The Rev. Dr. Andrew Guffey
Proper 27, Year C
In the Name of the Living God, the God of the Living: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
I was sitting with someone in the hospital once, whose daughter was undergoing back surgery. This mother had been beset by back trouble all her life, and her daughter had inherited similar problems. We chatted airily about this and that—the mother had a wonderfully crass sense of humor—though some idea was clearly agitating her thoughts. Eventually she just looked up to me with guilt-laden eyes, and said, “I’ve struggled my whole life and now I’ve given this to her.” I think any parent knows immediately what she means: we work so hard to protect our children, we expend vast reserves of time and energy just trying as best we can to give them every good thing we possibly can. But while we are busy trying to find the best doctors and the best schools, so much is outside of our control, and we pass on to our children our own mortality, our own fragility.
She was a woman of faith, and she asked “Why? Why does God have to make her go through this, too? What did I do wrong?” These are questions I think all of us face at some point in our lives. And if the Gospel according to the book of Job is any indication, they are questions without any neat answers. And I’m going to try my hardest not to give you any neat answers this morning. Because that would be an exercise in missing the point. But let us stick with the questions for now, because they are Job’s questions, too.
Job’s story is pretty well known, but in case you’ve forgotten bits of it, here’s a recap: Job is a righteous man—THE MOST righteous man in all of God’s creation—and he’s prosperous. Because surely if we are doing right then good things will come our way, right? Surely, those who see misfortune in their lives have done something wrong, have done something to deserve it. Now, before we skip too blithely over that bit and say, “Well, of course that stupid,” let us take stock of the cruel thoughts that lurk beneath the surface, and of the ways that we too casually dismiss the needs of those around us. “He’s probably going to use the money to buy alcohol. She probably just doesn’t like her job, so she keeps faking these illnesses. Why don’t they just move to a better neighborhood? They really just want candy, that’s why my children are being so sweet to me today.” Even when we deny it with our lips, our innermost thoughts frequently betray just how much we may suspect this to be true: that the righteous prosper and can be known by their prosperity, and those who do not prosper, must not be all that righteous. Well, that is the assumption with which everyone in the book of Job is working, and it is the assumption that the book of Job wants to obliterate.
The story kicks off with something of a debate in heaven between The Accuser and God. God turns to the Accuser and says, “Say, where’ve you been, buddy?” And the Accuser says, “Oh, kicking around on earth there.” “Oh yes?” says God, enthusiastically, “And, and have you noticed my servant Job? That’s my boy!” “Mmhm,” the Accuser says, “but he’s only so good because he has so much. Take away his stuff, and he’ll abandon you.” Well, God allows it. Job loses nearly everything. His livestock, his wealth, his house…even his children. But it’s not enough to drive from Job the notion that God is just and that he ought to be righteous. But, says the Accuser, take away his health, too, and then we’ll see. So God allows it. Job is beset by tremendous suffering, so that even his wife says to him, “Why don’t you just say your last farewell to God—bless God, cure God, whatever you need to do—and die?” But Job refuses. Now, it would be a neat little story if the Accuser just conceded at this point, Job received his life back, and all was well. But as I said, Job is not a book that offers neat answers.
Because what happens next is what we might hope and dread happens to the rest of us. Job’s friends show up. For seven days they say nothing, and just sit with Job in his grief, which was the only thing they really did right. It’s all downhill for them from there, because “After this,” as the text says, “Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.” And Job’s so-called friends start offering neat answers to Job’s suffering: maybe you did something wrong Job, something to upset God, no REALLY, I think you must have messed up somewhere. I mean, come on, no one is really altogether good.
And that is what the mother I sat with wanted to say, too: I must deserve this somehow. But Job knows his own heart too well. No, I have not earned this heartache, and I believe—I have to believe—that God will prove me right. It is not hard to imagine Job praying something like the Psalm for today: “Show me your marvelous loving kindness, O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand from those who rise up against them. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings from the wicked who assault me, from my deadly enemies who surround me.” Job was surrounded by friends, but you know what they say: with friends like these….
But notice, too, what Job, in all his lamentation, in all his justified bitterness and rage, notice what Job does not do: he does not abandon the only source of comfort he has. The book of Job is a great book, not just because it is unflinchingly honest about human suffering, but also because Job refuses to let go of God, just as Jacob refused to let go when he was wrestling the angel—until God blessed him. Job doesn’t ask for God to make it all right. Job just wants God to show up. Job doesn’t know why everything has gone to hell, but he trusts that God means healing. In his desperation Job doesn’t just want to score points against God’s unfairness, but what he really longs for is God’s comfort. God’s eternal comfort, as 2 Thessalonians puts it. And that longing is Job’s good hope.
O that my words were written down, inscribed in a book, etched with an iron pen, engraved on stone. O that these words might be immortal, Job says. Because in them I have named all I want and need. And that turns out to be just the presence of God. “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, who I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
God is Job’s only hope, God is Job’s last desire. The story of Job almost has to twist God to get the story to work. It has to take a story about a God that is not the God Job knows—a God who can be goaded into punishing humans as a test. But that’s not the God that Job knows. That’s not the God Job wants to show up. The God Job wants to show up is the God we know through Jesus. A God who lifts up the poor, who gives rest to the weary, soothes the suffering, pities the afflicted, and shields the joyous. The God Job wants to show up is not some crusty, capricious Canaanite construction, but the real God, the God who is loving-kindness and refuge, who keeps us as the apple of his eye, and hides us under the shadow of her wings.
The God Job wants to show up is the God who created the world and every human being because the power and joy of being alive is too good not to share it. The God Job wants to show up is the God who called a people, Israel, to be God’s own, to show the whole world what it means to be honored, precious, and loved. The God Job wants to show up is the God who became flesh and dwelt among us, became one of us and was pushed to the outer limits of human pain and suffering on the cross. The God Job wants to show up is the God who was raised from the dead, carrying us from death to life, and meets us here at this table and is working tirelessly to heal us. The God Job wants to show up is the real God: Immanuel: God with us. Not the god who is against us, not even just the God who is for us, but the God who is with us. God, who is closer to us than our own hearts, who hears our cries and feels our pain before we do, who lights up with delight and beams at the miracle each and every one of us is becoming.
Where is God? It’s a question we all ask at some point. With so much suffering and misery in the world, with so much cruelty and abuse, or hell, with just so much confusion and pain in my own heart, where is God? The temptation is to let the edge of that question soften into accusation alone. The temptation is to ask the question as though we didn’t really want to know the answer. The temptation is to ask “Where is God?” As though the question implied the answer, “Nowhere.” But that’s not a very helpful question. That’s not even the heart of the question we want to ask, because when we ask, “Why does God let this happen?” Or “Where is God?” What we really want to know is, “Does God remember me? Does God love me? Is there healing still to come? Please God, let there be.” And the answer is, “Yes, my dear, sweet, beloved, precious child. Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes, and plenty to spare.” You will be, one day, like an angel, and you are the apple of my eye. You will see me and I will see you, and we will be so overwhelmed by love that we both might just ugly cry.
God’s will and love and grace for you and me is revealed not just in who we have been created to be, where we come from, or even in who we are at this moment, but in where we are going and who we are becoming. God’s great story remains unfinished. As 1 John says, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” That is Job’s hope, too. And it is ours. There are days and weeks and months and years and maybe even decades when we may ask ourselves, “Where is God?” And the answer is, right here, and in your very heart, because you and are living into God’s very own life, and in the company of God’s people and as a companion of Jesus, you will become what you barely suspect you are: beautiful and beloved and beheld.