Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 7th of Second Month, 2021
Speaker: Lyn Koehnline
Scripture: Job 1:1-2, 6-12
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters.
Did you learn about Job when you were a child? Were you horrified that God would let someone suffer just so God would win a wager with Satan?
Maybe you’ve never heard the story of Job, but I grew up in a church that used the 3- year cycle of the common lectionary, so I heard passages from Job read in church every year, though the preacher usually preferred to focus on that Sunday’s Gospel or Epistle lesson.
My greater awareness of Job was through my father. Not because Dad considered of himself long-suffering. He certainly didn’t. But my father loved the Bible, and poetry, and art.
William Blake was one of his very favorite artists, and poets.
William Blake wrestled with the story of Job for decades and developed his very own pictorial interpretation of it, beginning with watercolors in the 1780’s and continuing through the publication of a set of 22 engravings forty years later.
Blake encoded many concepts into his images, and scholars have subsequently spent whole careers decoding them. My father was fascinated by these images and shared them with me.
Later, in my museum career, I spent weeks on the conservation treatment of a set of these engravings. Consequently, I cannot hear passages from Job without seeing Blake’s images in my mind.
Don’t panic! This is not an art history lecture, but I will use a few of Blake’s images to illustrate my words.
It’s thought that the Book of Job was written around 600 BC, give or take a century. The first two chapters and the final chapter provide a frame narrative for the intervening chapters of poetry about the nature of God. Research suggests that this frame narrative is based on a much more ancient story, and it reads like a fable.
Job is religious and law-abiding. At the beginning of the story, everything is going his way. He has a wife, ten adult children, 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and VERY many servants.
In Blake’s first illustration we see Job and his family looking pious. In Blake’s iconography, the open books in the laps of Job and his wife represent Rote Prayers and The Law. In contrast, Blake uses musical instruments to represent spirit-led praise and spontaneous acts of mercy. As you can see, Job’s musical instruments are hung up in a tree and not in use, suggesting that Job’s religion is lacking something essential.
But Job is rich and he is respected. He’s got evidence that he has been “living right.”
To be clear, I rarely hear folks in this meeting suggest that this is how the world really works, but it is dominant view in our culture and in many Christian communities. It’s in the air and can creep into our thinking.
When everything is going our way, we’d like to believe it’s at least partly because we deserve it.
And it would be nice to think, as I did as a child, that the United States is rich and powerful because it’s so GOOD.
But that kind of faith falls apart when trouble comes.
This engraving illustrates the passage Ginger just read.
That’s God at the top, with the open Book of the Law on his lap and the heavenly beings gathered around his feet. That’s Satan in the middle, with Job and his family below.
Satan challenges God to a test of Job’s faithfulness, and this all-too-human God takes the bait. Their conversation is so … venal… it’s almost satire. Blake depicts God not only as the classic old white man with a long white beard, but also as the mirror image of Job himself.
Next we see a messenger running up to Job and his wife, with three more messengers approaching in the distance. The text tells us: a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
While he was still speaking, another came and said,
“Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
In a moment Job has lost everything, even his children. He tears his clothing and falls to the ground, but all he SAYS is: “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the Lord.”
The next time God sees Satan, God boasts, “See. I told you so. I let you destroy Job for no reason, but he still worships me.” Yikes!
Satan does not miss a beat, but comes back with another challenge: “Just let me hurt Job’s body and cause him actual physical pain, then Job will curse you.”
And God says “Very well; he is in your power, only spare his life.”
And so Satan covers Job’s body with hideous and painful sores.
At this point Job’s friends arrive. Job is so changed that it takes them a moment to even recognize him. When they see how great his suffering is, they weep with him. And they sit down with him, in silence, for seven whole days and nights. This reflects the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” with a bereaved person and it is a real gift. Sometimes, when we are in great pain, that’s what we really need, someone to sit with us.
Job describes his suffering at great length. He laments that it would have been better to never be born than to suffer his unjust fate. It is heart rending to read, and his friends are willing to listen, up to a point.
Eventually they can’t take it anymore. For the next 36 chapters, they debate with Job the age-old question: “Why do Bad Things happen to (seemingly) Good People?”
Job’s “comforters” become his tormenters. One interpretation is that the friends are actually the voices inside Job’s head, as he turns it over and over in his mind, “Why, God? Why me?”
These friends, these voices, have a LOT of answers, with the recurring theme:
You must have done something to deserve this. Or your father did. Or your children did.
Because God controls everything and God only punishes the guilty.
That’s something you wouldn’t say out loud unless you were really confident that you’d already had your fair share of suffering, and that, on that great scorecard in the sky, your virtues qualify you for reward.
The friends insist that everything happens for a reason, and that is part of the truth. There is such a thing as cause and effect.
If I get behind the wheel while impaired, I might cause an accident.
We have racial unrest in this country because of our brutal history.
Our climate is changing because the burning of fossil fuels is putting more & more CO2 into the air.
But that doesn’t explain why do only some people suffer so severely from these causes.
Is it because God decided they deserved to suffer??
Jesus rejected this thinking. When asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man? or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” and got down to the business of healing the blindness.
But right now, there are preachers claiming that God sent Covid19 to punish sinners, and that those who are “right with God” have nothing to fear and can go about their business. Besides being dangerous, these messages give God a bad name. In the midst of tragedy, what we say about God matters.
A god who orchestrates disasters for our edification is a nightmare. In Blake’s depiction of a vision of God shared by one of the friends, God points to the Law with one hand and to Hell with the other. And in case you hadn’t already gotten the message, this god is depicted with a cloven hoof.
This is Satan, the enemy of humankind.
With God’s help, when I respond to the needs of others, I may well find joy in the giving and I might become more mature in my faith. But I do not believe that the whole world exists to provide me with opportunities for self-improvement.
The friends’ arguments and explanations serve to distance them from Job’s pain.
And that is an impulse I have seen in myself and in others.
When I hear about somebody else’s troubles, I really care. But there’s some static in my brain as it searches for reasons why that bad thing won’t happen to me. I’m not proud of it, but when yet another friend contracts Covid19, I pray, and I want to help. But, I also want to know what choice or unavoidable circumstance put them at a risk greater than my own.
At times in my life when I was the one suffering, I have sometimes felt deserted by friends who could not bear to get close to my pain.
I have also been surprised by casual acquaintances who showed up out of the blue like ministering angels.
Job’s story is not over, and there are still lots more great illustrations, but I won’t show or tell it all this morning. Eventually, Job is granted an experience of God’s presence and explanations become irrelevant.
God does not promise us explanations. God is not tame and does not fit into any box of our design.
But we have been promised that God will be with us, in joy and in sorrow.
When I’m at my very lowest, pain or exhaustion may keep me from feeling God’s presence in a given moment. That’s when I need friends to hold that truth for me, as they sit with me, and pray, whether with words or in silence.
When I allow God to heal me, I may find myself empowered to minister to others, especially those who suffer losses similar to my own.
As we enter into open worship this morning, let us recall times when other people have embodied God’s love for us.
And let us ask God for the wisdom and grace to be fully present with others in their times of need.