Honest to God – October 14, 2018

Honest to God

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Job 23:1-17

October 14, 2018

Main Idea: We can be honest with God.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts, be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.   Amen.

Last week we began a three week exploration of the Book of Job.  We recognized that this book is a parable which requires us to deal with deeply important questions such as “Why do people suffer?” and “Who is God?”.  Today we hear from Job and learn about the power of lament; the power of being honest to God and honest to each other.

Lament is powerful not only because it speaks honestly to God about our griefs and our suffering. It also challenges us to question our assumptions about God and about our own role in the suffering of others.  Lamentation is a strong tradition in our Scripture.  In addition to the Book of Job, there is the Book of Lamentations, 58 psalms of lament (out of 150 psalms), and countless laments in the Books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel and the Minor Prophets.

As we learned last week Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (1:1) He was so incredibly prosperous “that [he] was the greatest of all the people of the east” (1:3) until he wasn’t.  When last we saw Job, he was sitting on an ash heap, having lost everything; his possessions, his children, and his health.  His wife said to him “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” But he said to her, “You speak as any fool would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (2:9-10).  Job did not understand what was happening to him but he refused to sin or to accept that he was deserving of such treatment.

Now Job had three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite.  They came to see Job on the ash heap and at first, they sat down with him for “seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” (2:13)  But after the seven days Job spoke, cursing the day he was born.  From chapter 3 to today’s text of chapter 23, Job’s friends took turns piously and pompously telling Job that obviously his suffering was due to his sin.  If he would just confess and repent, all that he had lost would be restored.  After each so-called friend spoke, Job responded.  His responses change from abject despair to defiant challenge of their assumptions.  He becomes angry with them and angry with God.  He will not confess to wrong-doing because he knows that he has done nothing wrong.

Today’s text is Job’s response to Eliphaz who, in trying to convince Job to repent and end his suffering, says “Agree with God and be at peace; in this way good will come to you.  Receive instruction from his mouth, and lay up his words in your heart.  If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored.” (22:21-23a) Job’s friends are tired of arguing with him and they refuse to consider that their understanding of God might be flawed. They are shocked that he is so intransigent, insisting that his very argument of innocence proves their point of his sinfulness. They just want Job to give up and say whatever is required so that they can all get back to their regular life.

Job’s response to Eliphaz is essentially “Give me a break!”.  Job does not understand the reason for his suffering but he will not stop searching for justice and relief.  He rejects Eliphaz’ suggestion and instead says that he wants to come before God to make his case.   He would learn from God and God would remember that he was good and would acquit him from all accusations. He says, “Would God contend with me in the greatness of God’s power? No; but God would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.”(23:6-7) It should be as simple as this.  He just needs to find God.

Unfortunately, God is hidden from him.  Verses 8-9 are a tragic and ironic play on Psalm 139 which says “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Ps. 139:7-12) The psalmist perceives God everywhere.  But here Job says “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him;  on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”(Job 23:8-9)  Job is looking for relief, looking for answers, looking for God.  He looks in all directions but finds nothing.

But that’s okay says Job because God knows that I have not sinned.  I am like pure gold without defect or impurity. There is no reason for me to be suffering like this!  Surely God will remember who I am and restore my life.

But then Job’s burst of optimism fades.  He acknowledges that God is all powerful and can do whatever God chooses.  He no longer can predict God’s actions.  “But God stands alone and who can dissuade?  What God desires, that God does.” (23:13)  Job’s life has become so horrific that he is terrified about what might come next.  He fears and dreads God.

The last verse of today’s text is fascinating because it can be translated in two very different ways.  The NRSV says “If only I could vanish in darkness,

and thick darkness would cover my face!” Job in his despair, wishes to hide in darkness and gloom.  But this verse can also be translated as “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face.” this speaks of Job’s continued hope and defiance.

Despite his fears and his dread, Job does not give up his quest to speak to God and hold God accountable for his suffering.  The book continues for another 15 chapters before God speaks in chapter 38 which we will explore next week.  God does not speak to the friends who are so sure that they know God.  God speaks to Job.

Job’s lament and his friends’ rejection of his truth has resonance today as many women speak up about harassment, discrimination, and even assault and then find that their experiences are minimized,  or are not believed, or they are blamed for their troubles.  Women hear “Surely, you must have done something to deserve such treatment.” “Surely, it couldn’t have been that bad.” “Surely, you should have said something sooner.”  It is maddening to listen to those who do mental gymnastics to avoid facing the truth and refusing to change their opinion.   Too often old platitudes such as “Well, it must be God’s will” are trotted out which make the speaker feel better but does nothing to comfort those who are suffering.

Women today are lamenting like Job and we are called to listen to them with open minds and hearts.  Job teaches us to speak honestly about our griefs and our struggles and to listen to each other even when it makes us uncomfortable.  Even when it challenges what we think we know. Job will not be silenced and he continues to call out to God even when it appears that God is not listening.

Struggling with doubt and fear that God is not listening or that God is not also resonants with us today. We all have had moments or years when we felt that God was distant or absent. Mother Teresa, now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta struggled with emptiness and despair for many of her years of ministry in India.  She wrote “Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? …Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain—… So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.–ADDRESSED TO JESUS, AT THE SUGGESTION OF A CONFESSOR, UNDATED” time.com/4126238/mother-teresas-crisis-of-faith).  It is extraordinary to consider that a Saint of the church would struggle so and yet continue to serve God so faithfully. In fact, many Saints record similar struggles.

Questioning God, lamenting hardship, and refusing easy answers are parts of a life of faith. “In [this], Job is our model, and his continual movement between hope and a despairing anger mirrors many of our honest struggles with faith in this mysterious God. No genuinely faithful person has failed to make this same difficult journey as [they] travels the rocky road of faith.  (John Holbert, patheos.com)  We are called to support each other through these struggles, to not dismiss, or add to another’s suffering.  Next week we will hear from God, today we sit with Job, listening to him and honoring his insistence that God will answer him.

Let us pray,

Mysterious God, we struggle to comprehend why there is suffering in the world.  We wonder where you are in the midst of pain.  Support us in our questions and our worries.  Empower us to listen and be of service to those in need.   Amen.