June 20, 2021
Our second reading today takes us to some Old Testament wisdom literature… the story of Job. Like the last time I spoke with you from this pulpit… with Job we are working with mythic storytelling. Think of this story as an expanded parable… a dramatic theological reflection.
Job, the good and upright man… blameless… is put to the test. All of God’s blessings… bestowed supposedly because of Job’s goodness, his uprightness… are taken from him and he is reduced to a man sitting in ashes, scraping the sores on his body with a potsherd. His wife tells him to go ahead and curse God and die. His friends have gathered around him, but they have only told Job that he must somehow deserve what is happening to him… that he needs to confess his secret sin… whatever that might be… if he wants to receive any relief from his present sufferings. Through their theological beliefs… his friends and his wife… they understand how things works… they know how to work the simple cause and effect side of God. If you do this… then God will predictably do that. It’s the “owner’s manual to God” approach… the “let me tell you how God really works” way of thinking. But despite his wife’s advice and his friends’ theology, Job maintains his innocence… if not necessarily his patience… because he is innocent. There is no legitimate cause and effect type of deservedness at work here with Job’s suffering… but the thing is… Job too is kinda stuck in the same mindset as his wife and friends. There must be a reason. There must be some cause that has brought on this suffering. Job believes that if he can just go before God… to plead his case face to face… he is sure that God would be just… that God would give him the justice and the satisfaction that he needs… that he deserves. God would welcome him and listen to him. God would explain everything to him… and hearing Job out… God will take away all this suffering. Surely there’s a way to fix this glitch in the system.
So… in today’s reading, God shows up in a whirlwind, and tells Job how it is. Listen once again for the Word of God as it speaks to you this time from the story of Job 38, starting with verse 1.
READ Job 38:1-11
Of course, I can’t read from Job today without reflecting back on the last fifteen months or so of pandemic. I can’t help but note the news of this past week that 600,000 of our fellow US citizens have died from this virus… that while we are celebrating and rejoicing over re-openings and being able to come together again without fear and dread… the virus is still doing its thing. This Variant D could still wreak havoc for those who have not been vaccinated. And while I hope we’re almost at the end of the pandemic story… a part of me knows that a plot twist may still lie ahead. We can’t afford to keep living in this mindset where we’re somehow disconnected from the natural world around us. Viruses. Climate. Potable water.
Reading Job this week… reflecting again on how this writing pokes at our tendency to search for meaning through cause and effect… through this idea of deservedness… especially as we seek to explain the why of God’s action or inaction… what I’ve noticed is that for the last fifteen months or so I haven’t widely heard the familiar refrain that this pandemic has been the result of God’s punishment for the usual scapegoat of societal sins. I’m sure there have been pockets of this message around the country. I’m sure there were preachers who have laid the blame for the pandemic at the feet of homosexuals or abortions or whatever safe scapegoat sin they wanted to pummel that day. But all in all, Job’s friends with their sure explanations and their solid belief that there must be a secret, unconfessed sin behind the suffering… Job’s friends have been quiet. I mean… where are all the clips of Pat Robertson saying something stupid and passing it off as legitimate reflective theology? Those kind of statements, at the very least, provided a bit of relief for us as we got to roll our eyes and shake our heads. It’s become part of the normal way for us to work through catastrophes. Every large hurricane that blows through has someone out there scapegoating… explaining how God’s hand is behind the destruction to get us to mend our ways… that if we were to stop whichever scapegoat sin then God would stop with the hurricanes. It’s as simple as that, Job’s wife would say. That’s the way it works.
Throughout his suffering, Job wants to be able to look God in the eye and get the answers. He wants to know the truth of it. Everything was good. Job was faithful in his dedication. He had riches and comfort. He was blessed with children and the knowledge that he had a legacy that would be passed on to the next generation. Then he lost all that in the blink of an eye. His health was even taken away. Job was reduced as a man to the present moment with pain and ashes and no guarantee for tomorrow. He was stripped down to the barest aspects of his own mortality. Job was like the parable of the mustard seed in reverse… his was the largest of shrubs with branches spreading wide for all the birds of the air… but now Job was reduced back down to the smallest of the seeds. No matter how big the shrub… at its essence is the smallest of the seeds. Job was made small.
God then shows up in the whirlwind and tells Job just who God is in no uncertain terms. And… and… again in no uncertain terms… reminds Job that Job is not God… that Job and God are not equals… that God owes Job no explanation. God does this by turning the question back on Job… and who are you exactly? At the beginning of Job’s story, it is Satan who puts the question to God about Job. Sure… sure it is easy to bless God when life is good… when blessings are abundant… but will Job bless God when he is reduced to the barest… to the smallest semblance of himself. Does Job fear God for nothing? That’s the test. Will there be the same resolve to fear God and turn away from evil?
See… instead of trying to work out or declare the proper cause and effect theological formula… what these last fifteen months have done is reveal our character… in a way has put us back in the garden where now having the knowledge of good and evil… we reveal not the fruit of the tree… we reveal the fruit of our own character. Faced with an existential challenge… will we continue to fear God? Will we turn away from evil? Or will something else inform us? Will another voice drive our actions? How quick will that finger point in blame? How fast will we retreat from the common good and either go tribal or overly individualistic… inviting in the spirit of hoarding and throwing up the walls to protect me and mine? The mirrors of the last fifteen months have shown us some pretty shameful stuff about ourselves. Will there be repentance, confession, and growth? Or a bit of amnesia where we can avoid the lessons of right and wrong… good and evil?
When we take Job and we take Paul… and we put the two side by side we can see the difference. Job protests his innocence. He doesn’t deserve what happens to him. And again… he’s right… he doesn’t deserve the hard things that happen to him… but as Job’s story goes… his experiences don’t increase his fear… or we should say… his respect for God… his dedication to God’s ways. Job gets stuck at this point of protesting his innocence. He gets stuck at this point of deservedness and seeking out justice for himself. And even at the end of the parable… someone else comes along who is also stuck at this same point… who can’t stand the tension within Job’s story… some writer or editor tacks on an ending to the parable where Job gets back everything he’s lost in the end… his health… his wealth… even more children so that he has a legacy that will extend into tomorrow. He gets it all back. And that tacked on ending works as that bit of amnesia… so that the great wisdom of Job’s story gets lost.
Because Saints here’s the thing… even reduced as he was to that tiny mustard seed like existence… within that seed is still all the potential and purpose God has placed there in Job. This is where Paul’s words come in… “but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” The whole cause and effect deservedness system of theology breaks down with Paul… who… had he followed Job… would have filled his letters with the protestations of his own innocence and how he didn’t deserve any of this suffering and hardship as he set out to spread the good news of God in Christ Jesus. Paul wasn’t spared hardship because of his faith. Because of his faith, hardship… when it came upon him… became an opportunity… a difficult, painful opportunity… to increase and grow and learn and stumble and work… and likely to fail and fall short… but still… to choose the good over the evil that lay so close. Paul lays out the ideals through which that mustard seed within himself was able to imperfectly grow into the kingdom of God… “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech”… these are the power of God at work… these are the so-called weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. If you look at our shame from the last fifteen months… how much of that shame comes from the absence of one of these ideals? The absence of knowledge? The absence of truthful speech? The absence of genuine love for one another?
When it got real. When the theory of faith was put to the test. Did Job fear God for nothing? Or did that tiny mustard seed open up and the green shoot of a faith imbued with the knowledge of good and evil break through the dirt to start that growth into the greatest of shrubs? Amen.