Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Last week we started exploring the story a Job, a man from the ancient middle east, maybe around the time of Abraham and Sarah. He’s known for integrity and faithfulness. Because of a wager between God and the satan, he undergoes a series of calamities, including the destruction or death of all of his livestock, the death of his children, and an affliction of ulcerous sores all over his body. In mourning and grief, he tears his clothes, shaves his head, and walks out to the place where people burn their garbage, sitting in the ashes in silence. Three of his best friends travel from their towns to come be with him. They all sit in the ash heap together, with no one speaking for seven days and seven nights.
When Job finally breaks the silence, it is with what we would call suicidal thoughts. He says, “Perish the day I was born, the night someone said, ‘A boy has been conceived.’ That day—let it be darkness; may God above ignore it, and light not shine on it… May that night be childless; may no happy singing come in it… Why didn’t I die at birth, come forth from the womb and die?… For now I would be lying down quietly; I’d sleep, rest would be mine… Or why wasn’t I like a buried miscarried infant, like babies who never see light?… Why is light given to the hard worker, life to those bitter of soul, those waiting in vain for death, who search for it more than for treasure, who rejoice excitedly, who are thrilled when they find a grave? Why is light given to the person whose way is hidden, whom God has fenced in? My groans become my bread; my roars pour out like water. Because I was afraid of something awful, and it arrived; what I dreaded came to me. I had no ease, quiet, or rest, and trembling came.”
Obviously Job is in a terrible place. He wishes he had never been born because the pain that he is experiencing is so severe. He wishes even now that he could die. And to some degree, he blames God for it. God has brought him this pain, and God will not take it away by letting him die.
That is from chapter 3. The verses Lucinda read are from chapter 23. In the intervening twenty chapters, Job’s three friends try to help him through his pain. The way they do this, though, is by trying to get him to admit his sin. ‘God doesn’t cause plagues like this on righteous people. If you’ve experienced all this calamity, it must be because you did something wrong. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone sins. So look deep inside, figure out what you did wrong, and then admit it. Once you admit it, things will start to get better. Once you admit it, you’ll be on the road to healing. But nothing will get better until you admit to what you did wrong.’ They come at him from all different angles, each time trying to convince him that what he needs first is forgiveness.
But every single time they talk to him, Job denies that he has done anything wrong. None of the calamities that he is experiencing are a result of his sin. It could not be because of his sin, because he has not sinned.
Normally we would say that that’s impossible. No person is free from sin except Jesus. Only the most arrogant person would think that they had no sin. But in this case, we’re meant to believe that Job is right. That’s part of the reason that he was chosen for the wager. He is an extraordinarily righteous person, with extraordinary integrity. That’s how we can know for sure that he’s telling the truth, that his suffering isn’t his fault.
And Job’s example is how we know that humans experience unmerited suffering. Because we can see his terrible suffering, and we know for a fact that it’s nothing he has brought on himself, nothing he has done to anger God, then we know that when we suffer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve done something wrong. Sometimes each of us will endure suffering and grief through no fault of our own. That means that the answer for us may not be to try and figure out what we did wrong, but rather to plot our course forward through the dangerous way of grief.
The passage we read today comes from one of Job’s responses to his friends. It is not the first of these responses, nor is it the last, but it is an interesting one.
Job’s friends have been pestering him so much about what he must have done wrong that he takes up the law and order theme himself. ‘Alright, if you’re accusing me of some kind of crime, then at least let me have a trial. Let me prove to you that this is not something that I brought on myself. Let God be my judge and tell both me and you that I have done nothing to deserve this.’
Earlier in the dialog, Job has been afraid of God. By now, though, his grief and his indignation have perked up his courage. He wants to go straight to God’s dwelling place. He wants to argue with God face to face. “Oh, that I could know how to find him—come to his dwelling place; I would lay out my case before him, fill my mouth with arguments, know the words with which he would answer, understand what he would say to me.” Job tells his friends that if he could only present his case to God, that God would give an answer to them.
Then for moment he begins to worry: “Would he contend with me through brute force?” Would God squash me just for daring to come the divine dwelling? “No,” he decides, “God would surely listen to me.” Job has faith that God is fair. Job trusts God to do the right thing. He continues: “There those who do the right thing can argue with him; I could escape from my judge forever.” Job trusts that when God hears his case, God will pronounce him innocent. He can answer those who accuse him. They will know for truth that Job did not bring his suffering on himself.
The problem is, though, that Job cannot find God. Everywhere he looks, God is nowhere to be seen. Job can see evidence of God all around in the created world, but he cannot find the person of God. He cannot find the one who will answer his questions. “Look, I go east; he’s not there; west, and don’t discover him; north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him; he turns south, and I don’t see.”
And don’t we often feel like that in our pain and grief? When we are pressed in on every side, don’t we struggle to feel God’s presence? When we are cast out into the wilderness of despair, don’t we look in every direction, straining to see a sign of God? When we are plagued with self-doubt, drowning in a sea questions and more questions, don’t we reach out for the lifeline of an answer from God?
It’s not uncommon, even for the most spiritually-grounded people, to struggle and struggle in our darkest hour, and not to see God. We pray, and we hear nothing back. We wrestle and rage, but we can’t seem to get our hands around God. We sink into despair, and we find no divine hand there to lift us out of the mire. It is very common.
And it is an important reminder for us. First we learned from Job that when things go wrong for us, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s because we have done something wrong. We need to release ourselves from the spiral of guilt that drives us to try and find what we did wrong, that wants to blame ourselves for everything that has happened. Quite often, we are not the reason. We just get smacked around by outside forces that are operating quite independently from ourselves. Sometimes there simply is no reason. And we need to release ourselves from that unwarranted guilt.
Now we are learning from Job that if we cry out in our most desperate hour to God, and we don’t perceive some kind of answer from God, it doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about us. It doesn’t mean that we’re not praying hard enough. Sometimes we do get an answer back. Sometimes we can feel the presence of God’s love. But not always. And that doesn’t mean that we’re doing it wrong. It just is. It is part of the journey. It is that experience, made famous by St. John of the Cross, that we call a dark night of the soul. We are searching after God, and we feel like we are getting nowhere, like we are getting nothing back. Many of the most spiritually devout people in history have experienced this obscurity. There is nothing wrong with you if you feel it too.
But even in Job’s seemingly fruitless search for God, he proclaims another truth. “Would God contend with me through brute force?” he asks. “No, God would surely listen to me.” Even when we can’t hear God’s response, God still hears us. God still listens to us. God still feels the pain right alongside us. We know from Job’s witness, and from the witness of countless others.
But we also know from the revelation of Jesus Christ. We know that God cared so much about us that Jesus came among us to be one of us and to experience all of the pain that we experience. We have a God who actually knows our pain. And even when we cannot feel it, we have a God who holds us in tender care. And, as we will learn soon from Job, our prayers do not go unanswered forever. We do not always perceive God’s answer right away. Sometimes we only see it hindsight. Sometimes we just have to be patient enough to find it. But what we can know for certain is that however we feel, however disconnected or lonely we are, our God cares for us. And as children of the same divine parent, we care for one another. Thanks be to God.