The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27), Year C
“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”Job 19:23-27a
My friends It has begun. The time is upon us. Like a thief in the night it has arrived, and we were not awake. We did not keep our lamps lit so we were not ready. So now we must face the onslaught. I’m speaking of course about the arrival of Christmas decorations. I was at Walmart a month or so ago and they were up before the Halloween supplies were on display. This was a blasphemy so stark and severe that the world had to know. I did what any responsible citizen would do: I got out my phone, took a picture, and posted on online lamenting the death of Thanksgiving and the capitalist hijacking of Christian tradition. When I got home, I saw that many people commented in agreement with me. Many were outraged by the corporate culture, and a few were outraged by the hypocrisy of being outraged at corporate culture while using a service built on advertising revenue. All in all, it was a productive day. It is a lot of work keeping the moral high ground after all. You must be cynical enough to know that nothing you do matters while also making sure everyone knows you’re outraged by the things you are supposed to be outraged by. You must be moral, but not too moral because that is simply not possible.
Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the outrage of a man who was too moral: Job. Job has always been somewhat problematic for us as he represents a theological problem that we are no better equipped to solve than Job himself was 3,000 years ago. In Job we have a man who was morally upright in every way. He took care of his family, held no grudges, looked after the orphans and widows, everything. Even though he is a foreigner, being in the land of Uz, the author paints him as better following in the Law than any Israelite. Then out of nowhere he loses everything. His wealth, his family, his health, everything. He survives only with his life. We as the audience know that Job is the victim of a divine wager, but he and his friends have no idea the cause of Job’s suffering.
Job is remarkably pious and patient until his “friends” arrive. Job’s friends try to comfort him in the way they know best: offering traditional wisdom. What their culture has taught them is that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. Their argument is best summarized in Psalm 37 “Mark the blameless, and behold the upright. For there is posterity for the peaceable”. This mindset leads to one conclusion: if Job is suffering, he must deserve it. Over and over again Job’s friends blame him for his suffering, reminding us all too clearly that the culture of victim-blaming is by no means new or unique.
Let’s take a moment to offer Job the wisdom of our culture, surely with our scholarship and progress we can do better than his friends? You can get your cards out to play sermon BINGO now. “Obviously you are a sinner Job. Even thinking that you can be innocent is a sin, therefore you actually do deserve the suffering, God is angry at all our sins”. “Job, you’re the victim of a system outside of your control. You should raise awareness about how broken the system is”. “Job, you didn’t diversify your assets. You kept everything in one place and that’s why you lost it all at once”. “Job, God works in mysterious ways, we just have to accept when He gives us good and bad things”. “Job, we live in a broken Creation, but don’t worry, God will fix everything eventually”. “Stuff happens Job. There is nothing we can do about it except try to pick up the pieces and move on”.
Here’s what we offer Job in this wisdom, either “it is actually your fault, no one is really that moral” or “it’s not your fault, we are all powerless in the face of the larger structures encircling us”. Essentially, the wisdom of our culture offers him victim-blaming, or utter human weakness.
All such cultural wisdom does not satisfy Job’s predicament. In the dialog he becomes more and more angry. And our verse finds us at the height of his outrage. This chapter, about half-way through the book, is when Job realizes that his culture and its wisdom has failed him. “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?… Even when I cry out ‘Violence!’ I am not answered; I called aloud but there is no justice.” He goes on to show how everything is wrong, servants aren’t answering when called, his friends and family abhor him, everything is out of joint. Then comes our passage, “For I know that my redeemer lives”. Thank God! We’ve found the way out of this mess! Any flippant Sunday School student can tell you the answer is Jesus!
But something isn’t quite right, if the answer is right here, why are there twenty more chapters? Why is God still so painfully silent? Another look at the passage reveals some startling footnotes, first and foremost, “redeemer” isn’t the only translation of the Hebrew word. Defender, Vindicator, or Avenger are equal candidates for translation. Job doesn’t appear to be suddenly praising God, he’s arguing that he is innocent and one day, his vindicator will come and show everyone (including God) that his suffering was undeserved.
But this flies in the face of how we use this passage! Cultural Christianity understands this passage as explained in Handel’s Messiah: “I know my redeemer liveth” “Christ has risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep”. It’s so much cleaner that way. Jesus advocates for Job and sets everything right. It’s this very problem that shows the wisdom of the Book of Job. Job’s case, and his reaction to it are very problematic for our cultural understanding of Christianity. In our culture, Christianity is supposed to be this neat “get out of hell free” and “be nice to everybody” faith. Cultural Christianity serves political goals, easy answers, and platitudes. Cultural Christianity puts out Christmas decorations two months in advance to expand its profit margins. Our cultural wisdom tells us to run and find like-minded people to vindicate us when we are outraged. Our cultural wisdom tells us we are powerless in the face of unjust suffering that all we can do is wait and complain until Jesus comes back to fix everything for us.
Job rejects the easy answers his culture provides him, and after this point only appeals to work through his situation with God directly. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will tell you that God doesn’t get mad at Job for arguing with Him.
But where does this leave us? How does this strange story of an innocent man’s suffering, anger, and rejection of his culture’s wisdom speak the Good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Knowing that Job wasn’t talking about Christ are we able to use his words with integrity? They have brought comfort to those burying the dead, and joy in song, we can’t just throw them away. Thankfully, we don’t have to. Job’s words show that we can struggle with faith without departing from it. This means that we don’t have to accept everything as it is presented to us. Jesus is the prime example of this principle. Jesus, like Job, suffered innocently and rejected his culture’s wisdom. But Jesus goes further than Job can, Jesus’ resurrection shows that a broken world can be sanctified. In light of Jesus’ resurrection, Job’s words can be sanctified. The reality of Christ adds another dimension to them; when Job spoke them they were an angry challenge, now when we speak them they reflect our understanding of Jesus as our Redeemer. Both uses are equally true.
Jesus’ resurrection sanctifies more than Job’s words. With Jesus, we can sanctify our culture. We don’t have to accept the cynicism, powerless, and commercialism that has tainted Cultural Christianity. If we begin not with the wisdom of the culture, but the struggle of an intensely beloved faith, we can resist our shared temptations and make a better world. We are called to a more mature relationship with God; one filled with dark nights of the soul and equally bright days of comfort and joy. It is possible because we never struggle alone, God is with us every step of the way, “For I know that our Redeemer lives”.