Job 1 Sermon
October 4, 2015
Christy Lang Hearlson
Let us pray. Come, Holy Spirit, in wisdom and in truth, to illumine our minds and kindle our hearts, so that we may hear the word you have for us today. Amen.
Once upon a time, there was a man named Job in the land of Uz. Once upon a time. My two-year-old son loves stories. He asks for them every day. “Tell me a story, Mommy!” he says. If I don’t respond right away, he will sometimes prompt me with, “Once there was…” and wait for me to continue. And if the story I tell him starts with “Once there was a cat” — or a car or a dinosaur– it’s not very long before he interrupts and says, “And then Elliot came along!” Because he knows that a good story is one in which you can see yourself.
Job is one of those stories. It’s a story in which a good man who loves God and lives with integrity is afflicted with terrible suffering. This is a story that human beings return to, generation after generation, as we struggle with the hardest questions of life and faith. Why do terrible things happen to decent people? Why do certain people suffer so much more than others? How could a good and just God permit such suffering? And where is God when we suffer? This is a story in which we can’t help but see ourselves and our questions.
The book of Job was written some time between the tenth and the second centuries before Christ. But it’s set in “any time.” The story begins with the equivalent of “once upon a time in a far-off land.” Job’s name means, “persecuted one.” And the story begins in this scene in a heavenly courtroom that no human being could ever have witnessed. God is there, and the other spiritual beings gather around. And then God is approached by someone who wants to make a case against humanity. Our text says that Satan came to God. When we hear “Satan,” we are liable to think of the devil with red horns and a long tail. But in the ancient Israelite world, they didn’t have that conception of the devil– of a supreme evil spirit opposed to God. In the ancient Israelite world, they spoke of “the satan.” They talked of a figure who was an “accuser” or “adversary.” “Satan” means accuser or adversary. So you have to imagine that in the heavenly courtroom, Satan is like the prosecutor approaching the Judge.
The prosecutor is there to make the case that no human being is truly faithful and good. Humans only act good when things are going well for them. Well, God holds up Job as an example of a truly good man. But the accuser scoffs at this. Job has led a charmed life! Of course Job acts all nice and polite and religious. But take everything away, the prosecutor says, and Job will act just like everyone else. So in this story, God gives the accuser permission to test Job’s faith through profound suffering.
Job has no idea that this conversation is going on in heaven. He has no idea what is coming. He will lose wealth, property, children, and finally, his own health. Not only that, but because no one else knows about this heavenly conversation, either, his friends come to visit and tell him he must have done something to deserve this suffering. They tell Job to get over with it and confess his secret sin to God. Job only knows that the Lord gives and the Lord has taken away. Job only knows that he has never done anything to deserve this calamity.
This is all very troubling—God sitting up in heaven, giving permission for a good man to suffer in order to win a bet. Is that how God really is? Are we supposed to take this scene at face value? Is God really in some heavenly courtroom giving out permission for innocent people to suffer? Is that where God is when we’re suffering?
I think some historical background can be helpful here. Job is not just a story told to entertain. It is a story that was written in order to argue with another view that is also represented in the Bible. The Bible is full of these sorts of arguments and conversations—arguments between people of faith, between different views. In the ancient Israelite world, religious teachers often said that God is just, and you reap what you sow. If you live well, God will bless your life. If you are wicked, God will punish you. The corollary of this, of course, is that when good things happen to you, you know God is pleased with you. And if you are suffering, you probably deserve it. That view of justice was exceedingly common in the ancient world.
And there’s some merit to this kind of thinking, right? The things we do or left undone can have serious consequences. If you forget to floss your teeth, you might just have to answer for it with a root canal. If I yell at my spouse, I deal with the consequences. If I don’t keep an eye on my son, I’m might have to deal with some broken dishes. It’s true on a larger scale, too. If we release weapons of mass destruction, we destroy the planet on which we live. If we spray all our fields with pesticides, and we get poisoned food. In other words, we reap what we sow. It’s the simple math of a world where actions have predictable consequences.
But the story of Job says, Wait a second! The equation is never that neat. Sometimes the suffering that someone experiences is out of all proportion to anything they have done. Job, for example. Sometimes suffering is totally undeserved. Sometimes people suffer—like Job—not because they are wicked, but because they are good! And to say that the innocent are responsible for their own suffering? That’s just cruel.
The philosopher Simone Weil distinguished between suffering and affliction. Suffering, Simone Weil said, is the original pain of a terrible loss or injury. We all suffer in this life. Sometimes we suffer terribly. Affliction is what sometimes happens next—when the one who suffers is then blamed for her own suffering—made to feel as though she is the one responsible for it. Simone Weil says that affliction is so horrible, so oppressive, that it “renders God…absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent that the light in a completely dark cell.”
Afflicted ones. A family is stuck in a cycle of poverty, and someone will say they just need to work harder. A woman inexplicably gets lung cancer at age fifty, and someone will immediately ask if she was a smoker. A hurricane destroys a poor fishing village, and someone will say “those people” should stop living so close to the ocean. Afflicted ones. A teenage girl is sexually harassed, and someone will hint that she was flirting with her harasser. An unarmed black teenager is gunned down, and someone will say he should have pulled his pants up. A mother loses her child to drugs, and someone hints that she was probably too controlling, or too permissive. Afflicted ones.
Job loses his property, his livelihood, his children, and his health, and his friends come to say, “You must have done something wrong to deserve all this.” Affliction. The book of Job is here to say NO to that kind of thinking. No, people are not always to blame for their own suffering—and when we blame them for it, we visit affliction upon them.
Today, on this World Communion Sunday, the story of Job brings us right up against the story of Jesus. Simone Weil held up the figures of Job and Jesus as afflicted ones—as the afflicted ones. Job, who suffered because he was so righteous, and who was accused by everyone around him of having done something to deserve it. And Jesus, who was arrested and killed for his righteousness, and who was accused as he died of bringing his suffering on his own head. Job and Jesus. Sometimes people suffer not because they are wicked, but because they are good.
The story of Jesus takes us past Job. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote a book called The Crucified God. In it, Moltmann says that in Jesus, God is not off in some heavenly court doling out suffering. Instead, Moltmann says, in Jesus the Afflicted One, God takes human suffering into God’s very being. Suffering enters into the very heart of God. In Jesus, God is present to the darkest night of human experience, bearing our suffering with us.
Moltmann says that as the Afflicted One, Jesus stands with and for all those who are also afflicted in our world. Jesus stands in solidarity with those who suffer. Jesus stands with the afflicted. In the cross, Jesus stands with all who are oppressed in body or spirit, all who are shamed for their suffering, all who feel God must indeed be gone. And then here’s the kicker. Moltmann then says that those who choose to stand with this Afflicted One, this Jesus—all who gather in his name and eat at his Table—well, we are also meant to stand in solidarity with all those Jesus represents. That is, if we say we stand with Jesus, the Afflicted One, then we are called to stand with all those who suffer, all who are oppressed in body or spirit.
So — that woman with cancer, that family stuck in poverty, that fishing village, that teenage girl, that unarmed boy, that bereaved mother—all these afflicted ones—in the moment of Communion we stand with them, and, like Job, we say “No!” to the kind of the thinking that blames them for their suffering. And then, like Jesus, we choose to stand with and for those who suffer in our world. What might that look like for you? In your life? To stand with and for someone who is suffering or afflicted?
In a few moments we will come to this Table. Some of you here today are suffering. Some of you are not only suffering; you are also afflicted, made to feel guilty that you are suffering. If your heart is hurting today—if you are in pain—may you know in this moment of Communion that you are not alone in your suffering. God is not in some far-off courtroom. God has taken your suffering into God’s very being and is present to you, even here and now, in this meal, in this community.
On this World Communion Sunday, we also remember all who gather at this Table around the globe. We turn our eyes to the needs of the world, and even as we give thanks for its beauty and diversity, we also remember places and people who are deeply afflicted. As we take the bread and the cup into our hands, we take on God’s compassion for an afflicted world. As we eat and drink, we take on Jesus’ way of seeing the world—of seeing beloved brothers and sisters in all those in need. As we eat and drink, we take into ourselves the courage and energy of the Spirit, so that we can join God’s redemptive mission in the world—a mission of embracing and healing the afflicted ones. In our Communion, may we remember all the Jobs who sit and weep and wonder where God is. In our Communion, may we become like Jesus, bearing the light of life, healing in our hands.