We continue our story today in the book of Job. Last week, we met Job. And we heard about the wager between God and The Satan - the setup of this fictional thought experiment that is the book of Job. A thought experiment that explores many different questions. Questions about suffering and especially about innocent suffering. Questions of faith. Hard questions that ask us about the nature of our own faith and why we believe.
Today, we tackle another question. A question concerning truth.
As a result of the wager between God and The Satan, Job has lost all his wealth. He has lost his children and their spouses. He has lost his health. Yet, he has not cursed God. Chapter 2 ended with Job in silence. With his friends. Silently sitting. Silently grieving for 7 long days. It is here where our story resumes, beginning, in chapter 3.
Afterward, Job spoke up and cursed the day he was born.
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 deepest darkness claim it
and a cloud linger over it;
may all that darkens the day terrify it.
May gloom seize that night;
may it not be counted in the days of a year;
may it not appear in the months.
May that night be childless;
may no happy singing come in it.
May those who curse the day curse it,
those with enough skill to awaken Leviathan.
May its evening stars stay dark;
may it wait in vain for light;
may it not see dawn’s gleam,
because it didn’t close the doors of my mother’s womb,
didn’t hide trouble from my eyes. --Job 3:1-10 (CEB)
After seven long days of silence, Job speaks. The first words out of his mouth are a curse. Job curses the day of his birth. Lamenting that he was ever born.
It is important for us to understand Job’s position in society. He had been at the top - a patriarch, enjoying great wealth, privileged, highly respected. Early on we are told at the beginning of the story that he was the greatest of all the people in the East. He has the most to lose. And this was a long way for him to fall.
So, he curses the day of his birth. And if we were to continue on for the rest of the chapter, we would notice that his lament does not stop with his birth. He begins to complain about God. Not to God. But about God to his friends. How far he has fallen! Innocently fallen! We can understand his grief and his anger, can’t we? Especially because all of the suffering he is experiencing is not his fault. Or is it?
Enter Job’s friends. We continue in chapter 4.
Then Eliphaz, a native of Teman, responded:
If one tries to answer you, will you be annoyed?
But who can hold words back?
Look, you’ve instructed many
and given strength to drooping hands.
Your words have raised up the falling;
you’ve steadied failing knees.
But now it comes to you, and you are dismayed;
it has struck you, and you are frightened.
Isn’t your religion the source of your confidence;
the integrity of your conduct, the source of your hope?
Think! What innocent person has ever perished?
When have those who do the right thing been destroyed?
As I’ve observed, those who plow sin
and sow trouble will harvest it.
When God breathes deeply, they perish;
by a breath of his nostril they are annihilated. --Job 4:1-9 (CEB)
Job’s friends had begun so well. Sitting with him in silence. The silence that finally allowed him to put words to his grief. But, then, they go so horribly wrong. Eliphaz, Job’s friend, opens his mouth to respond. And it is not good.
You see Eliphaz has created his own truth. A construction of his own reality. One that is based on two things. First, his reality is based on conventional wisdom. What we might call common sense. Or what everybody “knows.”
Secondly, his truth is based on assumptions. Some of these assumptions arise out of his own experience. What he’s seen and learned along the way. Other assumptions come from more universally-agreed upon principles. Such as, if you do something wrong, you will be punished for it. These constructs are how Eliphaz views the world. It’s why he suggests at the end of the reading that maybe, just maybe, Job has done something wrong to deserve this.
I grew up a redneck. I’m serious about this. My dad, for example, voted for George Wallace. He was a complex man. So I grew up with a certain construction of reality - a way of viewing the world. When I moved to Los Angeles at 19 and I began to experience living and working together with people from many different places, with many different beliefs, and of many different colors, you can imagine how that construct was challenged.
I recall a conversation with a couple of work colleagues, one Mexican, the other black. They were relating to me stories of being stopped without any cause by the police. DWB-ing they called it. Driving While Black. Or Driving While Brown. The construction of my own reality could not let me believe that this happened. Because, in my own experience, I was never stopped by the police without a reason. So, if it didn’t happen to me, certainly, it couldn’t happen to anyone else. And, certainly, not because of the color of their skin.
But, then, my son had an experience that blew this construct to pieces. Some of you have heard this story. He attended California Lutheran University, which was located in Thousand Oaks, northwest of Los Angeles in a very white, very wealthy suburb. We lived in the heart of Los Angeles. My son loved the urban wear look - you know, the pants hanging down, the hoodie. You get the picture. He also drove a 1966 Dodge Dart. A neighbor of ours had given it to him for free. Michael had spent some of his hard-earned money that summer before school on new rims. Rims that were really dope. And urban.
One Sunday night, after a weekend at home, he left to return to school. It was in the wintertime and it was pretty cold outside. The heater in his Dart didn’t work. So, he pulled up his hoodie, put on some gloves, and took off for school. About 45 minutes later, I received a call from him. He told me that he had been stopped by a sheriff’s deputy near school, just after he’d gotten off the freeway. There were no tail lights out in his car. He swore he wasn’t speeding. But, what was more curious was what happened when he pulled off to the side of the road and the officer approached his car. He shined his flashlight in my son’s face. And seemed surprised. “Oh! This was a mistake,” he said. “You can go!” My son didn’t understand what had happened. But, I did. Once the officer got beyond the hoodie and the gloves, the tricked out vehicle, he saw that my son was white. And he let him go. No warning. No ticket. Nothing.
And the construct of my reality was expanded to accept the truth that my black and brown friends had told me all along. And I deeply regretted and grieved that I had not believed them in the first place.
This is what is happening here. Both with Job and with Eliphaz. Their own constructs of reality are being expanded in the midst of Job’s suffering to include new experiences, new realities. But, along with that expanded reality, comes loss. Loss of dreams and expectations. Loss of hope. And, so, Job continues his lament. But, this time, it is directly to God.
We read in chapter 7.
But I won’t keep quiet;
I will speak in the adversity of my spirit,
groan in the bitterness of my life.
Am I Sea or the Sea Monster
that you place me under guard?
If I say, “My couch will comfort me,”
my bed will diminish my murmuring.
You scare me with dreams,
frighten me with visions.
I would choose strangling
and death instead of my bones.
I reject life; I don’t want to live long;
leave me alone, for my days are empty.
What are human beings, that you exalt them,
that you take note of them,
visit them each morning,
test them every moment?
Why not look away from me;
let me alone until I swallow my spit?
If I sinned, what did I do to you,
guardian of people?
Why have you made me your target
so that I’m a burden to myself?
Why not forgive my sin,
overlook my iniquity?
Then I would lie down in the dust;
you would search hard for me,
and I would not exist. --Job 7:11-21 (CEB)
We are in the midst of incredible times. Everything we know. Our own constructions of reality - like those of Job and Eliphaz - are being challenged, expanded, even blown completely apart. We lament this. We grieve the loss and suffering of it all. The loss of life from COVID-19. The loss of life from racism and racist acts. The economic loss. The loss of companionship and community.
Everything we know is being challenged. What else is there to do but to sit in the midst of it - in the midst of our grief and lament - and to ask God why. Like Job. Why?
I’m sure you have heard it said that it feels as though we are in apocalyptic times. Perhaps, I’ve even said that. It may feel like that. But, I would remind you that the word apocalypse means unveiling. What if this time is an unveiling? An unveiling of the constructions of reality that are not true? That are not consistent with God’s truth? What if God is at work in the midst of our world, in the midst of the evil in which we find ourselves, in the midst of these times, working to unveil these untruths and to rebuild a world of truth? Of new truths? Of new constructions of reality that are God’s reality? God’s truths? Truths that are based in the saving acts of Christ and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit? That are about justice and peace? And wholeness and equity? Constructions of reality that are expansive enough for everyone - for all that God has created?
Perhaps the question for Job - and for us - isn’t “Why?”. Perhaps the question is, “What if?”.
Preached Sunday, June 21, 2020, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9, 7:11-21; Psalm 25:1-7