St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

I repent

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.”

Philip Brad­ford