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To Journey with Job


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
February 18, 2018

When I was a teenager and first read the story of Job, I loved it because it seemed to speak to all the suffering I experienced. Life wasn't fair. My friends and family just didn't understand me. I related to Job! Now, some fifty years later, I look on this story with greater humility. My sufferings, no matter how great, can never compare with the trauma this one mythical man endured: loss of property, of family, of health -- who can imagine it? And yet millions of people today are dealing with all of this: children lost to gun violence, refugees currently numbering 65.6 million, those trapped in the midst of war.  

But Job's is a mythical story ~ everything about it is like a fairy tale. It is perhaps one of the most ancient stories in the Bible, perhaps from 800 BCE. It describes a man from the east, from the land of Uz. He is not a Hebrew. He is an Everyman.

The God in this story, however, is too human ~ not my God at all. He is one of many gods (though some translate his counsel 'angels'). He makes a bet with the Accuser, which in Hebrew is Satan. He blames Satan for making him test Job. This is not the God of Love! And yet, for many who believe in an anthropomorphic God who pulls the strings in our world, who punishes the wrong-doer and rewards the righteous, this is the God they believe in.

The story attempts to come to terms with suffering. Why do bad things happen to good people? As we walk through this painful journey with Job, we will hear the voices of righteous friends who think he must have done something to deserve this terrible fate. But we will also see Job face his fate with honesty and courage. He will grow. He will be transformed by his experience. And though the ending may not satisfy, it will challenge us to see what can come of the courage to persevere in the face of tragedy.        

What are we to make of it? How do we respond to the suffering of others? Do we dismiss the suffering of those caught in poverty or war as something they somehow must deserve? Do we turn away and tell ourselves it has nothing to do with us? The homeless in our California cities are told to move on.   Their encampments destroyed with no help for their suffering. An old woman with a walker pausing on the streets of San Francisco is told to keep moving by police. How do we respond? Where is our compassion?
Don't we, like the Accuser, think of the rich as protected, "fenced round" by God, or at least by the powers that be? Living in an affluent community unaffected by war and poverty, do we find it too easy to forget about those who are being deported, the children that are hungry this day, the suffering even in our very midst?

The early church saw in Job a precursor to Jesus. He was nearly perfect. He faced unbelievable suffering. He was transformed ultimately by his experience. Jesus became the Christ, the Messiah, the Resurrected one. Job became renewed, compassionate, honoring even his wife and his daughters in the end. (The fairytale ending.) It is important to remember that the teacher we follow and hopefully serve by our choices ~ this Jesus of Nazareth ~ ultimately died at the hands of Empire, and at least in his lifetime, failed in his ministry to bring about the Beloved Community, the kin-dom of God. He was a Suffering Servant, like Job.

As we hear the opening to this troubling tale...What has it to do with us? Although none of us have had everything go wrong all at once like Job. For most of us, life becomes completely overwhelming sometimes, in facing illness, or the death of a loved one, or loss of job or home or security, or dealing with violence or disaster, or loving someone going through any of these things, life becomes just too much, too painful to handle.
In working with our wonderful young people in Confirmation class I have learned that each one of them has already, at 12 or 13 or 15, had to deal with profound life experiences that have challenged them to their very cores. On some level we all know the suffering of Job.
The question is not why does it happen...because it happens to everyone, but how does that suffering shape us?
Is it God's fault? In a universe created by interaction and The Big Bang...full of birthing and exploding stars that ultimately created the stardust from which we were born...the God of Love, present in each molecule of being, is intimately involved in all the seemingly traumatic and powerful changes life requires. God is present in all these changes, may even see them as needed; but God is never indifferent or condemning, the way the Lord and the Accuser are portrayed in this story. God is with us, suffers with us, this is what Christ taught.

But in this story we have a God who makes a bet with Satan that Job will fail if challenged. It reminds me of the story in Trading Places, the 1983 movie with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in which Don Amichi makes a bet with his brother that destroys the life of one man and lifts up the other. I love that story but it is not a story about God.

The capricious God in the Book of Job offends and troubles me because too many people believe in him and justify their prejudices against those who suffer by their easy beliefs. Didn't Jesus tell us "the poor you will always have with you," as if we shouldn't worry about it, or them? And didn't he also say, "God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends the rain on the just and on the unjust." Our assumptions of reward and punishment don't fit with Jesus' understanding of God.

Today we have heard the prologue to this powerful tale. The Accuser challenges God to test Job. This Satan who goes "to and fro on the earth," is the same one who tested Jesus in the wilderness. And God allows him to send violence and fire and wind and more violence to destroy all that Job values, and finally destroys his health. His wife suggests he curse God and die. We can only imagine how devastating this has been for her. And Job dismisses her as only a "foolish woman." Really?

What do we learn about Job? He was not a wise man. He worries constantly about his children and cannot enjoy the fruits of his labors with them. He is misogynistic towards his wife and probably his unnamed daughters. He seems to take for granted the abundance of his wealth without concern for those who have nothing.

We closed with the visit of Job's three friends who come together to comfort him, who wept aloud, tore their robes and threw ashes on their heads. For seven days and seven nights they sit in silence with him, seemingly full of understanding and compassion; but that will soon change.

Today we have heard only a bare outline of the troubles of Job. What good news can we glean from all this for our lives? Are we just grateful whatever challenges we face, at least they aren't as bad as Job's? In this Season of Lent when we are encouraged to imagine walking with Jesus in the wilderness of temptation for 40 days (not counting Sundays). What good can come from Job's story for us? If God is not the Lord in this story allowing the Accuser to test us, who is God for us? Can we make time to listen to that still small voice within, whispering, "You are loved; you are my beloved; I am with you always."?

Job was not a wise man. In the coming weeks we'll discover how he grows in his faith through facing his losses and challenging the easy assumptions of his friends.
We'll learn that for Job and for all of us, when hard times come, God is with us in every moment. And the only way out is through. May we walk with Job, as we are learning to walk with Jesus, through the darkness as well as the light, discovering the value in it all. May it be so.