Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 24, 2021
Job 42:1-6, 10-17 Commentary
And they lived happily ever after . . . Really? Is it really possible that the Bible’s most troubled (and at times most torturous) book has the proverbial “happy ending”? Did Disney take over this project at some point?! At first glance you might think so.
Job replies to God that in the wake of all the creation splendors, wonders, and mysteries that God had shown to Job in God’s long reply (see chapters 38-41) Job does indeed have nothing left to say. Whatever he thought he knew, he now realizes that there is more going on at any given moment than his finite mind could possibly grasp. Job even says he repents of what he had said, even though there is no evidence that God is angry at Job. In fact, although the Lectionary would have us skirt Job 42:7-9, the fact is that the only displeasure expressed by God is toward those who blamed Job for what he had said. So it hardly seems like Job had said anything wrong. God doesn’t seem to think so at least. (And, you know, if it’s good enough for God . . . )
Be that as it may, God then restores Job abundantly: new house, new riches, new family. True, Job sometimes still puddled up and got weepy about all he had lost before, but his extended family and new children were always there to buck him back up and bring a smile back to his old, care-worn face. And after many years of renewed peace and prosperity, Job died “old and full of years” with more children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and even great-great-grandchildren around his bed than you could shake a stick at.
Happily ever after.
It’s the ending we all want but don’t always get. Any number of us know people whose lives are such a string of heartache and sorrow that we cannot help but make the inevitable comparison to Job. The thing is, a lot of those same people don’t get the restoration part. They get the sufferings of Job but not the “peace at the last” part. So we end up wondering about that and although we may be glad for Job that he was restored the way he was, we don’t take from that some kind of promise that the same will happen for everyone whom we know who has had a bad time of it in life.
We might also wonder what Job’s restored fortunes and family means. Did God feel bad that he had let Satan put Job through all that in the first place? Or was this some kind of reward for Job in that he managed to avoid sinning or cursing God? Or was this some profit sharing on God’s part? Having won his gambit against Satan, does God now spread his winnings around by way of doling out some of it to Job? Or was the real kicker the fact that Job was willing to make intercession for his rotten friends to keep God from giving out what they had coming to them? Since Job showed what a noble and generous spirit he had by praying for even those who had made him so miserable, he demonstrated a character more than worthy of reward, and hence God gives him just that reward.
It’s hard to say how this all works out, or why. But there is enough swirling in the air here to prevent us from calling this some fairy tale-esque or Hollywood-like “happy ending.” For Job the memories of what he had suffered surely did not fade away—that’s why even verse 11 tells us that he still needed comforting sometimes. And although Job stopped asking the big “Why?” questions, the wonder and the mystery of existence surely must have tickled the back of his mind for the rest of his days. After all, since he was told that the reasons behind his original catastrophe were quite simply beyond his ability to grasp, who was to say it could not happen again? And if it did, who could say that the reasons would be just as opaque and as cloaked in mystery as the first reasons had been?
You would hardly be surprised if you could somehow find out that even after his return to prosperity Job stayed a little jumpy. Dark clouds scudding his direction probably still made him want to have his kids take cover, and loud noises startled him more than they used to. Every once in a while his wife and kids could see a distant look come into Job’s eyes, and they knew he was wondering about it all again.
But so do we all. So do the people to whom we preach every week. The big questions don’t completely go away, not even for those dear saints who have suffered much but who still speak so glowingly about the comfort of the Holy Spirit and of the faith they had in Christ Jesus. Even they wish that they could change the past or the present.
When the Book of Job began, Satan’s question was “Does Job fear God for nothing?” That was the gauntlet thrown down. The idea was that those who have it easy, those who “have it all” in this life find it easy to believe in God and to be nice to God because why not? Take all that away from Job and he’ll nix his faith in God and/or say nasty things to and about God.
Job proved that wrong, of course, but what was really taken away from Job in the end—and what was not really restored to him when the money and family was given back—was his rather simple faith, his rock-sure confidence that he knew what was what. At the end of this book, Job admits to how much he does not really know. Job discovers that easy answers and facile understandings of how things work in this universe before the face of God turn out to be less than the whole story. In fact, if a mark of true wisdom is knowing how much you don’t know, then Job ends up being a great example of a very wise person.
In a sense, Job has less to go on at the end of the book than at the beginning. Yet he still believes in God, still embraces God, still prays to God and follows God. Satan thought he could take away Job’s stuff and that would do the trick. God knew that was not so but also knew that what would really be taken away from Job was large chunks of Job’s theology and his certainty about old verities. God knew that that would be Job’s real test, all-the-more-so given that this change in theological viewpoint would not be able to go back to square one for Job the way maybe he was able to do with his money and children.
As New Testament people reading the Book of Job, we may find that some of the same things are true for us. Or they ought to be. After all, our faith has brought us to the foot of the cross, to that terrifying instrument of execution on which God’s own Son was impaled and murdered. Our theology ever since has said that the death of God’s beloved Son was necessary. It had to be that way. And we accept that and sing about it and talk about it often without batting an eye.
But if the death of God’s Son does not strike you as at least as wildly improbable and terrifying as anything you read in the Book of Job, then it’s possible you’ve grown altogether too accustomed to that symbol of the cross. The cross washes out a great many of our own certainties, of the things we might otherwise think are true about God, about life, about sin, about what is needed to fix what’s broken in this world. If sin and evil really did require Christ Jesus to go through all that, then matters are far more complex than we would have ever thought if left to our own devices. Things in this universe were a little worse than we may have guessed.
At the end of Job, despite what looks like such a “happy ending,” Job was forced to live with a whole new set of questions, a whole new outlook on life and on God, and without some of the certainties to which he had clung earlier in his life. But so are we.
The only hope for a truly “happy ending” for us all is that we truly do serve a God of all grace who is rich in mercy and compassion and kindness. And for all the ways the cross of Jesus knocks us sideways, that cross also tells us that our God is indeed exactly the God of grace we need to usher in one day a cosmic happy ending.
Whether we die old and full of days or in far more difficult circumstances, it is that gospel knowledge alone that leads to peace.
Since we have been hanging around in the Book of Job in recent weeks in the Year B Lectionary, inevitably I have referred to Terrence Malick’s brilliant—but usually misunderstood—film The Tree of Life, which is an extended meditation on the Book of Job. The film is shot through with theodicy questions (albeit not about a set of circumstances as severe as Job’s) but those questions are consistently framed in the film by the glories of creation, by grace, by beauty, by the overwhelming grandeur that just is creation.
The final scenes in the film are the movie’s equivalent of Job 42. The tormented character played by Sean Penn arrives at a kind of New Creation, a “heaven” if you will. And although the questions he had asked in voice-overs throughout the film are not technically answered, there is a kind of resolution after all as the questions more or less evaporate in the face of God’s created grandeur and the renewal of all things, the reunion of all people, etc. If you watch the film, pay attention to the soundtrack as an Agnus Dei piece is sung in Latin by a choir all throughout the final sequence—a more Christ-centered ending to a film has perhaps never happened! You can watch the clip here.
In case you are not familiar with the film or have not seen it in a while, recall that the characters played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are husband and wife. Sean Penn is their adult oldest child. The younger child you see in the clip is the child who—we infer in the film—was later killed in Vietnam, sparking the crisis of faith and the hard theodicy questions that are the film’s core. But now he is reunited with his brother and parents as the young boy he was in the main part of the movie.
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