Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/21/2018

The age old question of why bad things happen to good people is generally thought of as being the question at the heart of the book of Job. It’s understood as one of the earliest attempts to address the question even though an adequate answer to it is never really provided. Seen that way though, Job is the main character, he’s the good person bad things have happened to, and the book is about him trying to understand the reason for the suffering he endures, and by the way, it’s suffering he doesn’t always endure with the degree of patience often attributed to him; Job doesn’t always have the patience of Job.

Another way to approach the book though is to see it as not really being so much about Job, but more about God, about the nature of God and the way of God in the world. It wouldn’t be quite accurate to call God the main character of the story though, as he is absent from all but a few chapters. God however, is the main topic of conversation. Through the dialogue between Job and his friends, the writer of the story does address the way of God in the world and in so doing he challenges the prevailing theology of the day which said that those who act righteously can expect God to provide them with blessings of health, well being and prosperity, those who fail to act righteously will not be so blessed and in fact, shouldn’t be surprised when bad things come their way.

It’s called retribution theology; you get what you deserve. It’s the worldview of Job as he defends his innocence; it’s the worldview of his friends who try for about 36 chapters to convince him that he must have done something, he’s not as innocent as he thinks he is. In many ways it’s still the prevailing cultural theology, it’s what’s behind my new favorite TV show, The Good Place, where during life you earn points or lose points and if you have enough points you wind up in the Good Place when you die, if you don’t have enough points you wind up in the Bad Place. You get what you deserve does make things simple and predictable and easy to understand and…it’s theology that does sometimes work, until it doesn’t.

Wherever you place the emphasis though, whether it’s on Job or if it’s on God, you still can’t talk about one without the other. What’s important though is to recognize that the book must be about more than evil and suffering and why bad things happen to good people, because again, no real answer is given and the truth of it is, no one has ever really come up with an answer that covers every situation. All efforts at explanation wind up being flawed in some way.

Likewise, all efforts at a definitive explanation of the book of Job also wind up being flawed in some way. The first two chapters set the stage for the dialogue that follows with Job seeming to be an innocent pawn stuck in the middle of a wager between the Lord and the Satan, the accuser, a wager concerning whether or not Job will still worship the Lord if all his blessings are taken away. It’s a set up that I know is troubling because we don’t want to think about a God that would be part of wager like that, a deal with the devil as it were, but I would suggest that you don’t worry too much about it; I think it’s just a way of drawing us into the story by provocatively and intentionally raising questions about the nature of God.

After the stage is set though, the voice of God goes silent. In chapters 3 to 37, Job laments about the suffering he’s experiencing and defends his innocence with a demand for a hearing because he’s certain that he hasn’t done anything wrong while his friends take turns trying to explain to him that God is just so he must have done something. All the while God is silent…

…until chapter 38 when the Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” Then the questions begin: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements? On what were its bases sunk” and the questions go on for three chapters with no real pushback from Job.

The speeches of God have puzzled interpreters forever so it’s not likely that I’m going to solve the puzzle this morning. Throughout the book Job has pleaded his case using legal metaphors, demanding a hearing, asking for “an indictment written by my adversary.” His feeling is that if the Lord can’t produce such a document then Job’s friends are wrong and God is unjust. When the Lord finally speaks though, it has nothing to do with Job’s complaints; you might even say that it has nothing to do with Job at all. Instead, rather than speaking as a judge issuing an indictment, what Job gets from the Lord are poetic images of the created world and the majesty of the Lord’s act of creation, images that were echoed in today’s psalm.

The response of the Lord and the barrage of questions thrown at Job seem like something of a verbal beat down or tongue lashing, an attack on Job’s stubbornness and unwillingness to receive instruction. That is one interpretation; its weakness though is that the book of Job is classified as Wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is supposed to provide wisdom; it’s supposed to offer guidance for living a good life along with a frame of reference for interpreting and understanding the events of life. If the Lord’s response is just a verbal beat down that says “I’m God and you’re not,” it’s not very helpful leaving Job and us with a God who is little more than a tyrant who refuses to be engaged.

If this is wisdom literature, the Lord’s sequence of rhetorical questions should in some way be instructive. The call for Job to gird up his loins like a man shouldn’t be to prepare him to be humiliated, but to enable him to begin to do the work of reorienting his understanding of God and his understanding of the world in God’s care.

A key to seeing this as a move toward reorientation is the first of the Lord’s questions which is, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge.” Counsel or advice is a good translation of the Hebrew word used here, but it’s useful to know that the definition leans toward good counsel or…wisdom. Job has repeatedly darkened counsel, he has repeatedly questioned the wisdom of God, claiming that the created world is not orderly but disorderly, perhaps even suggesting that God isn’t in control, that he’s has taken his hand off the wheel as it were.

Rather than being a tongue lashing though, the Lord’s response, with the questions directed at Job, affirm that the world does operate in an orderly fashion and that God is the author of that order. From the depths of the earth to the height of the heavens, everything is right where it’s supposed to be and there are boundaries that help to preserve the order. In verses that the lectionary doesn’t include, even the great beasts, Behemoth and Leviathan which are understood to represent chaos, they too are under the watchful eye of God. There’s no promise that the elements of chaos will remain forever silent, that they will never rise up and cause evil and suffering, only that as part of creation, they are not greater than the creator.

The question that always lingers with Job is whether or not the Lord’s response is adequate. As an answer to why bad things happen to good people the response isn’t adequate. In reality, unjust suffering can’t be explained, it can’t be justified, it just is. It’s what theologians call a surd, s-u-r-d if you want a new word for the day. As an answer to why bad things happen, the response of the Lord is inadequate. As an effort to begin to reorient Job’s thinking about God though, perhaps it is adequate. A different frame of reference is provided.

What we remember though, is that the central story of our faith is a story of unjust suffering, the story of Jesus crucifixion and death. What we also remember is that suffering didn’t have the last word; it was transformed in the resurrection. Christianity doesn’t in any way deny the reality of suffering but it’s not seen as a theoretical or theological problem that we can explain away. As I said, it just is. Whether it’s our own suffering or the suffering of others, we can only experience it and according to Lutheran theology, trust that God is present in that suffering. Perhaps we can even use the faith of Job as a model of that trust.

Job was faithful. His wife urged him to curse God and die but Job wouldn’t do that. He complained, yes. He wasn’t always patient; but he kept the dialogue going, always believing that God was able to transform his situation. That’s faith.

If you know the story of Job, you know that there is a “happily ever after” ending when Job gets everything back, in fact he gets back twice as much as he had before; that’s next Sunday’s reading except we’ll be using the Reformation Day readings. His suffering is transformed but it’s not really an ending I like, because for most of us, that’s not how suffering is transformed; our losses remain as losses; we don’t get everything back. As was the case with the set up to the story though, maybe it’s best not to worry too much about it but instead to see the ending as a message of hope, a message of hope concerning the possibility of new life and new opportunities. After all, that is the good news; that is the gospel.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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