Thursday, October 8, 2015

Just Who Is This God Anyway? (Blog on Job, Part 1)

One of the gifts of using a lectionary to preach is I am given four texts to choose from each week. One of the curses of using a lectionary to preach is I am given four texts to choose from each week. 

There are times the lectionary offers up too many good texts to preach on or worse, texts that I know will raise difficult questions or concerns in the minds of those who hear them, but I cannot address the questions from different texts in one sermon. This month, our lectionary offers up some important and difficult lessons from Jesus in Mark's Gospel while at the same time giving us three weeks of lessons from the Book of Job, a book that raises all sorts of (cue the heavy, baritone narration...) deep, meaningful questions. Since I can only preach one sermon on Sunday and live to tell about it, I promised my congregation that I would blog on Job as a way of exploring those questions.

The first week's lesson was Job 1:1; 2:1-10, the prologue to this epic poem in which Job is identified as a righteous, wealthy man who loses everything and spends the rest of the book trying to figure out why. It has become a favorite study for many people because it seeks to address one of the universal questions of human experience: How do we explain suffering and evil in the world? 

Before going further, it's important to note that Job is almost certainly not an historical account. Most of the book is written in poetry and it has always been grouped with Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, which are all books of poetry, philosophy, and wisdom, not histories. In other words, Job is a book that is trying to explore universal truth, not historical fact.

That can be important to keep in mind because Job opens with a disturbing scene. In a conversation with God, Satan (literally, "the Accuser") asserts that Job is only righteous because he is so healthy and wealthy. If he lost everything, the Accuser suggests, he would curse You to Your face. With God's permission (really?!), the Accuser sets about causing havoc to Job's life, destroying his family and wealth and inflicting him with a painful skin disease. After causing this trouble, the Accuser never appears in the book again.

The reader is left with two questions. First, Job asks, Why has this happened to me? Second, most readers ask, Why would God allow this? The book spends chapters exploring these questions, but (spoiler alert!) never really answers them clearly. Like many works of philosophy, the book of Job seems more interested in the questions than the actual answers. Still, there is much to draw from these early chapters to make reading worth our while.

Job's Faith in God

As Job ponders why he has come to tragedy, his interactions with his wife and friends provide an important exploration of the nature of God and faith.

His wife says, "Curse God and die." God for her was only as good as the blessings he provides and like an appliance that stops working, it's time to kick this one to the curb. What good is a god if that god stops working the way you want?

In her mind, God doesn't care and is hurting them for sport. The idea of a god toying with the lives of humans would not be a strange idea in the ancient world. It was expected. If you want an example, try reading a couple other ancient epic poems — the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greek gods in mythology are every bit as petty and selfish as humans themselves.

His friends insist that he must have done something bad. Tragedy must have a source to blame and therefore Job must have sinned in some way.  If God isn't uncaring, then God is punishing Job for some reason. He should fess up and beg for mercy.

They echo many of us who want to find some reason or meaning for the suffering we see in the world. What have I/you/they done to deserve that?

But Job refuses to go along with either opinion. Instead, he repeatedly holds up two things he knows to be true: "God is just" and "I am innocent." How those can both be true in the face of tragedy becomes the central tension of the book. Job refuses to believe that God is petty or has stopped caring for him. He trusts that even if God is responsible for his suffering, because God is just, Job's cries for justice will be heard and answered.

God is just and Job is innocent.  How the book tries to answer that tension will be dealt with in the third part of this blog series. For now, Job's faith in God's justice and concern for human life is still an important cornerstone to this book and reading the Bible in general. Some of us may take it for granted, but the idea that God is not callous or distant, but is just and compassionate, was and remains a radical suggestion that deeply affects the faith of anyone who holds it as truth like Job.

God's Faith in Job

The remaining question of why God would allow the Accuser to afflict Job is one of the most troubling in the Bible. And, frankly, there is no good answer within the pages of Job. About the best that can be said is to try chalking it up to artistic license on the part of the author who was setting the stage for the story as efficiently as possible. But even that doesn't sit too well with me.

Despite the unease I feel with God's permission giving to evil, I do find a positive facet to God's interaction with the Accuser. The Accuser believes Job is a pushover, but God believes that Job will be faithful. What occurs to me is that God has faith in Job.

As a Lutheran, I was taught and I teach that there is nothing I can do to earn God's love, nor can I come to faith or God without the Holy Spirit drawing me there. I believe both of these, but I also recognize that they have at times been excuses for inaction. "Why do good if it doesn't change God's mind?" or "I don't want to appear like I'm trying to earn my way to God." 

But God's faith in Job reminds me that Jesus grants me grace and eternal life and trusts that it will change my heart to love as he loves me. In the same way, God entrusts the Church into human hands. And even though we make mistakes along the way, God has faith that, led by the Spirit, we will remain faithful even in times of strife. That God has faith in me is good news on days when it feels like I've been left on the ash heap with Job.

Next time: When God Doesn't Answer...

From the Gray,
Pastor Ari

“I’m looking for something that I didn’t notice was gone.” -Jets Overhead, “Heading for Nowhere”

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