A Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23 – Year B – RCL – 14 October 2012
John Edward Miller, Rector
Then Job answered:
“Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!”
– Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
A recent Peanuts comic strip featured a classic response to the problem of pain. Linus has gotten a splinter while climbing over rail fencing with Charlie Brown. When Lucy approaches and notices Linus’ problem, she begins to pontificate. “Ah ha!” she cries, “That means you’re being punished for something!” Then she questions the suffering Linus, saying, “What have you done wrong lately?” Linus, who is surprised at her callous question, replies vigorously. “I haven’t done ANYTHING wrong!” he shouts. Not being one who likes having her opinions challenged, Lucy bears down on the evidence. She states, “You have a sliver, haven’t you? That’s a misfortune, isn’t it? You’re being punished with misfortune because you’ve been bad!”
Charlie Brown tries to come to Linus’ defense, but is quickly cut off at the knees. Lucy bellows at him, “What do you know about it, Charlie Brown? This is a sign! This is a direct sign of punishment! Linus has done something very wrong, and now he has to suffer misfortune!” Then she berates them both, shouting, “I know all about these things! I know that a . . .” Just then, Linus holds up his finger and proclaims, “It’s out! It just popped right out.” Annoyed, Lucy wheels around and begins to walk away from the scene. Linus smirks a little as he follows her with the words: “Thus endeth the theological lesson for today!”
It may have ended for Linus and Charlie Brown, but the “lesson” Lucy sought to drive home has been difficult to remove from our thinking. For at least the last 3000 years, the idea of just deserts has been growing like kudzu in our collective consciousness. When pain and suffering strike, the knee jerk reflex is to ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” The assumption that we get what we deserve is ancient, and it is persistent. The reason is that we humans have always hoped that our experience is not random or accidental, but that that there is a logical mind or just principle governing our existence. As Rabbi Kushner is fond of saying, “People like to think that someone’s driving the bus.”
In the biblical context, that someone is the LORD of hosts, the Maker of heaven and earth. Through the ministry of Moses, the God of Israel has revealed and given his people the Law as the guide to a righteous and holy life. The Law is set forth in commandments that are often introduced by the words, “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not.” These rules are not suggestions; they are imperatives. The God who creates us and calls us to community requires moral responsibility in return. The Book of Deuteronomy describes what happens when we heed, or ignore, the Law. It sets up a cause and effect principle of justice that is directly correlated with our behavior. The Deuteronomic principle states that obeying the Law brings blessing, and disobedience brings disaster – the curse of retribution. It’s that simple. Like the law of karma, it says, “you reap what you sow.”
But what if you’ve tried hard to live a decent life, and you’ve obeyed all the rules, kept your permanent record clean, and find out that you’re fatally ill? Or lose the most precious person in your life? Or discover that something beyond your control causes the demise of everything that you’ve worked for? The Deuteronomic principle says that these things were not accidents – i.e., that they just “happened,” but that they were the just reward for something bad that you did.
Job is the story of someone in that very situation. His was the biblical voice of everyone who suffers but refuses to accept that he has caused his own tragedy. Given the endurance of Deuteronomy’s view, which offers a simplistic formula that blames the victim, it is a miracle that the Book of Job – with its push back against insensitive legalism – is in the same Bible as the Book of Deuteronomy. And yet, there they are, in the same Old Testament by the grace of God. Perhaps that it is a witness to divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Balance is a good thing; it enables us to take a more comprehensive look at complex issues, rather than to grasp the easier view, and hold fast, sacrificing people to support an unbending principle.
Job knew himself; he was not blinded by denial. He had done no wrong, and deserved no punishment. He had suffered the loss of virtually everyone and everything important to him. Further, he had been afflicted with a loathsome skin ailment that made his misery visible for all to see and scoff at. In keeping with his core beliefs, Job attributed his suffering to God’s will. To his mind that would have been the only cause of pain to consider. God was the LORD of creation, and no other power could have done this. Still, Job refrained from blaming God, saying, “Though he slay me yet will I trust in him.” His patience became a legendary virtue typifying longsuffering faith.
However, a group of “friends” would not allow Job to cope silently with his pain. Their visits to the grieving Job had little to do with care and much to do with torture. Each friend was certain of himself, never doubting that the Deuteronomic principle was accurate and airtight. The point of coming to Job was to convince him that he had done something to deserve his afflictions, and then to persuade him to repent of the evil. In other words, the friends were like Lucy in the Peanuts comic. Only Job’s condition, unlike Linus’, did not improve. And the friends nearly destroyed him with their relentless battering. Nevertheless, Job never caved. He was innocent, and his protest courageously maintained that position.
Job was confused about God’s part in his suffering. He refused to reject God, despite the injustice of his fate. Instead, his reaction to his friends’ analysis was to seek an audience with God. In this morning’s text we hear Job’s insistence that he needs to go to God’s house to find him. The language is very down to earth. Job’s longing is to go up to God’s door and knock until God opens up and stands there face-to-face with his plaintive servant. It’s clear that Job expects God to be there, to hear him out, and to answer his questions. What is more, it’s obvious that Job expects God to be just and righteous, as well as attentive and receptive to his needs.
But the problem is that Job doesn’t know where God lives. And he is so worn out from having insult after insult piled onto his horrific injuries that he’s reached the breaking point. He says that his “complaint is bitter,” because search as he may, he could not locate God’s whereabouts and there argue his case. His frustration has tumbled into disappointment; his spirit has sunk into despair. Job can’t find God, the one with the answer to his perplexity. He feels mistreated, isolated, and angry. All he wants now is to disappear into the darkness that has descended upon his life. At that moment for him, all was lost.
“Where is God?”
Elie Wiesel heard that question at an execution. He was a prisoner of the Nazis, interned at a concentration camp. And yet he had committed no crime; he was an innocent teenage boy. The only reason for his being in that death camp was that he is Jewish.
The scene where the question arose was awful. It took the rigors of concentration camp subsistence to a new depth of horror. Three men had been accused of stealing, and they were swiftly and coldly condemned to death by hanging. Two of the accused were fully grown; the other was a frail youth. The whole camp was ordered to watch the execution. It was supposed to teach everyone an object lesson about stealing.
When the platform dropped beneath the feet of the three hapless individuals, the two heavier men died quickly; their fall made their agony brief. However, the youth was not so lucky. His slim frame worked against him. When the rope tightened, he simply choked; his neck was not broken. Slow suffocation prolonged his suffering.
Meanwhile the other prisoners watched. It was a maddening spectacle, and the injustice of it, combined with the prisoners’ helplessness to stop the boy’s pain, made the experience excruciating to witness.
Elie Wiesel was haunted by the memory of that horrifying scene. It was etched on his memory with an iron pen. He recalled hearing the complaint of someone in the crowd on that awful day. The voice kept on asking, “Where is God? Where is God? Where is God now?” And he also remembers a voice rising up within him – a voice that took the complainer’s cry to the heart of darkness. His inner voice grimly shouted, “He is there on the gallows.”
Elie Wiesel’s judgment told him that, based on the evidence available, God was dead. Or, it may have meant that there was no God at all. His pronouncement was made in the midst of fear, and loss, and death. During that time in Elie Wiesel’s youth, it was perpetually night. There was no light, only darkness; he could not see. And locating God’s whereabouts in that context seemed to be futile and absurd.
Elie Wiesel was Job when he considered that question. But he when he answered it, he and Job parted company, at least for a while. As bad as it got for Job, with all of the loss and torment, he never gave up on God. In fact, he implored God to come down, and explain what in the name of all that is holy was going on.
And, you know, the most amazing thing happened: God came, and spoke to Job. That part of the story is hugely significant. Beyond all of the hurt and disappointment that Job absorbed, there was a spiritual threat to his existence. Job’s faith was under attack. He was a victim of evil; his very being, which was characterized by patient trust in his LORD, had been subjected to withering fire. Not only was he barraged by the opinions of unhelpful interpreters, but he was also wounded by the contradiction between religious doctrine and his experience. Job believed that the innocent do not suffer; but he was innocent, and he was suffering. That fundamental disconnect compounded the tragedies that had shaken his foundations. The temptation to throw in the towel loomed. His vision was clouded, his outlook darkened, but Job did not give up. Even though he could not reach out and grab God as he reeled from the hits he was taking, Job lifted up his weary head and prayed. He shouted out his plea for God to come, and brighten his gloom.
And the LORD showed up. In response to Job’s prayer God appeared. His presence was light enough to pierce the darkness. It gave Job assurance that he was not alone in his suffering. It showed him that God was with him, rather than against him. It revealed that God is a pain-sharer, not an unfeeling dispenser of cruel punishment. Those indispensable disclosures from God shone through the gloom, and helped Job to heal. His losses were real; they hurt him mightily. But God’s radiant being, which was there all along, enabled Job to put his awful memories in a safe place where the pain would not destroy him.
As they walked along a Judean road, Jesus and his disciples came upon a blind beggar. The poor man had never had sight, and that prompted the disciples to ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
With that kind of teaching Jesus took the Job story to a very personal conclusion. Job pushed back against the prevailing doctrine that people get what they deserve in this life. Jesus demolished it. But he did so not simply with words, as a philosopher or theologian might have. Jesus was the answer that the disciples were looking for. In him the Word became flesh; his being was full of grace and truth. He was God’s full disclosure of light – a light that is sufficient to dispel the deepest darkness.
The disciples looked at the man born blind and saw only sin. Jesus looked at the man and saw a person, a precious child of God. And he regarded him as a sufferer rather than an outcast. That’s why he stopped when the man called out to him for help. That’s why he touched the man, and prayed for light to shine in his darkness. The Word that became flesh is God’s gift of himself. It is God’s “compassion,” his “suffering with” the experiences we encounter daily. That godly presence, that gracious act of “being there,” does not deny pain. It affirms it, comforts it, and helps to heal it.
Where is God when we need him? He is with us, feeling what we feel, thinking what we think, enduring what we endure. His compassion is not just a thought, or a quaint sentiment. It is personal. It is real. It is there on the cross.
That is something to ponder, and to savor, because it is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen.