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When Trouble Comes

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.”