Sunday October 7 2018

The Book of Job

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson


In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

High up on a melting Greenland glacier, at the end of this summer from climate hell, two young women shout a poem above the roar of the wind. Aka Niviana, grew up on the northern coast of Greenland; as its ice inexorably thaws, her traditional way of life disappears. And the water that melts off that ice sheet is drowning the home of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and everyone else in her home nation, the Marshall Islands of the Pacific. One poet watches her heritage turn to water; the other watches that same water sweep up the beaches of her country and into the houses of her friends. The destruction of one’s homeland is the inevitable destruction of the other’s.[1]

Bill McKibben, a climate activist of over thirty years, writes this story for newsmedia.

Describing this action, this reading of poetry by two women whose homelands are disappearing, Bill wonders about the way of reaching out to us to help us hear of our need to change…

This science is uncontroversial. Bill writes. But science alone can’t make change, because it appeals only to the hemisphere of the brain that values logic and reason. We’re also creatures of emotion, intuition, spark – which is perhaps why we should mount more poetry expeditions, put more musicians on dying reefs, make sure that novelists can feel the licking heat of wildfire.

…But artists can register those thoughts, and turn them into images that potentially unite us. …These poets are up on the ice hoping that they can somehow rouse more of the world to action.

Gathered in our cathedral this morning, we too are people of poetry, story, music, reflection. As we hear the cry of these two women longing for the saving of their homelands, as we hear the cry of others suffering, longing for the survival of a community, a loved one, perhaps our own survival, we turn to the scriptures and listen there for a voice of hope, of healing, a voice perhaps of God.

This morning our Old Testament reading is taken from the Book of Job. Over the next weeks we will dip into this Book of wisdom literature, this Book that explores the struggle that is the suffering of the innocent.

The theology of the Old Testament seems to be fairly clear about the issue of suffering. If you obey God, things will go well with you. If you disobey God, and, in particular, if you worship other gods, things will not go well. The writer of the Book of Job seeks to challenge this theology. His book opens with a man called Job, a man who was ‘blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil.’ (Job 1:1) And Job’s life was full of blessings.

In the heavenly places, a mythical character, the Satan, challenges God about Job. The word Satan literally means the accuser. The Satan places his accusation to God. He suspects Job’s motivation. Job is only loyal to God in order that things will continue to go well with him. The Satan puts before God a challenge. He asks God to allow him to revoke Job’s good fortune to test Job’s loyalty. God agrees to the challenge and we see in the story that after the loss of family and possessions, Job blesses God in his grief. With God’s permission, the Satan strikes again. Job is covered with a skin disease which ‘inflicts loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.’(2:7) Job sits amidst some ashes, saying to his wife “Shall we not receive the good at the hand of God and not receive the bad?” (2:10) Even in the midst of such suffering, Job maintains his loyalty to God.

Before we look at what happens next, we need to reflect a little on the character of the Satan. The Satan, the accuser, does not believe that the relationship between God and a human being can thrive in any situation but success. The Satan accuses Job – and all humanity – of being fair weather friends. The Satan believes that such a relationship cannot withstand the onset of suffering and so, of course such a relationship is worthless. That is the Satan’s challenge to God.

Before the writer of the Book of Job explores how Job’s relationship with God fares in this situation, he explores the response of Job’s friends. Job, covered with sores, sits in his ash heap and three of his friends come to see him. Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar have heard of his troubles. They meet together to go and console and comfort him. At the sight of Job, their distress is acute – they weep aloud, tear their robes and throw dust in the air upon their heads. And they sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights in silence. (2:12-13) Not bad pastoral care really. These friends do a pretty good job of keeping Job company in his place of struggle. Until, that is, Job begins to speak.

After these seven days of silence, the book of Job tells of a series of dialogues between Job and his three friends. Job, overwhelmed by his suffering, laments his birth. Once Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar begin to respond, they cannot resist the theology of their culture. They present the doctrine of rewards and punishments. His friends point out that Job must have committed some sin for which his suffering is the punishment. ‘If iniquity is in your hand, put it far away,’ they advise. (11:14) Job protests that he has committed no sin that could be responsible for such suffering. He calls his friends ‘miserable comforters’ (16:2) and speakers of ‘windy words’ (16:3). The friends who kept company with Job for a time, desert him. It is too confronting for them to believe that Job is not to blame for his suffering. And so they desert him, as friends often do, by being deaf to his reality, by silencing him with their ‘windy words’. The relationship between Job and his friends has failed. The Satan, the accuser, would be smiling in the wings of this drama. So far, he is vindicated. Human relationships, at least, do not seem to be able to withstand the suffering of the innocent.

But, what of the relationship between Job and God?

Job bewails the absence of God in his suffering. God has deserted Job – ‘if I go forward, he is not there,’ Job cries, ‘or backward, I cannot perceive him…’ (23:8) Job begs God for vindication, for the opportunity to ‘lay [his] case before him.’ (23:4) Finally, Job cries out, ‘let the Almighty answer me!’ (31:35) Job longs for God’s presence, for an encounter with God. It is as if Job wants to take God to court! To challenge the theology that says his suffering is punishment for sin.

In the final chapters of the Book of Job, God answers Job. God answers Job ‘out of a whirlwind.’ (38:1) And, as God answers Job, God answers the Satan as well.

God does not explain anything. God does not even engage with Job’s questions. Instead God bombards Job with God’s own question upon question, encounter upon encounter, leading Job to contemplate the mystery of creation. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.’ (38:4-7) Question upon question, encounter upon encounter, through four chapters, God barely draws breath, as God wrestles Job from his world view fraught with death and darkness to a glimpse of God’s vision.

When God is finally silent, Job replies, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted …Hear and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me. I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself in dust and ashes.’ (42:2,4-6)

What God gives Job is not an explanation but an encounter. The suffering of the innocent Job is not made comprehensible in any of God and Job’s wrestling but we see what God gives. God gives God’s presence. As Job gave Job’s own. Job poured out his truth to his God and God honoured that outpouring. The Satan got it wrong. In the midst of suffering we see the relationship between Creator and the created one thriving. In the midst of acute suffering, Job experienced an encounter with God which transformed his relationship with God and transformed his life. “There in the wilderness of shame, Job finds himself in worthy company after all.”[i] ‘I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.’ Job says, seeming almost to have found some peace. I guess we might question that, wonder about it, wonder if we would find peace through this wild response of God when we are in our places of struggle. But we have been given a story, at least, on which to reflect.

This Book of Job. This wisdom story.

Poetry, story, have their home. When reason and logic seem unable to fully respond, seem unable to help us. Poetry, story, have their home. As we’ve seen in the presence of two women high up on a melting Greenland glacier, two young women shouting a poem above the roar of the wind. A poem in whose words are held the longing for the survival of their homelands.



[i] See William P. Brown ‘Introducing Job. A Journey of Transformation’ Interpretation 53 (1999), p233