~ Job 3, Sermon 2 in Sassy Love, Sacred Faith series ~
July 4th was a good day for me. I spent the morning with my wife and son at the Independence Day parade in Capital Hill. We met up with friends and it was the kind of hot that makes summer burn in the memory with a kind of fond despair. In the evening, we met up with other friends and made the trek to the Jefferson Memorial to watch fireworks explode and screech over the Tidal Basin. It was a really good day.
But in between morning and evening, I turned on the television and encountered an image that was in stark relief with the simple goodness of the day. My tv screen showed me a woman dozens of feet in the air moving periodically back and forth around the base of the Statue of Liberty. Official looking men were pleading with her. The commentator explained that her ascent seemed to be an act of protest. Children had been forcibly separated from parents and this was one woman’s voiced response. After the commentator’s description of the event, he went on to say essentially that the woman should be ashamed of herself. Now, thousands of people could not enjoy being in the park below on a day in celebration of independence. Her display, he said, was inappropriate. It went beyond the bounds of acceptable protest. It was dangerous.
As I watched, I could not help but remember Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen, Kirstjen Nielsen being confronted while eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant. All the media conversations about tolerance and civility echoed through my mind. Then I remembered a funny segment in one of Trevor Noah’s monologues. He said that, “the person winning in monopoly is never the person flipping the board.” The person winning urges all the other players to not fight about whose turn it is and to be civil. But the person playing whose been in jail most of the game feels somewhat differently about the situation. (The Daily Show).
Amid all our national debate about civility, I’m wondering this morning what it might mean to be “a little mad” in the context of the Christian life (Loder)? What might it look like to move out beyond our, “timid, self-seeking sanities,” as the poem you heard a few minutes puts it (Loder). Does anger that seems beyond the bounds of stability carry positive potential? Can cursing lead to life?
Last week, we talked some about the beginning of the book of Job. Essentially, the first two chapters are about God setting up a pious, wealthy man named Job to see whether humans are capable of disinterested righteousness. God allows his chief investigator, Ha-Satan, to strike Job with incredible tragedy. This includes the loss of everything Job has, including his ten children. God wants to know whether Job is pious because of the rewards it gets him. Or whether Job is pious because he simply loves God and understands that God is intrinsically worthy of worship. Job’s response to his suffering will demonstrate which one it is.
Initially, Job responds by ritually enacting grief and then blessing God without reservation. However, once the other shoe drops and Job loses his own heath in a second divine test, he utters words that are more ambiguous. He doesn’t curse God, but he doesn’t bless God either. Job takes, instead, a third way of sass that will undergird nearly everything else he says in the book.
If you’re reading along in the book of Job at home – and I hope you are — you’ll know that the next thing which happens is a period of silence. Job’s three friends come from afar to “console and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They truly attempt to identify with him in his grief and desire to help him find a way out of it. They do what most of us would hope to in a similar situation. One commentator says that, “theirs is a condolence so deeply felt as to be inarticulate, expressible only through those bodily movements by which one undergoes sympathetically the embodied sufferings of another” (Janzen 57). The chapter ends with verse 13. “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” Silence reigns for a full week and there is a sense in the Hebrew that Job’s sufferings intensify during this time (Janzen). Perhaps we are meant to wonder whether Job will ever find his way out of despair to speak again. Certainly, we are meant to wait with bated breath to see if Job will curse God.
And then we come to our text for this morning. The man who has gone from great prosperity to great suffering does speak. Let me read the beginning of our text for this morning to you. You can find it in Job 3.
After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2 Job said:
3 “Let the day perish in which I was born,
and the night that said,
‘A man-child is conceived.’
4 Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
6 That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
7 Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard[a] in it.
8 Let those curse it who curse the Sea,[b]
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
9 Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.
Job opens his mouth to curse. But instead of directly cursing God, he curses the day of his birth and the night of his conception. He seems to speak to no one and his solitude seems only to deepen. In effect, he cries out an existential, “let there be darkness,” in an attempt to fundamentally roll back the “Let there be light” of Genesis 1 (Ballentine). He longs that the night of his conception had not been fulfilled with the breaking of day (Ballentine). Job wishes that he had never been born. He uses language which suggests that we would all be better off if the world were to return to pre-creation chaos. He calls out the Day and the Night as forces which, “did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb” (Job 3:10). With this, we get a sense of what is truly at stake. In Israelite thought – thought that Job would have been steeped in — it is not Day and Night who open and shut the womb. It is God alone (Newsom, Job).
Then Job deepens his cursing with a soul-piercing lament. Here’s the rest of our text for this morning. It starts in Job 3:11.
“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
12 Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?
13 Now I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest
14 with kings and counselors of the earth
who rebuild ruins for themselves,
15 or with princes who have gold,
who fill their houses with silver.
16 Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?
17 There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
18 There the prisoners are at ease together;
they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
19 The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are free from their masters.
20 “Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
21 who long for death, but it does not come,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
22 who rejoice exceedingly,
and are glad when they find the grave?
23 Why is light given to one who cannot see the way,
whom God has fenced in?
24 For my sighing comes like[c] my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.
25 Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
26 I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes.”
Job leaves off his series of curses and dives headlong into the deepest interrogative at the heart of lament: Why? “Why did I not die at birth?” Why, having been born, was I nurtured? “Why was I not buried like a stillborn child?” “Why is light given?” As he earlier reversed the cosmic order, he now overturns the usual conceptions of Sheol, the place of the dead in Israelite thought. Instead of Sheol being a place where humans are fatally cut off from God after death, Job sees it as the place where humans actually find rest from God (Newsom, The Book of Job). As he speaks of the harshness of earthy taskmasters, Job uses language which indicates that actually God is the taskmaster from whom he wishes to be free (Janzen). Job identifies with the miserable. He identifies with the bitter in soul of the world and asks why life is given to such people. He asks, as one scholar puts it, “why must people continue to live, when pain reduces life to no more than a ‘longing’ for a death that will not come (v. 21) or to ‘digging’ like a treasure hunter for a tomb that cannot be found (vv. 21b-22)? [In Job’s view] under such circumstances life becomes meaningless. One can neither live fully nor die completely; all that remains is simply to exist” (Ballentine 94). Job now sees God as the one who obscures the good path, restricts movement, and ultimately traps humankind (Newsom, Job). The experience of such suffering, Job says, is characterized by sighing and groaning. By having no ease, no quiet, no rest. Only turmoil.
After reading Job’s fierce cursing and radical lament, we have to ask ourselves how we would respond to such a display. Would we consider Job mad? Would we say that his words were inappropriate? Would we think him dangerous? Perhaps one clue to the wider church’s response lies in the fact that Job 3 is rarely preached upon. It is not often seen as being fit for proclamation let alone as a text that can convey the gospel.
It’s at this point that I want us to step back and notice two things. First, the narrator of our story has disappeared. In chapters 1 and 2, we had a guide to help us make sense of the story. Now, he or she is nowhere to be found. From chapter 3 to the middle of chapter 42, we are given only dialogue. We now have the responsibility for discerning truth by listening intently for something which comes not from propositions expounded but of multiple voices engaged (Newsom, The Book of Job).
Second, the dialogues which make up the book of Job from chapter 3 to the middle of chapter 42 are all written in poetry. Edward Young has observed, “that there is something about poetry beyond prose logic, there is mystery in it, not to be explained but to be admired.” I would add not to be explained, but to be experienced. For that reason, I want us to stay in the spirit of poetry. I want us to experience three poems this morning, in addition to the one read earlier, which might just help us to encounter Job 3 in a significant way. The first of these, “The Weary Blues,” by Langston Hughes, is one of my favorites.
Poem –The Weary Blues Reading
Now, I first need to admit that I love the blues both as a form and as essential to the history of African-American people. Theologian James Cone argued that black expressions of Christianity coupled with the blues were key sustaining forces in black survival and resistance (12). “The blues,” Ralph Ellison explained, “is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger it its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near comic lyricism” (Cone 12).
The bluesman in our poem shares with Job this intentional fingering of tragedy as he plays, “sweet blues.” He also shares a wish for death to come and, just as Job calls down curses to reverse creation itself, the playing of the bluesman puts out the stars and the moon. But even more profoundly, both Job and the bluesman manipulate the tradition itself to produce something new. With black hands on the instrument most known for making European classical music, the bluesman births a new genre. In our text this morning, Job also creates something new. He takes the Israelite creation narrative and turns it on his head. Job, in his anger, as one scholar puts it, “claims not only that the situation is painful but also that something is fundamentally not right . . . that what has happened should not have happened” (Newsom, Job). Job overturns the monopoly board. Instead of proclaiming with Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, he seems to say that a radical not-knowing is (Davis).
And not only does Job’s cursing create something new, but his cursing and his lamentation create life. He is, in fact, cursing back to life. His curses and his existential, “whys,” are generative. He becomes an active subject again instead of a victim only (West). Let’s take a second to listen to another poem which exhibits this paradox.
Vallejo’s poem puts before us this morning a quintessential paradox. The title and the content do not seem to match. Nothing in the poet’s words seem hopeful. Yet the very act of speaking – of voicing his pain – carries hope. And, so it is with Job. His curses not only create something new, but his curses are, ironically, harbingers of hope. Trauma may have interrupted the plot of Job’s life, but the story is not over (Stern).
While we won’t have time to go into all that Job says in the book during this series of sermons, his words constitute a coming back to life. The sass that was hinted at in chapter 2 comes to full flower. His cursing and his lamentation ultimately lead him into the presence of God and through a profound transformation. Let’s hear one final poem now.
Poem – Holy Cussing Reading
Cleveland Park, though we may shy away from cursing and lamentation, those very acts can create something new. They can help us both find hope and bring hope. Even as such language seems to turn the world upside-down, in reality, it can help turn everything right side up. For you. For your community. For our nation. Cursing and lamentation may seem to focus too much on death. But each actually carries within it the critical potential for new life. As the poem we just heard says, holy cussing can be an avenue of “true contact and true presence,” even an echo of heaven. Friends, may we like Job, have the courage to find holy anger, even if that anger looks like cursing. May we find true speech, even that speech looks like lament. And may that holy anger and that true speech participate in our own resurrection and the resurrection of the world. Amen.
Ballentine, Samuel E. Job. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Pub, 2005. Print.
Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2011. Print.
Davis, Ellen F. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, Mass:
Cowley Publications, 2001. Print.
Janzen, J G. Job. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. Print.
Loder, Ted. Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Books,
Newsom Carol A. “Job.” In The New Interpreter’s Bible: General Articles & Introduction,
Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Including the
Apocryphal/deuterocanonical Books, 1994. Print.
Newsom, Carol A. The Book of Job: A Contest of Moral Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2009. Print.
Stern, Jessica. Denial: A Memoir of Terror. New York: Ecco, 2011. Print.
West, Gerald. “The Poetry of Job as a Resource for the Articulation of Embodied Lament in the
Context of HIV and AIDS in South Africa.” In Lamentations in Ancient and
Contemporary Cultural Contexts. Ed. Nancy C. Lee and Carleen Mandolfo. Atlanta:
Society of Biblical Literature, 2008. Print.