Sermon for March 18th, 2018
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
1Then 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.' 5I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes." 10And 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. 11Then 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. 12The 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. 13He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job's daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. 17And Job died, old and full of days.
My favorite author, hands down, is John Steinbeck. It wasn't always that way--in my childhood it was Isaac Asimov and J.R.R. Tolkien. I still like them, but no one stirs my thoughts quite like John Steinbeck. The first time I read him, in high school, I thought I hated him (incidentally, I had that same reaction the first time I read John Calvin in seminary). I read Steinbeck's novel, "The Pearl" when I was about sixteen years old, and at the end of the novel, the main character has lost everything, has been utterly defeated, and there the novel ends. I was pretty ticked off. That's not how a good story is supposed to end.
Years later, I taught Steinbeck to high school freshmen -- Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden -- and all of them pretty much follow the same pattern: Through the course of the novel, the main characters lose everything, get kicked around by life and the other characters in the novel, and have their hopes and dreams ripped out from underneath them. And that's usually where Steinbeck ends the novel. Usually at the end of the first Steinbeck novel we read together, my freshmen got really angry and thought they had been ripped off, cheated, or tricked somehow. By the second novel, they'd be asking how he ever got to be a bestseller, let alone winning the Nobel prize for literature.
And then somewhere in the midst of the third novel...they finally began to understand. It is only after Steinbeck's characters are stripped of their ambitions, their possessions, their relationships, that they begin to see themselves for who they really are--not as farmers, fishermen, mechanics, factory workers, or "Oakies" -- but as human beings, sharing a fragile existence with every other human being on the planet. Steinbeck's characters lose everything...but never their dignity, never their humanity. In fact, as everything else falls away, these things become more and more visible. Kindness and generosity and compassion begin to surface in unexpected ways. On the surface, all of Steinbeck's novels are tragic...and yet below the surface, they are the most moving, inspirational works of literature I've ever encountered.
In America, we have a love affair with the "happy ending." We are, all of us, a product of Disney fairy-tales, Hollywood romances, and rags-to-riches success stories. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Stories like these entertain us, give us escape from the ordinary, and most importantly, they help us to hope and dream. But sometimes, like my freshmen, we get so accustomed to the happy ending that we form this implicit contract between ourselves and the story: It's a "good" story if it has a happy ending, and a "bad" story if it doesn't. And then we import this contract into other places--I'm a "good" person if I'm winning, if I'm successful; I'm a "bad" person if I'm not. God is "good" as long as there's a happy ending in sight; if there's no happy ending, why bother with God? As Christians, we learn almost from the very beginning that our story has a happy ending--Easter, the Resurrection of Jesus. But we tend to forget that the first disciples were called to follow Jesus without knowing whether or not there would be a happy ending. I wonder sometimes if we would be so quick to follow a Jesus whose story ends at the cross...as indeed some of the earliest gospel manuscripts may have.
And so we come at last to Job. Last in many senses: Today's scripture passage is from the last chapter of the Book of Job; we read about the last years of his life, and this is the last sermon in our series on Job. When I first read the story of Job as a child, or possibly as a teenager, I liked it. Any guesses why? It has a happy ending. Sure Job loses everything, but he gets it all back in the end, times two. Yay Job! As a young adult, beginning to study the Bible more closely, I started to have some doubts. It's a happy ending for Job, but not so much for all the servants, animals, and children he loses the first time around. Where's their happy ending? Then as a seminary student, I learned that some biblical scholars think the "happy ending" is a later addition to the text, possibly by a different author. Apparently, the insatiable need for a happy ending goes back a lot further than Hollywood or Disney.
After spending my last two and a half years of seminary working on a senior thesis on the Book of Job, I currently think it's all one unified piece, not the work of a single author, but rather of one single editor -- someone who has taken the threads of a very ancient story and woven them together in a skillful, intentional way. And that means, like it or not, I'm stuck with this happy ending. I've often thought that if Steinbeck had written (or edited) the Book of Job, it would have ended with the beautiful, awe-inspiring words of God in chapter 38.
Why does that bother me so much? I think it's because the first few times I read the Book of Job, I did what most people do: I read the first two chapters, quickly got bored with the long philosophical poetry (35 chapters) in the middle, and then skipped to God's speech and the happy ending. No problem there. But when I really began to study the middle--and the meat is in the middle--the ending no longer made sense.
Remember, the prevailing formula for wisdom in Ancient Israel comes from the book of Proverbs (wisdom for beginners!) Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Simple. I believe the Book of Job was written to challenge--or at least nuance--that point of view. Job is undeniably a good person. He argues this point throughout the book. The author (or editor) of the book agrees, and calls him a righteous man. God agrees, and calls him a righteous man, both in the beginning and at the end. And yet bad things happen to Job. Proverbs wisdom can't explain this. But through 35 chapters of questioning, complaining, and crying out to God, Job finally (with the help of his friends) arrives at the conclusion that true wisdom lies in admitting that we don't know everything. We can't know everything. We can't explain everything. God's ways are, ultimately, a mystery. I think that's some pretty profound wisdom.
But the problem is, when we just read the first two chapters, skim the middle, and skip to the end, we come up with this: Sometimes things can get a little rough, but in the end, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Job was good, so in the end good things happened to him. And we're back to Proverbs wisdom.
Don't misunderstand me here--there is truth to Proverbs wisdom. Our actions, good or bad, do have consequences. It's just that Proverbs is "Wisdom 101" and we shouldn't stop there for all time. There is a theological danger in telling a person terminally ill with cancer "If you're a good person, and if you have faith, you will get better." God does work miracles, but sometimes, in his infinite wisdom, he doesn't. There is a theological danger in telling a person who has lost everything, "Don't worry, if you're a good person and have faith in God, you'll get it all back and more." Sometimes, as in Job's case, God does that. But sometimes (and I think we can all point to examples in our own experience and circle of acquaintances) he doesn't. There is also a theological danger in making God's love for us too closely tied with our prosperity. That's a little like my ten-year-old daughter saying, "Daddy, if you love me, you'll buy me a horse." "I love you, sweetheart, but it's a little more complicated than that." I can't possibly expect her to understand that now, any more than we can understand God's ways this side of eternity.
And so this is how I've come to understand the "happy ending" in Job. It's not cause and effect. It's not because Job was faithful through all his trials, or because he somehow "passed the test" God (or Satan) was putting him through. God's decision to bless Job at the end of the book is just as random, just as inexplicable, and just as mysterious as God's decision to bless Job at the beginning of the book, and just as random, inexplicable, and mysterious as God's decision to let Job suffer in the middle of the book.
It's not about the happy ending. And ultimately, it's not about the suffering, either. God loved Job when he was blessed with abundance; God loved Job in the midst of his suffering, and God would have loved Job right up to the end of his days whether he was blessed or not. The sign of this love is not the restoration of Job's fortune at the end. It's the fact that God showed up, in chapter 38, and answered Job's cry. God said, "not only have I been with you all this time, I've been with you and all creation since before the foundations of the earth were laid."
As we leave Job behind, this is what I want us to take away from our encounter with him; this is what I want us to remember: God is with us, God is near,
When we are healthy When we are sick When we are rich When we are poor When we love And when we lose the ones we love When we rejoice And when we cry bitter tears When we are surrounded by others And when we think we are all alone When we sing, when we dance, and when we fall When we live And when we die.
God loves us. God is with us. God is here.