The Answer is: Be Our Best Self

A sermon based on Job 38:1-11, 34-41
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 21, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

In seminary I took a course called “The Impact of Judaism on Christianity.” taught by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky. As a part of the class we studied the book of Job looking at it from a Jewish perspective. Which is as it should be since the book of Job was written by a Jewish author for a Jewish audience about Jewish theology– and of course, Jesus and his disciples and the Apostle Paul were all Jewish so the Jewish perspective to the Hebrew Scriptures was relevant to them, and ought to remain so to us as Jesus’ Followers.

Rabbi Kaplansky, one of the best professors I have ever had, pointed out on the first day of class that if you asked three Rabbis a question you would get four answers. I have found that the same is true of ministers. So today I am providing you with my share, 1.3333 of the answers to some of the questions that our Lesson raises.

The point of the book of Job from a Jewish perspective is not to be a history lesson per se about a guy named Job, the point of the book is to teach. One fundamental lesson it teaches is that the conventional wisdom that God supernaturally interferes in the world to dole out punishment and rewards for human behavior . . . is not true. Job dismantles the idea that those who sin supernaturally suffer in life and those who are righteous get supernatural rewards in life. As a result the book teaches a different way to imagine and understand God and life and the good and bad we encounter a long the way.
Humans have this thing about trying to harness and control things to shape their fate for all kinds of reasons. This desire has long extended beyond the practical, and has included imaging we can affect powers in universe, even override the laws of nature through appeasing the Creator of the universe. The Book of Job addresses this idea, and contradicts it.
In the story the main character, Job, is without question a good and virtuous man, a great man who under any divine reward and punishment system would have his good behavior influencing God to only reward him. And that seems to be going on at the start of the book. But not for long. Early in the story God asks Satan if he has noticed Job’s “blameless and upright life . . .”

Satan, is not the devil deity of later theologies. In the story he hangs around with God acting as a sort of advocate for conventional wisdom. He sarcastically answers God’s question by essentially noting that Job’s been mollycoddled by God and has such a cushy life that Job has no reason not to be the goody-two-shoes God’s so pleased with. Satan suggests that if Job were deprived of God’s protection and care he’d change his tune and “curse [God] to his face” (1:11).

In what seems almost like a modern bar scene conversation God bets that if Satan takes away Job’s good life, Job will still be virtuous. God does, however, condition this first bet on Satan not touching Job. (1:12). Satan takes the bet and tests Job’s meddle taking away his livestock, herdsmen and children.

Job mourns the losses and the turn of events, but he remains steadfast in his love for and trust in God. Job famously observes way back in Chapter one (1:21):

“Naked I came from the womb, naked I shall return whence I came. The LORD gives and the LORD takes away; blessed be the name of the LORD”

Job notably does “not sin or charge God with unreason” in response to his calamities (1:22). So God wins the bet. Satan, a sore loser, claims Job would’ve failed the test if he personally suffered physical maladies.

So God bets again, this time allowing Satan to add the agony of physical suffering. Satan imposes such agony on Job that his wife advises him to curse God so that God will take his life and end his suffering. This is what Satan claimed Job would do. But Job refuses to do it, saying how can I “accept good from God, [but not] accept evil?”(2:10) .

After a week of silent mourning Job breaks silence not by cursing God, but by cursing the day he was born. His friends enter the scene and spout conventional wisdom asserting Job’s sorrows and pain must be punishment for sins. But we know this is not true and so does Job, because Job has done no wrong.

Job may not have cursed God but he is plenty riled and he wants to confront God. He wants essentially to have his “day in court” before God to learn why he has had to suffer so. Job’s friends salt his wounds with more conventional wisdom asserting that suffering is good for him it will make him a better person. But we know that this is nonsense because the story tells us that there could be no better person than Job.

All of this begs the question that Job and readers of the story end up asking: Why is this good man suffering? We also tend to apply the question more generally asking: Why do bad things happen to good people? Folks write books about it and have study groups and preach sermons on it. Because if life was fair, if it played out in a quid pro quo way there would be a supernatural reward and punishment system and no one good would have bad things happen to them. But clearly they do. We do.

Eventually Job “gets his day in court” to in essence ask God “Why?” God does not directly answer the question. Instead God leads Job to understand that the whys-of-why-people-suffer is as unexplainable to humans as the wonders of the universe and that at the end of the day God is not accountable to humans for either suffering or to answer why they suffer at the hands of nature. That’s a part of the what we heard in the reading. God is speaking from the chaos whirlwind of life asking where Job or any human was or is when the wonders of the world are created.

I added verses 8-11 to the Lectionary cutting because they have this wonderful image of God serving as a caring mid-wife to the creation of the sea and providing it with the care one would give a beloved infant, clothing and swaddling it and settings safe boundaries:

who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?– when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it . . . ?

In the process of having his day in court, Job hears God’s evidence and arguments that existence is done God’s incomprehensible way. It is decidedly not our way. God’s summation is basically the question: Are you God? And the answer in every human’s head should be “No, humans are not God.”

After God’s summation Job comes to understand that God cannot be judged by human standards of justice, God is not accountable to us under human made rules, nor is creation or the Creator within human control– at least no supernaturally. In the Book of Job we are meant to face our lack of understanding and control over cosmic things. But we are also meant to hear how to respond to cosmic things happening in life. It is not to try and influence the power of the universe. It is not to imagine God has some untold design that purposefully unfolds bad things on good people.

The answer is that when troubling cosmic things happen in life humans must go on and live the best life that they can. And help those who suffer – not make up reasons that claim it is their fault or God’s. Suffering will occur and– like Job– we can be upset, frustrated, questioning and even angry– those are natural responses. They are understandable and will not make God lash out at us. As we see in with Job God is big enough to handle it and understand it. Because we learn that suffering at the hands of nature is not God’s response to our conduct as conventional wisdom suggests, the point of the story is to urge us – like Job– to be righteous in the face of adversity, not just in the face of abundance, joy and health. The point is to come to a point where we do our best in all things that come our way, good or bad or evil. That point is of great import to all who, like Job, suffer.

Bad things happen to good people. We can be upset and frustrated and angry, but eventually we need to reach a point where we respond as best we can in the situation. Trust and love for God in self, others and creation is the righteous response. It. Is. Our. Best. Response. Going forth as best we can, that is where God calls us and leads us and hopes we will end up. Dealing as best we can with what has happened is not only helpful, it is what matters.

From a Jewish perspective this is a particularly meaningful message given the Jewish history of suffering as a people. We follow God not because we do not suffer but we follow God to be in right relationship with God in all things. So compliance with God’s way becomes the reward. In Judaism a commandment of God’s way is called a Mitzvah and doing a Mitzvah is considered following a commandment, doing a good deed AND it is a a reward. God’s way is a reward all on its own that improves both the doer and the community. Every Mitzvah is about love and care for God in self, others and creation.

The cosmos, though, in a very real sense moves along on a grand scale indifferent to happenings in our life. It does not respond with rewards or punishments, not in the cosmic supernatural sense. The Feasting on the Word commentary on this lesson notes that “the utter indifference of nature to human beings is the closest we come to grasping God’s response [in these verses].” 1

Then Commentary quotes a part a wonderful poem called “Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver. That poem captures the essence of the lesson that we cannot influence the powers of the universe to reward us or punish us, we can only love, and be there for one another and care about creation and that is our best way of being.

We need to think of the oneness of creation and our being in that oneness and the Oneness is in God. The reward of working on being at one is not wealth or suspended laws of nature. The reward is doing of what is best, what is right. It’s not about being good in ways some religious leaders try to dictate. It’s about striving to our highest self in every given circumstance.

I am going to close in moment reading the whole of that poem. As we hear it consider how God is present in the acts of love and care and imagination that Mary Oliver refers to, and how God is in even in the parts of creation that seem to stream along without us, at least when we join them as one by answering the call to not only notice them and be in awe of them, but to be our best as as a part of them. This is the point. To be our greatest self even in the midst of an existence that by its definition unfolds with uncertain and uncontrollable and sometimes bad things happening to good people . . . like Job and like you and me and everyone we know.

Our imagination of God need not be of a divinity that lashes out or rewards us in supernatural ways. Our imagination of God can be of a Divinity well beyond our comprehension, who not only longs for creation and our greatest existence, but offers the reward of being part of that longing and its fulfillment.

Here is the poem:

WILD GEESE by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.