We began our series on Biblical wisdom this fall by focusing on Proverbs, a book of practical theology, composed largely of concrete, down- to-earth instructions. Elders, parents, and wisdom teachers showing young people the way to go. Teaching them by word and example how to prosper in life, how to avoid its pitfalls and dangers.
Among other things, I’ve emphasized that according to Proverbs, life works in fairly predictable ways. Human actions have consequences, and we can know ahead of time what those consequences will be. Life is tidy. The created world is a neat, orderly, and well-organized system. The problem, of course, is that life doesn't always work this way.
Probably the most striking evidence that Proverbial advice does not apply equally well in all situations is the repeated assurance throughout the book that good behavior will be rewarded while the bad guys will get it in the end. So, for instance, we read that "the wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand" (12:7) or again, that "no harm happens to the righteous but the wicked are filled with trouble" (12:21). We don't need anyone to tell us it ain't necessarily so. It's obvious—as individuals, and on a global level too, all too painfully obvious--that life doesn't always turn out this way.
Fortunately for the reputation of Wisdom Literature in particular and the integrity of the Scriptures as a whole, the Bible does offer an alternate perspective to balance the overly simplistic notion of rewards and punishments in the book of Proverbs. For the book of Job is precisely about life not always working according to the usual rules.
Let's briefly review the plot of the two chapters we read this morning.
No sooner have we been introduced to Job than we learn that he is blameless and upright, that he fears God and turns aside from evil, that he goes to great lengths to live a holy and righteous life. We then overhear a conversation in heaven between God and "the satan,” a Hebrew word which isn't quite the equivalent yet of the proper name Satan we see in the New Testament. Here "the satan" (literally: "the adversary" or "the accuser") is a member of the heavenly court who stirs up a bit of trouble by making a bet with God about this man Job. When God points out to the adversary what a righteous man Job is, the satan answers "Well, sure, he's got everything going for him--riches, amazing real estate, a household of servants, a huge family. But I'll bet that if you took all that away, he wouldn't remain faithful for long." God accepts the adversary’s bet, and allows him to begin to afflict Job. And so Job loses all of his livestock, his servants, his house, and all of his children. To emphasize how rapidly all of this happens, the narrator notes that while each messenger was still sharing his own respective piece of bad news, another messenger would arrive with more bad news, and then another, and another. (Ever had one of those months?)
In spite of all of this, Job at the end of chapter 1 persists in worshipping God, "'the Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' And in all this, Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing." So far, so good for God's side of the bet. Even when, in chapter 2, the adversary ups the stakes a bit and encourages God to afflict Job's own body with terrible boils, Job still persists in his integrity. It appears that God has won. Job does indeed fear God without all the comforts of his former life, saying to his wife "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not the bad?" But at whose expense has God won the bet? God and the adversary may both be impressed with Job's integrity. But poor Job is still down there, grieving the loss of all he once held dear, scraping at his sores with a piece of broken clay pot, and having no clue that the only reason for his suffering (at least according to the storyteller) was this strange wager in heaven.
In any case, at the end of the chapter we meet three of Job's friends, who hear of Job's misfortune and arrive to offer him comfort. Notice the marvelous example of friendship they offer when they first arrive, as they too tear their robes and sit with Job in his ash heap. Not one of them says a word for seven days and seven nights. They just sit there with their friend, silently acknowledging the depth of his grief. Perhaps a lesson for all of us who so desperately want to DO something when we see a loved one in pain.
"A little girl came home from kindergarten one day. Her mother asked her how she had been. She said, ‘Good. I helped another girl on the way home.’
‘That’s wonderful,’ said the mother. ‘What happened?’
‘Oh, she was on her bike, and she fell into a mud puddle.’
‘And so you helped her out of the puddle?’ asked the mother.
‘No,’ said the kindergartner. ‘She was out of the puddle when I got there.’
‘Was she hurt?’ asked the mother.
‘Yes,’ said the little girl. ‘But I couldn’t fix her scratches. She was just sitting next to the puddle crying.’
‘Then how did you help her, sweetheart?’ asked the mother.
‘Well,’ answered the little girl, ‘I sat down and helped her cry.’"
For those of us wondering what to do for the people of Paris right now, and for so many other hurting people around the world, I wonder if, for a start, we might help them cry?
The problem is that the friends do open their mouths at the end of seven days, and then they can't seem to stop themselves from offering volumes of unhelpful advice. And much of their advice sounds like that same old proverbial wisdom -- "As you yourself know, Job, since we studied under the same teachers, the righteous are rewarded by God and it is only the wicked who suffer. Since you are suffering so greatly, you must have done something REALLY awful to bring this all on. So examine your life carefully, won't you? Once you determine where you've gone wrong, and repent of your sin, God will no doubt deliver you from your trouble." And so poor Job finds himself in the unenviable position of having to defend himself to his own friends even as he sits there scratching at his sores, grieving the loss of his sons and daughters.
Now because of the way they're set up in the book, it's easy to dismiss the words of Job's friends as so much foolishness, a stubborn adherence to insupportable old rules. But how many of us have been on the receiving end of similar advice over the course of our lifetimes? Well-meaning words from friends and acquaintances who'd have done us far less damage if they'd just had a seat in our ash heap and kept quiet, or plunked down in our mud puddle for a good cry? But instead, some of us in this room have heard in moments of crisis words like these: "It's all for the best really. . . Just think of all you're learning from this experience. . ." or “All things work together for good, you know, for those who love God,” or even "If only you had more faith. . . " Such thinking even rears its ugly head when we say to ourselves in particularly grim moments "what did I do to deserve this?" It's important to remember as we read through the book of Job that even God insists that it was Job, and not the friends, who was in the right. Job had not done anything to deserve his fate. It wasn't that his faith wasn't strong enough, that he wasn't good enough, that he hadn't tried hard enough. The tragedies Job endured had nothing to do with any of that. He was--and remained--a righteous man.
Now this isn’t to say Job is perfect, in some existential sense of being completely without sin. The friends have been quick to point out that all humans are sinful, and Job himself alludes to a few minor transgressions on his part as well. But for Job, and even for God, this point isn’t ultimately relevant to the situation at hand. The question is whether individuals are always punished for specific willful acts of disobedience, and always rewarded for righteous behavior. Job is introduced from the start as an obedient and reverent man. To the end, Job persists in maintaining his innocence. Lest with the friends we assume that Job is mistaken, the narrator and God both agree that Job is blameless and upright. This is not just a story about suffering, but a story about innocent suffering.
Certainly any number of the tragedies in our world can be blamed on human sin—that’s where Proverbial wisdom is right on target. But not all of them can, and this is where the book of Job helps us. A catastrophic earthquake does not discriminate between the just and the unjust. No one contracts Alzheimer's disease because they deserve it. A miscarriage is no indication of hidden sins. Because the book of Job so resolutely insists that Job was a person of integrity, we must--all of us--flat out deny the claim (too often proof-texted from the Scriptures) that people only get what they deserve. They don't. Good people, people of profound integrity, people of incredible faith, people who appear to be doing everything right, are the victims of life's tragic unpredictability everyday.
We all know this congregation has seen ample evidence of this. And again, this week’s news cycle, or any week’s news cycle for that matter, brings the point home powerfully as well. On the one hand we know that all those deaths this week at the hands of terrorists, for instance, were not God’s will, but were the acts of evil men. We know God isn’t to blame there. But I imagine that’s small comfort right now to the victims’ families. They are in good company, the company of Job and the biblical psalmists, if they are crying out to God right now that this is utterly unfair and unjust. Why couldn’t God have protected their loved ones? What did they do to deserve any of this? How long, O Lord, will such despicable acts be allowed to take place on this, your earth? Why do the wicked prosper, while the innocent suffer?
I mentioned last week that biblical wisdom shows us the "art of steering" through life (Zimmerli). But notice the situational nature of wisdom. Proverbs may teach us a great deal about how to live under normal circumstances, when all is going well, but the book of Job offers a powerful example of how to live in times of crisis. In fact the largest portion of the book recounts Job's response to his suffering. Since are told that how Job spoke and what he said was right in a way that the friends' words were not, we'll want to examine Job's words to see what we can learn from this fascinating character about how to live when tragedy strikes. For now, suffice it to say that he wasn't as patient as many of us have been taught that he was. He complained bitterly to God for some 30 chapters in the middle of the book and those chapters are integral to the rest of the story. So do stay tuned for next week's sermon when we'll look at a couple of those chapters in more detail. . .
For today, remember that while Job's friends may have gotten it wrong, God knew all along that Job was a righteous man. Remember that while Job never learned why he suffered, he was firmly convinced throughout that he was in God's hands. Like Job, we too can affirm that no matter what may happen to us, we belong to God. For reasons we do not understand, God may not always prevent harm from coming our way, but God will never let us go…
Whether or not we are able in any given moment to feel God’s presence, remember that in every chemo treatment and in every surgery, God is there. In every broken marriage and in every job loss, God is there. In France and in Lebanon and in Iraq this week, and in Japan and in Mexico, just as he has been in every other tragic situation in every week and every year of human history, God is there. God weeps with God’s hurting children, and holds those who grieve, and provides good people to come alongside good people who suffer, whether to bind up their wounds or simply to sit with them in silence. Right in the middle of the ash heap, God is there. As we weep in our respective mud puddles, God is there. And God is here. Receiving our grief and our anger and our questions, at the injustices and tragedies that weigh on each of our hearts today, God is here.
In that firm conviction, I invite you now to stand with me and--in spite of all the heartbreak we see around us—let us bravely affirm together God's steadfast love, using the Affirmation of Faith printed in the bulletin:
In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve…
With believers in every time and place,
we rejoice that nothing in life or in death
can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 “Our Mud Puddle Lives,” by Steve Burt in Church Worship, April 1996, p. 13.