Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Do You See? (Sermon: Job 42 and Mark 10)



I’ve never much cared for the ending of Job.

No, that’s not true.  I’ve really never been able to stand the ending of Job.

The first part, and the first part of our reading this morning -- that’s ok.  You recall that three weeks ago, we embarked upon a journey with Job, a journey in which he became subject and victim of God’s wager with the Satan, the accuser.  Satan was sure that he could demonstrate that Job, broken and injured and grieved, would turn away from God.  God, who wanted Job’s love only if freely given, only if it were not a response to all the privilege and prosperity which had come Job’s way in life, was willing to risk finding out which way Job would go.  The initial result of their bet? Job lost pretty much everything.

Two weeks ago, we listened to Job, who had had it with pious mutterings about God’s will and with the so-called friends who told him that it was all his own fault.  Job began to pour out to God his rage and pain and grief, becoming an example to us for the reality that whatever it is that we have to say to God, God is here to listen.  

And then last week, we delved into God’s response, the God of all creation, who reminded Job, and reminds us, that there is much more to this universe than we can know or understand, and that we are part of a much grander scheme: God’s entire self-gift, self-donation, which God is laboring to redeem.

In the first part of our reading today, we hear Job’s rejoinder to God, Job reflecting on his conversation with God:

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted [ says Job, remembering God’s question,] ”Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” [Job acknowledges,] Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. [He thinks of God’s words,]“Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.” [and concludes,]I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

This little passage presents some translation challenges that will have to await another day; suffice it for us to say that Job’s words echo God’s of the preceding chapters.  “Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” – that’s what Job sees now.  Job has heard and seen God, God in a voice of sovereignty and power, God in the vision of stars and thunder and rains and animals and plants.

Has that ever happened to you?  I remember a day, many years ago, on which a devastating situation had presented itself in our family.  I had to get up very early for a meeting that morning, and I drove off in the dark, dejected and bewildered, not sure what to do about all the problems that had suddenly landed on my doorstep.  The meeting was on the top floor of an office building of several stories, and when I got off the elevator into the reception area and looked out the windows, there was one of the most astonishing sunrises I had ever seen: all sorts of reds and roses and oranges and purples beginning to break over the horizon.  A sunrise which was going to occur no matter what I was doing or how I felt; a sunrise that would proceed with no involvement whatever from me.  “Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

We should note that while Job repents, when he sees, he repents – he turns, for that’s what the word “repent” means – to turn – he turns from his lack of knowledge, from his failed vision, to something new.  There’s no evidence that he regrets having sought to engage God, nor that God wants him to regret it. Job wanted to see God, and God becomes present to Job.

Isn’t it interesting that our reading of Job today is paired with Mark’s story of Bartimaeus? To start with, in the version I read, Bartimaeus tells Jesus that he wants to see AGAIN. “Let me see again,” he says. Evidently, he could see, he did have his eyesight, at some time in the past.  And he wants his sight back – again.  Once wasn’t enough.

We could leave it at that.  We could say that of course, it’s not enough, to have seen in the past. While there are some people who tell us that blindness has made them who they are, and that they would not trade themselves and their own lives for someone else and his or hers, for most people,  as a purely practical matter, life without eyesight is challenging at best, and often completely debilitating.  It’s not enough to know what things look like; most of us want to see and navigate our way around the world for ourselves.  We could say that that’s all that Bartimaeus wants.  An ordinary, sighted life.

But where Jesus, and encounters with Jesus are concerned, the words “I want to see again” always mean so much more, whether the speaker knows it or not.  “I want to see anew.”  “I want to see differently.”  “I want to see things I have not seen before.”  “I want vision, and not just sight.”  Whether we expect it or not, when we tell Jesus, or God, that we want to see – we WILL see, anew and differently.

So Job and Bartimaeus – they both want to see.  To see what they have not seen before.  And see they do.  

We can understand from that one parallel why these two stories have been placed together for us. But there’s another interesting connection between the stories, and it’s what tells us that God is not angry – that God delights, in fact – in those who turn to God.  In Job, it comes in a short passage that’s not part of today’s official reading, so I’ll read it a sentence of it  to you now: “[The Lord said to one of Job’s friends, ““My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. . .”.

God is not happy with those three friends, who have spent so much of their time with Job engaged in commentary.  They’ve told him what God is like, and they’ve told him that he must have deserved what he got.  But not once have those friends talked to God.  Not once have they prayed for Job.  Not once have they prayed with Job.  Not once have they even attempted to dwell in the stillness of God, to listen to God, to seek God for themselves or on behalf of Job.  And they are the ones – not Job – whose conduct God condemns.

Let’s look at the gospel story again.  Bartimaeus is calling out through a large crowd on the edge of Jericho, calling for Jesus’ attention.  And how does the crowd respond?  Do they help him, support him, make way for him?  No, the gospel tells us that they “sternly” order him to be quiet, until Jesus asks that he be brought forward.  Sternly.  The pew Bible translation says that they “rebuked” him.  Here is Bartimaeus, recognizing in Jesus’ voice and presence someone who changes lives, and longing to reach him, and his friends do everything they can to stop him.  Do you suppose that his friends are direct descendants of Job’s friends?

Now these are the two sections of Job’s ending that have seemed to me to make some sense.  Job understands that his vision has been limited and has now been expanded.  And we are assured that Job, in all his questioning, has had it right, and that his friends, in their smug self-righteousness, have not.  I think we’re good so far.

The problem for me, and I would guess for many of you, lies in the third section, the end of our reading today and the end of the Book of Job.  What happens?

The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters.

Suddenly, the story seems to have switched course.  Suddenly it seems that maybe the friends were right – perhaps Job did deserve for bad things to happen to him, and now that he has properly repented, good things come his way.  

What has happened here?  Do we throw out all the genuine, unanswerable questions raised by the lengthy poem in the middle of the book in favor of a pat and easy ending?   A prosperity gospel ending?  An ending that says, “Turn to God, and life is guaranteed to be good again.”

Do we just live with the likelihood that the ending and beginning, the prose sections, were written long before the poem of depth and mystery, and eventually were made into a sort of framework for the poetry?  That we have before us nothing more than a  problem of literary history?

Do we just accept something completely unacceptable to us sophisticated 21st century folks, that a new life obliterates the trauma of the old, and worst of all, that ten new children easily replace those who were lost?

Try telling that to the woman on Staten Island whose little sons were swept away from her in the hurricane flooding this past week.  Try telling it to the parents of the young police officer who died trying to help his father to safety above the waters engulfing their neighborhood.

No.  We all know that children are irreplaceable. People are irreplaceable, and whether we have lost spouses, or parents, or siblings, or children, we know: New ones do not substitute for those who are gone.

That’s why I’ve never had much use for this ending of Job.  It did not seem to me to speak to real life.  There was no way to make it work.

But in preparing these sermons, I read some material that offered me a slightly different take on matters.  I am much indebted to a couple of commentators[1] who suggest that we think about what would have been involved for Job in starting over.

And so that’s what I have, indeed, been thinking about this month.  What does it cost Job to start over?  Job knows now, better than most of us may be required to, the price of love.  The risk of love.  The potential for great suffering inherent in love.  And yet he accepts new children and new opportunity from God.

I expect that it took him a long time.  The Bible, you know, often describes in a few words something that takes years to unfold.  “Job had seven sons and three daughters” – that’s all it says – and as sort of an afterthought.  But if we ponder that sentence for even a couple of minutes, we know:  Ten years, at least.  Maybe twenty.  That’s how long it takes to have ten children,  A decade or two of recovery time.  And surely as long to rebuild the flocks and herds of animals. And with each stage of recovery: anticipation, apprehension, memories of past loss.  This is not an easy fix for Job and his wife.  This is not a fix that you would casually suggest as a possibility to someone who has just suffered great loss.This takes time.  Lots of time.  

And yet, it happens.  Not the same as before.  Not the same children, whom Job no doubt mourned for the rest of his life. Not the same servants, many of whom must have been his friends and close companions.  Not the same animals, not the same appearance to his land and property.  When we look at the pictures of the hurricane devastation in New York and New Jersey, we comprehend, a little bit: Not the same.  Never the same again.

But resurrection can happen.  We are offered new vision.  New possibilities.  New ways forward.  God took a great risk with Job.  Way back at the beginning of our tale, God took a chance on the Satan’s wager.  God took a chance that Job would rise above the conventionalities of his friends; God took a chance that Job would stick with God.  God’s love for us is so great that God is willing to risk disappointment on our behalf.  As it turns out, God is even willing to risk the life of God’s own son on our behalf.

By the end of both of our readings today, we see that genuine entanglement with God demands an acceptance of risk on our part as well.   Job says that “now my eye sees you,” and he risks a new future, one upon which he embarks with the sure knowledge that all that he holds dear, all except one thing – the presence of God – can be taken from him.  Bartimaeus, who regains his sight, acquires new vision and becomes a follower of Jesus – and if you know your Bible at all, you know that following Jesus is not a risk-free endeavor.  

Risk – and love.  That’s why Job is a great work of literature.  That’s why Job is a great book of Scripture.  All great books, and all great lives, are about the same thing: Risk, and love.  All great lives emerge from the willingness to risk seeing God, and God’s love, in all things.  In all circumstances.  At all times.

What do you see?  If you are Job today, if you are struggling with tragedy and loss, perhaps you see God in the whirlwind of all creation, in a force far beyond your comprehension.  Perhaps even in the hurricane.  If you are Bartimaeus today, if you are longing for a chance at seeing anew, perhaps you see God in the lone figure at the side of the road from whom you seek healing, and whom you begin to follow in the ordinary life given you each day.   The one you follow when you are in your kitchen, missing someone you love.  The one you follow when you are at school or work, trying to meet challenges that seem beyond you.

God says to Job, See my love in all grand things, and risk life anew.  Jesus says to Bartimaeus, See me standing before you on this ordinary day, and risk life anew.

No matter who you are, no matter where you are in life, you are called to risk encounter with God, and to risk the new life God sets before you.  Thanks be, and Amen.


[1] Kathryn Shifferdecker, who mentions Ellen Davis in workingpreacher.org.

(Preaching WAY out ahead of myself tomorrow.)

6 comments:

  1. Praying for you as you preach this prophetic sermon tomorrow. Love and risk.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Risk life anew". Yes, that is what we are called to do each and every day. Please know that this is another excellent and challenging sermon. Prayers for you also.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I read this yesterday, and then again today. I've always struggled with Job and that ending myself.

    Yet a certain truth remains - the one at the end of your sermon, which resonates deeply in my own heart. The risk of encounter with God is what we are called to. And reluctantly or not, I know that I keep trying to show up for it. Risky, yes. Necessary? Without a doubt.

    Prayers for you always!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting and praying.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I cantored the psalm this morning (18 -- I love you, Lord, my strength...) and began this morning by reflecting on this sermon and then practicing the psalm with Job in mind -- and praying for your preaching!

    I have to say, having had my own Job moments, I've always read this ending as a mix of the sweet and the bitter. The joy of the here and now, the pain of the here and now. I looked at my son last night, thinking that except for the horror of an April night twenty-five years ago, he would not exist.

    ReplyDelete