Saturday, October 13, 2012

Once Upon a Time . . . (Sermon on Job 1:1, 2:1-10))

We are about to embark upon a four-week series on one of the great masterpieces of Biblical literature.  -- and one that’s not preached on very often.  Some of the reasons for avoidance of Job will become apparent in the next few weeks; they’re the same reasons that make it such a great book.  Today, we’ll embark upon a sort of introduction, and we’ll begin with the question:

Why do I identify it as a great masterpiece of Biblical literature?  For this former English major, there are two standards by which to assess a narrative as a work of art: form and content.

Let’s take a quick look at the basic form, the outer shell of Job.  The bulk of the book is a lengthy poem, and it’s book-ended at beginning and end by passages of prose – straightforward narratives. Today, we’ll be addressing the first of those narratives.  The narrative is clear and easy to follow: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; the characters and conflict are set up for us; it even seems, at the outset, as though the situation is resolved.  It’s a story that, but for its subject matter, you could read to a small child.

The short narrative, however, turns out to be merely an introduction.  And it develops that the situation is not resolved at all and that the conflict, the argument, unfolds in a poem of nearly forty chapters.  Poetry: Think about it.  Poetry is a form quite different than the forms of writing we might use to write a short note, or a grocery list, or a set of instructions.  In poetry we try to expand our usual limitations of language with new words, with beautiful images, with sharp comparisons and contrasts.  

And when do people write poetry?  Perhaps even you? When big feelings have overtaken you, right?  When you’ve fallen in love, when you’ve experienced a great loss, when you’ve had a sense of the nearness of God, when God has seemed very far away?  When you’ve needed to work out, or at least to express, one of the great joys or sorrows or dilemmas of life?  When ordinary language no long suffices – that’s when we turn to poetry.  And so does the author of Job.  We will see in that lengthy poems that Job and God address the greatest questions of human existence – and then we will see that everything is pulled together – although, perhaps, another question is raised – in a short narrative conclusion.

The greatest questions of human existence – the content, the substance – there’s the other standard for a masterpiece of literature.  An ordinary story, or even an ordinary poem – that you can read, perhaps even several times, for the enjoyment of the narrative or the sound of the words. But a truly great work – it’s on another level.  It asks huge questions, unresolvable questions.  Questions to which there is no pat answer.  Questions which have different sounds at different time of life.  Questions in which the words patter in different steps depending upon who and where you are.

With that bit of an introduction, let’s see what Job’s introduction has to offer us:

The first verse of the first chapter of Job tells us, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

Right away, we know that we are in a world of fairy tale, of folklore. “There once was a man in the land of Uz.”  Doesn’t it sound like some other stories you know?  “Once upon a time . . .”?  Or “In a galaxy far, far away . . . “?  We don’t know where Uz was located; it wasn’t  in the ancient lands of Israel or Judah, where the people of the Old Testament lived; it’s never been found on any map.  We don’t know who Job was; there’s no evidence that he was a historical figure – he seems to have been a man of Jewish legend, a man whose story emerges from the mists of the past, a man of great righteousness and goodness to whom some very bad things happened.  In other words, this is, like all good folktales and parables and fables, a story about Everyman in Everyplace – a story that applies to all of us, no matter who or where we are.   

We also know, right away, something about this particular Everyman Job: he is a paragon of virtue and success.  He is, we are told, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned from evil.”  He is not, in other words, Everyman in the sense of being like us, we who are not at all 100% blameless and upright, we who forget to live in awe of God and who are continually tempted by evil.  He’s more of an example kind of Everyman, more someone to emulate, more a role model than a realistic reflection of human nature.  He’s also, as we would discover if we had all of Chapter 1  before us, a very wealthy and successful man: a wife and ten children, many servants, and thousands of livestock.  But he’s not a man who lets any of this go to his head; he honors God, and he prays regularly for his children.

Lest it be unclear: this righteous, virtuous, successful man is NOT a man who deserves for anything bad to happen to him.  He cares for his family, he runs his business holdings well, he is attentive to God; he is respected by all who know him.

We are quickly introduced in Chapter 1 to the other two major characters of the book: God, and the Satan.  God, we know – or we think we do.  The Satan – we in the 21st century need a bit of an explanation of who this is. I say “the Satan” because in the Hebrew, although almost never translated into the English, there’s an article, a “the” – “ha Satan” – “the Satan.”  This is not the devil as we think of the devil in Christianity, the one who will be caricatured in costumes and decorations in a couple of weeks.  This Satan is a member of God’s heavenly court, one of God’s advisors – and “the Satan” means something like “the accuser.”

So we have the three characters – Job, God, and the Satan – now what about the conflict?  What’s at stake here?

God and Satan make, essentially, a wager.  God points Job out to Satan: “Look at my servant, Job.  What a righteous man; what a good man.  He honors me in everything that he says and does.”

And Satan says, “Huh.  Of course he does.  His life is perfect.  Do you really think that his love for you would continue as such a level of perfection if he loses all that he has in life?  He loves you for what he has gotten from you!  Take it all away, and then see how much he cares for you!”

And God says, “OK.  Do what you will with him; let’s see how he responds.  All I ask is that you do not harm him.”

And in a matter of hours, Job’s livestock, his servants, his house, and his children – all gone.  Stolen, destroyed, ruined, killed.  Everything and everyone, except for his wife, whom he held dear – gone.

And what does Job say, in response to this cascade of calamity upon calamity?  He says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Is that what you would say? Maybe it is.  It’s not what I would say.  But it’s how the first chapter of Job ends: God-1, the Satan-0.

Now we come to the remainder of today’s reading, Chapter 2:1-10.  Let’s see what happens next:

"One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, 'Where have you come from?' Satan answered the Lord, 'From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.' ”

I’m telling you, whenever the Satan announces that he’s been “going to and fro upon the earth, and walking up and down upon it,” you know there’s trouble ahead.

The Lord said [again] to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

In other words, the wager continues.

Now let’s pause a moment, and ask ourselves what’s going on here?  Is Job really being set up to lose everything forever, as it appears at first glance?  Is God, our loving God, the source of the bad things that befall Job?  Is the Satan the only one with something to lose?

Perhaps the answer to each of those questions is “No.”  Perhaps.  This is, after all, a two-sided wager, and OT scholar Kathryn Shifferdecker, who provides an excellent analysis of Job, points out that perhaps the one with the most to lose is God.  Think about it.  The Satan believes that he can show the mortal Job for who he is: someone who relies on God only when it benefits him to do so.  He might not be wrong.  How many times have people prayed, wrung their hearts out before God, promised anything and everything, if only God would act on their behalf?  Think about the young man who promises to abandon his training and his well-paid employment to study for the ministry if only God will heal his wife of cancer.  And then he comes to you and says, “My wife is fine.  But I don’t want to be a minister at all!  Do I have to do that?” Or, his wife dies, and he says. “There is no God.  At best, there is a silent God who does not respond to prayer.  I’m done with God.”  

That’s the man the Satan is betting on.  The one who sees God as some kind of magician, or who turns away from the God who refuses to be boxed into magic-making.

But God?  God wants to be loved, and what does love require?  Freedom.  You cannot force someone to love you.  You can create the circumstances for gratitude, through your unsought and unmerited gifts. You can force respect; you can force submission – through power, through force, through violence. But love – love must be given freely.  Love does not depend on what you have to offer; it does not depend on what the other person gets out of it. Love does not depend upon force; love does not make people do things out of unfreedoms, out of limitations, out of fear.

Who is the man whom God is betting on?  The man whose authentic love God believes in, whose love depends not on cattle or land or even children.  The man whom God believes puts God first.

Do you begin to see why I call this a great book, a magnificent book?  Even in this prose introduction, huge questions are presented.

And so the story continues:

"So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.' But he said to her, 'You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?'In all this Job did not sin with his lips."

This is the end of our reading for today, and this is where most people end with Job.  This is as far as most people get.  Can you hear why we speak of “the patience of Job”?  Listen again: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”  

Does that sound like a laudable statement to you?  

If that were the end of the book, I would not be urging you to consider it a masterpiece.  A good story, yes.  All the necessary elements: characters, conflict, resolution.  What’s wrong with that?  The resolution is even an honorable one.  God seems to have won the bet; Job does not turn from God.

But I invite you to ponder something this week:

What does Job say, and to whom does he say it?

He says, apparently to himself, after the first set of catastrophes befall him: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”   

Words of piety, words that echo what he has always been taught, and no doubt has taught to others.  Words designed to make some sense of a brutal and heart-wrenching world.  Words about God, and about God’s relationship with human beings.

And then, sitting pathetically on his ash heap, itself a symbol of life burned out, of nothing left but dust, sitting there scraping at his literal sores with his broken piece of pottery, and contemplating his metaphorical wounds, he says to his wife, whose emotional outburst  is not unreasonable– remember, she , too, has lost property and servants and home and children – he says to her, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

Again, words that echo the teachings of faith, words that are intended to clarify who is in charge and who is not, words that put us in our place in the grand order of things.  Bromides; platitudes; words that people say in tough times.  Words about God, and about God’s relationship with human beings.

And I ask you: Is that enough?  Is that enough for authentic relationship?  Is it enough to talk about God?  To repeat what we have heard about God?

Is that what you, made in the image of God, want from your friends?  That they talk about you?  That they repeat what they’ve been told about you?  Is that all you desire in relationship?

Or is there something more?

Is there something more?

You might want to give that question some thought before next week, because we are only at the beginning of Job’s story.  Job does not stop at the platitudes.  Job is not satisfied with mere talk about God.   And Job has some friends, who incite him to plunge ahead, which he does – although not at all in the way they intend.  So stay tuned.

In the meanwhile, after we affirm our faith in the God who does seek our real, authentic, response, we’re going to sing There Is a Balm in Gilead.  Because for the moment, where Job is now, don’t we want to pick him up and cradle him in our arms?  Don’t we want to smooth his oozing and encrusted skin with ointment?  Do we want to hold him close in the face of so much terrible and overwhelming trauma and loss?   We may not lose all in midlife – property and animals and workers and children – as Job did, but we do lose a great deal.  And we do want to make the wounded whole, and to heal the wounded Job – but how to do that?

So let’s affirm, and let’s sing.  Amen.


  1. Robin, I'm looking forward to next week's sermon. The hymn was a perfect choice and one that I haven't heard in a long time. Your people are blessed.

  2. Fabulous. I love how you are developing this. It has just the right amount of pushing back and indignation at the "traditional teachings" - how even Job spews it out and his poor wife. I thought about that too, although I don't bring it up in this sermon...well done, Robin.

  3. I'm on the edge of my seat waiting for next week's, too! I'm thinking about standing on my driveway 24 years ago this week, looking at a pile of ashes on my driveway. And what I said...

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  5. Well. . . one elderly lady, devastated by the death of her husband 1.5 years ago and coming back from a serious injury of her own, told me that it was "excellent." No one else said a word. I hope that people hear next week's as permission giving for lament -- but that's not the usual M.O. around here.