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?
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.
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.”
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.
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!