The Blessing of Disillusionment

The Blessing of Disillusionment
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 10th, 2021

“Then Job answered:
2 ‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
3 O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
4 I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
7 There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.
8 ‘If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
9 on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
16 God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
17 If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Job has lost just about everything. His children have died. His property has been vanquished. He has sores covering his body. The book begins with the accuser (which is the literal meaning of the Hebrew phrase ‘ha satan’) making a bet with God that Job will certainly curse God if God removes all the blessings from Job’s life. And God, disturbingly, says yes to that wager, leading to this slough of calamities. It will help you to know that the Israelites writing this text are a people trying to understand their experience of being in exile, looking back on a time of complete desolation of all they know, a time of great suffering. The book of Job is the outflow of a traumatized people who are trying to make sense of the crashing down of their worlds, expressing their pain and doubt as a courtroom drama where the God they thought they knew is on trial.

It will also help you to know that this crying out from Job in our text comes right after one of his buddies has just finished listing off all the things Job must have done wrong to earn this awful situation. His friend’s victim-blaming speech is an embodied version of other parts of wisdom literature, like some of the proverbs, that basically teach that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. And according to that logic, Job’s bad situation is a result of his bad actions. And his friends’ pontificating is an attempt to explain the senselessness of what has happened to him. As Theologian Alissa Jones Nelson put it, Job’s friends’ “encounter with Job’s pain inspires fear rather than compassion… [and so] they have to malign [Job’s] integrity in order to retreat into a comforting theological world where such visions do not trouble them.” (Nelson, Alissa Jones. “Job” in Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and the Apocrypha, edited by Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page Jr., and Matthew J.M. Coomber, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2014.) When given the choice between blowing up their worldview to be in solidarity with their friend or clinging to their theological illusions about a world that rewards the good and punishes the bad, Job’s friends stick with the latter, chaining themselves to a theology they think will keep them safe from the calamities Job is living through. If they can convince Job, and really themselves, that Job brought all this upon himself, they will be able to sleep better at night. They’ll be able to continue living in the illusion that they are masters of their own destiny.

But Job, in this text we read today, refuses to tow the party line. He won’t take this abuse from whoever this God claims to be, at least not lying down. He puts his foot down and demands that this God meet him so that they can have it out. “O that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” In the ears of his so-called “friends,” these demands from Job were blasphemy. We can imagine them cringing as they think to themselves, “If only Job would have found a more polite, respectful way to express his concerns, God would surely start listening to him. If only Job would shave off those sharp edges, he could fit into the theologies that are making us feel so secure.” But Job doesn’t play by those rules. Job is disillusioned, and he will not set that disillusionment aside to make his community more comfortable.

I wonder if you have ever sat with Job, disillusioned, surrounded by the ashes of your own life, the ashes of how you used to see the world, the ashes of all the things you used to count on burned up around your feet. Maybe you sit on those ashes as you worship with us today. The gaping whole left in your heart from a beloved who died, aching when you awake each morning. Family relationships that bent to or beyond the breaking point during the last election and this season of vaccinations. New knowledge about the racist foundations of our country that have blown up everything you thought you knew about being American. A God whose name has become so associated with a version of Christianity that excludes, polices, and does violence to others, that we find ourselves letting out a lament just like Job’s, where the presence of this “God” either feels like a heavy hand of oppression, or a complete absence no matter where we look.

Though it may seem unlikely, there is good news for Job and for us in this text that contains his words of lament. Job refuses to be anything but his authentic self. And you know what? It wasn’t to Job’s friends that God appeared, with their long shaming speeches, clinging to their fragile ideas about a tame God they can put in a box. It was to Job that God appeared, with Job’s unadulterated honesty, lament, and demands for an audience with the Divine. In fact, God goes right ahead and interrupts one of the friend’s shamey speeches by appearing in a whirlwind in chapter 38 to speak to Job directly. Job’s friends had been shape-shifting and doing all kinds of theological gymnastics to hang onto their illusions about God and the world. But Job embraced his disillusionment, and it brought him face to face not with the God he thought he knew, but with the God who is. Because disillusionment, when embraced, is really at its heart, a refusal to settle for anything less than an encounter with the living God. And this is the word of hope for us in this text, a word for each of us in our own states of disillusionment. As theologian Parker Palmer has said: “let’s reclaim ‘disillusionment’ as a word that names a blessing rather than a curse. When a friend says, ‘I’m so disillusioned!’ about this or that, why do we say, ‘I’m so sorry! How can I help?’” We ought to say, ‘Congratulations! You’ve just lost an illusion! That means you’ve moved that much closer to reality, the only place where it’s safe to stand!’” (Parker Palmer, “Losing Our Illusions,” On Being.)

Friends, I know that many of us are somewhere way past weary in this ever-prolonging pandemic season where the ground continues to shift beneath our feet. There will be no shortage of opportunities for us to take shortcuts we hope will lead us back to our previous conceptions about who God is, who the Church is called to be, and who we are in response to it all. Those theologies of illusion will claim over and over to be the “friends” that can lead us back to the world of safety we once knew. But in the face of all that, may we be a people who stand with Job, refusing to yield our hard questions, resisting the world’s attempts for us to shrink or shave off our sharp edges in order to belong, demanding in our disillusionment an audience with the living God. Embrace your disillusionment, beloved Church, because that’s when you’ll start trading illusions for the real. And even as it hurts, let’s call our disillusionment a blessing, the beginning of the breaking open we are promised in the book of Job will someday bring us face to face not with the God we thought we knew, but with the God who is. Amen.

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