Daring to Live Again
A sermon on Job 42:1-6, 10-17
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Samuel Clara on Unsplash.]
Last month, my son, Quinn, used the Cinderella fairy tale to help us all to better understand the story of Esther, drawing our attention to the contrast between Cinderella’s “happily ever after” that resulted from marrying her prince, compared with Esther’s crisis that came after her royal wedding.
If I can be a bragging mom for a second, it was a great sermon! And I think I have a legitimate basis for that praise, because part of what makes a good sermon is when it makes the listeners think. And Quinn made me take a more critical look at the rather over-used idea of “happily ever after.”
We all know it’s a trite idea, but we are also conditioned to sort of assume that is the goal – if we can just fix our current problems then we will be happy, right?
Maybe not. I don’t think it actually works that way. No matter what miracles occur, and what joys lie ahead, they cannot simply erase what has come before.
That is why my first instinct is to cringe back from the epilogue of the book of Job.
We have spent the last four weeks (and 41 chapters) sharing Job’s frustration and empathizing with his suffering.
We have witnessed the injustice of loss piled on loss, for a man who was righteous before God.
We have shuddered at the callous judgment of his so-called friends, who insisted he must be to blame for all that he had endured.
We cheered him when he argued his innocence without rejecting God’s justice.
And we learned with him that even the righteous sometimes need a lesson in humility, when God reminded him that only the Creator of the universe is in a position to say how that universe is supposed to work.
It has been a deep and challenging journey, full of reorienting lessons… and then we get a “happily ever after” ending?
“Job was humble before God, and so God restored everything that he had before, only more, and he had seven more sons and three more daughters, so he was happy.”
A restoration of a blessed life doesn’t just cancel out everything that happened to Job and make it not matter.
The chance to love new children cannot just erase the deep grief for those who were lost.
If the point of this story is that Job got a “happily ever after what about all the challenging, reorienting lessons of the first 41 chapters? Are they still even valid?
Commentator Debie Thomas shares my skepticism of the way this story ends with a nice, neat bow, and of the instinct inside us to want a final blessing to somehow cancel out the suffering.
She argues that, despite this instinct, a “truthful” interpretation of Job “requires us to sit with catastrophe and chaos, and find new life in their wake. It requires us to admit that sometimes we lose things and don’t get them back. It requires us to divorce our trust in God from the fairy tale expectation of “happily ever afters.””
But if the epilogue of the Book of Job is NOT about “happily ever after,” then what is it about?
I think we actually got a great hint from the introduction to todays reading (provided by our Lutheran liturgy resource). That introduction tells us that, after being humbled, Job “dares to live again.”
That’s definitely NOT a “happily ever after” statement, but what does it mean? What is it that Job has to “dare”, with fortunes restored and a flourishing family?
Actually, he has to dare quite a bit!
First, he has to dare to let go of his system for understanding the world.
Throughout the book, Job has been able to endure his suffering because he believes in the fundamental, unequivocal, mechanistic justice underpinning human existence.
He knows that he has lived a righteous life, and he therefore believes that he has earned the reward of blessing. His argument throughout the book is for a “hearing,” so that he can make his case and be vindicated.
But when God finally responds to his pleading, Job doesn’t get to present his argument. Instead, God tells Job that Job does not and cannot actually understand the rules of the universe.
The worldview Job has been clinging to as his source of strength and hope through his ordeal is a fallacy.
This loss might be the worst he endures in the whole book. It is the ultimate crisis that calls into question what he is even holding on to?
As I see it, he has two choices for how to respond to this final loss.
One option is despair.
It might sound extreme, but it is a real option. Nihilism is a philosophy that has appealed to plenty of people who have faced suffering, or even just possible evidence of meaninglessness.
After all, this was the path that Job’s wife recommended at the beginning of the story. “Curse God and die.” Give up on trying.
And, from a psychological perspective, this makes sense. It is a self-protective move. Because trust – even just the trust that life has meaning – is a risk.
But the other option is to let go of the old system of belief WITHOUT letting go of his trust in God.
(And, as a side note, this is the very thing Jesus will call the people to do when he comes announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God: “Repent and Believe.” Change your mind about what you have been trusting for meaning and security and trust Jesus instead.)
Although Job never heard of Jesus, this is the option he dares to take.
He let’s go of his system of belief and humbles himself in repentance before God.
This letting go is not in the style of that other fairy tale, where Queen Elsa asserts her independence and rejection of the fears that once controlled her.
There is no trust required by that kind of “letting go” (after all, the cold never bothered her anyway…)
Rather, Job’s letting go is much more daring because it is much more vulnerable.
It is the acknowledgement that he had been putting his faith in his own ability to meet the requirements of righteousness in order to protect himself, but that he now understands that’s not faith at all.
And despite everything that he has been through, he’s now willing to actually put his trust in God.
Even knowing that there are no guarantees. Even knowing that God owes him nothing.
Job dares to trust God, and in that trust, he “dares to live again,” to open himself to vulnerability in an uncertain world that has already failed him one.
He opens himself to friends.
Praying for those who have blamed him for his suffering; welcoming those who had abandoned him.
He opens himself to the responsibility of possessions.
Investing in the care for animals who can die; employing workers who can fail him.
And, perhaps most stunningly, Job opens himself again to parenthood.
This is an incredible risk, after all he has lost. And it also reflects how much Job’s experience has changed him.
As Debie Thomas explains:
“When we first meet Job, he is a careful and perhaps even fearful father, a man who covers all bases and secures God’s protection for his family by even praying for his children’s possible sins. … The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again. How can he open himself again to the terrible vulnerability of loving those whom he cannot protect against suffering and untimely death?
“When we last see Job, he is lavishly loving his new children, breaking social custom to give his daughters as well as his sons inheritances, and naming his three beautiful girls with almost mischievous delight: Dove, Cinnamon, and Horn of Eye-Shadow. In other words, when we last see Job, he is choosing life. Choosing courage. Choosing to open his heart to love what he cannot control.”
I think, ultimately, this is the challenge for us in the Book of Job – the question of whether we can replace our longing for “happily ever after” with the willingness to love what we cannot control.
We have all suffered, to varying degrees, over the course of the pandemic. Although probably not to the level of Job’s experience, we have all endured hardship and pain that we did not ask for or deserve.
And the temptation in such experiences can be to long for an ending that “makes up” for it all, and a release that erases everything we have been through.
Or, such experiences can drive us into a self-protective mode that clings all the more tightly to the things that we want to believe will make us invulnerable.
But we have another choice. We too can choose courage. We can choose trust. We can choose to be changed by what we have suffered and open our hearts to love even more than we did before. Thanks be to God.