Sermon offered October 7, 2012
St. Nathaniel’s Episcopal Church
North Port, Florida
Proper 22B: Job 1:1; 2:1-10
This week’s Old Testament lesson begins a series of three readings from the Book of Job. Over the course of the three weeks we go from the introduction of Job in today’s reading, then to the complaints that Job makes against God as a result of the suffering he endures, and then in the last week we get God’s response to those complaints. The major theme of the book of Job is suffering – more specifically it addresses the questions “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and “How do we deal with the suffering that will inevitably come our way?”
In addition to these questions, the bigger perspective in the book of Job has to do with relationship – honest, authentic relationship with God. Throughout Job’s story we come to see that Job truly knows himself in his right in relationship with God. As we first meet Job at the beginning of the book, we learn that Jacob is blameless and upright – one who fears God and turns away from evil.
A word about the meaning of the fear of God here: it means inward awe and wonder and adoration – not fear in the sense of being afraid. Job is living in a harmonious relationship with God. And incidentally, Job also has great earthly treasure – a large family, lots of property and livestock. Job is rich.
Job is also a righteous man. He’s so righteous, that in today’s story, God is bragging about how righteous he is. As the scene shifts from Job on earth in the land of Uz to the heavenly court. God is having a discussion with Satan. Satan challenges Job’s piety; Satan declares that the reason Job is so righteous is because God has given him so much. Of course, Job is happy! He can afford to be on good terms with God because of all the gifts God is giving him.
But God totally trusts Job’s integrity and totally trusts that Job is not just a fair weather friend. God gives Satan permission to take away all of Job’s earthly possessions. God allows Satan to inflict suffering on Job as a kind of test – to prove the authenticity of Job’s devotion. But God remains in control. Satan must not lay a hand on Job himself.
So in chapter one of the Book of Job, Satan takes away all Job’s possessions – his livestock, his property … Even all ten of Job’s children are killed. Does this cause Job to turn away from God and thus prove that Satan was right?
No. Job passes the test. Job is left in grief and mourning – –but he maintains his trust in God. Job says: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” And we learn that in all this “Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.”
In chapter two the scene switches again. We’re back to the heavenly court, back to an ongoing discussion between Satan and God. Again God brags about his servant Job, about Job’s piety and devotion and righteousness. Satan’s response this time is another “yes, but . . .” Satan charges that Job is devoted to God only because of what he gets from God in return. Satan declares that if Job’s health is challenged he’ll turn against God – “curse God to his face.” “Skin for skin” – “bone and flesh!”
Again God allows Satan to afflict Job with suffering, but again God remains in control. Satan must not take Job’s life. Job passes the test once again. Job’s body is covered with sores – and his wife urges him to “curse God and die.” But Job maintains his integrity. He says: “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive bad?” And we learn that through all this “Job did not sin with his lips.”
We should remember here that we’re watching this play – as a theatrical play – from the sidelines. We know that it was not God who inflicted the suffering – it was Satan. But Job does not know this. And Job never finds out that his suffering was not God’s doing. But in spite of this fact, Job’s faith and trust hold fast because Job’s relationship with God is authentic.
There’s nothing more certain in live than the fact that we are going to suffer. At some point in our lives we will be afflicted with pain and suffering. And for most people the first question they ask is WHY? Why is this happening to me?
One conclusion that some people come to is that “I must be doing something wrong – or I must have done something wrong that this would happen to me.” And by extension of this reasoning, “If I’m more diligent – if I live a good enough life – if I’m good – – good things will happen to me. God will be good to me as long as I’m obedient.”
The other conclusion that people may come to when pain and suffering come their way is that there’s really no reason to bother with God. If there is a God, he’s either incompetent or he really doesn’t care. By extension of this reasoning, everything that happens is random so nothing matters anyway.
The book of Job teaches us that both of these conclusions are wrong – both are spiritual dead ends. What we learn in the story is that God does not cause pain and suffering. Rather God allows suffering, but he does not inflict it. God permits suffering but he limits it. In the story of Job, God gives Satan only enough leeway to expose the truth. And when we get further into the Book of Job we learn that God actually uses Job’s suffering to deepen and grow their relationship. God uses the evil that exists in the world to bring about his own good purposes . . .
This is probably the way God works with us as well. He allows evil to happen to us – he doesn’t like it – but he allows it, to the degree that it defeats Satan’s influence on us. And like Job, we most often have no idea what’s happening to us. We’ll never know.
But the bottom line is that we must stay in a relationship with a God we can’t control. It’s a mystery that we must accept – a mystery we must embrace. There are no absolute answers. As we read in Isaiah, God says: “My thoughts are not your thoughts and my ways are not your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. . .”
And what is the lesson that we learn from Job’s story about relationship – honest authentic relationship with God – with God himself who is Love? We learn that we must come to love God for himself – only for God himself – and not for the gifts he gives us. The mystics have discovered that this is the secret of prayer. An ancient prayer manual reads: “Lift up your heart with a gentle stirring of love, desiring God only for himself and not for his gifts.”
In the story of Job, in the story of Job’s suffering, we discover a path to building authentic relationship with God – with the God who loves us unconditionally. And the Good News is that in our own suffering – in taking up our cross and following Jesus Christ – we will learn how to love both God and humankind unconditionally in return.