A Sermon on Job 3:1-10; 4:1-9; 7:11-21
Last week we began a new series on the Book of Job, and we talked about how it is one of those troublesome books of the Bible because it opens up a can of theological worms to which there are no convenient answers. It is so troublesome in fact, that preachers tend to avoid preaching about it because the main question being posed in the reading is that age-old irksome question: “Why does a good God allow bad things happen to good people?” There is no answer to that question, and to try and answer it is to flounder. Preachers don’t like to flounder; it’s unflattering, so we’re more apt to preach about things which leave us feeling more certain of our message.
We’re all like that aren’t we? No one really feels comfortable stepping up to the mic and talking about something they know nothing about. If we are going to talk about something then we want to be sure of our facts; we want to know that we’re not speaking out of line. But sometimes we have to go out on a limb – especially when speaking on matters of faith. Faith doesn’t adhere to facts; faith doesn’t even especially make sense; if it did, it wouldn’t be faith. And usually, acting out of faith, or speaking about faith requires a great deal of faith. Faith is not always comfortable, and sometimes all you can really do is flounder your way through it.
I imagine that’s how Job’s friends felt as they sat with him on his ash heap of despair picking at his sores. A lot of people pick Job’s friends to pieces for their lame attempts at explaining Job’s reversal of fortune. But what we didn’t hear about in today’s reading was how they had been sitting there with Job for an entire week, around the clock, not saying a word. Last week we read chapter 1 which set the stage for what was to come. This week we skipped ahead to chapter 3, but chapter 2 is where Job’s friends arrive on the scene and then proceed to sit with him in his misery without saying anything.
To briefly summarize, Job opens with the words: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” Job was a righteous man who was blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil. But one day, God and Satan made a bet. Satan claimed that Job only loved God because of all of his good fortune in life. He wagered that if God were to take it all away, Job would curse God. So God granted Satan permission to strip Job of everything, including his children. Job did not curse God, but instead said: “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” That is where we left Job last week.
In chapter 2, God and Satan have another conversation where God brags on Job again saying, ‘see there! Job did not curse me as you said he would.’ But Satan pressed the matter even further and challenged God that if Job’s health were taken away then for sure he would be singing a different tune. So again, God agrees and allows Satan to cover Job in boils. Job’s friends hear of his woes and come to sit with him for a whole week in silence, and today, we pick up with chapter 3 where Job finally begins to speak.
Job has changed his tune quite a bit since last week. He’s had time to process things, to sit in his grief and to mourn the loss of his children. He’s moved from prosperity to an ash heap, and his wife has been urging him to curse God and die already. Job has reached his limit physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. He is at those famous crossroads where he can either continue to worship faithfully and without question, or he can crack wide open, and question everything he has ever believed. Job cracks and begins by unleashing a stream of curses on the day of his birth. He doesn’t curse God directly, but over the next several chapters he will curse every living thing God created down to the tiniest blade of grass.
Has your world ever been torn apart that completely? So much so that it feels like nothing is stable or solid or real anymore? That you think it would be better never to have existed, rather than live in a world where there is such senseless evil? I’ll bet there are more than a few of us who have been there. We’re built to withstand a certain amount of suffering, but not ongoing, relentless suffering. Everyone reaches a breaking point eventually. And who knows if there a right and wrong way to respond? If we’re lucky, we are given the space and the grace to respond in whatever way we must in order to process, and then move through our grief.
I have heard more than one person say the only good thing Job’s friends did for him was to sit silently with him for seven days. I can’t really argue with that, but at some point, we have to stop sitting in silence. At some point we have to be willing to speak out when we are staring straight in the face of suffering and injustice. Sometimes we have to be willing to flounder as we learn our role in the healing process. Sadly, Job’s friend Eliphaz did as so many people do when they don’t know how to respond – he began to pick Job apart and point the finger of blame at him for his problems.
Now I am going to go out on a limb myself here and run the risk of floundering. Because today I see Job suffering all around me, and I cannot simultaneously preach the gospel while sitting in silence. In the course of 72 hours I have witnessed Job suffering as two black men, one in Minnesota and one in Louisiana were killed by police, and then again as violence and gunfire by snipers ended the lives of five police officers in Dallas. I flounder because I am angry at the loss of all of these precious lives. And for what? Hate? I flounder because too many people assume that if you care about black lives then you must not care about police lives. I flounder at the harshness of “either/or” thinking when in fact, we live in a “both/and” world.
With each and every act of violence, I hear Job’s anger, grief, anguish, horror, rage, and his cries for justice and accountability. I hear it through the blood of the police officers and the anguish of their families. I hear it in the voices of the black community as clearly recorded police killings are made public while yielding very few indictments and even fewer convictions. But I hear it the loudest when I observe people picking each other apart in their grief, and casting blame around recklessly because I know this is only going to lead to more violence.
I flounder as my eyes are slowly being opened to my own cooperation in systems of oppression and racism, yet I don’t know how to speak about these things, much less move toward change. I flounder because it is time for Americans to rise from the ash heap, to speak and act collectively to end this spiral of violence and hate, but as I stand and look around me I sometimes feel myself to be alone. I flounder because as a pastor I am committed to ACT in ways that bring healing and hope. That is my responsibility, yet as a human I sometimes feel helpless and lost. I flounder because I wonder where exactly God is in all of this, and I flounder because I can’t bear the thought of God and Satan looking down to see who will win the wager.
And there it is – the dilemma that, if we are honest, drills directly into the heart of the matter. This is the dilemma, the mother of all dilemmas, the one that keeps us awake at night, and causes us to really wonder whether or not there is a God or if that God even cares about us. The biblical writers were playing with fire when they wrote the story of Job. It was dangerous then, and it’s dangerous now. It challenges us to ask the hard questions, to press for truth, and not just settle for easy answers. Oftentimes we wonder why God is punishing us or why God doesn’t come swooping in to fix the world and restore order and harmony. Those questions seek easy answers that shift the burden on God. But the hard questions put us on the hook, and force us to ask ourselves, what are we going to do to set things right?
That’s a mighty tough question because that is a “we” question. No one can answer that question by themselves. And so far, “we” have not answered it together. We are suffering – together, and we will continue to do so until we figure a way out of this mess – together. And that means ditching Eliphaz as a friend. We are all Eliphaz to one degree or another. Our cultural and political climate is saturated by Eliphaz. Eliphaz resorts to blame and shame, finger-pointing, and trying to figure out whose fault it is. Eliphaz tends to see life in black and white with no room for gray area in between. Eliphaz has a worldview that is narrow, allowing only for either/or rather than recognizing a reality that is big enough to allow for multiple truths even when those truths seem to contradict each other.
Eliphaz keeps us from asking the hard questions because those are the very questions that expose Eliphaz for the fraud that he is. When we are playing the blame game we get nowhere, but when we are willing to lower our defenses and accept our own responsibility for things, when we are willing to listen – just listen and hear what the Spirit is saying, we soften, and as we soften we come to understand that the pain in the world, all of it — yours and mine — is real, it is connected, and the only way to ease it is to work together and find our way back to love.
There’s a scientific theory that illustrates this idea called quantum entanglement. “At the simplest level, the idea of entanglement is just the idea that two things that are separated in space can still be the same thing,” or “You can have an object that exists in two different spaces and is still the same object.” What is even more interesting though, is that particles within these objects also remain connected even though they are physically separated, and when one particle becomes excited, so does the other. “What moves me, moves you. What hurts me, hurts you. What inspires me, inspires you. In affirming another’s pain, we affirm that we are entangled in it. When we become entangled, we are changed.”
We are the church. We are God’s designated Agents of Grace. If we are not willing to ask the hard questions, if we are not willing to flounder for a bit until we gain our footing, then who will be? It is awkward as I said before to step up to the mic not knowing for sure what we are saying or if we are saying it right. Not being sure of what to say or do is an experience we all share, from pulpit to pew to parking lot, and like Job’s friends, sometimes, we just get it all wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to do or say the right thing. It just means that we keep working at it, and risk the vulnerability that comes with floundering. Barbara Brown Taylor says in her book, “An Altar in the World” that “Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails.”
What is right? There is only one thing I know for sure that is right, and that is love. I can practice love. I might not feel it sometimes, but I can sure practice it. Love is our only hope. Hope does not come easily these days, but hope can be found in those who endure. Change is not coming anywhere near fast enough, but I have faith that out of our nation’s suffering there can be redemption if we surrender ourselves to love and not hate. We are all connected. Our pain is real – all of it, and we must suffer it all together. And then we must find a way to Love ourselves out of this mess – together. Amen
 NPR Science Reporter Geoff Brumfiel.