Railton Road, 8 October 2000

Job, or Sh*t Happens

1. Introduction

It's a funny old story, isn't it, this story of Job. Do you know, nobody knows anything about it - what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story - most probably the latter!

I did read that they think these first two chapters, parts of which we have just heard read to us, are incredibly ancient. That figures, actually, since the picture of God that we see in it is also very old - the sort of super-King holding court among the angels, and Satan not even being the Devil yet, just one of the many beings who had the right to God's ear. Rather like the earthly kings of the time, no doubt.

The source I was reading seemed to think that the poetry chapters were more recent, but even still, nobody knows who wrote them, or when.

2. Cultural Differences

Even still, "more recent" is a relative term! The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

I think one of the oddest things is that picture of God as almost an earthly King, with his court around him. And Satan as one of the heavenly beings belonging to that court.

Our reading missed out a whole chunk, of course. All of chapter 1, apart from the first verse. Just to remind you, the missing bit first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy type - whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him - just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you!

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. And Job still remains faithful to God: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.'

So then we come to the second chapter, which formed the bulk of our reading: Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty - painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!

And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says "Curse God, and die!" In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.

Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him - we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God!

Which, in the end, he gets. But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry. Here's just a tiny bit:

'Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?

Do you make it leap like the locust? Its majestic snorting is terrible.

It paws violently, exults mightily; it goes out to meet the weapons.

It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword.

Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.

With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.

When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!" From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings towards the south?

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

It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.

From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away.

Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.'

Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all. If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40, And at the end, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him.

3. Yes, But....

Which is all very well, although I'm quite sure that even fourteen more children wouldn't really replace the seven who were lost - which is one reason why I suspect it's a legend, rather than a story about real people. But that is unimportant. What does matter is what does it mean to us today? After all, we live in a more sophisticated age. We no longer associate being rich with being blessed by God. In fact, rather the reverse, ever since Jesus turned that one on its head by saying "Blessed are you poor!" It's interesting to note that it Matthew's Gospel, the Jewish author can't quite manage that, and spiritualises it to "Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, or who hunger and thirst after righteousness", whereas Luke, from a Gentile background, has no such scruples and says "Blessed are you poor; you who are hungry and thirsty." If you were Jewish in the days of Jesus, and before, God's blessing was totally material!

But sometimes I find we take the story all too literally, even still. I'm sure you've come across the sort of teaching that says that everything that goes wrong with our lives is because God has willed it so, as though God were some kind of monster who chose to inflict random tortures on us. And you've probably met people, as I have, who when things are going well they say "God has really blessed me today!" and when they are going badly, they say, "Satan is really having a go at me today!" as though they were merely automata, with no feelings or emotions of their own.

I don't think it's about that, though. We do have free will. God doesn't force us to behave ourselves properly. When one of you chooses to be abominably rude to me on the telephone, I'm afraid I assume it is because you have no manners, not because God wanted you to be rude. God can't make you be polite if you don't want to be - and I don't think God would, even if he could, force you to be rude!

So what is it about? The book, of course, is an attempt to describe why bad things happen to innocent people, an issue we still wrestle with today. If you live in America and something bad happens to you, you instantly look round to find someone to sue. I regret to say the same sort of thing is happening over here, too. Job didn't! Job sat there and swore, but he didn't look for someone to blame. His friends did, of course. They tried to make it be all Job's fault. We do that, too. We look for a scapegoat.

Tomorrow is the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur, one of their most solemn festivals, second in importance only after Passover. They fast all day, from sunset tonight until sunset tomorrow, and the observant ones go to the synagogue to pray and confess their sins. Unlike us, they only seem to feel the need once a year, and resolve to do better over the coming year. Yom Kippur ends, as the sun sets, with the Gates of Forgiveness open wide, and our Jewish friends will greet us on Tuesday morning with lighter hearts!

In the olden days, of course, there was the symbolism of a goat that was deemed to bear the sins of the community, and was sent forth from that community. That finished when the Temple was destroyed, and, anyway, we see Jesus as bearing our sins for us, so there is no longer any need for any other scapegoat. But the image remains. We need someone to bear our sins for us, someone whose fault it all is. We need it not to be our fault. And we need it to be someone else's fault!

4. Conclusion

I think if the book of Job has anything to tell us today, it is, to use a very graphic expression, shit happens! Bad things do happen in this world, whether we like it or not. We need to come to terms with that, and not always be looking about for a scapegoat, whether that be a human person we can sue, or God. We have free will - if we didn't, we wouldn't be human. Accidents happen. People are rude. Sometimes people even attack us physically - well, we ask, why didn't God do something? But what could God do? Paralyse us, every time we try to do something wrong? I don't think so! I shouldn't like that, and nor would you.

No, we are creatures of free will, and that means, we have the choice of doing evil, and it also means that sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes it is our fault, sometimes it isn't. But I don't think we can blame anybody else for it, unless it really is obviously someone's fault. And I don't think that, if it wasn't obviously someone's fault, we should look round for a scapegoat.

What we can do, though, is praise God. The bad things weren't God's fault, they perhaps weren't part of God's ideal plan for us. But when they happen, God always has a Plan B. Remember that lovely verse from Romans, chapter 8 and verse 28: "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

The bad is still bad, but God will bring good out of it. Job, in the midst of his suffering, said: "For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,"

Job went on trusting God, even in the middle of all the bad things that happened, even when he was fiercely questioning why everything had gone quite so dreadfully pear-shaped. He never doubted, underneath everything, that God was there for him. May we, too, have that sort of faith!

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