Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
A couple weeks ago we began our overview of the Old Testament book of Job by focusing on a common misunderstanding, one promoted by Job's so-called friends or comforters and one that has its supporters even today. It goes something like this. Since we believe God generally rewards the good and punishes the bad, if something bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it. It's the assumption that people only get what they deserve, or at least that we deserve what we get. That we're ultimately to blame for whatever suffering we encounter in this life.
But Job was a good and faithful man. The fact that he suffered terribly had nothing to do with anything he did, and certainly nothing he did wrong. It was Job’s friends who were mistaken in their assumptions, not Job himself. God even affirms in the end of the book that Job spoke what was right. He really was innocent. One of the conclusions we can draw from the book of Job is that people don’talways get what they deserve. Sometimes good people suffer, for what appears to be no good reason.
Another common misunderstanding stems from our reading of this brief passage in the NT book of James which in many translations refers to the "patience" of our friend Job. Patience as most of us understand it implies waiting and accepting, letting things run their course, bearing without complaint. And the expression "the patience of Job," as it's found its way into contemporary idiom, calls to mind all of this to the nth degree. ("If ever anyone was patient, it was Job. Remember everything he had to put up with!")
But since the author of James presumably had the same book of Job in front of him as we do, we ought not jump to conclusions about what "the patience of Job" means until we're fairly familiar with the guy the NT author is talking about here. As we heard in our first Scripture lesson this morning, the kinds of words Job spoke actually sound more like him cursing the day of his birth and saying: "I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul." (Job 7:11) And these are just a few of many similar lines spoken by Job in the middle section of the book. Elsewhere Job becomes even more bold, accusing God of piercing him with poison arrows (6:4), of crushing him with a tempest and multiplying his wounds without cause (9:17), of hunting him down like a lion (10:16), of breaking him down on every side (19:10).
Clearly it's oversimplification and probably a serious misreading of the book of Job to say that Job bore his sufferings without complaint, that he was patient in that sense. He complained like this for some 30 chapters, with some of the strongest language we ever find in the Bible for people addressing God. Strong enough – I’ll be honest – that I actually wimped out a little this morning and picked some of the gentler verses to read aloud together. (Hold onto your hat if you’re going to dive in more deeply to the book of Job. It’s a wild ride.) So where did James get off calling Job a patient man? If, like me, you were familiar with this NT evaluation of Job long before you ever encountered the words of Job himself, you might well find yourself wondering what happened to that silent, stoic calm you were expecting.
But here's where we need to be careful. In the Greek, the word that James uses to describe Job is hypomene--which actually means something more like "standing fast," or "holding one's ground," or "endurance.” So hanging in there, yes. And hanging in there with God in spite of it all. But not necessarily bearing without complaint. Job bore his sufferings, yes, and endured, and persisted in his integrity and his faith, but he was also brutally honest with his friends and with his God about how unfair his situation was. And he demanded that God respond.
So it's partly a misinterpretation of James' interpretation of Job that leads us to think Job was patient in the sense of passively sitting by and letting things happen to him, as if he were somehow tolerating it all with a gentle smile. Far from it! He stood before God with his fists held high and demanded justice, using the same standards of justice that God had given him and applying those to God. And in this, Job was standing solidly in biblical tradition. Elsewhere in the OT--in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, in the book of Lamentations, and particularly in the psalms of lament--people of strong faith struggled with God, speaking out from their experiences of suffering, crying out in pain, trusting that God could handle their complaints and that God would respond.
It interests me how little of this has made its way into our Christian tradition, at least into the mainline Protestantism I’ve known best. How many of us have heard people offer prayers of simple acceptance of God's will in situations in which there's a real disconnect with what they're actually thinking and feeling? Before the 'dear Lord' and after the 'Amen', there are powerful, genuine expressions of anger, fear, hurt, and frustration. But once heads are bowed, all of that can sometimes be swept under the rug. Why is that? Perhaps because we've been taught that true faith means calmly accepting whatever comes and never questioning its fairness? But this doesn't accurately reflect the range of biblical teachings on prayer. Job carries on a dialogue with God for more consecutive chapters than most anyone else in the Bible. The presence of this book in Scripture seems to suggest we can expand our understanding of what is and is not allowed in prayer. And do we really think we're fooling God when we form words we think we're supposed to say while everything in us wants to cry out in pain or anger? God treasures real conversation with us, and that requires complete honesty on our part.
On a congregational level, we also don’t want to give people the impression that they’re required to be cheerful all the time when they come to church. On any given Sunday there are bound to be those who struggle with a call to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100) because their hearts are breaking. I confess I struggle myself sometimes to know how much lament to incorporate in corporate worship because I also want to offer services that are uplifting and encouraging. If you come in cheerful, I don’t want to send you out depressed! But if we think in terms of the needs of an entire congregation, surely we’ll want to touch down in lament now and then to make space for those in pain, remembering that we don’t always know what our fellow worshippers are going through on any given day.
And then on a broader community level, which is another lens we’ve been using this time through the wisdom books, certainly there are citywide and national and international situations we are all agonizing over together. Those things make their way into our congregational prayers as they should. I worry, though, that the Church hasn’t done an especially good job of hearing lament directly from those who suffer in larger scale ways. What would it look like to build that into worship? Or where else as a church might we make space for lament from voices other than our own?
At the very least, I want to be sure I’m not shutting down the lament of others when I hear it simply because it makes me uncomfortable. Knowing God receives tears and anger and honesty from God’s children, can we also listen, and then not only listen but join our own voices in solidarity with those in pain? Over the last few weeks, for instance, as we’ve heard news of the deaths of young children in Palestine, and news of a mass grave at a school for Native children in Canada, which has only opened our eyes further to how widespread were abuses in such places around our own country too… surely, we are invited to grieve with those who are grieving, to lament such violence against innocent young lives.
Returning to that image I shared in children’s time, from Psalm 56:8 where the psalmist says to God: “you put my tears in your bottle” - I find that so powerful. That God not only hears our cries, but gathers up our tears one by one. And not only our tears, but the tears of every child of God in pain, everywhere, around the world and across time. God’s love reaching out to us, tear by tear, broken heart by broken heart, so that not a single cry of pain goes unheard.
I’ve heard it said that we pray not so much to tell God what our concerns are. God already knows them, after all. We pray to remind our concerns who God is. And incidentally the end of the book of Job offers us a great big lesson along those lines; we’ll return to God’s response to Job next week.
Meanwhile bring whatever is on your heart to prayer today. Whether it’s your own tears or the tears of others that you choose to lift before God this morning, know that God sees, and hears, and receives your lament. Even when it seems no one else sees or understands, God knows and God cares.