God Will Be in the Midst

Job 42: 1-6

Rev. Tricia Dillon Thomas
Pastor to Youth & Families
Peace Presbyterian Church

What an amazing Sunday last week was. I’ve had so many people from other congregations tell me how moved they felt during the birth of our church. And me, too. Oh, what a Happy Day it was--I was filled with joy by the Holy Spirit. And then, during fellowship towards the end of the celebration, Elizabeth leans over to me and says, “You get to preach next week!” So here we are...and after a Sunday of joy, we have a Sunday on the harshness of this world.

We are told in Chapter 1 that Job was a righteous man: He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion. But Job lost everything caught in a duel between God and Satan.
Nevertheless Job blesses instead of cursing God. He sits all alone in the ashes just after his wife has called him a fool for not having cursed God. And Jobs three friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar come to be with him after hearing of the disaster. For the first week they just sit with him in silence and prayer, as they can see that Job is suffering immensely. But after a week of silence and still no relief from his symptoms, the friends, trying to find a way to relieve Job of his suffering, start to question the circumstances that could have led to such misfortune.

Job’s friends speak from a deep tradition where righteousness is rewarded and sinfulness is punished. Job knows that his reality speaks a different truth, and he wants to know why God has done these things to him. The debate with the friends takes up most of the book of job. They argue, Job defends, argue, defend, argue, defend.

Finally God enters into the conversation. God speaks out of the whirlwind, out of the chaos that is reflected in the chaos of Job’s life. After God speaks, this is how Job responds.

Then Job answered the LORD:
"I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
Gods asks: 'Who is this that hides counsel / without knowledge?'
Therefore / I have uttered / what I did not understand, //
things too wonderful for me, // which // I did not know.
God says: 'Hear, // and I will speak; // I will question you, //
and you // declare to me.'
I had heard of you // by the hearing of the ear, // but now // my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself, //
and repent // in dust // and ashes."

The word of the Lord . Thanks be to God.

My family gets together every year for a reunion, usually somewhere in Florida. Three summers ago, we did it in Savannah because my Grandmother had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and couldn’t travel. My family is loud…I mean loud—especially around meal time when all 20-30 of us try to eat dinner together in a single condo unit. I was at a table with 8 or 9 female relatives. We were talking about some of my experiences in school, working in churches, serving as a Chaplain at a hospital, when Tammy a cousin of mine asks, “Tricia, why do you think bad things happen to people? Why do you think people suffer?” The table got quiet. In fact the whole room got quite. I really can’t explain how hard it is for that to happen in my family. But you see, Tammy, a beautiful woman in her early forties, was sitting there with a scarf around her bald head as she held her three year old daughter in her lap.

Tammy had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before, had undergone chemotherapy, and had had one of her breasts removed. She had every right to ask that question. And sitting beside Tammy was my grandmother. Newly diagnosed with cancer that we knew was treatable, but not curable. And my mother was also there. My Aunt Betty, who lost her mother when she was only 14 years old, was also sitting at the table. And my cousin Joanne, who’s own mother died of cancer just a few years before and had also watched her father, succumb to Alzheimer’s not even a year earlier. So the room got quiet. Real quiet. Because the question wasn’t funny. Because of the status of health in my family at the time, I imagine it was a question that most of us had been breathing for the past couple of months.

And what was I to say? I had no answer. So I said, “I don’t know. Why do you think people suffer?” She had an answer. Just like each one of Job’s friends, Tammy had an answer. So she told us. And to be honest, I didn’t like, but I realized it made sense. I couldn’t deny the truth that she shared, which was her story. My grandmother, however, shook her head, meaning no. Nope, Tammy’s answer didn’t work for Grandma. My mother argued on my grandma’s behalf. And you know what? I didn’t really agree with my mom’s answer either. But it was an answer that was reflective of my mother’s experiences. It spoke to her reality, and I couldn’t argue with it because it was her encounter with the Holy Spirit in her life. And I had an answer, too. It spoke to my truth. But none of us had an answer that was the end all answer to why people suffer. It’s why we were talking about it, seeing if each of our threads could be weaved into greater understanding.

The age old question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” didn’t start with Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, who wrote a book with that same title. It didn’t start with the Holocaust. Read Ecclesiastes, for that matter read The Prophets and much of the Old Testament, and you’ll see God’s people struggling with the meaning of their suffering. The Book of Job is based around this idea of the innocent suffering. One commentator on Job says biblical faith is not mature until it has faced the harshest realities of human experience clear-eyed and cold sober, as Job requires us to do. People who are serious about faith do not read this book at an arm’s distance.

Those of us who try to live our lives inside the Bible, like Job and his friends, we all base our understanding of God and suffering on what we’ve experienced, what we learned from our parents and Sunday school teachers growing up. Have you ever watched someone knit? That’s kind of what I imagine this to look like. Job and his friends, like many of us, have this fabric that is knit together in understanding. It is a fragile piece of weaved upon meanings, knitted together by shared experiences in the community. If you’ve ever watched a knitters hands, however, you can see that the knitting is always in danger of being unraveled, of coming undone when something doesn’t quite fit. But it is repaired, the thread that fell is picked up, and woven up again, and enlarged to reflect the community’s reality.

When the threads of language fall from the needle, the knitting begins to come undone. Job’s friends try to keep the piece together. But for Job, his experience tears this knitting into dust and ashes.

So Job takes God to court and demands to know what he’s done to be punished. When God finally speaks, God’s poetry speaks of the vast wildness of the animals, the chaos of the cosmos, the might and strength of beasts that only God and tame.

There is real suffering in the world. You’ve experienced it, I’ve experienced it.

The book of Job does not answer the question of why. I don’t know whether God was inflicting
Job, the only thing I know is that God was with Job. Job’s friends came, and they gave him no relief. But God’s presence did.

God creates a whole new fabric. God doesn’t answer Job using the language and understanding of Job and his friends. What God describes is a magnificent world where God is never absent, a place that is never beyond God’s power. In this new knitting God is the single strand of yarn that is woven around, under, above, and within. The only thing that picked Job off the floor was that Job became aware that God was the knitter.

God will be in the midst.

The New Testament speaks to God in the midst. It points to a God who is with us. Immanuel. Jesus Christ came to this world. Jesus Christ, innocent of all sin, suffered and died for us. But death did not have the last word. Because the story isn’t over with Jesus’ death. The story ends and begins again with his resurrection. When Jesus rose from the grave he defeated all those powers. The final word is a word of hope.

Christ commissioned this new church to be his presence in the world. To be the body of Christ. To celebrate the beauty of God’s love and share the good news of God’s grace. To sing praises and make merry, O Happy Days. But also to hold the hands of those who mourn. To witness to God, in the midst of suffering. As St. Teresa says, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours, no feet but yours.” So let us put our hope and our trust in God, who suffered for us, died for us, and rose for us, prays for us, and continues to reign in power over us. Amen.