Book of the Year
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Gary W. Charles, October 11th, 2020
John Grisham’s newest novel, A Time for Mercy, will be released on Tuesday. I have had the chance to read this book and it is one of John’s finest. But, I am sorry, Mr. Grisham, I need to nominate another book for the 2020 Book of the Year. It is the book of Job. Yes, I know that the book of Job was not written in 2020, but it sure could have been. Its pages are filled with tragedy and pandemics, fake friends with faux compassion and enough questions about God and faith and life to fill the Grand Canyon. Sound like 2020 to you?
The character I understand best in this long, puzzling fable is certainly not Job and it is definitely not God. The character I understand best is “the adversary” in Hebrew or “the satan” in English. But, before you start looking for horns, a pitchfork, and a man dressed in red waiting to escort his next victim into the fires of Hell, let me introduce you to “the satan” in the Book of Job.
In this ancient story, “the satan” is a prestigious member of God’s divine counsel. He is the divine prosecuting attorney and he has an attitude. As the story opens, “the satan” has both a problem with God and a problem with Job. He has no patience with God’s naïve trust in Job’s goodness and has no trust in Job’s naïve patience with the goodness of God.
If you were to ask “the satan” if Job is a good man, he would say, “Yes, of course he is.” But, he would also say: “Job is a good man because God has treated him with kid gloves. Job has been showered with blessings and he has been spared the miseries of life. Enjoying a life with God’s preferential treatment, who wouldn’t be good?” So, as the story unfolds “the satan” makes a friendly bet with his boss, a bet on just how good Job really is.
Yes, you did hear me correctly. In this troubling tale, the great Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Sovereign over all life, places a bet with “the satan.” This is surely not the God who makes me want to bow down in prayer or to stand up and sing “Glory to God!” God’s behavior here is deeply disturbing and an absolute puzzlement.
And, Job’s behavior is no less puzzling. He is unlike anyone I have ever known. The story opens, “Once upon a time a man in the land of Uz.” Go to Google maps, type in “Uz” and it might direct you to Jordan or Israel. I suspect, though, that “Uz” is next door to Oz or to Hogwarts or to Eden. “Uz” is Eden unspoiled, a garden of constant delight, where there are no bad days and there is beauty around every corner and abundance of everything you could ever want or need. Well, that is true until God and “the satan” decide to place a bet on Job.
God gives “the satan” considerable leeway to make Job’s idyllic life absolutely miserable. Job’s fortune is destroyed, his children die, and “the satan” inflicts him with sores all over his body. Yet, despite a flood of calamity, Job does not rail against God, at least, not at first. Sounding like someone just too good to be true, Job tells his wife, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” I find this kind of piety maddening as if God spends each day devising new and harder tests for us and tempting us until we finally succumb.
The story, though, has just begun. It goes on for forty long chapters. Eventually, even in the blissful land of “Uz,” Job hits his breaking point as his so-called friends arrive to explain why his suffering has nothing to do with God, but everything to do with how Job has disobeyed God.
Those of us reading the story know better. We know that the opening description of Job is absolutely true: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” We know that when friends say, “Job, you’re getting your just desserts for disobeying God” that, in fact, not only bad theology; it is a bold-faced lie. Readers of this story know that there is nothing fair about what Job is suffering. He is not having an unfortunate string of bad luck. He is being targeted by God and his betting partner, the Satan. Now, lest your blood pressure get too high, remember, this is a fable, not a history report.
So, why did the story of Job make the final cut and end up as one of the 66 books in the Bible? And, an even more pressing a question is why give it any air time in such depressing and divisive and devastating times as these? Why not move along to John’s Gospel and let Jesus soothe our souls with the thundering affirmation, “For God so loved the world”? Why not race to Paul’s letter to Rome in which he opines that there is not “anything in all creation” that “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”? Why drop in on Job? And, why today?
What may sound even more confusing to you is that I love the book of Job. I love the way that it turns simplistic piety on its head. I love the way it pushes me to ask life’s most important, complex, theological questions and not to accept simple and surface answers. In many ways, Job is the “anti-Deuteronomy” book of the Bible. In the book of Deuteronomy, life and a life of faith is plain and clear. If you live a righteous life, God will treat you right. If you live a disobedient life, God will curse your life.
The book of Job challenges Deuteronomy’s theological math. Job is righteous. He does not do any evil. He does not disrespect God no matter what his so-called friends claim. He defends God beyond all reasonable points. And, yet, Job suffers enormous, unjustified loss, inexplicable and intentional evil.
So, again, why in the world did ancient rabbis insist that the book of Job be included in Hebrew Scripture and why did the Christian Church adopt it and why do I love this book? Because this ancient tale raises honest questions, hard questions about God and about faith that believers fear to speak or have been taught not to ask.
After watching Jerusalem burn and the brightest and youngest citizens forced marched into Babylonian captivity, the questions raised in Job came to mind. After Jesus was betrayed at dinner by one he had trusted and loved and then denied three times by the disciple to whom he had entrusted the most, the questions raised in Job came to mind. As children, women, gays, gypsies, and the elderly climbed out of boxcars and into gas chamber in Dachau, the questions raised in Job came to mind. As churches were bombed in the South and as bullets, firehoses, and nooses had their violent way with our African American kin, the questions raised in Job came to mind.
As I have slept in night shelters with guests who have lost jobs and homes and all hope, the questions raised in Job have come to mind. As I have stood with those who couldn’t find a job or get a mortgage because their skin color or sexuality was different from mine, the questions raised in Job have come to mind. As the phone rang a few weeks ago and I learned that one of the finest pastors I have ever known had died from Covid, while national leaders continued to insist that this is nothing more than the flu, the questions raised by Job have come to mind.
Author Jonathan Kozol went to worship with a neighborhood family from the poorest part of the Bronx one evening. Standing in the pulpit, the pastor spoke words of hope of God’s future action to parents whose sons were in prison. After the pastor spoke, Kozol wrote on his bulletin, “So where is He? What is He waiting for? Come on, God! Let’s get moving” (Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, p. 229).
I love the book of Job because it is one book in the Bible that causes me, in the words of the Apostle Paul, to put away childish ways of thinking about God. It is a story that invites us to sit in silence before the awesome mystery of God and the oftentimes confounding unfairness and inequities of life.
Throughout my ministry, I have been told by those who have no use for the church, “Listen, Gary, I do not need to be around people who think they know all the answers and have no interest in my questions.” If you or anyone you know can be numbered in that crowd, maybe Job is your doorway into the church. Maybe Job is the church’s doorway into a life together where all questions are honored, every doubt is respected, divine mystery is embraced, and holy answers arise from the ash heap of suffering and pain.
Yes, this is one book that I can never put down.