Sitting in the Dust

There are a few important things to note with this sermon. The first is that it was my second sermon for Homiletics class, and I did not do as well, grade-wise, with this one as I did the previous. That said, I still believe it is an important word for those who are grieving, mourning, and suffering. At least, I hope so. The second thing is that this sermon was intended for Holy Saturday – a time in the church calendar when we acknowledge that Jesus is dead, and that, at least for his very first followers, he’s not coming back. Holy Saturday is the time in between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is after all hope is lost and before hope is restored. On Holy Saturday, the Resurrection has not yet occurred. Please bear this in mind as you read through.

My text for this sermon was Job 14:1-14, and it follows here:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come.

 

Have you ever had one of those times in your life where everything seemed to be going wrong? You find out that big assignment is actually due tomorrow and there’s no way it’s getting done; you didn’t get that job you thought you were perfect for; and your closest friend betrayed your trust. And you feel like if God is not outright against you at the very least She’s certainly not on your side. You might start to wonder if you did something to bring this all upon yourself, or if God is really not as fair as they make Him out to be. Imagine, though, what it would feel like if those little things that were going wrong were actually much bigger. You get a phone call – your home caught on fire while you were away and almost all of your possessions are gone. Another call – the person you love most has been in a fatal car accident. Another call – the test results from your doctor’s visit came back, and they aren’t so good. Some of us need not imagine getting one of these calls, for unfortunately these are realities that many human beings have to face. Indeed, we count ourselves very lucky if we are able to go through life with relatively little loss and suffering; so pervasive it seems to the human experience. Still, its pervasiveness does not make it any less unbearable, nor does it make it justifiable. In our pain we often don’t know where God is present or how God could allow such a thing to happen to us. This is where we meet Job, for he does indeed receive each phone call right after the other.

The tragedies at the beginning of Job happen so quickly, and Job’s response is so nonchalant, that I think sometimes we can miss the gravity of the situation. The servants start coming in to Job one after another, “Job, your oxen, donkeys, and the servants tending them are – Job your sheep and the servants tending them – Job, your camels and the servants – Job, all your children – Gone, taken, destroyed, dead.” And as if that wasn’t enough, the next day Job awakens in searing physical pain, infectious sores all over his body from head to toe. Can you imagine? Can you imagine the overwhelming grief and suffering? Can you imagine the betrayal Job must feel from God? Can we sit with Job in the dust and imagine what it must be like? This is where we find ourselves when we come to Job’s speech. This place of anguish and grief that some of us know all too well, displayed here in the words of one who has experienced great loss and suffering. Who can console us? Where is our hope?

It is usually in times like these that everyone around us becomes a theological expert. How many of us have had friends like Job’s, who come meaning to comfort us but instead make things much worse? Or how many of us have been like Job’s friends? Their insistence that Job must have done something wrong to deserve his suffering was completely in line with the theological opinion of the day, even if it was still wrong. But who can fault them? Job’s friends were doing what we all tend to do when we see death and suffering in the lives of others – explain it away. After all, if our God is a benevolent and loving God, there must be a very good explanation, mustn’t there? And so we claim that whatever happened, happened for a reason – God needed another angel; we must have done something wrong to deserve it; God is testing us; and so many others. And in our explanations, we, like Job’s friends, do not speak of God what is right, as Job has. But what does Job say about God? Job knows that he has done nothing to deserve his suffering. Job experiences his suffering as being from God, and this experience leads him to question the very nature of the relationship between God and humanity – is not God simply a tyrant who will turn his wrath on any old human she chooses? ‘Our lot in life is already low,’ Job says. ‘We don’t have that long on this earth, and the days we do have are filled with labor and trouble, and do You, God, really watch us so closely? Do you really intend to judge us for our actions, when you know that we are incapable of being sinless and no one, not even You, God, can change that?!’ Job’s experience of God is not one of benevolence, but of wrath. And God’s wrath is non-discriminating, falling on good and evil alike. Why else, reasons Job, would upright and blameless persons like himself experience such profound suffering?

These are difficult words for us to hear. We know God to be good, loving, and just. We know that a God who has the power to prevent suffering would do so if it were undeserved. We know that what Job is uttering is blasphemy, and we run to God’s defense claiming there must be a reason. And yet Job has spoken of God what is right. There are no easy outs here. Job requires us to sit in the place where we feel that even God has betrayed us. Our explanations are not good enough to justify the suffering, the pain, the anguish, and so in a last desperate effort to make meaning of our misery we lash out at God, blaming, lamenting, screaming, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani!”*

Oh, yes. Did we not notice? In our efforts to justify God, to defend God, to explain away why there exists such tremendous suffering in our world; how could we miss that in his hour of greatest suffering, Jesus lashes out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did we catch that? That Jesus, who is fully human and fully God, felt rejected by God. Jesus did not say, “God, I know this must be some kind of test you’re putting me through, so I will endure it.” Or “God, I know I have to suffer like this in order to save the world, so I’m just gonna push through.” Or “Wow, God, I must have really screwed up for you to be punishing me like this.” No. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachani!” “Dear God, why?!”

If you go looking for an answer to that question, you’re not going to find one. Later on in Job’s story God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. Evading Job’s accusation, She says, “Where were you, when I created the world?” “Were you the one who made the universe and all that is in it?” In other words, who are you to determine the rules of creation, what is fair and unfair? You are not God; I am. Job does not get an answer; we do not get an answer; only an affirmation that who God is and how God operates is ultimately shrouded in mystery. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe what we really need in the midst of our pain and suffering is not an explanation, no matter how badly we want one. An explanation is not going to bring back our loved ones. An explanation is not going to take away our suffering. God does not promise us what we want, God promises us what we need. God does not promise us an explanation. God does promise to walk with us through the pain. We can be sure that God is on our side even when we are sure that She is against us. This seemingly nonsensical truth finds its expression in Job’s request, “O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me from your wrath!” and most especially in God’s own words as He hung dying on the cross.

If we, as Christians, affirm that Jesus was God, then we affirm that God has known these three things – death, suffering, and betrayal from God. These three things we share in common. This is why we are able to cry with God, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani,” as we sit in the dust with Job. Our consolation is not in an explanation, but in the power of God’s sympathetic presence. You see, God does not magically erase our pain. God does not magically restore our lost possessions. God does not magically bring the dead back to life. Despite our most fervent wishes, God is not a God of magic. But God is a God of Healing; God is a God of Restoration; God is a God of Resurrection. Let me repeat, God is a God of Resurrection.

Now, for Job, death is final. There is no hope for humans after death – in the Hebrew cosmology of the time they are consigned to Sheol, cut off from God forever. Even for the disciples on that fateful Saturday, hope seemed a foolish thing. Can a human being, having died, live again?

There is a place between loss and renewal. It is a place of grief and pain. It is a place where our questioning goes unanswered, and God continues to sit with us in the dust. It is the place occupied by Job, and it was the place the disciples found themselves in after their beloved teacher had been violently ripped away from them. It is the darkest hour of a seemingly endless night, and yet even though we cannot see it the dawn is coming. Job will receive twice as much as he had before. The disciples will experience Jesus, resurrected. We, too, place our hope in the healing, restoring, resurrecting power of God. But we still need to remember that the dawn signals a new day – it does not bring back the old. Job’s previous possessions, his children are still lost. The resurrected Jesus is not the same Jesus come back to live out his days with the disciples. Our hope is not that we will get back what we lost; instead our hope is in the new thing that God is about to do for us, just as soon as the sun rises. But for now it is night, and we wait, crying out to God, with God, until our release should come.

 

*Which, in Aramaic, means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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