the tentmaker

daily thoughts on the common lectionary

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Location: Sharpsburg, Georgia, United States

"...because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together — by trade they were tentmakers." Acts 18:3. Tentmaker is a title taken by bi-vocational pastors. As such, I am both a pastor and a project manager. I am a pastor of a local congregation of moderate, accepting and affirming people who worship in the Baptist tradition. We call our church "Hope Memorial Baptist" and we are about 40 in number. I am also a project manager of major construction projects for the State of Georgia. My home and church is in rural Coweta County, between Peachtree City and Newnan, with a mailing address of Sharpsburg, Georgia.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Year B - Ordinary 12

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

On Pain and Suffering

I have spoken to you recently on the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea. This morning I am taking the Old Testament text in the book of Job as the theme for my remarks. The theme of the Book of Job is nothing less than human suffering and the trancendence of it. It pulses with moral energy, outrage and spiritual insight.

We all know the story of Job, or so we think. We all know the story as told to us in Sunday School.

At the beginning of the book there is an easily read narrative and at the end there is another easily read narrative that appears to be the continuation of the story in the beginning of the book. This narative portion is the story we are told in Sunday School.

But in the middle of the book, from chapter 3 to midway through chapter 42, is this long section of poetry that is hard to read and hard to understand.

So, most of us read only the easy parts and think we have the story of Job. But with some hard work and study we must read the middle part. The Hebrew poetry. For it is here that the story of human suffering is truly told. And it is here that the understanding of human suffering and the place of God in human suffering is truly learned.

The story begins by telling us about Job, a righteous man. A man of means. A man with many sons and daughters. A man with many cattle and sheep. Indeed, he was the richest man in the East.

Next is a series of scenes in Heaven in the court of the Lord and his angels. On the day that the angels come to testify before the Lord, we are told, the Accuser was there too. The word used in the original Hebrew is ha-satan and is the word from which we derive the name Satan. And so many translations simply say Satan, instead of Accuser.

The Lord asks Satan where he has been. He has been walking among the men on earth. God askes if he has noticed his servant Job. God is pleased with Job's righteousness and devotion to him. But, Satan thinks that the only reason Job is devoted to God is because he is so wealthy and so blessed with the things of the world. So Satan makes a bet with God that if Job did not have all of his worldly possessions and if he did not have his family and if he did not have his health that Job would not be so quick to praise God and remain devoted to him.

And so the bet was on. God gave Satan the power to do with Job as he wished as long as he did not kill him.

Now, I don't know about you, but that gives me a frightful feeling to think that these kinds of games go on in heaven and that our lives are merely at the whim of some god or angel. After all, this is the character of the stories of Homer, the Illiad and the Oddessey, the story of pagan gods, like Zeus, Aphrodite, Helena, Appolo, Poseidon, and Mercury in the Greek pantheon. These gods play games with men in order to amuse themselves. But I can’t accept that my God, the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Moses and the covenant, the Father who gave us Jesus Christ and his suffering on the cross, would engage in such frivilous and heartless activity. But remember that every time we try to define God and say what he is like an not like, we limit him in our minds and he truly is limitless.

Back to our story:
Satan takes away his livestock, his house, his children and leaves him sitting in a bed of ashes. Job's body is covered with great boils. He is flung into the pits of hell in grief and in pain. Job's wife says to him, "Job, why don’t you stand up like a man, why don't you curse God and die?"
Now, Job has three friends who learn of his calamity and journey long distances to visit him. As they approach from afar they can see him sitting in sackcloth and ashes and they tear their clothes with anguish and sorrow.

They sit with Job in silence for seven days. The painting shown here is by William Blake and depicts God in his heaven with the angels all around and beneath the clouds is Job, his wife on the left and his three friends on the right. And so they sat for seven silent days.

Finally, on the seventh day, Job breaks the silence. And he breaks it with a curse.

God damn the day I was born
― and the night that forced me from the womb
On that day ― let there be darkness;
― let it never have been created;
― let it sink back into the void.
Let chaos overpower it;
― let black clouds overwhelm it;
― let the sun be plucked from its sky.
Let oblivion overshadow it;
― let the other days disown it;
― let the aeons swallow it up.
On that night ― let no child be born,
― no mother cry out with joy.
Let sorcerers wake the Serpent
― to blast it with eternal blight;
Let its last stars be extinguished;
― let it wait in terror for daylight;
― let its dawn never arrive.
For it did not shut the womb's doors
― to shelter me from this sorrow.

When have we been in pain or in suffering. Perhaps we have lost a dear loved one, or a good job. Perhaps we have had to face the bill collectors without enough income to go around. Or perhaps we have faced the surgeon who wears a long, sad face to tell us the news he doesn't want to tell and that we don't want to hear. Can you blame Job?

Haven't you had your faith shaken and been so angry with God that you shook your fist at him and cursed him?

I have. And I stand here today to tell you that I find the middle part of this story so much more real than the Sunday School version that has Job's faith unshaken and saying "I know that my redeemer liveth and at last I shall see him on my side."

No! Life is not like that. And if we believe that it should be like that then when the time comes for us to endure great human suffering and we don't have the wherewithall to stand tall and say "God is good," then our self esteem is shattered and we feel a horrible guilt for abandoning God. This guilt only serves to make the pain and suffering more intense and unbearable.

But we are getting away from our story and from Job who has three good friends that consider themselves to be amateur theologians. They begin, one by one, to offer Job good friendly advice. And it goes something like this.

"Job, you say you are a righteous man and that you have never sinned. But you must have committed some sin for this evil that has befallen you is certainly your punishment."

God punishes the wicked and blesses the righteous, right? Isn't that what we all think? If we can just be good enough, long enough, God will give us what we want and keep us from the poor house and the hospital ward.

But what about when bad things happen to good people?

What about when good things happen to bad people?

Job insists that he has not sinned. He insists that he has always been faithful to God. He insists that he has always obeyed God's will. He insists that his current plight is inexplicable.

They go back and forth. The more the friends insist that Job is being justly punished for some unknown or hidden sin, the more Job insists that he is being unjustly punished and curses God. He wants to die; he wants to prove that he is innocent; he wants to shake his fist at God for leaving the world in such a wretched mess. God is his enemy; God has made a terrible mistake; God has forgotten him; or doesn't care; God will surely defend him, against God.

His question, the question of someone who has only heard of God, is "Why me?" And there is no answer. Haven't you said at sometime in your life, "Why me, Lord?" There is no answer because it is the wrong question. And we, like Job, have to struggle with it until we too are exhausted and like a child, we cry ourselves to sleep.

Heraclitus said, "To men some things are good and some are bad. But to God, all things are good and beautiful and just."

What does it mean to answer someone about human suffering? For there are answers beyond the one-size-fits-all propositions of the theologians. But these are answers that can't be imposed from the outside. They can only come when we allow them space to enter through prayer and meditation and listening to God.

There is never an answer to the great question of life and death, unless it is my answer or yours. Ultimately, it isn't a question that is addressed, but a person. Our whole being has to be answered. At that point, both question and answer disappear, like hunger after a good meal.

What Job and his friends decide is that God is unknowable. In order to approach God, Job has to let go of all of his ideas about God.

Then God speaks. The voice comes out of a whirlwind.

Who is this whose ignorant words
― smear my design with darkness?
Stand up now like a man;
― I will question you: please instruct me.

Where were you when I planned the earth?
― Tell me, if you are so wise.
Do you know who took its dimensions,
― measuring its length with a cord?
What were its pillars built on?
― Who laid down its cornerstone,
while the morning stars burst out singing
― and the angels shouted for joy!

Were you there when I stopped the waters,
― as they issued gushing from the womb?
when I wrapped the ocean in clouds
― and swaddled the sea in shadows?
when I closed it in with barriers
― and set its boundaries, saying,
"Here you may come, but no farther;
― here shall you proud waves break."

What the voice means is that paradise isn't situated in the past or future, and doesn't require a world tamed or edited by the moral sense. It is our world, when we perceive it clearly, without eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

God says "Do you really want this moral sense of yours projected onto the universe? Do you want a god who is only a larger version of a righteous judge, rewarding those who don't realize that virtue is its own reward and throwing the wicked into a physical hell? If that's the kind of justice you're looking for, you'll have to create it yourself. Because that is not my justice."

And then Job speaks.

I know you can do all things
― and nothing you wish is impossible.
Who is this whose ignorant words
― cover my design with darkness?
I have spoken of the unspeakable
― and tried to grasp the infinite.
Listen and I will speak;
― I will question you: please, instruct me.
I had heard of you with my ears;
― but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
― comforted that I am dust.

Job's final words issue from surrender; not from submission. Surrender means the wholehearted giving-up of oneslef.

Job's grief and accusations, his ideas about God and pity for mankind, arose from utter ignorance. And more, Job is a man who hungers and thirsts after righteousness. It is not enough for him to hope or believe or know that there is abloslute justice in the universe; he must taste it and see it.

Job's comfort at the end is in his mortality. The physical body is acknowledged as dust, the personal drama as delusion. It is as if the world we perceive through our senses, that whole gorgeous and terrible pageant, were the breath-thin surface of a bubble, and everything else, inside and outside, is pure radiance. Both suffering and joy come then like a brief reflection.

He feels he has awakened from a dream. That sense, of actually seeing the beloved reality he has only heard of before, is what makes his emotion at the end so convincing. He has let go of everything, and surrendered to the light.

When Jesus calmed the storm, in our gospel reading, he physically and personally took away the cause of the suffering and anguish. We want him to do that for us. But we want it on our terms.

Jesus said, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Sometimes we have to go to Old Testament, as in the book of Job, to fully understand the New. The teachings of Jesus are grounded in the life of a small boy and young man who studied and learned the Hebrew scriptures.

So what does it mean to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow Jesus?

Can you see in your pain and suffering the cross of Christ? Can you find peace and joy in the midst of pain and suffering by denying your own selfish wants and needs and basking in the love of God in Christ?

Thanks be to God.

The scripture passages from the book of Job above are taken from Mitchell, Stehen; The Book of Job; Harper Perennial;1979.

I have never met a person I could despair of, or lose all hope for, after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God. -- Oswald Chambers


Blogger HeyJules said...

Tentman, that was the best explanation of the book of Job I've ever run across! I'm printing it off and hanging on to this one.

There's so much to think about here!

6/26/2006 12:35 PM  

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