October 15, 2000
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 26
The Book of Job begins like this: "There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil." (Job 1:1) Job was so blessed and good, in fact, that God bragged about him. You may remember what happened to Job, this blameless and faithful man. Satan and God were talking one day and satan pointed out that Job was only faithful because he was paid so well. Take away his blessings and Job would curse God. God agreed to the challenge. Why? I'll confess that like the Book of Job teaches, God's ways are not our ways. They are not only different, they are a mystery. I'll admit that I cannot understand why God did what God did regarding Job, but God gave control over to evil in Job's life (Wynn, p. 96).
Soon the bad news started rolling in. Job's livestock and servants were slain by invading armies and a fire. All of Job's sons and daughters were killed when a windstorm destroyed the house in which they were eating. The loss of property and wealth was bad enough; then he lost his children. But even after the terrible news, Job continued to praise God in his grief. Satan was not satisfied. He searched for a way to break Job.
Preacher Prathia Wynn describes Job's condition this way: "The grieving, worshiping Job is stricken again. This time, alien, unsightly, unspeakable, unexplainable sores cover his body. Can we stand for a moment in Job's shoes? Itch with him! Ache with him! Hurt with him! His own body has become a stranger to him. There is no relief in sight. No salve, no ointment, no painkiller, no tranquilizer, no relief. All that the hurting Job, grieving Job can do is grab a potsherd with which to scrape himself and make his way to the ash heap. Hurt and on the ash heap, it seemed that Job's hurts would not heal (Wynn, p. 98)."
Then came Job's wife. Bible scholars have not been kind to this woman. She criticized Job for persisting in his integrity, just as God predicted that he would do. She suggested that Job "Curse God, and die." It would end the suffering, but, of course, it would end it on satan's terms.
There are two possible interpretations for the wife's comment to Job. It has to do with the word "integrity", tammah in Hebrew. It "denotes a person whose conduct is in complete accord with moral and religious norms and whose character is one of utter honesty (Newsom, p. 131)." She might be saying to Job, "Do you still persist in your integrity or righteousness? Look at what it has gotten you! God has given up on you. Curse God, and then die." Or she may be saying, "Do you still persist in your integrity or honesty? If so, stand by it and say what is truly in your heart. Curse God for what God has done to you (Newsom, pp. 131-132)."
If this is the case, the challenge for Job is to be honest about his pain and loss. The wife points out that it doesn't make sense to sit suffering in the ashes, saying that everything is fine and that God is good, when all the evidence indicates otherwise. The life Job is living, and his wife is suffering through with him, is miserable. She's asking for some honesty about the situation. And don't think she doesn't know what cursing God will mean. She does not take it lightly. She knows that to reject God is to die, but she shares a pain, a hurt that she doesn't think will heal. In the book of Job it seems that it is Job's wife who first realizes that Job's struggle is not a fight with satan, but a struggle of mind and heart. How does one balance the honest pain of suffering and the affirmation of God's goodness? (Newsome, p. 132) Can innocent, suffering people honestly proclaim that they experience the divine good?
The play J.B. by Archibald MacLeish is a modern day reenact of the story of Job. At one point J.B., the main character who is burdened by great suffering says, "If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, his is not good." Either God has no power to stop evil, or God is not as good as we supposed. Before you dismiss this view as irreverent, consider the reality of life. Living is not all good and it is not all bad. Living, instead, is a woven tapestry of happiness and hurt. And sometimes the threads of hurt seem dominate the picture. Where do we find the goodness of God in tragic accident, broken or struggling marriages, alcoholism, chronic pain, terminal illness, terrorist attacks and the death of loved ones? I can picture Job's wife coming out on to the front step of their home, all their possessions gone, their children dead, her husband covered with festering sores sitting there in a pile of ashes and scratching himself with a broken piece of pottery. I can picture her putting her hands on her hips and saying, "Job, be honest. This life is not good. If God is in charge, God is not good."
As the story of Job continues, Job's friends show up and offer a simplistic explanation for Job's suffering. He must have offended God, and now he's being punished. "Figure out what you've done, repent and things will be fine." Job's wife's challenge starts Job down a path that will have him questioning this assumption. As reflected in the words of Psalm 26, Job claims that he has walked with integrity, and he desires to understand the will of God. While Job does not curse God, he does curse the day of his birth and the days that he suffers. He asks God for an explanation, and he is very persistent. I remember a couple of years ago, something that was said while our Disciple Bible Study class was gathering after reading through Job. A member said, "I'm going to be made if anyone ever tells me that I have the patience of Job. Job was not patient at all!" He wasn't. He spoke to God about his pain and suffering, and he wanted to know why. God answered, not as Job expected, but God answered. In the process, Job's understanding of the mysteries and power of God grow. In the end he accepts fully God's sovereignty.
It is because Job is honest with God about his pain; it is because Job thinks about what faithfulness means, that Job grows in understanding and is healed. Is it safe to be honest with god? Can we boldly name our suffering or question it? The Psalmist in Psalm 130 laments, "I cry to you from the depths."
Think about the pain of Jesus. From the trauma of birth, to hunger, to long journeys on foot, Jesus knew the pain of human physical limitations. In the threats of religious leaders, the anger of the people of his hometown, and the misunderstandings of his closest disciples, Jesus knew the pain of relationships. In his final hours he knew betrayal, abandonment and incredible physical pain. And from the cross Jesus spoke words of lament, echoing the opening lines of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" As God among us, pain and suffering became part of God's character. God not only knows that we experience pain, but God feels it with us. To be honest with God about our struggles will not keep us from God, but will open God's grace to us.
And how is that grace available? Through Jesus Christ, who endured pain, who took suffering and turned it upside down and inside out with resurrection. He told his disciples on the night before his death, "I go to prepare a place for you. You are not alone. I will send an advocate, a counselor, the Spirit of God to be with you." Mortal world bring on your very worst: ridicule, abandonment, torture and death. God will transform it into love and life. When this world offers suffering and pain, there is balm for the wounds. When these times offer only anxiety and worry, there is the sweet peace of Christ. Where this world exists in hopelessness, there is hope.
I recently heard Dr. Ken Ward, the pastor of First United Methodist Church in Dearborn, speak of his travels to Liberian Methodist missions this summer. He attended many worship services, many in buildings that had been damaged and looted in civil war. In every service in every church, he heard this litany:
Leader: God is good.
People: All the time.
Leader: All the time.
People: God is good.
He looked at the surroundings and he looked at the suffering and poverty of the people, and he didn't understand how they could say this. One man named Musa made Dr. Ward wonder in awe. In 1994, Musa was the resident of a Leprosarium. He suffers from leprosy and has had one leg amputated. One evening rebel soldiers invaded the hospital. All the residents, despite their handicaps had to run. They ran with great difficulty as far as the river and found more rebels on the other side. The soldiers began to pitch the people into the river and to shoot them. Musa hid and pretended to be dead. That is the only way he survived. Now six years later he helps to lead worship in a Methodist church. And just before the offering, he stands on his crutches before the gathering and says, "God is good. All the Time. All the Time. God is good." After a service, Dr. Ward asked Musa, "How can you claim that God is good after what has happened to you?" Musa replied, "How can I not? The sun is shining and I feel the pulse of life."
God does not ask us to hold back the cries of our suffering or our questions, especially in the personal holocausts of life. God does not ask us to deny that pain is real, and there are times when there is a whole lot more darkness than light. But this is what God has given us, this is what we know, this is our hope: through Jesus Christ, God knows loss, God knows abandonment, God knows physical, mental and emotional anguish, and remains steadfast. Through the promise and real presence of God's Holy Spirit we find comfort, guidance and abundant grace. How many times have I heard hurting Christians ask, "How do people who do not have faith go through this?" God does not inflict the pain that we experience in this life, but God is present as sovereign Lord, healer and rock. It is in this confidence that we can each proclaim, "God is good all the time. All the time God is good."
Boice, James Montgomery. Psalms 1 - 41, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994. Newsom, Carol and Sharon Ringe. The Women's Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press. 1992. Padres, Ilam. Contradictions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992. Ward, Ken. Opening devotions at Detroit Conference Board of Global Ministries, September 23, 2000, Hope United Methodist Church, Flint, Michigan.Wynn, Prathia Hall. "When the Hurts Do Not Heal." Those Preaching Women: More Sermons by Black Women Preachers. Ella Pearson Mitchell, ed. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1994.