Sermon for March 27th, 2022

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Job 20:1-29 (OT p.468)

1 Then Zophar the Naamathite answered:

2 “Pay attention! My thoughts urge me to answer,
    because of the agitation within me.
3 I hear censure that insults me,
    and a spirit beyond my understanding answers me.
4 Do you not know this from of old,
    ever since mortals were placed on earth,
5 that the exulting of the wicked is short,
    and the joy of the godless is but for a moment?
6 Even though they mount up high as the heavens,
    and their head reaches to the clouds,
7 they will perish forever like their own dung;
    those who have seen them will say, ‘Where are they?’
8 They will fly away like a dream, and not be found;
    they will be chased away like a vision of the night.
9 The eye that saw them will see them no more,
    nor will their place behold them any longer.
10 Their children will seek the favor of the poor,
    and their hands will give back their wealth.
11 Their bodies, once full of youth,
    will lie down in the dust with them.

12 “Though wickedness is sweet in their mouth,
    though they hide it under their tongues,
13 though they are loath to let it go,
    and hold it in their mouths,
14 yet their food is turned in their stomachs;
    it is the venom of asps within them.
15 They swallow down riches and vomit them up again;
    God casts them out of their bellies.
16 They will suck the poison of asps;
    the tongue of a viper will kill them.
17 They will not look on the rivers,
    the streams flowing with honey and curds.
18 They will give back the fruit of their toil,
    and will not swallow it down;
from the profit of their trading
    they will get no enjoyment.
19 For they have crushed and abandoned the poor,
    they have seized a house that they did not build.

20 “They knew no quiet in their bellies;
    in their greed they let nothing escape.
21 There was nothing left after they had eaten;
    therefore their prosperity will not endure.
22 In full sufficiency they will be in distress;
    all the force of misery will come upon them.
23 To fill their belly to the full
    God will send his fierce anger into them,
    and rain it upon them as their food.
24 They will flee from an iron weapon;
    a bronze arrow will strike them through.
25 It is drawn forth and comes out of their body,
    and the glittering point comes out of their gall;
    terrors come upon them.
26 Utter darkness is laid up for their treasures;
    a fire fanned by no one will devour them;
    what is left in their tent will be consumed.
27 The heavens will reveal their iniquity,
    and the earth will rise up against them.
28 The possessions of their house will be carried away,
    dragged off in the day of God’s wrath.
29 This is the portion of the wicked from God,
    the heritage decreed for them by God.”

Other Voices in the Book of Job: Zophar

One day at the gates of hell, the devil welcomes a corrupt politician to his eternal reward. "Your actions and choices in life have secured for you an eternity of torment. But since you were always a sucker for a self-serving deal, I'll make you this one: You get to choose between three options."

He leads the politician to door number one, the classic fiery furnace where inhabitants are being perpetually roasted in agony. The man nervously asks to see what's behind door number two. The devil opens the second door, which reveals a vast and desolate wasteland. In the distance, the man can see scattered inhabitants, exhausted, and constantly pursued by frightening demons. He says, "Well, that's a slight improvement, but let's see what's behind door number three."

As soon as door number three is opened, out comes an almost unbearable stench, and the politician sees the inhabitants of the room standing waist high in what looks like a combination of cow manure, rotten sewage, and (again for classic effect) burning sulfur. But there's one more faint aroma coming out of the room: Fresh roasted coffee. He sees that each of the inhabitants is drinking from a small cup of coffee.

"This one definitely seems like the lesser of three evils," says the politician, somewhat relieved. "I'll choose this room." The devil says with a snicker, "Popular choice," as he shoves the man inside. And just before the devil closes the door, he yells out in a loud voice to everyone in the room: "Coffee break's over—back on your heads!"

This joke works for two reasons: First, most of us grew up with some kind of awareness of the twin concepts of Heaven and Hell. The criteria for where you end up tend to change based on what religious tradition you hail from, but the basic description is the same: eternal bliss, or eternal torment. Whether or not you subscribe to that belief is pretty much irrelevant to the joke itself, as long as you understand the basic concept.

The second reason this joke works is because I told you at the beginning that the main character, the butt of the joke, was a corrupt politician. Half of you probably had one in mind, and the other half of you had a different one in mind, from the opposite political party. Regardless, we can all conceive of someone like that, who we perceive to be thoroughly and incorrigibly corrupt, but also immensely crafty and powerful, and therefore frustratingly immune from all of our cherished notions of justice and accountability.

If fairness and justice are important virtues (and I believe they are), then how can reasonable, thinking people in a civilized society wrap their hearts and minds around the idea that some people will live an entire lifetime full of corruption, exploitation, and harm to others, and then finally die without punishment or judgement, completely beyond the reach of the law?

Well, you could choose to believe that life simply isn't fair, that evil prevails over good, and that innocent people are always destined to suffer at the hands of the wicked. But that's not a very hopeful, or helpful worldview, and I think it leads to despair, resignation, and sometimes even to abdication of morality, or worse yet, actually choosing evil over good.

Another choice—the one long advocated by most world religions—is to put what is beyond our control in the hands of God, or some benevolent order in the universe that leads toward ultimate justice. In Buddhism, for example, those who lead wretched lives are doomed to reincarnation in an even more wretched existence, over and over again, until they get it right. But it's still the same principle—we put our faith and our hope for justice in whatever force governs life after death. So even if we don't get to see it, we choose to believe (and to live our lives) as if justice really does prevail in the end.

And I think that belief compels us—sometimes in hope of eternal reward, and sometimes through fear of eternal punishment, to live better lives, to teach our children morality and decency, and to work for a better world where more and more people are included in that ultimate, heavenly bliss.

Here I should note that classic Protestant Christianity, from the time of the Reformation, has taught that God does not in fact judge us on the basis of whether we lead “good” or “bad” lives, but rather by whether we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, God's son and our redeemer. But Christianity also teaches that if you truly and sincerely put your faith in Jesus, you will be compelled to live by his teachings, to love your neighbor, and to turn from evil. So the end result is exactly the same, with just one additional step (a very important one to Presbyterians) in between.

Even if you're not a Christian, or a particularly religious person of any sort, I hope you can at least see how this ancient and near universal belief system—that justice will prevail in the end—has been a force for good, for hope, optimism and civility for several millennia.

Except when it hasn't.

The argument against Heaven and Hell, or any sort of final judgment after this life, usually runs something like this: How could a good and loving God (or benevolent universal force) condemn countless people to an eternity of suffering and torture for disobeying some rules that we can't even seem to all agree on? Remember, YOUR idea of a "corrupt politician" worthy of eternal punishment is probably a hero to the other half of the people in this room... and vice versa.

Worse yet, the fear of eternal torment has sometimes been used as a threat in the hands of religious leaders to enforce conformity to their own earthly agendas, which are often dubious at best. The promise of heaven has been used in coercive ways, too—promises of salvation in exchange for money, or the promise that baptism, church attendance, or even a quick deathbed conversion are all surefire guarantees of eternal bliss.

Here’s a spoiler alert: Churches are made up of people, and all people (together or individually) are capable of both tremendous evil and tremendous good. But don't make the mistake of confusing God with people. If you're going to believe that God is benevolent, that God is capable of bringing about ultimate justice when we fail to do so, then it's probably a good idea to also believe that God isn't relying on our limited, human and often petty criteria for what and who we think deserves to be punished or rewarded. Let me put that a different way: If I trust God to provide justice, then I must also trust God to do it right, in a way that is fair, compassionate, and well beyond my comprehension.

So what does any of this have to do with the Book of Job, and our scripture passage today? Well, everything, really.

This month we're looking at the "other" voices in the Book of Job, the ones that are too quickly dismissed or misunderstood. And today we hear the words of Job's friend Zophar. They are fire and brimstone words, uncomfortable in their harsh judgment—and too many readers have assumed this judgement is somehow directed at Job, who did no wrong but still suffered great loss.

Only, I believe they are words of profound comfort, empathy, and even wisdom (of a certain kind)—If you take them in the context of the wider story, and the obvious friendship between the two men.

Job, in previous chapters, seems convinced that all of the bad things that have happened to him are God's fault. And that's unacceptable to Zophar. Yes, we as readers know what Job and Zophar do not: That this all began with a heavenly wager between God and Satan. But we also know that Satan is the "active agent" of all the badness, and God simply allows it to happen—for reasons we cannot comprehend unless we read the whole story.

But Zophar, I think, is looking at something quite different: At the end of chapter three, we read that Job's three friends "heard of all these troubles that had come upon him," and each one immediately "set out from his home" to "console and comfort him." In other words, they know the details.

Zophar probably knows what we read all the way back in chapter 2: That it was the Sabeans and the Chaldeans—two neighboring tribes of raiders—who stole all of Job's livestock, his livelihood, and killed all of his servants. Clearly acts of evil by evil people.

Zophar also knows that Job's children were killed when their house collapsed in a wind storm. If my house fell over in a windstorm, I might be tempted to blame God. But I also might be tempted to question the foundation, the builders and the home inspectors who assured me that it was safe and solid.

I think this is the core of Zophar's message: Evil people have caused your suffering, Job—not God. But God will be the source of their judgment. Zophar's words, viewed in the best possible light, are a cry for justice, a yearning for God to avenge his friend, and a very human prayer that God will make things right in the end.

If you know the story, you know that God does make things right in the end, but it looks a whole lot different than either Job or Zophar can conceive of at this point in the story.

In closing, we should all recognize that friends come in many shapes, sizes and flavors. When bad things happen, you have that one friend who will come and give you a comforting hug and say, I'm so sorry, how can I help? And then you might also have that friend who says "Show me the bastards who did this to you, and I'll go fix them. And if I can't, God will. Let me tell you what that looks like." Zophar is probably that kind of friend.

Sometimes, it's important to look beyond the method, beyond the personality, the voice and tone, beyond hasty words spoken in the wake of disaster. It's important to seek and to see the love and loyalty deep in the hearts of our friends, who are, at the end of the day, human just like us, doing the best they can with what limited faith and wisdom they have...on this side of heaven (or hell).