10 October, 2021 – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23
The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
One of the beautiful things about Hebrew scripture: when it was compiled into the written form that we have received, the scribes, rather than harmonizing a variety of viewpoints into one, preserved a range of different voices. We find a different – more critical – perspective on David in Samuel than in Chronicles, for example. Across the books of prophecy, we see voices calling for Israel to settle in and make a new home as exiles in Babylon, while other voices call for resistance and a return to Jerusalem. Job may be seen as part of another set of voices with a range of perspectives – those found in the Wisdom literature.
The story of Job stands alongside books such as the Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. This collection of wisdom literature wrestles with questions like “what is a good and righteous life?” “What does it mean to be in right relationship with God?” or – and this is particularly at the forefront in Job – the question of theodicy: “if God is good and just, and all powerful, how can bad things happen to good people?”
Proverbs offers one way of thinking about these questions. We might oversimplify its message as “You reap what you sow.” In Proverbs, you can find maxims such as “The wicked earn no real gain, but those who sow righteousness get a true reward” (Prov 11:18). If we do the right thing, God will reward us. It’s not a big leap from that to something like: “if bad things happen to you, you must have deserved it.” So that’s one model we’re offered. Ecclesiastes conveys a different sensibility on these questions. While proverbs makes a connection between human morality and the resulting outcomes, Ecclesiastes focuses on human limits. You may recognize verses from this school of thought: “All is vanity” (1:2) or “There is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). We could sum up this teacher’s thoughts with this verse from Ecclesiastes: “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (1:3-4). It doesn’t really matter what we do, what choices we make, we all die in the end anyway.
It is in this context that we encounter the story of Job. It seems to me that the presence of the book of Job may be telling us that neither of these two explanations is complete.
So you know the story. We are told that Job was a godly man, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (1:1). He had many children and was wealthy with livestock of all kinds (oxen, sheep, donkeys, camels). One day, God is sitting in the heavenly council and this character called “the satan” shows up. (Here the title “the satan” means “the accuser.”) God, very proud of Job, asks the satan if on his wanderings around the earth, he has come across Job. “There is no one like him on earth,” says God, “he is blameless and upright” (1:8). To which the satan responds: “yeah, but would Job really love you and be so righteous if you hadn’t blessed the work of his hands and increased his possessions?” (1:9-10). The satan continues, challenging God: “I bet,” he says, “if you take away everything Job has, he will curse you” (1:11). He really only praises you and offers sacrifices because life is good. So God gives the satan permission to torment Job. First, he loses his livestock, his servants, and all of his children. Then, when Job still continues to worship God, the satan starts afflicting him physically: he puts horrible sores on Job “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” Still, Job refuses to deny God.
Here Job is, sitting on the ground in the ashes. He has torn his robe and shaved his head as a sign of his affliction and grief.
At this point, his friends arrive. And what is that they say? With friends like that, who needs enemies? Job’s friends begin to take turns explaining to him that he must have done something to offend God – that’s why these tragedies have overcome him. As one of them says, “those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (4:8). Sound familiar? This must be all your fault. If you had been doing the right things you would have had good fortune. You might hear in this the Proverbs version of wisdom. But Job stands firm. Through the assaults of his three friends, one after the other, he balances praise and reverence for God and God’s power while insisting on his own steadfastness and uprightness. This is where we find Job in today’s reading. Far from the meek posture implied by that phrase you might have heard – someone having “the patience of Job”…. Job doesn’t seem patient to me. If anything he is argumentative and persistent and feisty, calling out for God. He is grief stricken, he is confused, he is engaged with his whole being, continuing to try to be in relationship with God.
Job’s situation is extreme. All of his children have been killed in a house crushed by a windstorm. All of his wealth carried off by warring tribes of burned by fire from heaven. Even his body is afflicted. My situation, your situation may not be this extreme, but we’ve experienced:
- the loss of loved ones, or the loss of a livelihood;
- the loss of control over the events that befall us and the lingering uncertainty with which we live;
- the sense of hopelessness we might feel about environmental degradation or racial injustice or the disfunction of our national polity
We may have a sense of what Job was experiencing.
So what are we to do with this? How do we make sense of this provocative, challenging piece of biblical literature? God appears to allow the devastation of Job, a righteous man, in order to demonstrate that he will remain righteous even when his life crumbles around him. What kind of an answer does this offer to the question: “If God is good and all powerful, how can bad things happen?”
I’ll start by saying, I don’t know what to do with this. The scribes who compiled the Hebrew Bible didn’t know what to do with this – they just held tight to the question, sharing from the tradition that was passed through the centuries to them the variety of possible responses.
And in the final chapters of Job, I wonder if they left us a clue. One that I sometimes find myself forgetting. I more often focus on the justice of God, the unfathomable love that God holds for us, the comfort and solace that we can find in God. In other words, I tend to focus on the immanence of God – “God with us.”
In the final chapters of the book of Job, though, the authors remind us of the transcendence of God. The overwhelmingly powerful God of all creation who is so completely beyond our comprehension. When God appears following Job’s pleas, the overwhelming, awe-inspiring power of God is on display:
- God answers Job out of a whirlwind (38:1). You have no idea, says God.
- “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4)
- “Have you commanded the morning…the dawn to know its place?” (38:12)
- “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (38:19)
And then, after rebuking Job, God turns to Job’s friends and expresses anger at them: they did not speak what was right of God, but, God says, Job did (42:7). Job was confused, and he couldn’t understand why these things were happening, but he remained steadfast. He continued to engage with his whole being, calling out to God.
This side of God, the one I sometimes lose sight of – this God is overwhelmingly powerful, so completely beyond our comprehension. We can’t know the answers. We can’t control the outcomes. So, like the scribes of old, we hold tight to the questions.
I was talking through this text earlier this week with a few friends. One of them reminded me of a passage from the collection of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I’d like to share that for us today:
- “I want to beg you, as much as I can” Rilke says, “to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them…[Instead] Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
That, my friends, is faith, is it not? Holding the questions, holding the uncertainty, holding the hurt and the grief…while also holding hope. Being persistent, and maybe even feisty. Engaging with our whole being, as Job did, especially when it seems that God is out of our reach. Despite our limited view of a transcendent, all-powerful God who laid the foundation of the earth, who commands the sun to rise in the morning, who knows the way to the dwelling of light… Despite our limited understanding, nevertheless, we persist.