|I met her in Florida. She later hid under the algae, |
but tho invisible, she was always present.
As I was preparing for last Sunday's service, one of our members died, and I realized I would be preaching with folks who were grieving deeply in the moment. If you know something about Job, you may know that it's not the best scripture to whip out in the midst of fresh grief. "Gird up your loins like a man," is not pastoral care when someone has died, it's spiritual abuse.
The presence of one of our own grieving shaped this sermon. I believe both Mr. B and Mrs. E's family were pleased in the end. The Spirit has a ridiculous sense of humor, even in grief.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
preached at the Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church
Scripture Reading: Job 40-42
Do you know the story of Job? If you’ve been around church a while, you’ve probably heard it a few times. As a refresher—or to tell you the story if you are new to it—here is the basic outline.
There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. He was a righteous man, faithful to God in all things. He had a large family and a huge piece of land: 7 sons and 3 daughters, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 oxen, 500 donkeys, and many many servants. And a wife—he had a wife.
God, in this story, dwells in the heavens and has about him a court of heavenly beings. One day one of the heavenly beings shows up and challenges God about Job. The challenger is called Satan, which means “adversary” in Hebrew (and not, as you might think, “little evil man in a red jumpsuit with a pitchfork and horns”). The Satan was a sort of special prosecutor, and was focused on testing Job’s faithfulness. He said to God, “Job is only faithful to you because you give him good stuff. If you take away all of his good fortune, he will surely curse your name.” So God took up the challenge and gave permission for Satan to torment Job to test whether he would curse God. The only limit was that Satan could not kill Job.
So Satan returned and killed all of Job’s children. And all of the sheep and the camels and the oxen and the donkeys. A bunch of the servants, too. And just when it seemed like it couldn’t get worse, Satan inflicted Job with boils—open sores all over his body.
Unable to bear another moment of his grief, Job went and sat in the ash-heap—the trash pile—the garbage pit. Naked, he sat in the ashes and took a broken piece of pottery and scraped the scabs off his sores.
Disgusted, Job’s wife came out to visit him, and said, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” But Job was a faithful man, and he refused to speak ill of God.
Three of his friends heard about his troubles and came to visit him. Like his wife, the friends came out to the ash heap. When they saw him and how terrible he looked, the friends tore their own clothes, threw ashes on themselves and sat down with Job on the ground. They sat for seven days and seven nights, and they did not speak a word. They just sat with him.
After they sat there for a week, Job finally spoke. He cursed the day of his birth, and longed for death. But he did not curse God.
Then the friends began to speak. The first said that he must have sinned—surely there must have been SOMETHING that Job did to incur the wrath of God. After all, no human can be perfect!
Then God spoke and said, “Who are you to question God? You know that I am faithful to you, O mortal.” But Job gives it right back: “My complaint is just! My suffering is without end. Why do you cause me to suffer so?”
The second friend spoke: “Job must repent! If you will just seek God and ask, then God will restore you. God will not destroy a blameless person!”
Job replies that he is but a small human before the greatness of God. How could Job seek out such a large presence personally? There is no fair trial between God and a human, no person who could mediate such a complaint! And then Job continues with his complaint, “I loathe my life!”
Job’s third friend spoke up: “You deserve this punishment. Your complaints are a mockery of God’s goodness! Who is allowed to question God? Surely not you, Job!”
And so it goes, for 35 chapters or so. Job complains, the friends scold. They argue back and forth as to the righteousness and might of God. Job, still scratching his sores in the trash pile, naked, and miserable, continues to affirm his faith in God, even as he moans and complains, and whines.
Finally, in chapter 38, the Lord decides to answer Job, and his first words are, “Gird up your loins like a man.” Or in other words, “Stand up, shoulders back, plant your feet, soldier! We’re going to have a conversation, you and I. Are you a man or a mouse??”
God spends two chapters reminding Job of God’s greatness: “Where were YOU when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have YOU commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? Who has CUT a channel for the TORRENTS of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring RAIN on a land where no one lives, on the DESERT, which is EMPTY of human life, to satisfy the WASTE and DESOLATE land, and to make the ground put forth GRASS? Do YOU know when the mountain goats give birth? Is the wild ox willing to serve YOU? Is it by YOUR wisdom that the hawk soars?
And then finally, “SHALL A FAULTFINDER CONTEND WITH THE ALMIGHTY?”
And Job said, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?”
Oh, what a story! And God goes on to tell of the behemoth and the leviathan—these great creatures that might be the hippopotamus and the crocodile, or perhaps they are dragons and sea serpents! WHO ARE YOU, PUNY MORTAL, TO QUESTION GOD? YOU DON’T KNOW ME!! YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE!!!!”
Suddenly, in the midst of his terrible grief, Job sees the smallness of his life. In comparison to a dragon or a crocodile or a hippo, or a sea serpent—in comparison to the ability to MAKE such things, to manage such things, what is one small human life?
This world is so big, so complicated, so beautiful and so tragic all at once—how are we as humans to understand the reasons for the rise and fall of our fortunes? In the sudden understanding of the impossibility of understanding, Job stands before God, humble. “I have uttered what I did not understand,” he says. And he repents.
Who among us has not sat in an ash heap, naked, scraping sores off our bodies with a rock? Who among us has escaped sorrow in our brief mortal lives? Well, if you have so far, you won’t forever. One of these days you will wake up and realize there is a crocodile under your bed, the world will collapse, your grief will overtake you. If you are lucky you will have friends and family who will sit in silence a vigil around your grief. They will care enough after a while to argue with you about your grief. They will sit with you while you whine, complain, cry, moan, and wish you were dead. Their sharp words will make you angry. Their words of comfort will provide some balm. And your own words of pain and grief will pour out of you as a prayer to God that only God can answer.
The terrible griefs of this life are inescapable. Perhaps you see such things as a result of the forces of nature. Perhaps you believe in heavenly beings having a joke at your expense. Perhaps you believe like Paul Sartre that hell is other people, and that the free will offered to humans was a mistake. But there is no escaping grief and sorrow in this life—the dragons are real, and they bite.
The Lord restored Job’s fortunes at the end of the book. In the last chapter God chastised the friends for saying all the wrong things to Job in his grief. He told them to go offer a sacrifice and to ask Job’s forgiveness. And when that was done, the Lord gave Job new sons and daughters, more livestock and servants to go with. His family came from far away to comfort Job in his loss, and they each brought him some money to compensate him for his loss.
If you’re lucky, you will find new joys in this life beyond your first losses. But of course, Job is a bit of a fairy tale, with a cheerful, happy ending. Job even names his daughters—an unusual thing in the Bible—and in his generosity, he allows the daughters to inherit from him an equal portion to his sons. He lived 140 more years, and saw his children and grandchildren to the 4th generation. And then he died, old and full of days.
We don’t all get such a second chance in life, that’s for sure. And perhaps my greatest resentment about the book of Job is the glib assumption that new children could replace the children who died. The idea that the old sorrows could be wiped away by the gift of money from some relatives, well, I suppose it couldn’t hurt. If any of you would like to drop off pieces of gold on my doorstep, I can tell you my tale of woe!
But although our fortunes may rise and fall, and although we will lose many of the people we love in this life, there remains the possibility of holding fast to God in the midst of the grief—even in the midst of our accusations. We might, each of us, die old and full of days—and part of the fullness is the grief we bear.
The story doesn’t tell us, but I bet Job retained the scars from the sores on his body until the day he died. Joyful though he probably was at his renewed fortunes, Job is as human as the rest of us. The scars we bear from the pain of this life don’t ever really leave us. But they are part of the fullness too, so that if we are to die old and full of days, it is our part to face the sorrow that comes and to the embrace the joy when we can.
When my son was two it seemed to me that he was full-grown. He had a personality bigger than our house. And when I couldn’t stand it another minute, I took him outside, to let him play in the grass and in the bigness of the world, so that I could be reminded again of just how little he was. This then is an answer to sorrow—to set it against the backdrop of a much bigger world, a much bigger God, and to see for ourselves that we are but one piece of this very complicated life.
It’s only one answer, though, and not a prescription. A thousand ways to deal with grief, and all of them honorable. But if you seek a path to dying old and full of days, know that thar be dragons ahead, and that the Lord’s answers may not satisfy. It is to this that we are called in our Christian lives: Christ calls us to follow after him, to take up our cross and come along. I see in that calling something of Job. In our faithfulness to God we will see much sorrow. In our faithfulness to the cross there may be much pain, and even death. Yet the promise of resurrection, fulfilled in Jesus who went before us, holds out hope even in the hardest of days. Hold fast, my friends, hold fast.