Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 4, 2009

2009.10.04 “Then One Day – The Story of Job”

Job 1: 1 – 3; 2: 1 – 10

Sermon by Pastor David L. Haley
October 4th, 2009

“Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion. He had seven sons and three daughters. He was also very wealthy — seven thousand head of sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred teams of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a huge staff of servants — the most influential man in all the East!

One day when the angels came to report to God, Satan also showed up. God singled out Satan, saying, “And what have you been up to?” Satan answered God, “Oh, going here and there, checking things out.” Then God said to Satan, “Have you noticed my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him, is there — honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil? He still has a firm grip on his integrity! You tried to trick me into destroying him, but it didn’t work.”
Satan answered, “A human would do anything to save his life. But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away his health? He’d curse you to your face, that’s what.”

God said, “All right. Go ahead — you can do what you like with him. But mind you, don’t kill him.”

Satan left God and struck Job with terrible sores. Job was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes.
His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”

He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God — why not also the bad days?”

Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.”
(Job 1: 1 – 3; 2: 1 – 10, The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

It’s one of the most frightening aspects of life. One moment, we’re sitting here on a bright Sunday morning and all’s right with the world. Then one day – in a moment, disaster strikes – a car crash, a fall, a stroke – and everything is changed.
It happens all the time. Globally, this past week was particularly a week of disaster. There was:

  • Flooding in the Philippines which killed over 240.
  • The same typhoon which struck the Philippines killed over 100 in Vietnam.
  • Indonesian earthquakes which killed over 1000.
  • The death toll following mudslides in Sicily is over 50.

To use an analogy I’ve used before, in such disasters there are two perspectives: one is the perspective of flying over the hurricane in an airplane, or watching it on CNN, of being empathetic, but uninvolved, objective. It’s the second perspective that’s radically different, not flying over the hurricane, but being in the middle of it: the wind is howling, the rain is stinging, the floods are rising, and we barely know which way is up.

Always in life, even when we are at our best, we are susceptible to sudden disaster. Two decades as a Firefighter/ Paramedic, and as a Chaplain in hospitals and at scenes, including my years as a pastor going through tragedies with parishioners, has forever changed my awareness about what can happen in an instant.

When it happens, the reverberations sweep through us: racking our bodies with pain, causing such emotional distress that we fear for our sanity, sometimes even making us question our faith in God. It’s fair to say, I think, that none of us knows what we would do in such a situation, until it happens to us.

But what we can do is learn from others, such that when such things happen to us we might come out of such experiences better for it, stronger in wisdom and character and faith, in so far as that is possible.

In this regard, the month of October offers us a rare opportunity, a run through the book of the Bible that deals most directly with the problem of suffering, the Book of Job.

While we know nothing about the author of the book – who or where or when he was – the book of Job, nestled amidst the wisdom literature of the OT, has become a classic. German Reformer Martin Luther called it “magnificent and sublime as no other book of Scripture.” Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient or modern times.” Goethe used God’s wager with Satan for his prologue to Faust. William Blake used his artistic genius in his Illustrations for the Book of Job. Modern versions of the story include Archibald MacLeish’s “JB” and Neil Simon’s “God’s Favorite.”

To introduce his poem, the author tells a legend that was old before he was born; ancient Sumerian versions of the story date from 2,000 BCE. It is about a righteous man named Job, who, out of the pain and suffering of his life, has the audacity to confront God over the injustices of life. In so doing Job – though ancient – gives voice to what we feel at the times of pain, suffering, and injustice in our own lives.

At the outset of the story we are introduced to Job, whose name means “Where is my father?” or “No Father” (which ought to tell us something). Job was not only one of the wealthiest and most influential men in all the East, but as the Hebrew says, he was also “tam v’ yashar,” which literally means “whole and upright.” As Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, he was “honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.”

But when we look at Job, he is also suffused with anxiety. Job is afraid of God, as well he might be. He avoids evil because he knows the penalties. He worries about making the slightest mistake; when his children come for their annual purification, it’s not because they may have committed any sins, but because they may have had blasphemous thoughts.

In the beginning, Job believes what some TV preachers still believe; in fact what some of us may still believe: that health, happiness, and prosperity are the reward of righteousness, and conversely, that misfortune, disease, and suffering are the consequence of sin and moral failure. For Job, righteousness is like money in the bank.

“Work hard, honor God, do right, and you will succeed and prosper.” Sound familiar?

After introducing us to Job, the author takes us to heaven, using the imagery of the court of an ancient King of Kings, where one day the angels show up, and Satan (which means “the accuser”) – is among them.
Stephen Mitchell, in the Introduction to The Book of Job*, says that in many ways, compared to the poem itself, the world of the prologue is like a puppet show, as the author introduces the patient Job, his untrusting God, and Satan, the chief spy/prosecutor.

Many people like the dualistic mythology which portrays God on one side and Satan – as the origin of evil – on the other. But the term “Satan” is not really a noun, but an adjective, always with an article (“The Accuser”). Satan, in this text, is not a being equal to God, but a subordinate, God’s chief prosecutor.

So God says to Satan, “And what have you been up to?” Sounding like a coy teenager, Satan says, “Oh, going here and there, checking things out.” God says, “Have you checked out my friend Job? There’s no one quite like him, is there? — honest and true to his word, totally devoted to God and hating evil, right up there with Billy Graham.” How can the Accuser not take up this challenge? After all, that’s his job.

Always the cynic, Satan answered, Satan retorted, “So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does — he can’t lose! “But what do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”

God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead — do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.”

This conversation raises many serious questions, such as whether faith – our faith – is a “fair weather” faith, dependent upon our health, happiness, and prosperity. But perhaps the most serious question is, who is ultimately in charge, God or Satan? If it is God – as this text suggests, why would a loving God allow suffering? This question is one of the most significant challenges to all monotheistic religions. As David Hume, the Enlightenment Scottish philosopher put it, “If God is good, God cannot be omnipotent. If God is omnipotent, God cannot be good.” The modern statement of the problem is this: “Why does God allow bad things to happen to God people, as God does here to Job?”

With God’s permission, the supporting foundation of Job’s happiness is knocked away: his possessions and his close-knit family. In short order messengers arrive to tell Job the worst news of his life: not only that his oxen and sheep and camels have been destroyed, but also all of his sons and daughters. How would you take such news?
Here’s how Job took it: he got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.
God’s name be ever blessed.
Not once through all this did Job sin;
not once did he blame God.”

Another day came in heaven, and God points to Job, still devout despite his losses, and Satan says, “A human would do anything to save his life. What do you think would happen if you reached down and took away his health? He’d curse you to your face, that’s what.”

God says, “All right. Go ahead — you can do what you like with him. But mind you, don’t kill him.”

Satan ratchets up the pressure, and strikes Job with terrible sores, so that he was ulcers and scabs from head to foot. They itched and oozed so badly that he took a piece of broken pottery to scrape himself, then went and sat on a trash heap, among the ashes. As often was the case in the ancient near east, not only did he suffer from disease, such disease rendered him socially and liturgically unclean, such that the time of his greatest pain and grief, he also was isolated. (Kind of like a modern hospital; the sicker you are, the more isolated you are likely to be.) Except for his wife, who instead of comforting him, berates him: “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you, Job? Curse God and die!”

And Job says, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God — why not also the bad?” Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.”

Here are reflected two attitudes toward suffering: that of Job, who believed that life, which comes to us from the hand of God, is made up of both good and evil, and we must take both, giving thanks to God in all things. Then there is Job’s wife, reflecting the attitude of “defiant resignation:” “Curse God and die,” get it over with, Job.” “Stand up and be a man!” Yet that would have been against everything Job believed.What do you believe? Do you believe both good and evil come from the hand of God? Do you believe there is metaphysical evil out there in the world, caused by a diabolical being? How much of evil and suffering is caused by other humans, and how much of it is simply finite accident, as in cancer, cells gone awry? As my favorite saying from Larry McMurtry’s western Lonesome Dove goes, spoken at the horrible death of a young man from snakebite while crossing a river, “There are accidents out there, and he met a bad one.” In such case is there a “Why Me? or is it simply a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

In fact, are not all of these questions really the intellectualization of an existential problem, for which there is no answer: the reality of human suffering. At such times of pain, the most important question is not what we think, but what we do?

And so there Job sits, in the midst of the ash heap. Once he was “tam v’ yashar,” “whole and upright;” now, he has been reduced to the complete opposite: “not whole”, but broken in body and heart“; not-upright”, but pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish. (Mitchell, p. xi)

The last thing to happen in the prologue is that three of Job’s friends arrive to comfort him. Can’t you see them approaching him cautiously, carefully, appalled at what has become of their friend?

At first, they are entirely correct in their behavior. We can feel the sensitivity and compassion in the author’s brief account: “Then they sat with him for seven days and seven nights. And no one said a word, for they saw how great his suffering was.”
Now, the larger curtain rises, and the puppet show of heaven recedes into the background, not to reappear; although the vast, unnamable God will. After all, what could the god of the prologue give for an answer to the hero, Job? “Well, you see, Job, it all happened because I made this bet . . .” (Mitchell, p. xii)

Now flesh-and-blood actors will voice their passions on a life-sized stage, that for many – perhaps most of us – will look and sound all too familiar. It may not be on an ash heap, but hung on a cross, stripped naked, beaten and abused, left to die alone, before family and friends. In the post-holocaust age, it’s the story of the victim, unjustly accused: “Someone must have slandered J., even though he was innocent, he was arrested and taken away.” (Mitchell, p. vii)

In our case the “ash heap” is likely to be in an ambulance, in a hospital or an institution. I once married a young couple, in the prime of life. Only months later, the husband suffered a serious stroke, which almost took his life. As he recovered, partially paralyzed, unable to speak, he was moved to a “step down” care level, and his wife returned to work. On her first day back, she got a phone call from her husband’s roommate that perhaps she should come to the hospital. Her husband had had an accident, soiling himself and the bed, and had been roughly handled. She arrived to find him propped up against a hospital window in the Chicago winter, dressed only in a hospital gown, partially exposed, drooling, crying. Like Job, on the ash heap of life.

We lean forward in our seats to hear what Job has to say . . .
*[I acknowledge my debt here to – and my recommendations of –The Book of Job (Translated and with an Introduction) by Stephen Mitchell. It is on my list of recommended books, and available through our church website, www.skokiecentralumc.org.]

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