The Faith of Job

 “The Faith of Job”

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

October 14th, 2012 – Monmouth College Homecoming Sunday

 In my preparation for today’s sermon I read a commentary that said, “Pastors who preach on Job 23 never make it to television.”[1]  Well, gosh darn it all.  There go all my hopes and dreams.  My parents will be so disappointed that I just blew my chance to be the next hit televangelist.

But seriously, I couldn’t pass up Job in the lectionary readings for today because I just love the guy.  Job is difficult, that’s for sure.  His story is worth avoiding because it’s about a good, faithful man who loses everything….his job, his house, his farm, his family, his health, in one seemingly careless swoop of the hand by God.  The Job mythos begins with Satan insighting God against Job.  Job is only faithful because he has it so good, Satan argued before God.  If you take away everything he has, Job will no longer be faithful. Well, Satan’s argument puts God in a bit of a spot.  God would like to prove that Job would be faithful regardless of whether he has it good or not.  So God gives Satan permission to take away everything Job has.  How difficult.  We’d like to think that God is above such devilish games.  Actually, we’d prefer not to think about Job at all, nor his painful God-given situation, so we avoid him and his texts that arise every three years in the church’s lectionary calendar.

But for me, Job will preach.  Job will preach because Job is about a faith that is tested and tried by unimaginable suffering and by God’s absence in the midst of that suffering.  Job will preach because every thoughtful person of faith will come to the same questions of God, to the same doubts of God, as Job at some point along their life journey.  And when they do (when we do) Job is here for us as a guide.  He is here for us when our faith butts up against reason.  He is here for us when we are suffering and God is nowhere to be found.  He is here for us when the darkness becomes overwhelming.

So I love Job.  I love Job because he is real, and raw, and honest.  There is no pie-in-the-sky theology here.  There are no shiny, happy people in Job’s story and it does not end with Job and Jesus walking along the beach leaving footprints in the sand.  No, Job is the real deal.  He is a real man of faith.

While I was serving my first church in South Carolina as an Associate Pastor, tragedy struck our congregation when we learned that the young adult son of one of our members had been washed overboard of an Alaskan fishing boat and lost at sea.  The father of this young man did not receive the news of his son’s death until a few weeks after the accident.  When he did hear, the news crushed him.  Our Senior Pastor went immediately to visit the father.  When he returned from this visit he was depressed and discouraged.  He described for us how he had found the father, lying on the floor, screaming and crying, banging his fists into the carpet in rage and grief.  There was nothing our pastor could say or pray to help the man.  He was lost to the darkness this world can so easily dish out, leaving our pastor feeling helpless in his desire to offer consolation and hope.

Job, on the other hand, is not helpless in the face of such pain.  Entering the grief stricken father’s house, Job would lift the man to his feet, grab his fist, raise it to the heavens, and shout, “Today my complaint is bitter; [God’s] hand is heavy despite my groaning.  Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!  I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.  Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No; but he would give heed to me.”[2]

Job’s speech here, wherein he penetrates the darkness of grief with stark honesty, is a daring, and faithful act.  Oftentimes in grief, people give in to their fate, resigning themselves to their misfortune by saying simply that “It must be God’s will.”  Others abandon their faith in God altogether, turning their back in justified rage.  But Job offers a third way: he is unwilling to accept suffering passively, but he also refuses to abandon his faith.  He cries out to God.  He shakes his fist at God.  He rages at God in the midst of the storm because God is not dead to him, and God dare not abandon him.[3]

We will never understand God.  Job reminds us of this.  God will always be just out of reach of reason. God will always be cloaked in mystery.  God will always be the deep dark abyss before which we stand. We cannot understand God and yet Job tries.  Job pursues God with questions.  Job speaks to God out of his pain.  Job demands an audience with God.  He demands his day in God’s divine court so he can argue his case.  Job will not let go of God. His faith leads him to the darkness and into it because he believes God is there.

I used to be all up on pop culture and frequently referred to current movies in my sermons to illustrate a point.  Now that we have two young children and I can’t stay awake much past 9:30 my illustrations have been reduced to the adventures of Curious George and the books we read together as a family.  So this past Monday I read a new book to our kids that I thought was really great.  It’s called “The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark.”

The Pout-Pout fish is a story about a fish who goes in search of a pearl that his friend Ms. Clam lost.  She had a doozy of a drowsy, yawned, and out that pearl popped.  The pearl was lost somewhere in the deep, darkness of the ocean floor.  Well, Mr. Fish was a very good friend of Ms. Clam so he wanted to help her find her pearl.  But he had a problem.  He was faster than a sailfish, and stronger than a shark, smarter than a dolphin, but he was scared of the dark!

He was scared of the dark, but he was such a good friend that he swam and he swam.  He swooped through the water, and eyed every inch of the busy bottom land.  But he could not find the pearl.  Discouraged, Mr. Fish grew grim, until he heard a little voice whisper, “You can do it, Mr. Fish!  It’s in the trench, check there.”  In the trench there wasn’t any light, not the smallest, slim glimmer.  “I can’t keep swimming in this heap-deep black,” thought Mr. Fish.  Then the voice, now familiar, whispered to him again.  “You can do it, Mr. Fish.”  And he recognized the voice as his friend, Miss Shimmer.  And although there wasn’t any light, Mr. Fish felt braver….cheered on by Miss Shimmer, who said, “Two are faster than a sailfish, two are stronger than a shark, two are smarter than a dolphin, and two are bigger than the dark!” So they swam down the dark trench together, holding fin to fin, when suddenly, amazingly, light shone in!  There the pearl shone in the midst of all that dark.  Mr. Fish said, “Yes!” Miss Shimmer shouted, “Yay!”  “There’s Ms. Clam’s pearl!  Hooray!  Hooray!  Then they SMOOCHED and they smiled as they swam, weaving back through the darkness to a happy Ms. Clam.[4]

Job and the Pout-Pout fish hold something in common.  Both swim into the darkness in spite of their fear.  Job is afraid to know God.  He says so in verse 16, “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me.”  But Job is just as afraid not to know God. So he pushes forward into the darkness, into the mystery, into the pain and suffering of life, into the deep abyss… because something or someone has whispered to him that there is a treasure to be found there….something or someone has whispered to Job that there is a pearl shining in the midst of all that darkness.  So Job presses on.  Job pursues God with a daring faith.  And through our scriptures Job invites us to do the same.  Job invites us to travel with him into the deep dark abyss that is God.

Returning to the story of the man who tragically lost his son off the Alaskan fishing boat, it’s important that you know that eventually he was able to pick himself up off the floor of grief.  He was able to stand again, in part because we as his pastors and we as his community of faith learned that the best way to help him, the best way to care for him in the midst of his debilitating grief was to stand with him, to be present with him, to swim with him into the dark, in the hope and in the faith that a pearl would be found, a treasure of light worth celebrating.

So on this Homecoming Sunday, I share with you my hope that the kind of faith we foster here at Monmouth College is a Job kind of faith.  I hope that we do not settle for easy, pie-in-the-sky theology.  I hope that we too might pursue God with questions.  I hope that we dare to enter the darkness and dare to approach the deepest mysteries of God.  I hope that we, like Job, can be real, and raw, and honest here.  And I hope for this because when the trials of life come (and the trials will come), when we are flattened by grief, and floored by our pain, that we might, at some point, be able to stand again with Job and with all the faithful who are willing to be present with us in the darkness.

Now to our great and mysterious and unfathomable God, the God who gifts us with the faith to move forward in the darkness, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and honor, now and forevermore.  Amen.

 

 

 


[1] Thomas Edward Frank, “Pastoral Perspective”, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009), p. 148.

[2] Job 23: 2-6

[3] J.S. Randolph Harris, “Homiletical Perspective” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2009), p. 151.

[4] Deborah Diesen, “The Pout-Pout Fish in the Big-Big Dark,” (Scholastic, Inc., New York, NY, 2010).

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