I repent in dust and ashes
Sermon preached at Enmore, 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 28/10/18
Reading: Job 42: 1–6; 10–17
Having had two special services in recent weeks we have missed out on readings from Job so today is the final reading from that book and it seemed a pity to let it pass without comment. Today we have read Job’s response to Gods words to him-words he had been desperately waiting for, but not patiently! We also have the narrative where Job’s fortunes are restored and he is given back all the things he has lost. I have always thought this was a rather unsatisfactory ending, a bit too neat. It reminds me of the old joke –what happens if you play a Country and Western record backwards- you get your dog back, your girl back, your farm back and your ute back! The interesting part of the Book of Job is not the prosperous Job enjoying life to the full but the miserable Job pouring out his heart to God in anguish. To make sense of today’s brief reading we need to be reminded of the story so far.
The Book of Job belongs to wisdom literature and it should not be read literally, it is in the nature of a parable. When Job is introduced to us in chapter one, he is described as a man who is blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. He is also wealthy: he owns thousands of sheep, cattle, donkeys and camels and has a host of servants. He has seven sons and three daughters who seem to have little to do except feasting and partying and in case they get up to no good, Job regularly offers sacrifices on their behalf. In short he is a person of exemplary character. It is also worth noting that he is not an Israelite-he lives in the land of Uz and his friends who come to comfort hymn a little later in the story are not Israelites either. There is no record of any land of Uz in the ancient world. This doesn’t matter because the book deals with issues that are universal and transcend any boundaries of race or culture. The problem of undeserved suffering touches all of us. None the less, Job is very much part of Israel’s wisdom literature and raises questions that resonate with other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Having introduced Job, the writer then takes us to the heavenly court where God and Satan, (literally, the Accuser) enter into a discussion about Job’s character. God points to Job as a model of righteousness and integrity. Satan suggests that Job is only upright because he has been blessed with family, wealth and worldly success. Take away those things, he argues and he will curse you. In Satan’s view, people are only pious if they believe they will get some reward for it. “Does Job fear God for nothing?” is his question. In answer to this challenge, God allows the Accuser the freedom to do what he likes with Job, short of killing him. We then have narrated a series of terrible disasters which involve Job losing all his material possessions and all his children. Job’s response is not to curse God but to fall on his knees and declare: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Given the enormity of his loss, that is a courageous statement.
We are then given another glimpse of the heavenly court where again God and Satan discuss Job. God praises Job’s resilience in the face of suffering and this time Satan declares that Job will break if his personal health and comfort is attacked. Satan is given permission to inflict further suffering on Job and soon Job finds himself afflicted with ‘loathsome sores.’ Despite this and despite his wife’s prompting, Job refuses to curse God saying, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”
The problem of human suffering is a problem only for those of us who believe in a Creator God who is both good and loving. The atheist and agnostic, of course, have to deal with suffering but for them it is just part of the random and chance nature of our evolving world. The questions raised by The Book of Job arise in the context of belief in a loving God. So given all that has befallen Job, what comfort can his faith offer? The rest of the book wrestles with that question.
The opening narrative section of the book concludes with Job being visited by three friends; Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar who come to console and comfort him. We are told that they sat with Job on the ground for seven days and seven nights and ‘no one spoke a word to him for they saw that his suffering was very great.’ A great deal of pain has been inflicted over the centuries by people saying unhelpful things to those who are suffering loss or illness. “I know how you feel”; “God has a plan in this”; “God will never give you more than you can handle” are just some of the responses that would be better left unsaid. Sometimes the best thing to do for someone in pain or grief is to do what Job’s friends did at the outset- just sit with them and don’t attempt to comment on their situation.
After a week of silence it is Job who finally speaks and when he does, he curses, not God but rather he curses the day of his birth. In his anguish he declares that it would have been better if he had never been born. It is an eloquent cry and it has a similar feel to W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Stop all the clocks’, who like Job, sees all of creation involved in his grief.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Job’s outburst leads to a series of poetic exchanges between Job and his three friends and these speeches make up the large middle section of this book, from chapters 4 to 27. At the risk of being overly simplistic the argument of Job’s friends is that we live in an ordered moral universe. God is a just God who rewards virtue and punishes wickedness. The friends have a lot of Scripture on their side-they don’t quote the Hebrew Scriptures but their theological view is consistent with much of it. Take Psalm 1 for example, “Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the ungodly or followed the way of sinners…look, whatever they do it shall prosper…… For the Lord cares for the way of the righteous but the way of the ungodly shall perish.” The logical extension of this argument is that if bad things are happening to you it must be because you have somehow deserved it. There must be some behaviour or attitude that has provoked God’s anger. It is this view that Job strenuously rejects and he continues to declare his innocence in the face of his friends’ insistence that he must have sinned. Job’s dilemma is that he wants to believe in an ordered moral universe but the evil that has come upon him forces him to question it. Like all of us he wants an explanation for the terrible things that have happened to him. He wants his world to make sense. He calls upon God to give an account of himself. Why has he allowed this to happen? The difference between Job and his friends is that they are content with a theoretical knowledge of God, a fixed and unchanging view which is applied to every situation whether it fits or not. Job on the other hand continually struggles with his relationship with God. It is far from theoretical or abstract: in Karl Barth’s words, “Everything Job says, whether right or wrong is baptised in the fire of a painful encounter with God.” Job refuses to give up on God even though he cannot understand Him and even though God remains silent.
How is it resolved? Finally God speaks. Job and we the readers of this book have been waiting. We would love an explanation for the suffering and pain of our world- why the person we loved died of cancer or why we lost a child. If we hoped for an explanation, we are disappointed. God speaks but he doesn’t say any of the things we thought he would. Instead of an explanation we are given questions. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? God then takes Job on a tour of his creation, showing him the wonders of the heavens and the earth. God gives particular attention to the animal world with all its diversity and wonder. Some have suggested that what God is doing here is trying to overwhelm Job and make him feel small. However, a better way of understanding this is to see God giving Job a new perspective, a different way of looking at the world. God reminds Job of his majesty and power displayed in creation. In his distress Job had been unable to see beyond his own pain. The Lord shows him the big picture and in doing so gives Job a vision of the wisdom of God which transcends human wisdom. The living God Job encounters is not bound by the logic of his comforters.
In the final chapter read this morning, Job’s statements are framed as responses to God’s questions and demands. To God’s question: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?, Job replies “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job’s universe has exploded and he has been given a new perspective on life. Then in response to God’s words: “Hear and I will speak; I will question you and you declare to me.” Job declares: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” In this context the word repent means to change one’s mind and to go in a new direction. Job has not been given an answer to the problem of human suffering, for there is no neat answer. The nearest we get to an answer is the God in Christ who came among us and who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows on the cross. What Job was given was better than anything else he could have asked for- a vision of God himself. He experienced what the psalmist describes in Ps. 17.16. “When I awake and see you as you are I shall be satisfied.”