The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The world is full of suffering. So much of it feels incomprehensible and entirely demoralizing. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, find ourselves asking how a just God can allow the suffering we see.
Sometimes the suffering is personal and individual. This summer I visited with a hospice patient who was dying, in her 40’s, and leaving behind children. She asked why God was letting this happen to her.
Sometimes the world’s suffering happens on a larger scale, either as a result of human frailty, or human evil. Yesterday we again heard the devastating news of a mass shooting in a congregation of people simply gathered for prayer, and in recent months we have watched the unfolding drama of persons fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands, looking for asylum in our own country, only to be turned away (at best) or put into detention.
And this is apart from the tragedy of millions losing their homes, businesses, and sometimes their lives to extreme weather events occurring (at least in part) because our species has been unwilling to make the changes that might alter the course of global warming.
How can God allow it? This is the question asked by an ancient poet who took an even more ancient legend and produced the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, from which we have been hearing excerpts for the last three weeks, and then again this morning.
The legend that opens and closes Job is a pretty disturbing tale. The narrator tells us that a man named Job was a person of integrity, and without sin. He was fully blessed by wealth, family, and the respect of all who knew him.
One day it seems that things got boring in the heavenly court where God hung out with the angels, and was bragging about Job and Job’s faithfulness. An accusing angel suggested that Job was only faithful because he had it so easy. And so God and the Accuser decided to enter into a bet. God allowed the Accuser, Satan, to punish Job with terrible suffering, to determine whether Job would retain his faith or not.
And so Job’s sons and daughters were all killed in a terrible building collapse, and his servants and flocks likewise all died in a series of attacks by enemies, and finally, Job himself contracted a horrible disease. Despite his wife’s loss of faith – she urged him to “Curse God and die” – Job remained faithful.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken;” he told her, “may the name of the Lord be blessed”*. This is the Job of whom James wrote in his Epistle, when he spoke of “the patience of Job”.
As Job sat, living with the losses that had befallen him, three of his friends came to visit, to mourn with and comfort him.
And then the great poem that constitutes the Book of Job begins, and it tells a different story than the one to which we had been listening.
The poet’s Job finds, in himself, a different voice, and he begins to cry out in outrage against the troubles that have befallen him.
God damn the day I was born, and the night that forced me from the womb…
Why couldn’t I have died as they pulled me out of the dark?
Now I would be at rest.
Job’s friends, who have sat silently with him up until this point, can’t live with this angry Job’s new attitude.
They are very certain of the way reality is structured – God rewards the just and punishes evildoers. The tragedies that have happened to their friend must be the result of SOME sin he has committed: he needs to acknowledge it, and perhaps God will show mercy.
For about 35 chapters, Job and his friends debate the question of whether his suffering is the result of his (or even his children’s) sin, with both sides becoming increasing more strident and insistent.
God doesn’t make mistakes, the friends argue – there must be something Job has forgotten, which has caused his punishment, and the sooner he acknowledges it, the better. He will only be getting himself into worse cahoots with God if he persists in his denials.
For his part, Job grows more and more adamant that God is not behaving with the justice that Job expects of God:
God does not care: so I say
he murders both the pure and the wicked.
How can I prove my innocence?
Do I have to beg him for mercy?
Job eventually addresses himself directly to God – demanding a reckoning, his day in court, as it were:
Grant me one thing only, and I will not hide from your face:
Accuse me…I will respond
Or let me speak, and answer me.
What crime have I committed,
and how have I sinned against you?
Why do you hide your face
As if I were your enemy?
And so eventually God does show up, and responds to Job in a voice out of the whirlwind.
But God does not give Job the answers he demands: instead, he gives Job more questions. In a stunning series of images, God asks Job, in effect, “what do you really know?”
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Have you ever commanded morning,
Or guided dawn to its place?
Do you hunt game for the lioness
And feed her ravenous cubs?
Do you tell the antelope to calve,
Or ease her when she is in labor?
Do you show the hawk how to fly,
Stretching his wings on the wind?
And, astonishingly, God acknowledges the validity of Job’s challenges:
Do you dare to deny my judgement?
Am I wrong because you are right?
And after hearing God’s words, Job is both silenced and satisfied:
I know you can do all things,
And nothing you wish is impossible.
I have spoken of the unspeakable
And tried to grasp the infinite.
I had heard of you with my ears
But now my eyes have seen you.
The translation we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard translation, has Job conclude with these words:
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
I much prefer the translation of poet Stephen Mitchell:
Therefore I will be quiet,
Comforted that I am dust.
The Book of Job concludes with a return to the original legend. God chastises Job’s friends:
You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
God rewards Job with a return to health and prosperity, and Job lives for a hundred and forty years and “dies at a very great age”.**
So does this help us to understand the world’s sufferings that we began with?
Of course it doesn’t.
What this magnificent text teaches us is that we’re not God, and we are not going to understand. It holds a mirror up to the foolishness of our desire to write the rules and define the terms. Like Job, we don’t command the morning, or feed the lioness’ cubs, or show the hawk how to fly.
Our job is to live the best lives we can and do as much good as we can, accepting as graciously as we can the troubles that come our way, without claiming the right to determine whether or not they are “fair”.
And the text teaches us something else as well.
It reminds us of the grace of God’s presence with us, even in our most painful times.
It reminds us that even in the reality of our pain, it’s not all about us. As Job discovered, there is some comfort in understanding that we are dust, and that we only need to be ourselves, that we don’t need to be God.
When terrible things happen, we need to grieve, and then, little by little, we need to move forward, back into the blessings that we lose sight of when we suffer loss.
Ours is a faith that the cross is followed by the resurrection. Our call is to embody God’s presence in the world, through our love and service.
IN the name of God. Amen
**All quotations from Job in this sermon (except where otherwise noted) are from the Stephen Mitchell translation, published by Harper Perennial, 1987
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