Sunday, August 21, 2016

Happily Ever After

Job 42:7-17
August 21, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Today we come to the end of the book of Job. I’ve enjoyed this series, and I’m also glad it’s over! You too? You have been great to walk through this difficult book of the Bible together. The ending of Job is both satisfying and troubling. The satisfying part is that it ends with this kind of “happy ever after” and the troubling part is that it ends with this “happy ever after.” God has spoken to Job at last, and pointed out that Job’s understanding of God is as limited and finite as God is unlimited and infinite. Job agrees, and as he has throughout the story, trusts in God’s promise. Then, the friends come back into the picture, and everything Job has lost is restored to him. At first reading, we tend to say, “Oh, look, it all worked out okay.” But then on reflection we might say, “What? What kind of story is this?”

Let’s listen and be satisfied and troubled by God’s word for us today in Job:42-7-17
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite:
“My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”
9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer. 10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.
11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.
12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

And they all lived happily ever after. Every story that starts out “Once upon a time” ends this way, right? Well, not exactly. Little Red Riding Hood, in the original version, is eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

So here in this last chapter of Job, everything turns out all right. After God and Job are reconciled, God addresses Job’s friends, sharply rebuking Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite. Job prays for them, presumably interceding on their behalf, and God is reconciled to them. After Job prays for his friends, his fortunes are restored.

He had double the amount of money that he had before.
He had twice the number of livestock that he had before.
His family gathers around him with support, with gifts, with love.
And he gets seven more sons and three more daughters.

These daughters are so outstanding that they are not only given names – Jemimah, means "dove"; Keziah, means fragrant – like cinnamon, and Keren-Happuch, which means "cosmetics box” they are also given an inheritance, which must have been unusual at the time. (I suppose he kept the same wife, the one who suggested that he should curse God and die.)

Also, Job’s lifespan is now double the normal threescore years and ten –now he lives to be one hundred and forty years old. So, phew, there we go, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord, right? But wait – it is not all happy ever after!

Sure, you can replace a flock of sheep, or a pile of gold coins, or a house.
But to lose TEN children? And then get ten new ones?
“Here you go, Job – ten new kids. We’re all square then, right?”

Job loved his seven sons and three daughters. He delighted in them. I’m sure he loved the second set, too, but they weren’t replacements. It’s interesting to note that the laws of the Israelites required restitution after a theft – the thief had to repay double what was stolen. It’s also worth noting that the ending seems to imply that the friends were right when they said Job had done something wrong. This ending of the story, like the beginning, in the way it characterizes God, and humans, and their relationship, tells us more about humans than it does about God. When tragedy strikes, we want a happily ever after. We want everything back like it was.

But even this seemingly happy ending is not really so happy. Maybe the ever after is not quite so easy, and the place to seek happiness is in the meaning of events, and how we can make sense – and happiness – out of the most difficult days.

It was a little over a year ago that I was in my room at Austin Seminary, when my friend Sharon posted on Face Book: “There has been a shooting in Charleston,SC @ Emanuel AME church. My home church! Please pray for all. Don't have much info.”
A few minutes later Sharon posted “My Mom works at the church.
… She’s usually the last one to leave. I'm freaking out!!”
The next post was simply “Gone to glory.”

Sharon’s mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the nine people killed in a race-based shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Two of Sharon’s cousins were also killed in the shooting. Nine people. They’d later come to be known “the Charleston nine.”

There was an outpouring of support for my friend Sharon, just as this community has demonstrated such love and care for families who have lost loved ones, whether by natural causes, or in accidents. Sharon was, of course, on the news, giving interviews, making statements, pictured at the funeral, and at the graveside. Then she went back to her home in Dallas, where she had been a chaplain at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

But she did not live happily ever after. A few weeks after her mother was murdered, Sharon had a birthday, the first on which her mother had not sung to her. There were arrangements to make, and the media to deal with.

There was the continued, heart-wrenching news coverage of the killer, and his allegiance to white supremacist groups, and the story of how he obtained the gun he used to kill those nine people who had welcomed him to Bible study. Sharon re-evaluated her life, and then she quit her job and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. She has dedicated her life now to speaking out against gun violence. She’s given testimony at Congressional hearings, and she has been to the White House twice.

Sharon has made meaning of the tragedy by turning her energy to speaking out and acting. She can’t bring her mother back. But she can find a way to make life better, for everyone.

There’s no happily ever after when you suffer that kind of loss. It’s impossible to believe that if Job were a real-life character that he’d have been fully happy ever after, having suffered such unspeakable loss and trauma.

So what do we make of this story of suffering? We make meaning.

We reject the neat, tied-up-with-a-bow easy answers when terrible things happen to us, or to anyone we know and love. And we look for meaning in our loss, in our sacrifice, and in our grief. This is no easy thing, and there are not easy answers. Our friends, like Job’s, may come to us with their explanations or scriptures.

They may say, “It could be worse.”
No, in that moment of devastation, it could not be worse.

They may say, “It was God’s will.”
No, suffering and death and sickness are not God’s will.

They may say – I’ve said it: “We know that all things work together for good, to them that love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” And that may be true, and it may be that it happens beyond our vision. But here’s another way to read that Bible verse, from Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things, God works for good.” In everything, God works for good.

That may not make meaning of tragedy, not right away. But it is the start of hope, the first tiny flicker of light in the darkness. God is with us, not against us. God is not cruel and capricious; God loves us. And in spite of that, terrible things happen in this world, and in our lives.

This past week, a family in our community lost a beautiful, vivacious daughter. She stood on the brink of adulthood, about to begin her senior year. And now she is gone, and we grieve with her parents, and her friends. She is gone, a life cut short. Her parents will not see her again in this life. Not all tragedy ends in happily ever after. Life is not a fairy tale. Sharon is not going to get her mother back. But God is working for good in her life, as she works to make this world a safer place.

Each one of us has faced or will face difficulty and challenge in our lives. Some of us have experienced devastating loss. When that happens, we go where Job went in this tale – the depths of despair. We may shake our fist at God and wonder what God is going to do about it. What we learn, if we are open to learning it, is that God does not engineer our sorrow, but redeems it for us.

When our friends and loved ones suffer, and are in despair, we may shake our fist at God and ask, “Why don’t you do something?” What he hear, if we are open to God’s voice, is God saying, “I did do something. I created you.”

God created us, and set us on this earth for a purpose. And God has done and is doing even more than that. Not playing some kind of cosmic gambling game with our lives, or tormenting us to see how we’ll react, but redeeming creation in every moment.

God is doing something, coming in the person of Jesus Christ, to live among us and teach us and heal us, to live and die for us, and to conquer death and sin.

God is doing something through the power of the Holy Spirit, surrounding us and filling our hearts, breathing peace into our lives and leading us to love.

God is doing something in this world through us, as we face failure and loss, and as we uphold and support one another in difficult times, and as we offer our prayers and presence to each other.

Looking back to the beginning of this series on the Book of Job, we look back at a series of tragic news headlines. It seemed to never end, a relentless, overwhelming tide of sorrow.

In that first sermon, as we grieved the events of the previous week, I said,
“Let’s hold fast to faith.
Let’s hold fast to God.
Let’s hold fast to the promises….
Tomorrow, we can begin to transform mourning to movement.
Tomorrow, we can change our anger to activity.”

As we end this series, I want to suggest – no! I want to challenge us --
that we can be the agents of change in this world,
that we can transform mourning to movement,
that we can change anger to activity,
and we can do it by claiming some truths from the end of the story of Job.

Job prayed for his friends; and God heard his prayers.
We can do that.

Job’s friends ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that he had suffered.
We can do that.

They helped to restore his fortunes, with their support and love.
We can do that, too.

Brian Andreas, that poet from Decorah, said
“there are things you do because they feel right
and they may make no sense
and they may make no money
and it may be the real reason we are here:
to love each other and to eat each other's cooking and say it was good.”

We can love each other, and eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.
We can do that.

And we can in the bleakest hours, rely on the promise that in everything,
in everything God is working for good.
Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to God.

Hold fast.


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