Sermon for April 5th, 2020
1 Then Job answered the Lord: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.” 9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.
10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.
The Book of Job: (Un)Ending
In the past two weeks, my fifteen year old son has asked me at least fifteen times, "When do you think this global pandemic will be over? When will it end?" What he really wants to know is, "When can I see my girlfriend again?"
I think the most frustrating thing for me as a parent is that don't really have a good answer for him. I don't know when or how all this will end. Experts disagree. Some say two months. Some say 18 months. Some say we may be fighting an unending wave of pandemics like this for years to come.
Of course, no one wants to hear that. We like to know how the story ends. Not only that, here in a country known for Disney fairy tales and rags-to-riches success stories, we like our stories to conclude with the words, "And they lived happily ever after." Or at the very least, "things went back to normal again."
At least on the surface, the Book of Job has a happy ending. After 39 long chapters being quarantined away from the world in his grief and illness, with only his closest friends by his side (most likely at an appropriate six foot distance), Job makes a full recovery in today's scripture passage. We read that the Lord restored Job's fortunes and his family, gave him twice as much wealth as he had lost, and all his friends and relatives came to throw him a big party. How many of you are already planning your post-Coronavirus coming out parties? Don't forget to invite your pastor, okay?
Despite the happy ending, the Book of Job is a difficult book to read. Let's be honest, at points it's downright depressing. 41 chapters worth of depressing. So I'm not surprised that most people read the first two chapters (where everything goes wrong), then skip most of the beautiful poetry that forms the core 39 chapters of the book, and go straight to the happy ending. And if we could do exactly that with our own situation right now, we certainly would.
But maybe, just maybe, there's a reason for long build-up to chapter 42, and some lessons we can apply to our own time of waiting. Today I want to talk about three things:
- Hanging in there
- Happy Endings
Let's start with what we're all doing now: Hanging in there. You may have heard the expression before that someone has the "patience of Job." But if you've actually read all those chapters leading up to 42, you already know that's a bunch of baloney. Job is not patient. And neither are most of us. Job perseveres to the end of the story not out of willpower, because he doesn't have a choice--there's nothing else he can do. Or, more accurately, he has done everything he knows how to do, he has done everything he knows is right, yet still his suffering continues. But along the way, in between his feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration, come moments of intense insight and beauty, like the hymn to wisdom in chapter 28, or the description in chapter 14 of a tree cut down, that begins to sprout again.
I know that many of us are experiencing intense feelings of anxiety right now, stress from trying to figure out new ways of doing things. But I've also heard some amazing stories of families spending time together, people helping each other in creative and compassionate ways. "Hanging in there" is not something Job or any of us choose to do--but we can choose to see, and appreciate, and remember the glimpses of beauty and poetry that punctuate the wait.
The second lesson is humility--a hard thing to practice in any time. When God finally shows up in chapter 38 (an answer to Job's prayers) and lays out for Job an image of creation in all its splendor, Job's response is humble: "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know." But it's not just Job--his three friends are humbled, too. And here again, Job's response is not to say, "see, I told you so! I was right and you were wrong!" Instead, he prays for his friends, that God might show them the same mercy and forgiveness he seeks for himself.
The lesson is this: When the world is falling apart all around us, it's easy to put ourselves in an aggressively defensive posture. I'm doing my part, but that person over there is messing everything up! A better posture is humility: We're all doing what we can, in the best way we know how. We all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness. Don't criticize your friends...or your enemies! Pray for them, in humility, and be patient with them.
And finally, the happy ending. I'm not so sure it's as happy as we think, and I'm not even sure it's an ending. Everything that Job has lost gets replaced, including his seven children. But if you've ever lost a loved one, you know that some things are impossible to replace. If you've ever been through a tragedy, you know that it changes you permanently--the sadness and the loss doesn't just go away when your circumstances change. Those who lived through the devastation and loss of the Great Depression and World War II understand this: They went on to be one of the most prosperous and productive generations the world has ever seen, but their lives, their actions, their way of seeing the world were forever changed.
In fiction and literature, stories come to an end. But in life, there aren't any endings, there are only new beginnings. Our lives touch and overlap with countless others--with our children, our students, with friends and neighbors. When our lives come to an end, they carry on what we have taught them, what we have shared with them, and our collective story goes on. It changes and grows. It never goes back to what it was before, and every scar becomes a story; every loss becomes a lesson; and every teardrop becomes a beloved memory to carry us forward.
Through it all, God watches over us. God directs our paths and orders our footsteps. God sees what we cannot, and waits patiently until the day we can.
In the last verse of the Book of Job, we read that Job died, old and full of days. It doesn't say full of good days. It doesn't say full of bad days. Both kinds are what make our lives beautiful and blessed. May our lives be full of days, and may we all give thanks to our creator for each day we have the opportunity to share with each other.