We are in week three of the Book of Job. In the first week, we met Job. And learned of the wager between God and The Satan - an act intended to set up the rest of this thought experiment. And to raise questions. Hard questions. Questions of faith. Such as why innocent people suffer or even why we believe. Last week, we moved into the dialogue between Job and his friends - friends who had started so well by simply sitting beside the suffering Job in silence. But, then who opened their mouths to speak their truths - truths that Job, too, had believed. That if one does something wrong, they will be punished. Or, conversely, that if one suffers it is because they have done something wrong. Yet, we are, along with Job, beginning to see these constructs - these truths - challenged. By Job’s own experience. By his innocent suffering.
Today, in this third week, we continue in these chapters of dialogue between Job and his friends. Thirty-five chapters. Thirty-five long chapters of back-and-forth between Job and his friends as Job struggles to make sense of his suffering and as his friends try to hold onto their truths, even in the midst of the evidence that is right in front of them.
As we pick up this morning in chapter 14, we find Job in deep despair.
“For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant.
But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire, and where are they?
As waters fail from a lake,
and a river wastes away and dries up,
so mortals lie down and do not rise again;
until the heavens are no more, they will not awake
or be roused out of their sleep.
O that you would hide me in Sheol,
that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
If mortals die, will they live again?
All the days of my service I would wait
until my release should come.
You would call, and I would answer you;
you would long for the work of your hands. --Job 14:7-15 (NRSV)
In the chapters that precede this text, Job has been unpersuaded by the arguments of his friends. He responds to them, even attacks them. And rejects their claims and their assumption that this idea of retributive justice - that punishment or suffering is a result of one’s sin - is not valid. And that isn’t valid because it. Is. Not. His. Own. Experience.
But, what Job really wants is to speak to God. To see God face-to-face. And to sort out with God this misunderstanding that has somehow strained their relationship. Job seeks reconciliation.
And, so, he turns to God to argue his case. He is beginning to come to terms with his situation. He claims to God his innocence. Pleads that God might remove God’s hand. That God would tell him what he has done to deserve this. That God would speak. And God would not be silent anymore.
Then, Job moves onto the destiny of humanity. The struggle of humanity. He draws comparisons from nature. That even a tree stump has hope. That at the scent of water it will live, will bud and grow and sprout. But this, according to Job, is not the human destiny. The human destiny is one of death. And so Job pleads that God might grant him temporary asylum in Sheol - in this Jewish idea of the underworld. A place regarded as a place of no return. Job asks God to hide him in this place until God relents and finally allows Job to make his case before God.
In the next several chapters, Job continues a powerful and even deeper lament to God. With his own struggle, there is a deepening understanding by Job of the struggle of other innocent people. “If I cry ‘Violence!’ I’m not answered,” Job says. “I shout—but there is no justice.” “There. Is. No. Justice.” How familiar those words sound to us today. “No justice. No peace!” The cry - the protest chant - of those who suffer innocently.
Ellen Davis in her book, Getting Involved With God, suggests that we are not accustomed to challenging God. To blaming God. And so, when we find ourselves doing it, we feel guilty and religiously confused. For some of us, the solution is to give up on God altogether. For others of us, it is to cover our confusion about God with a false sense of piety, a fake holiness. Appearing to be holy on the outside, but evil underneath. Pretending to bow to God but grasping for power and control for ourselves as we oppress others.
The witness of Job for us, particularly in these times, is that rage and even blame that are directed at God are valid. That to cry out to God, “Why?” is honest and true. And even more, Job’s lament that extends over so many chapters gives us permission in our lives of faith to stay in the moment of lament for a very long time.
We continue in chapter 19.
“O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me! --Job 19:23-27 (NRSV)
Well, this is surprising! Even as he is in the midst of deep despair, Job suddenly expresses hope. Unexpectedly. Our New Testament lens immediately suggests that the Redeemer mentioned is Jesus. But, if we are to understand this from Job’s perspective, we must look more deeply at the Hebrew. The word in Hebrew for Redeemer is go-el. In Jewish tradition, a go-el was a person who was obligated under family expectation to care for a member in need. In his words here, Job is affirming his hope that he will be vindicated by a redeemer of his own kin, who will be a witness on his behalf before God. And who will declare Job’s innocence before God. Job accepts his human destiny - that he will die. But at the same time, three times in this passage, he states his confidence that he will see God. That he - and not some stranger - will see God. And that, with his redeemer, he will be vindicated. Acquitted. Exonerated. Freed.
There is a witness in Job that teaches us that, because God is in relationship with us, we can freely and honestly speak to God and trust that God hears us and the pain we are experiencing, whether it is personal or that of our broader world.
This, ultimately, is the paradox of Job. That it is this full admission of pain that eventually opens the door. To hope. And for us, in particular, even in the midst of chaotic and uncertain and even painful times, we, who know this Redeemer in Christ, have all the more reason to hope.
Preached Sunday, June 28, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Job 14:7-15, 19:23-27; Psalm 121.