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When I was in my final year of seminary, I did my last placement at Sunnybrook Health Sciences, specifically the Veterans Long Term Care home there. These were mostly WW II veterans with some Korean War vets and some who had served in both. I was there one day each week, Thursday. This was the day that the chaplain with whom I was working, Wes, held two chapel services on different floors.
The first day I was there, Wes asked me if would go sit with a woman whose husband had just died. The second week, Wes asked if I would go sit with a wife (now widow) and two daughters whose husband and father had just died. They had been waiting for one of the daughters who was flying in from out west. Wes told me that the daughter had arrived. He was about to start one of the services and asked me to go in and sit with them while he held the service.
I remember walking to the closed door of the room where this woman and her two daughters were sitting with their late husband and dad. It was not something I wanted to do. I had told Wes “Yes” though and I found myself walking toward the door and reaching my hand out to knock. I can still see his kind of first-person perspective in my mind when I think of the day. I don’t know what good I did on either of those days. It didn’t become a weekly occurrence but I often say I had more experience with exposure to suffering and grief there one day per week for 8 months than I might have in a year in some other ministry setting. I was really thankful for it actually.
Now you might be thinking at this point “What a big downer!” I’m kind of thinking that myself. We’re going through the book of Job this summer and it’s not easy (and this is only the second week). The subject matter belies sunny days and summer breezes coming in the window. I find myself thinking “Man why couldn’t we have done a series on parables again or maybe even Psalms again and yes I know there are Psalms of lament too but it might have been a whole lot….”
Then I think there’s lots of lightness around if we care to so occupy ourselves. I told the story about my experience at Sunnybrook Veteran’s because it taught me something very valuable (many things in fact but this one thing in particular for our purposes this morning). Being in a room with strangers who are suffering from the loss of a loved one makes things very real as the kids say. Things just got real. There is little will for small talk in such a situation. It is time at that point to get to the essence of things.
The essence of things. This is something that the book of Job gives us the opportunity to do. We who follow Christ or we who are interested in some way to know something about what it means to follow Christ. While I am half the time bemoaning having felt led to look over this book this summer, it provides us with an opportunity to get to the essence of things. This is what suffering does. If you are watching this morning I am going to assume that you have a fairly high degree of interest in getting to the essence of things. Of coming to know something about the essence of God, of God, speaking to your essence. The essence.
Let’s ask for God’s help as we come back to our story.
When we last left Job, he had lost all his possessions. Even worse was the fact that he had lost his children. We saw him resort to ceremony, as we often do. We saw him worship. We heard him speak – “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
The question has been posed, “Is God worthy of our worship, of our love, of our adoration, no matter what our circumstances?” We are invited to live into an answer.
At this point in our story, the ante is upped as it were. The Accuser has said, “Stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” It’s one thing for God to give and to take away but it’s quite another thing for bad things to come to us in what seems like a more active way.
Like a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Like a long-awaited retirement that’s not going to happen because you’ve just had word about a terminal illness. Like the long slow loss of a parent or spouse to Alzheimer’s. Like receiving news that a child for whom you had hoped so much in life has been killed by a drunk driver. And on and on and on.
And you can see what I mean about the heaviness.
So we find Job and he has been inflicted with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. He’s scraping himself with a piece of a broken pot (it took me way too long to figure out what potsherd means I don’t mind telling you). He may be at the town dump (hence the broken pot and ashes from burning garbage), cut off, ostracized as one with a skin condition might be.
He’s been thrown.
Everything has changed. Someone has said that often we go through our days with our personal stories meaning so much to us. Memories of family, friends, good times. Adding to these stories as we go through our days. Often times too we find solace in the universal – well everyone has a time to die. No one lives forever, that kind of thing.
When we’re thrown, these things cease to matter as much or at all. Time can seem to stop or stand still. Universal truths mean very little when we are in intensely personal pain.
In the midst of this, we also have endurance. Job is enduring. He’s not saying anything now note. He’s acting. He’s sitting in ash. He’s scraping his skin – though whether this is some sort of self-flagellation or merely an attempt to ease his pain we don’t know. There’s so much ambiguity here you see. Let us not read Job simply as “Well Job is a good role model” or however we want to read it. There is ambiguity in life too, you see, and we do well to recognize this. Very few if any people are simply one thing. Job’s wife is not simply Satan’s accomplice.
You have to watch who you call Satan’s accomplice. It’s true. Augustine called Job’s wife the devil’s accomplice. Calvin called her an instrument of Satan. She can be seen in this kind of light. A temptress. Tempting Job to curse God (though the word here for curse is the same as bless, speaking of ambiguity). Encouraging Job to curse God. These are her only lines in the story. It seems a little harsh to me, maybe even a little misogynistic to think of her in this way. Tempting Job to curse God and die. Encouraging him to curse God and die.
I like to think of her another way. Job’s bone and his flesh have been afflicted remember. What is Job’s wife if not bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh? This is what spouses are after all, though we rarely hear that line from Genesis 2 outside of weddings. It’s good to be reminded from time to time.
Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. If she’s a helper to the Accuser, the Accuser is in a way a helper to us. Asking the question “Is God worthy of worship in any circumstance?” moves us beyond a simple “What is in this God thing for me?” It moves us into a deeper relationship with God.
I should say it can move us into a deeper relationship with God. It may not. This stuff is not automatic after all, and that’s why we are all involved in determining the answer to the question with our lives. Job’s wife is laying out the choice to a question that Job himself might not have dared speak up to this point. This is the thing about rhetorical questions – they open up possibilities. What would it be like for us to…? What are you going to do in the face of losing everything and not only that but having bad things happen to you? What are you going to do in the face of loss of your health, spouse, parent, child, livelihood, vocation.... whatever it is that we’re talking about? We don’t face these questions alone. Job’s wife, bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh is facing them too. Job answers in such a way that suggests that the experience of his wife has shown that his wife is not foolish. You speak as any foolish woman would speak! Job then asks a rhetorical question of his own, because we shouldn’t consider these rhetorical questions on our own:
Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?
In other words, do we say “God is good, all the time” only when things are good, or do we say it all the time.
We’re talking about what it means to follow God, follow Christ in the face of suffering. What it means to endure. This was the third thing the writer I spoke of earlier mentioned along with the loss of personal history, the loss of security in universal truth. The third thing that can characterize suffering is endurance.
Job is enduring. He’s not sinning with his lips (and I’ll leave you and the rabbis to debate whether that meant he was sinning in his heart because there are all kinds of ambiguity going on here and you know you can sin with your heart and not your lips). I don’t want to add to Job’s misery here.
Neither do his friends at this point. Eliphaz. Bildad. Zophar. You don’t ask these questions on your own and we don’t let one another suffer on our own. It’s quite a big thing these days you know. Eliminate the negative. Keep everything nice and light. I would come alongside suffering but I don’t know what to say. In the middle of this we’re called to carry one another’s burdens and in doing fulfilling the law of Christ.
Which to sum up is Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. Put that on a plaque on the wall. Keep it everywhere.
We’re told to mourn with those who mourn. Grieve with those who grieve.
Job’s friends come to condole. It’s not a word we hear very much outside of condolences. Do you know what it means? To grieve with. I grieve with you. They came to console and comfort. The words here connoting sitting on the ground and rocking back and forth. Sharing distress. The family of God is not simply a song by The Gaithers We are all part of an adopted family, and in a way, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that in the body of Christ we are all bone of one another’s bone and flesh of one another’s flesh.
I wonder what it would look like if we took that seriously.
Speaking of rhetorical questions… They come to console and condole and comfort. We can’t help but think of Paul’s words to the people of Corinth about being consoled by Christ to be consoling when he writes “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”
It’s like a never-ending spiral of consolation. It leads to endurance. To holding fast.
How do we live in the face of suffering? We’ll keep on answering the question in our lives. Today let us leave Job and his friends in their silence. Much has been said about the speeches that are to come and we’ll say things about them too. They take up a lot of chapters in this book. Someone has said though that time-wise they’d take about 2 hours to speak.
Two hours versus seven days and seven nights of silence. Two hours of speaking versus 168 hours of silence. It’s often the best consolation we can offer. May God continue to help speak to us in the silence this week and in the weeks to come.