October 7, 2012: A Soul and Our Suffering


Sermon
The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A priest wears a number of hats. One is teacher – of religion, Christian doctrine, theology, and pronunciation of Old Testament names. When a lector begins, “A reading from the Book of job (occupation),” I have not done my Job (Book), well. So at the water cooler, if someone asks, “so what’s with that Book of job?” – be gentle. A priest somewhere might have failed. That won’t be you, so represent me well.

Job is a teacher who raises questions, and harvests no clear answers. Common wisdom of Job’s day says God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. If you suffer, you’ve done something wrong – you deserve it. Job questions common wisdom. His life is exemplary. He is righteous, and he suffers badly. So to those who say sin causes suffering: WRONG! How does the common wisdom explain Job? How does one explain those who sin boldly and often but don’t suffer? Suffering and pain fall on the good and bad alike. Sometimes we cause our suffering by bad behavior or making bad choices. We can suffer because of injustice, or for no known reason at all. Who doesn’t sometimes think: “What have I done to deserve this? When will it end?” Suffering is multi-dimensional, draining life emotionally, physically, and spiritually. What experience with suffering have you endured that makes you want to change your name to Job?

To the story’s opening: God holds two heavenly conventions. The Lord gloats over his boy, the “downright upright” Job. Satan, interestingly at the gathering, proposes a wager. He bets Job will curse God, if God cuts off his blessings. God takes the bet. You have to wonder: “Are we in the heavenly halls, or Potowatami Bingo Casino?” So the Satan goes back to earth, hunts up Job, and creates the destruction of his children and property. Unspeakable, unexplained tragedy causes suffering. Job is devastated. He blesses, not curses the Lord. God wins!

At the second convention – today’s: God says, “I see what you did to Job. I told you he’s downright upright, and won’t curse me.” “Give me another shot.” And get this – the Lord lets him. “Fine, mess with him, just don’t kill him.” So Satan gives Job what amounts to leprosy – so bad he takes a pottery shard to scrape his oozing sores to ease the itching. Sitting outside the city in ashes, an outcast now, Mrs. Job happens along: “Look where all your goodness has gotten you. Just curse God and die.” Who does she sound like? Job won’t: “We receive the good, why complain when we get the bad?” Again, God wins!

The story of Job is troubling – for many reasons. How can God allow this? My Sunday School teachers never let us in on this side of God – a gambler, permitting Satan to punish a good soul, making sport of poor Job – just to test him. God allows Job to suffer, could prevent it, but doesn’t, and notice this: doesn’t directly cause Job’s suffering. This story is troubling, unsatisfactory, discomforting, and definitely not uplifting. So with Job, we ask in our moments of unasked for suffering: “Why Lord?” Is that the question we want answered? An explanation won’t relieve the pain, and that’s what I believe we really want.

Evil and suffering have long been obstacles to faith. How do we logically say that God is good and loving, and yet so many innocent, good people suffer? Honestly, maybe we just need to stop trying. “Job – must we really accept that there is bad mixed in with the good?” I don’t see we have a choice. The question is: “Will we curse God and walk away – or remain faithful regardless?” We would be foolish to deny the bad – the suffering, and claim we know God’s ways. So what do we do? If we don’t get rewarded for being good, why bother?

In Jesus we meet a God who will never abandon us and leave us in ashes and pain. God takes suffering, evil, injustice and even death into His heart. It’s called the cross of Calvary. He walks the stony road beside us and leads us through. We aren’t abandoned, even when we think we are. Job would not curse God – regardless. He will learn we have a God whose truth and ways are beyond our ability to understand. Don’t draw a line in the sand too soon – or at all. God is not just a gambler, but a savior. God wagers his child for us, and God wins again! Divine love and redemption are God’s answers to evil, suffering, and death.

And back to God’s betting partner – Satan. In Hebrew he’s The Satan, meaning a title, not a name. He’s role is to provoke, to be an adversary, to test. He’s not the devil and his minions developed in the New Testament. And doesn’t suffering test us? It brings us closer, or pushes us away from God.

So the hanging question for us: Will we still be in relationship with such a God at day’s end? Job would probably say to us, “Hang on; and hang regardless.” He did say, “I know that my redeemer lives, and in the end, I shall see God.” And so shall we. Maybe that’s the answer we need most.


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