12th Sunday in Ordinary Time - 2021
Old Testament - Job 38:1-11
New Testament - 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
INTRODUCTION: We all love the Book of Psalms for its bold statements of faith and trust, right? Whether it’s, say, Psalm 23 and its famous affirmation of God’s care, or Psalm 145 and its declaration of God’s greatness and glory, many of the psalms declare the goodness, majesty, and love of God in profoundly moving ways.
But sometimes, of course, the Book of Psalms also contains words of lament and even anger. Sure, the Book of Psalms gives expression to those times when all is right with the world and God seems to be smiling down upon us with kindness and affection. But there are also quite a few psalms that come from a much darker place.
In such psalms, life has taken a horrible turn in some way and suddenly the psalmist finds it easy to wonder...wonder if maybe God isn’t quite as trustworthy and good as once thought. “I am counted among those who go down to the Pit,” moans the psalmist despondently in number 88. “You have put me in the depths of the Pit [O God], in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.”
Such Psalms, obviously, arise from a very different place than those that are full of trust and faith. For whatever reason, life for the psalmist has been rudely disrupted. For trouble or evil has befallen the psalmist during such times, and it’s easy for the questions and the doubts to start flowing.
ONE: Old Job, of course, also knew about such questions and doubts, right? Why, if asked, he probably could have written a few of his own psalms of lament.
You might recall the book begins with Job being in a pretty good spot. We’re told, initially, that he is blameless, avoids hanging out with the wrong crowd, has a huge batch of kids, and more sheep, camels, oxen, and donkeys than anybody for miles around. But after God and Satan enter into a little wager, well, life starts to fall apart, doesn’t it? “I bet ya,” says Satan to God, “I bet ya if Job’s life becomes a living hell, well, it won’t be too long before he is cursing your name.”
And so right off the bat Job loses his oxen and donkeys to a marauding group of thieving bedouins. The sheep and servants get it next when a giant fireball falls from the sky torching everything in sight. And the camels? Well, they too also get stolen away by yet another group of bandits.
But then surely worst of all, as you might recollect, Job loses all his sons and daughters. They're all making merry in the oldest son’s house only to have a tornado roll through the neighborhood leveling the house and killing ‘em all.
But even after all that, after losing all his property and servants and kids, Job’s troubles aren’t over just yet. For he also gets afflicted with festering sores from head to foot. And so there he sits - nestled in the ashy remains that was his life, picking at his festering sores with a broken piece of pottery.
So Job surely uttered a few psalms of lament himself. For his life was humming along nicely, only to have it come crashing to the ground in a smokey pile of debris.
TWO: You see, in Job’s day (just like in our own time!) some people had the opinion that suffering was pretty easy to explain.
For them, life boiled down to that old adage, “What comes around goes around.” Live a good life, in other words, follow God’s commands and stick to the straight and narrow, and a person could expect to be blessed. Do the opposite, however, and one could expect to have a life of trouble and turmoil. It was a neat, tidy system of cause and effect.
Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, nicely express the view as Job is trying to understand his ugly plight. “You must have sinned,” they basically keep telling Job. “Whatever you’ve done, buddy, it must be pretty bad. Why else would God be making your life a living hell.”
But the story of Job calls such a neat and tidy theology into question, doesn’t it? Job, after all, was blameless according to the opening verses of the book. Job, in other words, is a big stick of dynamite dropped into the middle of the theory.
Remember, up until his life started falling apart, Job had been a Boy Scout. He paid his taxes, stayed true to his family, friends, and God, and even found the time to somehow work at a local soup kitchen on weekends. If one looked up Goody Tushu in the dictionary, there is a solid chance a picture of Job was staring back at them.
His neighbors, in other words, probably couldn't stand Job for his saintly and virtuous life.
THREE: And so Job, who had held up his end of the formula by living blamelessly, wants to know why his life is suddenly full of such loss and suffering. If living a good life means one gets to avoid troubles, then Job, rightly, wants to know why his life is suddenly such a hot mess.
Again and again, Job demands an audience with God: “But I would speak to the Almighty,” says Job at one point, “and I desire to argue my case with God.” Job is ready to go to court with God pretty sure his case is a good one.
But here’s the funny thing. When Job finally gets his audience with God...let’s just say God isn’t very helpful in his response. Job shows up stating his case only to have God reply, “Where were you...where were you when I was busy laying the foundations of the earth and placing the stars in the night sky? And where were you when I was binding the wild waters of the sea and forming the clouds?”
Job gets to complaining, Job gets to asking God for answers as to why he is suffering, and, well...God never really gives him a good explanation, does he?
While some of our overly zealous Calvinist brothers and sisters are quick to attribute even the tragedies of life to God’s directing hand, maybe what God is trying to tell Job is that sometimes, well, bad things just happen. The world, after all, is a fallen place, right? And if fallen, then it is also a murky one where sad, hard, and yes horrible events come crashing into all our lives.
Or as the great American troubadour Bruce Springsteen likes to put it in one of his songs: “Well you may think the world's black and white/And you're dirty or you're clean, son/You better watch out you don't slip/Through them spaces in between.”
Maybe that helps explain why one of my favorite theologians likes to say that the best response to the trials and miseries of life isn’t rote platitudes, but rather simply silence. After all, do we really want to claim the nearly 4 million deaths worldwide from COVID are all just somehow part of a divine plan orchestrated by God?
Or, that a small child ripped away from doting parents in some horrible accident is all because God needed another “angel in heaven?” I sure don’t. Truth be told, sometimes the best response to the events of life is just plain old silence. For like Job, we too were also absent when God was laying the foundations of the world, heming in the seas, and throwing the stars across the heavens.
FOUR: That’s not to say there isn’t a word of solace or comfort for us when it comes to the sufferings of life.
Yes, life can be full of tragedy and sadness, to be sure, but again and again in the pages of the Bible we are also assured that God will eventually see us through such things. The promise, in other words, isn’t that our lives will be free of suffering, but rather that with God, we can and shall overcome.
Or as God declares in the Book of Isaiah to the people of Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you...For I am the Lord your God.”
One of the great and constant themes of Scripture, after all, is that God is busy even now making all things new. God, you see, actually agrees with us about something. Yep. Just like us, God also knows that the world is a mess. And since fixing it is beyond our meager human abilities, God, thankfully, promises to do what we can’t.
At the end of Tolkien’s series the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam find themselves perched on a small rock outcropping surrounded by lava. The ring has finally been destroyed and Mount Doom is collapsing around them. Sure their own deaths are imminent; the two go unconscious.
But what they think is the end, ends up being something else. At the bidding of Gandalf the Wizard, Giant eagles swoop down from the smokey sky and ferry the two away to safety. And days later, when Sam finally awakens and sees Gandalf, he has these words: “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Well, if God be true and trustworthy, yes.
CONCLUSION: So life can be both full of blessings and troubles, right?
For while beautiful and majestic, the world is also fallen. It’s a broken place full of broken people. And so joy and sorrow are just part of the fabric of life.
But for people of faith like us, there is also a promise written into life as well. For God, we are assured again and again, is busy making all things new. Even now, God is with us promising to see us through.
Until one day, someday, all sad things will become untrue.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways! For from God, and through God, and to God are all things. To God be the glory forever. Amen.