Homily delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
December 21, 2018
Church of the Intercession, NYC
Texts: Mark 10:35-45, Job 1-7, 34-41
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
For every one who thinks that they are too good a person to have something awful happen to them, for every televangelist who loudly preaches that you could be “blessed” with wealth and health if you were just faithful enough, for every sanctimonious, smug person who secretly rejoices in the misfortunes of others – for all of them – for all of us – the Bible has an answer: the Book of Job.
Now if I asked you to tell me what the Book of Job is about, your summary would probably go something like this:
Job was a really good, righteous man who tried very hard never to sin, and because he was so good God blessed him with riches of all kinds: a wonderful marriage and many beautiful children, numerous flocks and herds, great health, and a stellar reputation in his community. But one day, Satan appears before God in the Heavenly Court after having searched the earth for someone to undergo a brutal test of faith, and God himself suggests Job – he gives Satan free reign to do whatever he wants to Job, except kill him – Satan must spare his life. The test is whether Satan can provoke Job into losing his faith, leading him to curse God instead of blessing Him.
Satan gleefully sets to work. He kills all of Job’s flocks, destroys all of Job’s wealth, kills all of Job’s children at the same time on the same day in a catastrophic accident, and attacks Job’s body with a painful, loathsome skin disease that makes his both terrible to look at and very smelly. His wife is disgusted with him, and suggests that he curse God and die, mostly to get rid of him, it seems, maybe so that she could remarry someone of more wealth who is in better condition.
Job’s friends come to see him and converse with him. The conversation mostly centers on their strong conviction that Job must have sinned in some way to cause God to turn on him, ruin his life, and cause him to suffer so terribly. Job counters that he has not sinned, he doesn’t deserve this, and he asks to be allowed to plead his case in God’s court, which of course doesn’t happen. But in all of this, Job does not curse God.
Eventually, God himself intervenes, speaking out of a whirlwind (this is today’s reading). God never explains why Job had to suffer, instead He sets about proving why He shouldn’t be questioned; the summary of God’s argument is that He can do whatever He pleases because He is God, and we’re not. Then God pronounces Job right and his friends wrong, directs Job to repent and pray for his wayward friends, which he does, whereupon God restores Job, who lives out the rest of his days wealthier, healthier, happier, with even more beautiful children than he had been before Satan’s test.
Now that is a fair summary of what happens in the Book of Job, but it leaves the many questions raised by it unanswered, the main one is: Why? Why is suffering permitted by God, who we know to be only good? Perhaps more disturbing is that it is clear that God encourages and approves of Job’s being tested in such a terrible way.
All of this means that Job is a far more disruptive book than we generally realize, and the fact that is was chosen very early for inclusion in the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures and that its presence has never been questioned says that it is meant to be read and heard as a corrective to many of the other books in the Bible.
Job challenges many of the misconceptions we have of the Bible. The first, and biggest, is that faith is somehow protective against suffering. This belief is rooted in a huge misunderstanding of the Hebrew Scriptures, where we read that things go well for the nation of Israel while they remain faithful to God, but then go badly when they turn away from God. This is true, but the prophets tell us why: it’s a moral law of the universe that getting away from God will eventually get you into trouble, in the same way that breaking a physical law will get you into trouble: for example, you can’t break the law of gravity, you will fall down if you step off an elevated ledge; in a similar way we will fall if we ignore God’s moral laws. So we must be careful here, because the presence of misfortune in and of itself is not evidence of punishment by God. Sometimes it’s us reaping the consequences of what we sow, sometimes, things just happen. Even in the Old Testament plenty of people get sick and die without explanation, including good kings.
Also we must remember that much of the Old Testament was first recorded in a world that we now call pagan, where every misfortune was attributed to “angering the gods.” There are vestiges of paganism all over the Hebrew Scriptures – this is one of them. But despite it being a pagan belief, we can’t stop believing that the bad things that happen to us are punishments from God. I hear this all the time as a priest, particularly when illness strikes – I heard an 80 year-old woman diagnosed with cancer tell me that she was absolutely certain that the disease was punishment for her two-timing her boyfriend when she was 16 years old!
We simply cannot accept that misfortune often doesn’t make sense to us. The fact that God never tells Job why he suffered is a sign that we should not expect to know, either, as painful as that can be. A few weeks ago, when Bill Randolph called me to tell me that our choir member Tevyn had died, we said to each other, “this makes no sense!” No, it doesn’t make sense. We don’t know why a 27-year old who was a wonderful person and a glorious talent was taken at such an early age. It doesn’t make sense.
There is another question, which may seem silly given the evidence in the text of Job: Was Job righteous? Both Job and God say that he is. But Job did have a flaw, and it is a serious one: he had crossed over from being righteous into “self-righteousness” – which is a different thing entirely. When you are self-righteousness, you judge yourself to be worthy of rewards and protections that in fact no one is entitled to. Job says over and over again that he never sinned; therefore Job reasons that he was clothed in an armor of protection because of his own good deeds. So how do we know that Job in fact had sinned, and was not totally blameless? Simple. At the end of the story, Job repents. If he never sinned, he would not have needed to repent. But he had, and he did.
The sin of self-righteousness is rebuked throughout the Bible. This is the message of today’s gospel, when James and John seek a reward for being faithful to Jesus, which by all accounts they had been. But they cross over into self-righteousness when they request a glorious reward, which they figured they had earned – they want to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the glory of heaven! Apart from showing tremendous chutzpah on the part of these two brothers, their request shows that they are suffering from a manifestation of the same disease that Job had suffered from, albeit with slightly different symptoms.
Now if we open our eyes to our world today, we see that self-righteousness is one of the great sins of our society. No matter how spotless we may be in our own eyes, no matter how convinced we are of the correctness of our political views, no matter how loudly we justify ourselves and our behavior to the world around us, we can never justify ourselves before God, and we can never fully protect ourselves. Yet we persist in working hard to remake the world to the specifications of our own comfort, and to shield ourselves from even the smallest drop of suffering.
What we miss when we behave and believe like this is a very important – and uncomfortable – message of the Bible, which is also the unspoken subtext of the Book of Job: that there is value in suffering when it is joined to God and the cross. Now I am not saying that suffering is good – it isn’t, nor am I saying that evil is good – it isn’t, or that pain is good – it isn’t, or that mistreating each other in order to cause suffering is good – far from it – in fact we are enjoined to relieve pain and suffering wherever we find it. But contrary to our deepest hopes and beliefs, we grow much closer to God when we are challenged with circumstances that we cannot control than when times are easy, and the hand of God dispenses wealth, health and power and so on. It is in the clouds, not in the sun, where our self-righteousness is cleansed, where our faith grows stronger under the pressure of challenge, in times when there is no option for us to rely on our own power, and we are forced us to rely on God for strength.
For us Christians, saints and martyrs have demonstrated the value of suffering for ages. But all of us who have Christ in our name, “Christian”, share not only in Christ’s resurrected glory and triumph and power – we each have a share in Christ’s cross too. All of us will be given a cross, designed only for us; there is no avoiding it. This cross comes with the challenge is to see it as a blessing from God and not a curse from Satan. If we take up our cross and follow Jesus, we join ourselves to the enormous power of the cross, which is the path to resurrection.
You might argue that this is a New Testament understanding, right? – it doesn’t have to do with the Hebrew Scriptures. No. The realization that suffering grows faith permeates the Old Testament: King David says, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted” in Psalm 119; in Psalm 46 David says, “God is a refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble” – notice, to experience God’s help, you have to be in trouble. It’s not only David who learns about God in suffering. So does King Nebuchadnezzar, as he comes out of seven year bout of madness he says: “I . . . lifted my eyes to heaven . . . I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever.” And Job himself acknowledges that he needed to be brought low, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” The message is clear: we get to know the love and power of God when we’re in the dark.
Church, our crosses are our strength. We need not be afraid of the dark, because Christ is there, as Christ is everywhere, because as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And for that we can say: