Our scripture lesson this morning is from the book of Job, but Job is a story, and to focus on a few verses out of a whole story can sometimes be a little tricky. It would also be laborious to sit here and read all 42 chapters of this book simply to remind ourselves of Job’s story.
So instead, I want to read for you this morning the story of Job as re-told by Frederick Buechner in his book Peculiar Treasures.
Once, in the land of Uz, there was a man named Job… (click HERE to read Buechner’s telling of the story of Job. It’s worth it. Go ahead! We’ll be here, ready to move on when you come back!)
I don’t have a lot to say this morning. This may be short, but it’s not because of a lack of effort or because Job doesn’t elicit a lot to talk about- he does!
Rather, after another mass shooting this week, the preacher finds himself simply at a loss for words. In the last decade, 316, 545 Americans have died by gun violence on U.S. soil. 313 were killed by terrorism in the last decade around the world (CNN).
We have a problem. In the wake of this shooting, President Obama commented bitterly on how these shootings have become routine, and how routine our responses have been. Left and Right immediately raise up the war cries for either more gun control or less; that gun accessibility is to blame or it is because of mental health and cultural problems; that less guns on the street would reduce the number of shootings or that more guns on the street would reduce the number of casualties.
People should not have to go to work, to school, to church, to a shopping mall, and wonder, “Am I going to survive?” In this country, or any other!
Job speaks into all of our anger, frustration, sadness, and helplessness.
A couple of notes on Job. First, Job is a parable, it is not a history book. “There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job,” is the beginning of a story, more like a folktale than anything else in scripture. “There is no mooring in history… Uz is not mentioned as a place anywhere else in the Bible” (Schifferdecker). Uz might be as real as Neverland or Tattooine; it is simply a place that looks familiar, but is more than likely, not real.
Second, “No one knows when the book was composed, but it is obviously responding to a crisis of some sort (perhaps the Babylonian Exile)” (Shifferdecker). What we can tell is that it was written to address some very real, very painful questions, most importantly, “What does one say about God and faith in the midst of undeserved and extreme suffering?” (Shifferdecker).
Third, this is not a tale about God and the Devil playing out a piece of a supernatural war between good and evil. In fact, the “Satan” in this text is not the Devil we think of in popular culture. “Wherever the word ‘Satan’ appears in the text of Job, the definite article is attached to it in Hebrew. In other words, ‘Satan’ is not so much a name as a title: the Satan. To ‘satan’ in Hebrew is to accuse, to indict, or to be hostile towards. The Satan in Job, though ominous, is not the full-fledged demonic figure that he becomes in the New Testament and in other later Jewish writings. In Job, he is part of the heavenly court, given the task of investigating what human beings are up to on the earth” (Shifferdecker). This ‘satan’ appears to be part of God’s heavenly court, reporting to, and taking directive from, God.
All of that is interesting, and it does help us to understand the meaning behind the text.
But “why do we suffer? Why do good and innocent people suffer so much?” (Taize). Really, the better question is, why do good and upright people, like Job, suffer in equal proportion to those we would consider bad, or evil? The steadfast and faithful do not receive less suffering than the evil. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus says, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
So… what’s the point? Is it possible to reconcile suffering and faith?
Job is confronted by many people throughout his story, particularly his wife and his friends. Most of the time, they lay the blame for his suffering squarely at his feet. Karl Jacobson, a Pastor in Minneapolis, notes that “the force of Job’s argument [is] a rejection of the ‘orthodox theology of his day, one based on the practice of piety and the presumption of divine retribution.’ In other words, piety does not equal protection” (Jacobson).
This is a very un-American point of view. We believe very deeply that if we do good, we will be rewarded, and that if we are bad, we will be punished, “the so-called ‘prosperity gospel’” (Jacobson). “The idea that God blesses the faithful, rewarding the righteous with what they deserve, and that the opposite, trials and tribulation, are signs of being out of sync with God- apparently the prosperity gospel is nothing new under the sun- is rejected outright by Job. It is rejected in the portrayal of the struggles of a genuinely ‘blameless and upright’ man, and in Job’s response- both to his wife and to his situation” (Jacobson).
There are two responses that come up from Job’s story this morning. First, we are not the center of the universe. Our place in the created universe is clearly a theme in this story. “Did God make the world for the sake of humanity? Has God designed the world in such a fashion that persons always get what they deserve? If not, then human happiness is not the end for which God created the world… In the world as designed by God, suffering is not always the consequence of one’s sin and virtue does not always entail happiness” (Capetz 484).
If we learn anything from Job, it is that yes, sometimes bad things happen to good people. But we are not called to serve God only in the good times; we do not serve and worship God in order that God will bless us. We serve and worship God because of who God is, and what God has done in history and continues to do today, and will continue to do in the future.
The second response is that, even though we are not the center of the universe, God still makes His way to meet us where we are. God meets Job, listens to and instructs Job. God makes it clear that He loves “faithfulness with no ulterior motives” (Taize). From the beginning, God has desired communion with humanity; to be in relationship with us. It’s why He sent Jesus to live with us and teach us, and to ultimately die for us.
Job is a story that comes crashing into our neat, tidily constructed lives of faith and tears down the walls until there is nothing left but rubble. His is a story that gives voice to our suffering even when we feel like the words have evaporated off our tongues. The question of human suffering is one that has troubled us forever, and will continue to worry us, long before Job and long after those of us gathered here today. “The reality is that sometimes faithfulness does indeed yield blessing; but sometimes faithfulness yields only suffering. Such ambiguity surely tests faith!” (Harris 490).
On days when we mourn, our faith is tested; on days when we struggle, our devotion can seem meaningless. But the story does not end with Job. Eventually Christ breaks into the story, and what we learn about God through Him, is that God suffers with us. When we hurt, God hurts; when we cry out in anger and frustration, God’s cry is louder and more heartbreaking. In our struggle, we can find a sincere expression of our faith. Amen.
Buchner, Frederick: frederickbuechner.com/content/job
Capetz, Paul E. “Job 1:1, 2:1-10.” Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011. 484. Print.
Harris, J. S. Randolph. “Job 1:1, 2:1-10.” Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2011. 490. Print.
Jacobson, Karl: workingpreacher.org
Shifferdecker, Kathryn M.: workingpreacher.org