October 25, 2015

Pentecost 22 October 25, 2015 (Psalm 334,Job 29:1-5, 10-13; 30:24-29; Mark 10:46-52) Job 42

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God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind – asking question after question after question… And when God finally stops asking and speaking…

Job speaks to God: “I know you can do all things… and no purpose of yours can be thwarted… I spoke of things I didn’t understand… (Things too wonderful for me)…. I had heard about you – now I have met you… Now I repent in dust and ashes.”

(And) What does Job mean by “I repent? … in dust and ashes?”

I’ve been remembering my seminary Christian Ethics professor, Dr Cartright, not long before he retired, looking back, telling us about being ordained (half a century or so earlier)…Not sure he could go through with it; not sure about the vows he was taking. He said ‘We were all kneeling at the altar, and the Bishop was praying over us; we were saying yes to a series of questions, pledging our lives to God…And I was doing ok with all that… Till the bishop said we will promise to abstain from drinking and smoking. Which I wasn’t ready to do. So I started to get up on my feet to leave,’ our Professor said. ‘But the bishop put his hand on my shoulder, kept the pressure on… Before I knew it, the service was over, and I was ordained.’

Which is a bit like how I picture God, stopping Job in his tracks as he’s attempting to repent of what he’s said to God and to his friends…

God is, of course, ok with Job repenting of sin; and Job freely admits he’s not sinless, several times, in earlier speeches. And God of course, encourages Job (and all of us) to repent of whatever we say about God that isn’t correct. And now that he’s encountered God in person and experienced the majesty of God firsthand, now Job indeed knows God is beyond rational understanding. Led by God’s leading questions, Job earnestly repents of thinking God has to be like we think God has to be, and act like we think God ought to act…

But if Job is attempting to repent of what he’s said about his friends, the theologians, who’ve been telling him to repent of sins he hasn’t committed – badgering him to accept their conventional-wisdom – Well – God will not let Job repent of that.

And if Job is attempting to repent of how he spoke to God – with anger, hurt, and pain in his voice – with loud shouts and hollering, raging against the injustice of his suffering… God won’t let him repent of that either.

Job is a blameless, upright man, scripture tells us. He’s been blessed with a wife, seven sons, three daughters – also thousands of sheep and camels, hundreds of oxen and donkeys, and many servants.

But God allows, permits, even encourages The Accuser, the Prosecuting Attorney of the heavenly courts – to put Job to the test. Then Job loses his wealth, his servants, his beloved sons and daughters, his own health and happiness, and all he used to know about God…

Yet even sitting in a heap of ashes, covered with dust, afflicted with painful sores, Job says: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

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Through the centuries, some have heard Job as an account of a literal particular person in history. Many others (me included) have heard Job as a parable. As I hear it, a parable not designed to explain undeserved suffering – nearly as much as to vindicate those who are suffering… And challenge all who try to explain God and suffering and life… too easily.

I hear Job also as a parable about Job’s friends – those mostly good, kind, virtuous, intelligent people who grieve with Job in silence for a whole week, until Job speaks at last, cursing the day he was born. Then Job’s friends start to lose it – and argue relentlessly with Job, trying to convince him his sufferings are because of something he’s done, for which he must repent.

But Job refuses to confess sins he hasn’t committed. And his friends and Job argue, back and forth, in artfully-phrased poetic speech…And as they argue, words escalate, emotions boil, tension builds, on and on, through thirty-some chapters… Till, finally last week, we heard God speak out of the whirlwind – asking Job a string of more than 70 questions, all along the lines of “where were you when I made the universe? Do you understand the proper care and feeding of every species under the sun and beneath the seas? Would you to like run the universe?”

Midway through God’s address, Job tries to say that he’s throwing in the towel. God is right, he is wrong. He has nothing more to say. (Well, at least God has shown up – which was Job’s main request all along.)

But God goes on talking and asking questions, for two more chapters. Til finally, God stops. And now Job speaks again.

Job admits he’s not up to running the universe, and no, he doesn’t understand all God’s purposes in creation. And now Job starts to speak of repenting in dust and ashes…

Or – does he perhaps say – repenting concerning dust and ashes? The Hebrew can be interpreted either way. I repent in dust and ashes – or I repent concerning dust and ashes. Either way is grammatically correct. Preferred translation choices depend on context. The phrase dust and ashes occurs only two other times in scripture. Elsewhere “dust and ashes” is a metaphor for the human condition. God made humankind from the dust of the earth. When life is over we say ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’ Abraham famously says to God “I who am dust and ashes” – then goes on to ask boldly in the same sentence for God to spare a whole wicked city from destruction. So Job may well be speaking of repenting of sitting so long in the ashes of despair – when even though he is, yes, dust and ashes, he is also made in the image of God, just as God has challenged him to recognize and acknowledge…

Exactly what Job means is open to interpretation. What’s not so very open to interpretation is God’s vindication of Job – and God’s rebuking of Job’s friends for their pious platitudes about right always triumphing over wrong. The conventional wisdom Job’s friends have spouted…is now revealed as folly and delusion. (And…)

Now God tells Job’s friends – ‘you’ve all spoken incorrectly about me. You have not spoken of me rightly, as my servant Job has done. Go, offer sacrifices for yourselves, and ask Job to pray for you.’ They do. Job does. The Lord accepts Job’s prayer for his friends. And now Job’s fortunes are restored. He receives back double all the wealth he’s lost, and seven new sons and three new daughters are born to him and his wife.

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Of course we know… Sheep and oxen can be replaced… Sons and daughters cannot be replaced. Job is certainly acutely aware of this. And surely Job bears some deep emotional scars, some post-traumatic-stress… that will not heal quickly or easily…..And so what are we to make of this ending?

Certainly, we can’t be talking about a simplistic restoration – like we hear of in the ancient riddle: “What happens when you play a country and western record backwards?”

(“Your wife comes back. Your dog comes back… Your truck comes back.”)

Job’s life is, indeed, restored to overflowing. But it’s not restored back to life as life used to be. Life is different now. Life is much fuller than before…full of both tragedy and redemption… Suffering and joy…Full, most of all of new awareness of God’s presence…

Now we see Job changing. Now already-generous-compassionate Job is becoming more expansive in his caring… In the beginning of his story, Job’s sons take turns hosting banquets, with all siblings invited. We’re told Job frequently offers sacrifices for all his children. But we never hear the names of Job’s sons and daughters… Their characters are not described even a little…

Till now, at the end of the story, we’re told – Job’s daughters are the most beautiful women in the land… And now they all have beautiful names: Jemimah (meaning Dove), Keziah (meaning Cinnamon), Keren-happuch (meaning Eye-Shadow-cosmetic-container). Unusually colorful names for biblical characters. And now Job’s daughters inherit property equally with their brothers. Not the way things were usually done in those days, or in many places, still today. No explanation is given, but change has surely come to Job and his family….

Things are different, now – we see in the details of this new life. God has revealed – and Job has seen – God’s hand at work – not just in human affairs, but in God’s care for the ostrich, the wild ox, the wild ass; the raven, the eagle, the jackal, the lion – every creature Job’s mentioned to God – confirmed now, by God, as beloved of God… The stars in their orbits above, sea-monsters in frolic below – all creatures matter to me, God says from out of the whirlwind.

Now Job has met God face to face. Nothing will be the same again. All Job has tried to express (best he could) through his urgent prolonged prayer – has been heard. (And Job’s approach to prayer – notice – has caught on. His passionate uninterruptable prayer technique’s imitated by blind Bartimaeus in our gospel reading today – with success.) The wild stormy prayer Job has prayed has been heard… by God… Now Job – and his friends – and all who listen – know…

To speak well about God… we must speak first, rightly, with God.

And to speak well with God we must speak up for each other…Our fellow humans – dust and ashes, yet made in the image of God – all need our prayers.

We depend on each other. God tells Job’s friends – their forgiveness and redemption depends on Job’s prayers. And – (we should also notice) – even Job’s restoration is on-hold… till he graciously intercedes for his difficult once-and- future friends…

Thanks be to God. Because there are days when I act more like Job’s friends than like Job… And – even Job would probably act like his friends, and they like him – when if roles were reversed. We need each other. We depend upon each other.

And it’s only when we, like Job, hear God speak to us all together… That we understand – God’s extravagant grace. Grace that embraces one and all – on God’s terms, according to God’s script, not ours. Extending God’s love and accountability, together – in God’s undivided grace…

Thanks be to God. Amen.