It presents a disturbing image of a God who makes bets over the trials and tribulations of a faithful servant –
who will allow a good man to be tested by terrible trials.
When I was in seminary, this is what I learned about the book of Job:
There is a story – a sort of fable –
found in the prose sections of the book in chapters 1 and 42.
In this story, God is bragging to an Adversary,
“have you seen my faithful servant Job?”
And the Adversary answers, “of course he is faithful –
he is prosperous, he has a beautiful family – he has every reason to be faithful.
What would happen if that was taken away? Would he remain faithful then?”
So God allows the Adversary to test Job – to take his wealth, his health, and his family.
And Job remains faithful, so in the end – chapter 42 – all his fortune is restored.
But this is a deeply dissatisfying story.
Would God allow God’s faithful to be tested?
Can you replace one lost child with another?
Is the question of suffering really that simple?
And so someone took that fable, and added to it the chapters of poetry
which make up most of the book of Job.
With a tone of irony and satire, this writer turns against the fable and delves deeply into questions of theodicy.
Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper?
Where is God when we suffer?
Why are some healed but not all?
If God is good and sovereign, why do we suffer?
In this poetic section, Job’s friends give voice to a commonly held theological position in biblical times –
that goodness and faithfulness is rewarded,
and if someone suffers, it must reflect wrongdoing.
We see this idea reflected in many psalms, which extol the rewards of faithfulness and wisdom; even in the gospel stories this thread remains.
Job’s friends urge him to identify the evil he has done so that he can make things right.
But Job knows that his suffering is nothing he deserves.
And so he calls on God to answer – Why am I suffering?
Why are you doing this to me? What do you want from me?
God’s response is both overwhelming and ultimately unsatisfying,
if what you are looking for is an answer.
God comes to Job in a whirlwind, and says,
4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
8“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— 9when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
God goes on like this for three chapters,
and this brings us to the brief dialog we read today from Job:
Then Job answered the Lord: 2“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
God says, “‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ 5
And Job responds, “I 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.”
As my mentor used to say, “God is God, and I am not.”
Sometimes that is the only answer.
But God is God.
And God is hears us.
And that can be enough.
Early in the week, I was in a panic about preaching today.
Members of our community have been through so much this fall –
we are carrying a lot of grief and uncertainty in these days.
For some of us, life has turned upside down and will never be the same.
I lay awake in the night, thinking,
“What can I say about suffering that will be adequate and helpful at this time? “
Then I started to study Job, and I had to laugh at myself.
Great scholars have been seeking adequate, conclusive theologies of suffering for centuries,
and I think I should wrap it up this week?
The whole point of Job is that is doesn’t offer an answer –
this is simply not something we understand.
But Job invites us deeply into the questions,
to wrestle faithfully with what we know of God and our own experience of life.
What transforms Job’s life is his encounter with a God who hears him and knows him.
Job affirms, along with so many of the psalms, the value of staying engaged with God.
Commentator Kathleen O’Connor wrote,
“By lamenting, complaining, and shouting his discontent to the God he believes to be attacking him, Job keeps his relationship with God alive. . . . [In the end], he utters a profound statement of faith: ‘I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.’ Now Job meets God in his own life, in the thick of the storm that is his life. Job speaks of firsthand experience, a personal meeting, a kind of seeing that surpasses known speech about God. From Job’s viewpoint, this encounter overwhelms and honors him and transforms his life.”
O’Connor went on to suggest that a better translation of verse 6,
when Job despises himself and repents, would be “I repent of dust and ashes.”
In other words, when Job comes face to face with God, he is changed.
He leaves his absorption with self behind and gets up from his ash heap
to go on with his life,
to continue his life in the midst of his suffering.
God has revealed Godself to Job, and it is enough –
even before the fairy tale ending which attempts to erase all of Job’s suffering.
You may have noticed that the assigned reading from Job skips over three verses.
In those verses, God instructs Job’s friends to make an offering –
presumably in repentance – and to ask Job to pray for them.
Part of Job’s restoration is a return to community –
reconciliation with the friends whose misguided attempts to help had tormented him.
Before the conclusion of the original fable, in which Job’s fortune is restored,
Job has already begun his healing –
in his re-defined relationship with a God who hears him and responds to his pain;
and in a move toward fellowship with others in his community.
The gospel story this morning offers another perspective on suffering and community.
The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, has heard that Jesus is coming through his town.
He stands by the side of the road crying out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The crowds try to hush him.
Jesus is an important man, and the “insiders” try to protect him – and themselves –
from the discomfort of this beggar’s disability and dishevelment.
But Jesus instructs them to bring the man forward.
Jesus welcomes the blind beggar into the very center of the crowd, and asks,
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Bartimaeus knows his need, and right away he answers, “Rabbi, let me see again.”
And Jesus heals him with a few words – restoring not only his sight,
but his place in the community as well.
The crowds surrounding Jesus may not even know what they want Jesus to do for them.
They want to be close to him, to absorb his charisma and bask in his compassion,
to reflect a bit of his fame.
But, as in so many healing stories in the gospels, it is the one who knows his brokenness
who gains the attention and favor of Jesus.
The arrival of Bartimaeus – clear in his need, and not shy to cry out for rescue –
gives everyone in the crowd something they need, even if they don’t know it.
Cynthia Jones described it this way, “the cry of need that caused Bartimaeus to be shunned by many becomes the occasion for their glimpse of God’s final intention for creation.
The glimpse is called a miracle. Miracles are those events that bring people from darkness into light,”
So it is not only Bartimaeus, but everyone in the crowd, whose sight is restored by the miracle of healing.
How many of us are willing to come into community and share our brokenness?
It is hard.
It is so tempting to want to be seen here at our best.
How many of us grew up with the understanding that we honor God
by dressing up in our best clothes to come to church?
How many of us yearn for our kids to be on their best behavior here, of all places?
How many of us struggle to keep in place the mask which says, “Everything is fine”?
But this is a community that can hold our brokenness.
Jesus urges us to be the kind of community that invites brokenness, not perfection.
Indeed, this community needs our brokenness –
needs us to be honest, to share our needs and fears and struggles,
so that we all may glimpse God at work in one another
and share our journey together.
No one understands why we suffer.
We can’t explain it.
What we can do is keep on wrestling.
We can cry out in anger, with Job and so many psalms,
against God’s seeming injustice or abandonment.
We can keep on walking in faith –
even if some days we are just going through the motions –
trusting in a new relationship to God and one another at the end of our journey.
None of us gets through this life untouched by suffering.
But we are in this together,
and we know a God who hears us and walks the journey with us.
Thanks be to God