Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2015

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 Commentary

Comments and Observations:

Lately I have been doing some reading of books that try to teach people how to become better writers.  Specifically these are books to help aspiring novelists hone the necessary skills that might one day help them to garner that much-coveted acceptance letter from a publisher.  One essay that I read recently caught my eye because it mentioned the biblical character of Job.  The writer was pointing out that you can never compose a story worth reading unless there is some measure of trouble, of tension, of crisis.  Something has to be “up” in a story for people to pay attention to the story.

But then this author went on to say that even so, it’s not merely the external or surface crisis that makes readers want to keep reading but rather there absolutely needs to be an internal, spiritual, psychological crisis going on for some character.  In the case of Job, this author said that if all we knew was that Job lost his property and most of his family, that would indeed be a tragic set of circumstances to read about.  But all by itself, that alone may not be enough to keep readers engaged.  One can read reports of that kind of thing in the newspaper most any day of the week.  No, what makes it interesting is when we discover that this whole thing was a spiritual test for Job orchestrated in part by no less than God himself.  That’s curious!  But then things get really engaging and interesting when we as readers discover the four-alarm fire of disorientation this has set off in Job’s mind as he tries to square the theology about God to which he has so long adhered with the miserable circumstance in which he now finds himself.

Job lost everything.  Interesting.  Losing everything made Job question his faith and theology.  Now it’s really interesting!

And also really complicated!  The Book of Job is essentially one long disquisition on the age-old question of theodicy: Why does a good God let bad things happen to good people?  The conversations that take place around this question eat up the bulk of this book until finally God comes on the scene less to give an answer to that question and more to so confound the inquirers as to let the conversation end on a note of wonder, mystery, and awe.

That’s all interesting enough (even if the conversations do grow a bit tiresome as the chapters pile up).  But it’s the first two-and-a-half chapters of Job that are the hardest to take and the hardest to understand.  Yes, as just noted, this is where we encounter the spiritual crisis that becomes our main reason to keep reading this grim book.  But it’s not easy for any of us all these years later to make sense out of the discovery early in Job that this whole thing is a test allowed by God and carried out by some “Satan” figure.

To my mind, the idea that our lives could become chess pieces in a cosmic game between God and those who oppose God trends toward the chilling side of the spectrum.  Over the years I’ve heard lots of answers to the question “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” and not a few of the answers I’ve heard have been offensive to me in one way or another even as other suggested answers seemed incomplete or off-base in some other way.  Of course, a few answers I’ve heard seem more right, too, or at least seem to be tracking in a direction that seems consistent with what we believe is true about God and about the overall witness of Scripture.  But if someone ever suggested to me that things happen the way they do because we’re all just dice getting thrown willy-nilly to prove a point or win a bet . . . well, then I think I’d feel something worse than mere offense.  I think then I’d be really quite frightened.

So let’s hope that the Book of Job is less a reflection about how things go in the heavenly realms on a routine basis and more a scenario that maybe has happened only once in cosmic history for all we know.  Because it would have been one thing had Job lost his fortune on the stock market or had his house burn down or had to deal with the heartbreak of psoriasis or something.  But to lose all ten of his children, to have animals die and employees be slaughtered ratchets all of this up into a very different realm.  Job 1-2 do not make for comfortable reading.  Indeed, it should make us very nearly sick to our stomachs.

Of course, whatever we make of the cause behind the disasters that befell Job, what we cannot deny or forget is that something very like the scenario sketched here does happen all the time on this planet.  Parents do lose children—sometimes all of them at once.  Disaster and disease come to people who are as lovely and precious of folks as you could hope to meet.  And such chaos is pretty indiscriminate, too.  Hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes do not generally flatten the houses of mafia types and drug kingpins while leaving churches, synagogues, mosques, and the domiciles of the faithful standing.  Pandemic flu outbreaks don’t target the really greasy people who work for a given company while leaving untouched the kind and gentle souls on the payroll.  Disaster and disease come to all when they strike (even as it seems that drug kingpins and greedy Bernie Madoff types have as good—if not a better—chance to do well for themselves and pile up lots of money as do honest entrepreneurs who always color inside the lines.

Hence even if you sheer Job of its somewhat troubling cosmic backdrop in the heavenly precincts, at the end of the day what you have here is still one very basic scenario that seems an endemic part of the human condition: the asking of the question “Why?”

Everybody asks that question.  But whereas the irreligious have nowhere to lodge the query, religious people find themselves in the unenviable position of knowing exactly to whom they should pose the question but then discovering that for that very reason, the question pinches and hurts a whole lot more.  As Job knew, it is actually possible to make suffering worse in case you are convinced that at the core of the cosmos there is supposed to be a God with our best interests at heart, a God who is supposed to be just and good, a God who created the entire universe (but who presumably did not create it only for the purpose of watching his creatures writhe in agony at the end of their various ropes).

As also the Psalms of Lament in the Bible display, it is not a weak faith that asks the ultimate question of “Why?” but instead it is only a plucky faith, a bold faith, a stubborn faith, that asks the question.  We are told in Job 2:10 that in and through it all, Job did not sin.  What that tells us is that it’s no sin to stand up for the way things are supposed to be.  It’s no sin to look God square in the face and say, “No sir, you can’t make me believe that this is right, that this is what you want, that this is what you had in mind in the beginning.”

The rest of the Book of Job shows Job’s friends trying to square everything at the corners by concocting various scenarios as to how all this bad stuff in Job’s life can fit nicely within the cosmic scheme of things after all.  For every event there is a Creation and Theology category, a Creation and Theology file drawer, into which anything and everything can be neatly put.  But when you think about it, what that approach amounts to is some effort to say that the way things are must be basically the way things are supposed to be.  The world as we encounter it is the straight edge against which we measure all that appears crooked.

Job knew better.  Job knew that the way things are bear no necessary resemblance to the way God may well want them to be.  So Job stood up for creation, he stood up for God, he stood up for what should be but what all-too-often is not.

This is a lesson of Job—and of the Bible generally—that seems too often lost on some of us in the church, especially when we get rattled over the claims of those who point to the world as it is and then try to use it as some proof that there cannot be any God in existence (much less any God who created and designed this universe).  For instance, I was recently reminded that one of the facets to nature that deeply disturbed Charles Darwin (and that caused him to wonder about the goodness of the God he had been raised to believe in) was the actions of the ichneumonidae wasp.  This particular species of wasp lays its eggs inside a certain kind of grub.  As the larvae develop inside the grub, they feast on the internal organs of their host.  (If you’ve seen the movie Alien, you get the idea).  Worse, they do this organ feast in a very clever order, consuming first the organs that the grub can do without for at least a while, thus reserving the more vital organs—whose absence will finally kill the host—for last.

People like Darwin—and now more recent writers of the Richard Dawkins variety—look at this disgusting and disturbing spectacle and declare that this must prove that no God designed this world (or that if there is a God who designed this wretched mechanism for wasp reproduction, then he’s a pretty nasty deity after all).  Similar apparent defects of design are trotted out by those who want to say that the world as it stands demonstrates that there cannot be a God.

But Christians (and Jews) have long alleged that the world as we encounter it now does not necessarily reflect in its every detail the desires of God.  Indeed, it’s that kind of thing that points to the need for a Savior, for a re-making of all things, for a cosmic salvage operation.

This was something Job seemed to understand, and maybe it is as important a lesson as the rest of us can take away from this strange and oft-times troubling book, too.  Sometimes the most pious posture a person can assume is the one that stands up to the world as it is—and stands up before the face of God—to say, “No!  This I will not accept.  This is not right, and God knows that better than anyone.”

At the end of this book, God will let Job know that the exact ins and outs of it all go beyond Job’s ability to grasp.  But on this one point regarding Job’s defiant stance against the way things are, God seems to nod in agreement.

Illustration Idea

In the past I have sometimes made reference to the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible illustrated by the outstanding artist Barry Moser.  Moser often displays an uncanny insight into biblical stories through how he draws his art. In the Book of Job, Moser drew three portraits of Job.  The first is before the disasters struck and the caption is “Job, Perfect and Upright.”  It shows a well-groomed, well-dressed older man, yet his chin is tucked in a bit and there is something in the way Job’s eyes are set that hints ever-so-slightly of condescension.  He looks like a man who has it all, and he knows it.  He’s looking down on you almost.  He looks like a good man but also a comfortable and self-satisfied man.

By contrast the next picture shows Job naked and covered with sores.  This time he is not looking down but is looking up, with a searching look in his eyes and yet with his jaw set.  He looks not just destitute but determined, not just bereft but in search of an explanation for what has happened.  The final portrait is sub-titled “Job, Old and Full of Days.”  He has clearly been restored here and is once again well dressed.  Once more he is looking down but this time without a hint of arrogance or superiority.  Instead he looks consternated, maybe confused, and certainly chastened.  He’s looking down now but he’s not looking down on anyone but is instead bowed down in humility.

Those three portraits nicely capture the progression of this book.  Job moves from the heights of this life down into the depths before getting re-elevated back to the heights.  But it’s not as though Job moves from Point A, down to Point B, and then right back to Point A all over again.  Job winds up in the end at a different spot, a Point C. Point C bears resemblance to the original Point A in that Job receives back his wealth and is able to start a new family, but Job clearly changes through what he experienced, encountered, and learned down at the low point of his life.  How could he not be a changed man?


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