Sunday 28 October 2018
Reformation Sunday, The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 30B
During the month of October, the lectionary has been following the Book of Job. We haven’t heard any of it until today. We usually read three of the four lectionary lessons in worship, and this month Job has gotten the short end of the stick. So we’re making up for it today by reading two of them together.
The story of Job is ancient, a story that was likely shared among many of the peoples of the ancient near east, not just Jews. It is set, so far as we can tell, from a time even before Abraham and Sarah, from a time when Satan was still a part of God’s court. Satan believes he can convince God that humans are faithless. He makes a wager with God that even the most faithful person would lose faith if they endured enough suffering.
The most faithful person on earth is Job, and he is allowed to endure all kinds of hardship. At the beginning of the story, he seems very blessed, with seven sons, three daughters, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 1000 oxen, 500 donkeys, and many servants. He is the richest person around.
But through a series of very unfortunate events, he loses it all. Job’s oxen and donkeys are taken by the Sabeans, a meteor kills all of his sheep, the Babylonians take all of his camels, and all but four of his servants are killed. At the same time, a wind storm comes and knocks down the house killing all of his children. But Job does not lose his faith; he does not curse God. Then Job becomes very ill, and his body becomes covered with sores. But he does not lose faith. His wife encourages him to commit suicide, but he does not.
Most of the book of Job is taken up with a conversation between Job and three of his friends. The friends try to convince him that God must be angry with him. He must have done something in order to have brought so much suffering on himself. God must be punishing him for something. If he would only admit his faults and ask God for forgiveness, then God would forgive him and things would get better. Or they encourage him to curse God for everything that has happened to him. But he won’t. He insists that he hasn’t done anything that would warrant the kind of suffering he has endured. He is not being punished by God, and he will not curse God. He wails. He laments. He asks God over and over why? Why? Why? But for a very long time, there is no answer.
And that is the same question we often ask of God. Why? And I’d like to talk about four different why’s today. The first is, why doesn’t life seem to be fair? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do cruel people prosper while right-living people endure hardship?
If we are good, if we treat others with respect and compassion, wouldn’t it make sense for God to reward us? If we go to all of the trouble to follow God’s commandments, shouldn’t we get something for it? Shouldn’t we experience a blessing that it is proportion to our faithfulness?
That mindset leads to something we call the Prosperity Gospel. It’s fairly popular right now in America, and among the televangelists. If you have faith, if you put your trust in God, if you give money to the right ministries, then God will bless you with material possessions. Christians are entitled to well-being, and since physical and spiritual realities are inseparable, Christians are entitled to both physical health and economic prosperity. Christians have been given power over creation because we are made in the image of God. We can exercise dominion over our souls and over the material objects around us. The power of the atonement can destroy sickness, poverty, and spiritual corruption. If we just have faith, God will give us not just everything we need, but everything we want as well. Conspicuous consumption is a sign of God’s blessing.
Of course, that’s not how things work, is it? Faithful people don’t always become rich. Not all rich people are faithful. But it is a common impulse to think that it’s true, that a powerful faith is reward with worldly blessings. We ask the question: why isn’t life fair?
Which leads to the second why: Why is God punishing me? If I am experiencing some kind of hardship, it must be because I did something wrong. It must be because I didn’t pray enough, I wasn’t faithful enough. It must be because there is something wrong with me. It must be because God is punishing me. This is what Job’s friends think. Bad things don’t happen to good people. So if bad things are happening, you must be doing something wrong.
But that isn’t how it works, either. When someone experiences a tragedy, it’s not because they did something wrong and God is punishing them. When a fire, or a hurricane, or a tsunami destroys a city, it’s not because that is a particularly sinful city. When someone contracts a terminal illness, it’s not because that person is sinful. Sure, sometimes bad things happen to us that are a natural consequence of something we’ve done, but not always. Sometimes tragedies happen. Sometimes terrible things happen to you that you did nothing to invite and there is nothing you could have done to avoid them. Why is God punishing me? Maybe God isn’t.
The third why: Why does God let evil things happen? If God is good, then why is there evil? If God really were good, then God wouldn’t let evil happen.
This is one of the harder questions, isn’t it? Especially in a week like this week, when we live in the wake of terrorism. Eleven people gunned down during worship at Tree of Life Synagogue outside Pittsburg, the deadliest attack ever on Jews in the US. The terrorist blamed Jews with helping the migrant caravan coming from Central America. Before that, 14 bombs sent in the mail to two former presidents and other politicians, activists, and government officials. This terrorist apparently acted out of a desire to advance his political beliefs. Fortunately, police and security personnel acted swiftly and no one was injured. But both of these are real terrorist attacks, right here in America, committed by Americans against other Americans. Why? Why poverty? Why war? Why violence? Why does God allow evil if God is supposed to be good?
Which brings us to the fourth and final why: Why does God seem so far away? Why doesn’t God answer me? I pray, and I ask God. And I don’t hear anything in response. Or maybe I am so frustrated and disappointed with God that I. Don’t even want to try. Why has God abandoned me? Why isn’t God listening? Why doesn’t God answer me?
This is what Job asks. And for a very, very long time, there is no answer.
There is no answer until chapter 38 when God appears in person to Job, speaking to him from a whirlwind. That’s where we picked up in our reading of the story today. God shows up and basically tells Job, “Who do you think you are?” It goes on for three chapters, pointing out how small Job is in comparison to God. “Have you surveyed earth’s expanses? Tell me if you know everything about it. Where’s the road to the place where light dwells; darkness, where is it located? Can you take it to its territory; do you know the paths to its house? Have you gone to snow’s storehouses, seen the storerooms of hail? Can you guide the stars at their proper times, lead the Bear with her cubs? Do you know heaven’s laws. or can you impose its rule on earth? Will the ox agree to be your slave, or will it spend the night in your crib? Can you bind it with a rope to a plowed row; will it plow the valley behind you? Did you give strength to the horse, clothe his neck with a mane, cause him to leap like a locust, his majestic snorting, a fright? Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook, restrain his tongue with a rope?”
It’s really quite unsettling. Here Job has been pouring his heart out, and when God shows up, it is as if his concerns aren’t taken seriously. Who are you to question me and my wisdom?
When God finally finishes the rant and calms down, it is Job’s turn to respond. At first he is speechless. He is overcome with awe for God, and he tries to get away without answering God. “Look, I’m of little worth. What can I answer you? I’ll put my hand over my mouth. I have spoken once, I won’t answer; twice, I won’t do it again.” But God won’t accept that answer. The whole argument gets wound up again.
Finally Job answers, “I am convinced: You can do anything and everything. Nothing and no one can upset your plans. You asked, ‘Who is this muddying the water, ignorantly confusing the issue, second-guessing my purposes? I admit it. I was the one. I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders far over my head.” Job is overcome with amazement and wonder.
He says something very interesting. “My ears had heard about you, but now my eyes have seen you.” I used to just know by word of mouth, from what someone else told me about you. But now I have had an actual experience of you. Now I have seen.
It amazing how much of a difference that can make. It doesn’t always come when we want it, but when it does come, it can be incredibly powerful. When you have that sense that you really have caught a glimpse of God, that you have heard a word from God, that you have felt, deep in your soul, the presence of God. Just that presence makes a difference, the sense that whatever I am facing, I am not facing it alone, because God is here with me.
And we never do face it alone. Wherever we go, whatever we do, no matter what trial we may be facing, we don’t face it alone.
The last line from today’s text is a very hard one. It is notoriously difficult to translate. The NRSV says “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Job seems to shrivel up in self-loathing. But it can just as easily be translated, “Therefore I relent and find comfort in dust and ashes.” In this case, Job gives up his angst and finds peace in his lament. He is comforted in knowing that even in his grief, even in his dust and ashes, God is there, close by, never farther away than his own breath.
Job doesn’t get answers to all of his questions. But he is vindicated by God. God confirms that Job spoke the truth. Job wasn’t being punished. That’s not how God works.
Why isn’t life fair? Why is God punishing me? Why does a good God allow evil? Why does God seem so far away? There aren’t easy answers. There is a great deal of mystery. God’s universe is a very big and very complicated place, and God created it with lots of room for human will and independent action. God is not a puppeteer. God is not vindictive. And while there is evil in the world, God is always there in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the trouble. God is there with comfort. God is there with transformation. God is there with hope.