Delivered at First Christian Church
on July 3, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July, when we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC).
Show of hands: Who loves the story of Job? Who really dislikes it? I was wary of it for a long time because it sounded so mean: God letting someone lose their whole family to prove a point. It seemed to reinforce notions of God wanting suffering and suffering somehow being redemptive—what I consider the worst of our tradition’s contribution to understanding the holy.
And I think I felt like having faith in God would require me to accept that ugliness, that somehow becoming a Christian meant accepting and professing a characterization of God that I found grotesque.
Now Job is one of my favorites. Job gives us glimpses into other times and cultures; it reminds us that our religion is a hybrid. Job asks the fundamental questions of this life, without the Christian distraction of afterlife.
And, as I hope you will see, in the end the story of Job offers a portrait of God that denies all of our efforts to humanize the divine. In Job, holiness is at a scale that truly inspires awe and justifies our faith, hope, and love.
God in Job is not grotesque, but glorious.
So, as our Bible itself does, let’s begin at the beginning, with the context and main characters.
If the phrase, “A man there was in the land of Uz–Job, his name” reminded you of “Once upon a time,” it should. Job is not a historical figure living within the timeline of the ancient Hebrews. He and his story are a fable. This is not a true story in the factual sense, but a story that contains so much truth it has survived transmission across countless years and cultures, with little souvenirs from the journey tucked in throughout.
For example, in later passages we will hear all about Yamm, a Canaanite sea god. We know him now as Leviathan. In today’s passage, Job shaves his head in the wake of devastation, a common mourning practice but not one allowed in ancient Israel.1 Job is an everyman outside of a specific culture and time.
Despite existing within such a universal space, though, Job does have a distinct character. Within a few lines we learn a lot: Job is rich. He has a lot of cattle, land holdings, and slaves. Job is also very religious. When Job’s kids would have house parties, Job would perform rituals as a pre-emptive apology for any offense the kids might give God.
What does this say about the character of Job’s family? Does this mean Job’s kids were spoiled and unfaithful themselves? Had Job failed to raise them to be devoted to God? Maybe they are perfectly fine kids, faithful and good, but Job is a worrywart, always seeing the bad rather than the good.
Here Job is, rich in assets and family, but apparently without the joy we would assume comes from both. Neither does Job’s faith appear to give him any comfort. He may be recognized by God as a “blameless and upright man,” but to what end? Worry.
THE ADVERSARY AND GOD
And then all of those worries are fulfilled through God and the Adversary, who are distinct and complicated characters in their own right.
We hear that God is holding court—the sons of God being a topic for another sermon—and in comes the Adversary, more often called Satan.
Here is another moment when it is essential for us to remember how old this story is and not to read it exclusively with our Christian lens. In the Hebrew, the word being translated here is hasatan, lower case, not Satan as a proper name. Robert Alter, the Hebrew scholar whose translation we are using, instructs us to read hasatan as a function, rather than a name. The Adversary is an “obstacle (that) frustrates one’s purposes,”2 not a guy in red.
Yes, later in Biblical writing and theological formation, we do have Satan as a fully formed and embodied character, but not yet, not here.
So hear this instead as God encountering an irritant, an annoyance, an impediment, and adversarial force, one that occurs throughout life but has happened upon, or become evident in, the holy court.
This moment echoes Genesis. Remember when Eve and Adam have been engaged in their debate with the snake, another kind of adversary? At the same time, God is wandering around in the garden. God is not aware of what they are up to and has to call out, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3.9).
Similarly, God asks the Adversary, “Where do you come from?” Within this fable, as that of Genesis, God is not omniscient, meaning all-knowing, and trouble-making exists as an independent reality that God does not control. God does not track our movements, nor that of the snake or the Adversary. God does not control any part of creation, even trouble.
In fact, here we have God egging trouble on: Have at him, God says. Job’s faith will remain intact. None of Job’s children and assets seem to matter to God. They serve only as tools to prove Job’s loyalty.
We can hear this in multiple ways. It could be devotion to Job, as God’s great faith in Job. Or, as an ego problem. Why does God care what the Adversary thinks, what possible reason could God have to engage in such a wager? Maybe God is as much a worrier as Job. Maybe God is as anxious about their relationship as Job is, himself. Maybe God and Job are, at this phase of the story, insecure echoes of each other.
YOUR CHARACTER AND CHARACTERS IN YOUR LIFE
These are not the only characters in the book. We missed out on Job’s wife and he has some so-called friends who will show up next week. Job and God both will reveal to us more of who they are, their characters, as a result of this adversarial encounter.
And as a result we are asked to be intentional about our own characters, who we will be, as well as the characters we let into our lives. Job names what life is really like, forcing us to be intentional in how we will live it.
Terrible things can and will happen, even if we have accumulated resources and behaved properly. So maybe we need to become people who do not need to hold onto that wealth and sense of propriety so tightly.
There are forces at work in our lives that are beyond our control: Do we want to name them as a spiritual adversary or as biological, social, cultural, and political ones? To what do we want to give power in our lives and where can we claim it for ourselves?
We were vulnerable at birth and will be vulnerable again on death. So is everyone else. All hierarchies are false and must be denied.
God does not prevent pain and death. Ever. But if we can we find the strength of character in ourselves to release God from a master-puppeteer-magician role, we move beyond rote ritual and worry and enter into the kind of dialogue with God that Job himself ultimately experiences.
It’s totally fine to dislike the book of Job, or any book of the Bible. None of us has to profess characterizations of God that feel damaging or contrary to our lived experiences.
But I love Job because it pushes me to be brave enough to locate and then scrape off the barnacles of time and culture that have grown onto to our understanding of God, even those that give me comfort, in order to receive God as the indescribable and unpredictable “more than” that God must be.
Because of that, even in these terribly dangerous, bloody times, when public, visceral expressions of hate are rampant, I can still join with Job in proclaiming, “May the Lord’s name be blessed.”
1Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), p. 14