On Notice 10/07/18 (Proper 22B)

ON NOTICE
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXT: JOB 1:1; 2:1-10
OCTOBER 7, 2018: 27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (PROPER 22B)
WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY

Artwork from William Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job

I’d venture to guess that most of us know that the Book of Job addresses the question of the suffering of the innocent. Conventional wisdom back in the 6th century BCE, when the book was probably written, held that God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. Therefore, the argument went, if someone is suffering, they must have done wrong. We like to scoff at this, but deep down, many of us might still incline in that direction. We’re always looking for reasons why suffering is happening. We’re always trying to root out the causes. After all, if we can figure out they “why,” then there’s someone to blame or some way we can avoid such suffering in the future. We’ll know what to do – or not do – in order to be safe.

But Job is a completely blameless, upright, faithful man who suffers horrendously. He loses everything, but there’s nothing he did to make it happen. The Book of Job refutes the common wisdom that we suffer because we sin.

I’m grateful that the Book of Job made it into the canon when the Bible was being put together. I’m glad to have a place to turn to that says, “yes, sometimes we suffer horribly. And no, we aren’t always at fault. Sometimes we really don’t ‘deserve’ what happens to us or our loved ones.”

But I’m less comfortable with this: Job’s tragedies seem to come about because of a conversation – no, more than that: a bet – between God and Satan.

Satan – or The Satan – is a heavenly being whose job it is to seek out and accuse those who are disloyal to God. Indeed, this creature’s name literally means The Accuser. Not a devil per se, but a fallen angel, the Satan has a job to do and is zealous in his execution of that job.

One day – some day before the day in this morning’s reading – all of the heavenly beings came to present themselves before God and report on their activities. Satan necessarily stood among their number. “He is not a gatecrasher,” explains one commentator. “He is a servant, albeit an unwilling one, who must give an account of himself to his Master (whom he despises). Yahweh…is sovereign over this creature.” [1]

“Where have you come from?” God asked Satan on that particularly fateful day.

Satan answered, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”

The word translated as going to and fro or back and forth “can refer to the turbulence of the ocean or the disturbance of the air when a whip is cracked. In other words, Satan is always looking to stir up trouble, to disturb the peace of the planet.” [2] His task is to find unfaithful people to accuse before God, and if he can’t easily find any such folk, he is perfectly willing to manufacture conditions that might drive one to disloyalty.

God asked if, during his disruptive wanderings, Satan happened to notice God’s servant Job, how upright and blameless he is. Satan responded, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” (1:9-11)

That is, Satan is saying that Job “is guilty of the worst sin of all: putting on a front of faith and obedience while in reality manipulating God to get God’s blessing.” [3]

Then God said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (1:12) The bet is on: will Job remain faithful to God even if everything is taken from him?

So Satan went about his business, and Job lost it all: seven sons and three daughters; seven thousand sheep and three thousand camels; five hundred yoke of oxen and five hundred donkeys; and very many servants. All gone.

But in all of this, Job never charged God with wrongdoing.

Satan lost that round.

But Satan’s war against Job is not over, not by a long shot – the next battle comes in the part of the story which we heard about in this morning’s lesson. When next Satan appears before God, he says that if Job’s own health is torn from him, then God will see how faithless Job really is. Once again, God says, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan inflicts loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. But Satan loses this round too. In spite of all he has endured, including this new and horrible disease, Job does not utter a word against God. Instead, he simply takes a shard of pottery and sits in the ashes, scraping himself. For the next 37 chapters, Job continues to proclaim his innocence and refuses to turn against God, all while sitting in the ashes, bereft and forsaken.

 

Lately, I have been feeling like I’m sitting in the ashes, scraping sores with a shard of pottery.

I’ve felt the pain of the loathsome sores of sexual assault and violence as I’ve listened to women tell their stories of trauma, their pain re-triggered by the events of the last two weeks. I sat in the ashes with them while they shed angry, bitter tears as they watched a woman publicly mocked and humiliated when she spoke of her own experiences – even taunted by the President of this country – and I’ve wondered, where is the justice for the innocent ones Jesus so desperately loved? It’s so easy to blame the victims or ignore their pain. Yet their trauma is not of their own making. If we listen, if we sit in the ashes with them, we may find ourselves asking, “Why do the innocent suffer?”

I’ve felt the pain of the loathsome sores of racism and xenophobia as I’ve read reports and looked at photographs of some 1,600 undocumented, unaccompanied children rounded up from shelters in the night and transported to a tent city in Texas, where there is no school, minimal health care, and almost no access to legal services, let alone their parents. I sat in the ashes while I heard people loudly proclaiming to be Christian vehemently justifying these actions, while wondering to myself if they ever read the passage from Mark which we read 2 weeks ago, about letting the children come and not hindering them. It’s so easy to blame the parents and relatives of these kids, but their separation from their families and the inhumane treatment of these children is not the children’s fault. If we sit in the ashes with them, we might find ourselves asking, “Why do the innocent suffer?”

I’ve felt the pain of the loathsome sores of mental illness and violence as I held a woman at 3 a.m. as she sobbed at her brother’s bedside – her brother who, along with his wife, was stabbed by their mentally ill adult son – as she held the hand of her brother who would not survive his injuries. I sat in the ashes with her and wondered why? It’s easy to blame the son, the attacker. But if we sit in the ashes with him, we may find ourselves asking, “Why is it so hard to get mental health care?” For indeed the man’s son had gone for help that very morning and had been sent home. We may find ourselves asking, why do some of us carry such horrible, violent demons within us? If we sit in the ashes with the dying father and the wounded mother and the desperately aching family we may find ourselves asking, “Why do some people die at the hands of those they love? Why do the innocent suffer?”

You have your own ashy, painful stories. So do our siblings around the nation and the world who suffer famine, and war, and typhoons, and tsunamis, and earthquakes, and desperate poverty, and unimaginable tragedies of all kinds. Such stories are part of the human condition.

The Book of Job speaks to that universal experience, telling us that sometimes people who are completely innocent do, in fact, suffer – and that it’s not our fault. Job’s four so-called-friends will come along soon and start trying to get him to just ’fess up about whatever it was he did wrong so he can get right with God. But there’s nothing to confess. He is innocent.

And yet he suffers.

We talk about the patience of Job, but that’s misleading. If by patience we mean that he never curses God, never denies God, never loses faith, then yes, he’s patient. But if by patience we mean he never complains, never grows weary of the situation, never demands an answer as to why all of this is happening – then no, he isn’t patient. As the book nears its end, Job has a good long yell at God.

And then what happens at the end of this very long book? Pretty much God says, “I am God and you are not. You don’t get to know the reason why.”

That’s really unsatisfying!!

So, three things.

First: yes, we all suffer. And sometimes – often, in fact – that suffering comes through no fault of our own. It’s universal.

Second: the only really honest answer we can give when asked why the innocent suffer – or why suffering exists at all: sometimes we just don’t know, and probably never will – not on this side of heaven, anyway.

Finally: the Book of Job isn’t actually asking questions about the nature of suffering at all. The book is asking questions about the nature of God. Scholar C. J. Williams says this:

The basic question of Job is: what will God do to curtail the power of Satan and subdue the Great Adversary who wanders the earth. The ultimate purpose of the trial of Job is to give a divine answer to the rebellious wanderings of Satan. That answer comes in the form of a righteous man who endures great suffering, who is finally exalted and vindicated at last. The divine answer is intended to put the earth-wandering adversary to shame and to break the strength of his power…The trial of Job is a provisional picture of what was to come, meant to give assurance to God’s people, and put Satan on notice. [4]

If suffering is one thing that all humans have in common, so too is the capacity for hope – hope that healing will come, that pain doesn’t last forever, that God is somehow at work to bring wholeness and new life even out of the worst situations. Whether we mean a literal being who goes by the name “Satan,” or just the mysterious forces woven into the fabric of the universe which we might call “Satan” for convenience’s sake, the message is the same: the Creator, God, is stronger than it is. And therein lies the source of our hope.

“Satan,” the Book of Job says, “you have been put on notice.”

“Because you are in it for yourself at all times, Satan, you assume everyone else is too. You assume Job is just acting the part of pious person in order to win lots of blessings from God. You assume God is buying Job’s loyalty and love by giving him all kinds of good things in his life. But you’re wrong.

“Job isn’t in it for himself. God made that bet with you, and you lost. Job’s love for God was pure and true. Even the suffering of the ash-heap couldn’t damage his love for God.

“And God’s love for us is pure and true too. Even the suffering of the cross hasn’t damaged God’s love for us. In fact, the suffering of the cross will be turned into a feast at the Communion Table, that all may be reminded and filled with God.

“Satan, you’ve been put on notice. You don’t get the last word.”

Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Stan Mast, “Job 1:1; 2:1-10,” cep.calvinseminary.edu.

[2] Mast.

[3] Mast.

[4] as quoted by Mast.

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