Proper 24B

When I was in college in the mid-1970s, my friends and I had a sacred Saturday night routine. No matter what we might do earlier in the evening, at 11:30 we gathered together in front of the television, ready to watch our favorite show, the then new Saturday Night Live.

As you might expect from a group of journalism students, our favorite sketch in the program was Weekend Update. The anchor of this satirical look at the week’s news was Chevy Chase, who began each week’s segment with exactly the same words.

“Welcome to Weekend Update,” he would intone. “I’m Chevy Chase – and you’re not.”

In today’s Old Testament reading, we hear a portion of an impassioned speech from God to one of God’s most faithful servants, Job. And although God’s speech goes on uninterrupted for almost six full pages, the essence of God’s remarks to Job can be boiled down to five words.

“I’m God – and you’re not.”

It seems like a rather harsh divine response to a man who has been faithful all his life.

Scripture describes Job as a “blameless, upright man who loved God and turned away from evil.” Job is also a very wealthy and prosperous man. Life has been good to him.

But then one day, in rapid succession, Job receives stunning news that his numerous livestock and thousands of camels have all been killed by fire. He next hears that his many servants have been killed by bandits.

No sooner has that news reached him than he learns that his sons and daughters have all been killed by a great wind that blew down the house where they were gathered.

It’s as if Hurricane Michael were followed by an earthquake, then a raging fire.

Upon hearing all this, Job, as faithful as he has always been, falls to the ground and worships God. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there,” he prays. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job’s immediate, shell-shocked response to his life-changing tragedy seems to be a passive acceptance of his fate. But those words uttered in the first numbing shock of grief do not sustain Job for long.

As reality sets in, Job, who becomes infected with what the Bible describes as “loathsome sores from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head,” quits being so passive and accepting.

He now curses the day he was born and cries out to God, demanding to know why these things have happened.

Job’s friends, who have been sitting with him in his grief, begin to get nervous when Job begins questioning and getting angry with God.

The friends leap to God’s defense, offering explanations for why God has let these tragedies occur, giving us a good example of how not to do pastoral care.

“You must have sinned greatly for this to happen,” one of them says. “You better repent.”

“Think of this as a growing experience,” another offers. “You’ll be so much stronger because of it.”

“How dare you question God” another accuses. “This must be God’s will and who are we to question it?”

Job does not buy any of his friends’ explanations or attempts to console him. “Miserable comforters are you all,” he angrily lashes out at them.

But Job’s most passionate anger is reserved for God. His outrage at the world’s injustice is directed straight to the creator of that world.

“God does not care; so I say he murders both the pure and the wicked,” Job laments. “When the plague brings sudden death, God laughs at the anguish of the innocent.”

Again and again Job demands to know of God: What did I do wrong? Why have you let this happen to me?

In Job’s understanding of the universe only two answers are possible to those questions, either he has done something wrong or God has.

Job has searched his soul and honestly can find nothing that he has done that merits this kind of punishment. As scripture itself says, he has been blameless, faithful, and upright all his life.

And so that must mean that God has made a big mistake. In Job’s eyes, God is not doing a very good job of being God. What kind of God lets innocent people suffer?

This is an understandable question, an honest question, a human question – one we may find ourselves asking anytime we look at a newspaper or listen to the news, or our own prayer list each Sunday – why do good people suffer?

Or as St. Theresa of Avila once said to God, “It’s no wonder you have so few friends, if this is how you treat them.”

And so Job again angrily demands a divine response to his questions and to his suffering.

When that response finally comes, it is not what Job had anticipated.

“Gird up your loins like a man,” God tells Job. “This time I will question you, and you shall answer me.”

And then God launches into such a ferocious tour of the cosmos that Job is struck dumb.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” God sarcastically demands of Job. “Who determined its measurements – surely you know!”

God’s barrage continues with question after question.

“Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?

“Have you commanded the morning and cased the dawn to know its place?

“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?

“Do you give the horse its might?

“Is it by your wisdom that a hawk soars and spreads its wings toward the south?

“Is it by your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?”

Job is stunned into silence. Suddenly he realizes just how little he does know.

As writer Barbara Brown Taylor points out, in God’s whole long list of divine creatures, there is not one single human being. Snowflakes make the list; goats make the list; dewdrops and ostriches make it.

But Job never hears his own name mentioned, not even once. In a wrenching paradigm shift,  Job suddenly sees the world not from his own perspective, but from God’s.

By walking Job past a small sample of creation, God sets Job up for a major revelation – that he is not the center of God’s universe. Job matters to God, but Job is not all that matters.

Job asks God the question we have all asked the divine – Why?

God answers with God’s own question – Are you God?

That answer may not satisfy us. It may strike us as the worst kind of divine evasion, but Job is strangely comforted by God’s response.

God has taken Job seriously. God has met Job face to face, has entered into relationship with him. There is no time or place without God – in good times and bad, in joys and in sorrow, in life and in death, God is present.

Job’s question – Why? – remains unanswered. But the lesson of Job is that even in the midst of suffering, God is still present, and that, for Job, at least, makes the rest bearable.

And what of the friends who tried to comfort Job, who came to God’s defense, trying to justify Job’s tragedy?

Scripture tells us of God’s impatience with them, “for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

God prefers Job’s honest anger, his passionate outrage, his demand for a face-to-face meeting over their pious platitudes.

We all have brokenness in our lives that can’t be fixed. We all have questions that can’t be completely answered.

But the one thing we know, as Job comes to know, is that the God who created the universe is present with us even in the midst of questions, anger, and uncertainties, offering us the strange but holy reassurance that God is God, and we are not.

Amen.

Pin It on Pinterest