as an old man at the age of thirteen. Out of the experience of that loss Kushner writes a little book called "When Bad Things Happen to Good People". It shoots to the top of the bestseller list. Apparently Kushner is not alone in his experience ... or in his questions. Either we already share his experience ... or know full well that one day it could just as easily be ours. Which explains Job's continued relevance all these years later. To be honest, no one knows when Job is written ... or by whom. The story is set in ancient times. Job himself is portrayed as a contemporary of the likes of Noah and Abraham. Nothing in the text suggests that Job is necessarily Jewish or knows anything of Judaism. There is much about the text that is mysterious and unknown. Still, this ancient tale continues to live. Just a few months back, the Chan Centre across the way was opened with a world premier of an oratorio called - you guessed it - 'Job'. True to form, the oratorio's music proves as harsh and painful to listen to as the book of Job is to read. Listening to 'Job' is like listening to the worst litany of disaster that anyone could possibly imagine. Out of the blue Job loses everything, one by one, in systematic fashion. An unfriendly takeover of his corporate empire. Downsizing. Termination. But that is not all. Then it is his beloved children. Each killed tragically: Cancer. Drunk-driver. Serial killer. War. It never ends. Still, Job's faith does not waver. "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away" he declares ... the master of understatement. So Satan ups the ante. Job himself gets sick. And not with an ordinary illness ... not heart disease or a stroke. He gets leprosy. AIDS. An untouchable's disease. A social disease. The disease that society equates with sin. Sitting on an ashheap, scraping his sores with a piece of clay pot, Job is a sad sight. His long-suffering wife wonders aloud if he shouldn't give up on God. "Curse God, and die" she says, perhaps convinced that such self-induced euthanasia is Job's only hope. But Job persists. He will not give up on God: "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?". God appears to have won the bet. Heaven's Prosecutor has lost. Job has kept the faith ... and proved that there is at least one human on the face of the earth who can endure. But, of course, the story has only just begun. This merely sets the stage for what is to come. Now that we have been hooked, the opening credits begin to roll. And as they roll we see Job joined by his three buddies - Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Not a word is spoken. What can they say? For a week they sit in silent vigil with Job. Like us, sitting here, beside a Cross ... beside one another ... silent before the mystery of so much unexplained suffering. Until Job breaks the silence. Gone is the infamous 'patience of Job'. Suddenly Job curses the day of his birth: "let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it ...why did I not die at birth ... why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck?" Job wonders aloud about the rationale behind such suffering befalling a virtuous person like himself. Soon Job's pain erupts into the rage of an angry fist shaking at the heavens as he challenges the morality of the Almighty God. Job's friends respond the only way they know how. They try to answer his questions ... to calm him down ... to get him to stop making such an embarassing scene. Eliphaz: "Think Job who that was innocent ever perished? Are you perishing ... then you must not be so innocent as you pretend!" Bildad: "Are you suggesting that God is unjust ... no, Job, you are unjust". Zophar: "How dare you ask such questions ... would God answer a liar like you? Get well soon. Zophar". Can you imagine? Well, actually, we can. We can imagine trying to answer Job's rage at God. We do it all the time. Listen to us as we try to explain the inexplicable: "It's just God's will, you'll have to learn to accept it" ... "God never puts more on us than we can bear" ... "AIDS - it's their own fault" ... "Remember Job, you said it yourself: The Lord gives and the Lord takes away". Of course, we mean well. Like Job's friends we want to solve the disasters that have overwhelmed life. But our answers are ridiculously inadequte platitudes. "All of our explanations", says William Willimon "are like some pitiful little tinker toy bridge over the great abyss of chaos". And it is not only answers offered by lay theologians that belittle the hard questions that plague Job. All of us who dare to preach about Job run the risk of sounding just like Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar ... little preacherettes with their little sermonettes ... offering little mumblings that mean nothing. This cannot be a sermon with some easy resolution ... like a Hallmark 'In sympathy' card that tries to silence Job's rage. Not when Job has moved from the opening chapter's quiet resignation to this plot twist of clench-fisted defiance. Rising up off the ash heap he says to God: "See you in court!". And does Job ever see God in court. Job gets what he asks for alright ... and then some. When God finally arrives on the scene to answer the charges there is no doubting the Almighty's presence. Now, I hate to upset any of you who had hoped that we have a smooth talking, well-spoken God but, as Job discovers, God 'in person' is anything but. God Almighty turns out to be a bombastic, overwhelming presence who bursts onto the stage. As we discussed this story at the 'Share and Care' gathering on Wednesday, Bill Taylor suggested that God's part would best be read by Bill Buck at full volume in the Vancouver Planetarium: "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." With that God enters into a long soliloquoy. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... who determined its measurements, surely you know! ... have you commanded the mornings since your days began ... can you make an ostrich ... or give strength to a horse ... is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?" Job is overwhelmed. He had no idea what he was getting into when he laid down the gauntlet before God. Job is dumb, numb, stupified: "See, I am of small account ... I lay my hand on my mouth". God is not finished. Out of the whirlwind there is more Word of God for Job to endure: "Look at Behemoth ... that primeval monster, symbol of evil ... and Leviathan ... that sea-monster who personifies chaos itself. Can you control either of these great forces? Can you take Behemoth with a hook or hold down Leviathan's tongue with a cord?" With this God reveals something of what it is like to be God, something of the chaos against which God must battle every day. By the end of the speech it is as if God says: "Job, if you can be a better God, go ahead ... be my guest! Because the truth is that justice is a little more complicated than you think." Job is almost speechless: "I have uttered what I did not understand ... I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you, therefore I repent in dust and ashes." There will be no 'answer to Job' but this ... that the ways of God's justice are utterly mysterious and beyond human comprehension. And that's it. That's it. Oh, there is the happily ever after story in which Job gets all of his corporate empire back along with a whole new crop of sons and, yes, his very own 'Job's daughters'. It keeps the movie-going public smiling as they leave the theater. But what of Job's raging questions and God's raging response? This hardly seems like the patient, enduring Job of whom God seems so proud in the opening scenes. Does God lose the bet with Satan? Is Job, in the end, as lacking in trust and faith as all the rest of them? Certainly Job's preacher-friends are convinced that he is a man of little faith. Job's unwillingness to be satisfied by their sermons just proves it. Or does it? After all, Job does believe. He believes with all of his being that God must answer for what Job has suffered ... and he believes that God will answer. In the end, his faith is merited. Job's fist- shaking rage at God is an act of living faith ... not doubt. Viewed with a close-up lens Job's anger at heaven appears blaspemous. But if you view the scene with a wide-angle lens you see something else. All of a sudden you notice that Job, rage at God and all, is standing in the palm of God's own hand. Then, listening to the Almighty, we discover that Job's wrestling match with the forces of chaos and evil is matched only by God's own struggle to contain Behemoth and control Leviathan. As it turns out, Job's defiance is made in God's own defiant image. God's faith in Job has been well placed. Job does endure in faith. As a matter of fact, Job's defiance is the measuring stick of his faithfulness. And us? Our virtue may not match Job's heights of virtuosity. Our litany of suffering may not be as lengthy as Job's unimaginable misfortune. But God's wager is still in place. Can anyone serve God without reward? Will anyone still praise God without needing silver linings in every cloud, without thought for what they can get out of it, just because God is God and deserves our praise? Sitting here, feeling our losses, facing our troubles, confronting our worries, feeling alone, inadequate, lost. This is where the wager takes place - right here - as we sit in the ashes and scrape our wounds like Job. Can we endure in faith? That is still the question. But for us there is one difference. We sit on an ashheap that rests at the foot of the Cross. We can see what Job could not see ... that God Almighty has endured the sufferings of Job. In the Cross we know what Job could not know ... that God has overcome Behemoth and Leviathan once and for all. This is no simple silver lining, no little sermonette that papers over the cracks in the mystery. The debates and arguments about evil and suffering must continue in the philosophy departments and theology divisions. The questions still confound humankind. But the truth is that our stories of suffering will forever be formed by a life- giving Cross of suffering. The bet is no longer placed on Job alone ... the wager is on God Almighty to keep faith with all creation. In Jesus Christ, God keeps the faith. That is why, as Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, "being a Christian means being a prisoner of hope." We cannot give up on God ... no matter how hard the questions or how painful the sufferings. In this we are just like Job.