Littlewell
Christ Centered Church Resource Site

Suffering

Job 1 - 2
Hebrews 1:1 - 2:4
Sun, October 5, 1997
Rev. Ed Searcy
"Job". Even the name sounds heavy. Reading Job means
reading about suffering. There is no way around it. We
steel ourselves for a depressing sermon! Yet, Job is a good
human being. Nicest guy you could ever meet. Job is the
kind of person that you point to and say "If only we could be
like Job". And not us only, but our children as well. Why
there's an entire movement called "Job's Daughters" (you'll
find the answer to that one at the end of the story when you
read it at home this afternoon!). Of course, everyone has
heard of "the patience of Job". We use the phrase to this
day to heap praise on someone who endures without so
much as a peep. So it comes as no surprise that, when the
story begins, Job has a succesful business, a big portfolio and
a happy family at the dining table. Job's solid character is
proof positive that living a good and upright life has its own
rewards. Job obviously comes from good parents. He has
taken all the lessons learned in Sunday School and put them
to good use. His love of God and love of neighbour makes
him the model human being. "Everyman" and
"Everywoman" at their best.

That's why God points him out with pride to satan. Oh, not
capital "S" Satan as we have come to know him but satan as
he was known long ago. 'Ha-satan' is not a proper noun in
Hebrew. It is the word that means 'accuser' or 'prosecutor'.
Yes, the satan is God's heavenly prosecutor in the tale of
Job. Sent to earth to look for those who have not kept the
law of God. Well, the docket is rather long by the time he
checks in with the heavenly court. And as this satan smugly
points out the thoroughness of his work, God can't help but
ask if he has noticed Job? 'At the very least there is one
virtuous human walking the face of the earth', says God.
'Sure', replies Satan, 'but you give Job such special
treatment. You protect him from suffering of any sort. I'll
bet that the minute he has to endure tragedy you will see his
naive faith crumble.' 'You're on', replies God. With that,
the heavenly wager is set. Is there even one human on earth
who can continue to praise and glorify God when their
doxologies do nothing to earn a reprieve from suffering?
Can anyone serve God without reward? Satan says 'no'.
God says 'yes'.

And the story has begun. That's how it is in the Bible. Over
in the Philosophy Deparment at the university and the
Theology Division of the theological school they talk about
the problem of suffering and evil in conceptual terms. The
complex issues involved are quantified and qualified like
some massive mathematical equation that will one day be
mastered by some brilliant PhD. In the Bible it's different.
In the Bible suffering and evil are the stuff of stories. That's
how it is with us, too. When we philosophize and theologize
about suffering we tell stories ... our stories. That's how
Rabbi Harold Kushner finds himself with a best-seller on his
hands. For no apparent reason at all this faithful,
practicing, Jewish rabbi and his wife are confronted by the
tragic illness and death of their son. The young boy is
diagnosed with 'progeria' - a rare progressive aging disorder
which leaves him dead as an old man at the age of thirteen.
Out of the experience of that loss Kushner writes a little
book called "When Bad Things Happen to Good People". It
shoots to the top of the bestseller list. Apparently Kushner
is not alone in his experience ... or in his questions. Either
we already share his experience ... or know full well that one
day it could just as easily be ours. Which explains Job's
continued relevance all these years later. To be honest, no
one knows when Job is written ... or by whom. The story is
set in ancient times. Job himself is portrayed as a
contemporary of the likes of Noah and Abraham. Nothing
in the text suggests that Job is necessarily Jewish or knows
anything of Judaism. There is much about the text that is
mysterious and unknown. Still, this ancient tale continues
to live. Just a few months back, the Chan Centre across the
way was opened with a world premier of an oratorio called -
you guessed it - 'Job'. True to form, the oratorio's music
proves as harsh and painful to listen to as the book of Job is
to read.

Listening to 'Job' is like listening to the worst litany of
disaster that anyone could possibly imagine. Out of the blue
Job loses everything, one by one, in systematic fashion. An
unfriendly takeover of his corporate empire. Downsizing.
Termination. But that is not all. Then it is his beloved
children. Each killed tragically: Cancer. Drunk-driver.
Serial killer. War. It never ends. Still, Job's faith does not
waver. "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away" he
declares ... the master of understatement. So Satan ups the
ante. Job himself gets sick. And not with an ordinary
illness ... not heart disease or a stroke. He gets leprosy.
AIDS. An untouchable's disease. A social disease. The
disease that society equates with sin. Sitting on an ashheap,
scraping his sores with a piece of clay pot, Job is a sad sight.
His long-suffering wife wonders aloud if he shouldn't give
up on God. "Curse God, and die" she says, perhaps
convinced that such self-induced euthanasia is Job's only
hope. But Job persists. He will not give up on God: "Shall
we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the
bad?". God appears to have won the bet. Heaven's
Prosecutor has lost. Job has kept the faith ... and proved that
there is at least one human on the face of the earth who can
endure.

But, of course, the story has only just begun. This merely
sets the stage for what is to come. Now that we have been
hooked, the opening credits begin to roll. And as they roll
we see Job joined by his three buddies - Eliphaz, Bildad and
Zophar. Not a word is spoken. What can they say? For a
week they sit in silent vigil with Job. Like us, sitting here,
beside a Cross ... beside one another ... silent before the
mystery of so much unexplained suffering. Until Job breaks
the silence. Gone is the infamous 'patience of Job'.
Suddenly Job curses the day of his birth: "let that night be
barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it ...why did I not die at
birth ... why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for
me to suck?" Job wonders aloud about the rationale behind
such suffering befalling a virtuous person like himself. Soon
Job's pain erupts into the rage of an angry fist shaking at the
heavens as he challenges the morality of the Almighty God.
Job's friends respond the only way they know how. They
try to answer his questions ... to calm him down ... to get
him to stop making such an embarassing scene. Eliphaz:
"Think Job who that was innocent ever perished? Are you
perishing ... then you must not be so innocent as you
pretend!" Bildad: "Are you suggesting that God is unjust ...
no, Job, you are unjust". Zophar: "How dare you ask such
questions ... would God answer a liar like you? Get well
soon. Zophar". Can you imagine?

Well, actually, we can. We can imagine trying to answer
Job's rage at God. We do it all the time. Listen to us as we
try to explain the inexplicable: "It's just God's will, you'll
have to learn to accept it" ... "God never puts more on us
than we can bear" ... "AIDS - it's their own fault" ...
"Remember Job, you said it yourself: The Lord gives and
the Lord takes away". Of course, we mean well. Like Job's
friends we want to solve the disasters that have
overwhelmed life. But our answers are ridiculously
inadequte platitudes. "All of our explanations", says
William Willimon "are like some pitiful little tinker toy
bridge over the great abyss of chaos". And it is not only
answers offered by lay theologians that belittle the hard
questions that plague Job. All of us who dare to preach
about Job run the risk of sounding just like Eliphaz, Bildad
and Zophar ... little preacherettes with their little
sermonettes ... offering little mumblings that mean nothing.
This cannot be a sermon with some easy resolution ... like a
Hallmark 'In sympathy' card that tries to silence Job's rage.
Not when Job has moved from the opening chapter's quiet
resignation to this plot twist of clench-fisted defiance.
Rising up off the ash heap he says to God: "See you in
court!".

And does Job ever see God in court. Job gets what he asks
for alright ... and then some. When God finally arrives on
the scene to answer the charges there is no doubting the
Almighty's presence. Now, I hate to upset any of you who
had hoped that we have a smooth talking, well-spoken God
but, as Job discovers, God 'in person' is anything but. God
Almighty turns out to be a bombastic, overwhelming
presence who bursts onto the stage. As we discussed this
story at the 'Share and Care' gathering on Wednesday, Bill
Taylor suggested that God's part would best be read by Bill
Buck at full volume in the Vancouver Planetarium: "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." With that God enters into a long
soliloquoy. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of
the earth ... who determined its measurements, surely you
know! ... have you commanded the mornings since your days
began ... can you make an ostrich ... or give strength to a
horse ... is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?" Job is
overwhelmed. He had no idea what he was getting into
when he laid down the gauntlet before God. Job is dumb,
numb, stupified: "See, I am of small account ... I lay my
hand on my mouth". God is not finished. Out of the
whirlwind there is more Word of God for Job to endure:
"Look at Behemoth ... that primeval monster, symbol of evil
... and Leviathan ... that sea-monster who personifies chaos
itself. Can you control either of these great forces? Can
you take Behemoth with a hook or hold down Leviathan's
tongue with a cord?" With this God reveals something of
what it is like to be God, something of the chaos against
which God must battle every day. By the end of the speech
it is as if God says: "Job, if you can be a better God, go
ahead ... be my guest! Because the truth is that justice is a
little more complicated than you think." Job is almost
speechless: "I have uttered what I did not understand ... I
had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye
sees you, therefore I repent in dust and ashes." There will
be no 'answer to Job' but this ... that the ways of God's
justice are utterly mysterious and beyond human
comprehension.

And that's it. That's it. Oh, there is the happily ever after
story in which Job gets all of his corporate empire back
along with a whole new crop of sons and, yes, his very own
'Job's daughters'. It keeps the movie-going public smiling as
they leave the theater. But what of Job's raging questions
and God's raging response? This hardly seems like the
patient, enduring Job of whom God seems so proud in the
opening scenes. Does God lose the bet with Satan? Is Job,
in the end, as lacking in trust and faith as all the rest of
them? Certainly Job's preacher-friends are convinced that
he is a man of little faith. Job's unwillingness to be satisfied
by their sermons just proves it. Or does it? After all, Job
does believe. He believes with all of his being that God must
answer for what Job has suffered ... and he believes that God
will answer. In the end, his faith is merited. Job's fist-
shaking rage at God is an act of living faith ... not doubt.
Viewed with a close-up lens Job's anger at heaven appears
blaspemous. But if you view the scene with a wide-angle
lens you see something else. All of a sudden you notice that
Job, rage at God and all, is standing in the palm of God's
own hand. Then, listening to the Almighty, we discover
that Job's wrestling match with the forces of chaos and evil
is matched only by God's own struggle to contain Behemoth
and control Leviathan. As it turns out, Job's defiance is
made in God's own defiant image. God's faith in Job has
been well placed. Job does endure in faith. As a matter of
fact, Job's defiance is the measuring stick of his faithfulness.

And us? Our virtue may not match Job's heights of
virtuosity. Our litany of suffering may not be as lengthy as
Job's unimaginable misfortune. But God's wager is still in
place. Can anyone serve God without reward? Will anyone
still praise God without needing silver linings in every
cloud, without thought for what they can get out of it, just
because God is God and deserves our praise? Sitting here,
feeling our losses, facing our troubles, confronting our
worries, feeling alone, inadequate, lost. This is where the
wager takes place - right here - as we sit in the ashes and
scrape our wounds like Job. Can we endure in faith? That
is still the question.

But for us there is one difference. We sit on an ashheap that
rests at the foot of the Cross. We can see what Job could not
see ... that God Almighty has endured the sufferings of Job.
In the Cross we know what Job could not know ... that God
has overcome Behemoth and Leviathan once and for all.
This is no simple silver lining, no little sermonette that
papers over the cracks in the mystery. The debates and
arguments about evil and suffering must continue in the
philosophy departments and theology divisions. The
questions still confound humankind. But the truth is that
our stories of suffering will forever be formed by a life-
giving Cross of suffering. The bet is no longer placed on
Job alone ... the wager is on God Almighty to keep faith
with all creation. In Jesus Christ, God keeps the faith. That
is why, as Desmond Tutu is fond of saying, "being a
Christian means being a prisoner of hope." We cannot give
up on God ... no matter how hard the questions or how
painful the sufferings. In this we are just like Job.