(A sermon based on Job 42:1-6 and preached on October 19, 2014)
We have an Ebola situation.
One of the things that I keep hearing commentators and political figures say about that situation is, “People are afraid.” It seems to me that some of them want us to be afraid because they figure that our fear will help them get elected or reelected or will help their ratings improve.
We should not give in to fear, which is not to say that we should not be concerned.
There is a difference, though, between beings concerned and being afraid; as rational human beings we have good reason to be concerned about Ebola. We should pray for our public health officials, the doctors and nurses treating the sick, for the medical and military personnel who are in West Africa to try to help contain the spread of the disease, and for political leaders as they make decisions that hopefully will be for the good of everyone. Other than such praying, there’s really not a lot that we can do; chances that any of us will come into direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person infected with Ebola are so infinitesimal as to be practically non-existent.
There are long-standing epidemics in this country about which we should be much more concerned. Since 1976, there has been in the United States an average of 23,000 deaths per year from the flu. There is an average of 32,000 deaths by handguns (both suicide and homicides) in the United States each year. An estimated 300,000 Americans die each year from obesity-related diseases. So far one person has died on U.S. soil from Ebola. All others who have so far been diagnosed with the disease were people who helped treat those who were sick. (Perhaps it should be noted that if helping out someone in trouble is what exposes you to Ebola, most people—a lot of whom are, sadly, Christians— are at little risk.)
We can do something about those epidemics—we can get a flu shot (only about 45% of Americans do), we can enforce our gun laws and adopt more sensible ones, and we can lose weight. (A word to those of you who think that such observations have nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ: please ponder how our Jesus-stated goal of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves should impact both the personal behaviors we pursue and the public policies we support.)
But as Christian human beings we do not have good reason to be afraid even of our real and ongoing epidemics, much less one that is not yet an epidemic on our shores. (By the way, while it is good news that only one person has died on our soil of Ebola and that no Americans have, as Christians our hearts break for the 9,000 people in West Africa who have been infected and for the families of the 4,000 who have died. An American is no more valuable to God than is a person in Sierra Leone, in Guinea, or in Liberia; they are, therefore, equally important to us, too—Christ died for them just as he died for us and they are our neighbors as surely as those who live in our neighborhood are).
Given that we have much more prevalent diseases to address, why are so many Americans so obsessed with Ebola? I think there are several reasons. One is that we don’t understand it. Another is that some folks are for their own reasons intent on getting and keeping us worked up about it. Yet another reason so many of us are obsessed with Ebola is that it comes from “over there” and we are always afraid of what the influence of “others”—meaning people who are not us—is going to do to us. As Christians, we need to move beyond such fearful and limiting attitudes and mindsets.
Again, though, even as we are concerned we should not be afraid.
Why should we not be afraid? We should not be afraid because we are Christians.
That is not to say, though, that bad things cannot and will not happen to us Christians. And when they do, we may have no idea why.
Take Job, for example. Job was a good and righteous man; yet he experienced the tragic loss of everything—his family, his possessions, and his health. As he sat with his grief and his pain, he was joined by three of his friends with whom he entered into a dialogue. His friends had Job’s situation figured out; conventional wisdom (backed by biblical teaching) taught that people were blessed by God if they did right and cursed by God if they did wrong and that was the position that Job’s friends took. Job, on the other hand, maintained that he had lived a life characterized by integrity and that he had done nothing to deserve what was happening to him. He was crushed by the silence of God; he wanted nothing more than to have a hearing before God so that God would have to acknowledge that Job was in the right and was not being treated justly.
Finally, God shows up and for four chapters makes a speech about how Job (and by implication anyone else) had no idea how the universe worked and that God and life are characterized by mystery and wonder that Job (and by implication everyone else) could never grasp. In the end Job admits that he had said too much, although—as this is very interesting—God says that Job had, unlike the friends, “spoken of me what is right” (42:7). Was God referring to everything that Job had said throughout the book? If so, then God affirmed that rightness of Job’s asking hard, probing, and challenging questions to God about what was happening to him.
In the end, Job affirms God’s majesty—God is God because only God can do and know what God does and knows. But in the end, God also affirms Job’s humanity—a full human being is one who stands before God with full awareness and challenges God if it is deemed necessary.
I have come to believe that in the end Job also affirms Job’s humanity.
The last thing we hear Job say to God is (and the NRSV translates it like most English translations do), “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” (42:5-6). The first part of Job’s statement seems clear enough: he has moved beyond God as a theoretical construct to be discussed to God as someone with whom to have a personal relationship. God has come to Job. In a very real way, that is for Job enough.
But the last part of the statement could just as well be translated, “Therefore, I relent and find comfort on dust and ashes” (CEB) or even “I repent concerning dust and ashes” [Samuel E. Ballentine, “Job,” Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), p. 695]. In other words, while Job accepts that there is much he can’t know, he also knows that his humanity has been affirmed by God’s coming to him. He now knows that while there is much he cannot know the same God who puts him in his place also honors his place. He embraces an expanded view of both God and of himself in light of the fact that God has come to him.
So—what if Ebola does come to us? What if some of us or our family members contract it? What if an American epidemic develops? What then?
Then we will exercise our full God-given humanity by pouring out our hearts to God in questions and laments. We will stand before God and ask “Why?” We will intercede with God for our family, friends, and enemies just as Job interceded for his children at the beginning of the book and for his friends turned opponents at the end of the book.
We will rest in the knowledge that God is with us no matter what pain and loss we experience. We will remember that like God came to Job in Job’s suffering, God came to us in ours in a far greater way: his Son Jesus died on the cross, thereby actually entering into our suffering with us.
In the 1998 film “Deep Impact,” which is about an impending asteroid strike on Earth, reporter Jenny Lerner (played by Tea Leoni) is estranged from her father Jason (Maximillian Schell). When a large piece of the asteroid hits the ocean, the two of them are standing together on a beach where their family had long ago shared happier times. Reconciled, they stand there holding on to each other as the tidal wave envelops them. In the cross, God wrapped God’s arms around us to hold us tight as we together confront the worst things that life can throw at us.
And we will live in the trust that everything is going to be all right—some day. Scholars are divided over whether or not Job held out any hope for beyond this life but now, on this side of the resurrection of Jesus, we live in the assurance that God is working God’s purposes out and that God has unfathomably wonderful plans for creation and for us.
In the short term, we won’t be afraid because we know in whose love and grace both the short term and the long term rest.
So when those folks keep saying, “People are afraid,” let’s keep answering, “No we’re not!”