October 4, 2015

Pentecost 19 October 4, 2015 Job 1:1-3, 13-22, 2:1-10; Hebrews 2:10-18

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I really don’t like suffering, and I really don’t enjoy talking very long about suffering. And the book of Job is all about the hardest kind of suffering to deal with – the undeserved suffering of the innocent. So as much as I appreciate the wisdom of Job – I admit I don’t find reading Job easy going. I find it difficult to keep my attention focused on all the questions Job raises about unmerited suffering. Questions, which, as Bible scholar Gerald Janzen notes, “…begin by asking after the meaning of such suffering – but in their most extreme form they go on to call into question the meaningfulness of life – and of existence as such….”

And probably the reason I choose to read Job in spite of all the discomfort it brings, is simply because Job describes our human condition so well…

We like to believe there’s always order and meaning in life. But so often life doesn’t cooperate. As one news article yesterday pointed out, the nine people gunned down in cold blood this past week in an Oregon college writing class, were there to teach and to learn about (quote) “… the art of constructing a reasoned argument (–) when the incomprehensible burst through the door.” We dedicate ourselves to constructing meaningful lives. But then so often incomprehensible things come along, wrecking all that’s reasonable.

And yes, the Umpqua Community College story is an extreme example. But life seems so very full of extreme examples lately. In yesterday’s news there’s also the story of nineteen people killed in a hospital in Afghanistan – a dozen hospital staff and at least seven patients in a clinic run by the Nobel Peace Prize winning non-profit Doctors Without Borders. The hospital was bombed by mistake, apparently, by US-coalition planes…. The bombing went on for an hour, in spite of repeated calls from hospital staff to stop bombing… Doctors, nurses, and patients in the hospital must have felt like Job – as his servants came in, one after another, each reporting yet another catastrophe…

And in Guatemala this week a mudslide killed at least 56 with 350 still missing and the toll may go much higher…And in Nigeria at least fifteen civilians were blown up by suicide bombers…Something we’ve come to expect on almost a daily basis in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere… And checking news online, I sometimes think God and the angels in heaven must feel like Job every hour, every day…. As messenger after messenger after messenger comes in with news of yet another senseless calamity…

(So…) We will study the original story of Job – since we really can’t escape the story even if we try… And even if it’s been a long time since we’ve read it… Even if we’ve never read it… We know the basic story of Job, who is blameless and upright, God-fearing and avoiding all evil. (Although Job is distinctive in his single-minded devotion to God…And in his unusual prosperity – and in his sharing generously with all in need. Still…) In most ways Job’s like anyone who has had a good life, then suddenly finds it taken away, with no clear reason why… Job’s a loving, doting father of ten children. But now he loses all his wealth, all his helpers, his seven sons and three daughters – then his own health falls apart, as he’s reduced to terrible pain and horrendous thoughts – all in the space of just a few moments…

(And yes…) The awful question in the middle of the room is that we the readers of the book of Job know from the beginning what only Job knows at the time – that all that’s happened to Job has nothing to do with his sins or anything wrong he’s done…

And we also know what even Job doesn’t know. That his suffering is all because God has allowed Job to be tormented for reasons that seem impossible to make sense of – if we believe God is always good – as all the rest of the bible teaches…. And…

To make good sense of the story we need some background context…

We need to know Job is the first book in the bible to mention “the Satan” – a word which more literally means the Accuser or the Adversary. And there’s always a the before the word translated as Accuser or Adversary or Satan… (As text notes in most bibles indicate.) The Satan functions like the Prosecuting Attorney in the heavenly courts. He hasn’t yet morphed into the devil of the New Testament. His presence in the heavenly courts isn’t explained, but seems to be some kind of flash-back to times before the Satan’s fall, when he was a member in good standing of the heavenly court. (This gets speculative quickly, since we don’t have a lot of other references to compare with. Fourteen of the seventeen times the Satan or the Accuser is mentioned in the Old Testament are right here in Job’s first two chapters. And the Satan is actually not a big theme anywhere in the Old Testament. And…)

We’re not directly told why God grants the Accuser so much of what he asks. Though we’ll get clues as we read on… But following the Accuser too closely in the story turns out to be a dead end… since he disappears here in the second chapter and doesn’t show up again anywhere in the story…

We will probably return to talk about the way this story opens when we get to the end of the story, but for today…. Let’s try to hold our questions about why Job suffers… And try to hear Job as a parable, like the parables Jesus tells. (Notice I’m not saying there’s no historic Job. Almost the opposite. There’s so many real-life Jobs – that I’m sure the Job of our story is founded on at least one real-life human Job…More likely a composite of many Jobs. And…)

When we hear the story as parable, then the cause of Job’s suffering is heard as mostly a plot device – to quickly and very affirmatively confirm that Job really is blameless – and get us quickly into the heart of what the story is really about…

Which is indeed about the suffering of the innocent… And the problem of human pain… And – how to discern true from false speech about God.

If we’ve read Job recently we remember – God isn’t going to explain everything to us, even at the end of the book… But the more we read the book prayerfully, thoughtfully… The more God will reveal…

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I’m pretty sure we all know many people who’ve suffered greatly, not because of anything they’ve done… I know how often when I visit in a nursing home or hospital, I see Job there, in cancer and heart patients who love God and neighbor, who’ve loved their families and friends, and kept to healthy habits and diets and exercised, but still are afflicted with serious illnesses…as if channeling Job…

And we meet Job again (or his sister, Jobina, sometimes) if we’re sitting in a crowded unemployment office… Or wherever sickness, loneliness, brokeness, or misery stalks humankind… Job is there. The daily news is full of stories of Job ever with us….

We can learn a lot from Job – and how he handles affliction – and not being able to understand the cause of his sufferings – and how he perseveres, in spite of his friends and family misunderstanding – saying all the wrong things. We can learn a lot from studying Job. He’s a model of steadfast faith under the most difficult of conditions.

But our human condition is so very seriously out of whack – that we need more than even the best of role models. (Our human condition – our sin and brokenness and tendency to stray from God, is so very strong…We need more than even the best good example of right living….)

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Fortunately, by the great grace of God we have a Savior – who, as Hebrews tells us – is the One through whom God made the universe. A Savior who knows our condition – our deepest hurts and sufferings, fears and questions. Knows us better than we know ourselves – having been made perfect through suffering, in human flesh, like us.

The sufferings of Job make him obsessed with meeting God face-to-face to ask why all this has happened to him… (And Job will get his wish – stay tuned…)

But the suffering of Jesus makes him perfect, Hebrews says. Not meaning more perfect morally or spiritually than he was already in the beginning of time. He was already perfect in that sense, from the beginning. But perfect now in the sense of full and complete – in his knowing-of-all-human-life – bane and blessing, pain and pleasure – having shared in all of life with us…Knowing all the sufferings that come with being human…

And in Jesus Christ we learn what makes our suffering redemptive. Which isn’t pain – nor even self-denial (important as that can be for spiritual health) – but solidarity with Jesus, our Savior – and through him, solidarity with all suffering humankind.

We mortals will never know all the why of all this. We’ll never understand all the mystery of Jesus Christ – nor the why of all our human troubles – even if God were to explain it all to us at great length (as quite possibly God is doing all the time…) Even so, we still can’t understand it all…

But, thanks God – by grace we do know and can understand –

Who it is we can bring our every suffering, every trial, testing. and question to – even Jesus, through whom the universe was made – Jesus, who calls us his brothers and sisters. Jesus who loves us just as we are, and equips us to be more than we ever thought we could be… as we follow him wherever he leads…ever always deeper into… The good news of Jesus Christ our Savior.

Amen.