Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on October 11 2009.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16
I’m not really sure just exactly what I expected from seminary. I had been a religion major in college, so figured that perhaps seminary would simply be more of the same… except harder, of course. Frankly, I don’t recall thinking that seminary would give me all the answers I needed for that eventual day when I would be thrust into the real world of the church and would have to deal with human issues that so far had not come my way. I just thought further schooling would prepare me more effectively for when that time came.
I was aware of the old chestnut you could always fall back on, that when you did run into something beyond your ability to handle, all you had to say was, “They didn’t teach us that in seminary.” It also took me a few years to realize that that was a copout. In reality, they did teach us that in seminary. We just weren’t listening.
But if I ever naively suspected that seminary would give me all the answers I would need, that illusion was shattered the day I heard one of my professors tell of the time he was asked a question along the lines of, why does God allow good people to suffer? His response was, “The only thing I can say is that God has a lot to answer for.”
Whoa. That one caught me off-guard. It was the kind of in-your-face statement that made me feel a bit uncomfortable and edgy, if for no other reason than it was an in-God’s-face kind of statement. I wasn’t prepared for taking on God like that, for shaking one’s fist in the face of God and demanding an answer. I had never heard anyone else do that before; not that I recall, anyway. My life, to that point, had been pretty sheltered, and to hear – actually hear – someone confront God in such a manner… well, needless to say, it had quite an impact on me. And to be honest, I’m not sure I’m very comfortable with the idea of doing such a thing even now.
But Job was. After all, at the point when he challenged God to a face-off in court, the passage Carolyn read a bit earlier from the Old Testament, Job really had nothing to lose by challenging God, by shaking his fist in God’s face. Why? Because he had already lost everything. He had nothing else to lose.
We all know the story of Job, don’t we… how Satan made a deal with God – actually, it was more like a wager, a bet – that he could mess around with Job’s life, take away his children, his home, his possessions (of which there were many), cover his body with sores… just for the sake of satisfying his curiosity as to whether a man like Job would curse God and give up his faith?
Job becomes Satan’s own little test case of suffering, not because he has done anything wrong, but precisely the opposite. He has done everything right, and Satan just can’t stand a goody two-shoes like Job. Satan thinks Job is God’s personal little pet, and he’s going to prove that when push comes to shove Job will come out dirty and stained just like everybody else.
You need to understand something. In the story of Job, Satan is not the devil as he is often thought of today. Here, Satan is the “Accuser,” God’s prosecuting attorney, if you will (sorry about that, Melanie!), who serves among the heavenly beings on God’s divine council. He has no power to operate independently of God. He can only do to Job what God gives him permission to do.1
If God had told Satan in no uncertain terms to leave his cotton-pickin’ hands off Job, Satan would have had no other recourse but to walk away and go look for another victim. But God doesn’t do that, does he? Why? Because Job is the best God has got. He’s loyal and true, blameless and righteous. He fears God as no other does, and God has the intuition that Job can stand anything Satan throws at him. And besides, if God had protected Job from Satan, we wouldn’t have this story, would we?
Instead, God lays out all the rules and regulations, and puts restrictions on what Satan can do to Job and what he can’t do. The main thing – really, just about the only thing – Satan can’t do to Job is kill him. Anything short of that is pretty much fair game. However, Satan can make Job’s life so miserable he will wish he were dead.
By the time we find Job in our Hebrew reading for this morning he has lost his house, his children (all at the same time), and his financial portfolio. Not only that, but his body is covered with festering boils, from the soles of his feet to the tip of his head. Job has lost everything but his wife who, precisely because she is Mrs. Job, has lost everything too. Sometimes we kind of forget that little detail, don’t we? After all, she’s the one who gave birth to all those children who died when the house fell in.
Her advice? “Curse God and die.” That’s what she wanted to do, I’m sure, and may already have done just that… at least the cursing part.
But you know what? It doesn’t do any good to curse the wind, and right now that appears to be where God has gone. God has vanished into the wind. Job has attempted to plead his case before God, but that’s hard to do when the courtroom is empty. God the Judge is nowhere to be found.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments
(though I would think Job would find that hard to do since his mouth is so full of sores!)…
If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
All Job wants is some kind of sign – it doesn’t have to be much; a Hollywood production is not required – a small indication that God is out there somewhere, listening and caring about his obvious need. Actually, God doesn’t even have to care for Job, or show him any mercy. That’s not what Job really and truly wants because he hasn’t done anything that calls for God’s benevolence. He’s not asking for love, he’s asking for fairness, because he knows he has led an exemplary life and hasn’t deserved the terrible things that have happened to him.
What Job needs, what Job wants in terms of a response from God, is a listening ear. It makes you wonder if Job suffers more from his boils or from God’s silence, from the loss of his children or from God’s absence, from his poverty or from God’s unwillingness to explain why all these terrible things have happened to him.2
The only thing Job is asking for is a fair trial. If he has done something wrong, something to deserve all this pain and suffering, the only One who can tell him that is God. Just a word; that’s all Job asks. Just a word from God.
We do know that God eventually shows up, but when he does he has a chip on his shoulder. The message God gives Job is hardly filled with sweetness and light. God takes Job to task for thinking he can talk to God in such a way, to challenge God as he does, so I’m not sure the ending of Job is really all that satisfying… not to us anyway.
Is it unfair to inject Jesus into this argument? That’s what the writer of Hebrews does. He speaks of Jesus as the great high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, who has been tested as we are and knows our human limitations. He says that because of Jesus we can “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (vs. 16).
Tell that to Job, will you? I’m not sure he would agree.
Does that mean that all we have to do is put ourselves in Jesus’ hands and everything will be all right? We know better than that, don’t we? So do the scriptures, which tell us that it rains on the just and the unjust. Jesus knew better too. After all, he is the one who, on the cross, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So what difference does it make if we believe in God or not? Is that going to make the circumstances of our lives turn out any differently, just because we happen to believe in God?
Somehow, along the way, we’ve gotten this idea that God is the Great Protector, that it is God’s job to keep us from harm. Any unforeseen or tragic event will be taken care of by the One who loves us and cares for us. But what happens when we are dealt a tragic blow and God doesn’t swoop down to take care of it? We lose our faith.
Let me ask you: have there ever been moments in your life when you were struggling, and try as you might, you could not get a glimmer of hope from God? Your questions went unanswered, your hopes unfulfilled? If that has ever happened to you, allow me to commend you for being in church today. Most folk would have abandoned the pew altogether, never to return. In fact, I could give you the names of a few folk who have done just that.
This is the point at which you might expect me to reverse course somewhat, talk about God’s grace, and how God’s strength is sufficient in times of trouble. Instead, I need to point you once again to our New Testament reading for this morning. The writer of Hebrews says something else. He informs us that when God does come to us, in the form of God’s word, it is “sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…” Did you get the violence of that? Frankly, if I’ve got a sword piercing my gut, it doesn’t make much difference if it is one-edged or two. Either way it will get the job done very nicely.
So when God does hear the cries of his children, and chooses to respond, he does so in such a violent manner? God judges the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, to the point that no one is hidden, but all are, like Hebrews says, “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
My goodness. That doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? The testimony of Job is that when he needs God most, God is nowhere to be found. The writer of Hebrews says that when God does show up, he’s ready to do battle and draw blood. Is that what you read your Bible for, to tell you stuff like that?!
Okay, so where do we go from here?
It would surprise you, I’m sure, if we didn’t turn to Jesus for some encouragement. And we could use some encouragement about now, couldn’t we?
Are you familiar at all with the Gospel of John? About midway in the fourth gospel, Jesus is attempting to prepare his disciples for that time when he will be leaving them. There are several chapters that include what he had to say to them, and the prayers that he offers to his heavenly Father on their behalf. I commend this reading to you. Except… as you read, you get this overwhelming sense that the disciples don’t get it. They’re not listening to what Jesus is telling them. Instead, they’re grappling over places of honor, arguing with one another about this and about that.
And do you know why? Because we never do get it, we never do understand, never do see clearly while it is happening to us… whatever it is. It was only later, after Pentecost really, that the disciples began to understand what Jesus had done and why he had done it. The same is true with us. When we’re going through difficulty, all we can see – all we can feel – is the difficulty. It is later, when the pain has subsided (notice I didn’t say when the pain has gone away because sometimes it never does), that we can look back and see where God was at the time and what God was doing about it.
Fred Craddock tells of meeting a minister in New York City who has no arms. For a long time, he said, his mother would dress him. She fed him, she dressed him, she fed him, she dressed him. But one day, she put his clothes in the middle of the floor and said, “Dress yourself.” He said, “I can’t dress myself.” She said, “You’ll have to dress yourself.”
He told Craddock, “I kicked, I screamed, I kicked, I screamed. I yelled at my mother, ‘You don’t love me anymore.’” Finally, he realized that if he was going to get any clothes on, he would have to put them on himself. After hours of struggle he got the clothes on. He said that it was not until later that he learned that his mother was in the next room crying.3
Listen. Listen carefully. Listen closely. If you think you “hear” the silence of God, listen again, for what you may really be hearing is the sound of God crying in the next room. And the next time God pierces your heart and soul, as if with that two-edged sword, look into God’s face. You will see the tears. Doing this might just help you realize that dealing with God is not an easy thing to do, for you or for God. But, frankly, do we have any other choice?
Lord, are you listening? If so, bless our feeble attempts to deal with you, and then show us how, even in the hardest of times, to see your tears. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.