Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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‘But where shall wisdom be found?
And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
The deep says, “It is not in me”,
and the sea says, “It is not with me.”
It cannot be bought for gold,
and silver cannot be weighed out as its price.
It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir,
in precious onyx or sapphire.
Gold and glass cannot equal it,
nor can it be exchanged for jewels of fine gold.
No mention shall be made of coral or of crystal;
the price of wisdom is above pearls.
The chrysolite of Ethiopia cannot compare with it,
nor can it be valued in pure gold.
‘Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
‘God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth,
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he gave to the wind its weight,
and apportioned out the waters by measure;
when he made a decree for the rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt;
then he saw it and declared it;
he established it, and searched it out.
And he said to humankind,
“Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.” ‘
In 6 years as the pastor of this church, in all the pulpit supply I did in my church when I was serving as a hospice chaplain, even back to my internship, after seminary, I have never preached a sermon on Job. I’m pretty sure that I know why. It’s because Job is hard to preach on. Even pre-eminent biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann once wrote “The book of Job is not for ‘everyday use’ among the faithful, but it is an artistic extremity that is peculiarly matched to the most extreme crises of life lived in faith.” I’m a preacher than tends to look for the everyday use scriptures. But, as the folks who compiled the Unraveled devotional note, few figures in the Bible have their lives more thoroughly and painfully unraveled than Job does. And, this is a time when lots of parts of our social fabric are being unraveled. Maybe it’s worth spending some time here. One sermon probably won’t cover it. But, it’s a start.
First, let’s see who are the players in our story. The scholar Carol Newsom calls the first couple of chapters of the book kind of a fairytale. Once up on a time, there were a man named Job and he loved God. He was devout and did everything God asked of him. One day, God’s heavenly court is meeting a God talks to a member of the court called ha Satan. That is translated to the Accuser. This is a different the figure of Satan who is the devil. This figure is more like a prosecuting attorney. In fact, this whole book is going to end up looking a bit like a trial. The Accuser with be the prosecutor, trying to entrap Job into cursing God, and Job acting as his own attorney, both challenging God and recognizing God as the judge.
God, after expressing great pride in Job, as though he were the very best student in a class, decides to allow the Accuser to play with Job’s life, taking away what is most important to him: his family, whom he loves, his possession, which give him stability, and his health, which lets him live. I think it’s this particular characterization of God that is at the core of why I don’t preach on Job very much. This is a god to let’s a good man be toyed with for a bet. This is a god who turn Job’s family over to the Accuser just to see what happens. Maybe God is confident that Job’s piety is real, that he won’t fold when times are hard. But, there is a price to be paid for the experiment: all of the people in Job’s family, Job’s own well-being. If we assume that this book is only about the nature of belief, and whether or not one can sustain belief in hard times, it seems like a pretty cruel game to play with a character.
But, that’s not all this book is about. It may be the question the Accuser is interested in, but he makes terrible choices, so we probably shouldn’t follow him. Carol Newsom, in her introduction to Job in the Women’s Bible Commentary, says that she thinks it helps to read Job like a parable that is intended to be outrageous for a reason. The goal of the outrageous story is to disorient and reorient the person reading it. This book begins by asking if a person can be devout without assuming that God will give them good things as reward for their devotion. The book reorients us towards a different question. What is the nature of God? Does God give out blessings like prizes to be won? If you are good, will God give you things? If something bad has happened to you, does that mean that you have done something wrong in God’s eye and are being punished? The first question is about the nature of humanity. The second is about God.
The moment the Accuser is allowed to harm Job’s children and slaves and animals and even to afflict Job himself with illness, though Job had never done anything but be devoted to God, we see the beginnings of the answer to the question about the nature of God. The bad things that happen to you are not a punishment from God. Job knows this in his heart. There are 28 chapters in this book where Job’s friends end up coming to the conclusion that Job must be actually not that great a guy who all these bad things wouldn’t have happened. As Walter Brueggemann describes in his commentary on Job, suffering is seen as punishment for disobedience. If Job is suffering, he must have been disobedient.
But, Job is pretty sure he’s been obedient. He says in chapter 27, verses 5-6, “I will hold fast to my righteousness, and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” He has not been told explicitly what he has done to deserve punishment and understands himself to be faithful. He will continue to testify to his faithfulness until someone gives him an example of his behavior that merits punishment. We know that God isn’t punishing Job. Job knows that he hasn’t done anything worthy of punishment. So, what’s going on?
Dr. Newsom said that we need to pay attention to how Job imagines God to be functioning in the world. She said that Job is presuming that God will respond to him the way he would respond to the people dependent on him, his spouse, children, and the people he owns. His vision of God mirrors that the behavior of a benevolent human head of a family. Dr. Newsom says that Job expects God to be just as a human leader would be just, that God would intervene to “vindicate righteous conduct,” and that, yes, God would punish wicked behavior because those are all the things that Job would do as a paternal figure in his family. The book of Job, though, tells us that God doesn’t function like the head of a human family, even if that’s a common metaphor for God. God does something else.
Today’s scripture points to the “something else” that God does and God is. Today’s reading is a poem about God’s wisdom. It’s not clear who is saying it. I’ve seen scholars call it a poetic interlude between the parts of the book where Job is arguing with his friends about sin and punishment and where he challenges God directly to come and tell him why all this is happening. I think that this poem is the clue pointing us to what the author of the story hopes we’ll realize: humans, wise though they might be, still aren’t God. Job’s wisdom, and his friend’s wisdom, for that matter, leads them to assume that God will function just like people, especially like the men in charge of things in their families. This interlude, before God fully responds in chapters 38-42, is what can clue us in that we should be thinking about different scales of reality here. Humans have learned many great things. Humans still don’t know all the mysteries of Creation. And, that is the scale that God will invite Job to try to imagine.
Wisdom, that is God at work, is found not simply in the ideas that humanity has passed along, but also in the very foundation of life. God gave the wind it’s weight and apportioned out the waters by measure. God made a decree for the reign and a way for the thunderbolt. There is a wisdom in creation that goes beyond human ideas that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. God isn’t a big human in the sky, acting just like we do. God is a force of creation. That’s why we depart of evil, as verse 28 says. Evil is destructive, the opposite of the constructive, living force of God. Awe is a better starting point than evil for coming anywhere near understanding the wisdom of God.
God will eventually come and speak to Job from inside a whirlwind. That’s most of chapters 38-42.6. Most of what God will talk about is the awesome wonder of creation. This whole lawsuit brought up by Job will come to a complicated close. Though many of his fortunes are restored, Job never quite gets straight the answers to his questions, or, I think, a particularly compassionate response to his suffering. Dr. Newsom argues that what he does have is a new understanding of the nature of God. God is no longer that father waiting to punish his missteps, but is, instead, the power and spirit that is at the root of all life. And, maybe this is its own kind of gift. How much less shame and hurt would there be in the world if people no longer imagined all the bad things that befall them as retribution from a God who is definitely keeping score.
Maybe that is something that can carry us, as we wonder how to respond to the suffering in our own world, to a more compassionate response. God isn’t punishing the people who have lost their jobs or who have gotten sick. We don’t have to punish them either. But, we can remember that we are connected to them through God’s power at creation. And, in turning towards that connection, and responding to it, we are turning away from evil. We may not understand everything that is happening. But, we can be grounded in the majesty of Creation, and we can respond with our own goodness to it.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.