A message from the Rev. Polly Jenkins Man, October 21, 2018
God answers Job, yet I doubt if it’s what he wanted to hear. Not after all he had suffered, all he had lost…children, servants, livestock, his home and his health. He simply wanted God to tell him why. Why am I in this situation? What have I done, or not done? He must have been terribly disappointed confused, even terrified. Nonetheless, if we put aside poor old Job for just a moment, and look simply at the language: the imagery and the metaphors in God’s answer to Job; it is a magnificent poem, one of the most imaginative and beautiful literary pieces in all of scripture. In just those 11 verses which Keith read, we discover God as an architect and a builder; as a mother and a midwife; a nurse, even a hydrologist.
And after these, there are four chapters full of the same: God is a falconer, an astrophysicist, farmer and shepherd; hunter, a potter , and much more. When Hannah asked if I wanted to preach this fall and gave me a few choices for dates I looked at the lectionary and discovered that the passage from Job was indicated for this morning. So there was no question that today would be the day. Job, Chapters 38-41 is close to number one on my playlist of Bible passages. I urge you to read it, the language is stunning. I was actually really tempted to let the whole poem be my sermon.
But Job led me in another direction.
Who is Job?
Job is a homeless refugee in a crowded, filthy detention facility, whose village has been reduced to rubble in Syria.. Job is a Rohingyan mother running from the soldiers of her own country, forced to leave all her belongings behind. Job is the two year old. Mexican child separated from her parents and held in behind a chain link fence, terrified and alone. Job is a person with AIDS, covered with sores. Job is the Puerto Rican grandfather who saw the neighborhood where he has lived all his life completely destroyed in just a few minutes by Hurricane Maria. Job is the woman who was sexually assaulted as a teenager by an entitled prep school boy, who had the courage to speak out and was then summarily dismissed by the agents of patriarchy, power and politics.
Job is all of these and everyone who has ever suffered loss, abuse, discrimination, homelessness, crippling illness or war.
“There once was 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.”
So the story of Job begins, as a folk tale. One day when all the heavenly beings present themselves before God, Satan shows up after walking to and fro upon the earth. God asks him “Have you observed my servant Job, blameless and righteous?”; and in the course of their following conversation, God and Satan make a bet using Job as their pawn. Satan wagers that Job will turn away from God if the good life, his family, wealth and health all are taken away.
Which is precisely what happens: all is lost and Job, naked, his body covered with sores, goes out and sits on a pile of ashes.
He then begins to question: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? Why is light given to one who is in misery and life to the bitter in soul?” His friends arrive, one by one, each ready to figure out why he’s in such a sorry state. “You must have sinned, they tell him, and that’s why God punished you.” They’ve simply come to help him figure out what he did or didn’t do. “Think now,” one says, “Who that was innocent ever perished?”
They really don’t get it, and it’s really because they’re asking the wrong questions. That’s not Job’s question. He knows he is innocent; he hasn’t abandoned his faith or cursed God. After all, according to the folk story, that’s precisely why God chose him for the wager with Satan. Rather, Job’s question is as ancient as humankind and as timely as today: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” That’s what Job wants to know.
Why are thousands sick and dying in crowded refugee camps and detention centers? Why are villages burned, women raped and men murdered because of their ethnicity? Why are babies and children separated from their mothers and fathers? Why are so many innocent young men in prison?
I don’t believe God has anything to do with it. Fear, racism, religion, wealth and power…and much more… these are all human, not God caused.
And Job believes that God can and will explain it. He doesn’t let up, but keeps knocking, as it were, on God’s door. Then, finally God speaks:
“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man.” A voice like a thunder clap:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Surely you know…Or who shut in the sea with doors?”
That’s not an answer. It’s just a series of rhetorical questions. To which both God and Job already know all the answers. And God definitely doesn’t tell Job “Oh, it’s all because I made a bet with Satan. And I won!”
In the long run, though, if anyone won, it was Job. Because he persisted, never gave up, never lost faith. Job never cursed God. He never gave up believing that God would hear him. And God did, although not as he had expected
He never did get an answer to his question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And that’s because it seems to me that the story of Job in its entirety is an answer to yet another question. “What is it in the human spirit that never gives up despite the very worst that happens?
What is it, for example, that persuaded the Lost Boys of Sudan to walk across a continent after they were displaced or orphaned; seeking a new life.
How is it that so many women survive horrific sexual abuse to become strong national advocates for change?
What was there in John McCain, a prisoner of war for five years, that helped him survive brutal torture to become one of the greatest statesmen of our time.
What is it that makes a Mexican family try over and over again to get across the border until finally they do find asylum?
These are all Job’s people. That persist against all the odds. That tap into an indomitable faith and keep saying “yes’ to life. That survive and thrive after the worst the world has to offer.
They keep on keeping on.
You know at least one person like that, right? Who is resilient and refuses to let life beat her down. At the same time, I suspect we all know folks who have been crushed by life through no fault of their own. What about them? How do they keep going?
That’s where we come in, since through our faith we are called by the Spirit: to visit the sick and comfort those in prison, provide food and shelter and welcome to the stranger.
To help heal a wounded heart, and speak out against injustice and inequality.
In the end, God’s answer to Job turns out to be a question for us who live in this hurting world; will we do our part to make it a little bit better?