A Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 27 – Year C – 10 November 2013
John Edward Miller, Rector
“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;and after my skin has been thus destroyed,then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:23-27a)
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“How are we going to get through this?” That may rank as one of life’s most frequently asked questions. Every priest has heard it, and so have counselors, physicians, nurses, and caregivers of many sorts. The question arises out of fear and perplexity, and it is commonly asked when prospects have dwindled and options have vanished from sight. That is a dark place in which to be, and the question is a plea for a ray of light to reveal the way forward. So the question isn’t rhetorical; it expects a straightforward, practical answer – one that will offer hope for the future.
We all have the need to know that, despite evidence to the contrary, things are going to turn out well in the end.
All of the biblical texts appointed for today’s lessons point toward the end. Each of them speaks of the last day, when history reaches its conclusion. They rest on the belief that God the Lord will ultimately triumph, vanquishing evil and vindicating the righteous. Resurrection hope pervades these pieces of Scripture. That is to say, they proclaim that God’s power of love is stronger than death; it can transform the shadows that haunt us into the light of morning.
The text from Job anticipates the hope of resurrection long before the debates between the Sadducees and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and before Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Job is an ancient story dating from the second millennium before Jesus. It has been edited since that time, and its biblical form dates from about the year 550 B.C.E. The later version was composed during one of the worst disasters in the history of Israel. It roughly dates to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, as well as the seizure and deportation of the core of its population – including the king, the priests, and leading citizens. That utter catastrophe led people to question their trust in God, and it made them wonder, “How are we going to get through this?” For the hapless, hopeless captives the future was as blank as a snow pattern on a television screen.
Many a person in the throes of grief has seen that blank screen. The loss of the one they love robs them of a future vision. Picturing what lies ahead seems futile; it is as if one is blind. So, getting through such a time is a physical, emotional, and spiritual ordeal. Proceeding one-day-at-a-time is the best that some survivors can do.
We can picture the people of Jerusalem on the forced march to Babylon. They were humiliated and traumatized by their captors as they moved away from the ruins of their holy city and into a foreign land. Psalm 137 is a lament that captures the sense of desolation that the homeless mourners felt:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? (vss. 1-4)
that question summed up the people’s plight. They didn’t know how to act anymore. They didn’t know what to think. And they didn’t know how they were going to get through their being exiled from everything they had counted on being there for them – always.
In Job’s case, the blank screen was created by devastating personal loss – the near total loss of the people and things he cherished. That included all of his children, all of his household servants, his livestock, and his home. His world was shattered, and his expectations were destroyed. Moreover, he was afflicted with boils on his skin and with a misery that seemed as though it would never stop. Job’s belief was that you get what you deserve in life: the righteous are rewarded and the evildoers are punished. Indeed, that was the prevailing belief of his time. It rested on the assumption that God has total control and is totally fair. Job was one of the righteous, and his life was supposed to be blessed and happy. However, that isn’t how it worked out. His life was a calamity, and he was stunned by the unfairness of it all. Job sat in sackcloth and ashes mourning the loss of his livelihood, his loved ones, and his innocence.
To add insult to injury, three so-called comforters came to visit Job. Their purpose was not so much to console him but to accuse and condemn him. The visitors basically said that they were sorry for his loss, but thought it was necessary that Job face the facts: he must have done something to deserve the thrashing he had endured. Three times the comforters stepped up, delivered this bad news, and waited for Job’s admission of guilt and contrition. But Job did not comply. Instead he protested his innocence and got increasingly agitated at them and disappointed in God.
Like his tormentors Job assumed that the LORD is sovereign over creation, and causes everything that happens. So, ironically Job was of the same opinion as the three who rubbed salt into his wounds. Everyone thought that his tragic losses were not accidental; they were the result of God’s will. The difference between Job and his detractors was that, unlike them, he now doubted that God is just. What had befallen him was not right; he knew that, and he wanted God to explain the reason for it all. Job’s life was in chaos. But he would not just knuckle under and accept blame for what he had not caused. Nor would he repudiate God. Throughout all of the pain and grief he experienced, Job was not tempted to say that there is no God. He maintained his belief in the power of his Creator, and in the LORD’s ability to rectify an egregious wrong. However, as long as he had to suffer God’s silence, Job could not, and would not, sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land – the land where expectations are dashed and hope is lost.
The excerpt we read today is Job’s reply to a comforter named Bildad. He has just been told once again that he needs to own up to his sins that brought about his destruction. His response is filled with anguish, but it does not contain any hint of repentance. Job’s famous patience was growing thin. Nevertheless, he does not lash out at Bildad. Instead, he asks for his friend’s mercy, as well as for his empathy. Job says:
All my bosom friends detest me, Those I love turn against me.
My flesh rots on my bones, My teeth drop from my gums.
Pity me, pity me, my friends, For the hand of God has struck me.
Why do you pursue me like God? Are you not satisfied with my flesh?
Those pitiful words immediately precede our text today. Reading them we might expect that Job’s next utterance would resemble his wife’s grim counsel, namely that he curse God and die. She said that he should simply give it up and throw in the towel, because no matter how absurd and unjust his fate was, it was not going to be resolved. However, that is not what Job would say. His surprising faith, despite all of his wounds and deep grief, would not quit. It would not stop hoping for a better end. Job said:
O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
Job wanted his story to be recorded in a way that would last – that would not fly forgotten as a dream flies at the break of day. He wanted his testimony to be remembered, because he knew intuitively that one day he would be vindicated and pronounced innocent. He was sure that his time of reckoning was coming even though he might not be there in person to hear the pronouncement. That is, Job’s hope was focused on his Redeemer – on one whose life would visibly stand up for him, and be with him, and give him peace, even though he may succumb to his suffering. Job’s Redeemer would bridge the yawning chasm between God and humans, who from time to time languish in what they perceive to be God’s absence. His presence would make the connection, and would show the way forward – past the blank screens and the clouds of this mortal life that obscure our view of the loving who God is, and has always been, with us. Job knew that, while we lose sight of that redemptive presence in the midst of sorrow, God is there nonetheless, guiding us through the valley of the shadow of death to the place that he has prepared for us.
Job’s story was indeed recorded, and we are his beneficiaries. His hope in a Redeemer has for us, and for him, been fulfilled. In Christ Jesus God is with us and for us. His life assures us that none of us is ever alone even as we walk the trail of tears; for he is our companion in the way. He walks alongside the dazed people of Jerusalem who have lost their holy city and their beloved temple, and who question what God has let happen to them. He walks with Job through the shattering experience of injustice, loss, and grief. He walks alongside the victims of violence, oppression, and bigotry, He walks alongside those who hear bad news, or receive dreaded diagnoses, or cope with unbearable burdens. And he walks with us too – we who share his humanity, and cherish the gift of love, and of life, and who ask, “How are we going to get through this?” He is our living Redeemer. He treads the same path as we do, and he offers us himself, freely accepting our pain, our disappointment, our worry, and our anger as his own cross. We who trust him, and who follow him know this truth:
I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God; whom I shall see for myself and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger. For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For if we live, we live unto the Lord. and if we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labors.