God’s Servants— Job and Us
Preached at Newark Valley United Church of Christ
September 6, 2020
Rev. Barbara J. Schwartz
Job 38.1-11, 19-27, 31-41; 42.1-6, 7-9
Today I’m wrapping up the series of sermons from the book of Job. It’s one of my favorite books in the whole Bible— has been ever since I was in high school. It’s also one of the most provocative books, because it challenges easy answers and conventional religious thinking. I’m going to give a brief introduction, and then we will hear passages from chapters 38 and 41 read by members of the congregation. We are going to let this book speak for itself.
In the book of Job, only the narrator and the audience— that would be all of us— know the true cause of Job’s terrible sufferings: The LORD God has inexplicably decided to allow a cynical heavenly bureaucrat, the Satan, to test this righteous and right-living man’s devotion to God. The test is to determine if Job would curse God, if everything is taken away from him.
So in a single afternoon, Job experiences the complete destruction of his wealth and the tragic loss of all his young adult sons and daughters. Soon afterwards Job is afflicted with a terrible skin disease with open sores over his entire body. He sits day and night in the garbage middens and scratches at his sores with a potsherd. He still doesn’t curse God.
Three friends come to sit with Job. They represent the saying, “With such friends, you don’t need enemies.” Using conventional religious ideas, they try to convince Job of the cause of his tragic losses. In their speeches, they argue that God inevitably visits misfortune on sinners and evildoers. Therefore Job must have committed major sins at some point, and now he is experiencing a just God’s punishment for his deeds.
Job refutes their arguments and consistently maintains that he is innocent. In chapter 31, which I urge you to read on your own, Job describes how he has worked for justice in his community, defended the poor, helped widows and orphans, and maintained marital fidelity and integrity in his personal relationships. He knows has done nothing to warrant his terrible sufferings, and he longs to confront God directly.
Throughout the many chapters of poetic speeches by the “friends” and Job, the LORD God is silent. Finally the Holy One speaks to Job:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
‘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?
‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
‘Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
Surely you know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!
‘Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
‘Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
and to make the ground put forth grass?
‘Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
Can you establish their rule on the earth?
‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the water skins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?
‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
For the sake of time we are reading a very condensed version of God’s response to Job. The Almighty One goes on to talk about other creatures— mountain goats, wild donkeys and wild oxen, ostriches, horses, hawks, and even Behemoth and Leviathan— terrifying swamp creatures in whom God takes particular delight. God provides for all God’s creatures, and not just for human beings, who are not mentioned at all in this passage. God provides for humanity, giving humans the intelligence, skills, and mutual care to sustain families and communities, but human beings are not the whole picture of the beautiful, flourishing, orderly, but not always safe universe that God reveals to Job.
And Job’s response indicates that he now realizes his human limitations:
Then Job answered the LORD:
‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
“Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.”
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I recant my words,
and repent in dust and ashes.’
Job’s persistent hope to see the LORD God has been fulfilled, even though there is no answer to the question of why his sufferings happened. But the next verses show that God vindicates Job’s righteous life:
After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt-offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.’ So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.
God refers four times to “my servant Job.” God vindicates Job by stating that Job has spoken rightly— to God, not about God. Not talking about God presumptuously, as the three friends had done. That God directs the three to ask Job to pray for them affirms God’s trust in Job’s integrity and personal responsibility. Job is God’s partner in opening up a path of correction and forgiveness for the three friends, and perhaps they will be better for it.
The book ends with the restoration of Job’s fortunes, especially a second family of seven sons and three beautiful daughters. However, based on my own life experience and that of other people I know, I suspect that not a day went by in which Job and his wife didn’t think of the sons and daughters they had lost. The people we love and lose are not interchangeable with the new people we learn to love. The real gift is finding the hope and courage to start over and love again.
Like Job, we are God’s servants. From his story, we learn that we can bring all our issues and feelings— the good, the bad, the embarrassing— to the Holy One and be heard. Being honest and direct, not censoring ourselves, is speaking to God rightly, as Job did.
We serve God by living according to God’s vision of justice, compassion and mutual care, integrity and humility in our relationships and communities. We serve God by recognizing that we are just one part of
the whole complex picture of life on earth, and by acting responsibly in our use of earth’s resources and our fellow creatures. Sometimes the causes of the suffering of innocent people are clear. Sometimes they are not. Where we can prevent unnecessary suffering, we need to do so. Where we can relieve suffering, we must do so. In all conditions and circumstances of life, we look to Jesus Christ as our teacher and guide in the service we give.
Let us pray: God, guide us in our lives of discipleship and service. May your kingdom come, your will be done on earth. Amen.