The Life of Job, Job 38:4–18, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14), August 9, 2020
A lot of people are probably familiar with the story of Job, but chances are, not everybody is familiar with the real message of Job. For many Christians it is a story about a guy who lost it all, and then got it back again because he did not curse God. This much is true, or at least partially true.
Because we are a generation that likes to follow a solid storyline, we sometimes have an aversion to poetry. That’s what often happens with the book of Job, it’s very easy to jump over the large middle section from which our Old Testament reading is taken today. Many will just cherry pick the “I know that my redeemer lives” line for their favorite Easter hymn, but frequently that is about the extent of it.
Those who study scripture and ancient cultures think that the book of Job is actually two different works, which were created at entirely different times. The story section, with which many are most familiar with, only occupies about three chapters of Job. It is a story which was told in many ancient cultures, just as the golden rule was common to many cultures. The person, who suffers through hardship, remaining faithful to God, eventually sees his faith and perseverance rewarded by God.
It is fundamentally a moralizing story which was designed to reinforce what those long ago saw as a virtue, in this case, persistent service to God in the face of the difficulties of life. This part of the text is ancient, probably one of the oldest parts of the Bible. We don’t know where it comes from. It seems to predate the foundation of the nation of Israel, because no mention is made of Abraham or any of the elements of the covenant.
In the reconstruction, to which most scholars subscribe, sometime around the time of Solomon or as late as the Exile, the Israelite sages picked up the story and noticed something they thought was odd about it. In this ancient story of Job, it appeared that God and Satan had made some sort of a wager or a bet, and poor Job was the horse they were betting on.
These thinkers read the story and said, “That wasn’t very nice of God to do to poor old Job!” They questioned what this says about God. They wondered what it said about the reason people suffer. And so, they composed this middle section of the book, the much longer section, which starts in chapter three and goes on for another thirty-nine chapters.
They inserted this text into the story right where their questions came up. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some folks live their life right and still get dumped upon? Is it the case, as the story of Job asserts, that God is playing games with us, wagering some galactic sum with other beings, and we are nothing more than helpless pawns in this whole affair?
Written in this dense poetry, these chapters recount the part of the story where Job’s three friends come to comfort him. But with friends like this, who needs enemies, right. Their discussion turns into a dialogue of why this must have happened to job. These supposed three friends basically have one answer. Job must have done something to deserve all this. This must be some form of universal justice. If terrible things happen to people, it must have a reason. God cannot be unfair. This must be just punishment for something.
Job, a graduate of USC, that’s the University of Suffering and Catastrophe, Job on the other hand, insists that he has not done anything to deserve all this. Now, this may sound rather arrogant to you and me, but it did not to the people of that time. It really shouldn’t sound that way to us either. Job is simply stating, although he has not been perfect, he has repented of his sins and brought them to God, just as he was supposed to do.
Job is really saying that he has heard the words of his pastor absolving him on Sunday morning. He believes that his sins are forgiven. So why is he suffering? The friends continue asserting that Job must have some un-repented sin in his past, and that is why he is suffering. Job maintains that if this is the reason, this is fundamentally unfair. He has gone to church and spoken the confession and meant it. Why are all these terrible things happening to him? He contends that he has a legitimate beef with God. He suggests that God has not been keeping His word in this regard.
At this point God shows up and this is where our text for today is located. God does not claim that He is acting justly. Indeed, the reader knows that Job’s suffering is due to a bet between God and Satan and that Job’s suffering is not a punishment for sin. Rather, God emphasizes that Job is in no position to talk back to God.
The final chapters of this middle section of Job have God challenging Job to stand up and ask his questions and make his charges against God. God is asking if Job was there when He made the world. Job was not there, so he realizes his mistake and finally bows in humility before God.
The answer which the book of Job offers us, to the question of why people suffer, is mostly unsatisfying to people who raise it as an accusation against God today. Why do bad things happen to good people? The Book of Job tells us that we really do not have a right to ask the question. God is God and He is so much bigger than you and me. We really don’t have a leg to stand on. Our only realistic position is to lie face down in the dust and hope God does not zap us. You can imagine that this does not sit well with the humanist culture today.
Today’s reading focuses our attention on the almighty part of God. But it also contains mercy. Job doesn’t get zapped. In fact, all the thunder and lightning seems to be intent on teaching Job a lesson, a lesson he really needs to hear. God does not want to destroy his servant but to set him straight, and so He goes to quite a bit of trouble to wake up this stubborn and angry man.
The end of the story is still the same. Job gets it all back and more, but now he is much humbler He realizes that all the riches, and the family, and the things of this life are gifts from God.
So, what does all this mean for us today? Have we actually created a very different sort of god than the one who is revealed to Job? Is God a god which is out of our control, a God who does things which we don’t understand?
Remember that the story of Job will not satisfy those questions. It is hardly an answer to the problem of evil in the world. This story will never answer someone who only seeks those kinds of answers. It does, however make sense and really bolster the faith of the person who already believes. God is God and we need to let Him be that.
The person who is hurting and questioning God needs our love, not argument. We need, as Peter said, to be ready to give a reason for our hope, but giving a reason for our hope, and argument, are two different things. We don’t need, or have to defend God.
We all have our own stories, but I am reminded of a couple that had two daughters. You really have to note the use of the past tense there. Uncontrolled diabetes claimed the life of the eldest daughter. The second daughter was a beloved teacher and lovely young woman. She had two children, and a happy marriage. All was going so well, until one evening her husband came home to find her lying on the floor. The ambulance came, the emergency room team tried their best. The worst happened. The other daughter died, at almost the same age as the first.
It made no sense. How could one family suffer such loss? Job felt that way too and he asked the questions that everyone who goes through such tragedies asks. How could this have happened?
This morning, this story helps us to proclaim a God of great power, danger, and glory. This is the essential message for us today. The Jesus who stepped over the side of that fishing boat is the same God who stretched out the line and measured the earth like we might measure a piece of plywood when we built a dog house.
It can be hard to hear in these days of pandemic, and it can be hard to bear. Our world has invested a great deal into telling us that we are the masters of our destiny. Technology and medicine and much more have allowed us to insulate ourselves from the reality. The pandemic has brought a brutal truth home to us. We are not so in control as we want to be. This is when the story of Job applies the most.
We cannot fully understand God’s plan to save mankind. We don’t have to have all the answers but God does, even when things seem their worst, even when everything seems out of control as it did that dark day two thousand years ago when it appeared Satan really had won, when the disciples had no clue why their Master was abandoned by the heavenly Father to die on a cross. Jesus’ disciples didn’t have the answer, but God did. Christ bore our sins on the cross that we might not have to die for our own sins.
We cannot comprehend how this Son of God, Jesus, would rise from the dead, conquering sin, death, and the evil one once for all time. Our forgiveness does not come from our knowledge of God or His creation, but as a gift from the One who created this world and its seas, the One who commands its wind and waves.
If you flip your Bible a few pages forward from our text this morning, you come to Psalm 121 where the psalmist lifts his eyes to the hills. Where does his help come from? It comes from the Lord who watches over our coming and going from this day forth and forevermore.
His watchful and loving eye does not slumber nor sleep. When the world reminds you that you are not in control and makes you feel small and helpless, we need these words like Psalm 121. The same Lord who powerfully created and exquisitely designed this whole universe has His loving eye on you. Amen.