Sunday, August 25, 2013

For the Defense: Sermon on Job 4, 8, 11 and 23

Scripture passages can be found here...

They were the best of friends, and they were the worst of friends.

We are with Job again. Last time we met him, he was sitting in a pile of ashes, still reeling from all he had lost—property, wealth, and most horribly, children. And last week Job’s friends were sitting with him, silent witnesses to his pain. And that was perfect. That was inspired. That was something we all need at certain terrible moments in life—someone to simply be with us.  

But that was last week, and now it’s this week, and Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar have different plans for their friend Job. Now, they take a different approach.

Today, Job’s friends are going to try to fix Job. They are going to tell him exactly why, in their view, all these bad things have happened to him. Eliphaz puts it like this: “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:7-8). Bildad asks, “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?” And then he answers himself: “See, God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers” (Job 8:3, 20). Zophar is even more blunt: “Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you? For you say, ‘My conduct is pure, and I am clean in God’s sight’” (Job 11:3-4). Of course, they all are saying, essentially, the same thing. If you were punished, you must have deserved it. Bad things only happen to bad people.

Imagine being Job, sitting in the ashes, having lost virtually everything, hearing his ‘friends’ suddenly turn and blame him, attack him. There is a psalm for that. (There is always a psalm, for everything.) “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” (Psalm 41:9).

And before we come down like a hive of angry bees on Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, it might be good to remember: this, too, is a very human and very natural defense mechanism. When we hear something terrible, it is a very normal instinct to try to work out in our minds why we personally are immune to such an event. I personally do this at least once a week. I won’t get in an accident because I am generally a very careful person, I tell myself. Or I won’t get the bad diagnosis because I’ve started swimming again and will take better care of myself from now on… I really, really will!

We’ve seen and heard this in the aftermath of some of the terrible mass shootings. Remember the one that took place last summer in Aurora, CO leaving twelve dead and seventy injured? Shortly afterward, I was stunned to hear someone comment, “Well, it was a midnight showing. I would never go to a midnight showing of a movie.”

Job’s three friends are engaged in the very familiar and recognizable human activity. It’s called denial. Sigmund Freud identified denial as a psychological mechanism that kicks in when we are faced with facts or circumstances that are frightening, threatening or just plain uncomfortable. Our response is either: to deny the truth of what has been presented; to minimize the significance of that truth; or to admit its truthfulness but at the same time come up with some explanation that reduces its impact upon us.

Job’s friends are engaged in the third of these strategies. There is no denial of the dreadful losses inflicted upon Job. And, for heaven’s sake, these losses cannot be minimized. But the idea that such things could happen to an innocent man is too uncomfortable, too frightening, too threatening to accept. Therefore, Job must be, not innocent, but some how culpable. He must deserve his suffering. He must have sinned. This act of denial allows the three friends to rest in the comforting delusion that nothing of this magnitude could ever happen to them.

Job is having none of it. Job takes the stand for his own defense.

Oh, that I knew where I might find [God],
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. ~Job 23:1-7

Job speaks now as if he were an attorney, with himself for a client. Like any good defense counsel he is paying close attention, not only to his own arguments, but also to the accusations of the prosecutor. Job wants to hear and understand: exactly what case does God have against him? He is confident about one thing: if God would listen and give heed to all the facts, if Job could lay his case out before the only judge who truly matters, he would be “acquitted forever.”

But then, Job falters. He cannot bring his case before God, because he can’t see God, he can’t hear God, he doesn’t know where God is.

If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

All the power and knowledge and understanding are on God’s side, not Job’s. There’s a psalm for that, too. In a haunting echo of Psalm 139, Job affirms, “But he knows the way that I take.” And then his confidence seems to return:

…when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.                          ~Job 23:8-12

Job stands firm. He is upright. He hasn’t sinned. He isn’t budging. I have this image in my head of Job and his friends, something like a scene from a television police procedural. Job is sitting at an empty table, with one of those blindingly bright lights glaring down on him, so that he can’t see anyone or anything else. And there in the darkness, smoking cigarettes with their shirtsleeves rolled up, are his friends. And they are doing their level best to break him, to get him to admit it. Come on, man, you know you did it. And Job says, No.

Not a lot of us could hold up under this kind of pressure. Today we’ve read a couple of paragraphs, a few tiny examples of the kinds of things Job’s friends say to him, but it goes on, chapter, after chapter, after chapter… 30 chapters or more of Job’s friends keeping him at that table without a glass of water or a chance to make his one phone call.

And by the end of our passage, Job’s courage is failing him. He begins to imagine God in some other way than a just and reasonable judge. In fact, he can’t imagine God at all… the overwhelming mystery of who God is takes over.

But he stands alone and who can dissuade him?
What he desires, that he does.
For he will complete what he appoints for me;
and many such things are in his mind.
Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
when I consider, I am in dread of him.
God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!                         ~Job 23:13-17

All is darkness. There’s a psalm for that too: “For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead” (Psalm 143:3). But, of course, Job does get his phone call. Another psalm reminds us: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:11-12). Job gets his call. Each and every time Job speaks throughout this long book of poetry that bears his name, that is exactly what he is doing. He is making that call.

Calling out to the God whom he believes to be all-powerful and all good.

Calling out to the God whom he believes to be all-merciful and all-just.

Calling out to the God who has allowed him to suffer so terribly.

Calling out to the God who, so far, has been silent.

Calling and calling and calling.

Good for Job, beating his hands against the tall and imposing gates of heaven when he is suffering. Good for him, refusing to take “No” for an answer—or even, refusing to take silence for an answer. Good for Job, who, whether he realizes it or not, stays in relationship with God all the while he rails against his unjust treatment and makes the case for his acquittal.

When we are angry—with anyone, with friend or lover, parent or child, co-worker or neighbor—the last thing we want to do is to stay silent, to go into a deep freeze, to turn and walk away. We are people created for community, created for one another, created for relationship.

I believe our relationship with God calls for the same persistence. God doesn’t want us to turn and walk away. God doesn’t want us to retreat into our shells. God would rather have us yelling and pounding on the gates of heaven with our cries and our prayers than curling up in a ball and crying “Uncle.” We are people created for community, yes, but created, first and foremost, for God.

Job keeps calling. He calls out when he’s sitting in the dirt scratching himself with a potsherd. He calls out when responding to the accusations of his friends. He calls out when he lays his case before God, a lawyer for his own defense. And he calls out, even when he wishes for darkness to cover his face because he just can’t bear it any longer.

Call out to God. Call out when you are sad. Call out when you are raging. Call out when you are cold and shamed, lying naked on the floor. Call out to God. Call out, because in calling out, we stay in relationship. We stay connected. We leave the door open. (Not that God was ever any respecter of closed doors anyway.) But still… leave the door open. Call out. Call out like Job.

We leave Job in the darkness, but he won’t be there for long. Next week, in the whirlwind, in a voice that rings out over the waters—and yes, there’s definitely a psalm for that, too—finally, finally, finally, God answers. God breaks the silence. God always, eventually, breaks the silence. And when God does…. watch out.

But in the meantime, call out. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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