A slight disclaimer: What follows is the basic text (minus the occasional digressions) of a sermon that I preached at Comox United Church, Comox, B.C. on October 24, 2021. It is not an essay. It is written to be spoken and in a manner that reflects my preaching style, which I suspect might be described as “informal.” Nor does it have the full assortment of citations, acknowledgements, and footnotes normally (and quite reasonably) expected in a more formal work. Please forgive the grammatical peculiarities!
When I stop to think about it, I think it was really something that Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character said that helped me deepen my understanding of the passage we heard from The Book of Job.
Okay, maybe I should back up a little.
Christians have been referred to as “people of the book” by our Islamic neighbours, which I find to be a rather useful description in that it quite reasonably describes our deep attachment to the Scriptures. The Bible—the collection of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament writings—serve as the key source of authority in our common life, being described as having “revelatory power” and having a “unique and normative place in the life of the community” in the most recent statement of faith we produced in our end of the Church.1 These Scriptures tell the story of God and our relationship to God in a variety of ways. When we read it and hear it, we’re invited to not just encounter and understand the story, but also to somehow enter into it and find our place in the narrative, to make it our personal story, too. It’s a complicated book in that we find the hand of many authors, and so each presents the story differently. For example, it’s told through poetry, and as history, as biography, as wisdom, as allegory, and much more. Just as I prefer some genres of book over another, I’ve no problem in admitting that some parts of the Bible seem more accessible to me than others, and some other parts cause me to scratch my head. So, maybe it’s not surprising that there are portions of the Bible I prefer and some that I don’t run screaming to embrace. Truth in advertising? Historically my most favoured bits are the ones that I agree with, but the Book of Job has been something of a challenge for me.
Though I’d encountered the Job story somewhere in my childhood, Job and I became more closely acquainted nearly 40 years ago now when I was finishing my undergraduate degree. I was taking an assortment of English courses and one I’d enrolled in was one that was focused on “dark comedy,” that genre of writing that approaches human existence and suffering as being absurd and/or ironic, and is yet, at the same time, kind of funny. The TV show M.A.S.H. could be described as a form of dark comedy, as would the novel Catch-22, or some of the works of Jonathan Swift, or some of the songs of Warren Zevon. It’s a genre that takes a serious, or even painful subject, and approaches it with some playfulness in an effort to reveal some truth, to make sense of what might seem otherwise senseless.
Dark comedy is commonly found in high stress occupations—health care, law enforcement, the military—to name just a few—and there are lots of examples in church history. Those of you who follow the Christian calendar closely may remember that August 10th is the feast day of St. Lawrence, who was a deacon in 3rd century Rome. His devotion to those on the margins of society—the incapacitated, the sick, the orphaned, the widowed—it was deep, and it brought him into conflict with the political powers of the day. This eventually led to his martyrdom, and he was horribly executed by being placed on a large hot gridiron. As he was dying in this excruciating way, legend has it that he called out, “It is well done. Turn me over!” Now, that was someone who knew the subversive power of comedy.2
To my surprise, we began that English course by first reading The Book of Job, and I found it a difficult, but most instructive read. In the opening verse we’re introduced to the main character, Job, who is described as “blameless and upright”—the author’s way of saying that Job was regarded by his community as a good person—and we quickly discover that he was someone of faith, he had a big family, and he had lots of “stuff,” he was wealthy. But in the space of the 21 opening verses, Job loses the whole enchilada, losing kids, servants, and wealth, yet he somehow takes this with a surprisingly philosophical attitude, saying: “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.”
This situation is the result of something that occurs in God’s throne room, where somehow Satan appears and proposes to God a test of Job’s faith, arguing that Job’s faith is only built on a kind of “fair-weather friendship,” but if Job experienced some real difficulty, that faith would surely disappear. God, weirdly, agrees to a wager with Satan about Job.
That we have a scenario where God would enter into some sort of agreement with Satan and would allow terrible things to happen to Job and his family, suggests to me that some element of dark comedy might be in play here. But the 1st chapter concludes with the statement that “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing” despite all his losses, which is impressive. Job is then afflicted by some painful incapacitating skin disease, and Mrs. Job—bless her—doesn’t make things easier when she helpfully advises her husband to, “Curse God and die.” But our Job hangs in there. However, then he has three friends arrive to comfort him by trying to figure out what sin he’d committed to be punished this way. This is, of course, where we get the expression “Job’s comforters”: someone who manages to aggravate distress while supposedly giving comfort. With friends like this, Job didn’t need enemies, because they just make matters worse.
Then for about for 30 chapters, Job does some serious complaining to God, and I can see his point. There’s none of our commonly expected “cause and effect” going on here: you do good you get good/you do evil you get evil. I’ve not yet seen that this works in reality but we do have this propensity for trying to make that equation work, don’t we? … despite massive evidence to the contrary. It’s a little something we tell ourselves to offer some illusion of control, I suspect. Job’s obeyed God, he’s done all the right things and yet he’s had this terrible time, so he demands that the Almighty come and give some accounting for Godself, because, “It’s just not fair!”, an expression we learn very, very young. If nothing else, I admire Job for his chutzpah, his audacity, and there’s something quite authentic and appropriate about his questioning of God, to my mind anyway. I mean, is God good? And if God’s good, then why’s there suffering? And why doesn’t God do something about it?” As a theologian, I readily admit that those types of questions test me, and there’s something liberating about actually asking them aloud.
We haven’t always been very effective in our dealing with this in the Church, at times even claiming it's unfaithful to know and struggle with doubt, to occasionally rage and shake our fists in the darkness and when we can’t quite locate that Biblical passage to explain it all, we throw our hands in the air and say, “It’s just God’s will.” But Job’s questions are good ones, and they don’t easily collapse in the hearing of canned answers.
In chapter 28 he exclaims:
“But where, oh where, will they find Wisdom? Where does Insight hide? Mortals don’t have a clue, haven’t the slightest idea where to look. Earth’s depths say, ‘It’s not here’; ocean deeps echo, ‘Never heard of it.’ It can’t be bought with the finest gold; no amount of silver can get it.”3
No, the God who allows Job’s suffering doesn’t give the answer that Job seeks, or necessarily the answers to the questions that I sometimes seek.
Questions are encouraged in the modern church and in my less charitable moments, I think that appeals to us because it gives us a sense of daring and sophistication. “Oh look at me!—look at the question I’m daring to ask!” My problem is that I have a gut feeling that I’m more comfortable with the questions than I am with actual answers when I encounter them. After all, keeping open the questions suggests that the issue’s still in play, while answers require that we try to get on with it. No, it’s not fair, but there you go. Live with it.
So here’s my point in all this: it might actually be harder living with answers. I say this acutely aware that I belong to a denomination that expects of its clergy to be in what’s called “essential agreement” with the Basis of Union, a series of 20 articles of faith—answers to questions that formed our church. Note that I didn’t say “agreement” but “essential agreement,” and we have been reluctant to define what “essential” means. We recognize that there’s some breadth to our understanding, and believing that some questions and the conversation that ensues from the questioning can lead us more deeply into faith. But there’s also a small part of me that wonders if we also tend to feel a little more secure with questions as opposed to answers, because it gives us a bit of wiggle room. Back in the days when I was a student in our education system, the mantra was “keep an open mind and question everything … especially authority.” I also have a hunch my generation may’ve dropped the ball when it became our turn to oversee that institution, but there’s probably some wisdom in saving that conversation for coffee time!
Eventually, just to live life, you’ve got to bet on something being true. You can’t successfully live life without committing to something, without settling on some answer to help you steer through day-to-day living. It might not be what we like, but it’s the answer, nonetheless.
It’s in Job chapter 38 that God decides to intervene and begin to answer Job, ironically, with a question. “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” This reminds me of my mother who would occasionally offer the hint that something was about to be unleashed upon me when she’d say, “Stand up straight, young man!” In this case it’s: “Stand up straight, Job!” because God’s about to get on a roll.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Please tell, me if you’re so smart! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that! Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? That was me, buddy! I wrapped it in soft clouds and tucked it in safely at night. And have you ever gotten to the true bottom of things, explored the labyrinthine caves of deep ocean? Do you know the first thing about death? Do you have one clue regarding death’s dark mysteries? Or the stars? Can you catch the eye of the beautiful Pleiades sisters, or distract Orion from his hunt? Can you get Venus to look your way, or get the Great Bear and her cubs to come out and play? Do you have the vaguest idea about the constellations and how they work? Can you teach the lioness to stalk her prey and satisfy the appetite of her cubs ….?”4
He goes on and on like this, seemingly focused on half of the ark’s occupants, in many ways ignoring Job’s questions, questions that are, by my standards, darn good ones!
What do you do with all that? We’re asking why innocent people suffer and God’s ranting on about oceans and stars and lions. Maybe it’s this: if we can’t understand God’s prodigality, God’s utter extravagance in creating this staggeringly complex and beautiful interdependent world, then how on earth would we expect to understand fairness, God’s justice, God’s grace? Or maybe more precisely, God’s amazing love for us? As best as I can see from the text, that’s God’s answer.
But if you stop to think about it, you’ve got to know you’ve already heard much, much worse answers to our “why?” questions about about justice and fairness. I mentioned one of them earlier. It’s the transaction of when we do good, we get good, when we do bad, we get bad. Since when? Suffering is a punishment from God? Spare me. Just try applying that thinking to the pandemic. Yes, there’s some well-meaning but foolish preacher who will stand up in a pulpit somewhere and say, “For some reason God sent this plague to punish us or test us.” We enlightened folk will reject those sorts of answers and instead we’ll create a task force to sift through the records to try and figure out where this virus came from in 90 days. Was it a naturally evolving virus that jumped from bats to humans? Was it related to pangolins in a wet market in Wuhan? Was it a lab leak? Apparently, such things happen more than we’ve been previously led to believe. Oy! It could be any of those things or something completely different. Who knows? Why did it all happen? Why have all these innocent people died? Why have lives been so terribly disrupted? Why? Those “why” questions just go on and on and on. We love to ask “why?” but in the end we’re often required to live with uncertain answers or even answers we don’t like.
Okay, by this point in the sermon you’ve surely realized that in reality, I’ve been preaching on the entirety of The Book of Job. I’m nothing if not ambitious, or foolish, or a bit of both. But there was a reason why we heard the specific passage that was read, a reason more than just say we looked at the book located between The Book of Esther and The Psalms. It’s the concluding portion of Job and—to come back to where I started this sermon—we heard our hero hesitantly embrace the philosophy of Dirty Harry in the movie, Magnum Force, always a trusted source of theological insight. As the character Harry Callahan muses at the conclusion of the now 48-year old movie, “A man's got to know his limitations.”
We’ve got to know our limitations. Job’s had an encounter with the Living God, and he’s now come to terms with his limitations. There’s so much I don’t know, and will never really know. Job’s made the decision to trust God in spite of all the truly reasonable questions he has, and, yes, the answers that might be even more puzzling than the questions. And so here’s the hard question for the day: are you prepared to do that?
Are you prepared to let God be God, even when God just doesn’t seem to be … reasonable? I ask this because—in the end—there aren’t always good, satisfying answers, as those of us with debilitating illnesses can testify. As everyone here who has lost spouses, children, and friends will know. Better than answers—says Job—is the enigmatic, and at times disturbing, presence of God, who doesn’t give up on us. Knowing our limitations, God intervened in human history in a profound way. God, the great mystery, chose to reveal what needed to be revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ , who—I am convinced—is, in this life anyway, assuredly all we need to know of God. And, sisters and brothers in Christ, for the questions of this life … that will be enough. Amen.
3 Job 28:12-15
4 Liberally adapted from The Message by Eugene Peterson.