Today is our last Sunday of the Unraveling Series, and I have left this reading from Job for this Sunday because frankly, if you are familiar with this book of the bible, you know that the entire story is one of unraveling. In a literary sense, biblical scholars have determined that the book of Job is a piece of dramatic fiction, an attempt by its author to wrestle with the human experience of suffering – of undeserved suffering in particular.
In this book of Job there is wholesale, unfettered suffering that is described in detail, and not only as an intellectual exercise to reason why bad things happen to good people, but within this book to encounter with vivid descriptive emotion what the experience of deep, raw pain is like when everything is taken away. Every pat answer and pithy explanation for suffering is rejected.
In fact, in this book there are way more questions than answers, and those questions linger long after the last word of the last chapter is read. One of those questions, a basic existential question for many of us, is, “why do bad things happen to good people?” Another is “Why does God allow undeserved suffering to exist, or is all suffering truly deserved, even when we don’t always see the reason?” – which stimulates a theology of “everything happens for a reason” – which, frankly, is about as unhelpful a an address to suffering as can be made.
Back at the beginning of the summer, when I was planning out this sermon series, I had no way of knowing how timely reflecting on Job’s experience might be.
But here we are, and it seems that half the western part of our country is experiencing vast wildfires to the extent that the particulate matter rising from these fires into our atmosphere has affected even the appearance of the sun for us here, thousands of miles away.
At the same time, the Gulf coast is still recovering from Hurricane Laura yet suffered even more devastation when Hurricane Sally made landfall early in the week. Yet, another tropical depression is strengthening in the Gulf of Mexico and several more systems are in various stages of development in the Atlantic.
COVID concerns are ongoing as schools have opened and closed, started and stopped here in the States, and Europe is fearing a second wave of COVID may have begun there.
While we plan for resuming in-person indoor worship in a few weeks here at Zion, we are also making back-up plans for every single event we normally hold here in the event the infection rates skyrocket.
While God tells us that none will know the time or season of the Coming of the LORD, secretly, many of us have begun wondering, is this the beginning? Is the time soon? Is it coming how? Is that why we are seeing floods and infernos and pandemic all coming together to make the Perfect Storm?
Back in our Scripture:
Job is the most righteous man on the planet, prompting Satan to choose him to for this grand little experiment in which he will see if he can prove that people only obey and love God when they will benefit from so doing.
Satan’s argument with God goes something like this: “Job only loves you and obeys you because you’ve blanketed him with blessings his whole life. You’ve protected him, you’ve supported him, you’ve answered his prayers with everything he’s wanted from life, you gave him a family and wealth and all the good things of life. That’s why he is loyal to you. That’s why he obeys you. But that’s not real faith, nor real love. It’s not even true obedience for obedience’ sake.”
Satan makes this proposal: “Let me hurt him. Let’s see how faithful he is then.” God agrees.
So, Job goes from riches to rags and worse. He ultimately loses all his livestock, his servants are all killed, and his large and beautiful family dies in a natural disaster. And Job remains faithful.
Then Satan ups the ante and afflicts
Job with a horrible disease with festering sores and painful suffering. His
friends come around to “reassure” him by offering cliches and
pat answers and ultimately accusing him of deserving all this suffering for some reason.
Not to pick a scab off an ugly wound, but earlier this year, we all became more familiar than we ever have been or wanted to be with the term “quid pro quo.” This is when we do something for someone so that they will do something good for us in return.
Quid pro quo is really the way the world often functions, whether we like to admit it or not. You do me a kindness or good turn, and I will do this other thing to benefit you. It’s the way business and politics and even our personal lives all keep moving and working. Quid pro quo. A favor for a favor.
Unfortunately, strands of our faith, influenced by our culture, often function much like a quid pro quo, or at least with the expectation of quid pro quo – as a trading of favors.
Even our theology, the way we understand who God is and how God works in the world is influenced by the kind of quid pro quo that Satan is lifting up to God as Job’s so-called “righteousness.” I worship God because God can give me good things, and God gives me good things because I worship God. If I am good, God will be good to me and give me what I ask for. If I am sinful, I will suffer God’s punishment and wrath. If I do not do as God wills, a reverse form of our usual quid pro quo goes into effect and God will make me suffer. By this mode of thinking all bad things that happen are the result of my sin or someone else’s sin to which God is reacting. I disappoint or hurt God, God hurts me more.
Therefore, my motivation to worship God is not because God deserves it or because God is awesome and wonderful and I love him.
My motivation is to please God so that God gives me what I want or need. In the end, it really is all about me, and my prosperity depends on making God happy.
My motivation to be, in biblical terms, “righteous” is so that God will not only be good and kind to me but will not deal harshly with me, allow evil or illness to befall me, or harm to come to me.
When we look around at the suffering in the world today, as we deal with our own trauma of the diagnoses of catastrophic illness, accident that leaves loves ones injured or maimed, loss of job or financial stability due to the ongoing pandemic or loss of loved ones, or fear over the future as climate change, economic uncertainty, and a hostile and increasingly turbulent political and social scenario in our own country leave us overwhelmed and weary, we begin to ask why. Why is life so hard? What have we done to deserve this? What kind of loving God allows such suffering to occur?
Not long ago at the beginning of worship, we began with the exultant mantra, “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” And yet, can we make this declaration while looking into the face of a parent who has lost a child? Or a child who has lost a parent? Or a couple who have lost their home due to uncovered medical bills or lost income or some other calamity and now have no idea how they will keep their family together or find shelter? – especially when many shelters for homeless are no longer accepting families with children?
The truth is that while, like Job, we believe – most of the time – in God’s steadfast love, God’s commitment to justice, and God’s goodness and mercy, there are times when our confidence unravels. There are times when it is easy to waver, and to believe the world’s insistence in the theology of quid pro quo. These things are happening to you because God took a good look at you or at your life and found you wanting.
In the book of Job, chapter 28 from which our reading comes, arrives as a bit of refreshment.
Job recounts the value of wisdom. In the unraveling of his life, he has lost much. Friends have come and gone, have advised him for good or ill. At times they have refreshingly just sat with him. Held his hand. Been a presence. And it is in the silence that Job has found peace. Not in their reasonings or judgments or “help.” Rather, in their stillness. In their silence.
And Job finds that when he is emptied of all his anguish, pain, grief, and sadness, instead of being left with nothing, his being filled with love, and healing, and hope, all filling those deep spaces where pain and uncertainty once lay.
How will we be changed from our experiences of the past several months? Are we able to sit in the silence and let God fill us up?
In Jesus Christ, God has given us every reason to hope. Can our hope unravel the quid pro quo thinking that is still trying to make sense of the world right now? Can we sit with one another and simply be the presence of love that God has sent us to be?
On the cross Jesus unraveled any question of quid pro quo. To believe in Christ is to know that his grace is sufficient for us. God’s love fills us.
To walk in his light is to acknowledge there is nothing more we need.
To love and be loved by him is our joy, our life, and our salvation. And it makes all the difference in the world. Let it be so. Amen.