First Reading Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Second Reading Hebrews 4:12-16
Gospel Reading Mark 10:17-31
Sermon: “When God Seems Distant”
The story of Job challenges us to consider things that quite frankly, most of us would rather not ponder too closely. It tells a story that is ancient – way back to the time of the Patriarchs – the time of Abraham or perhaps even before. The questions it prompts however are as relevant and modern as this morning’s newspaper. It makes us think, perhaps it even makes us angry, it certainly leaves us uncomfortable.
There are times in our lives that chaos, destruction or illness strike and we are left to miserably shake our heads and cry out “Why?” Why did God let such a thing happen. Where is God in all this? The God whom we worship, we worship as being all powerful, all knowing and all loving. So why has God allowed a virus to ravage the world? Why such a seemingly endless series of natural disasters, fires, floods, droughts, volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes. Open most any newspaper on most any day and the question jumps off the page, if we but pause to consider.
When good people suffer, our spirit struggles to understand. Throughout recorded history people have asked: If God is almighty and is truly good, how can God allow such outrages? The theology of Job friends assumed that every person’s suffering is indicative of the measure of their guilt in the eyes of God. We know and the author of the book of Job know that this is far too simplistic. So he took a different tack however and broke out of the traditional orthodox theology of his day. He saw that that way of thinking led to a dead end — it had no way to cope with the suffering of godly people. So, instead of giving a series of theological arguments, he tells us a story. Perhaps it might be best to consider this account a parable, like Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus for example, and let the rich imagery, the poetry and vital nature of the content give us space to consider the nature of our relationship to God and the world around us.
Early on in the book of Job we meet the character of “Satan” which is translated “The Adversary.” This Adversary makes an appearance in the first two chapters and is not mentioned again in the story at all. The adversary seems different than what we have normally thought of as Satan or as we sometimes refer to him as the devil. He has free access to heaven and to God. The conversation that he has with Gcd is troubling to say the least, but it does address an important point. Since Humans are totally dependent on God for their lives and well-being, we are indeed faced with the temptation to love the gifts rather than the Giver, to try to please God merely for the sake of his benefits, to be “religious” and “good” only because it pays. If he is right — if the godliness of the righteous can be shown to be in fact greed — then an alienation stands between God and human beings that cannot be bridged. In the view of the Adversary, even the godliest among them would be shown to be ungodly. God’s whole enterprise in creation and redemption would be shown to be radically flawed, and God can only sweep it all away in awful judgment. Job’s love for God wouldn’t really be love at all if it was greedy self interest.
Note also, when God asks the Adversary where he’s come from, he answers “from going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it” What a powerful image – bad stuff – traipsing up and down in the world, pausing indiscriminately where it will. Arrogant and callous, it has its way and does not always pass by the “good people.” The story of Job challenges the conventional wisdom that says if you do the right thing, obey the rules and live a righteous life, then only good things will happen to you. The Accuser is not heard from again in the story – his part is done and Job, his wife and his friends are left to deal with the wreckage. The story of Job spells out the truth that piety does not equal protection, but rather – it is how we deal with our struggles and hardships that is very important indeed. Now Job is a such a man of integrity, that he does not lose it even in those extreme circumstances that he is dealt. Just because piety doesn’t equal protection, those struggles don’t undo goodness and faith.
We get a glimpse into this dimension of Job’s story in the conversation he has with his wife. As he sits in ashes, scratching his sores with a broken piece of pot, she asks him “Do you still persist in your integrity?” That is a resounding question! Do we keep throwing our weight behind bedrock faith and trust in love, even when all evidence is that life is like some Casino game? Job, even though he has some wonderfully raw exchanges with God, persists in his integrity – he rests the weight of his belief on the principle that “God is good.” This is the grand common theme that we see in so many of the Psalms of lament that speak so directly to our pain and hurt. In each one there comes a point where the Psalmist has laid out his case – his hurt and betrayal before God and then as a willful act of confession of faith, he recalls the past faithfulness of God and boldly proclaims faith in the goodness of God in spite of present circumstances. Job laments bitterly, but does not curse God or lose his faith. Saying “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”
It is not a weak faith that asks the ultimate question of “Why?” but instead it is only a plucky faith, a bold faith, a stubborn faith, that asks the question. We are told in Job 2:10 that in and through it all, Job did not sin. What that tells us is that it’s no sin to stand up for the way things are supposed to be. God’s original intent for creation is marred by the consequences of sin. This world is in fact sick and broken and bad things do happen to any and all who live here.
The rest of the Book of Job shows Job’s friends trying to square everything at the corners by concocting various scenarios as to how all this bad stuff in Job’s life can fit nicely within their narrow scheme of things after all. For every event there is a Theology file drawer, into which anything and everything can be neatly put. But when you think about it, what that approach amounts to is some effort to say that the way things are must be basically the way things are supposed to be. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book “The Problem of Pain” – written after the death of his wife that “The real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, but why some do not.” He goes further and writes: The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered and broadcast…The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God…Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”
Our Christian understanding is indeed different from Job’s friends. We have the example of our Savior Jesus Christ, who suffered in this world to show us the great love of God by becoming a flesh and blood human being. Born of Mary – living a sinless, though by no means painless life. Teaching us to be in relationship with God right now – amidst all the difficulties of life – relying daily on the gifts of the Holy spirit to keep us focused on that one primary, critical relationship which is to be the model for all of our other earthly relationships – loving, healing, giving, serving and forgiving. We will indeed have hardship and pain from time to time, but thanks be to God that we are never left alone. The wonderful Christian concept of the fellowship of all believers comes into practical focus when we come to care for someone who is suffering. The story of job gives us a couple of common, but very unhelpful things to avoid in this situations. First is despair. Job’s wife said “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!” I think we all know enough innately to avoid that one. Despair is not true to the indwelling Spirit in the heart of every believer.
Second is our tendency to somehow explain everything. As the story of Job goes on, at first Job’s friends take a good path – simply being present – listen to Job 2:11-13
 When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.  When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads.  Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.
Later however, they just couldn’t resist trying to explain Job’s problems and he ends up telling them “I have heard many things like these; you are miserable comforters, all of you!  Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing? Quiet fellowship, prayer and a listening ear are often the best medicine for such hurts.
The book of Job is a long and intricate dance of wrestling for meaning that we might easily spend weeks and weeks trying to get our mental arms around it, but I have come to know a central truth that brings it all together for me. Jobs friends talk a lot about God and about their assumptions about Job himself. They make God seem distant and transactional – this for that. Job talks to God, Job even dares to get a little rough with God, but Job is always longing for relationship and hangs his hopes on the goodness of God. Job cries out to God and as we will see next week, God answers, in person. Job will not get all the answers he wants, but he knows that God hears and sees and is present. And trusts that God will put things right.
It is much the same for us. We live in a hurting and broken world where we suffer seemingly random disaster and hurts. Sometimes the causes are known, but often not. Still we have an even more vivid hope than Job could imagine for a world once again made new and perfect with the return of our Lord. In his kingdom, we will all feast together, and as John tells us in the Revelation: Revelation 21:3-5 NIV
… “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Job, in the midst of his despair, is still able to cry out in faith and trust words that Handel used in the Messiah and that we sometimes use even at funerals: Job 19:25-27 NLT  “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and he will stand upon the earth at last.  And after my body has decayed, yet in my body I will see God!  I will see him for myself. Yes, I will see him with my own eyes. I am overwhelmed at the thought!
God is with us and God is for us, even in and maybe especially in the midst of troubles. For God has done something that Job could only dream of. God has come in human form to live, suffer, die and rise again in the person of Jesus Christ. Our redeemer lives and will see us through this life and into eternal fellowship with God forever.