A sermon preached in Christ Church, Sheridan, MT, by the Rev. Bruce McNab.
25th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 27, Year C. Nov. 10, 2013. (Text: Job 19:23-27a)
Forty-one years ago tomorrow I was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. After two more years of graduate study, I began my ministry in a Colorado church and stayed in parish work ‘til Joan and I retired two years ago and moved to Montana. You all know what the ordinary life of a parish priest is like. We preach, teach, administer the sacraments, baptize, marry, bury the dead, offer guidance to those who seek it, participate in outreach to our community, and tend to the day to day operations of a church. (We also encourage volunteers and help raise a few bucks for the work of the church.)
One of the questions I’ve sometimes been asked is, “Which have you found more fulfilling, officiating at weddings or officiating at funerals?” My answer is easy: funerals. That might seem odd, but it’s logical. Weddings are significant sacramental occasions, but they’re also usually a big party. For the most part, brides and grooms are absorbed in planning for the party aspect of the occasion. They’re polite to the priest who’s trying to help them grasp what marriage is all about, but nine couples out of ten aren’t really listening closely.
However . . . When we face dying and death, loss and grief, it’s very different. We come up against the most painful aspects of life. And that offers an opportunity to share the central truth of Christian faith with people when they’re most ready to listen.
I’ve stood many times in a church or funeral chapel, surrounded by grieving people, and read to them the verses from the Book of Job that are our Old Testament reading this morning. The Prayer Book translation is a little different from what you heard earlier. It goes like this:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.
Most of us aren’t very familiar with the Book of Job. After all, it’s forty two chapters long. But even people who don’t know much about Job know this much: the suffering of Job was epic. “Job” isn’t history; it’s a story with a theological point. In this story, Job is a good man, and not just good—he’s the most righteous man on earth. He’s utterly faithful to God and “careful never to do anything evil.” So God showers Job with praise and even brags about him to Satan, who’s sort of like the Prosecuting Attorney of the high court of heaven in this book. God tells his official Prosecutor: “See? There’s nobody on earth as faithful and good as my man Job.”
Job has a sheltered life because God protects him. Everything he does prospers because of God’s favor. Job’s wealth grows ‘til he is “the richest man in the East.” But then Job’s nightmare begins, because Satan challenges the Lord to test whether Job’s loyalty to God will endure through the kind of suffering that comes when God’s special protection is withdrawn. God lets Satan the Prosecutor have his way. He isn’t allowed to take Job’s life, but he can take away everything else. So Satan goes to work on Job . . .
On a single day, rustlers come and steal Job’s 1,000 cattle and 500 donkeys and kill all but one of his cowboys. The same day, lightning strikes his flock of 7,000 sheep and kills all of them along with all but one of his shepherds. Raiders also take Job’s 3,000 camels and kill all his camel herders but one. A storm blows down the house where Job’s ten children are having a party, and the children die when the house collapses. Finally, Job—who has never been sick in his life—breaks out in painful, oozing sores all over his body.
With no worldly possessions left, at the end of the worst day of his life, Job sits all alone in ashes on top of a dung-hill. In twenty-four hours he’s lost everything and everyone he loves except his wife, whose bitter advice is: “Why don’t you just curse God and die?” But Job won’t curse God. Instead he says, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” (We all know that one, don’t we?) The narrator of the story says: “Even in all his suffering, Job said nothing against God.”
His best friends come to visit Job when they hear about his tragic situation. They join him, sitting with him on the dunghill in total silence for a week before any of them says as much as a word. (That’s a bit of wisdom for you and me—especially me—to remember when we learn about the sorrows of a friend. Go and keep company with the friend, but don’t talk too much. Don’t ask a lot of questions, and don’t propose any “explanations” of the tragedy. Just be present.) After seven days, Job’s friends finally start to talk. And they’re no comfort at all. Their message is that somehow Job deserved all this. He must have had it all coming, because such calamities only happen to sinners. (Nobody needs “friends” like those guys!)
Nevertheless, in spite of everything and regardless of the less-than-helpful advice of his so-called friends, Job won’t give up on God. —But he’s angry. Mighty angry! . . . At God. Job launches tirade after tirade against the Almighty. —Nevertheless, in the midst of his rage and resentment, we hear Job’s affirmation of hope, “Oh, that with an iron pen and with lead my words were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.” I know that my Redeemer lives!
Job’s companions lecture him on religion and morals, and their oratory is as dead as the ashes they’re sitting on. But Job doesn’t join them in philosophizing. Instead, he prays. Job’s friends talk about God, but Job talks TO God! Keep this point in mind: the profoundest philosophy pales next to the most primitive prayer. Job is angry at God, but he prays through the rage. He stays engaged with God. And God stays engaged with Job—always there, always listening, always caring. The story of Job is that God is right there with us in our pain and bitterness. God never turns away from us.
The Book of Job doesn’t try to explain suffering. It doesn’t offer answers. After we’ve read the whole book, suffering still remains a mystery. But we see Job come to peace at last because God is always with him in his pain. God never abandons him. And in the end Job is satisfied, even though God gives him no answers to his tortured questions. Job is satisfied because God gives him something better than answers: God gives Himself to Job.
In the story of Job we encounter a truth later embodied in the person of Jesus, who enters our human condition with all its suffering—and redeems it. Jesus sits right beside us when we’re at the lowest moments of life. Are we broken? Jesus is broken with us. Are we rejected? “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Jesus comes into our life and into our death. He is still here. Jesus is in us, and we’re in Him. He is our Savior and Friend.
The mystery of suffering touches every one of us. Wealth can’t protect us. (Look at Job!) Virtue can’t protect us. (Look at Job!) Suffering doesn’t always come along as a logical punishment for our sins or a consequence of our foolishness. Most suffering is irrational. Undeserved. Neither innocence nor holiness nor education can shield us from suffering. Bad things do happen to good people. “In this world,” as Jesus said, “you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
Tomorrow I will have been a priest for forty-one years. In that time I have learned this one thing for sure: we who trust in Jesus Christ have the best resource for coping with suffering, loss, death, and grief. We can’t escape irrational suffering, but we can endure it and even rise above it. We can rise above it because we know there’s more in store for us as children of God than the random, sometimes terrible, experiences of mortal life.
Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my Friend and not a stranger.” We will all die, but because of Christ we will live again in a new creation. In the end we shall see and know that God is for us, not against us. The One who holds time and eternity in his hand is our Friend, and not a stranger.