Job is one of many stories – of its time and of our time – that tries to make sense of the world in which humans reside, a world in which all manner of good and evil exists side by side.
It is one of many attempts to unravel the mystery of the presence of God and that deity’s activity or passivity when bad things happen to seemingly good people.
The Book of Job has some parallels with ancient Mesopotamian texts dating back as far as the second millennium BCE and, while the written text of Job probably emerged around the sixth century BCE, the oral form is much older.
It is a text that raises many more questions than it answers and, in that, is its genius. Nothing is certain – neither the character of God or of Job. Even the style of the text, vacillating as it does between poetry and prose, ensures that nothing is predictable or easily explained.
The character of Job is in one moment patient and resigned and, in the next, angry, frustrated and questioning of the God whom he sees as shaping the whole of creation. The question of life as a blessing or as a curse within the whole of creation is cleverly stretched throughout the narrative. God, humanity and fate are all given intriguing roles within this cosmic interplay. And the catalyst to this unfolding drama is the wistful dealing of heavenly beings and Satan, the Accuser – The Accuser is given divine permission to put Job to the test by messing around with his hitherto blessed, uncomplicated life.
In the early stages, Job, though his losses are great, manages to maintain faith in the benevolence of the Divine entity, remaining stoic and faithful. However, as The Accuser reeks more and more havoc on his life and then attacks Job physically as well as psychologically and spiritually, Job begins to lament his loss and curse his birth – at length. In his angst, Job’s lament turns against all of creation.
Job’s friends, often given bad press as the worst sort of comforters, come to be with Job and sit with him for seven days and nights, recognising that his suffering is too great for words. Then, it seems, their stores of compassion run dry, and a dialogue begins as Job explores, goaded by his friends, the notion of a God who has not only abandoned him but is actively destroying him. As his friends implore him to reflect on his wrong doing that has incurred such wrath of God, Job turns from God craving isolation from such a vindictive heavenly being.
When the deity finally deigns to answer, we encounter some of the most beautiful creation poetry used to bring perspective to the place of humanity within the whole of the universe. The nature of the soul, the extent and majesty of the universe and the existence of good and evil are all wrestled without resolution in the book of Job. There is acknowledgement that human knowledge of God’s world is pathetically incomplete but the story and the part of Job and God in that remains ambiguous to the end. It seems the more we learn, the less we know. This it has been and ever shall be.
Week One – Job 1:1-22
The opening scenes of Job’s story show us two different worlds. First comes a glimpse of Job’s life. We see that Job is abundantly blessed with more livestock than we can imagine, plus servants to care for them, and ten children who get along with each other. “Blameless and upright,” Job also is a nervous man. After his children hold large feasts, he makes offerings on their behalf, just in case they have turned away from God in the course of all the partying. It doesn’t seem that Job is invited to the parties – perhaps he’s too good to be much fun.
The heavenly beings gather before God, and God seems a little surprised to see The Accuser among them. The Accuser has been busy traveling around the earth, and God brags about Job, his blameless servant. The Accuser says “well, duh! Of course Job loves you. He has a fantastic life with every imaginable blessing. Why wouldn’t he praise you?!” God seems shallow, allowing the Accuser to test Job to prove something about God.
The first time I went to a movie with a large group of African-American moviegoers, I was surprised and then delighted to find the movie patrons talking to the screen. “Don’t do it,” people yelled, as the main character moved toward a dangerous place. “Don’t go in there.” We have the same impulse, wanting to yell at God, “Don’t do it. Don’t say yes to the Accuser. It’s not going to end well.”
And it doesn’t. In short order, Job’s riches and then his children are all gone. In this moment of deep loss, Job calls on God as the giver of all gifts, and the One with the right to take them away. He doesn’t accuse God of doing him harm.
- The sermon might look at how we understand the gifts and the losses in our lives. Social psychologists say that we pay more attention to losses than to gains. Called loss aversion, this finding explains why we invest more time and energy trying to regain something we’ve lost than working on something new. As an NPR reporter explains, “the fundamental idea with loss aversion is that you’re driving by looking in the rearview mirror. That’s what loss aversion is. It’s not a good idea when you’re driving. It’s not a good idea when you’re gambling, and it’s certainly not a good idea when it comes to national policy.” Or the spiritual life.
- Or the sermon might examine whether we turn more to God in good seasons of life, or in our hardest times.
Week Two: Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9, 7:11-21
Now Job’s friend Eliphaz appears, recalling all of the times Job has helped others who were in distress. Now it’s Job’s turn to have trouble. The friend’s counsel suggests what Job has said to other people – to examine where they might have offended God. If Job has given this advice before, no wonder it stings to receive it. Now Job can see how unhelpful it was. In Chapter 7, he speaks eloquently of his sorrow, and then adds that he won’t “restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit.” Where one his life was a joy, now Job says “I loathe my life.” If he has sinned, he wonders, why won’t God pardon him.
- The sermon might look at how we respond to someone having a crisis – whether about faith or finances, health or kids. A widely circulated article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman advises us all on not saying the wrong thing by suggesting we adopt the Ring Theory. The person having a crisis is at the center of the ring, with family and closest friends in the next ring, and so on. We extend comfort and support to anyone closer to the crisis than we are – the person, partner, children, parents. We can express our shock and dismay outward. “Comfort IN, dump OUT,” suggest Silk and Goldman.
As they write, “Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help. Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry” or “This must really be hard for you” or “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me” or “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.” If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.” Job’s friends could have benefitted from the Ring Theory.
- Job’s friends are trying to help, and reminding us how difficult it is to be useful to people. Physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen says “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul. Service rests on the premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose…From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing. Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals.”
Week Three – Job 14:7-15, 19:23-27
In his continuing distress, Job calls out to God that he wishes God would send his to Sheol, where his sorrows would end. A tree has the hope of regenerating, Job says, but human life travels toward death, and Job is ready for the release of death. In Chapter 19, Job continues to make his case against God, wanting to engrave his complaints on rock so they can’t be forgotten. Job appeals to the “go-el,” the redeemer, a figure who protects the vulnerable from injustice. Steed Davidson writes more about this idea for Working Preacher, suggesting that this call for the redeemer is part of Job’s case against God. Christian writers have often overlaid the figure of Jesus as Redeemer onto this scripture, but Davidson posits that the redeemer here is part of the legal dialogue between Job and God.
- Job wants a permanent record of his suffering, and of his complaint against God’s unfair treatment. He wants future witnesses to his struggles. How do we bear witness to one another’s struggles? Without being able to fix anything, how do we stand as witnesses to each other?
- Or the sermon might explore how we understand the source of our struggles. Are they tests from God? Punishment? Just the way life unfolds? I once worked with a young couple with a very sick baby, and after many months together, asked them how they understood what was happening to them. I loved their answer to much that they gave me permission to tell their story. After reflection, the exhausted dad said, “Sometimes awful things happen to people for no reason.” He had let go of the “why” questions and had already moved on to how they would live their life and care for their child.
Week Four – Job 31:35-37, 38:1-11
Here Job wraps up his case against God, and then in Chapter 38, God finally begins to answer Job. We have to admire Job’s persistence in articulating his cause to a seemingly silent God. He asks God to answer him, and holds onto the rightness of his argument, even in long stretches when no answer comes from God.
God finally speaks, and talks to Job like an equal. With this persistent, Job has worn God down…or perhaps won God’s respect. The God who allows the Accuser to test Job in the beginning of the story now seems to be much more interested. God’s indifference has vanished, and now God has something to say. David Henson writes for Patheos that “God just doesn’t give him an answer. God doesn’t try to explain it. God doesn’t even contradict Job’s accusations. Instead, God responds with beauty. Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.” God reminds Job that the work of faith is to hold both halves of the world together – the suffering and the mysterious beauty.
- The sermon might look at the question of what we do when God is silent. Do we, too, fall silent, waiting for God? Do we, like Job, keep calling out, holding onto our convictions? How do we keep from growing discouraged when God seems to be silent? A pastor friend used to say “A thousand years are like a day in God’s sight. What if God is taking the day off?” When we call out, like Job, without an answer, is it God’s day off?
- And, if we, like Job, keep talking to God, will we eventually hear back? Will God answer our questions, too?
- David Henson suggests that “God needs to see Job’s prophetic grief. Job needs to see God’s prophetic beauty. If all we experience is prophetic grief like Job, we can spiral into despair, paralyzed by the overwhelming nature of the earth’s suffering. But if all we see is prophetic beauty, we can spiral into lofty ideals and become so detached from the reality of human pain that we become just as paralyzed. Both are incomplete without the other. Job is trying desperately to draw God’s eyes to the plight of humanity, and God is trying desperately to draw Job’s eyes beyond humanity and suffering and to the larger world around.” If this is true, if wisdom is a conversation between God and humankind, how might we live that out?
Week Five – Job 38:25-27, 41:1-8, 42:1-6
The dialogue between Job and God continues here, as God goes on with the reminders of God’s role in creation, and of the power that created the beauty all around Job. God is the one with the power to subdue chaos. Job is kind enough not to remind God that God didn’t subdue the chaos in Job’s life, but instead allowed it to happen. In Chapter 42, Job speaks again, and he is a changed man. Job answers God, and allows himself to be recalled to a deeper faith. He started out rich in livestock, and now he is rich in wisdom. His experiences have hollowed him out, and God now comes into that emptiness in a way different from when Job’s life was full. Before, Job was the one who came to friends in distress to encourage them – or perhaps to offer words as unhelpful as the things his friends say to him. Now, Job is ready to listen, instead of speaking. God and Job are now in a conversation, each listening and each speaking.
- God has been silent, but has been listening to Job all along. Have you had an experience of feeling like God has really heard what you needed, and answered you? (Perhaps given you what you needed more than what you actually wanted?)
- As we are made in the image of God, and reflect God’s care, how do we listen attentively to each other in a world full of distractions? Are we becoming worse at listening? Does your community have people who have the gift – or skill – of listening to others? In our public life, and in this election season in the US, is anyone actually listening, or are we all just talking all the time?
Week Six – Job 42:7-17
Now God restores Job’s fortunes, and his family returns with sympathy and comfort. His livestock is restored, and he has ten more children. This is a teaching story, so we don’t need to take literally the idea that his children could be replaced. We don’t even need to ask how his wife felt about having ten more children at this late date.
Before the happy ending, God speaks to Job’s friends, chiding them. Kathyrn Schifferdecker writes for Working Preacher, “All English translations of these verses translate God’s charge along these lines: “You have not spoken about me what is right.” But note that the Hebrew can also be translated, “You have not spoken to me rightly, as has my servant Job.” This latter translation points out what was true all along. For all their speaking about God, the “friends” never once in the book speak to God; they never once pray for their suffering friend. Job, on the other hand, moves from speaking only about God to speaking more and more directly to God.” For all of his poverty, Job is the one who speaks directly to God. That is the one thing he never loses.
- Kathryn Schifferdecker observes, “Living again after unspeakable pain is a kind of resurrection. The book of Job does not espouse an explicit belief in resurrection. Nevertheless, the trajectory of the whole book participates in that profound biblical movement from death to life.”
Is the story of Job a story of new life, for you? If so, the sermon might look at the experience of resurrection as we live it in our own lives. How do we come into new life after a death or a divorce, after a long season of illness or the loss of a job? Like Job, we don’t come out the same. Like Job, we are changed by pain, and our faith takes new shapes.
Liz Crumlish is a Church of Scotland Minister currently working on a National Renewal Project. A Board Member of RevGalBlogPals and contributor to There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, Liz blogs at journalling.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, serving a delightful mix of people of all backgrounds and ages. She blogs randomly at Stained Glass in the City when inspiration strikes.
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