Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Then Job answered:
‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O 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 for ever 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 cannot see 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 is not a happy man. He has been afflicted with the loss of everything – wealth, property, health and even the loss of all of his children. His friends have been somewhat less than helpful in their advice and suggestions to him.
In case you haven’t read the entire story from where we left off last Sunday, the Reader’s Digest version is this. Job’s three best friends, hearing of his suffering, have come to comfort him and give him counsel. They tell him that all of these bad things prove that he has sinned against God. They don’t know what he has done, but it must have been terrible for such dreadful evils to fall upon him. They tell him he must confess his sin, repent of it and then, he must endure his punishment without complaint.
Job continues to proclaim his innocence. He points out that very often the wicked seem to prosper, so why can’t it be possible that the innocent sometimes suffer? His friends don’t buy that. He proclaims God’s power and goodness. He cries out to heaven that he would happily accept any punishment God felt he deserved for wrongdoing, but he just does not understand what he has done to deserve this.
His friends tell him – if you refuse to accept God’s punishment, if you refuse to confess that it is entirely your fault that all this bad stuff is happening to you, then you are speaking against the teachings of your religion. Everyone knows that good is rewarded and evil is punished. For you to say innocents can be punished for no reason you are speaking against God! Clearly, you are guilty and must be punished!
We’ve heard all that before, haven’t we? We’ve heard it from TV preachers and from live pulpits. We’ve heard it in folk wisdom. We hear people say “everything happens for a reason” and “this is what was meant to be,” and “whatever happens is God’s will and we just have to accept it.” We hear people say “If you do what we tell you to do, your life will get better.” We hear TV preachers telling us if we are faithful we are sure to prosper, our illnesses will be cured, and all our financial affairs will be successful but that if we are unfaithful, well . . we’ll lose it all. They would be right there with Job’s friends, refusing to believe that these bad things could possibly happen to anyone who hadn’t done something really terrible.
And Job is saying “Hey, what is going on? I AM faithful, even now. And everything is going wrong. Why, God, Why? Why was I even born if you are going to do this to me?” Job hasn’t lost his faith. He still believes God to be all powerful, fair and just. He goes on for verse after verse, proclaiming God’s greatness. He tells his friends “I know that my redeemer lives!” He knows that in the end times he will see his God and be judged with compassion and mercy. He just wants to see him now! He says, “I know if I could just present my case to you that you would relent and end this torment. Where are you??”
You all can surely tell by now why this passage doesn’t get preached often. We do not preach about a God we can’t find. Pastors do not tell their flocks about a God who seems to disappear in the hardest times. We tell you, “open your hearts. God is there, you just aren’t connecting.” We might even imply that if you would just try harder you would be able to hear God. That God’s apparent lack of response is somehow your fault for not listening hard enough. We’ll say things like “We can hear the voice of God in other people.” Well, Job was hearing a lot from other people and none of them were speaking with the voice of God. All of them were just repeating conventional wisdom – if he was faithful and blameless these things wouldn’t be happening to him. And that just plain wasn’t true!
And really, who would tune in to a TV preacher who preached on this, on the despair that Job is going through in this passage? There is no light at the end of the tunnel here. There is no good reason for what is happening to him. There isn’t even the example we usually get to use of other people being touched and changed by Job’s suffering, like the upsurge in volunteerism that follows a disaster. There’s nothing but pain and despair and a request for God to come and judge his righteousness.
We might be asking the same question when we look around here and see that only 10% of the seats are taken. Or when we see needed repairs that we’ve had to put off year after year because there simply aren’t enough funds coming in to pay for a new roof or whatever. And we wonder why. We are faithful. Even when we can barely make the bills we still give to mission and we work hard to care for our neighbors. We reach out to feed the hungry, teach the children, help the hopeless and give hope to the helpless. We’ve even started new programs to help our neighbors, stepping out boldly in faith that God will provide what’s needed for us to go forward. We take stands on issues that may make us unpopular but that we believe are faithful to Jesus’ commandment to love one another. We are faithful and we are generous and we are loving and welcoming and we just don’t understand. Where is God? Why is God letting us fade away like this? If we could just talk to God, face to face, and justify our presence here, explain what we are doing, we know that God would see we deserve better than this.
Pop wisdom tells us that if we want to be revived we have to change the way we worship. We have to use new music and technology. Going door to door doesn’t work. We have to enter people’s homes through their computers. We have to market ourselves, like Starbucks. We have to create a brand name presence, so that when we say “Delhaven Christian Church” people know exactly what church we are talking about. The experts and pundits tell us that we have to change and conform to society’s desires for an entertainment factor in everything, that we have to cater to the short attention span that MTV and UTube have created. Conventional wisdom tells us we are doing something wrong and until we confess what we are doing wrong and go forward atoning for our past sins we are doomed to failure.
Maybe. I had lunch with a group of ministers this week. Most of us come from small churches. Most of us were engaged in the Church Extension transformation process. One was pleased to report his church is growing. We talked about what the church might look like in 10 years and what evangelism tools work best. We talked about how studying certain books as a congregation is guaranteed to bring new life and energy into the church. Some lifted up computerized social networking and coffee shop worship as the wave of the present and possibly the future, others maintained that when those fads have ended the traditional church will be waiting for those folks to return. During the week I read probably a dozen articles on the future of the church, some proclaiming we have been worshipping in roughly the same way for close to 2,000 years and that tradition of worship will continue on until the end of time and others saying the days of the church meeting in an actual building are numbered.
And underlying all the conversations and the articles is this sense that we are all crying out with Job, “God, where are you? Come talk with us, face to face, so we can justify our existence and our actions to you.” Through it all is this undercurrent of “God, where are you? Please come and tell us what to do. Let us know what we are doing wrong and we’ll change it. But please, come, and talk to us.”
So, what’s the Good News in this passage? I want you to know that in every preaching class I took, and probably every preaching class ever given, the instructor is sure to say that there always has to be good news, there always has to be hope, there always has to be a word that the people can take and hold on to in the coming week.
We could jump ahead to the end of the book and see that Job gets everything back and more. But I think that would be unfaithful to the lesson in this passage. I think doing that would be unfaithful to the whole point of Job’s tribulations – that sometimes bad stuff happens even to the faithful, through no fault of their own. It’s Good News, but it may not be the right Good News for this day.
I believe the Good News here is that it’s ok to sometimes feel like God isn’t listening. That it’s ok to lift up our heartfelt pain and complain about the way the world is treating us. It’s ok to say “God, why are you forsaking me? Where are you?” It doesn’t make you a bad person or an unfaithful person. After all, the psalmist and Job and even Jesus asked those questions.
And it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t listening. It may just be that it’s not time for an answer yet. It may be that God is waiting for us to get past the anger and the fear and the rushing around trying to make things work and just settle down so that we can listen.
One thing I know for sure. In the end things will work out. They may not always work out the way I want them to. They may not work out the way I expected them to. They will almost certainly not work out when I want them to work out – which for me is usually right now. But they will work out if we are willing to slow down and listen, and wait for the answer. God will not leave us out in the cold and dark of pain and despair forever. Eventually God will answer and the darkness will lift. Eventually the barriers will be gone, the path ahead will be clear. Eventually, and in God’s own time, God will make a way, somehow.