Our Bitter Complaint – Lectionary 10/10/2021

Job 23:1-9

Then Job answered:

“Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, 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.

“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

Sermon Text

 The book of Job is a tragic masterpiece. Though often overlooked or relegated to specific times in our life, it is a wonder of poetic and rhetorical composition. Few books contain such raw emotional force or as decadent of meditations upon pain as what we see in Job. The story of a man who loses everything, of someone doomed to suffer seemingly in spite of his goodness – captivates us beyond any feel-good story we might otherwise be drawn to. The protagonist of our story is someone we can relate to throughout our lives, a good man who suffers, a good man who seeks answers, a good man who can ultimately only shrug at the enormity of his own question.

This book is often said to be the first canonical book of scripture to be written. Before Moses composed the law or the Chronicler wrote the history of Judah, someone wrote the story of Job. This is partially true. The plot of Job takes place in the Patriarchal period. We are meant to read Job as being alive at the same time as Abraham. Similar stories to Job were written as far back as 3,000 BCE, predating the oldest parts of the Torah by nearly 2,000 years. However, the present version of Job we have today was written after Babylon conquered Judah. Likely, the book as we know it today was still being edited and finalized when Jesus walked the shores of Galilee.

Job, it should also be said, is only a story. Unlike most of scripture, it is not a recounting of historical events. Like the book of Esther or the Song of Songs, Job is a narrative written to teach a lesson, but not a record of history. This is why we see images of a divine court in Job that resemble ancient throne rooms, why Satan and God can bet one another about what Job will do. We are not meant to read Job and receive literal accounts of how God and Satan interact or how a man named Job suffered, we read Job to understand how we as human beings respond to grief, and through the Spirit of God how we can push on through even the hardest times.

To refresh our memory about what has happened to Job up to this point, we go to the very beginning. Job was a man who was blameless before God and humanity. If Job ever did wrong, he begged forgiveness and paid restitutions. Job was rich, but also generous, he had money and family and cattle a plenty. Satan, God’s prosecuting attorney, turns his attention to Job after God brags about his righteousness. Satan scoffs and assures God that if Job did not have all his riches, God would immediately see a different side of Job. God allows Satan to kill Job’s family, his livestock, and to even steal away his health after all else was gone. Job loses everything, keeping only his life, his heartbroken wife, and three friends.

 After sitting in total silence for days, Job speaks. He does not thank his friends or offer any wisdom. Instead, he begs to die. More than this he asks God to wipe out his entire existence. Job asks that God would reach back in time and uncreate the day he was born, letting it sink into the “shadow of Death,” that existed before creation. Where Job’s friends had hoped that healing would have come out of Job’s silence, they were now faced with the reality that a few days was not enough. Job did not cry out hallelujah, he just let out a cry. Weeping, the broken man asked God again and again – “Why me? Why me? Why?”

Job’s friends stepped in and offered numerous answers. They blamed Job, saying he must have sinned, or else God would have spared him this pain. They looked at God and said, “God is good, so this much actually be a good thing that is happening to you.” The friends took their own understandings of God and applied it to this moment, refusing to budge an inch. They believed, not that they might not understand God, but that they knew everything about God. They look at their friend and, counter to everything they know about him, decide he must secretly be a villain, rather than allow themselves to question whether or not there might be more to suffering than crime and punishment. Still Job, now having to defend himself, returns to his question, “Why?”

The section of Job we read today captures a moment when Eliphaz, the first to accuse Job of wrongdoing, has just finished laying another laundry list of possible sin at Job’s feet. Job takes a deep breath and refuses to budge. He looks to Heaven and asks for an audience with God. The courtroom we saw at the opening of the book is the place Job longs for above all others. Job wants to see God, to tell God all he has suffered, to voice his pain even just a little. “If I could only do that,” Job says, “Then God would at least listen to me.” Job does not want to fight God, he just wants God to acknowledge his pain, to have God admit his suffering is unprovoked, to be healed simply by knowing he is not acting irrationally.

Yet, Job is sure that wherever he goes, he will not find God. Job knows God is real, he dreams of an audience with him, but he feels he will never get that chance. The knowledge of God is not enough for Job, he craves more, he seeks to understand why his is suffering, but more than that he just wants to know that he is not alone. Where he had three strong friends at the outset of the book, he now seems to only have three bullies in front of him now. Instead of peace, he finds more reason to cry as they speak to him. Job just needs a single person to stand up for him, even if it is after he is dead, he wants one person to tell the truth about his life.

The book goes on back and forth with Job testifying his innocence and his friends arguing falsely about both Job and God. Finally, God decided to show up. Job received his audience and is told all about the things God does daily. God fights sea monsters and giant personifications of chaos. God makes the stars to sing and feeds every animal and person. God lifts up the enormity of creation and Job responds simply by saying, “I’ve seen enough!” Job’s final words are him refusing to speak again. This does not mean that Job is saying God has answered his question fully, but that Job has now accepted that his question has no real answer. God chastises Job’s friends but commends Job for standing up for himself and for God.

There are times where we, like Job, have to stare suffering in the face. We lose someone we love, we are diagnosed with a dangerous condition, or we fall into a run of plain bad luck. The response we have in those moments says a lot about how we have oriented our lives. Sometimes grief tears us apart, leaving us trapped in its darkness. Other times it can cause us to lash out, seeking to take control through violence. Still, another response might be to simply stop feeling at all, to let the trouble stand on its own and seek peace some other way. I do not believe anyone should be held too closely accountable for their first, instinctual response to trouble. Job took days to even be able to speak, perhaps because his first responses to suffering were too raw to share with others just yet.

Yet, when Job does speak, he gives us a model for how to talk to God when we are in pain. Job does not sugar coat his feelings, he begs for death and demands that the unfairness of his suffering be made known. Job does this while constantly affirming God’s goodness. Job is not upset that bad things happened to him, he is upset that a good God has allowed for them to happen. Job asks to speak to God face to face because he trusts God, he loves God, and his experience of God is currently in conflict with what he knows to be true about God. God looks at Job at the close of this book and affirms his feelings of hurt and confusion, because God knows that Job is justified in feeling that way – it proves Job’s trust in God.

When we experience hurt, we in the Church often rush to explain why we are not really all that sad. Our loss is seen in light of Heaven, our pain is written off as part of God’s plan, our sadness as just a hiccup in a life of joy. None of that is wrong in itself, but when our piety prevents us from truly feeling our grief, we harm ourselves and those around us. When we feel life is unfair, we should let God know. When we cannot see a light at the end of the road, we are on we need to shout our for a lantern. We are called by Paul not to “grieve as those without hope,” But we are never told not to grieve. (1 Thes. 4:13) Life is hard and life can really hurt sometimes. We, like Job, should raise up our bitter complaint to God whenever it is needed. We cannot silence our weeping when it is our tears which bring us healing.

The dangers we face as a Church when we do not know how to mourn is that we become like Job’s friends. Standing in the ash pile with people who have lost everything, we offer up platitudes in place of support. The book of Job is dangerous to read because four out of the six speakers in it are actively lying throughout it. Job’s friends – Bildad, Eliphaz, Zohar, and the elusive Elihu, all offer up really religious answers to explain Job’s trouble. “Job, this is just what happens to sinners, you need to repent!” “Job, God works in mysterious ways.” “Job, you deserve worse, be glad you had anything good to begin with!” The chorus of Sunday school answers to life’s biggest question drowns out the central truth of Job – we just do not know why good people suffer.

The question, “How can a good God allow for evil to exist?” is answered in many ways. This line of questioning is called, “Theodicy,” and usually assumes God is three things – all good, all powerful, and all knowing. The problem with answering why bad things happen is that in order to reach an answer, we usually have to remove or limit one of God’s “all,” attributes. We say God limits knowledge of the future, or allows free choice, or has concepts of “good,” we cannot understand. The problem with making any of these arguments is that, if we imagine God as a three-legged table, then shortening one leg of the table makes the whole thing wobble. To attempt to answer why suffering happens is to immediately reach an unsatisfactory answer.

The book of Job is a template for us in our response to pain because it is honest about what grief feels like. It hurts to lose those we love; it isn’t fair that the wicked succeed and the good suffer, there is something fundamentally wrong about this world we live in. This can cause us to doubt God, to question our faith, but it does not have to lead us to despair. Job shows us that we can trust God is good, we can know in our hearts that there is an all-loving advocate for us who oversees all of the universe, and still feel things are unfair. The cry of Job to be seen and heard by God is answered by the end of this book and I believe we all will receive an answer to our own cries we let out to God. If and only if we are unafraid to voice them. We have to trust God is big enough to take on our worry and disappointment alongside our praise.

God, throughout all of scripture, is willing to suffer alongside us. God does not stand up in Heaven and watch as we all go through the hard things of life. We are constantly given examples of God bending down to interact with us, to lift us out of the trouble we are in and into something more. The ultimate manifestation of this comes in the incarnation. God could not tolerate any separation between humanity and divinity any longer. God took on our flesh so that God could feel all our pain, know all our fear, see all our suffering. God knows what it is to lose a parent, a friend, to suffer illness and pain – Jesus felt it all. There are days we would rather weep than praise, and we can feel confident doing so because Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb. There are time we have questions for God, and we have to remember Jesus’s frantic question on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We can look to the hope of the resurrection because Christ did his time in the grave.

The lesson for today, if we may take one way, is that God is willing to hear us cry out when we cannot make sense of our pain. The question of “Why?” is never going to have an answer we can accept, but God wants us to ask it anyway. When we cry out, when we let loose our fear and worry and sorry, we allow God the chance – if not to answer it – then to come close to us. We trust God because when we asked God to show God truly cared, God stepped down from Heaven and suffered beside us. The story of scripture is a story of a world that is broken, of God calling people to come together to fix it, and when that project does not work out, of God sitting with us in the ash heap. We await joy and resurrection, but if that is not where your heart is today, then let God know it!  God waits for us to voice our bitter complaint. God hears you. God sees you. – Amen.

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