Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Speaking Without Understanding

On Speaking Without Understanding

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 25 , 2009

Job 42:1-17

[God said]: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
[Job said]: Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

Some things in the world are so familiar to us that we no longer see them. The air we breathe is essential to us during every moment of our lives, yet days, perhaps months go by without our consciously remarking on the miracle of respiration, the exchange of oxygen in the lungs to keep us alive. Take a breath. There it is again, the miracle of air! No other planet we know of has it. Yet every time we need some, there it is for the breathing.

The blink of the eyes; I have read somewhere that the normal rate of blinking is 20 times per minute. It is necessary to sweep and wash the eye surface with this frequency to keep it functioning. Still, at the rate of 20 per minute, 1,200 times an hour, how often do we stop to consider this miracle of our nature for the lifelong health and use of our means of seeing the world? Yet here we all are, fanning each other with the 300 or so blinks we will each blink during this sermon.

Some things, many things, are just so there in the world, so ubiquitously present that we no longer even take note of them. Who grew the orange from which our morning juice was squeezed today? Who, decades ago, fashioned the pews on which we sit today? Who toils through the night and the wee hours of the morning to bring us our morning paper? Who picked the beans that made our morning coffee possible, and under what conditions?

G.K. Chesterton, early twentieth-century journalist, novelist, and Christian apologist, once wrote “[Our] age needs first and foremost to be taught the nature of wonder...” He believed this was best accomplished through religious faith which could “provide that longest and strangest telescope — the telescope through which we could see the star on which we dwelt.”1 More importantly, Chesterton helped his readers to recognize that “it is the gift of the strangest of all religions, Christianity, to reveal that our existence on this star is a chronic miracle, with further miracles in store.”2

I like that way of seeing it: life as “chronic miracle.” Chesterton is probably all but unknown to most readers today. It’s a pity. As Western Civilization continues to move into what some have called a “post-Christian” period, Chesterton was just the sort of person who could write of the mystery of our faith in such a way that its very mystery served to draw us in closer. Contemplation and enjoyment of mystery is a task of all religious people. Dead, lifeless, unquestioned certainties are foreign to a faith that is alive and percolating.

In our reading today, Job repeated a question the Lord asked of him in our text from last week: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”3 then answered, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” This reminds me, in this election season, of a question once put to another early twentieth century thinker, Will Rogers. He was spotted listening to a politician on the stump one day, and someone asked him what the man was speaking about. “I don't know,” Rogers replied, “he doesn’t say.”

If we have been paying attention to the readings the past 3 weeks, we will remember having heard Job raging, angry, intemperate, at the suggestions from his so-called friends that the purpose of religious faith is to drown out uncertainty, to stifle inquiry, to forbid doubt and questioning. Job’s persistent questioning challenges sophomoric faith, pat religious sloganeering. The purpose of religious faith is not to stifle questions, and religious people, it turns out, are allowed, as Job was, to call out to God and shake their fists at the sky. What would be a better response from the families of those who died on 9/11 and in the battles that have followed? And Job simply would not have any of it. He knew, several centuries before before Paul wrote those famous words, what it was to see the world “through a glass darkly.”4 The author of Job created a character who still speaks for everyone who encounters suffering and tragedy in life and has the temerity to ask, “Why?” Job asked it, even though, toward the end, he despaired of ever receiving an intellectually honest answer.

As long as I am bringing up twentieth century writers and thinkers, I want to cite briefly from Swiss theologian Karl Barth, author of thirteen massive volumes in dense German of a work he called Church Dogmatics. In a small, much less intimidating book, carrying the delightfully upside down title, God’s Search for Man, Barth warned against seeking a little god whose answers always fit our questions. He wrote, “Were we to hear only of a God who, fortunately for him, measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do ourselves without Him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told [people] of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied.”5

We are like Job, even though we may not often recognize it. I often include in my prayers, both public and private, the phrase, “hear especially the prayers we should have made, had we been wise.” It is a prayer from the same spirit behind this difficult story. Job’s “why” questions of God were about justice; God’s answers are about omnipotence, as God apparently chose to answer the questions that Job should have asked, had he been wise. But make no mistake, God honors Job’s asking, his clear-eyed view that we inhabit a world where blessing and curse are not often all that far removed from one another.

Some religious folks try to stretch inadequate answers to fit big questions. Why was my husband, the fire fighter, on duty that day the World Trade Center towers fell on him? Job’s friends respond, “Perhaps he sinned, and this was his punishment for sin.” Don’t like that answer? Me either.

Why are thousands of minority Christian people being murdered when they find themselves running for their lives from armed gangs in the Darfur region of Africa? One TV evangelist responds, “For some reason, God allowed that so as to teach all of us a lesson.”

Such answers fail to satisfy, moreover, such answers do no service to God. Otherwise forensic specialists would not spend months tediously poring over pieces of wrecked airplanes and buildings. To every increasingly exasperated question we might ask, there can come some flat-footed answer that fails to satisfy, eliciting only another demand to know “Why?”

As I was thinking about the sermon for today, one article I read on this passage was titled “From Silence to Sight.” When I thought about it, I realized that is a wonderful insight by way of a mixed metaphor. It seems to me the easier title would have been either something like “From Silence to Soundings,” or “From Blindness to Sight.” But the metaphors of sound and seeing are mixed. Job’s questions literally go unanswered, as he persists in asking “Why,” while God’s ultimate answers concern “Who,” and “How.” Perhaps God is answering the prayer Job should have made, had he been wise. Easy for us to say, if we have suffered little, what then can we know of wisdom?

But having suffered in a story especially created to provoke hard questions more than answers, Job stands before God in the end as the God of creation, without whose creativity there would be no creature to demand answers, no human to see justice as preferable to injustice, or sight to be found preferable to blindness. Job comes to understand something of the profound difference between God and ourselves. God’s ways, truly, are not our ways, nor are his thoughts the same as ours. Why would God want to create an aardvark? The rabbis would say, “We don’t know.” And we don’t. We may know how. We do not know why. Only God knows why there needed to be rain forests and blue whales.

When at the end of our reading Job is blessed with more than he had to begin with, we have to wonder if it made him happy. Double the blessing, of course, would mean double the risk of losing it all again. You may come to some different, equally valid conclusion, but I think Job’s acceptance of the gifts of God the second time around demonstrates the faith of a person simply embracing life as it comes, life as a profound and mysterious gift of God, embraced in an act of faith and trust that is both extraordinary and courageous.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 quoted in “Generation GK” by Carol Zalenski, Christian Century, July 18-25, 2001, p. 30.
2 Ibid.
3 Job 38:2 and 42:3
4 I Corinthians 13.
5 God's Search for Man, Round Table Press, 1935, pp. 29-30.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Out of the Whirlwind

Out of the Whirlwind

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 18 , 2009

Job 38:1-7 (34-41)

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“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 foundation of the earth...?”

Perhaps the thing that frightens us more than anything when we read through Job is our unspoken fear that his fate could possibly be our own in one way or another. We know full well that we live in a world filled with risk, which suggests to us that no matter how secure we may fool ourselves into thinking we are, at any moment dramatic, cataclysmic forces beyond our control could change our lives forever. No one likes to dwell on this, but we all know it is true, and we generally work very hard doing everything we can to assure ourselves and our families of some measure of safety and security.

Last week we heard in our scripture reading Job’s cry for understanding in the middle of his undeserved suffering.[1] Today we hear a little portion of God’s response. In this, our third week in the book of Job, we come to what sounds like Job’s verbal spanking, administered by a God who strikes us as more or less annoyed by the whole matter. Indeed, if you have ever read the entire book of Job, probably by chapter 38 — after all the death, suffering, diseases, and irritating blame-the-victim remarks from Job’s “friends” — you may be a little annoyed yourself. “I come to the Bible for words of hope, cadences of comfort,” we might complain, “what is with this story of useless, unrequited, and hapless suffering and blaming?”

Still, true stories from our own times make Job seem more relevant than we might like to think. Consider that a year after Hurricane Katrina, there are still hundreds of thousands who once lived in the comfort of their own homes in Louisiana and Mississippi who remain homeless. It is all too easy to forget. We don’t like to dwell on it. But thousands perished. Folks from our own church family who have taken assistance to the area report devastation on every street as far as the eye can see, even from the air.

Or a family has a child born with cystic fibrosis;

Or one minute a few hundred people are sitting on an airplane reading their morning paper, and the next minute they are plunging to the earth due to any of a number of factors;

Or a poorly-timed glance down at the floor of the car results in a devastating wreck on the highway;

What is with this story of useless, unrequited, and hapless suffering and blaming? Good question. Job probably could not have stated it better himself. And if we had been reading all the previous 37 chapters of the story, we would probably arrive at this point and say, “Finally! God at least makes an appearance!” Given the choice, though, I’m not sure a challenging voice from a tornado is exactly the sort of response a suffering person like Job would have sought:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth...?! God thunders.

Job might have responded, “May I please have another question Alex?”

As one preacher reflected on our passage for today, which represents only a tiny fraction of God’s response to Job’s questioning:

“God’s rebuttal goes on for four whole chapters, but never does answer Job’s question. Job’s question was about justice. God’s answer is about omnipotence, and as far as I know that is the only answer human beings have ever gotten about why things happen the way they do. God only knows. And none of us is God.”[2]

It’s been said that Virginia Woolf once wrote to a friend, “I read the Book of Job last night—I don’t think God comes well out of it.”

Every secure domain that we know can be invaded, it is always possible that we could be turned out: apparently secure homes can be lost through foreclosure, jobs can be lost when consumer tastes change or the economy slows down, investments can turn sour overnight, academic achievement is as vulnerable as the next grade report or the half-life of a now outdated and useless degree, good health is forever on the cusp of an encounter with some powerful new disease, professional certification can be withdrawn, colleagues can conspire to lie about us and cost us our position, lawsuits can be filed, the IRS can run roughshod through our personal finances. There is no secure place which we can create for ourselves which is truly and absolutely safe. We live in a world of risk.

Not long ago, as I walked by a late-model car piled high inside with pillows and blankets and parked on a downtown street, I saw the door was open to the sidewalk and a young woman was leaning out over the curb to brush her hair, the way you and I would do in the privacy of our homes in front of the bathroom mirror when we get up in the morning. I wondered what catastrophes had occurred in her life that apparently she now lives in her car. What were her prospects, since the good condition of the car suggested a recent time of more prosperity than she knows now? Was she alone? How far from her situation are any of us, really? One large lawsuit against our assets over a bad car wreck, or a conviction for professional malpractice, a loss of a job and a longer-than-anticipated search for a new one, who knows how much it would take to reduce any of us from apparent security to utter dependence, until one day we find ourselves waking up in the morning staring up through the windshield? So the next time some grocery clerk tells you to have a nice day, receive it as a sort of intercessory prayer.

This is part of the disturbing nature of the story of Job. His story could be ours. We know in the backs of our minds that disaster could strike from out of nowhere, changing the makeup of our lives forever. Where would we turn?

Job turned rather insistently to God, and for 37 chapters he got no direct answer. Only his self-righteous friends and a wife who should have been on Prozac responded to his cries for understanding, and none of them responded too well. Then at last in chapter 38, God answered Job’s laments. But God’s response fails to satisfy us if we long for an answer that amounts to “There, there, everything will be alright.” We all know that in life, lots of times things do not ever turn out alright. What then? Is there only a God when it is sunny, and when all is good health and ample food and comfortable housing?

One colleague of mine once wrote, “The world is complex and painful. But the One who laid the foundations of the world did so in order that there might be a world, and so that we might be in it. Any effort to reduce this complexity to anything shy of mystery will probably live only as platitudes. At least this can be said: a life of pleasant circumstance is no foundation for righteousness, for even the righteous will suffer. The foundation for righteousness can only be found in the gracious commitment to life witnessed in the creator God. In the midst of the consistent inconsistency of life’s circumstance, there may be found the grace sufficient to live in grateful faithfulness.

Suffering comes. Answers may not. Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff’s son one day fell to his death on the side of a mountain. I cannot imagine an answer that could provide a satisfying response to the inevitable “why” question about the suffering this father must have endured. Yet, as he went through that experience and its aftermath, Professor Wolterstorff wrote, “I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not.”[3]

If there is an answer to the problem of unmerited suffering in Job, and we can all see that if there is, it is far from easy to find, then the answer can only be something like this: the worst thing that can happen is suffering with no reason, suffering without God, without hope, without an aspiration for a reality beyond that suffering. All torment pales beside the prospect of abandonment by God. That’s what Job really wants to know. Is God here? Is God in this with me?

When all the crops are burned to a crisp and the last shovelful of dirt has been thrown on the last grave of the last child to be buried and all that is left of all the stuff we thought we possessed is a stiff, dirty rag to wipe our bleeding noses, what still remains...

“ the God of creation, who never runs out of life, and whom we may always ask for more...”

As far as we can tell from Job’s experience, we don’t have to be all that bashful about it either.

“In the end, God prefers Job’s outrage to the piety of Job’s friends. When in pain, we are allowed to yell as loudly as we can. ‘Why is this happening to me? Answer me!’ Devout defiance pleases God.”[4]

It may even help us in our own struggle to see God. It may make all the difference between suffering that opens a door to hope, and anguish that asks too little of God and so receives less than enough.

[1] Job 29:1-17.
[2] “Out of the Whirlwind,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, from her book Home By Another Way, Cowley Press, 1999, pp. 162-167.
[3] Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eerdmans, 1987, p. 26.
[4] “Out of the Whirlwind”.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Forward, Backward, Side to Side

Forward, Backward, Side to Side

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 11, 2009

Job 23:1-17

Oh, that I knew where I might find (God) ...
I would lay my case before (God), and fill my mouth with arguments
... If I go forward, (God) is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive (God);
on the left (God) hides, and I cannot behold (God); I turn to the right, but I cannot see (God).

How difficult these lines from the book of Job sound to our ears. I have had years of experiences hearing from folks about which parts of scripture we are most likely to treasure. When the subject has to do with God’s available presence in our lives, I would guess we are all much more accustomed to turning to more familiar words, like these from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

It is much more encouraging, much more comforting to speak of the nearness of God, God’s availability close by in times of sorrow and trouble. But that is not the God that Job contemplates in the story we are considering over these four weeks, starting with the sermon last week. The story of Job was created by a poet or perhaps a school of poets in the 5th or 6th century before Christ. Lest we forget, this was the time in the history of Israel when the people had finally been released from their national captivity in Babylon, along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, released to return 50 years after their parents and grandparents had been force-marched from their homeland to live in the ghettos of Babylon.

When they returned to Israel, to the land of their forebears, they found a ruined temple, a land laid waste, and the necessity to start rebuilding their former lives completely from scratch. That included the rebuilding of the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. By almost every account it was a temple that was a sorry structure when compared with the past glory of the temple of Solomon. Everywhere they looked they saw not a land flowing with milk and honey, but farms that had been destroyed, and cities laid waste years ago by invading armies. Looking forward, backward, to the right and to the left, they could not see where God’s care was in evidence. “Oh, that I knew where I might find (God),” they might well have said.

Why would God allow this? It must certainly have been a question on nearly everyone’s mind. And just as surely, the most common answers were likely to have been those represented in the book of Job by Job’s so-called friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. Each had a resolution to Job’s difficulty about his experience of the absence of God which amounted to an accusation against Job. Eliphaz subscribed to the rewards/punishment school of religious thinking. This is the age-old human practice of blaming the victim, in no small part so that the ones who do not suffer may find in this a confirmation of their own apparent righteousness.

+ Job suffers: therefore he must have done some evil to bring the suffering upon himself.

+ We do not suffer: therefore we must be righteous.

It’s a neat little system for those whose lives are filled with all the good things. And we have all heard – and perhaps asked – the “why me?” question when suffering has come calling. It is a way of saying, “there must be a reason I suffer. Perhaps God is punishing me for some wrongdoing. I wonder what it is so I may amend my ways.” In other words, we fly into the arms of the argument made by the Accuser before God: We try to do what is right only out of fear of God’s righteousness and God’s punishment for wrongdoers. But Job points out a major crack in this tidy little system which anyone with eyes to see will have noticed. Some people suffer dramatically, and far beyond any reasonable fault or blame which could possibly be placed upon them: The innocent Jewish men, women, and children who suffered and died by the millions during the Holocaust; the baby suffering and dying from AIDS-related diseases, who has no chance at a life to try to be righteous or evil or anything else; the beautiful girl or the handsome boy who suffers the pangs of a broken heart because their love goes unrequited. Can anyone say that in all these cases and all those like them, suffering is being visited only on people who have done something to deserve it?

In the chapter just prior to our passage, Job’s so-called friend Eliphaz asserted for the umpteenth time that Job’s suffering suggests that he is guilty of some great wickedness. In doing so, though, he made a subtle switch in the argument. Where, at the beginning of the story, the Accuser claimed before God that there is no goodness in human beings, now Eliphaz declares that God has no use for our good deeds, because there is nothing about people that could ever be profitable for God.[1] The unvarnished goodness and benevolence of God is called into question. To this Job will not agree. In our brief passage he makes answer to a question that stands at the center of a long-running discussion in Christian theology: How can we make sense of all the suffering we find in a world created by a good and gracious and loving God? Eliphaz gives his answer pretty straightforwardly: God is neither gracious nor loving, merely utilitarian, making and using human beings for whatever purpose God desires. Job will not have it. Which is the subject of the passage we have heard today.

There are those who have looked at this passage, depressing, forlorn, seeming to be unredeemed by any gospel word, and have wondered if I am crazy to be preaching from this little corner of the story of Job ... and I am one of them! What am I doing, tackling this difficult little reading, clipped out of the larger, sweeping context of the story of Job’s suffering? I think I have landed on at least one answer.

If we can carry but one thing away from this story, it ought to be this: there is no question, no challenge we can put before God, no troublesome difficulty we can encounter, but that we can, like Job, ask repeatedly for an answer. Why can we have this confidence in the face of the all-too-familiar temptation to ask “What have I done to deserve this?” If for no other reason than that the Bible includes this strange little book, where a little diseased man, covered with sores, dares to ask repeated questions of Almighty God about the fairness of his plight.

Implicit in Job’s asking is the answer to all his questions. Implicit in his asking is the rock-bottom conviction that a God of justice does exist, that the creator of the world does not sit in insular glory, immune to our cries for understanding. Job cannot get free from his conviction that God cares. Just listen to the nature of his comments for the faith about God that lies behind them:

“Oh, that I knew where I might find (God) ... I would lay my case before (God).”

“I would learn what (God) would answer me, and understand what (God) would say to me.”

“...(God) would give heed to me.”

“an upright person could reason with (God).”

If, in all this, Job doesn’t describe the God who is, then he is certainly describing the God who ought to be! He realizes that in life it is sometimes impossible to know or even guess the mind of God. But what kind of god would we have if this were not so? Solutions to our personal difficulties are not always forthcoming, no matter how intensely we pray, no matter how long we remain on our knees searching for the answer. In the short run, this seems to suggest that God is unreachable. Yet that is the one conviction which Job will never surrender. Job points to a predicament which seems insoluble, and indeed in many ways it was until the advent of Christ.

It is only in Jesus’ life – and in particular in his redeeming death – that Christians come closer to understanding the mind of God in our suffering. It is not that we have a complete understanding by any means, but in looking to Jesus we come as close to the intention of God for the world as we dare get. And the best thing we discover is that it is possible that even suffering can redeem, because that is what Jesus’ suffering did for us. It has redeemed us. Even Jesus cried the forlorn question from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in reality, Jesus was never forsaken. And neither are we. If it momentarily appeared that way to Jesus, I think we can be forgiven when sometimes it also appears that way to us.

But we are never forsaken, never abandoned. God is with us through to the end, though it is often an end we cannot see. Job could not see his own end for another 18 or 20 chapters. But when it came, his desperate clinging to the God who redeems was not disappointed. In the end, as author Frederick Buechner told it, Job never

“ an explanation about [the children he had lost when the house blew down, not to mention all his employees] because he never asked for one, and the reason he never asked for one was that he knew that even if God gave him one that made splendid sense out of all the pain and suffering that had ever been since the world began, it was no longer splendid sense that he needed because with his own eyes he had beheld ... the one who in the end clothed all things, no matter how small or confused or in pain, with his own splendor.”[2]

This is the same One who longs to clothe you and me. Praise be to God, who, residing in glory, deigns to care for us.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Job 22:2-3.
[2] Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who, Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1979, p. 68.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Bless God and Die

Bless God and Die
A Meditation for World Communion Sunday

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time: October 4, 2009

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Why read from such a book on World Communion Sunday? How is today’s service representative of “the world” gathered at the Lord’s table, and in particular, how does Job relate to the Lord’s Supper? Over the years I have looked through the membership of congregations I have served and realized that there have been members in those churches born in many different countries. Here are a few that came to my mind: England, Scotland, Germany, Sierra Leon, Australia, Laos, Puerto Rico, Korea, Cambodia, Canada, Mexico, Holland, Palestine, and, of course, the Republic of Texas. In the USA, we do, truly, come from everywhere. So, in a way, any time a congregation such as ours gathers at the table, we celebrate “World Communion!”

As to the question whether a reading from Job applies to today’s service: in recalling the suffering of Job, we should be sure to remember the suffering of Christ as well. If Job’s suffering was filled with questions, Jesus’ suffering was filled with redemption, with the identification of God with the plight of suffering humanity.

The name “Job” calls to mind a few graphic images for most of us. The phrase, “the patience of Job,” is often used as a description of an especially long-suffering person. This is a cliché at best, a complete misrepresentation at worst. We could believe it to be an accurate characterization of Job only if we had never bothered to read the story, or had “grown weary after reading only the first two chapters.”[1] In the 42 chapters of this most unusual Old Testament book, Job comes across as anything but patient, especially following chapter 2.

Most people with even a passing understanding of Job know that it isn’t a book about patience, but that it has come to be synonymous with the human quest for purpose latent in human suffering. Tom Long of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Atlanta says,

“The story looks as though it may deliver something to feed our aching hunger to know why. When we summon the book to provide an answer, though, many readers are deeply dissatisfied, even aggrieved, with the result. The God who finally turns up near the end of the story appears to supply not an answer, but a swagger.”[2]

It is important to remember that, like the biblical book of Esther, Job is a story-teller’s story, meant to illustrate or teach. It will do no good to search through ancient maps looking for the land of Uz, any more than it would be helpful to look through Persian records for a Jewish queen named Esther. These chronicles are not offered by the biblical writers as history per se, they are theology and philosophy turned into stories we can understand from our own experiences.

When the dictionary speaks of Job as one who encounters disaster with fortitude and faith, it is only partly accurate. Clearly there is fortitude, as demonstrated in Job’s determined answer to his wife that he would not curse God and die. In view of the suffering he endures in the story, that is quite a lot. But notice that by the end of chapter 2 it says only that “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Chapter 3 begins less auspiciously than chapter 2 ended: “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.”

If Job was determined not to curse God with his lips, he apparently felt the terrifying need to curse something. How like most of humanity that when he could not curse something in the world around him, he turned his curses on himself. It is a classic case of blaming the victim. Before his so-called friends could appear on the scene and offer him the thin comfort of telling him his suffering must have arisen from some sinfulness in his life, he had already taken to heaping scorn on his own existence.

Why is this? I think it is because any suffering, and especially the suffering of innocents, brings to mind questions of the meaning of our existence. Job “persisted in his integrity,” but immediately he began to ask the “why” questions. If we believe that we were placed here for a purpose, suffering is the sort of experience that calls that sense of purpose into question in a dramatic way.

Martin Marty is a world-renowned emeritus professor from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and author of a little periodical called Context. He once shared a story there from a Jesuit priest who told him that, on a visit to Mexico, he happened to observe young people coming to a cathedral on a Sunday morning. As each man approached the church doors he handed his señora through into the nave and then stood on the stairs smoking, occasionally looking in to see how things were coming along at the altar. This happened again and again until quite a crowd of men was assembled outside. Intrigued, the priest went down into the plaza.

“Good morning, gentlemen.”

“Good morning, Father.”

“I see you escort the ladies to mass and then wait outside.”

“That’s right,” they said.

“You don’t go into the cathedral yourselves?”

“No, not generally.”

“Well, that’s puzzling. Aren’t you Catholics?”

The men looked at him in consternation.

“Of course we’re Catholics,” they said. “But we’re not fanatics.”

They were happy to carry the label of their faith but not its content or its life. Job was willing to carry the content of his faith, even when he no longer saw the sense of it, no longer even wished to wear the label. He was willing to cling by a thread of faith, even when he was no longer sure where the other end of the thread was attached.

What drives us to the Lord’s table on this or any Sunday? Fanaticism? Perhaps it is nothing more than our desire to avoid the sins of the lips. Perhaps it is only that in the midst of life’s trials and vicissitudes, when we cannot see any trace of the plan or purpose of God, when we have nothing to offer others from our own spent resources, when our needs are so great and our means for meeting them seem so small, that on a day like that we want to have a way to declare that no matter what happens to shake our confidence, we have a means by which we can declare that we still believe. Nothing more than that, just a way of hanging on, of refusing to curse God and die, to say that no matter what lies ahead around curves we cannot see, we believe God’s unseen purpose lies there as well. And perhaps holding on to just that one thing will be enough to see us through. The observance of the Lord’s Supper is not an end in itself, but is a way of reminding believers just how intimately Christ is with us in all the moments of life. Christ is “the divine Son who has fully participated in our human existence and experienced the fullness of human suffering and brokenness.”[3]

With Christ, suffering no longer expresses our separation from God, but rather marks our solidarity with Christ, with God-become-man. In Christ our suffering is his own.

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “There is nothing of which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of – do you want to know? You are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of enduring almost all possible mistreatment. But you do not wish to get to know this; no, you would become enraged at the person who would tell you this, and you regard as a friend only the one who will help you to confirm yourself in the idea [that you are] not capable of enduring, it is beyond [your] power.”

It is beyond our power, true enough. But nothing is beyond the power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead for us, and lives in us through him.


[1] “Job: Second Thoughts in the Land of Uz,” by Thomas Long,Theology Today, April, 1988, p. 5.
[2] Ibid., p. 6.
[3] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Pentecost, Year B, Soards et. al., Abingdon, 1993, pp. 78-79.