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 When The Usual Wisdom Doesn’t Work
a sermon based on Job
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Walter Brueggemann once described the lament psalms in three words: orientation, disorientation, reorientation.  That’s a good way to think about the book of Job—and especially this morning’s lesson in Job 23. 

Orientation is when life is serene and ordered.  Everything seems to be going along without a hitch.  Life is manageable and perhaps we’re even coasting on autopilot.  Then it happens.   It comes unexpectedly and with such ill timing.  Just when we’ve gotten over the divorce, gotten that last tuition payment sent in, bought the motor home, gotten the promotion, or settled on retirement next year.  Disorientation whacks us aside the head.  Disorientation turns life on its head, throws us into confusion and chaos.   Everything we’ve ever valued and worked for suddenly shrinks gnat-size and our priority list gets trashed.  We now view life very differently and with a new set of questions to try to help us make sense of this horrible turn of events.  Our theologian finally comes to the rescue by suggesting a third phase.   Reorientation.  We’re back to where we started – sort of.  We’re once again in a more tranquil state and the immediate crisis is over.  But we’ll never really be the same again.  What has happened to us between orientation and reorientation will mark us; it will change our perceptions of life.

            So the orientation/disorientation/reorientation model of human experience is an excellent way with which to reflect on the story of Job. 

 

 

Orientation

 

 

The opening lines of the book tell us much about the character Job.  His mailing address is “Job from the land of Uz.”   Uz is a land linked with Edom, the famed center of wisdom.  The use of numbers in Job’s life indicates a perfect balance of resources.  The numbers three, five, seven, and ten, suggest fullness and perfection.  He even has the right mix of kids—seven sons and three daughters.  The seven sons will generate seven moneymaking dowries so that the three daughters will not bring any financial hardship. 

Job’s resume is equally impressive—he is blameless, upright, fears God and avoids evil.  Job has apparently made an important choice in life:  he has chosen the higher road, the road less traveled.  He has cultivated righteousness as a virtue over a lifetime.  So conscientious is Job to atone for sin that he will even offer sacrifices for his children after their parties whether they need it or not, just to ensure that he and his whole family remains in right standing with God. 

 But Job didn’t keep his faith and devotion in some worship museum for viewing only, he puts his faith where his mouth is.  He has the reputation around town as being “a good man.”  That means that Job is not afraid to be authentic—to connect what he believes with how he lives.   

            What was Job’s WIIFM?  That’s the question lurking at the edge of our thoughts in most of our undertakings.  “Whatsinitforme?”  Living the God-filled, God-devoted life has its advantages, it seems.  At least that was believed by Job and the ancient world’s theology.   What advantages might Job’s faithful life have given him over others?    Well, consider Job’s status and economics.    He is blessed with a quiver full of kids – seven boys and three daughters.   Such a large family has fallen out of fashion in our own 21st century among some cultures, but among the ancients, the larger family, the more apparent that God had blessed the parents.  So the writer intimates that Job is rewarded for his faithfulness and good life seven times over. 

His large family gives him status.  But the real head turner is his wealth.  The writer says of Job that he owns seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, one thousand head of cattle, and five hundred donkeys, plus several hundred servants to ensure that supper would be served on time.  That’s roughly equivalent to a modern Middle East sheik that has made billions dollars in oil.  Or maybe Job might be a modern equivalent of Bill Gates.   The point:  Job is seriously wealthy.  He is Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Allen Iverson rolled into a single man.  And just in case you think I’m fabricating here, the writer sums Job’s portfolio up with the phrase, “[Job] was the richest man in the East.”  In short, the opening chapter depicts a man without fault.  That’s orientation – when everything is turning up roses and life can’t get any better and you know that you’re living the life that God blesses.

 

 

Disorientation

 

 

Actually, the blueprint disorientation comes from the heavenly drawing room.  And it comes as a result of a conversation.  The writer now takes us up to a meeting in some heavenly place, though Job has no clue about this meeting (nor will he ever know about the meeting).   There, up in heaven, an unusual conversation ensues between God and a supernatural being who apparently had the responsibility of roaming and patrolling the earth.

 

“Hey, Satan, what’ve you been up to lately?”

“O, same old, same old – roaming here and there on the earth.”

“Really?  Then you might have noticed my servant Job—he’s as faithful as they come, a good fellow.  He worships me and takes care not to do anything to offend me.”

“Why that’s quite interesting.  I mean you’re right, of course.  But . . .”

“But what . . .”

“Well, I was just wondering what would happen to your good fellow if you removed his motivation.  I mean, how hard is it for these humans to worship you if you protect and bless their lives all the time.   The man’s wealthy, healthy, and has ten kids for heaven’s sake.  So I was just wondering what would happen if you just took everything away from him.  My suspicion is that he would curse you to your face!”

“Alright, consider it done; just don’t kill him.” 

 

And it was done all right – Job lost everything.  Every last one of his children.  Every last one of his livestock.  Every last one of his servants—except the ones who had escaped to tell him the bad news.

At the next heavenly meeting, God picks up the conversation where they left off . . .

 

“Hey, Satan, what’ve you been up to lately?”

“O, same old, same old – roaming here and there on the earth.”

“Really?  Then you might have noticed my servant Job—he’s as faithful as they come, a good fellow.  He worships me and takes care not to do anything to offend me.   Even your attack did not phase his devotion to me.”

“Well, okay then.  I’ll grant you that much.  But right now he’s just thankful to be alive; of course he worships you.  But just you poke his body with disease, and then he will curse you eyeball to eyeball!”

“Alright, consider it done; just don’t kill him.”

 

Without understanding why, Job experiences “disorientation;” he suffers the total reversal of his entire fortune and family.  Adding insult to injury, Job now suffers painful boils over his body.  More disorientation.  Job the Fortune 500 success story, Job the role model for parents, Job the landowner and rancher now sits abandoned by a village landfill.  There, amidst the rusted appliances, soiled diapers and rotten food, Job scraps ooze from his sores.  So shocked by their sudden reversal of fortunes, his life companion suggests that he do precisely what Satan had predicted he would do.  She says to her husband, “A lot of good your good living has gotten you.  What a joke are, Job!  Why don’t you just curse God and roll over and die.”

To put Job’s dilemma in modern verse, it might sound something like this:

 

It’s easy enough to be happy,

When life flows along like a song.

But the one worthwhile,

Is the one who can smile,

When everything goes dead wrong.

 

So Job sits for seven days and seven nights.  The period of mourning when someone dies.  Now come Job’s railings and bitter remarks.  He wants God to move time backward—so that his birth can be reversed.   He wishes he were stillborn.   Job follows the formula of the curse, but he has no authority to call for the reversal of creation.  He uses the word qalal, which means, “do diminish,” which is what a curse is designed to do—to diminish us.   Job feels suffering so acutely that though he has previously rebuked his wife for suggesting death as a way out, he now pleads for it himself.  To mention just a few of Job’s dialogues, he perceives himself as defenseless, the victim of God’s attacks, with no human support and no recourse.  Life has become extremely burdensome—full of misery and trouble (7:6-7, 16; 9:25-26; 10:20; 14:2-22).  Finally, Job insists that everything that he has suffered he has suffered at the hand of God (19:6-21; 27:2).  

Job blames God for his misfortunes and struggles with the thought that his creator has become his destroyer (10:8-11).  But he seems to be confident even in his suffering that God knows that he, Job, is righteous; he believes that he will emerge from this trial like refined gold (23:10). 

 

 

Reorientation

 

 

   

We now zip to the end of the story. God speaks to the situation of Job’s suffering vis--vis conventional wisdom’s “answers” to explain such suffering.   God offers no specific answers and instead questions Job about the mysteries of creation.   Job’s responses to God’s questions reveal a person who has come out of disorientation, yet changed.  Job has reached a new level of comprehension.

What does Job learn about God?  Job had thought that God was somehow bound to the same laws as he.  Thus, he had charged that God was guilty of injustice, or not being fair.   But Job now discovers that God does not confine God’s Self to the same realities, as he understands.

What does Job learn about himself?  Job is not responsible for his suffering or misfortunes.  These reversals have not come upon him because he was less loving, less faithful, less obedient, less believing than others.  In this case, he was victimized precisely because he was so faithful.  Secondly, he now understands that his theologies and knowledge about God and creation is limited; indeed, he has spoken without understanding.

The final discovery Job makes comes from his encounter with God (42:5-6).  This experience has opened his eyes and transformed his heart.   He now recognizes God’s sovereignty in the universe and, presumably, in the events of his own life.  He no longer protests the circumstances of his existence but resigns himself to the modest yet remarkable condition of a mortal human being (42:6).  Job in the end has come full circle.  Once again he enjoys a fabulous relationship with God (42:7).  As he did for his children at the beginning, so at the end he once again becomes the intermediary, offering sacrifices on behalf of his friends.   As at the beginning so at the end, he is blessed with family and land and possessions. 

But this is not the same man that we met in the prologue.  Job has emerged from his ordeal transformed.  There is no indication that he ever discovered the reason for his affliction, yet he seems satisfied.  He had been treated insensitively by his visitors, yet without a word he intercedes for them in their need.  He had denounced faithless companions, and now he pays host to his fair-weather family and friends.  Here is a man who has risen above egocentric inclinations.  

May God help us to remember Job as we enter our own times of orientation, disorientation, reorientations when the traditional wisdom just doesn’t work.  And may we also like Job, draw from a deep place in our soul place when we don’t have all the answers and God has absconded the courage to say, “Though he slay me, yet shall I trust him.  Amen.



[1] This address was delivered to the students at Latvija Theoogical Seminary in Riga, Latvia, 2002.