Sermon for March 1st, 2020
1 After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2 Job said: 3 “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said,‘A man-child is conceived.’ 4 Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it. 5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it. Let clouds settle upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it. 6 That night—let thick darkness seize it! let it not rejoice among the days of the year; let it not come into the number of the months. 7 Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. 8 Let those curse it who curse the Sea, those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan. 9 Let the stars of its dawn be dark; let it hope for light, but have none; may it not see the eyelids of the morning— 10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb, and hide trouble from my eyes. 11 “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? 12 Why were there knees to receive me, or breasts for me to suck? 13 Now I would be lying down and quiet; I would be asleep; then I would be at rest 14 with kings and counselors of the earth who rebuild ruins for themselves, 15 or with princes who have gold, who fill their houses with silver. 16 Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child, like an infant that never sees the light? 17 There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. 18 There the prisoners are at ease together; they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster. 19 The small and the great are there, and the slaves are free from their masters. 20 “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, 21 who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; 22 who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave? 23 Why is light given to one who cannot see the way, whom God has fenced in? 24 For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water. 25 Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. 26 I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.”
The Book of Job: (Un)Happy
A man is walking down the street when he sees a sign in the window of a travel agency that says CRUISES - as low as $100. He goes into the agency and hands the guy $100. The travel agent then whacks him over the head with a baseball bat and throws him in the river. Another man is walking down the street a half hour later, sees the sign and pays the guy $100. The travel agent then whacks him with the baseball bat and throws him in the river. Sometime later, the two men are floating down the river together and the first man asks, "Do you think they'll serve any food on this cruise?" The second man says, "I don't think so. At least, they didn't last year."
Reading the Book of Job can feel like that sometimes--getting hit over the head with a baseball bat. And I can hear some of you say, "then why, Pastor Neal, do we keep doing it every single year?"
For those of you who are new, I like to preach from the Book of Job every year during the season of Lent. Lent, in the church calendar, is a season of quiet introspection and reflection. It's not a season of joyful celebration, like Easter or Christmas. Lent is a reminder that sometimes Life hits you over the head with a baseball bat. And as people of faith, when tragedy or misfortune strikes, when life unravels and comes undone, we often look to God, saying "Why? How could you let this happen? Where are you in all this?"
The Book of Job is a book that tackles all these questions head on, in a brutally honest, and sometimes beautiful way. Job is also poetry, framed in a story. The story is told in the first two chapters, how a man named Job loses almost everything--his wealth and source of income, his home and all his property, all of his children, and his bodily health. In the last chapter of the book, Job's fortunes are restored, but these opening and closing chapters where the story takes place are small in comparison to the middle section of the book--the 39 chapters of poetry, where Job and his conversation partners explore the full extent of grief, anger, suffering--and what role God and faith play in all that.
This year, we're delving deep into that poetry, exploring parts of the Book of Job that we have not considered in the past seven years since we began this series. In particular, I'm interested in the contrasts that are often two sides of the same coin: Happiness and unhappiness; things answered and unanswered; the things we hinge our lives on and the things that make us come unhinged; being "friended" and being "unfriended"; feeling worthy and feeling unworthy; things that come to an end, and things that are unending.
We begin in chapter 3, the first poetic chapter, where Job finally speaks after seven days and nights of silence. To say that Job is "unhappy" would be a huge understatement.
He begins by opening his mouth to curse. The Hebrew word used here for curse (קָלַל - qalal) is usually used in the context of blasphemy. The NRSV translation puts it mildly, almost politely, "Let the day perish in which I was born." But think of the most vile word in your vocabulary (it probably starts with an F), put that one in Job's mouth instead, and you'll get a much better sense of what he's saying.
In the previous chapter, the "bet" between God and Satan was over whether or not Job would curse God to his face. So the reader is meant to breathe a sigh of relief when Job curses...his birthday...instead of God, directly. But there's more to this curse than first meets the eye.
The first 10 verses of this poem are a malediction, an extended curse that grows more intense with each line. Not only does Job curse the day he was born, but he also curses the night in which he was conceived. The language in these verses is a direct reference and throwback to the creation story in Genesis. Where God said, "Let there be light," Job is saying, "Let there be darkness." Where God brought order out of chaos, Job wants to raise up the monster Leviathan, which symbolizes chaos in Near Eastern mythology, and thereby plunge the created order back into chaos.
In other words, Job (in his curse) wants to undo all that God has done--on the surface, those things pertaining to his own birth and his own life, but on a deeper level, I think Job levels his opening shot at nothing less than all creation. Did I mention this is a poem with cosmic significance?
I had a conversation with a congregation member last week, who is walking through a difficult time in his life. He is an amazingly kind and gentle person, but because of things happening completely outside of his ability to control, he struggles with feelings of intense anger. I asked if he was angry with God, and he was quick to say, "No, I'm not angry at anyone in particular, I'm just angry."
I'm sure that's true on some level. But as people of faith, we tend to believe that God loves us and wants us to be happy. We also tend to believe that God has the power to intervene in the world and change the things that make us unhappy. That's why we pray, isn't it? So when those two things don't line up, when it seems like God has the power to fix what's wrong, but chooses not to...we get angry, even if we don't quite know where we can, appropriately, direct that anger.
Some people cheat by ascribing everything that is bad in the world to the Devil. God wants what's good for us, but the Devil wants what's bad for us. Sometimes the Devil wins in the short-term, but in the long run, God wins more. What I love about the book of Job is that it doesn't even allow us this easy way out--God and Satan are on the same side in this story, both up in heaven, both agreeing to allow Job to suffer.
Others, typically people who don't believe in a Devil, but also don't feel comfortable blaming God, internalize the blame and turn their wrath on themselves, saying things like, "I wish I had never been born." But this move leads us back to God, too. Who formed us in our mother's womb? Who created us in his own image? Cursing our own lives, or the day we were born, is ultimately the same as cursing the God who set those things in motion.
This brings me to the first of many things you'll hear me say over and over again during this series: It's okay to be unhappy, and it's okay to be angry at God. In fact, sometimes it's even necessary, if you want to have an honest, healthy relationship with your creator.
If you've ever been a parent of a teenager, you can probably understand this (I have two right now, so I'm learning). If I were to do everything my teenagers want me to do, in order to keep them happy all the time (according to their understanding of what happiness is), then I would be the worst parent in the world, and eventually, when they grow up, my teenagers will still be angry and unhappy when they figure out what a lousy parent I was, and how much that messed them up.
On the other hand, if my teenagers were to bottle up their unhappiness, conceal it from me, or worse yet, direct their anger and unhappiness toward others in their lives when I'm the real cause of it--then I would never have the opportunity to talk with them, to help them through it, to try to explain (even when I know they won't understand). Sometimes the unhappiness my children feel is justified, sometimes it isn't...but it's very always real to them, and should therefore be of the utmost importance to me. So too for God, and for us as God's children.
In the second movement of the poem (verses 11-19), Job does something else that is understandable given his grief, but also dangerous...and quite common among those who suffer.
"Why did I not die at birth" he says in verse 11. If I had, then right now I would be lying down and quiet; I would be asleep; then I would be at rest with kings and counselors of the earth, with the wicked and the weary alike, with prisoners now free from their masters.
In the Psalms, it is common for those who suffer to cry out to God as their help and rescue. But Job has set himself up against God--or at least he feels that God has turned away from him, and therefore will not listen. So instead, he turns to another redeemer, another savior, one who claims "great and small alike."
This shadow redeemer is death. I have known many tormented people, in pain and suffering, for whom the end of those things--the end of life itself--begins to seem like a blessed hope, a peaceful relief. Please don't mistake what I'm about to say: I hold no judgment whatsoever for those who chose that path and ended their own lives--may God welcome them into his loving embrace.
But I believe that death is the absence of life, not its redemption, in the same way that darkness is nothing more than the absence of light, not a thing in and of itself.
(begin Audio Track - In the Shadow of Time)
(0:00) I suspect what people who are in pain and suffering truly want is actually *life,* just without the pain and suffering. When this seems impossible, they place their hope instead in death as an alternate redeemer, an end to the bad and the good alike.
(0:19) But often--and this is certainly true in the case of Job--where there is still light and life, even though we cannot see it clearly, there is still hope for actual redemption.
(0:39) In verse 23, Job asks "Why is light given to one who cannot see the way?" The light seems useless to him, it is not welcome, not his number one choice...
(0:53) But he acknowledges that it is there, and by the simple act of asking the question, "Why?" to God, to the universe, to no one in particular...right there, in that moment, Job begins a conversation,
(1:06) and right there begins the long journey (41 chapters long) back to the light. It's not an easy journey, not for the faint of heart. It's long, hard work, just as Job is a long, hard book to read.
(1:26) So here's the thing about unhappiness--by its very definition, it relies on our experience of happiness. If we are unhappy, it's because we have known happiness, and we long for that experience again.
(1:46) Wiping away those memories, hiding them away, erasing them through forgetfulness, through diversion, or death, will not make us happy again.
(1:56) But holding on to them, embracing the loss, placing our hope in the possibility, however small, that there is yet more to come...
(2:06)That's precisely where God's amazing love, God's patience, God's ability to shoulder whatever sorrow, whatever anger, whatever unhappiness we cannot, shines through like the dawn slowly coming over the horizon!
(2:30) Job ends his speech in fearful anticipation of the long and difficult road ahead: "Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me . . . I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest; but trouble comes.”
(2:50) Or, in the words of another poet: "Do not go gently into that good night; rage, rage, against the dying of the light."