TEXT:  Job 1:6-21

            Life has been better.  These last few months have reminded me of my first time swimming in the surf off the Atlantic coast of Florida as a college student.  I waded out into the water and a huge wave crashed and drove me down into the sand.  I tried to scramble to my feet, but I wasn't even halfway up when the next one hit me hard and I went down again.  And so it continued, slam after slam until I really thought I would drown.  I did manage to make my way, coughing and sputtering, back to shore, but it was an experience I didn't care to repeat.

            If you live long enough, you have times when life gangs up on you like that.  For some reason bad times come in bunches rather than in solitary events and like the Florida waves, we get slammed to the ground again and again.  Where do we look in the Bible when that happens?  Well, I look to the ultimate rotten-life story, the story of Job.

The book of Job begins with God bragging on how good this man Job is.  Satan then challenges Job’s goodness and as a result, God puts Job to the test. 

            First he loses all of his material possessions and all of his family, except his wife.  Job passes that test.  Then Satan ups the ante and wants to make it harder, so God allows Satan to make Job physically ill...covered in boils from head to toe.  Job is downright miserable, and he moans and groans for a fair number of chapters.  He has friends who show up and tell him that he must have sinned for God to do such things to him.  They tell him to repent and Job begins to wish that maybe God would have taken his friends as well as his family. 

Job demands that God show up and explain all this, and God does appear.  The trouble is, God doesn’t really explain Job’s question.  Job wants to know...as we often do...”Why me?”  God’s answer is basically that we are not capable of understanding.  It is the divine version of that parental response that so annoys children...”Because I said so.”  Job then repents of asking the question and God restores his health and gives him twice as much as he had before.  God says Job is still blameless at the end of the test.

Because Job God why this has happened to him, lots of people assume that's the question that the Book of Job is trying to answer.  Why do bad things happen to good people? (as Rabbi Kushner's title reads).  But the more I think about the Book of Job, the more I come to believe that "Why do bad things happen to good people?" is the wrong question.  The real question behind Job, I think, is "Why be good in the first place?"

When God points out how very good Job is, Satan’s response is to question his motive.  “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan asks in verse 9.  I think this is the question of the book.  “Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land.  But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”

             Satan, which means “the Accuser”, has just asked the question still asked by those who seek to accuse the church today.  “See Sally Churchgoer,” says God.  “She lives right, just like a Christian ought to.  And you’ll find her in church every Sunday with a tithe in her offering envelope.”

            “Well of course she does,” says the challenger.  “She’s had it easy all her life.  She’s never known poverty or illness or tragedy...not really.  She’s just a good Christian because she thinks nothing really bad can happen to her that way.  She is into this faith thing for herself, not for you, God.  She doesn’t love you for who you are, she loves you only because you give her what she wants.   Take away those comforts and you’ll see what her faith is really made of.  You might be God, but if she doesn’t get what she wants from you, she’ll never darken that church door again.  Just you try it!”

The question of Job, it seems to me, is raising the issue of whether we are able to pick up a cross and follow Jesus or whether we are only in the crowd because we have eaten our fill of loaves and fishes.  Do we worship God as a way of paying for blessings we expect to receive or do we worship God simply because God is worthy of worship?  It is a timeless question and a crucial question.

            As Job’s suffering begins and the book progresses, we see the heart of a blameless man.  The first thing we notice is that Job never saw anything that God had given to him as anything other than something he held in trust.  None of it was truly “his”...not his wealth, not his house, not his family.  When it is all taken from him in a single day, Job responds in verse 1:21, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Most of us lose the battle right here, because most of us think we are owners rather than stewards of God’s gifts.  We think that the things God has placed under our control are rewards for ourselves rather than resources for the world and we find ourselves angry if God should require their return or disbursement. 

Now, please notice that Job is not jumping in the streets for joy.  These losses are real blows.  They really hurt, and Job shows all the signs of mourning.  He shaves his head and tears his robe in grief.  I’m not suggesting that the faithful response to loss is a mere shrug of the shoulders.  Job felt the losses and grieved deeply.  But then he fell on the ground and worshiped.  Until we have abandoned our notions of entitlement, this part of his response makes no sense, and we turn away from Job sad, like the rich young ruler in Luke 18 who just couldn’t let go of absolutely everything.  When the Accuser points at us and says, “This one is only good because she’s never really had to put her money where his mouth is,” many of us have lost the challenge.  And that is only chapter one.

            It seems like Job surely has passed the test, proving that there is such a thing as a human being who worships God simply because God is God.  But the Accuser sees deeply into the human psyche and probes still further in chapter 2.  “Yes,” Satan says in essence, “He has been able to keep his priorities straight regarding those things outside of himself.  But a man’s body is his ultimate possession.  Mess with that and you’ll see that every person has a buyout price.”

            It is this next section, when Job's suffering grows past anything a person should have to endure, that I find the most comfort.  This is the place where I see that even God's most faithful are overwhelmed at times and that crying out in pain and frustration to God is not sin or offense, but just honesty in prayer.

Job does not hide his anger and bitterness from God.  He says God has denied him justice (27:2).  He claims God has left him (29:1-6).  Listen to his prayer in 30:20-23: “I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer; I stand up, but you merely look at me.  You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me.  You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm.  I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living.”    

            How do the righteous pray when they suffer?  Well, here in Job is one example...an example that God countered but did not condemn.  It feels like pure freedom and grace to me to be allowed honest prayer and to have Scripture acknowledge that even the blameless feel at times like God has gone on vacation without them.

In the book of Job we see a blameless man who hangs onto his faith in God through horrible circumstances.  Job proves that he is not placing his trust in God just for what he can get out of it.  This is love of God for God’s sake alone.  But although the challenge is finished for Job, there is the sense that it will surface again.  The Accuser goes back to his corner, but there is one more level he has not tried.  Job’s health has suffered, but God refused to let Job die.  Everything else was taken, but not his life.  Satan can’t do any more with Job, but he is willing to wait for another blameless man to come along.

            At a more opportune time, the challenge surfaces again when Satan confronts Jesus.  The challenges of Job are presented first in the wilderness temptations.  Want wealth and authority, Jesus?  Give up on God and worship me.  Want fame and friends?  Be spectacular and throw yourself off of the Temple and let the angels catch you.  Suffering in your body?  Hungry?  Make these stones into bread.  Jesus defeats Job’s temptations handily.  But how about death?  That is Satan’s trump card.  We can almost hear the “skin for skin” discussion of Job escalating with Jesus.

            And as it is tried, we see the same darkness of suffering descend.  Even the sky turns black as Jesus feels and expresses the absence of God.  “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But in the end, with his dying breath, Jesus says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”  The Accuser is defeated once and for all. 

Why do the righteous suffer?  Any answer to that is beyond my human understanding, and I find that I question God about it on a fairly regular basis, just as Job did.  God’s answer to Job seems to be bent on making him realize that the urgent question is whether our lives are centered on ourselves or on God.  Just how far are you willing to go with God?  Past your understanding?  Past your comfort?  To the Cross?  All your heart?  All your soul?  All your mind?  It’s worth asking of ourselves, and I promise you that it is being asked by those who turn a critical and accusing eye toward the church.  Why be good?  Is it really God that is important to us, or is it the benefits package?  Amen.

Sermon © 2005, Anne Robertson

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