by David Baer, August 28, 2016
Text: Job 42:7-17
Everybody loves a happy ending! I know I’ve told you here about how I got hooked on the series Downton Abbey, which follows the people who live in one of England’s great houses through the nineteen-teens and twenties. The creator of that series, Julian Fellowes, is incredibly gifted at creating characters whose stories unfold over many episodes. At the start of the series, there’s a low-ranking servant in the house named Thomas Barrow, who is a malicious schemer, always looking to cause trouble for others to his own advantage. Thomas’s blackmail, gossip, and manipulation drive many of the compelling stories of the series. But the picture of this character softens over the years, and you start to feel sorry for a man who is deeply lonely and unhappy. Having burned all his bridges at Downton, Thomas takes a job at another, smaller house, but he’s even more lonely there. In the series finale, Carson, the longtime butler at Downton, experiences as health crisis, and Thomas, having learned the value of all the relationships he enjoyed at Downton and ready for a new beginning, comes back to replace Carson, who retires with a pension and is allowed to continue living on the estate. It’s one of many happy endings in this episode, tied up with a neat little bow. The lady’s maid Anna, who has been trying for years to have a child without success, gives birth. Edith, the family’s chronically unhappy middle daughter, gets married and finally has her moment in the sun. Everybody loves a happy ending, and Julian Fellowes is happy to oblige, even if it comes across as a little bit forced.
This summer we’ve been looking at the book of Job, a story about a man who loses everything. We’ve been holding it alongside our own lives, where we’re all too aware of bad things that happen for no reason, to us and to people we care about. How do you relate to someone who is suffering? How do you relate to a God who seems to be absent or uncaring?
Job cried out to God, lamenting and protesting all that had happened to him. We saw that this kind of prayer fits with a rich tradition of Biblical figures who confronted God, especially in the Old Testament, and we saw that we too can come to God with our anger, confusion, and frustration.
Job didn’t get the answers to all his questions, but his cries provoked God to show up. And God took him on a tour of creation—a wild, savage universe full of danger, but also goodness and beauty. God spoke from a whirlwind words that helped show that our stories are part of a much bigger picture, and sometimes we benefit from not putting ourselves at the center of the story. In any case, what mattered to Job was that God showed up. Last week we heard him responding to God with these words, “I had heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” He withdrew his complaint and put away his dust and ashes.
And then God gave him the happy ending. God restored Job’s fortunes. He had double the wealth he had had in the past. After the loss of his children, more children were given to him and his wife. And Job lived out a long and satisfying life. Goodness knows, Job deserved a happy ending. But I have to say, I feel about this happy ending the same way I felt about the ending to Downton Abbey. It sounds a bit forced. What does it mean, after all, that this book of the Bible has hammered home the point for 41 chapters that good people often suffer for no reason, if everything turns out OK in the end? What’s the message of the book of Job, ending as it does? “Grey skies are gonna clear up / Put on a happy face”? I don’t think that’s it. It would be simplistic and insulting to us as real-life hearers of the word if that was the intended message of the book. So I’m going to ask us not to get too caught up in the happy ending. It’s there to satisfy our sense that wrongs have to be righted, injustices addressed. It’s there to make us feel better about the story. But the meaning of the book of Job isn’t found in the happy ending.
So let’s look at Job himself. How does he emerge from his time of hurt and confusion into the happy ending? How has he been changed?
Let’s start with his friends, and his relationship with them. Job’s friends have been a constant presence with him throughout his struggles, and they’re still here. They haven’t exactly been helpful. They’ve been trying to convince Job that he must have done something to deserve what happened to him. And they explain themselves with sophisticated theological theories that are quite brilliant and also completely worthless. Job doesn’t want his friends to explain why what is happening to him is OK, or why it makes sense, as if that would make it better. He wants them just to be there and bear witness as he rages about the hurt and the unfairness and the confusion he’s experiencing.
So now God turns to the friends. “I’m angry with you,” God says, “because you, with all your brilliant theories, were wrong about me.” God doesn’t need pious defenders. God doesn’t need human advocates to explain to people who are hurting why it’s OK that God has done this or allowed it to happen to them.
This past week we’ve seen an earthquake in Italy and more devastation from floods in Louisiana. When things like this happen, often some pious soul will take to the airwaves to explain why a natural disaster was caused by the supposedly immoral people who lived in the affected area, and that it all makes sense, it’s all just, it’s all fair and right because God is punishing them for their sins. Next time you hear something like that, remember what God says to Job’s friends: “My wrath is kindled against you!” God rejects the efforts of those who try to make sense of the senseless, who try to justify other people’s pain. When people are hurting, don’t try to explain it. Don’t talk about why it’s OK. Just attend, listen, and lend a hand, if it’s in your power to lighten their burdens.
So God tells Job’s friends that they need to seek God’s forgiveness. Job had previously made it his practice to intercede with God for the people in his life, and now he does it again, offering prayers on behalf of the friends who had let him down. Think about that for a moment. After all these folks have put him through, Job helps them receive God’s forgiveness. Where others might have become bitter or vindictive, Job shows mercy and magnanimity. Why do you suppose that is? I want you to ponder that for a moment while we turn to the other remarkable piece of the ending.
The story tells us that Job had seven sons and three daughters. Let’s just pause and reflect on how amazing that is in itself. After the pain of losing all of his children, Job and his wife open themselves to receiving more children, with no guarantees about their safety. Job has not become fearful about the future, which you might have expected. The world God made is savage, wild, and beautiful, and we live in it most fully when we open ourselves, as Job did, to loving others in their fragility, and out of our own vulnerability and mortality. My most enduring memory of my children’s birth is of holding their tiny hands as they took their first breaths, knowing that a day will come when we will hold hands again as one of us—me, I hope, at the end of a long and full life!—breathes our last. But the time given to us in between those moments is meant for loving each other fiercely and well, precisely because that time doesn’t last forever. Job embraces the gift of his new children.
The Job that emerges from suffering is a different Job. The story makes a point of naming Job’s daughters and telling us they received an inheritance along with their brothers. In fact, the story draws extra attention to Job’s daughters by naming them—Jemimah, Keziah, Keren-happuch, even as it skips over the names of Job’s sons. That may not shock us, but it would have shocked people in the ancient world. In that culture, women didn’t own property—they were property, or close to it. But not Job’s daughters. It seems as though Job’s experience has enlarged his moral imagination, even though we’re not told exactly how. As someone who suffered injustice, he does everything in his power to lighten the burdens of injustice carried by others.
Job embraces life’s gifts because he knows how fragile life is. Job eases others’ burdens because he knows what it’s like to be burdened himself. Perhaps that’s why he’s inclined to ask God to forgive his friends, rather than let them suffer the consequences of defaming God with their ill-considered words. A friend of mine who experienced loss and grief began to say, “Life is literally too short!” Too short, that is, for grasping tightly to grudges, too short for neglecting the people we care about, too short not to free others to be who they were created to be.
We all love happy endings. But God isn’t so much in the business of happy endings so much as God is in the business of new stories. God didn’t send an army of angels to knock Jesus off the cross and rout the Romans. God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. God isn’t in the business of rescue, but resurrection. Just as with Job, God is at work in your story, free and untamed, working new possibilities that are beyond your imagination. God is at work helping you to grow from your suffering into a life that blesses and frees others. May the living God bless you with a new story. Amen.