Year B, 20 Pentecost
When something horrible happens, like the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon last week or the shooting in Charleston three months ago (or any shooting for that matter), one of the first questions that people ask is why. Why did this happen to innocent people? What were the motives of the shooter? That is what I often find myself preoccupied with, the motive of the shooter. I want so desperately to understand their reason, what brought them to such a dark place. But even when they leave a letter or a video, the reason is never satisfying. It never makes me feel better. However, there is something in each one of us that craves reason. If there is a reason, then we can wrap our head around it. Perhaps we can even find a solution so that it won’t happen again.
Why do bad things happen to good people? It is the question that never goes away. Countless books have been written on the subject, but there is no easy answer. There is no answer. When this question comes up, people often turn to the Book of Job in the Old Testament. Job is a classic story of really bad things happening to a good person for no clear reason. In the beginning of the Book of Job we hear that Job is a righteous man, basically one of God’s all stars. He had 10 children and thousands of livestock. He was wealthy and successful.
Then in one day, it was all gone. All ten of his children were killed in a freak wind storm, lightning struck his sheep and shepherds, and an enemy stole his camels and oxen. That was all in one day. The next day he woke to find himself covered with boils from head to toe. He became so deformed that his friends could no longer recognize him. He went from having everything, to having virtually nothing. The rest of the book comprises his rants toward God, long speeches, and conversations with his three friends who liked to pontificate about the reasons for his suffering.
The reading from today is Job’s response to one of his friend’s speeches. In this speech his friend suggested various sins that Job must have committed to deserve such suffering. Surely he must have done something truly evil to warrant this dramatic turn of events. This was a safe assumption in this time period. It was common for people to assume that if bad things were happening, it was because they had sinned in some way. God rewarded the righteous and punished the sinners. His friend suggested that he repent and turn back to God. He needed to stop complaining and submit to God’s authority. In other words, stop fighting this!
It is rarely a good idea to lecture someone who is suffering especially when the premise of the lecture is wrong. Job was an upright and good man. We know that from the beginning of the book and surely his friends knew that as well. But much like we do today, his friends were trying to find a reason for the suffering. If they could find a reason, then they could find a solution. Job would not accept that rationale. To the end, he defended his innocence.
What Job wanted was an opportunity to speak to God face to face. He felt that if he could defend himself before God, then God would see that Job was a good man who did not deserve such treatment. What Job was struggling with were not the reasons why, but the lack of response from God. God had been absent for Job. Job’s search for God was relentless, but also fruitless. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” Job was searching for God and the harder he looked, the more distant God appeared. Job was not asking “why.” He was asking “where.” Where is God when my life is falling to pieces? Yet through his ranting and his raving, he never lost hope. Sometimes his words sounded as though he was hopeless, but they were not, because they were still words that he was sharing with God.
A poet named Wendell Berry wrote, “The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence.” The poet went on to say that there is a difference between someone who shares their despair with another person and a person who can only admit it to themselves. As long as Job kept ranting and raving, he held onto hope. You have all experienced that with yourselves or another. When you stop hearing from someone, that is when you worry. When you find yourself withdrawing from others, that is when there is cause for concern. While Job’s friends are often criticized for their obnoxious lectures, at least they were present. They were there.
The last line of our reading is Job saying, “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face.” Many read this as Job giving up, finally admitting defeat. He was asking for death. Or….it was something else. Job’s friend said that Job had accused God of being cloaked in darkness, of hiding in the darkness. Perhaps what Job is saying here is that if God is indeed in the darkness, then that is where he needs to go to find God. If the only way he can find God is by vanishing into the darkness, than that is what he will do. Does that sound like giving up to you? It’s desperate, but it is not giving up. Hope and desperation have a lot more in common that we can imagine.
Eventually God does appear to Job. That is our reading for next week and I don’t want to spoil anything. But suffice it to say, it turns out God was there the whole time and heard everything Job and his friends were saying. That does not come until chapter 38! All of the horrible things happened to Job in chapter 1. We can assume that Job did a lot of praying, pleading, whining, yelling, begging, crying and moping during that time. He had to go through a great deal before he could meet God face to face.
This past few months we have been inundated with stories of shootings, children washing up dead on beaches, historic flooding and droughts….just to name a few. There are reasons for some of these things, but they are not necessarily reasons that we can agree on. Asking why won’t get us anywhere. What we need to start asking is where. Where is God in all of this? And if we can’t find God in these places of heartbreak and heartache, that means we need to look harder. Not only that, we can become the signs of God’s presence. We need to stand up and let the world know that we are the hands and feet of God. God gave us this world for which we are stewards. A steward takes care of the land when the owner is away. We should be taking care of this land and in doing so, we take care of one another.
The world is in darkness and we carry the light. Perhaps the answer is not what matters, as much as the question itself. Because as long as we keep asking, we are searching and we are caring. Job’s friends told him to stop searching and arguing and give up. That was bad advice. God wants us to continue to question injustice wherever we see it, to search for God in the rubbles of the wars that we have waged. God wants us to raise our voices and not be satisfied with platitudes and easy answers. There are no easy answers. There are hard questions and when we stop asking them, then we’ve really given up. Now is not the time to give up. If the darkness surrounds us, then we get our light and we wade into the darkness. If enough of us do that, it won’t be darkness for much longer.