A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on October 28, 2012.
The Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Then Job answered the Lord: 2“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” 10And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17And Job died, old and full of days (NRSV).
Last week I got email from a member of our television congregation who wanted to know (and I quote), “why God would give Satan permission to do all of the awful things that happened to Job, particularly since Job was a righteous and God-loving man.” Well, thank you, Bonnie, for giving me a starting point for today’s sermon. You see, I don’t think this book was written by a journalist, trying to tell us the true story of Job, I think it was written by a theologian, trying to correct a common misunderstanding. The people of Job’s time seemed to believe that God always rewarded the righteous and always punished the wicked, that if you came down with a bad case of the shingles (for example) it was because you had been up to no good. But the author of Job didn’t believe that. He had seen bad things happen to good people often enough to know that there was no simple, moral equation in which righteousness always equaled reward and wickedness always equaled punishment. And so he wrote this book to correct that misunderstanding. He takes the story of Job (which was apparently well-known in his time) and tells it in a way that makes his point. If you have a little imagination you can think of this book as a play in five acts, and if you have a little more you can imagine yourself sitting there in the theatre as the house lights go down and the curtain opens.
There stands Job, center stage, looking prosperous and well-dressed, with a smile on his face and gold rings on his fingers. The narrator says: “There was once a man in the land of Uz named Job, a blameless and upright man who feared God and turned away from evil. He was not only righteous, he was rich! He had 7 sons and 3 daughters (who come out and join Job on the stage). He had 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 donkeys, 500 yoke of oxen, and very many servants (and all those come out to join him on the stage). But he was not only rich, he was righteous, as we can see by the way he offers sacrifices for his children, just in case they have committed some secret sin. (And as Job is praying for his children, picture a long figure, dressed in black, walking across the stage and circling around Job before making his way through the flocks and herds and climbing a ladder up to a platform over the stage. Only as the spotlight comes up do you see an enormous throne, and God sitting on it).
God says, “Where have you been, Satan?” And Satan—the Accuser—says, “From going to and fro upon the earth and walking up and down on it.” “Have you considered my servant Job?” God asks. “A blameless and upright man: one who fears God and turns away from evil. Satan says he has, but argues that it’s only because God has been so good to him, and that if he took away everything from him Job would curse him to his face. God takes the bet, and gives Satan permission to take away everything Job has, but not to harm Job himself. And so Satan climbs back down the ladder, comes to the front of the stage and claps his hands. A puff of smoke goes up (and this really is the most exciting part of the play) and then the Sabeans charge onto the stage, and steal the oxen and donkeys. Lightning flashes, and the sheep fall down dead. The Chaldeans stage a raid, and carry off all the camels. A strong blows in off the desert, and knocks flat the house in which Job’s children are feasting. In just a few minutes the stage is cleared, and Job, who everything, now has nothing. He falls to his knees, folds his hands in prayer, and says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all of this he does not sin against the Lord.
In the next scene the Accuser stands before God once again, who asks, “Have you considered my servant Job? He persists in his integrity even though you tried to destroy him.” But Satan says, “Skin for skin! A man will do almost anything to save his own life. Stretch out your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” Once again God gives Satan permission. He climbs down the ladder, comes to the front of the stage, claps his hands, a puff of smoke goes up, and the curtain closes. When it opens again Job is sitting on the ash heap, covered in hideous boils, scraping his skin with a broken piece of pottery. His wife comes out (to make her cameo appearance). She says, “Why do you persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” But Job looks at her through his swollen eyelids, speaks to her through his blistered lips: “Are we to receive only the good from God’s hand and not the bad?” In all of this, Job did not sin with his lips.
And then Job’s friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—hear of Job’s troubles and come to comfort him. When they see him they hardly recognize him. They cry out, and tear their clothes, and put dust on their heads. For seven days they sit with Job in silence. They do not say a word. And that’s the end of Act I. I’m not going to bore you with a scene by scene description of what happens next because it’s mostly dialogue. There’s Job sitting on the ash heap, covered with boils, and there are his three friends sitting with him. Job speaks first, and curses the day he was born, but then his friends—in turn—speak up, first suggesting, then insisting, and finally accusing Job of some secret sin that he will not confess. Job’s friends represent the commonly held view: that God always rewards the righteous and always punishes the wicked. If Job is suffering, he must have done something wrong. But Job denies it, again and again, and eventually demands an audience with God, so that he might plead his case before him personally.
And then, in Act III, a young man named Elihu, the son of Barachel the Buzite, shows up to set the record straight. At first you can’t figure out where he came from, and then you realize he’s been leaning over the fence the whole time, listening to every word Job and his friends have said. The way he criticizes Job for his self-righteousness and the way he extols the righteousness of God, make me think Elihu could actually be the author of this book, a young theologian (a seminary student, perhaps?) who is apparently fed up with the notion that God always rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. He says to Job, essentially, that even if he is righteous, so what? As the prophet Isaiah might say our righteousness “is as filthy rags” where God is concerned (Isa. 64:6). Maybe Job should stop looking at himself so much, trying to defend his righteousness, and take a good look at God, get a taste of his righteousness. Because in the next act, that’s what happens. I picture the Accuser coming over and taking Job by the hand, lifting him up, and leading him over to that long ladder that goes up to heaven. And I picture Job climbing slowly, painfully, up those rungs to stand in the presence of God.
But God doesn’t give him a chance to speak. He’s heard it all. And he doesn’t bother explaining why all these terrible things have happened to Job. As Frederick Buechner puts it, “God doesn’t explain. He explodes.” He says, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge. Gird up your loins like a man. I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding!” It sounds rather harsh, doesn’t it? But in all of this Job is getting the author’s answer to the Problem of Evil. Do you remember that? The problem that presents itself when bad things happen to good people? That’s what theologians call “the Problem of Evil.” The Book of Job is all about that problem but its author doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to explain it. His solution to the problem is not so much that God is great and God is good, but that God is God and we are not. Our efforts to understand God’s ways are futile—he’s too big for us, too large, too prickly (as I once heard someone say). And, as I’ve also heard, if God were small enough for our understanding he wouldn’t be big enough to do us much good. At the end of Act IV Job is humbled. He says, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3, 6). And that brings us to Act V.
In Act V the Lord rebukes Job’s so-called friends. He says, “My anger burns against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” He instructs them to offer up a burnt offering for their sins, and to ask Job to pray for them. They do, and Job does, and that’s the end of that. And then the Lord restores Job’s fortunes, and gives him twice as much as he had before. His brothers and sisters and all who knew him before come to his house to celebrate. They show him sympathy and comfort him for all the calamity that has come upon him. They each give him a piece of money and a gold ring. The Lord blesses Job’s latter days more than his beginning. He has 14,000 sheep, 6,000 camels, 1,000 yoke of oxen, and 1,000 donkeys. Once again he has 7 sons and 3 daughters, but these daughters are the most beautiful women in the land and have the most beautiful names: Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch. Job lives another 140 years—twice the average lifespan. He sees his sons, and his son’s sons, and so on for four generations. He lives a long, happy, and prosperous life. Finally he dies, “an old man, full of days.”
If I were the director of this play, I think I would stage it like this. Job would be at the front of the stage, sitting in a chair, with his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered all around. He would hug them and kiss them and tell them goodbye and when they left he would sigh, struggle up out of his chair and go over to his bed right there near the front of the stage. He would lie down, facing the audience, take a deep breath, let it out, and die with a smile on his face. And then the lights would come up slowly on the heavenly throne room, where you could see God sitting there just as he had through the entire play. And then God would get up off his throne, climb down the ladder, come to the front of the stage, scoop Job up in his arms, kiss him on the forehead, and carry him off toward heaven as the music swelled and the curtain closed and the audience got to its feet.
And now you’ve heard the whole story. Job’s latter days were twice as blessed as his beginning. And those who believe that God always rewards the righteous and always punishes the wicked are put in their place, just like Job’s friends. Think about it: Job loses everything he has not because he is wicked, but because he is righteous. And Job gets back twice as much as he had before not because he is righteous, but because God is gracious. There is no logic in this, no moral equation that makes sense of it all. At the end of the story Job has learned a humility that is far more valuable than righteousness, and especially the kind of self-righteousness that tries to defend itself before God. And maybe that’s the lesson the author of Job is trying to teach us—to show a little humility where God is concerned and to stop imagining that we know why God does what he does.
Sometimes when I’m visiting church members who seem to have it all they will say, “God has really blessed me.” And that’s true. God has blessed them. But there is a big difference between saying, “God has blessed me,” and saying, “God has blessed me because I am righteous, because I go to church, or because I tithe.” If you believe that God has blessed you for something you have done then—when the economy crashes and you lose everything—you may believe that God has cursed you. If that’s the way it worked then my friend Bonnie would be right to ask “why God would give Satan permission to do all of the awful things that happened to Job, particularly since Job was a righteous and God-loving man.” A god like that—who blesses the righteous and curses the wicked—would be simpler, easier to understand, but he might not be a god worth serving.
Do you remember that scene in John’s Gospel where Jesus and his disciples came across a man who has been blind since birth? (John 9). The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Do you see how they haven’t learned the lesson of Job? How they still believe that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked? That this man was born blind because somebody sinned? But Jesus says, “It’s not like that. It’s not that anybody sinned. This man was born blind so that the works of God could be seen in him.” And it’s like I said last week: God doesn’t cause these situations but he can use these situations. Jesus uses this one. He squats down, spits, makes some mud, and smears it on the man’s eyes. He tells the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man does, and when he comes back he can see. But you have to ask: Did God make this man blind just so Jesus could give him his sight, just so the “works of God” could be seen in him? Was it worth all those years of walking in darkness to teach Jesus’ disciples a theological lesson?
“No,” Jesus says. “That’s not how it works. God didn’t make this man blind, but his blindness was an opportunity for God to go to work. His blindness wasn’t a punishment for sin anymore than his healing is a reward for righteousness” (because, if you’ll notice, Jesus doesn’t even ask the man if he deserves to be healed). It reminds me of that verse in Romans we’re so fond of—8:28—the one that says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” If you’ll pardon my grammar, I don’t think it means that everything works out good for those who love God. I think it means that God goes to work even in the worst situations, to see if he can make something good out of them. He plunges his hands up to the elbows in the muck of the human condition looking for that little bit of something he can work with, that little bit of faith or hope or love. And that’s why these days I’m saying to people who are praying for miracles, “Pray instead that God will open your eyes to see all the ways he is already at work in your situation.” And when they do that they begin to see God at work everywhere—in the prayers that people are saying for them, in the skill of a doctor’s hands or the miracles of modern medicine, in the times when people simply sit with them, not knowing what to say, they see God at work.
I believe God is at work all the time, everywhere, and not only among the righteous. I believe he is working for the good of all his children, even those who don’t know him or don’t acknowledge him. Jesus once said that God “makes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust,” and on a day like this one, when we are expecting a hurricane, we might imagine that he curses all of us equally. But that’s not Jesus meant. He wasn’t talking about hurricanes. He wasn’t talking about torrential downpours. He was talking about the gentle rains that water the fields and cause the crops to grow. He was saying that his father in heaven doesn’t play favorites. He knows that all his children—even the wicked—need to eat. And so, at the end of the Book of Job, we hold out our hands to receive God’s blessings and we do it with great humility. We know that there is not one thing we can do to earn God’s favor, and if we do any righteous thing we do it out of gratitude for what God has already done for us, and not as a way to get something from him. God is God, after all, and we are not.
Here endeth the lesson.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.