October 4, 2009
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
Today’s readings are not easy ones. We hear the psalmist, begging for God’s help, claiming innocence, and hoping that God will be on his side and help him. And we have Job — a man who is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil”. But though Job was a good man, his story indicates that his righteousness did not protect him from harm. Despite his faithfulness, he was struck with many troubles — losing his possessions and his family, suffering physical pain and illness and isolation.
It seems to me that the words of the psalmist match up with our human perception of what is right and fair. If God exists, and if God is both powerful and loving, then we should expect to be able to ask for blessings and receive them. If we work hard to be good and faithful to God, then God should reward us.
The psalmist expects this kind of justice from God. He writes: “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering… I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all your wondrous deeds… Do not sweep me away with sinners, nor my life with the blood-thirsty…”
It seems only right that God should reward those who are faithful. And so, when bad things happen to us, we often find ourselves saying or thinking, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or if we’re feeling guilty about something, we might even assume that God is punishing us for some sin — that our current trouble or suffering is caused by God who is executing justice — punishing us for our mistakes.
There’s something about being human that leads us to that kind of conclusion — maybe because we humans usually do justice like that. Someone hurts someone, so they should be hurt back. Someone kills someone, so they should be put to death. Someone attacks, so we should fight back with all our might. But the book of Job challenges that concept of justice. It questions the idea of “an eye for an eye” and raises all kinds of new questions about the meaning of suffering.
I must say that I remember being quite shocked by Job’s story when I first encountered it. It read about how God was meeting with the angels, and how the one called Satan (or “the accuser”) was among them. Satan had just come from walking to and fro on the earth, and God asks if he’s noticed God’s servant, Job. God describes Job as “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil”.
The conversation about Job continues, and before long God is agreeing to destroy everything Job has and everyone that Job loves, in order to see whether Job will remain faithful to God. Satan figures that when Job loses everything, he’ll curse God. And God apparently wants to prove that Job’s righteousness is more deeply rooted than Satan assumes.
If you assume that Job was a real, historical person, and that this conversation between God and Satan really took place, it’s rather horrifying! How could our loving God inflict such suffering on one person for the sake of winning an argument with Satan? Not only were Job’s flocks and herds and possessions destroyed, but his children were all killed! And in today’s reading, Satan gets God to strike Job will illness and physical suffering. His body is covered with terrible sores from his head to his feet — all for the sake of seeing how much Job can take before he cracks!
But I believe that the story of Job is a story — told for the sake of trying to make sense of suffering. It challenges that base assumption that people suffer because they have sinned. And it explores the questions around what to do when bad things happen to good people. It’s been several years since I last read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “When bad things happen to good people,” but even the title of his book makes an important point about suffering. He doesn’t attempt to answer “why” bad things happen to good people. He doesn’t say it’s because they have done something to deserve it. He doesn’t say it’s because Satan is having an evil little party, and is arbitrarily inflicting suffering on good people. And he doesn’t blame God either — saying that God is either mean or harsh, or not powerful enough to protect the good from harm.
Instead, like the book of Job, Kushner does not dwell on the question of “why?” but moves right on to explore what happens “when” bad things happen to good people. How do we respond? How do we cope? Do we curse God, and turn away in anger and disappointment, as Job’s wife and friends encouraged him to do? Or do we cling to the God of our life for help and strength to make it through? Can we keep on believing that our trials and troubles are not punishment? Can we remember, in the midst of our suffering, that God is with us to walk us through until they eventually come to an end?
Like all people, we struggle with the meaning of suffering. Sometimes it is our own illnesses, or losses, or disappointment. And sometimes we look at the world around us, and we wonder at the poverty and the hunger, at the needless violence, illness, and oppression. But as Christians, we turn to the life of Jesus for guidance and hope in the midst of all that confuses and concerns us. If Job was a fictional man, who lost it all and suffered greatly despite his goodness and faithfulness to God… Jesus was the real man, whose life followed a similar pattern.
Our reading from the book of Hebrews today begins by reminding us that long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. God spoke through the person who wrote the story about Job, for example, and God’s people were strengthened and encouraged to live in relationship to the God who made them. But Hebrews goes on to say that in these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son. This man, Jesus, Hebrews tells us, is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. And God sent Jesus into our world to live with us. Jesus came as a teacher — showing us how to live in loving relationship with God and each other. And he came as a leader, showing with his own life what it means to love one another and God.
And all of that seems just fine to our human way of thinking. We needed that extra help to understand how God was calling us to live. We needed that example to follow so that we could learn to be as righteous and upright as Job — so that we could honestly cry out the words of the psalmist: “Vindicate us, O Lord, for we have walked in our integrity, and we have trusted in the Lord without wavering.”
But though Jesus was perfect (more perfect even than the character of Job) his righteousness did not protect him from suffering. In fact, it led him right into it. Jesus came into the world to love us humans in all our brokenness, in all our sinfulness, in all our suffering. He came and walked with those who were most despised and rejected by others, and he shared their suffering. He lifted them above their troubles, and showed them that they were loved. He stood up for the poor and the outcast, and for all those who were suffering.
Someone asked the question, “What are human beings that God is mindful of them, or mortals, that God cares for them?” Well, God made us. And God does care for us in Jesus Christ. No, Jesus didn’t come and fight against those evil powers with sword and violence. Instead, he walked with us in our suffering, and took upon himself all that fear and hatred and violence. Like Job, Jesus was the innocent one who suffered for no good reason at all. Or in his case, he suffered and died so that we humans would know that we are not alone, that God is sharing our pain, that God loves us that much, and that at the end of it all there is victory.
At the end of Job’s story, he is restored. He receives everything back that he has lost, and all is well. At the end of Jesus’ story, we discover that suffering and death do not have the final word. Jesus is raised, and there is a new and everlasting life for him in relationship with God.
This morning, we will gather at the table of Jesus’ suffering to remember (together with all the people of God) that Jesus loved us that much. As we offer bread and juice, we remember Jesus’ offering of his whole life — body and blood — for the life of the world. And as we receive these gifts, we know that Jesus is still with us, walking with us through our suffering, rejoicing with us in our celebration, filling and strengthening us to live his way in the world today.
Thanks be to God for this Holy Communion with Christ and with his body here on earth. Amen.