Date Given: 6/23/19
Then his wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
When I arrived at FUMC Texas City, I was a wide eyed young pastor, as ready as I could be to take on my first senior pastor job, with no idea what that actually meant. I was met there by some of the most kind and faithful people I’ve ever known. I want to share just one of their stories with you today. Her name was Audrey. Audrey was in her late eighties when we arrived, but she was still full of life and joy and humor. Audrey came to most of the weekday bible studies we did and was always willing to help in whatever ways she still physically could.
Maybe most of all, I enjoyed that she always called me the vicar. Vicar is what you call the parish priests in the Church of England. Audrey was a war bride. She would tell the story of how she met her husband when he was stationed in England. They fell in love and got married. They feared for her safety there, but his time in country wasn’t over yet. So Audrey loaded onto a ship alone that was headed for America. On their way out into the Atlantic, all the passengers were forced to wear their life vests and hunker down inside. They would come to find out much later that their ship had been chased by a German Uboat for miles.
Thankfully, they made it safely across the Atlantic to New York, where Audrey changed boats to one headed for Galveston Texas. In Galveston, Audrey met her new in laws for the first time ever. They took her in and cared for her like their daughter until Audrey’s husband made it back from the war. Audrey’s husband passed away well before I arrived in Texas City, but she stayed put until shortly after her 90th birthday party. After that point, she moved to an assisted living facility to be closer to one of her children. About 2 years later, she returned to Texas City for good to be buried next to her husband.
When she finally made the decision to move from Texas City after decades of living in the exact same home, it was incredibly difficult to watch her go. We went by her house one day just before she moved so that we could check on how she was doing and how the packing was going. We sat and reminisced over a variety of things and heard a lot about her new place. The most exciting thing for her, or at least for her daughter, was that Audrey’s new place would finally have a dishwasher; after living into her 90s without one. I happened to see this little plaque on the dresser in the room where we were talking – it says “there’s no man like my father… except my grandfather.” It felt pretty accurate as a gift for a future child, so she offered it to me.
I tell the story of Audrey because her story perfectly illustrates the single most difficult thing I experience in being a pastor. Having known Audrey is one of the great treasures of my life in ministry. And having said goodbye to her is one of my deep wounds that will stick with me forever.
I’m finding more and more as I grow into this career that the one and only thing that truly matters is the relationships that are built along the way. Preaching, bible studies, travel, meetings, reading, bar b ques, singing, outreach and on and on and on – all of it is just a means to the only end that matters; just a means toward building relationships, with God and one another; with you here in this room and with our neighbors near and far.
And yet……I cannot help but know that there will come a time when the very best relationships we have built, will be the source of my greatest pain; whether that be because one of us moves, someone dies, or something else radically changes; and change will come. It is no small thing to open your heart enough for it to be broken. It is no small thing to know the outcome going in, and choose to love anyway.
In the book of Job, we encounter a nameless woman who gives witness to this very kind of love. Job is a somewhat strange and unique book of the Bible. Job is a man who is righteous in every way. He had a good life with a wife and kids and property and animals and wealth and everything a man could want. Satan bets God that Job is only so faithful because of his good fortune and God takes the bet. God allows Satan to take away all that Job holds dear, even his own health. It is in the process of losing everything that we encounter the very brief appearance of Job’s wife.
A couple of quick comments are probably worth making before we move forward. Satan is the Hebrew word for adversary. When Job was written, satan was by no means meant to represent the pure manifestation of evil who runs around with a red pitch fork. Most of our images of Satan or the devil or evil come from much later traditions, many of them after the Bible was completed. For today, don’t worry too much about exactly what to do with the idea of God and Satan hanging out and making bets; just try to accept this as the set up to put the storyline in motion.
The second note is that there are lots of questions raised by the storyline itself. Why would God allow this to happen to Job? Can God be fully good if this is what God chose to let happen? Answers will be hinted at as we explore the witness of Job’s wife, but these are largely questions the book itself doesn’t care to resolve. Like so many other places in scripture, the book of Job asks and answers the questions it wants and ignores most of ours. For today, I simply ask again that we accept the story as it comes to us and explore what we learn in through this strange and unique story.
We come back to Job’s wife. Over the course of 42 long and winding chapters, mostly consisting of speeches offered by Job, his friends, and God; Job’s wife is given only 11 words to say. She is then rebuked by Job and the story moves on. If you blink, you might miss her. And yet she has a profound witness to offer if we are willing to look just a little closer.
Job’s wife said to him, ‘Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.’ But he said to her, ‘You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips. There’s an easy and all too common way to read what is happening here. It goes something like this – Job, the sinless example of all that is good and holy in life is forced to overcome the temptation of his own wife telling him to curse God. She is fickle and he is steadfast. She is a failure and he is the righteous person we should aspire to become.
That reading is no doubt so common because it simply takes for granted that what the text says is how the world does and should work. Without stopping and sitting with this moment, there’s no way we would expect to find anything more than a fickle wife and a steadfast Job. She tells him to curse God. Job says no and we’re even told that he did not sin with his lips. Case closed. Except there are two related problems with accepting that the situation is just that simple.
The first is that the point of the gospel message is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ. This point is made over the course of the book as Job’s friends try to tell him what he must have done wrong to deserve punishment. For every explanation they offer, Job says no, I did not sin. I did nothing wrong. And no where is Job corrected for his idea that he has not sinned. As we are told from the very beginning, Job is a completely righteous man.
Instead of finding a sin Job committed, God finally comes to Job in a whirlwind and simply says “who are you to question me.” I made the oceans, I set the boundary of the land, I put time in motion, I made everything. How dare you question who I am? In the cross of Christ, God shows us the fullness of who God is. God is not the guy who keeps a tally of sin vs good deeds to be sure that the good we do outweighs the bad. Instead, God is the one who gave His very life to show us what love is. And in so doing, God overcame all brokenness and fear and separation and any of the ways we might fall into sin.
Job was great at not sinning, that much we see in his response to his wife. But the point of the gospel is not to not sin. The point is to love with the love of Christ.
Which brings us to the second problem with a simple reading of Job’s wife. A simple reading ignores the entire context in which she uttered her 11 words. Job’s wife had just suffered through almost all of the very same tragedies that fell on Job. They lost their land, their livestock, and their house. The lives of each and every one of their children were lost. As far as we know, she kept her physical health through the whole ordeal, but she had to watch her husband lose even that.
In her day and age, the only thing keeping her out of abject poverty was the fact that Job was still alive. Women could not own property. A woman starting out late in life husbandless and childless, without land or home or livestock; would have had no hope in her world. At best, she might have been able to beg for food or rely on the help of strangers. But without Job, there would be no guarantee of survival, much less any of the comforts or luxuries that she had known up to that point in life.
It was in this context, at the moment when she and Job had lost everything they held dear in life, after watching her husband lose even his physical health until suffering was the only thing he knew in life – that was the moment when she uttered those troubling words – “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” We have no way to know the full motivation or tone of voice she used. These 11 words are the only thing we have to even know that she existed, much less to understand who she was. We can’t know exactly what was on her heart, but I know that it would have been incredibly hard for her to love Job enough to let him go; to love him enough to see his suffering finally end in a way that would only multiply her own.
But that kind of love is the love at the heart of the gospel. Christ came into our world to love us beyond measure. He did so not by showing us how not to sin. Jesus showed us how to love by opening his heart to us enough for it to be broken. At the climax of his time on earth, he was forsaken by those he came to save. And the new life we have in him is born in the vulnerability of that very act of love. I don’t know exactly what Job’s wife was thinking and feeling, but her willingness to face life without Job sounds a lot more like the love of Jesus than anything Job did.
Far from simply being a fickle failure, Job’s wife represents the danger and challenge of loving another person with your whole heart. Can you love someone enough to let them go? Are you willing to love someone even though you know they won’t be around forever? These are the questions Sallie and I have to face every time I get moved to a new church. Every time we say yes, we are so blessed and so heartbroken at the same time. But most of the greatest blessings in life are simply not possible without taking the risk to open your heart enough for it to be broken.
We have a good friend whose story comes to mind every time I start to reflect on this hard life lesson from Job’s wife. There were, of course, no bets made between God and satan in her story, but she had to face a moment just as difficult as the one in which we encounter Job’s wife. Her husband went to the ER a few months ago with shortness of breath. He was quickly diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and the doctors went to work to fix the problems. For a few days things seemed to get better, until suddenly they became much worse.
Soon, her husband was forced to be on an ECMO machine, which basically means that he was put in a coma so that this machine could take the place of his heart and lungs. The machine was supposed to give his heart and lungs a break so that they could heal, but his condition wasn’t improving. He was transferred to another hospital where our friend received some of the worst news of her life. At some point after being put on the machine and before arriving at the new hospital, her husband had both a stroke and a brain bleed. The doctors did what they could to stabilize his condition and figure out treatment options.
Then came the meeting that changed everything. The doctors told our friend that the stroke had likely decimated the communication center of his brain. The right side of his body would likely be paralyzed. The best case scenario they could offer, if he survived a few necessary surgeries to remove the machines, is that he would be in assisted living for the rest of his life with memories intact, but no way to communicate, feed himself, breathe without assistance, or take care of himself at all. I’ll never forget the conversation we had with our friend as she had to make decisions that no one ever wants to consider.
Perhaps the hardest question the doctors asked – would she like to place a Do Not Resuscitate order in place. There were a variety of potentially fatal conditions that might develop in the process of removing the machines. Did she want them to do everything in their power to keep his body alive, even if the best recovery she was told to hope for was that he’d never be able to communicate or live at home again? Or if the worst started to happen, was she willing to let him go? She went from planning for the birth of their second child to a husband with shortness of breath to the most unthinkable question she could ever be asked in almost no time at all.
Sallie and I had several conversations trying to wrestle with how we could possibly answer the same question if we ever wound up in the same situation. What would love even look like in that moment? Does love fight for life to continue no matter what? Would it be loving for me to keep her around even if she could never walk or talk again…. Or would that just be my selfish desire at work? Would it make me a horrible person to be ok with her passing on so her pain would end and my life would be less complicated?
There are no simple or easy answers when faced with questions no one should have to answer. But there is a chance in every relationship worth having that we might one day have to give an answer. There is no way to experience real love without opening our hearts to the possibility of being broken. Very few of us will ever have to make the incredibly difficult decisions that our friend has had to make. But we each decide every day if we are willing to let each other in enough to risk the possibility of loss.
One nameless woman in scripture had the courage to open her heart to the possibility of losing absolutely everything that mattered in her life. And in so doing, she offers us an incredible witness to the courageous kind of love that Christ has shown for us all. Courage isn’t pretending like we can fix all the problems and face every challenge and get out of life alive. Courage is embracing our imperfections and knowing the difficulties ahead and choosing to love each other all the more.
When we talk about building bridges into our community as a church, we’re talking about having the courage to open our collective heart enough to be broken… enough to truly let our neighbors in. We are standing here today because of the incredible men and women who loved God and each other enough over the last 60 years to make this church what it is today. And we have the opportunity this week to put that love into practice, building a bridge for the next generation.
I want to challenge each and every one of you to open your heart to at least one child this coming week. Over 700 kids will descend upon the church for vacation bible school and we have the opportunity to love with the love of Christ. It is entirely possible that many of the kids will come for a week and we may never see them again. But we are still called to open our hearts in the way that Jesus Christ opened his heart for each and every one of us. We are called to love with abandon. Be courageous enough to love with the love of Christ. It is that kind of love that changes everything.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.