Uploaded by Irwin Oppenheim

Sermon on Job Holocaust Memorial Sunday

Sermon at Oriel college, Oxford, 27 January 2019 — Holocaust Memorial Sunday
Job 40:1-14; 41:1-11
Dear friends,
The story of Job can only be described as far-fetched. Job starts out as what we would call a pillar
of society—in his time, of course, very long ago. He is rich, and lots of servants, day-workers,
seasonal workers and occasional workers depend on him for their livelihood. He is wise, running
his estate in an efficient way. And he is pious, trying to please God and to be fair to all his fellowhumans, not only his own clan. The Bible doesn’t say whether he was an Anglican, but there is no
harm in thinking that he was.
This man, unbeknownst to himself, becomes the object of a wager between God and his
courtier, Satan. Satan in Job is like the “eye of the king” in the Persian empire mentioned in
Herodotus and Xenophon (Torczyner). I quote from Wikipedia: “The Eye of the King was
appointed by the Persian king to inform him of what was going on in the empire. Eyes supervised
the payment of tribute, oversaw how rebellions were suppressed, and reported evils to the king.”
Satan—God’s eye—assures God that there is something fishy about Job, his subject. Job looks
very devout, but his faith is superficial only. If any misfortune should befall him, Job would turn
his back on God. God, for his part, is certain that Job’s piety is authentic.
To find out who is right the two of them submit Job to a series of cruel accidents: he loses
his fortune, his children all die, he falls ill with a horrible skin-disease… God easily wins the
wager: Job doesn’t budge an inch from his piety: “shall we receive good at the hand of God, and
shall we not receive evil?” he says. The case seems closed—but we’re only in chapter 2 of a book
that has 42 chapters.
Indeed, in the process of proving the integrity of Job, God has created a new problem.
Bringing all those catastrophic events upon his servant just to test his loyalty was not politically
astute. Of course, Job doesn’t know what happened in heaven. But prodded by his friends, who try
to make him admit that he somehow deserved his misfortune—no doubt he has sinned in secret,
they suggest—Job eventually figures it out for himself: what has happened to him is simply unfair.
Job is happy to be patient, but if pressed he cannot accept responsibility for his misfortune. It must
be God’s fault.
In his former life, Job thought the universe made sense. But in light of his recent
experience, he now observes that he is not alone: lots of things are going on that do not seem to
agree with the notion of a just and benevolent deity.
What happens next, the crux of the book, is told in chapters 38, 39, 40 and 41. We read an
extract from those chapters this evening. God answers Job from the whirlwind. God’s speeches
are magnificent, as one would expect—God is a powerful speaker—but they are also enigmatic.
The Hebrew is difficult. And the logic is hard to grasp. One cannot escape the impression that God
in a way is skirting the issue. God never once mentions human suffering. But he gives a very long
description of the crocodile.
Today we observe Holocaust Memorial Sunday. A European State developed a political
programme to annihilate all Jews living within its borders. This wasn’t new. Eventually—and this
was new—six million Jews were killed. The injustice and the suffering still cry to high heaven.
The wounds can never be healed. Especially because in our days again antisemitism is on the rise,
in Europe, in the US, and also, although we may not like to hear it, in the United Kingdom. On
this memorial Sunday I would like to propose a somewhat daring interpretation of God’s reply to
Job. In this reply there is no answer to Job’s question, but there is something else: a suggestion
that God suffers with humanity. More than what God says, the fact itself that God responds seems
relevant. Although God does not give an explanation for human suffering, he does turn up. He
shows concern. In fact, and this is the daring part of my interpretation: it almost seems as if God’s
speech is bit rambling. God is taken aback, profoundly disturbed by Job’s words and the situation
in which they are spoken.
It is a constant characteristic of the biblical God to be touched by human suffering. “The
LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious” is the name proclaimed to Moses when he demands
to see God after the sin of the golden calf. The idea is not that God sits on a high throne pitying
abject human beings. In story after story we observe that God is really moved by whatever happens
to his creatures. More than that. God is drawn into the life of human beings: in Job he makes a
special appearance to respond to Job’s claims. In the book of Ezekiel, God leaves the Temple of
Jerusalem and goes into exile, just like his people. The magnificence of God’s throne-chariot,
described in Ezekiel 1, and the magnificence of God’s speeches in Job 38-41 cannot hide the
underlying poverty: when Israel goes into exile, the Lord loses his earthly dwelling place; and
when Job formulates his questions on the suffering of the innocent, God doesn’t really have an
It is not just compassion. The God of the Bible is an only God. He has no one to interact
with except humans. He has some apparatchiks in his court, like Satan, who comes and tells God
what he already knew; or like the angels: God says, “Go and say such and such a thing,” and the
angel goes. But this is not what God is after. The real partners of God are human beings. Created
in God’s image they are able to interact with him; to praise him, to call upon his help, to broach
challenging theological questions. In this constellation—a unique God faced with only humans—
human suffering cannot happen without God suffering too.
A well-known story in Genesis resembles the story of Job in many respects. God puts a
righteous man to the test to see if his piety is genuine. He tells Abraham: Go offer up your son on
the mountain I will show you. In Job, the idea of the test comes from Satan, thus at least initially
exculpating God. But in Genesis 22, it is God who designs the test and carries it out. Abraham
passes the test with flying colours, so much so that it is unnecessary to see it through to the end.
An angel calls Abraham back and everything ends well, except for three days of dread and
confusion (explored in Shalom Spiegel’s The Last Trial). In this story, the suffering of God is not
located in the response he is called upon to give. Abraham doesn’t call God to account. In this
story, divine suffering is situated, if anywhere, at the very beginning. God has promised Abraham
a son, and this son has now been born, as told in the preceding chapter. Will Abraham still walk
with God? Will he still go were God calls him to go? Are they still partners? God’s uncertainty
pushes him to put Abraham to the test.
The biblical motif of divine suffering is meant to give us hope. “Trouble shared is trouble
halved,” they say. In our pain and desperation we are not alone: the entire universe awaits
redemption with the children of God; and not only the universe, the Maker too is involved. In all
our affliction he is afflicted.
It may seem odd, on Holocaust Memorial Sunday, to preach a message of hope. Is it not
disrespectful of the victims, for whom, on the face of it, there was no hope? But preaching is not
something that should be channeled by decorum. We preach from a text. Preaching is rather similar
to singing from a sheet. Of course the choir this evening is not narrowly following the sheet: you
have internalized the notes, the melody, the extraordinary force of the music. You, and your
director/David, are interpreting. But ultimately, what you bring to us in this service does not come
from you. It comes from the sheet, from the composer; from the muse… So it is with preaching:
the message of hope is in the sheet. The preacher draws the sermon from the biblical text, from the
dramatic human experiences that are condensed in it, from the spirit.
In the Saint Ludger Church in Münster, Germany, there is a wooden image of Jesus on the
Cross. The image was carved by Heinrich Bäumer in 1929 and hung on the West side of the
Church. In 1944 the church was destroyed when the city was bombed. After the war, the image
was found under the rubble: it had lost both its arms. It was not repaired, but hung back on the
reconstructed church wall—a Christ without arms—with the inscription: „ICH HABE KEINE
ANDEREN HAENDE ALS DIE EUEREN“—I have no other hands than yours.