A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 24, 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Book of Job
In the 1970s and 80s the UK discovered the magic of a travel television show. Judith Chalmers and her crew invited the average Brit to explore beyond our boarders by going there ahead of us and giving us the lay of the land. I’d like to invite you today to travel with me to a world that would never appear on Wish You Were Here. But the book of Job is worth traveling to because there is no more powerful piece of ancient literature on the experience of human suffering. But also because one day, one terrible day, it may be just the friend you need.
Its setting is closer to Middle Earth than the Costa del Sol.
It is written by an Israelite but not set in Israel. This is Uz – it might have been somewhere in Arabia, what is clear is that it’s a land FAR, FAR AWAY.
Job isn’t an Israelite, nor is anyone else in the story. Don’t bother trying to find his great, great grandchildren.
Then there’s the date. We think the narrative parts date to the Iron Age but normally Old Testament accounts have references to historical events or political figures that would help readers date the story… they don’t exist here.
This is poetry, not in history – it’s a prehistoric parable. Like the Gospel parables, the figures (including God) are not intended to be taken as exact representatives of their real-life counterparts. This is a story.
So if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin.
In a land far, far away there was a man whose name was Job. Job was a blameless, upright man who honours God. He has a large, loving family, a thriving business and a position of respect in his community.
The scene changes. We are flown up to God, holding court with his staff team. It’s a common image in the Old Testament to depict how God might run the world.
One of God’s staff arrives back at court. His title is “the Satan” – not the devil – the title here means the counter arguer – this is the barrister for the prosecution… In this story God has appointed someone on his senior staff to put forward the counter argument.
The Satan has been traveling the world, observing humanity.
“Did you spot my servant Job?” God says “Isn’t he great? He really loves me.”
“Ah yes” says the Satan “But he only worships you because you’ve reward him with prosperity. He’s playing you like a fiddle. If you took away all the candy, I bet he’d curse you to your face.”
So, the story goes (remember this is a story), God permits the Satan to inflict suffering on Job. His business is grabbed by bandits and his assets are struck by lightning. A freak wind destroys his house and all his children die. Then his body is destroyed with painful and disfiguring illness… Job is heartbroken. “I wish I’d never been born” he says. But he doesn’t turn from God.
At this point most of us say “What? Why did God do that?” Then we assume the rest of the book must be there to answer our question. But this book doesn’t answer that question. Nothing in this book answers that question.
This book looks at deeper questions. Can we say God is just? Can we say God competent at running the world on just principles? Where is God when we are suffering?
So the scene is set the scene for the story of Job.
If this was a film, this is where the opening credits would roll.
As Job sits in his suffering three friends come to him. Three friends with very strange names, they were strange to the Israelite hearers of the story too.
Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite
Job’s comforters are as you’d expect… not very comforting.
They try to fix him.
Their arguments run along the lines of:
God is Just.
The universe is run according to justice: the good are rewarded and the bad are punished.
“Therefore Job, you must have done something wrong to be suffering this much. You need to be a better person!”
Job doesn’t thank them for this analysis.
So they get angry with him. They turn on Job, sacrificing him to preserve their argument. “You just need more faith Job.”
They even make up sins that Job must have done to warrant such a terrible life. Finally, they just call him names in disgust. “You’re a maggot. You’re a worm, not a man.”
Job gives up on his three friends and takes up his case directly with God.
By this point Job is on an emotional roller-coaster.
He used to believe God was just but, like his friends said, he can’t reconcile this with his suffering. So he throws everything he has at God.
He calls God a bully “God is attacking me. He tears me up in his anger. God gnashes his teeth at me” (16.9), He says God is unjust and unkind (9.23) “God destroys without warning. God mocks the despair of the innocent.” – but then this idea terrifies him “What hope do we
have?”(27.8) he cries out. He is lost and not making sense even to himself. He’s worn out shaking his fist at the skies.
So, gathering all the strength he has left, he makes one last claim to the heavens that he is innocent, then demands that God shows up in person to hear his complaint.
Finally, he gets to the heart of suffering. The heart of suffering isn’t poverty, or physical pain or even the loss of loved ones. The thing that makes suffering so destructive to a human being is that it isolates us. Suffering is like being lost in a foreign country, far from home. Suffering is incredibly lonely. In the middle of terrible pain, no one can be in your head to understand what it’s really like.
Suffering also isolates us from the God, at least the god we construct. When life is going well, we believe God is far, far away but predictably sends sunshine on good people like us as a reward, and throws lightning bolts on bad people as punishment. We don’t mind that he’s far away. We quite like it as he does his little part in maintaining our version of a just universe and we can get on with our little lives in the sun.
This works ok until one day when you’re just minding your own business, you get hit by lightening. Job’s god has not lived up to the deal Job thinks he’s got with him.
Job calls God to come down to explain.
At this point in Job’s story, a new friend speaks up. Eluhu – the ears of Jewish listeners would prick up at that moment. That’s a Hebrew name! It’s as if you’re reading a fantasy book set in Middle Earth and suddenly a character called Richard Carter appears.
Eluhu has been quietly, humbly listening. Like the earlier friends, he argues that God is just and operates the Universe according to justice. “But suffering” he says “may not be punishment for sin in the past. Maybe God permits suffering because it can become a storehouses of character for us for the future. Either way we can’t judge God before we understand God’s perspective.”
His words hang in the air. Job is speechless.
And with that the dialogues with Job’s friends come to an end. It’s like the wisdom of the ancients has been spent and the mystery of suffering remains.
But then, just when you think we’ve reached an impasse. All of a sudden, God shows up… in a whirlwind. Like Eluhu, God has been listening, quietly all along and comes down to respond to Job as requested …personally.
God takes Job on a virtual tour of the universe. Asking him a long string of questions.
Was Job there when God created the world or ordered the cosmos? Can Job command the sunrise or control the weather? God has eyes on these cosmic matters that Job has no idea about.
Then God goes into detail: Does Job understand the movements of mountain goats? or how deer give birth? or the feeding patterns wild donkeys?
God reminds Job that for him to judge God, he would need to walk in God’s shoes. To see things from God’s perspective he would need to see an infinitely larger and infinitely smaller context. God has eyes on all of it… every detail. Not a sparrow falls without God seeing it. God sees Job’s suffering but God is holding in play a lot more than Job is factoring in.
After the virtual tour God says “OK Job would you like to micromanage the world for a day by your rules?” Would Job and his friends really want to punish everyone and everything with exact amount of vengeance proscribed by their scheme.
Justice is much more complex than that. There’s a lot more to factor in. God doesn’t run the world on vengeance and reward. God runs the world based on something else.
Job has now become the accuser – the Satan – telling God “Your creation doesn’t really praise you”. But this time instead of pointing to a good upstanding man, God starts describing two creatures – the behemoth and the leviathan…
Some think this is a hippopotamus and a crocodile but they’re more likely to be well-known magical creatures in ancient near eastern mythology. They’re used elsewhere in the bible to denote danger and disorder. They’re living examples of all the wanton chaos that Job thinks is wrong with the world.
But it turns out God is quite proud of them. He takes 2 chapters to boast about how cool they are… “Look at the Leviathan. Look at his power, that strength. Isn’t he fabulous? No one could make him into their pet!” “Look at that Behemoth! He treats iron like straw, he thunders through the fields and no one can get in his way. Look at those legs! They’re like moving tree trunks.”
It turns out God is besotted with all his creatures… God doesn’t look at creation with a lens of vengeance and reward. God looks at his creatures with love.
God is in control – of more than you know – God just has a different paradigm. Despite what Job and his friends want, God doesn’t run the world on vengeance and reward. They want God to be a distant judge,
but God is more like the mother whose son is in the dock. God does see the destruction of his creation on each other, but God sees more than that. Like a parent God primarily sees creatures through the lens of love.
Remember Job’s question “If God is just, why does he let good people suffer?” – The problem with this isn’t that God doesn’t care… it’s that we don’t care about those who don’t make our criteria of Good. Frustratingly, God views the creation, all the creation, with love.
Which is lucky, because the line between good creatures and bad creatures isn’t so black and white.
It turns out the accuser at the start was right. Job did curse God… but God is still on Job’s side. “Job has acted rightly” God says. God never stops bragging to the neighbours about him.
The book concludes with Job having wealth and loving family life again not as a replacement or a reward (remember the taking away wasn’t as punishment so the restoration isn’t a reward), but as a gift.
This hints at a promise that holds it together. However besotted God is with the creation as it is now, it is still destructive as well as glorious. We still know the effects of the destruction of creation. But this pride of God’s in the creation goes hand in hand with something else. God will resurrect all that has been destroyed into a new, more permanent glory. Like for Job, there will be an Eternal Creation that destruction cannot touch. God will say “Behold I make all things new”. Not as a reward but as a gift.
So why is this book in the Bible?
Israel wrote this into their cannon when they were in Exile as they cried out to God about why God isn’t upholding his bargain to look after them. They demanded God came down.
The book of Job itself becomes their real life Eluhu.
This book is the friend Israel discovered sitting quietly since prehistoric times while all the atheist philosophers and clever theologians pontificated the Problem of Evil.
The book of Job invites them not to simplify suffering, like Job’s friends do, saying the person at the centre must have done something wrong. Nor does it invite us to judge God’s inaction in the face of our suffering, like Job does, when we don’t know all the factors God is holding in place. The book of Job invites us to bring our suffering honestly to God. You do you and let God do God.
You have a friend if you’ve ever known loss of all that defined you. You have a friend if those around you have been so keen to fix you that they’ve turned on you when their simple solutions haven’t worked. You have a friend if you have ever shouted at the heavens telling God that he has forsaken you and demanded that he comes down.
But there’s more.
God answers Job’s prehistoric cry for attention, for connection, for God not to be indifferent to his suffering, not just in a whirlwind but in the most meaningful way possible. Job can’t walk in God’s shoes to connect on this issue so God walks in Job’s shoes… God meets human suffering as a suffering human.
God has heard your cry for God to come down to you.
There’s a secret in this story. A secret this story has been holding since the iron age, quietly waiting for it to be revealed.
Like all good secrets it should be whispered.
In real life,