Grace Presbyterian Church
October 14, 2018, Pentecost 21B
My Complaint is Bitter
One could preach two different sermons on this part of the Job story, and I’m not sure which one is more appropriate. In either case some catching up is required, so let’s get that done first.
In last week’s passage we heard essentially the prologue of the story, setting up the unexpected and seemingly undeserved suffering of Job, as first all of his possessions and children, then his own health are taken away, leaving him sitting in an ash heap scraping sores with a broken-off piece of pottery, cursing what he calls his wife’s foolish tongue.
The first thing that happens after this is that three friends of Job – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – arrive to see Job. So shocked are they at Job’s appearance and condition that they are unable to speak; they sit in silence with Job for seven full days. (Spoiler alert: this is the last good thing these friends do in this story.)
Job, in chapter 3, begins to let his steadfast guard down, cursing the day he was born. This is the trigger that sets off those three friends, who each in turn begin to insist that Job mustbe guilty of … of … well, of something to be afflicted with so much suffering. In turn, Job answers each with an avowal of his guiltlessness, mixed in with increasing laments of his condition and increasing indications of despair that God will ever hear his complaint. As we come to chapter 23, we can see how this pattern is playing out. Chapter 20 features Zophar insisting that wickedness deserves just retribution, and Chapter 21 offers Job’s reply that the wicked often (as far as humans can see) go unpunished; Chapter 22 brings back Eliphaz for his tag-team assault on Job’s innocence, insisting that Job’s wickedness must be truly great.
Chapter 23 brings Job’s reply, or part one of it. It is somewhat different, in that Job is less consumed with declaring his innocence to his friends than with lamenting that he cannot find God, in order to take his complaint directly to him. Chapter 24, following this lament, continues with Job’s observation that not all wickedness is evidently punished, seeing that violence and wrongdoing still proliferate on the earth. Bildad will then launch his next assault on Job, and the cycle will continue until Chapter 31, … but that’s for next week.
But back to Chapter 23. “My complaint is bitter.” That’s not really a typical phrase, is it? And it’s not exactly the way Job has been speaking in most of his defenses so far in the book. It’s an indicator – a small one, but an indicator no less – of the way that Job’s mind is turning. Most of his replies to his so-called friends so far have been defensive – “my complaint is just” – or lamenting – “my suffering is great”. Using the word “bitter” seems like a turn, and indeed the chapter is much concerned with what Job sees as the absence of God. “O, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. … There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.”
Job is getting itchy. It’s no longer enough to protest his innocence to his friends; now he wants to find God and make that protest. He wants to convince God. He believes if he could just find God and make his case he would be vindicated. It’s really not a way we’re accustomed to thinking, is it? Most of us don’t think of approaching God as some kind of judge to plead our innocence – especially not descendants of John Calvin, he of the theological idea of “total depravity,” that all humans are enmeshed in sinfulness without exception, and that “innocent” does not apply to any human being save for the grace of Jesus Christ. But for Job, steeped in the belief that his former riches are verification of his goodness, God just has to be convinced.
So, about those two sermons that might be preached here: on the one hand, lamenting one’s condition is in fact a healthy thing, and the church needs to be a community that provides a space for those who are in sorrow or hurt or suffering to give voice to that sorrow or hurt or suffering without fear of being shamed or having their faithfulness belittled.
Let’s be clear; that lament is not necessarily about bemoaning how the suffering is “somebody else’s fault,” or seeking to blame everyone but oneself for mistakes one has in fact made. It’s not about blaming others for our own mistakes. What it does offer is the opportunity to lament those things that happen to us for no reason – the ancient question of “when bad things happen to good people” that provoked that popular book of some years ago.
Speaking of books, one of the most popular books in churchy circles right now is one with the provocative title “Everything Happens For a Reason … and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” The author, Kate Bowler, is a professor at Duke Divinity School. Fresh from an academic success in latching onto a dissertation topic that morphed seamlessly into her first book and a plum teaching position at her alma mater, with a loving husband and new son, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The book is by turns funny, poignant, maybe a little whiny at times, but mostly acting to give voice to lament that is not tempered or moderated. It’s honest and it’s blunt, and there’s no happy ending; the book ends with her admission that, in the end, the cancer will win.
The church needs to be a place where such lament can be voiced, and such bluntness can be heard without judgment and without being flooded with false promises. If we cannot be honest with our sorrow here among the body of Christ, we really are without hope, aren’t we?
But then, is there another possibility? What about that other sermon?
The blunt truth is that, no matter how we might try, we simply cannot listen to Job’s lament with the same ears as the book’s original readers might have heard it. No matter what tragedy besets us or how deep our despair, we are still the body of Christ. Today’s reading from the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we aren’t children of an indifferent God, no matter how much it may seem so at times. In verse 15 from that reading we are reminded that our “high priest” as the author has called Jesus is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but…in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” That certainly includes physical suffering – Jesus was killed by one of the most painful tortures ever devised by humanity; and also emotional loss – remember his tears at the death of Lazarus. This is not an indifferent God; this is a God who has been there.
Does that mean, possibly, that our reaction in time of suffering and seeming absence of God might need to be modified just a little? Maybe there comes a point when the crying out in grief and lament, as needed and inevitable as it is, needs to give way to something else.
Remember how Job’s friends initially sit with him in silence for seven days? We don’t necessarily get an insight into what’s going on in Job’s mind during those seven days, unless you take it that he spent those days getting ready to curse the day he was born. Maybe for us, whose theology must include a God who has suffered and grieved and lamented like as we, the task is to take those silences and do something different with them.
Maybe we need to listen.
Maybe we need to turn off the noise of our own crying and listen to God’s own tears.
Maybe we need to be reminded of the suffering of Christ – as innocent as possible, and yet crucified, tortured – when we begin to plead that we don’t deserve this.
That’s not a popular God. Let’s be blunt about it; we want our God to, in popular parlance, kick butt and take names.
Remember that memoir mentioned earlier, Everything Happens For a Reason … and Other Lies I’ve Loved? Kate Bowler’s highly successful first book was about the prosperity gospel and its adherents in the United States. After her cancer diagnosis Bowler was jolted to realize how much of that prosperity-gospel mindset had seeped into her own thinking. You see, it’s not just about God making you rich if you’re good; the opposite also holds true. If you suffer – whether by loss of that good fortune or by the advent of illness – it’s a sign of God’s disfavor. If something like cancer happens to you, it’s a sign that you’ve done something wrong and that God is punishing you.
Remember, this is the underlying mindset against which Job is struggling. I haven’t done anything wrong, Job insists. Why am I suffering so?
Let me be explicit about this: that’s not Jesus. That’s not gospel, not even a little bit. God is not a vending machine giving out goodies to those who insert the right coins or check off the right do’s and don’ts or butter up God to stay on God’s good side. Remember the words of Matthew 5:45, and how the rain is sent to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
Job’s comeuppance is coming. For us, it is already here. God is not absent; God is not aloof from our pain. But God is not ours to manipulate. God is God, and we are not. Our suffering is an occasion for lament, but not for blame, and not for claiming God owes us.
So, which sermon is the right one – welcoming and receiving lament, or being silent and listening? I suspect the answer is “both.” There is a time, to borrow from Ecclesiastes, for both crying out our grief and taking in God’s answer, even if the answer is silence.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, Eternal God of Time (insert); #793, O Christ, the Healer; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #724, O Jesus, I Have Promised