Sermon for 19 Pent Yr B, 19/10/2003
Based on Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, AB
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The book of Job is one of the most profound pieces of wisdom literature in the Bible. There is nothing else quite like it. According to biblical scholar Bernhard W. Anderson:
Through the centuries, this book has received the highest of praise. Luther extravagantly said that Job is “magnificent and sublime as no other book of Scripture.” Tennyson called it “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times,” and Carlyle declared that “there is nothing written, I think, in the Bible or out of it of equal merit.” Philosophers, supposing that the book is concerned with the problem of evil or theodicy (i.e., searching for the meaning of suffering), have manifested great interest in it. Immanuel Kant, in his monograph On the Failure of All Philosophical Attempts in Theodicy, devoted considerable space to interpreting the book of Job. In our day the writer has been acclaimed as “the Shakespeare of the Old Testament.” And…Archibald Macleish attempted to interpret the meaning of the biblical book…in his play, J.B.: A Play in Verse. 1
In order to make some sense out of today’s passage from Job, we need to refresh our memories a little about what had gone on before, in light of the larger context of the whole book. As some or most of you likely know, the book of Job consists of a series of conversations or speeches between God and Satan, Job and his friend-comforters, Job and his wife, and God and Job.
The story begins when Satan asks permission from God to test God’s servant Job, based on the reasoning that Job is faithful to God only because life is good. If Job’s fortunes were to change and he fell on harder times, Satan reasoned, Job would turn away from God. So God, interestingly enough, gives Satan permission to test Job.
Job, as you remember, loses his children in a whirlwind, his wealth and property are taken from him, and he also loses his health by being afflicted with itchy sores all over his skin. Then, along come his three friends who try to counsel and comfort him. At first, they offer Job seven days of their time in a “ministry of presence,” empathizing with Job, suffering with him in silence—not judging him or trying to offer him any superficial “quick-fixes.” This is pastoral care at its best, which we would all do well to practice. Then, they change their approach and trot out their theologically orthodox answers to Job. Their main point is based on the doctrine of retribution. According to this doctrine, God punishes the sinful and the wicked and rewards the faithful and the righteous. They tell Job that his suffering must have been caused by some unconfessed or unrepentant sin of his. Therefore, he must confess and repent of his sin and then God will remove his suffering and reward him. Job however refuses and rejects their answers. He maintains his innocence before them and before God.
In addition to Job’s three friend-comforters, his wife urges Job to curse God and die. Job however refuses her answer too, although he does curse the day that he was born. As the speeches unravel and the plot thickens, Job grows more bold and upfront with the LORD. He complains and cries out to the LORD and he insists that as an innocent sufferer he has the right to not only ask God the hard questions but also receive an answer from God. We too would likely approach God as Job did if we were in his shoes. Why do the innocent suffer anyways? Why does the person who loves their work suddenly lose their job? Why do the mother and father to be who so much wanted children lose them to a series of unsuccessful pregnancies and births? Why do the most kind and good people have to suffer so much from the cruellest of diseases, while the shady businessperson lives a long, healthy life? Why do two-thirds of the world’s population go to bed hungry every night? Why doesn’t God do something about all of this innocent suffering?
Over twenty years ago now, Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, concluded that God is a “God of justice, not power.” In response, Jewish Holocaust survivor and Nobel prize-winning author, Elie Wiesel said: “If that’s who God is, why doesn’t he resign and let someone more competent take his place?” 2
Well, today’s first lesson picks up the story at this point and God does give Job an answer, although it is not an answer that Job likely was wanting or expecting from God. It seems that Job constructed his world in what he thought was a very rational manner. Therefore, everyone including God should play by his rules of the game. However, God refuses to be placed in Job’s –or for that matter anyone else’s, including our—box.
God begins his answer, we note, “out of the whirlwind.” This may have been rather intimidating and haunting for Job, since he had lost his children to a windstorm, was he too going to lose his life now? No! God surprises him, he does not come in the whirlwind to punish him or take away his life. Rather, it seems that the whirlwind is a concrete reminder to Job that he is, in fact, in the Presence of God the Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. This comes out in verse two as well, where God says in the Good News Bible: “Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant, empty words?” Wow! That’s rather blunt and heavy, isn’t it? Yet, it is a reminder to Job of his place in the scheme of the universe and God’s place as well. The other questions put to Job also are a clear reminder to him and us of God’s goodness, power and wisdom in creating and providing for the universe and everything and everyone in it. Sometimes we creates “grow too big for our britches,” believing that we don’t need God and can play God ourselves.
It seems that recently the scientists of the world took notice of all their accomplishments and decided that humanity didn’t need God anymore, since the fields of science and technology were doing so well. So, they appointed one scientist to inform God of their decision.
“God, we don’t need you to care for us or love us or interfere in our lives anymore,” the ambassador stated.
“Really?” asked God.
“Yes,” the scientist proclaimed proudly. “Look at what we can do—split the atom, harness the power of mighty rivers—why we can even imitate creation with our cloning process.”
“Before we sever our relationship with one another, let’s have a human-creating contest,” suggested God.
“Fine with me,” the scientist agreed. He bent down and scooped up a hefty handful of the earth.
“Oh, no, no, no,” God said. “You have to get your own dirt.” 3
In the end, we learn that the questions of God addressed to Job served at least three very important functions. First, they humble Job in God’s presence so that he is able to come to a repentance of what he said before out of a lack of knowledge and understanding. We, like Job, sometimes think only of ourselves and try to construct a reality that serves our selfish ends by placing God into our tidy boxes. Instead of attempting to play god, we like Job, need to let God be God. Second, the questions draw Job closer in his relationship with God. A relationship wherein God is able to share some very ponderous, intimate questions with Job to help him realise the deep complexities involved in creating and running the universe. In realising this, Job beholds and is awed by the mystery of it all, and is given a deeper appreciation of the mystery so that he might live with it. As we ponder and study our existence and how the universe works, we too, with Job, come to accept the mystery of it all and learn to live with it. Some of our questions shall never be answered the way we would like them to be in this life; yet those very questions may function to help us accept and live with life’s divine mysteries. Third, God’s questions help Job and us to live under the power of God’s all-sufficient grace. Job did not work for or earn his restoration in the end. It comes to him as an unexpected, unconditional gift from God. God gives Job even more than he had before: seven sons and three daughters, material wealth and prosperity, health and a long life so that he is able to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren before he dies.
God has given us many things in life too that have been unexpected and unconditional gifts—gifts we didn’t earn or work for. Gifts like his word, which is full-to-overflowing with Good News and promises of God’s love and faithfulness to us. Gifts like the sacrament of Holy Communion, in which our sins are forgiven, Christ himself is present, and we are strengthened in our faith to go out into the world and be Christ’s healing, reconciling presence. Amen.
1 Cited from: Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Third Edition (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975), p. 548.
2 Kushner and Wiesel are both cited by Philip Yancey in his, Disappointment With God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1988), p. 179.