Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 3, 2021
Job 1:1, 2:1-10 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
As most everyone knows, 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. Because it is there that we discover that it’s actually not God at all who is so directly afflicting Job but rather some figure called “Satan” who does his dirty work by the permission of God in a high-stakes gambit about which Job knows not a blessed thing. I’ve heard it suggested that this piece of inside knowledge that we as readers of this book receive gives us an advantage over Job, who is clueless. But I’m not so sure knowing this actually helps us readers all that much!
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 like COVID-19 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.
Hence even if you shear 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 this is right, this is what you want, 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 Aliens, 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 such disgusting and disturbing spectacles 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.
Terrence Malick’s majestic film The Tree of Life is built on the chassis of The Book of Job. The first thing one sees on the screen is the quote from Job 38:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
Then one sees a single light shining in the darkness as the main character of the film is heard asking “Where were you, God? Why?” The rest of the film seeks to answer that Job-esque question. And right in the middle of the film is a majestic series of images—lasting almost 15 minutes—accompanied by a soaring Lacrimosa, a reference to the tears of Mary. In Job a tour of the cosmos is God’s “answer” to all the “Why?” questions in the rest of the book. In the film it functions the same way: a tour of how the universe was formed in beauty and majesty closes our mouths to inquire after things that are properly beyond us.
I recommend viewing a shortened version of that scene as a way to enter the mystery of Job. The clip could be shown as part of the sermon but the point is to have one’s mind set to a cosmos-wide spectacle that dwarfs us and our questions for now. The God who accomplished all that will have the final word and it will be a good word and will most assuredly answer in the end our every question.
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