Author Note: A Sermon delivered to Orange City United Methodist Church (Orange City, FL) on August 8, 2021.
“How long ago was that day?” Job thought. He’d been so distraught and disturbed, he could merely only observe that time had continued to progress unrelentingly, unmercifully, without noting its amount or meaning. Time had continued—was it a week? That couldn’t be right. More than that. A month? He couldn’t tell. But time had continued—in mockery of his life, which had ended that day. That day, when he received the worst news ever from one messenger, interrupted by another with even worse news, and again by another, to even a fourth time. And the fourth time was death.
The first three messengers brought the same message in different forms: he’d lost all his wealth. His donkeys, oxen, sheep, camels, and servants—they’d been stolen, destroyed, or killed. The only ones who remained were the messengers themselves. Job had been rich; he was blessed by God. But in the blink of an eye, he had lost everything—his entire fortune, his security, all that he had worked so long for so many years to achieve. But this wasn’t the worst of it, for the fourth messenger told him that a sudden and tragic windstorm destroyed the house of his eldest son while all ten of his children were in it. All his children were gone too—his future, his heritage, and the promises of so many lives yet unlived—never to be lived. He remained vaguely aware that he had become sick since then too. Sores all over his body had mirrored his emotional anguish into a physical one. It was too much to bear.
He pressed those thoughts from his mind for the time being and honed them toward what felt more concrete. They would come back again undoubtedly, in his nightmares and daydreams. He would relive it again. Probably tomorrow. Probably later today. But for now, his friends were here. They had sat with him for a week already, in solidarity with his grief. He was grateful for their presence, even if Eliphaz had become more restless as the week progressed. Nevertheless, no one had spoken, but what could be said?
Today though, Job had spoken. His words the poetry of torment, dripping with spite and depression, not simply wishing for his life to be over, but wishing that he’d never lived. He cursed the day of his birth, praying that the day was undone—praying that he’d been a stillborn—praying that breath had never entered his lungs. He laments, “Life is a gift, but why was I given such a gift? I, who have no use for it? Why give what will only increase my suffering?” Job had been waiting for death. Although taking his own life never entered his mind, he saw no point in his next breath.
Eliphaz’s impatience finally broke through—he was an upstanding man, he thought, so he dared not speak before the bereaved, but this—this cry from his friend—this was not right. Job had lost his way, and fortunately, Eliphaz was there to set him back on it. He’d just spent a week in silence with Job, but was shocked at how little progress Job had made. Some things everyone knew, they were part of the collective wisdom, the proverbs of the people. And everyone knew that no one was punished by God unless they deserved it. So clearly, Job must have done something wrong. Job’s suffering proved that he was a sinner. He was only getting what he deserved. To end his suffering then, Job just needed to repent! Complaining about his situation wasn’t going to get him anywhere. Still, since Eliphaz was a gracious person, out of the kindness of his heart, he lumped everyone together. “You must know Job,” he instructed, “Everyone is a sinner in God’s eyes. You don’t have to tell me what you’ve done, but God has only given you what you deserve.”
And so began the argument which led the friends to an uncompromising stalemate. In his own eyes, Job considered himself righteous. Could his friends judge better than himself? Job’s goodness meant his suffering was unjust, which also meant God had caused or allowed this injustice to happen. His friends’ dogmatism closed their ears to Job’s side. They tried to instruct him in accordance to what they’d been taught was absolutely true about God. Everyone knows God is just. Everyone knows, “God is good” – “All the time”. Job’s suffering proved his sin was especially heinous. Even if they didn’t know what it was exactly, they knew it was bad. Eliphaz even went as far as to accuse Job of wrongdoing, saying he had stolen from others, and refused to help the poor and widows. To help end his suffering, their only option was tough love, to try to get him to see his own fault.
However, in doing so, they increased Job’s suffering. He even called his friends miserable comforters to their faces, yet they did not change their method or stance. Instead, he was belittled and patronized by his friends, those so assured they knew who God is and how God acts. The friends knew that he had made his choices, and now he had to deal with the consequences. Ultimately, Job’s suffering fell on deaf ears, because didn’t he deserve it?
Except there was One who heard Job’s prayers. One still sitting in silence with him. And at the end of their discussion, if anything so divided might be called a discussion, when human wisdom had run out, when understanding had broken, when the sides had become so divided that there was no possible way forward together, God speaks. God tirades, relentlessly accusing Job at the bottom of a crushing waterfall of words. God does not bring words of comfort, but words of perspective, “Where were you?” He asks, “When I created the universe? Have you seen where the snow comes from? Have you visited the stars? Do you know where the wild goats give birth? Can you feed all the ravens when they grow hungry?”
Job’s response was of complete humility—immediately reversing all claims he had made up to that point. Tough love is apparently best administered by God. No longer did he seek to plead his case, but admitted to speaking beyond his limitations. His response hinges on one line, “I had heard of you before, but now I have seen you with my own eyes.” After this, God tells Eliphaz and the friends that they have not spoken of God what is right, and that Job has.
Church, this story asks a lot of questions… and most of them it doesn’t answer. Did God cause Job’s suffering? Was it just or unjust? Is God affirming everything Job said as orthodox doctrine? Does God approve of Job’s questions or not? Are the friends wrong based on the truth of what they said? Wrong because they cared poorly for their friend? Wrong because they monopolized truth? Wrong because they thought they knew how God would act inside a box? Why does God wait so long to speak to Job? Why does God bother speaking at all?
If we’re honest with ourselves, we have lots of questions, too. Most of them don’t have an answer. What’s next for the church? Why did our friend pass away? Why hasn’t our career or family worked out how we’d hoped? What happens if we move? Could we fix what we’ve done in the past? Is it okay to question the Bible? Is it okay to question God? How much longer in this pandemic? How much longer in this division? How much longer do we have to live?
With all these unanswered questions, what do we do? What foolishness do we cling to in a world of suffering?
It is better to cry out in suffering and alongside the suffering than to ride the ethical high horse. It is better to bring comfort than tough love to the afflicted. Let us raise them up and resurrect the wounded before we ever consider who is right. Our voice of lament should be better practiced and sing clearer than our voice of orthodoxy.
And when our suffering and shadows and questions consume us, may we also find ourselves in Holy Communion with God. May they fade in the breath of the Creator of the Universe. May our grief itself be a worthy offering of worship to God. May our comfort not depend on answers, but on presence. May we say together, “We had heard of you before, but now we have seen you with our own eyes.”
Photo: “Job and His Comforters,” Luca Giordano c.a. 1700. Wikimedia Commons. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/job-and-his-comforters-9121