Friday, October 13, 2006

Sermon for October 8, 2006

Mrs. Job Evaluates God

Job 2:2-10

We like to think that there is a reason for everything, don’t we? When I was a teenager, I was in a car accident. I was stopped at an intersection on a snowy day. Another driver tried to make a right hand turn, but the roads were slippery and he crashed into my driver’s side door. The obvious reason for this accident was a lapse in judgment. He was going too fast to make the turn. Deep down, I knew the accident was my fault. That morning, I did something that I knew I wasn’t supposed to. I convinced myself that the car accident was God’s way of telling me that He didn’t approve of my behavior. It was my wake-up call. As adults, many still think about God this way. I hear people say, “There is no such thing as coincidence” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s as if God is some the fate-weaver who twists the threads of time to shake us up. If everything happens for a reason, then clearly God made it happen. The argument goes like this: If an all-powerful God controls all of creation, and if nothing happens by chance, then God must somehow be responsible for disasters as well as blessings. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes become “acts of God.” The reasoning says that if we do good, God will bless us. If we do bad, God will punish us. Heart disease, cancer, and multiple sclerosis are as much a part of God’s plan as sunshine, puppies, and clear autumn days.

Let’s call this “cause and effect” thinking. It leaves us with a problem. If God is all-powerful and completely good, how can God allow bad things to happen? God becomes a cosmic abuser who either allows terrorism, and war, and rape, and murder, and disease to happen -- or worse, God turns away and fails to stop evil from destroying us.

For some people, cause and effect thinking explains all of life’s problems. When hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, one writer on BeliefNet wrote, “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation, a warning to all who foolishly and arrogantly believe there is no God”[1] Other commentators thought 9/11 was God’s judgment on the USA. One preacher wrote, “God’s judgments upon our backsliding abound, but we do not see them! When 19 men with box cutters brought this nation to its knees – we did not see the hand of God in it. It didn’t fit our conception of who He was. But our conception of who He was, had nothing to do with the reality of who He is.”[2] The common theme is that God punishes America for her wickedness. If we repent and turn to God, these events will no longer be necessary.

Let’s think about today’s story from the book of Job in terms of cause and effect thinking. The book of Job is a threat to every preacher, to every theologian, to every person who has ever taught a Sunday school class. The book of Job is a threat to anyone who has ever tried to explain who God is; what God does; or why things happen in the world. Here we have a prosperous, healthy, happy, and deeply faithful man named Job. Everything is going great for Job until God and Satan make a little wager. Satan challenges God, claiming that the only reason Job is faithful is that God has blessed him with a wonderful life. If Job’s life is ruined, he will no longer be faithful to God. God accepts the challenge, Satan goes to work, and bad things happen. Job’s children are killed, his wealth is destroyed, his body is laid to waste by illness. Job struggles to be faithful. Apparently, this angered Mrs. Job. Looking at her suffering husband, all she can say is, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God - die!”

History gives Mrs. Job a bad rap. One commentator says, “Job’s wife is not a conscientious, devoted, sensible, compassionate wife . . . If she were such a wife, she would embrace her husband’s suffering as her own . . . The Prologue to the Book of Job, however, makes it quite clear that she is fickle and sacrilegious. In fact, she only adds to her husband’s suffering, distancing herself from him. She has developed a loathing for him . . . he makes an outrageous, blasphemous suggestion: to curse God and incur the penalty of death. In a sense, she joins hands with the Adversary, Satan. By seeking death for her husband, she seeks the easiest way out of a marriage and a commitment; the easiest way out of a test.”[3] For generations, the cry of Mrs. Job has been contrasted with the “patience” of Mr. Job. Her cry in the face of anguish is used as a negative example. Her one line memorable quote condemns her to the role of the “faithless one” through the ages.

Perhaps we do Mrs. Job an injustice. Job and Mrs. Job saw their relationship to God based on a predictable cause-and-effect formula: goodness results in goodness and wickedness deserves wickedness. But when Mrs. Job sees her innocent husband suffer, her world predictable world does not make sense anymore. Everything she believes about God is contradicted. Her husband is a righteous man, yet he is punished. Job is not wicked, yet he is cursed. What is going on here? Doesn’t she have a right to be angry? Mrs. Job lost 500 oxen, 70,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, her servants, 7 sons and 3 daughters. A poem by Linda Appel says it well. It’s called “Job’s Wife Speaks.”

This morning, still, he sits in ashes. He stinks,
and scratches, mourns, but will not say a word
that blames his precious God. He scarcely blinks
at all our loss -- our men put to the sword,
our sons and daughters killed by that mighty wind.
He just repeats, “The Lord gives and the Lord
takes away.” I won’t accept it. Pinned
to earth I mourn but cry with anger toward
unfeeling God and Job, whose patience maddens
me. Get up, do something, find a pot;
I still must cook and feed you, bathe and pat on
salve to soothe your boils. Please help, I’m caught
in grief with you. Why has this happened? Why
to us? No hope. Blaspheme your God; let us die.[4]

In despair, she says “Job, curse God and die.” Or does she? The Hebrew Bible quotes Mrs. Job as saying, the word “bless” instead of “curse.” The literal translation of 2:9 is “Bless God, and die.” English translators decided that she spoke sarcastically, and that “curse God and die” is the better translation. I suggest another interpretation that takes the word “bless” seriously. What if Mrs. Job really says something like, “Job, bless God and you will die”? It would then be as if she’s saying, “Job, if you continue to bless God as you have been doing, it will be too much for you. Your words will contradict your heart. They will be nothing more than the mechanical utterances of a man who has experienced devastating loss. If you continue on your stubborn path of blessing God, you will die. There will be such a tension between your confession of faith and the way life has hit you that the conflict will be fatal.”[5]

The powerful God of cause and effect doesn’t sense to Mrs. Job anymore. Any God who punishes an innocent man is not worthy of worship. The old way of understanding God is no good. So she says, “Job, if you keep blessing this God, you’re going to die.” Job’s friends come to him and offer him more of the same old understanding of God. They say, “No one is sinless, not even the angels. How can you say you are innocent before God? You must have done something wrong. Something to justify God’s anger.” However, at the beginning of the book, Mrs. Job understands something that will take Mr. Job forty more chapters to understand. Their understanding of God is limited, and they are on the brink of understanding something new.

In 1620, when our spiritual ancestors prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation couldn’t be confined. Our understanding of God is so limited, so fragile. We need to be ready for that crisis of faith – that moment when our old understanding of God doesn’t work anymore, but we have nothing new yet. “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Robinson’s assertion continues to be the hallmark of UCC beliefs. That is why in our tradition we read the Bible, we study ancient creeds and catechisms, and we look to the wisdom and guidance of individuals and faith communities throughout history and across cultures. It is also why we never let ourselves believe that we have read or heard all that God has to say, or all that God may be calling us to be and do.[6]

Have you ever had a moment when what you believe about God has been disrupted? I hope so. Sometimes you have to be prepared to die, to let go, to release, to accept some things in order to come into this new season of possibilities. The same is true about God. It’s easy enough to believe in God. The question we need to ask ourselves is, simply, which God? What is your image of God in whom you claim to believe? What kind of company does your God keep? What does your God ask of you – if anything?

The God of cause and effect is founded on the assumption of power. Is that your God. When you think about god, do you think the last word in sheer might and authority? Or do you think of compassion, mercy, and self-giving love? After 9/11, a day that bruised the spirits of us all, people approached me and asked, “Where is God in all of this?” In cause and effect thinking, we need to find someone to blame. The God of power seemed appropriate. For some, their assumption about God is that He (and it’s always He), must stand for omnipotence and therefore chose to allow suffering to happen. Here’s what we fail to grasp. Gods who prevent evil and set everything right can only do so by overruling someone’s behavior. Those who get mad at God for failing to act godlike and exercise unlimited power are usually the same ones who are most offended when their freedom is taken. They want the world to be what they want to world to be, and the only god they can tolerate is the one whose will perfectly matches their own.[7]

I think that the god of power has failed us. It’s time for us to grow up out of the adolescent belief that God gives good to the good and sends the plague upon the wicked. Bless this god, and you will die. The God I worship is a God of relationship –a God who shares power with us instead of using power to punish us. My God is not the omnipotent one against whom we stand in total helplessness. My God is one who sees suffering, and chooses to enter it. If suffering is the essence of being, then God shares our destiny by suffering in it with us. God does not interfere with the way things are. We are in it together. God’s power is seen in the power to endure.[8] This is the witness of Jesus, our Immanuel – God is with us. God is with us.







[7] Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 76-77, 86-88.

[8] Dorothee Solle, Thinking About God, 188. W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds, 220.

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