October 11, 2015

Pentecost 20   October 11, 2015   Job 2;11-3:3; 4:1-7; 5:17-19, 25-27; 22:1-2,23:1-17; Hebrews 4:12-16

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First Job loses all his wealth – then his seven sons and three daughters are all suddenly killed – then his own health shuts down – and he’s left sitting on an ash heap in total misery… All this happens virtually at once (as we heard last week.) Now we go from bad to perhaps-even-worse… As today…

We meet Job’s friends. Remember these guys? The friends who torment Job – first by telling him everything will work out fine – then by telling him everything that’s happened to him’s all because of all the wicked things he must have done. (With friends like this, who needs enemies?) And the old phrase “miserable comforters” comes from Job, describing his friends…

But if we read the whole book of Job (not just a Reader’s Digest Condensed Version…) Maybe Job’s friends are not quite so bad. At least at first they look like good friends indeed. How many friends do we have who would come and just sit with us in perfect silence for a whole week – mourning and grieving along with us – if we were in Job’s place? That’s what Job’s friends do, in the beginning…

And maybe I’m defending Job’s friends to excess, because I can easily see myself in them. They could all be pastors. They’re trying to do the right thing. They’re doing what they believe they’re supposed to do. They’re preaching the orthodox theology of their day. Most of what they say to Job is pretty close to what we hear in the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Proverbs, and some of the psalms…. To be fair to these friends, we should remember the bible really does teach that wrong-doing brings divine punishment, while doing right brings divine reward.

And we need to read the whole book of Job alongside the last eight chapters of Deuteronomy to understand how radical Job is… Our lectionary bible reading schedule allocates four weeks to Job; one week for the opening (last week), two weeks for the ending of the book (next week and the week after). This week is the only week we have to consider all the 35 chapters in between. (The lectionary actually features only eleven verses from chapter 23. We’ve added in a bit, trying to get more of the flavor of the extended dialogue between Job and his friends.) Still, the short excerpts we’re reading today have me feeling like we’re watching the movie on fast forward… slowing down only here and there, momentarily… It’s hard to fully capture the feel of all that’s going on…

Yet I understand why the lectionary doesn’t try to cover the whole book of Job… Chapter 3 through 37 is one long series of cycles of conversation that’s more like poetry than prose. More like an opera than talk radio. Job is meant to be sung, not just spoken – and it’s full effect depends on hearing the whole dialogue as a drama…To really do it right would take a few hours…(Maybe next year. Anyway–)

After that whole long week of sitting in silence with his friends, finally Job can’t be silent any longer. He goes on an extended outburst for all of chapter 3… (we’ve heard only the first three verses today)… Job curses the day he was born. Job’s friend Eliphaz then seeks to comfort him, reminding Job gently, very politely. that he, Job, has been a source of wisdom and comfort for others. “May I now offer you a few words, dear friend?” Eliphaz begins… And he offers Job warm words of gracious encouragement… Concluding, finally, that Job will get over all this in good time…His fortunes will all be restored and then some… He will live long and go to God in great old age… Words which turn out to be (ironically) very true…

Yet even true words, gently spoken… at the wrong time… Bring not comfort, but only more pain… (Timing may not be everything… But timing is very important in conversation… especially with those who are suffering or grieving…) And the words of his friends trigger a torrent of angry speech from Job, who rages against all the misfortune that’s befallen him… And now Job’s friends Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite take turns offering lots and lots of good advice to Job….

And Job answers each one in turn. We hear three cycles of dialogue. In each cycle Job speaks, then a friend speaks, then Job speaks, then another friend…and…

Job’s friends are theologians. They give the conventional answers to Job’s suffering… They start off rather well – but as Job resists their counsel, and insists that he has not committed major sins, now they escalate… Soon instead of words of comfort, his friends are telling Job that he must have sinned greatly against God…

Psalm 1 says the wicked are like chaff and the righteous flourish like trees planted by the waters… Therefore, those who suffer must be sinners and those who flourish must be righteous… So the friends of Job appear to reason… They assume that a good biblically-based common-sense answer is generically good – for all people everywhere in all times and places…

And some of Job’s friends’ answers do sound like a lot like scripture. And good common sense. And these words are said with such great conviction. If we didn’t know for a fact that Job was innocent, we might be convinced by his friends’ words – Job really must have done something awfully wrong to bring all this suffering on himself… Since God surely would never let this happen to the innocent…

But unlike his friends, we know – Job isn’t suffering because of anything he’s done…We’ve heard the word of God tell us plainly, several times, at the start of the story. He’s innocent.

Job starts his bitter lament by speaking about God… But as he listens to his friends speaking with such great assurance and certainty – saying things that he knows are not true – Job shifts from speaking about God… To speaking directly to God. He shouts and hollers and complains bitterly to God… He questions God’s good will, and says things that sound utterly blasphemous to his orthodox friends… Speaking words like those of the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And from the beginning of chapter 3 til he finally stops speaking almost 30 chapters later… Job complains bitterly, insisting on his innocence. Job is not a whiner. He never even asks for what he’s lost to be restored… But Job does mightily protest his suffering – and he protests, just as much, God’s silence about his suffering… And as he answers his friends, and expresses his anger with God, his tone shifts – subtly at first, then more obviously – as he goes from asking “why was I ever born?” to demanding explanation… Demanding justice from God…

Thoroughly shocking and offending his friends….

And – forever changing the face of biblical orthodoxy…Now Job emerges as a prophetic model for all who suffer unjustly. As pastor Gustavo Gutierrez says in his book, On Job – Job is a powerful reminder that the sufferings of the poor and oppressed are not punishment from God. Job’s story is a powerful rebuttal to those who blame the weak, the oppressed, the poor for their own suffering…A powerful word of vindication for all who suffer unjustly… Job is a living testimony that suffering is very difficult. And having someone tell you that your suffering – your poverty, your hurt, your loss, your feeling abandoned – is all because of something you did – can be as almost as bad, and even as bad… as your suffering itself…

The letter of James calls Job a prophet, and speaks of his example of patience – (or better translated) – steadfastness, perseverance, endurance… Job isn’t much for patience as we usually define it. But he is a prophet of steadfast faithfulness, of faith that endures faithfully through the fiercest trials of suffering…

And as we seek to interpret Job in our time… I know I always need to remember first of all that I am not Job… Most of us are not Job, at least not most of the time… I’m nowhere near as righteous as Job… And unlike Job, many of my trials and troubles are because of things I’ve done. Cause and effect still happens.

The biblical books of Deuteronony and Proverbs, with their teachings on cause-and-effect consequences, are still part of our bible. Job modifies and amends the absoluteness of Deuteronomy. Cause and effect are still in force. But Job is here to remind us that there is much more to cause-and-effect than we can see or know or understand. We are not God. We don’t know all causes, nor all effects. Now we see only a little, as St Paul tells us, as if in a mirror dimly…

And Job is here to remind us of what Job’s friends have apparently forgotten – that we really don’t know all the other person’s reality… We really don’t know all that the other person has been through… We don’t know the whole mix of life experiences that cause others to say and do what they say and do, and believe what they believe… We can say “I feel your pain.” But usually we don’t. Most of the time we probably really can not know another’s pain like they know it.

We are not Job… But sometimes we do experience some of what Job goes through. Most of us know some who remind us of Job… We can empathize, properly, with Job…

And yes, sometimes we can also be like Job’s friends…Who are, remember, not bad people. At their best, sitting quietly with Job, not saying a word, they’re excellent friends. But I know that I still have to guard against being one of Job’s friends when they are saying too much. (Not so much even necessarily blaming others for their suffering. We usually know not to do that.) But so often it’s so very easy to give advice – that sounds good. But isn’t right for the time and place… Which we may know… When we pray, quietly, a little longer…

So thanks God, for the word of God, which Hebrews tells us…Is like a double-edged sword, cutting both ways… Convicting of sin… And acquitting of sin. As we confess we do not always do right. Confess we sometimes blame others when we should blame ourselves. Confess we sometimes act as if we’re wiser than God. Like Job’s friends, who are all fine theologians…who can explain just about everything. We too can sometimes be too sure of our own opinions.

But Job is not a theologian. Job is more like Jesus….Who suffers for the sin of others, not for his own sin… Who cries out to God from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Like Jesus, Job won’t deny God, even in severe affliction. And Job is like the divine artist’s sketch for the incarnation of Jesus.

Jesus alone is God’s completed work – our great high priest, able to sympathize with us when we’re suffering like Job – and when we’re like Job’s friends. Jesus knows our every weakness. He’s been tested like us in everything, but without sin. Jesus, who intercedes for us in every situation. Jesus, Living Word of God, who has come down from heaven, for us…

Thanks be to God. Amen.