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.