It’s the Story of Us

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the later service, shared below, were Job 42 (the final chapter of that work) as well as I Corinthians 15:20-28.

 

Ever since Valentine’s Day, we’ve walked with Job and his friends. That’s not nearly long enough to do anything like an exhaustive study, but we have gotten acquainted with this man, his world, his struggle, and his faith.

As stories go, frankly, there isn’t much action. We’ve met a few characters, most of whom are not developed all that well. By and large, this is a book filled with talking. Like a lot of things at church, Job seems to be populated by a bunch of folks who love to hear the sound of their own voices. We’ve heard Job, of course, and his wife; God and Satan, and more than we needed to from Bildad, Elihu, Zophar, and and Eliphaz.

Yep. Lots and lots of talking.  At church.  Who saw that coming?

And this morning, in the last chapter?

More talking.

But let me tell you something, because I bet you didn’t pick up on this. I know that I didn’t the first eight or ten times I read through Job. There is something profoundly different about the talking in chapter 42 – we have not seen this kind of speech anywhere in the book.

For the last 41 chapters, we have heard a lot of conversations. God and Satan get into a bit of an argument about why Job acts the way that he acts; Job curses the day of his birth, Job’s wife tells Job that he’s crazy, and he replies by saying that she’s not herself and doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Then the friends show up and do their level best to point out how Job and the other friends are mistaken, and Job consistently replies by indicating how wrong they all are. Finally, God shows up and says, “You know what? You’re all wrong. None of you know what you’re talking about – you just don’t get it.”

And here, in chapter 42, Job says, “You’re right, God. I don’t get it. You’re right.”

Chapter 42 contains the only non-combative speech in the entire book of Job. Job does not try to refute, rebut, correct, or criticize God. He just agrees, and confesses, and accepts.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image.  If you can help me find the artist, I'd be delighted to credit.

I was unable to find any citation for this widely-shared image. If you can help me find the artist, I’d be delighted to credit.

And because the tone switches from confrontational to confessional, and because it’s the only place in the book that this language shows up, well, it’s worth noticing.

For 41 chapters, we’ve heard all kinds of people talk about whether or not Job is a great guy, and how Job should or should not worship and serve God. In chapter 42, Job actually worships. It’s not language that talks about worship, it’s language that records worship.

Allow me to suggest that in a very deep sense, Job’s story parallels the entirety of scripture. In that way, the story of Job really is the story of us.

There is a beginning – in both Job and in Genesis – and it’s a spectacularly good beginning. Everything seems to be going along pretty smoothly for a while, and then that goodness is interrupted and threatened by something that is incredibly horrible. At first, the power of evil and the work of the Accuser seems to be to be overwhelming. Eventually, God promises to sustain those who struggle, and at the end of the story, in fact, God shows up and brings about renewal and restoration. We see that in the pages of Job, and we see that laid out across scripture from Genesis to Revelation, right? It’s the same story. There’s a great beginning, an incredibly hard and really long middle, and we are promised a fine end. Yay!

Having said that, I feel obligated to point out that as 21st – century enlightened American believers, we are at least uncomfortable with the basic outline of Job, and maybe downright offended by it.

In case you’ve not been here in the past few weeks, here’s a quick synopsis of Job. We meet him and find out that he’s a great guy – super religious, really faithful, and fantastically wealthy. He starts out with 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, many servants, 7 sons, and 3 daughters. Job is sitting pretty, to be sure.

And then all of that goes away – all 11,500 animals, all the servants, and most heart-breakingly, all ten children are killed. Job and his wife are totally bereft.

And it gets worse, when Job is afflicted with a horrible illness and becomes a pariah in his own community. His friends show up and try to convince him that it’s somehow all his fault.

Finally, though, in the reading that we’ve heard this morning, God shows up and seems to say, “You know what, Job? We’re good. It’s all good. So look at what I’m going to do for you: here, at the end of your story, you’ll have 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1000 yoke of oxen, 1000 donkeys, lots of hired men and women, and, of course, ten brand-new children!”

And for 3,000 years people have read Job and said, “Awwww, I love a happy ending…”

But we say, “Hold on just one minute! That’s a terrible story! How do we just pretend that none of that stuff in chapter one matters? Are we saying that the children that Job and his wife loved so deeply in the beginning of the book are so easily forgotten and replaced? Do they have no significance whatsoever? ‘Cause that’s just wrong!”

I don’t think that anyone is suggesting that the pain and grief and suffering incurred by Job, his wife, and their family is insignificant. No one is pretending that these losses did not occur, or were not egregious.

The story of Job, and the story of the Gospel, and the story of us is that no one ever needs to pretend that suffering is not real and is not important. The point is not that we can ignore it, but that we will get through it. We are transformed by it. And it matters.

How do I know that it matters, according to the scripture?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio (1603)

Well, think about the body with which Jesus was raised from the dead. What did he have in his hands? Holes. What did he have in his feet? Holes. What did he have in his side? A wound.

Note that, beloved. When our Lord was raised from the dead into a body that Paul says is “imperishable”, it was a body that had scars.

Which means, I think, that something of what happens during our experience of time and space has some eternal importance.

The idea of resurrection is not that what was once is now no more, and all has been erased and re-written. It would appear as though a more satisfactory understanding of resurrection is that we move through pain into something better; we are healed from that which is dead and restored to our intended status and purpose and function and form.

You see, much of the theology in both Job and in our current day seems to be centered around the mistaken notion that bad things happen to bad people and that good things happen to good people. Job’s friends were echoing time-honored thoughts when they said, “Hey, you know what? If you get sick, or if you find yourself experiencing an abnormal amount of loss or grief or devastation, you better look in the mirror. You’ve sinned somewhere. You’ve made some horrible decisions.” They also held to the opposite theory, which states that “if you get rich or experience profound levels of health and joy, well then, shucks, you must be doing something right for God to bless you like that! Congratulations, you clean-living, God-fearing, upstanding, morally-appropriate my-kind-of-guy!”

That brand of theology, not surprisingly, seems to be favored by rich, healthy, employed or endowed people.

It’s also not a biblical philosophy. If so, Jesus, as the sinless Son of God could not have experienced the things that he did. If you follow that line of thinking very far, you wind up thinking that all pain is punishment, that all suffering is not only deserved, but to be avoided, and that love only winds up hurting you.

A healthy understanding of the notion of resurrection, however, brings a different result. The Gospel story is that, yes, pain does occur – but there are times when pain produces fruit. Suffering is not always the result of bad choices or a sign of divine displeasure – there are some times when suffering is the means by which we become transformed.

When Paul was trying to talk about it with his friends in Rome, he used the analogy of childbirth. Having a baby, he says, hurts like nobody’s business. Frankly, from a male perspective, it just seems impossible and against the laws of geometry. It shouldn’t work, and it’s incredibly painful. And yet, at the end, there is a blessing to be found – and one that can only be brought as a result of the path of suffering.

Brene Brown is an author, researcher, and educator who left the church as a young adult, feeling as though it was irrelevant and didn’t meet her needs. Twenty years later, she suffered some incredible pain and she went back to the church, hoping that it would remove that pain. She expected that faith would act like an epidural anesthetic – that it would simply block all the pain she’d experienced. She says, “I thought Faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort’, but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it.’ Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit.’” (Click here to watch Brown’s brief video developing this theme)

That’s resurrection thinking. Do not for one second pretend that the losses that Job incurred or those through which you have suffered are inconsequential. Of course your losses, your pain, your grief matter! Yes! But do not resign yourself to the thinking that says that those things are all that exist, either, or that somehow your grief and your losses will wind up as that which ultimately defines you.

This morning, if you showed up to worship on Easter feeling happy, wealthy, and wise, surrounded by good-looking men, strong women, and above average children, then I apologize, because the resurrection probably seems unnecessary to you and I’ve just wasted 18 minutes of your precious time.

But if you’re here trying to make sense of some deep pain in your life and you are longing for hope and healing… If you are wondering how in the world you can get through the challenge that looms in front of you, and what difference any of it makes anyhow… Well, then you ought to know that God’s word is a good word.

Do you think that Job and his wife could ever forget their first, or second, or third-born child? Do you think that when they got to number twelve or thirteen they said, “See, there, that’s not so bad! We’re ok. These kids are just about as good as the other ones…”?

You know that’s not what happened. Do you think that their relationship with the second set of children was shaped by the lives and deaths of the first? Of course it was.

The fundamental truth of Job’s experience of having, losing, and being restored is not “see, good guys come out all right in the end”, but rather that what we can see and what we are experiencing is not ultimate. We are all in the in-between. Where you have been matters – it matters a lot. And everything that is good and right and holy about where you have been – is eternal. Where you are shapes where you are heading – and where you are heading is into God’s ultimate good.

So to the three or four of you who are sitting pretty without a care in the world, have a great day. Enjoy the rest of the service. The last hymn is a real toe-tapper. And good luck with whatever is going so great for you.

And to the rest of us, the message of Easter is simple. You can hold on. You can trust. You can hope. Not because of who you are, but because of the One to whom you hold, on whom you trust, and in whom you hope. He is risen. Alleluia!

Out of the Whirlwind

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights looked at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. When Easter Sunday rolled around, we finished our consideration in a two-part sermon series.  Both of these messages are rooted in the fact that our community has a number of people for whom this Lent was filled with significant loss and grief.  That drove me, as a preacher, to explore aspects of our Holy Day that were congruent with themes of suffering, loss, and pain that ring forth from Job.  Our texts for the early service, shared below, were Job 40:6-14 (with a reference to our Maundy Thursday reading of Job 38) and Mark 16:1-8.

 

I like to think of myself as a peaceful person. I’m a lover, not a fighter, as they say.

And yet, as I prepared for this morning’s message, I found myself thinking about the last time that I got punched in the mouth. I mean, really socked in the kisser. Not a “dope slap”, not a pretend smack – an honest to goodness haymaker that landed square on this jaw.

It happened during a Bible study of which I was the leader. I made a comment, and my friend Frank took a different approach. Next to Frank was Jason, who thought that he needed to come to my defense, and so he told Frank that he was wrong. Frank took exception to that and called Jason a heretic, which got Jason’s blood boiling. They got louder and louder and the next thing I knew they had squared off and were ready to go at it. I rose, seeking to bring order to the situation, just as Jason was rearing back to plant one on Frank’s nose. Frank ducked, and I wound up with a bloody lip. At a Bible study.

You see, I hadn’t said anything for about five minutes – this was a conflict that was intensified because these guys were arguing about what I said, what I would say, how I might say it, and so on.

We’ve spent the past six weeks immersed in the ancient book of Job. If you’ve missed it, most of that work is really people speaking about God. In fact, the person who speaks most directly to God in much of the book is, well, Satan. Ha-Satan, the Accuser. After he and God have a bit of a dialogue at the beginning of the book, it’s mostly a group of men lining up to say what they think God might say if God could get a word in edgewise, which apparently he can’t because the rest of you knuckleheads keep yammering on and on and on.

The longer that Job and Bildad and Eliphaz and Zophar and Elihu talk, the more you get the sense that somebody’s going to blow a gasket sooner or later. And finally, it happens.

The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, William Blake, 1805

The Lord Answering Job Out of the Whirlwind, William Blake, 1805

And, as it turns out, it’s God’s gasket that gets blown. In four brief chapters at the end of Job, God speaks. We heard the beginning of that speech in Job 38 on Thursday night, and I’ll remind you of it now.

Job’s friend Elihu has been rambling for a couple of chapters, telling Job and anyone else who will listen the kinds of things that God would say if he was the kind of God who liked to talk, and then we come to this:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind…Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

Uh-oh. He’s talking to Job, not to Elihu or anyone else. And he doesn’t seem happy. And although the text reads, “the Lord answered Job…”, how does he do it? By asking a question! Where were you?

Do you remember that I’ve been asking you to pay attention to the ways that the language of Job echoes that of the creation?   Think back to Genesis. What is the first question that God asks the humans? God has created the garden, created the animals and birds and so on, and has created male and female…and those people disregard God, and they hide from God…

And in Genesis chapter three we have a description of God wandering through the Garden of Eden at the dawn of creation, and God is asking a question… Where are you?

It seems unmistakable to me that God is demonstrating to Job, his friends, and the rest of us that when it comes to righteousness and power and authority and integrity, the high ground belongs to God. It is we who have left him, not the other way around.

This question is followed by a stunning series of images in which God points out in amazing detail God’s ongoing care for, power over, and investment in the creation. He says quite plainly that God moves in ways that Job and his dimwit friends cannot begin to appreciate or understand.

Turning ahead to our New Testament reading, we find it to be a more familiar and frankly a more Easter-y reading from the book of Mark. My sense is that some of you were surprised to come in here on Easter morning and hear the book of Job. But empty tombs and angels? Well, that’s what you signed up for, right?

Let me invite you to consider with me the story of Mark in light of the message of Job, because as I have done so this week, I’ve been struck by a couple of things.

I noticed this morning that the first Easter starts off with a question. In Genesis and in Job, the question is “Where are you”, and it’s directed at the humans. In Mark, really, there are nothing but questions: How will we move the stone? Where did his body go? What’s up with this angel? What are we going to tell Peter and the rest of them because they’ll never believe this!?

These followers come, simply wanting to find their dead Jesus where they had left him, and they cannot… because he is on the move ahead of them. He will meet them, the angel says, in Galilee. Whereas in the stories from Creation and in Job, humanity is not where the Lord expects us to be, here in Mark God is not where the disciples expect him to be.

Which leads to another interesting image: in Job we read twice that God spoke “from the whirlwind”. The Hebrew word there is ca’ar, and it refers to a powerful storm – very much like a tornado – an event with the power to uproot, tear down, and re-arrange.

Note, beloved, that the ca’ar is the context in which God chooses to speak to Job. For more than 35 chapters people have been trying to get God to open up, and finally he does… from the whirlwind.

And while the word “whirlwind” does not appear in the New Testament, surely the events of Holy Week qualify as that kind of a tempest. From the Triumphant Entry to the cleansing of the Temple to the Last Supper and the arrest, betrayal, denials, and finally death of the Lord… we have seen a horrible, horrible storm.

And this morning, the women approach the tomb in darkness and fear and in anxiety – they are worried about all kinds of things, and then the one thing that they think they can count on – the fact that Jesus’s body is where they left it – is no longer true. That’s how the Gospel of Mark ends – there is no bodily appearance, there is no great answer… just a lot of questions, pain, and confusion.  They are confronted by the story of the resurrection and they leave the tomb full of fear and anxiety – yet they have heard the word of God.

The only thing that I can figure, the only line that I can draw here, is that in Job and in Mark, God speaks, and acts, and moves in the midst of a whirlwind. God is accessible, in these instances at any rate, in times of pain, fear, grief, and depression. God is in the storm.

And yet when I say that I need to find time to communicate with God, what do I do? I head out “into nature”. I go fishing or boating. I see right there how God shows up in Job and in Mark, but I prefer my meetings with God to be calm and serene, thank you very much…
“Hey, Dave, how are you?”
“Oh, Hey God.”
“You good?”
“I’m good. You?”
“Totally.”
“Look, God, can I get you something? A sandwich? Some incense? Maybe a hymn or something?…”

Listen, I’m not saying that God doesn’t come in times of peace and serenity. Heck, I know that sometimes I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses… and he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own…

I get it. That can happen.

But I am saying that we are foolish if we expect that to be the only time or the only place where God would show up. God’s not waiting for us to get our crap together before he comes into our lives.

More to the point, in a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket more often than not, what with shootings in Wilkinsburg and even closer to home, bombings in Belgium and Ivory Coast and half a dozen other places; in a season in which we seem to be perpetually surrounded by death and grief and loss, well…

Friends, it seems like awfully Good News to me that we don’t have to wait around for things to quiet down before we look for God or listen for God or are found by God.

I know that a few of you are in that sweet, sweet, spot of serenity and peace, where everything is light and grace. Praise the Lord. Say “hey” for the rest of us. Because I think that most of us, most of the time, can relate far better to the whirlwind.

You don’t have to leave your questions at home when you come looking for God. You don’t have to overcome your fear or get past your anxiety or get over your grief. Come to God in the midst of your questions and your fears. Expect God to show up in the tempests of your life. In fact, if you find yourself living in the middle of a whirlwind right now, keep your eyes open – because that’s where God lives, lots of times.

God knows where you are.

God is moving ahead of you.

God promises to meet you with new life and resurrection power.

Is your life a red-hot mess right now? Bring it to God in the midst of this storm. He is here. The message of Job and the message of Easter is the same: it is in God’s very nature to speak in the midst of frightening and horrible situations. Let us be attentive, beloved, and let us listen.

The Question Is…

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 20, we viewed the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as described in Luke 19:28-44 through the lens of Job’s soliloquy in Job 3.

 

seaver-IoossSt. Louis CardinalsWhen I was a kid, I loved watching Monday Night Baseball. Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola would call the action, and I believe that it was at this time I discovered one of the coolest things about television: the “split screen technology”. With half the screen, I could watch pitcher Tom Seaver look down for the signs that Duffy Dyer was flashing, and with the other half I could see Lou Brock dancing off first base, threatening to use his blazing speed to steal second base. Split screen allowed me to take in two different aspects of the same contest at the same time, and it surely increased my enjoyment of the game.

PIPA few years later, however, my neighbor got a new television with a technology that I hated. It was called “Picture in Picture”, and what that did was allow you to have one show playing on most of the screen, while an entirely different program was contained in a small box somewhere else on the screen. He’d have one game on the big screen and another game in the little box, and flip back and forth between them. So far as I was concerned, the Picture in Picture took two perfectly good games and ruined them by trying to mash them together.

This morning, we’re going to look at Job, chapter 3, and we’re also going to consider Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the end of the service, you’ll have to decide if this is more like the awesomeness of split screen technology, in which we have a helpful comparison and investigate the relationship between these two chapters of the same story… or if it’s more like the banality of Picture in Picture, which creates unnecessary distraction resulting in an unsatisfactory experience of either narrative.

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Let’s look at Job. When we left him last week, he was sitting in silence with his wife and his friends after having suffered more grief and loss than anyone should ever have to suffer. For seven days, nobody said anything, and as we mentioned last Sunday, it is one of the most tender scenes of sympathy and affection in scripture.

That changes, as Job opens his mouth in what we English majors would call a “soliloquy”. That is, Job makes a speech here that reveals a lot about his inner self, and we’re not really sure at whom these comments are directed. Is he talking to himself? His wife? His friends? The Lord? Or is the author of Job using this speech to communicate with the readers or hearers of the story? One of the great things about a soliloquy is that the answer can be “all of the above”. Job’s words here offer an amazing insight into the depths of his character as well as an opportunity to consider the main themes of the rest of the book.

The chapter begins with Job cursing the day that he was born, and as he gets warmed up, his questions intensify. After lamenting the day of his birth and disavowing the night of his conception, he asks three significant questions. In verses 11-15, he says, “Why didn’t I die at birth? That would have been better than living until now…”

Not content with that, however, he asks in verses 16 – 19, “Why didn’t I die before I was born? I would never have known any pain at all!” And then he gets to the logical conclusion in verses 20 – 26, where he wonders, “Why does anyone even live at all, when we are bound to be so miserable?”

The net effect of Job’s soliloquy is that the reader is left with one hauntingly profound question: this man who has lost all that he has ever loved stands in front of us and says, “Why did this happen to me???”

weepingOn the other side of our split screen, we see Jesus as he enters the last week of his life. For most of the day, apparently, he does not say very much. His silence, however, extends to neither his supporters and disciples nor his adversaries and critics. The disciples and the crowds are yelling and singing to the Lord, and the religious leaders are barking at Jesus, warning him to make his followers stop that noise. As you’ve heard, Jesus’ response is that if the children of God are prevented from praising, then the very creation itself will sing out.

And when the parade is over, Jesus has a soliloquy of his own. It’s much briefer than the one we overhear in Job, but it is just as filled with bitterness and questioning. He looks over the city of Jerusalem from a vantage point that Luke wants us to see as very similar to the one to which he was taken by Satan during his temptation three years previous, and he weeps. He weeps for what is, and he weeps for what he knows will surely come. And through his tears, I believe that it’s pretty easy to see one hauntingly profound question: “Oh, oh, oh… How did we wind up here???” Jesus considers what has come before, and he surely knows what will come to pass in the next few days, and like Job, he is overcome by grief and emotion.

And this is what I think: I think that Job’s question and Jesus’ question are essentially two sides of the same coin. To use the television analogy with which I started, I believe that they belong on the same screen. Is there really much difference between asking “Why is this happening?” and asking “How did we get here?” I don’t think that there is. Job’s question is, perhaps, a little more personal in nature and little more pointed, while Jesus has a point of view that has the benefit of a little deeper perspective and involvement in a community. But I don’t think that, substantively, there is much difference here.

And the stories of Job and Jesus lead us to an important truth: it is ok to ask questions of God.

When I was seventeen, I was a busboy at the Longhorn Ranch, a big old steakhouse near my home. When I worked the closing shift, I had to wipe the rims on all of the ketchup bottles before we put them away. When I worked the opening shift, I had to wipe the rims on all of the ketchup bottles before we put them on the tables. I remember asking my supervisor, Ms. Hafley, “Since the last thing I did last night was wash these bottles, why do I have to wash them again?”

And, God bless her heart, Ms. Hafley looked at me and said, “David, ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die.”

Seriously? Who quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to a seventeen-year-old boy while he’s cleaning ketchup bottles? Not only that, but she didn’t answer the question! (parenthetically, for some reason I will say that if you ever dine at my place, I expect you to comment on the cleanliness of the necks on my condiment bottles…)

But isn’t that the way that much of the church and all of Job’s friends treat our questions of and about God? “What are you, crazy? You shouldn’t ever, ever, question God. What, do you want to be hit by lightning? Sit there. Suffer in silence. Have some dignity, for God’s sake. But do not question the Lord or your fate. Do, and die.”

Thanks be to God, beloved, that the lives of Job and Jesus point to a different reality. The introduction to the book of Job and the story of the incarnation of Jesus both point to a reality in which the Creator is willing and able to enter into relationship with the creation – a relationship based on love, risk, trust, and vulnerability. In the context of a relationship like that, then, we are free to cry out. We are free to ask questions.

Remember that, my friends: do not let me or anyone else ever shame you for asking questions of or about the Lord. If God loves you, and he does; and if God is all-powerful, which he is; then surely in the context of that relationship God can handle a few questions from the likes of you and me.

But having said that, we do well to remember that if we are in a relationship in which it is permissible for us to ask questions, we are obliged to hear them from time to time as well, are we not? A relationship that permits questioning only from one party is not really a relationship at all, is it?

Whether we cry, with Job, Why is this happening?, or we sit with Jesus and wonder, How in the world did we get to this point?, the responding question of the Divine is the same: Now that you are here, what will you do? Look, this horrible pain is happening. This suffering is upon us. This thing that we have feared is imminent. What will we do?

Let’s go back to the split screen. In Job, we see a reality that is twisted by the one called Ha-Satan – “the accuser”. Although he is only active in the first two chapters of the book, he causes great damage. When we meet him, he is parading in front of God, trying to incite God to doubt the reality of Job’s love for God. Talk about chutzpah – you’ve got nerve when you set out to sow doubt in the mind of the Almighty! But that’s what the Accuser does…and then he leaves God’s presence and comes to afflict Job with all manner of pain and suffering and grief in the hopes of sowing doubt and distrust in Job’s life and in that of his community.

And it works. For weeks, I’ve asked you to pay attention to the language of creation that shows up in Job. Look at what happens in the reading from this morning: Job not only curses the day of his birth – he wishes that that day were nothing but darkness. Go all the way back to page one of creation: what is the first thing that the Creator ever says? “Let there be light.” In his soliloquy, what is the first thing that Job says? “Let there be dark.”

And if you think I’m stretching it, then remember the end of the creation story. What is the last thing God does when he’s creating? He rests, and he gives rest to the creation. And how does Job end his soliloquy here in chapter 3? By saying that there is no such thing as rest. I suggest that Job chapter 3 is a reversal of creation – that the accuser has sought to undo the work of the Creator in Job’s life. And for the next 35 chapters, the story of Job and his friends is one of a community moving more and more deeply into this alternate reality whereby the grace of God is not enough to reach into Job’s life; there is neither light nor rest for that which God has made, and everything is all wrong.

The Accuser – Ha-Satan – wants Job and his wife and his friends to believe that the goodness of creation is a lie. The Accuser seeks to re-write the story of who and whose we are.

Palm_SundayLook at Luke. In our reading from today, the religious leaders – the very people who ought to be speaking the truth of God and surely truth about God – the religious leaders find themselves in the position of shushing the Divine. They are afraid of the praise of the Lord. They have lived into fear, into pride, into self-preservation… They have lived into the lies of the Accuser.

Listen to this: when Jesus sat on the back of that donkey on the first Palm Sunday, he faced the same question as did Job and as do you and me. The question before us each and every day is which story will we choose to believe? Who will we trust?

The Accuser told Job and his friends, he told Jesus and the religious leaders on Palm Sunday, and he tells us that it’s all up to us because we are fundamentally alone in the universe and therefore we are each ultimately and uniquely responsible for making our own meaning in the world.

And the Creator – the One who knows what does make for peace; the One who builds hedges around that which he loves; the One who brings order from chaos and who apparently enjoys the thought of singing rocks – that Creator approaches those whom he has made in love and promises to be with us in the hardest places of our lives.

The God who made you loves you enough to invite your questions. And the God who made you loves you enough to give you one of his own. It’s Palm Sunday. It’s a cute day to see all the little kids with their palm branches and maybe we even take a few fronds for ourselves.

But remember that today and every day we face a fundamental question of identity. This is the only Sunday in the whole year where we have both palms and ashes before us. We have the choice: whose story will we believe, and how will we show that in our lives?

It’s Palm Sunday, beloved. Cry out to God, if you need to. Where are you, God? Why is this happening? And cry out to your community, if you can. Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! And this week – this week in particular – follow Jesus. All week, follow Jesus, and learn with him to dwell more deeply in the story for which you were made. Amen.

When Someone You Love is In Pain

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 13, we looked at the second wave of tragedy that besets Job as described in Job 2.  We also considered the wisdom from Paul in Second Corinthians concerning comforting each other in times of difficulty. 

 

Have you noticed that Christian leaders are saying some hard things about public figures these days? Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, has been all over President Obama for visiting a mosque. The leadership of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has criticized Donald Trump for his comments concerning race and immigration. Pope Francis, of all people, has been hard on just about all of the candidates for President with the exception of the Jewish socialist who wants the job. Go figure.

But as tough as some of these comments are, I was flabbergasted when I read what some of the leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ had to say about a woman. One of these pillars of the church called her “the Devil’s accomplice.” Another referred to her as “a diabolical fury” and “an instrument of Satan.”

Who is this woman of great evil and questionable character that has the men of God so up in arms? Some Hollywood trollop? A porn star or morally-challenged athlete?

Nope. These comments came from St. Augustine, the pre-eminent scholar of the fifth century, and John Calvin, widely thought of as the father of Presbyterianism. The target of their scorn was an unnamed woman whom we know only as Job’s wife.

Job and His Friends [detail], Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930)

Job and His Friends [detail], Ilya Yefimovich Repin (1844–1930)

This woman, whom Augustine also called “the helpmeet of the Devil” speaks a total of ten words in all of scripture. The book of Job contains 1070 verses, and she speaks in one of them… and somehow, in her speaking, she has really gotten under the skin of these great Christian leaders. Why?

Let’s review where we’ve been with Job thus far. We’ve seen two different Heavenly Councils that point, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to the overwhelming power and authority of God. In addition, these discussions reveal the Satan’s desire to turn the creation against the Creator, and to sow discord and disharmony. Job’s integrity is repeatedly emphasized, as is his wealth. Last week we read where Job suffered an incredible loss: not only did he lose all of his property, holdings, and accumulated wealth, but every single one of his children was killed, presumably along with their families.

And perhaps I don’t need to say this out loud, but I will anyway: there is no loss that Job has suffered thus far that has not also struck to the heart of his wife. Although Job is clearly the leading actor in the earthy part of this drama, we dare not minimize the pain of his bride. So before we even get to the point of considering what she has to say in this book that bears her husband’s name, I will make a motion that we give her a break. We are about to consider a conversation between two people who have just buried all ten of their children and their families. And when you live through the funerals of ten of your own children on top of losing your entire savings account and income, well, you get a pass in my book. If that happens to you, I promise not to quote you for at least a year. So I will say to St. Augustine and to John Calvin, “Simmer down, boys. Give her a break!”

Let’s consider the text for this morning, shall we? Picking up with our reading from Job, chapter 2.

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

The Satan leaves the second Heavenly Council and does his worst, afflicting Job from head to toe with unspeakable pain. There are a couple of things that are noteworthy here. First, it’s as good a time as any to point out that while we often use “Satan” as a proper name, the Hebrew text reads ha-satan, which means, literally, “the accuser”. Sometimes we read of this creature accusing God, and other times he attacks a human or some other part of the creation, but we have come to call him by that which he does. I could be wrong, but I would be willing to bet that most of you in this room have felt the sting of his accusations. The one who asks Eve in the Garden, “Can you really trust God?”; the one who strolls in front of the Almighty here in Job, taunting God by saying that Job only loves God because of all the shiny stuff that God has given to Job; the one who came to Jesus in the wilderness and said, “If you’re just willing to soften a little on your stance concerning idolatry, I could make things so much better for you…” – that one has paraded through your life as well, troubling your heart and mind and spirit with doubt and fear and uncertainty and pain. You know the Satan. You have dealt with the accuser.

And here, the Satan goes out and finishes his work in Job’s life, and then disappears from the story. There are still 40 more chapters to go in the book, but the accuser bows out after verse 7 in chapter two, leaving Job and his community to deal with the disruption he has brought.

And if the pain that Job and his wife had undergone in chapter one wasn’t bad enough, here he suffers anguish in his body and mind. We see him sitting in the ashes – he has already torn off his clothing and shaved his head; now he regards himself as of such little worth that he takes himself out with the garbage. He lays in the dust of the earth and seeks to soothe the itching with a broken piece of pottery. Job is in a horrible place.

And then his wife speaks her only line in this entire drama:

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

Job on the Ash Heap: Job Berated by His Wife Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1632)

Job on the Ash Heap: Job Berated by His Wife Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1632)

We’ve often said that when we get to the Bible, it is a beautiful thing to have the words in front of us – but we don’t know the inflection or the intent, do we? When she says that, is it a sarcastic jab? Is she kicking him when he is down, and belittling him for having faith? Is she tempting him into faithlessness?

Maybe. It’s possible, though, that this was not her intent at all. It might be that she was herself so upset by seeing her beloved suffer through this new round of afflictions that she was crying out to him to just let go of life. You’ve seen this before – a person is clearly in so much pain and distress that those who love him gather around and say, “It’s ok! You can go! I can’t see healing from where I sit. I can’t imagine wholeness…just make this pain stop however you can…”

In our previous conversations about Job, I invited you to be attentive to the creational language that comes out of this book. I said that a lot of the imagery and vocabulary sounds like Genesis. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Calvin and Augustine and other scholars have drawn a parallel between Eve’s behavior in the Garden of Eden and Job’s wife’s comments here. They read about Eve, the seductive temptress who led her husband into faithless behavior, and they saw an echo of it in Job’s wife’s comments.

We noted on Wednesday night, however, that one difference is that Eve was tempted by the thought that she would have the knowledge of good and evil – concepts with which Eve apparently had very little experience. Even a cursory glance at Job’s wife, however, will indicate that she knew more about the nature and power of evil than any person should ever have to know.

My sense is that Job does not share the scholars’ low opinion of his wife. Listen to his response to her lament:

He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Job does not call his wife “sinful” or “wicked” or “evil”. He looks at her, I believe, in love, and says, “You are acting like a foolish person.” In Hebrew, the word for fool is nabal. A fool, according to Psalm 14, is one who does not accept the rule or reign of God – someone who cannot see where God is or what God is up to in the world. So in essence, Job turns to his wife and said, “You’re not acting like yourself today…you are talking like someone who doesn’t have faith…” Job affirms the sovereignty of God and does not lose his integrity.

Our reading for this morning ends with one of the most beautiful images in all of scripture. When they hear of his troubles, Job’s friends come to see him.

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake, 1785.

Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job, William Blake, 1785.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come on the scene to offer what help and encouragement they can. Look at the beauty that surrounds this group of friends: they arrive and immediately enter into the fullness of Job’s reality. They embrace his pain and his anguish. They sit with him in his shame and isolation – right there, amidst the ashes and the garbage – they are present with and for him.

They do not try to cheer him up or distract him. They don’t pretend that he has not just suffered unspeakably. They don’t – praise the Lord, they don’t start talking to Job about what their brother-in-law did when his child died last year and maybe you two should hang out or something… No, they didn’t do any of that. They wept with Job. They sprinkled ashes on themselves. And get this: they don’t try to explain things to Job (at least, not yet). Nobody’s trying to fix anything for Job. Just four men, sitting quietly, feeling the weight of the world on Job’s shoulders.

The Apostle Paul wrote quite a bit to the church in Corinth. His letters there contain all sorts of references to mysterious things: he waxes eloquently about the resurrection from the dead, for instance; he talks about forgiveness and freedom and what it means to be made strong in weakness. There’s a lot in Paul that we have to sit and think about.

But in the reading you had earlier from II Corinthians, he offers some incredibly practical and truth-saturated advice. We are best able to serve those in need, he says, when we are in touch with our own vulnerabilities. We are in a position to offer the greatest comfort and consolation to those who have suffered greatly as we are willing to re-enter, and to share, our own losses.

Someone you love is going to be in great pain. It may be sooner or it may be later, but something is going to happen that will find you walking into a room that is full of hurt.

What will you do?

Be there. Show up and shut up. Sit with them for a while in the ashes of their pain and grief. You can’t fix it, you can’t take it away, and you better not try to explain it. Sooner or later, like Job, you may find the opportunity to remind your friend that we don’t know how everything plays out, and then you can offer some concrete encouragement. When you do that, you become like Christ.

Last week we talked a little bit about the ways that the story of Job is an invitation to consider the suffering of God. This morning, take a look at these three men who come to enter into the reality of the one they called their friend. And then think about the way that in Jesus, according to John, God “became flesh and blood and lived among us”. Thanks be to God, who knows where we are, and how to find us, and who is willing to sit with us in the pain that most assuredly come our way. May we have the grace to offer that gift to each other as well. Amen.

 

When Bad Things Happen To Good People

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 6, we looked at the first wave of tragedy that besets Job as described in Job 1:13-22.  We also considered John’s account of the encounter that Jesus and his followers had with a man who had been blind from birth. 

 

Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

Healing the Man Born Blind, El Greco, 1570

Jesus and his friends are on the way down the street and they see a familiar sight – a blind man sitting by the side of the road. Perhaps he was begging; perhaps he was just sitting quietly. Something prompts the disciples, however, and someone asks, “Lord, why was this man born blind? Is it because of his own sin, or that of his parents?”

The disciples see a man with an obvious disability and immediately assume that someone is being punished. The question is, whose fault is it? In that day and age, everybody knew that stuff like this doesn’t just happen, it comes from God. Why?

The disciples, like most Jews of that time, believed that suffering and pain were signs of God’s punishment. After all, they’d read in the book of Numbers that God does not leave the guilty unpunished, and that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. A narrow interpretation of that and other verses leads to a worldview that I might call transactional, or cause and effect. You do this, you get that. If you’ve got that, you must have done this. It’s neat and tidy and it makes sense to us. Good things come to good people. Bad things follow bad people.

That’s the kind of thinking that led people like Pat Robertson and John Hagee to proclaim that when hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, it was the wrath of God being poured out on that city because of its exceptional sinfulness. And while some of us may snicker at that level of theological sophistication, when someone says, “Oh, wow… My dad has lung cancer…”, do you immediately ask, “Was he a smoker?” Because if a smoker gets cancer, well, maybe that person deserves it…right?

To be clear, there is a connection in the Bible and in real life between what we do and what happens to us. Choices have consequences, and often we do experience a great deal of pain because of our actions, or the actions of those who are close to us.

I saw this first hand when I was visiting South Sudan in the midst of their civil war, and often would pray with pastors from that nation who would begin a prayer with a time of confession in which they named to God the human tendencies toward greed and power-mongering and violence that had led this young nation down a difficult path.

But saying that war is a result of human sinfulness is not the same thing as saying your house was destroyed by a missile because you are such a pathetic sinner, isn’t it?

That seems to be Jesus’ point when he says bluntly, “Nobody sinned here. This man’s experience doesn’t have anything to do with an individual’s sin. This man was born to display the power of God.” Sometimes things happen that you don’t deserve.

Job Praying, Marc Chagall 1960

Job Praying, Marc Chagall 1960

This story from John’s Gospel reminds us of our ongoing experience with Job. If there is one thing we have learned in the past few weeks, it’s that Job is a good, good guy. He takes care of his children; he’s smart with his money – heck, even God almighty (someone who ought to know a thing or two about being good) is always bragging on Job.

And yet…horrible things happen to Job. You just heard about some of them. His oxen and donkeys are rustled away by the Sabeans, who also killed the hired men. The sheep and their shepherds were destroyed by a massive lightning strike. The Chaldeans swooped in and carted off all of his camels, killing his servants in the process. And if all of that weren’t bad enough, well, all of his children and their families perished when a great windstorm came and knocked down the house in which they had been celebrating.

And if the facts of these events are not enough, the author of Job emphasizes how bad it is by alternating his description of these tragedies: an invading army followed by a natural disaster followed by an act of war followed by a natural disaster. Job is hammered on every side – both humans and, it would seem, God, have turned against him.

Moreover, there’s another clue in the language of the book. On Wednesday night, we considered the references in the text to words and phrases associated with consumption: in chapter 1 we hear that the children are eating and drinking three times. The donkeys are feeding, and the hired men and servants are all destroyed by the “mouth” of the sword. The fire from heaven “consumes” the sheep and shepherds. For Job, it is as if calamity has been personified and is now coming to devour him.

What will he do?

Job 2, Oldrïch Kulhanek (1940 – 2013)

Job 2, Oldrïch Kulhanek (1940 – 2013)

Look at Job’s response to this outpouring of evil and suffering in his life. First, he embraces fully the grief that accompanies loss and pain. Following the cultural norms, he shreds his clothing and shaves his head. He laments the tragedies that have befallen him, and mourns openly and genuinely.

Remember that, friends, the next time that some horrible thing happens in your life and you feel like you just need to fall down and weep. You can do that. And if some knucklehead comes up to you and says, “Hey, hey, hey… remember ‘the patience of Job’? Come on, now, buck up, things will get better…” You can remind them that the first thing Job did when he suffered the affliction of his worst day ever was to fall to pieces in loss and in pain. There is no reason to feel as though you need to be ashamed of your pain or sorry for your grief. Own it. Express it. And move through it. It’s yours.

And after he cries out in grief and pain, then he falls on the ground and worships. “Naked I came on the day I was born, and naked I will be when I die,” he says. Note here that his first language of worship is subjective – it is about him. It is rooted in his own experience. That makes sense – it is the experience that he knows best. But then he leaves the subjective and moves into the objective realm: “the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away… may the name of the Lord be praised.”

Job’s experience (which has changed over the course of his life) gives way to Job’s identity (which is fixed). Job is a child of God. Job is created in the Divine image. Job encounters suffering as he encountered joy – in the company of his heavenly Father.

In fact, I would suggest that in his suffering, Job knows more of what it means to be made in the image of God. Author Gerald Janzen points out that “the agony of Job, in body and spirit, is his participation in the agony of God” that is demonstrated in the first half of chapter 1.[1]

And you say, “Hold on a minute! It sounded like Pastor Dave just said that God suffers in the book of Job! I didn’t see that coming!”

Neither did Pastor Dave. But think about it. Who is the first person to suffer in the book of Job? It’s not Job. By the time that Job has gotten around to putting up “Lost Oxen” posters, cleaning up the ashes of his flock, and planning his children’s funerals, God has already experienced a number of losses.

The heavenly dialogues that we’ve already read tell us of creatures who turn their backs on the creator. They speak of a God who loved that which he had made so much that he was willing to invest it with a measure of freedom – and so the Satan is at liberty to wander through creation and cause disruption, turmoil, and grief. God loved the Satan enough to listen to him; God watched Job suffer; The Almighty opened himself up to questioning and doubt and risk and distrust – from those to whom he had given and for whom he had nothing but love.

Does God suffer in the book of Job? Look at it this way. Job’s children were snatched from him in death. That is horrible – and yet at least Job could console himself by thinking it was a tragic accident. Yet those whom God had created and loved – the Satan and his followers – spit on God and walked away themselves. It was no accident. It was willful disobedience, and surely cut right to the heart of the One who had given them life.

When Job suffered the loss of his livelihood and the death of his children; when Job entered into the deepest pain he might have imagined – then Job knew more of the heart and image of God than he had before. And at the same time, he flung himself into conversation with that God in the hopes of receiving solace and comfort from One who knew what it meant to experience grief and loss.

Why did Job suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? I’m not sure. But I believe that God’s presence is revealed in Job’s suffering just as much as Jesus said it could be revealed in the life of the man who was born blind.

I would further suggest that, at the end of the day, asking “why” bad things happen is not always the best thing we can do. Sure, it makes sense to approach some of the difficulties in your life this way: why did you lose your job? Was it because you were 15 minutes late every day and made crude comments at the holiday party? Then maybe there’s something to be learned.

Why did your girlfriend drop you? Was it the way that you ignored her or the fact you didn’t ‘feel like’ going to her grandmother’s funeral with her? When things in our world hurt, it makes some sense to reflect on them to see whether there may be some causality.

But a more important question is, “Now what?” The job is lost, the relationship ended, the diagnosis received, the funeral is over. What will you do as you look to tomorrow?

Perhaps we can learn from the example of a man called Martin Gray, who was in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and was one of only two people in his family to survive the Holocaust. After the war ended, he married and settled in France. Years later, his wife and children perished when a forest fire consumed their home. This renewed tragedy pushed Gray just about to the breaking point, but he found hope and comfort in creating a foundation that sought to prevent forest fires.

Many of his friends urged him to file lawsuits and seek to hold someone accountable for his grief. He refused, saying that such a course of action would only focus on the past, and on pain and sorrow and blame. Filing suit against someone else or the government would, he said, put him in an adversarial position – a lonely man becoming lonelier by seeking to hold someone – anyone – accountable. At the end of the day, he concluded that life has to be lived for someone and something, rather than against something.[2]

Who sinned that this man was born blind? Why did Job’s children perish? Why did those things happen to your mother, or at his job, or in that class? I don’t know.

But now that these things have happened, what will we do? Can we come together as God’s people in grief and lament, and approach God in worship? Can we learn from our brother Job?

I know that if you have not yet experienced significant loss, pain, and suffering, you will. You are human. Why do all of these things happen? I can’t tell you how to connect all of those dots. But I know Someone who is here to help you through it. Someone who knows something about loss and grief and separation and pain. Thanks be to God, that Someone is as close as your next prayer. Amen.

[1] Interpretation Commentary on Job (Atlanta: John Knox, p. 41), 1985.

[2] From a story told by Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people/#

Who’s In Charge Here?

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On February 28, we from that work (Job 2:1-7) and thought about the ultimate source of power in the universe.   We also considered wisdom from The 46th Psalm.

If you were planning a trip to Los Angeles and Googled “Things to do in Hollywood”, you’d come across a slew of advertisements for a “behind the scenes” tour. My sense is that you’d know what this is, right? Whether we’re talking about making movies or automobiles or factory farming, if I offer you a “behind the scenes” look into something, you’d expect what? A glimpse into the reality that underlies the finished product. Instead of seeing only the feature film or the 1965 Mustang or chicken breasts at 3.98/pound, you’d see what has to happen to make those things possible in our world, right?

Our reading from the Book of Job is one of the places that presents a “behind the scenes” glance into the Divine realm. What does God do all day, we wonder? How does eternal wisdom work?

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Satan Before the Throne Of God (William Blake, 1825)

Job 1 and Job 2 both contain narratives describing a “heavenly council” – a gathering of Divine or celestial beings at which the affairs of creation are discussed. As we consider these passages this morning, let me remind you that we’re approaching the book of Job as an important story that tells us something that is ultimately true. The point of this story is not so much in the specific details, but rather its attempt to describe for us the underlying reality on which our lives are based.

And having said that, before I consider the story as we hear it in Job, I’d like to mention at least two other stories that point to what happens behind the scenes of the intersection of the unseen eternal reality and our day-to-day lives.

In the world in which Job was written, the ancient Near East, most religions held to the notion that all of the various gods got together once a year – often on New Year’s Day – and determined the fate of individual humans for the year to come. In Mesopotamia, this meant that dozens and dozens of gods would gather in some heavenly location. Each of these gods was associated with a particular city or region, and each of them also had a particular area of expertise or dominance.

The gods of Mesopotamia

The gods of Mesopotamia

For instance, Enlil was the god of air, wind, and storms, and was associated primarily with a city called Nippur. Inanna, who was tied to the region of Urik, was thought to be the goddess of love and war (I wonder why, in ancient religions, these two jobs often fall to the same diety?). Nergal was the god of the underworld who brought famine and destruction into human reality, and was from Kuthu. And perhaps the best known of the lot was a fellow named Marduk, who is often associated with natural disaster and vegetation. Since Marduk was thought of as being the god of Babylon, when that city rose to the status of an Empire, you won’t be surprised to learn that people came to think of Marduk as the most powerful god.

This pantheon, or assembly of gods, reflects a view of reality wherein religion is based in our image, and we create a divinity who is like us – or like we want him or her to be. It also presents us with a “behind the scenes look” at a divine council that is a cacophony of competing voices and claims and counterclaims; a spitting contest full of braggadocio and accusations and conniving – a scene not unlike some sessions of congress or some presidential debates, in fact. In this view of reality, if you were to ask the question, “Who is in charge here?”, the answer you’d wind up with is, “Well, nobody is actually or always in control, really. You just can’t tell with these guys.”

Who's in Charge? I am!!!

Who’s in Charge? I am!!!

So that’s the ancient Near East, or at least part of it. Now fast-forward in history through till today, and let me offer a contemporary American understanding of the divine council. For many of the people in our world, the meeting of the gods looks like those old comics where a person is seeking to make a decision and there’s a little angel on one shoulder and a little demon on the other, each whispering into an ear, urging a specific course of action. Both the tempter and the encourager provide input, but at the end of the day, who is in charge? I am. Because in America, the individual is the ultimate authority.

In Job 1 and Job 2, however, we see a different depiction – one that is at odds with both the ancient Mesopotamian and contemporary American views of divine reality. Each chapter contains the claim that “the angels came to present themselves before the Lord.” That is, heavenly beings come into the presence of One who is clearly supreme and offer who and what they are to that One. This is not a debate; it is not a congress; YHWH is clearly receiving reports from those who, while powerful, are less powerful than he. The very first question that is asked in both chapters 1 and 2 is from God himself: “Where have you come from?” In other words, “Are you doing your job? Tell me about how you have been exercising the authority that I gave to you.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

Although this might look really cool painted on a black velvet hanging above your sofa in the man-cave, it never happened.

There is a huge truth contained in this account of the Divine Council, and one that we oft en forget in our own lives: Satan is not the opposite of God. We do not live in a universe where competing deities vie for power, attention, and ultimate control of the cosmos. Satan is clearly described as a creature who is accountable to God and subject to boundaries that God establishes. If this is true – and I think that it is – that means that good is more powerful than evil; that love is stronger than hate; that hope is superior to memory. Always.

But if we claim that to be true, that presents us with some uncomfortable realities, doesn’t it. We haven’t yet talked about all of the horrible things that happened to Job, but I don’t think that I’m ruining the story for you to tell you that just about everything that Job loves and values is taken away, destroyed, or killed. And in the readings we’ve had this week and last week, YHWH clearly owns the responsibility for this. When Satan presents his report, God holds up Job as an exceptional human being. Satan fires back and says, “Of course he’s good – you treat him like he’s your favorite.” And twice, God gives Satan permission to afflict Job. In our reading for today, after the first round of calamity afflicts Job and his family, God says, “You incited me against him to ruin him for no reason.”

Did you hear that, beloved? God says, “Satan, it was your idea, but the ultimate power at work was mine.” Job is incited against YHWH because Job understands that there is only one ultimate power and authority in all of creation, and it is God. And here in chapter two, as Satan wants to push his theory a little further, he asks God to cause more trouble for Job. In effect, we have a picture of Satan praying to the Lord for horrible things to happen in Job’s life. And in verse 6, we see that God delivers Job into Satan’s hands, although he does set limits – Satan is not allowed to kill Job.

The next logical question, at least to me, is, “Holy smokes? Is YHWH some kind of a jerk?”

If we see the divine only from our experience and only with the facts that we can undeniably “prove” in some fashion, then I’d have to say that it’s entirely possible to conclude that the Almighty is an inconsiderate power-monger who more closely resembles some of our current political figures than the One from Galilee who gave us the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet, precisely because of this man of Nazareth named Jesus, we can see clearly that God’s perspective is not ours, and that our experience of life, of death, of love, of God – of anything, really, is not ultimate. Our experience is limited and therefore faulty. Both Job and Jesus point to a God whose experience and Being and presence is faultless and ultimate and perfect.

The Good News from today’s reading is that there is no such thing as “karma”. While we often use that word as a shorthand to say that “what goes around, comes around”, when we talk about karma in religious language we are referring to the notion that the things that we do and the reason that we do them determine our ultimate fate. To put it one way, karma holds that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. While there may be lots and lots of times where we nod our heads and say, “of course, that’s true”, take a look at the lives of Adolf Hitler or six million Jews or the 2,996 people who were killed on 9/11 or whichever selfish and arrogant celebrity or athlete comes to mind… Take a look at Job, in fact. Everything that we’ve read about Job tells us that if karma were true, then he’d experience nothing but good. And yet this man, who is described by everyone who knows him as unfailingly pious and good and generous and kind, experiences tragedy upon tragedy upon tragedy. What’s up with that? We’ll talk about that question next week.

My second huge truth for today is that humanity is not doomed to some sort of transactional faith wherein “we get what we deserve”. Instead, the Book of Job presents a reality – seen and unseen – in which humanity experiences evil and trouble and calamity and yet somehow, with God’s help, gets through it.

This affirmation is made plainly and boldly in our reading from the 46th Psalm this morning. God is our refuge and strength. God is for us. No matter what our experience of yesterday, today, or tomorrow is, we can hold to the unchanging reality that “The Lord almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”

As we walk through our own worlds this Lent, let me remind you that Job is filled with creational language – that is to say, there are echoes of Genesis that pervade this book. I believe that they are there to remind us that we do not exist in a static universe that is filled with robots or irrefutable forces, and we do not live in a world that is ruled by the selfish whims of competing deities. God invested the creation with a series of relationships and some level of freedom. That leads to some level of cause and effect that is not necessarily tied to our own specific actions, yet is subject to the eternal and ultimate will of the Creator – one whom we believe to be ultimately good, supremely loving, and all-powerful. We do not have the power to know how all of that fits together in our world or in our lives, but the fundamentally Good News that ought to ring forth from every page of the scripture is that God is in control, and that God is with us at all times – even in the midst of tragedy and pain – and that God will bring reconciliation and healing and re-creation that is in line with his eternal intentions and ultimate goodness and beauty.

So know this, beloved: the notion of God’s ultimate power and authority as described here in Job mean that you will never, ever find yourself in a situation of pain or tragedy or distress or dis-ease wherein you call out to God for help or assistance, only to look over and see the Creator shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Jeez, I’m just not sure. I mean, wow – that’s really horrible. I wonder what will happen? I’ll do what I can, but…” The fact that God is in control means that God’s original act of creation – bringing order out of chaos – continues to this day. To your life, and to mine. You are not now, and never will be, powerless or alone. God is with you. God is for you. Thanks be to God!