Testament Reading: Deuteronomy 30:11-14
Testament Reading: Luke 13:1-5
Let me tell you how the idea for this sermon came to me. I was on vacation
recently, as you know, in North Carolina, and Sunday morning I sat in the
pew at Saint Stephen's Episcopal Church, and the Job passage you just
heard was one of the scripture readings. Impressed anew by its great
beauty I began to let my mind wander as to what sort of sermon I might
give on the text. So after a few moments, if what I am saying fails to
commend itself to you, may I suggest you start day dreaming about what use
you would make of the text! Who knows what it might lead to?
I need to supply a
couple of introductory notes to the text so it may speak more plainly, or,
to put it another way, so you will see that I am not taking it grossly out
of context. First, you need to know a bit of the compositional history of
the Book of Job. It seems to fall in two major pieces. First there is the
prose section of the book. We now read this material as the prologue and
epilogue of the Book, but it was originally a brief and self-contained
story of Job and his testings by God at the
instigation of the Adversary. In this
version Job never once questions God and his fortunes are restored as a
Then someone wrote a
great dramatic poem on the same theme, with the same basic characters,
minus Mrs. Job and the Adversary. It is this great poetic masterpiece
which some later compiler has inserted between the first and second halves
of the prose version of Job.
This distinction is
vital, because in the poem of Job, there is no hint of the idea that God
and or the Adversary are testing Job. Indeed, the whole poem seems to
hinge on the premise that no such tidy explanation of Job's sufferings is
available. If it were, the whole thing would read much differently.
And if we let the great poem of Job speak for itself, we get a very
different answer to Job's dilemma, which may be your dilemma, too.
The second thing you
need to know is where the Book of Job fits into the history of Israelite
Wisdom Literature, those works including Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach
and the Wisdom of Solomon, which treat the theme of a wise life and
The great Old
Testament scholar Gerhard Von Rad suggests that Job is part of a movement
of skepticism in reaction to an earlier smug assurance on the part of
Israelite sages that they had God's ways pretty adequately charted out: if
you kept the Torah and the ways of the fathers, the Almighty in his
providence would see to it that you prospered. The wicked might seem in
the short run to prosper, but eventually disaster would overtake them, and
God would see to it that their ill-gotten gains lined your deserving
could explain apparently undeserved suffering as the inheritance by this
generation of the consequences of their ancestors' sins. God was believed
to visit the iniquities of the fathers on the children to the third and
fourth generation. You were part of a people, and the people as a whole
were rewarded or punished. You had to take the good with the bad.
But that view had
fallen out of favor around the time of the Exile. Suddenly we find it
rejected by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the author of Deuteronomy. Now, they
say, the individual will suffer only for his own sins. But of course
reality does not work that way. The tower of Siloam doesn't wait till the
wicked are in its shadow before it decides to fall. So people then as now
appealed to the inscrutable ways of God. You can't see what he's up to,
but rest assured, if you could, you would see all things working together
for the good of those who love him.
But some objected
that if we take this idea to its logical conclusion, we must wind up
believing that God's will can never be known at all! It may as well be the
case that whatever appears foolishness, or even wickedness, to men is
wisdom in the eyes of God! So what becomes of the confidence of the sage
that he knows well the will of God?
The Book of Job, at
least the great poem of Job, fits in right here. In the time remaining, I
want to explore three implications of God's rebuke to Job.
First let me suggest that if you learn anything from Job, you be a little
more careful pontificating about divine mysteries that you seem to have in
your hip pocket! How many times have you heard or had this argument?
Someone says only born-again Christians are going to be saved. You reply,
"That seems a bit narrow to me!" They reply, "Sorry, it's just God's Word;
don't blame me!" Well, thank you Delphic Oracle! Of course, the next thing
they would say is that they got this notion from the Bible, which being a
text inspired by God is infallible and without error. But this is just
the point of Job-like presumption! Do you mean to tell me, Benjamin
Warfield, Jerry Falwell, Paul Pressler, that you understand the
mechanics of divine inspiration so well that you can be sure the product
would be an infallible textbook of theology? If you are privy to secrets
like that, then the Bible is really superfluous for you! You
already know the deep things of God without it!
I love a passage in
Antony Flew's great classic of Atheism, God and Philosophy, in
which he compares the careful hedging of theologians with the very pointed
pronouncements of religious ethicists. Thomist philosophers will tell you
that we only have analogical knowledge of God, not direct descriptive
knowledge. God, they assure us, is a great mystery transcending human
But then they turn
right around and tell us that they know God hates birth control with a
passion! "It will not do at all not withstanding that it is all too
regularly done to proclaim in elaborate detail God's will with regard
to all manner of intimate or public human affairs, and then, when
hard-pressed with questions about the nature of this God of yours, to
maintain that it is shrouded in inscrutable mystery" (p. 40).
people turn to the Book of Job when tragedy strikes, because of course the
Book is mostly about tragedy. But I wonder what comfort the Book gives if
you don't draw the literary distinction I tried to draw a few moments ago.
I mean, if you focus on the prose parts of the Book, look what you get.
God and Satan place a bet on how much Job can be subjected to. Satan
thinks he'll crack under the strain; God is equally sure he won't. Poor
Job is the fraying rope in the tug-o'-war between the two celestial
titans. Will he snap?
strikes you as it recently struck Joe and Terry Wickham; will you find
solace in the idea of a God who treats you like a rat in an experimental
box? Who treats you like a human guinea pig in the laboratories of
Auschwitz? I would not!
different is the picture presented in the central poetic section of Job.
Here, so far from initiating Job's ills is God that he seems not even to
have taken notice of Job until Job's harangues against God reach his ears.
Hearing himself maligned by this mere flea, God looks in on him and asks,
"Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" It is
as if he has never heard of Job before and would not be aware of his
existence now if Job's blasphemies had not set his ears to burning!
Now here is an
interesting note: God accuses Job of presuming to speak about God when in
fact he knows not the first thing about him. But Job has all along been
protesting precisely his ignorance! If only he knew why God
were plaguing him! If only he knew where he might find God! The
trouble is that he doesn't know it!
So how can God
accuse Job of speaking with presumption? Because Job is even more
ignorant, indeed tragically ignorant, than he realizes! He hasn't even
reached square one! Job is wrong in his very assumption that God is
plaguing him! Job's error, as I see it, is the childish error of
(and many not-so-primitive ones) share the delusion that circumstances are
really only stage props for the drama of their lives. They think that
everything revolves about them and their deeds, whether good or bad. If
good fortune strikes, Nature or the gods are rewarding them; if bad
fortune strikes, it is punishment -- as if human action were the chief
thing in the universe, as if all events waited upon the issue of human
decision and reacted thereto. How incredibly egocentric! God stayed the
rain so we could have our church picnic! Yeah? Tell that to the poor
farmer who cursed the heavens that day because his crops withered!
Things are going so
badly for Job that he concludes right away that God has dropped everything
else in order to pursue some unmotivated vendetta against him! What
unmitigated arrogance! ("What? The phone for me? Must be President Bush!")
What megalomania! What paranoia!
Perhaps it is some
comfort in such situations to believe that you are so important to a
vindictive divinity that he will give you his full attention. But I would
not find it a source of much solace, even if I held so high an estimate of
my own importance in the scheme of things.
you imagine a pastor who would counsel from the basis of such a
superstitious theology? "Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, God has seen fit to take
the life of your child because he wants to test you and see just how much
you'd be willing to take before cursing him and denying your faith." If I
ever say such a thing to anyone, will you please remember to fire me?
Let me tell you what
would comfort me in such a moment, insofar as anything could. What
a comfort it would be to know that if God didn't actually share my grief,
at least he hadn't capriciously caused it! How much more reassuring
to know that it was the blind stroke of chance than that the Lord of All
Things had conspired against me!
Death is inevitable;
it must come! But woe unto him by whom it comes! And what if it comes by
the hand of a God? Where is justice then? Thinking he had suffered by the
design of God, Job could find neither justice nor peace.
But we seek to know
the will of God in life as well as in death. Here, too, I have sought to
learn the lesson of Job, and to humble the religious imagination with a
proper skepticism. God speaks from the whirlwind pointing Job to the
unfathomable secrets of Nature. If Job does not know these things,
familiar things really, but no less unfathomable, how can he claim to be
It is as John has
Jesus say to Nicodemus: "If you fail to understand when I speak to you
concerning earthly things, how will you understand when I speak to you
concerning heavenly things?" In chapter 39 God quizzes Job as to the
mysterious habits of the wild animals undomesticated by man. Does he
pretend to know the migratory habits of the wild ox and ass and goat? The
ostrich, the horse, the hawk? To say nothing of the sea monsters Behemoth
and Leviathan! Why, even in our day, we are only beginning to understand
the wonders of wild creatures whose instincts and abilities still amaze
us! Just watch one of those nature programs on television, and you'll see
the force of God's rebuke to Job!
And here is one of
the places Job is so different from the earlier, more optimistic Wisdom
books like Proverbs. Those books told you to "Look to the ant, thou
sluggard" if you want a lesson on industriousness. The sages of Proverbs
may have gone too far in explaining certain things for which Job proves
there is no explanation. But they were no doubt right that the questions
of ordinary life are quite fathomable. If even ants know to keep busy, it
can't be much of a mystery to you! Get to work!
Surely it is no
great secret what constitutes a wise life, a righteous life. As
Deuteronomy says, don't go thinking you would have to plumb the heavens
and the abyss to find it. You need no Gnostic revelation. You can learn it
from life, what works and what doesn't; what is constructive for our
common existence and what isn't. And you can learn it from those who have
learned it from life, the sages of the Bible, including the Wise Man from
What is the will of
God for you? Let me ask you, what do you think is the will of God for the
raven? For the lily of the field? It is to do what you see them doing,
what lies in their power to do. And their doing of it is their glory. What
is in your power to do? How has God created you? What are
your dreams? They are a key, a clue, to your destiny. In pursuing them,
you may run up against roadblocks, like Job did, and there may be no
accounting for them. You needn't torture yourself with the thought that
God has sent them as a cruel trial. Cross that bridge when you come to it.
But in the meantime, I believe you can know God's will evident in his
creation, his creation of you.
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