Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?
Sermon 1 in the Book of Job Series
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Job 1:1 - 2:13
Imagine the most luxurious boardroom in existence. The floor is laid in patterned marble or maybe in the most expensive carpet your feet have ever felt. The seats are amazingly comfortable. The huge table is rich mahogany with deep grain. The light fixtures might be made of diamonds, from the way the light glistens and shines. The room is so well lit that everything almost glows. The view from the windows is spectacular. You could be on one of the top floors in a sky scraper in Manhattan. Or you might be even higher than that.
What we are imagining the scene of a meeting of the divine council. It’s a kind of cabinet meeting where God presides and hears reports and takes questions and gives directions to other beings. Those other beings are not human, so I guess we wouldn’t actually be there would we? Those other beings are either angels or lesser gods, depending on which ancient Near Eastern religion you’re following.
This is the scene at the beginning of the book of Job. I don’t know about you, but that is not usually how I picture heaven. It’s not usually how I picture God conducting business. I point this out as a reminder that the book of Job comes from a very different time than ours, some 2500 years ago. It embodies a world view very different from ours. Today we begin a 4-part exploration of this book and I think it is important to say at the beginning that this is not an easy book to understand. It asks some questions that people have probably been asking from the beginning of human existence and which we are still asking. For that reason and because it is part of Holy Scripture, it is worth our attention. But we cannot simply put our twenty-first century selves into the text and expect it to make sense. That’s true of any Biblical text, of course, but especially true with this one.
What I have to offer today is more Bible study than sermon. I hope it will set up a foundation for the next three sermons and also will start us thinking theologically.
Let’s begin with identifying the kind of literature we’re dealing with. If we read a story that began “once upon a time” we understand that this story was a fairy tale. In contrast, if we read these words, “By 1776, the 13 American colonies had been in existence for over 150 years . . .”, we would know that this document is focused on a real time and a real place. Well, the story of Job is not a fairy tale, but it is not history either. This is a story told to explain something or to explore something, a story told to make a point, or since it is such a long story, probably to make more than one point.
We might think of Jesus telling parables. The truth of his parables does not depend on whether they really happened. The truth of the story about the man with two sons is about the love of the father for both of them. Jesus can say that God loves like that regardless of whether Jesus actually knew a human man with sons who did what those sons did.
The same holds for Job and even more so. We are not reading history. We are not being asked to believe that the narrator witnessed the events in the heavenly board room. Most importantly, we are not being asked to believe that God is a sadistic being who plays around with people’s lives to test their faith. That is simply a plot device to set up the story.
The set-up involves three characters. The human being, Job, is the title character. He is a morally upright person, a man of integrity who is faithful to God. It is helpful to know that in Hebrew story-telling, the narrator can be trusted. So we don’t have to second-guess this description. If there is a plot-twist, it is not going to be that Job was really evil and only pretending to be good.
The non-human characters are God and one called Ha-Satan. Ha-Satan is not a name, but a title. It translates to “The Adversary” or “The Accuser”. Unfortunately, most English Bibles translate it simply as “Satan”. Most of us hear “Satan” and we think of the devil. If we are thinking Biblically, maybe we think of the devil who tempts Jesus in the wilderness. The devil who tempts Jesus in the wilderness is not the same entity as Ha-Satan in the book of Job. The concept of Satan or the devil evolves over time. By the time of the New Testament, the devil is thought of as a fallen angel, an entity completely independent from God and opposed to God. But back at the time of Job, the Adversary is one of God’s heavenly beings who works for God and acts only with God’s permission.
To add to the confusion, some contemporary Christians use the term “Adversary” for the devil. One scholar describes Ha-Satan in this way, “The accusing angel is a subordinate of God, a member of the divine court who defend’s God’s honor by exposing those who pose a threat to it. In that sense he is not God’s adversary, but the adversary of sinful or corrupt human beings.”
So the story is set up like this: Ha-Satan reports in at the heavenly board meeting. God says, “in your travels, have you noticed my man Job? Isn’t he great?” Ha-Satan says, “Of course, he is great. You have pampered him with everything he could ever want.” So God says, “OK, let’s try something. You can take away all the stuff he’s got, just don’t hurt him.” Notice that his children are included in his stuff, another reflection of his worldview that is different from ours. So, Ha-Satan takes everything, everything from Job, except his wife and his health. And Job remains faithful. So God and Ha-Satan talk it over again and this time, God allows Ha-Satan to strip Job of his health. But still Job does not go against God.
This depiction of God and Ha-Satan may be necessary for the rest of the story to work, but just as an aside, I’m beginning to wonder about this Ha-Satan guy. He seems a little over-zealous to me. Almost as if he had exposed all the legitimate threats to God’s honor among humans and so he had to try to corrupt a good guy for the sake of his own job security. It makes me think of a certain kind of moralizing person who keeps defining the rules more and more tightly so that eventually they get broken, and then that person says, “Ah ha! I knew you were immoral!”
Job has lost his wealth and his family, and his health is broken. It all happens so quickly. He has no time to absorb the first piece of bad news before the next messenger arrives to inform him of more tragedy. He had the perfect life one moment and in the next, it had been completely wiped out. This is the point at which we might expect a person to ask the why question.
The primary why question is “why is this happening to me?” Other why questions sometimes follow:
Why do innocent people suffer?
Why is there so much evil in the world?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
That last one is close to the title of the very popular book by Rabbi Kushner When Bad Things Happen to Good People which was first published over 30 years ago. I think that the Book of Job is an ancient attempt to answer the why questions. Having read this book over the last couple of months, it doesn’t seem to me that Job gets answers. I think he mostly just changes his questions, but we shall have to see.
In this first part, the primary question is the one being asked by Ha-Satan. His question is whether Job loves God only because of what God has done for him. He proposes the test as a way to find out.
Perhaps that is a question we should ask ourselves. Do we love God for what we get out of the relationship? Do we love God for who God is? What if we were in Job’s shoes? What would we say about why we love or trust God?
Maybe trusting God gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. Even when we aren’t sure what the purpose of human existence is, we trust that God does have one.
For some people, belief in God provides a moral structure, a code for human behavior. Others rightly say that even atheists are moral. But many would say that their love for God empowers their own goodness.
Others have come to believe that there is a Higher Power, a force greater than us, beyond us, and somehow that belief enables us to endure suffering and loss and even pain that is of our own making.
Many of us would have the audacity to claim a personal relationship with God. A relationship that is definitely not between equals and yet somehow is one of love and grace and deep trust.
Another question is not part of the set-up in the text. It is a question that I asked after reading it. It occurs to me that Ha-Satan is supposed to be defending God. He is supposed to find the evil or corrupt humans. That is his job. He’s probably good at it. But what we know is that God keeps defending Job against Ha-Satan. God keeps believing in him. Job doesn’t know that of course. So that makes me wonder – what if God believes in us like that? What if right now, God is saying, “Have you considered my servant Audrey? . . . my servant Michael . . . my servant Nancy?” What if we believed that God believes in us like God believed in Job? How would it change our faith in ourselves?
Those are two or three questions to take into the week with us. Do we love God? And if we do, why do we? And then, what if we could trust that God believes in us like God believes in Job?
Chapter two ends with Job’s friends sitting with him in silence for seven days. That is the best thing they do in the whole book!
So let me invite us to sit with this story for the next week. Feel free to read ahead. Read the whole book. Or if you prefer, read through chapter 19 which we will look at together next Sunday. In the meantime, may we attempt to say with Job “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Amen.