Advent 1, 1 December 2013
When my wife Karen worked retail at TJ Maxx, the Christmas season was not her most wonderful time of the year. She did pick up some great stories about weird shopping behavior, but she could have used danger pay instead, and the stories weren’t so funny when they were actually happening – like the woman who knocked a clerk off a ladder, broke the clerk’s arm, then stepped over her on her way to more bargains. Yes, Christmas is a hard time of year for many people. That is why we will offer a Service of Remembrance for mourners next Saturday at 2 PM.
I imagine if Job lived in Hobart and knew about it he’d at least consider attending. Somehow it seems fitting that we begin Advent with Job. He reminds us of why Jesus came. We are realistic. We are not out to create visions of sugarplums to make everyone happy. Job reminds us of the gritty world God gets dirty with when he makes the decision to come.
We recall his story, of course. He’s the good and godly man whose faith in God was terribly tested by undeserved punishment: his kids died, he lost everything, he got sick . He was hurt terribly by the huge difference between what he expected and what he got. “So curse God and die,” his wife yelled at him. “After all you’ve done for him this is how he rewards you?” Well, Job called his wife foolish for talking that way. But he did curse the day of his birth and wish that he had been stillborn.
Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me, or the breasts that I should nurse?
For then I would have lain down and been quiet;
I would have slept; then I would have been at rest
with kings and counselors of the earth…or with princes who
had gold, who filled their houses with silver. …
There the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.
There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of
The small and the great are there; the slave is free from his master.
This is powerful, grimly beautiful poetry. And it is a rare person who has not felt this longing for the end, at least for a moment, even if you don’t do anything to make it happen. I know I’ve felt it. It does us good to come out and say so, because then folks who are at that place right now at least know they’re not alone. They’re in good company.
Job’s trouble is that he’s not in good company. While he’s still reeling from all the bad news, Dr. Phil and two friends come by to comfort him. Each has the same message: we know that bad things don’t happen to good people. You must have done something to cause this. Nowadays it would be bad diet or negative thoughts. Back then it was making God mad. How’s that working for you? Job, you want to be miserable. Just get it off your chest. Stop stonewalling, Cough it up and you’ll be fine. Well, in fairness, plenty of times we do in fact mess up our own lives, or at least find reasons for leaving them a mess.
But that is another sermon for another day. The point of Job is that his suffering wasn’t his fault, and there are loads of people who need to hear that. So many abuse victims have been told that it’s their fault, and they believe it. And when tragedy hits, the most natural thing in the world is to make some sort of sense of it all by finding how you caused it. If Job had been stillborn, chances are his mother would have beaten herself up
wondering what she did wrong to cause it.
Somehow it feels better to think that the world is at least fair, even if we get punished, than to live in a world where random awfulness strikes us down. And this is part of the challenge of Job: we do live in a world where sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to the awful things that happen. Tornadoes or a tsunami sweep your house away, some punk with an attitude plugs your brother – why? How do you live with that?
Job yells at God: you big bully, I wish there were an umpire to make you play fair. When will you show up and at least explain yourself! God does not take it badly when we cry out in pain.
And then, boom – right at the end God shows up and starts telling Job the stuff I read a few minutes ago. And the weird thing us, there is not one word of explanation in anything God says for why all that garbage happened to Job. Not one word. What is God telling us?
Here are two thoughts to take with us when it’s our turn to sit on the garbage heap with Job. First God shows up. And that does help. Why is it that when half the town has been flattened the president had better get there regardless of who the president is and what he does? We need to know that the guy in charge understands. It validates our dignity and the depth of our pain to know that we’re not abandoned. Christ does this.
But the final thought I offer as a gentle reminder. It is dangerous for us, even hurtful, when we allow our own suffering – no matter how great it may genuinely be – to be the yardstick by which we measure God and the universe. There are far greater and truer things going on than our suffering, and God yearns to draw us out into them, for this is how we find our peace and our salvation. God shows us the deep and powerful mystery of goodness: the mighty wisdom by which he sustains life even in places where his work is hidden from us. Beyond all our brokenness there is a strong and lasting order ordained by God.
We believe that his Son is the living embodiment of this life-nourishing wisdom, strength, sanity, peace. He is the living, breathing presence among us of all that is healthy, vibrant, healing. He it is that we await and long for as this Advent season begins.