Grace Presbyterian Church
October 7, 2018, Pentecost 20B
Once Upon a (Really, Really, REALLY Bad) Time
“Once upon a time…”
We know what that means. When we hear those words we know pretty clearly what we are about to hear; a fairy tale.
I think we’ve done this before, acknowledging how an opening sentence can tell us so much about what is to come. Think of:
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
“Space…the final frontier…”
Here’s another one to add to your repertory of opening lines:
“There was once a man…”
In fact, even today that kind of gives away what is to follow; maybe not quite a fairy tale, but definitely some kind of folk story; a tale with a moral, possibly, or at least some kind of encouragement towards a particular behavior that is “right” in the eyes of the one telling the story. And indeed, to some degree, that’s what we get here; an ancient story, one that was probably in circulation long before anyone wrote it down to be included in this particular book of wisdom. This opening that we just read most of – perhaps best thought of as a prologue to the larger book – and the last eight verses of the final chapter of Job are part of this profoundly ancient folk tale, which has been adapted by the author of Job as a framework for a much larger volume, extremely different in nature – poetic, almost epic instead of folk tale.
And it’s not a particularly happy story, at least not the part we hear today – like the Brothers Grimm on about their bleakest, darkest day possible. To this “blameless and upright” man is directed as complete an utter a reversal as possible – a wipeout, really. All of his possessions are destroyed in the first sweep, and his own body is wrecked almost beyond livability in the second. [As to the exchanges between God and “Satan” – a word that translates as “accuser” and who seems to be functioning as some kind of roving heavenly prosecutor seeking to undo what he perceives as the façade of Job’s righteousness – it is best considered a plot device and not a genuine insight into the daily operations of heaven.] In all this, according to our author, Job still does not sin. His wife might disagree, given the particular harshness of his curse upon her, but as this prologue comes to an end Job has suffered about as much as a human can suffer, and has not abandoned God.
Before this downfall Job might have seemed almost the ideal of the more modern “prosperity gospel,” which holds that earthly riches accrue to the most faithful. Even without going that far, Job’s life as described before this reversal seems clearly connected to his steadfast, upright righteousness; it sure looks like he has been rewarded for his faith with material success, which was not an uncommon pattern of belief in the time in which this book was written. Furthermore, this kind of belief system tracks closely with other examples of Old Testament wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs, which at times can sound, if not read carefully, like a chipper little prescription for material success and happiness in five easy steps. What happens to Job, and how the rest of this book plays out, makes it pretty clear that this righteousness-equals-success formula is going to be challenged, and challenged hard, before this book is over.
But suffering is something we can all comprehend, because most of us have been there. Maybe we have not suffered anything like Job’s level of suffering, but then we wouldn’t generally claim Job’s level of righteousness either; at any rate we’ve known loss of family, friends, or possessions, and we’ve known physical hardship as well. We know loss, the kind of loss of loved ones that can leave us as what the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn called a “shattered heart and soul, held together by habit and skin*.” We know the kind of pain that is the whole reason the musical genre called the blues exists. We know suffering. We don’t have trouble identifying with it, even if it isn’t on the level of loss that Job experienced.
We’ve also known others who have experienced suffering, and known the challenge of being a supportive friend in Christ during those times. Sometimes this is the greater challenge. We fumble for words, not knowing what to say but feeling the need so say somethingin the face of so much pain. Sometimes we let slip some truly awful things in those moments, awful in theology and awful in sensitivity – please, pleasepromise me you don’t say things like “God needed another angel in heaven” at a time when that friend has just lost a loved one, OK?
But then there are the times we don’tactually acknowledge or respect the suffering of others. We cast doubt on it. We imply it couldn’t have been that bad. Have you heard in the last few weeks sentiments like these expressed?
*”She obviously had it coming.”
*”If the assault was that bad, why didn’t she report it when it happened?”
*”She can’t possibly be remembering it right.”
*”Somebody paid her to do this.”
We are perfectly capable of dismissing or belittling suffering when it is inconvenient for us. Job’s friends who appear in the chapters following today’s reading, who keep insisting that Job musthave done somethingto deserve all that has befallen him, have nothing on us when we get right down to it.
This sermon must necessarily remain unfinished. The book of Job does not, no matter how one tries, suffer any one portion of its lengthy substance to be summarized apart from the whole. Those so-called friends of Job are coming; Job’s patience and faithfulness are going to begin to show cracks, as he moves toward the believe that if I haven’t done anything wrong, there must be something wrong with God; God will in fact show up to answer Job by refusing to answer; and in the end (at the risk of spoiling too much) Job gets all his possessions back and a whole new family to boot. But along the way, Job’s whole ideology is going to be in for a rude shock; his belief that being righteous is principally about being rewarded is going to get shaken to its core; and the ever-asked question “why do bad things happen to good people?” will get a not-at-all satisfying answer.
And so, to use another one of those phrases that is oh-so-familiar and tells us exactly what to expect: “Tune in next time…”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #796, We Come to You for Healing, Lord; #508, Come to the Table; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing
*”Don’t Feel Your Touch,” from the album Big Circumstance