Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 11, 2009

2009.10.11 “Voice from the Ash Heap: The Story of Job, Part 2”

Central United Methodist Church

“Voice from the Ash Heap:

The Story of Job, Part 2”

Job 23: 1 – 17
Pastor David L. Haley

October 11th, 2009

“Then Job said:

Still my condition is desperate;

his fist still beats on my skull.

If only I knew where to meet him

and could find my way to his court.

I would argue my case before him;

 would flow from my mouth.

I would counter all his arguments

and disprove his accusations.

Would he try to overpower me

or refuse to hear my defense?

Surely he would listen to reason;

I would surely win my case.

For he knows that I am innocent;

if he sifts me I will shine like gold.

My feet have walked on his way

and never strayed from his path.

I have kept all his commandments,

treasuring his words in my heart.

But he wills, and who can stop him?

What he wishes to do, he does.

He will go ahead with his plans,

devising my endless torment.

That is why terror grips me;

when I think of it, I am appalled.

He has wring the strength from my mind

and pumped my heart full of sorrow.

Yet I am not silenced by darkness

or the night that covers my face.”

(Job 23: 1 – 17, from The Book of Job by Stephen Mitchell)

 

 

        Good news on the medical front: a study published this summer in the journal NeuroReport shows that bad language may be good for you.  The study found that swearing may not be only an expression of agony, but also a means to alleviate it.  So when you stub your toe on the way to the bathroom at night, hit your thumb with a hammer, or get stabbed with that H1N1 flu shot, you might want to mutter a few choice words.

 

There was a catch, though: The study also found the more we swear, the less emotionally potent the words become. So there is a danger that you if you overdue it, you could use up the value of swearing before you really need it. Without emotion, all that’s left is the swearword itself, unlikely to soothe anyone’s pain, but cause more problems than it solves. (Scientific American, “Why the #$%! Do We Swear? For Pain Relief,” by Frederik Joelving, July 12, 2009)

 

Knowing this, you may not be surprised – though you may be shocked – by what comes out of Job the sufferer’s mouth today, in Job chapter 3, verse 1, where, as rendered in the translation of Stephen Mitchell, Job says:

 

             “God damn the day I was born

                   and the night that forced me from the womb.”

 

      Despite the legendary patience of Job, as Thomas Long says, “Those are words of a man whose patience, if he ever had any, has clearly worn thin.”

 

      This is my second sermon on the ancient Book of Job, our Old Testament reading for the month of October. It offers us the rare opportunity to look at THE book of the Bible that deals most directly with one of the biggest problems for all people of faith, the problem of suffering.

 

Last week, I introduced you to Job, one of the most devout, just, and influential men of the ancient East. If you weren’t here last Sunday, I encourage you to go to our web site and read that sermon for background. I also want to highly recommend The Book of Job, by Stephen Mitchell, which you may also purchase from Amazon.com on our church website. I acknowledge my debt to Mitchell’s work, not only for his eloquent translation, but also for his penetrating insight. 

 

What we learned was that Job was a man who was “tam v’ yashar,” which literally means “whole and upright.”  As Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, he was “honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.”

 

      Then we were taken to a scene in heaven, where, unbeknownst to Job, Job becomes the victim in a wager between God and Satan.  Says Satan (which means “The Accuser”): “Take away all that he has – take his possessions, his family, and finally his health and happiness – all the props that make him faithful,” says Satan to God, “and Job will curse you to your face.” “Go ahead,” says God, “let’s see.”

 

      And so we saw – as we see life’s calamities come to us – Job lose everything: his herds and flocks, his wealth and possessions; his beloved sons and daughters, and finally even his health, as he is stricken with boils and sores all over his body.  He suffers not only in body, mind, and spirit, but becomes an outcast from family, friends, and religion: a silent sufferer sitting alone on an ash heap. Once “whole and upright,” Job is reduced to the complete opposite: “not whole”, but broken in body and heart“; not-upright”, but pulled down into the dust by the gravity of his anguish. (Mitchell, p. xi). His own wife challenges him to end it, to “curse God and die,” but Job would not. As the text says, “in all this Job did not curse God.”  

 

      The last thing that happened last week was that three of Job’s friends arrived to comfort him, by the names of Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Namathite. At first, they are correct in their behavior; we can feel the sensitivity and compassion in the author’s brief account: “Then they sat with him for seven days and seven nights. And no one said a word, for they saw how great his suffering was.”

 

      I made the point that in our case the “ash heap” of life is likely to be in an ambulance, in a hospital or an institution. Perhaps when you are standing in your front yard after your house burned down, when you have chest pain that feels like an elephant sitting on your chest, in the doctor’s office where your doctor has just informed you that you have cancer, or when officers knock on your front door to tell you your child has just been killed in an auto crash, or while away at war.  How would you react, what would you do, what would you say?

 

Tracy Della Vecchia is the founder of Marine Parents.com.  In the May 29, 2005 New York Times Magazine, she told of such a  “near miss” moment for her. It was during her son Derrick’s first deployment to Iraq, in 2003, right after the war started. Said Tracy:

 

”I was a basket case. Five-thirty in the morning, I’m not sleeping anyway, I go downstairs and make coffee. You’ve seen my house — nobody ever comes down my driveway. But a car comes down my driveway. A Lincoln Town Car, a ”Crown Victoria.” And it’s got these little antennas. And I’m sure someone’s coming to tell me my son has died. I’m sure of it. And I literally fall down on my knees. I’m saying to myself, ‘You’ve got to answer the door, you’ve got to answer the door.’ I’m yelling for my husband, but nothing’s coming out of my mouth. I’m crawling toward the door. The car turns around the driveway circle. It stops for a minute. I think: O.K. He’s going to get out. He’s going to come tell me now. And — he drives away. I come busting out the door. ‘Wait! Wait!’ But he didn’t. So I call 911: There’s somebody at my door! My son’s in Iraq!’ Turns out it’s the fire district. There was smoke coming from someplace. They were going up and down driveways trying to find out where it was from.”

 

      Considering, then all that happened to Job, when he finally opens his mouth, should we be shocked?  Believe me, I’ve heard worse.  If it happened to me, I’d probably say worse.

 

      As Stephen Mitchell says, “When Job discovers his voice after the long silence, he doesn’t curse God explicitly, as the Accuser said he would.  But he comes as close as possible. He curses his own life, and in doing so curses all of life – an ultimate blasphemy for those who believe that life is an ultimate good.” (Mitchell, xii)

 

      If you’re shocked by Job’s words, so are Job’s friends, who can no longer keep silent.  What follows is a series of dialogues, three speeches each with a response from Job, in which his friends accuse him, as illustrated here by the English artist William Blake.

 

Theatrically, the dialogues are exhausting, because there’s lots of talk but not much action. The friends repeat themselves over and again, looping through the same arguments and scoring the same points.  Indeed, if we listen carefully, we can recognize in Job’s friends voices still heard around church – sometimes our own voices – still shocked and afraid of honest religious questioning.  Really, we may find much in the speeches of Job’s friends to agree with, if not their main point.

 

Which, as Stephen Mitchell summarizes, basically, comes to this: The Friends: Suffering comes from God. God is just.  Therefore, Job, you are guilty.  Job maintains, on the other hand: Suffering comes from God. I am innocent. Therefore God is unjust. To all of them, a third possibility is not even thinkable:  Suffering comes from God. God is just. Job is innocent. (No therefore.) (Mitchell, p. xiii)

 

Ultimately, the dialogue is not so much about theological positions as human reactions. Afraid of any real contact with Job and his grief, his friends stay locked inside their own minds. 

 

      I have heard it said on more than one occasion, by those who have suffered a great loss, how some comforters came and talked, trying to help them feel better, and they couldn’t wait for them to leave. But other comforters came and sat quietly, without saying a word, and when they left, they were sorry to see them go.

 

      But the friends are really only supporting actors, and our attention is focused upon Job.  Again, quoting Mitchell:

 

      “His speeches are a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions, addressed to his friends, to himself, to God.  His attitude shifts constantly, and can veer to its direct opposite in the space of a few verses, the stream of consciousness all at once a torrent. He wants to die; he wants to prove that he is innocent; he wants to shake his fist at God for leaving the world in such a wretched shambles.  God is his enemy; God has made a terrible mistake; God has forgotten him; or doesn’t care; God will surely defend him, against God. His question, the harrowing question of someone who has only heard of God, is “Why me?”  There is no answer, because it is the wrong question. He will have to struggle with it until he is exhausted, like a child crying himself to sleep. (Mitchell, xv, xvi)

 

      There are times when Job – in his speeches – reaches the eloquence and profundity of an ancient Shakespeare.  I commend them to all who suffer, to all who question.  Once you begin quoting, it’s hard to stop, but consider – for example – chapter 14, one of the best known and most quoted passages, here rendered by Stephen Mitchell:

 

             “Man who is born of woman—

                   how few and harsh are his days!

             Like a flower he blooms and withers;

                   like a shadow he fades in the dark.

             He falls apart like a wine-skin,

                   like a garment chewed by moths.

             And must you take account of him?

                   Must you call him to account?

             Since all his days are determined

                   and the sum of his years is set—

             look away; leave him alone;

                   grant him peace, for one moment.” (Job 14: 1 – 6)

 

      In these speeches it is obvious that Job is a different character from the patient hero of the legend.  He is no longer primarily a rich man bereft of his possessions and heartbroken over his dead children. Job has become Everyman, grieving for all of human misery, suffering not only his own personal pain, but the pain of all the poor and despised. (Mitchell, xvi) He becomes the precursor of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah who bears our sorrows, the forerunner of another who, though himself innocent, would suffer on a Roman cross, quoting Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

 

      The Book of Job is the great poem of moral outrage.  It gives voice to every accusation about God, and its blasphemy is cathartic. How liberating it feels not to be a good, patient little God-fearer, scuffling from one’s hole in the wall to squeak out a dutiful hymn of praise. Job’s own voice has freed him so that he can move from the curses of his first speech to the final self-affirmation as his own attorney for the defense. There, with oaths of the gravest dignity and horror, he becomes upright again in his wish to “stand before [God] like a prince.”  It is this passionate insistence that carries him into the eye of the whirlwind, where God will speak.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” said Jesus, “for they shall be filled.” (Mitchell, xvii)

 

      So we end where we began, at the fact that honest religious praying and questioning – as swearing – may be emotionally and spiritually carthartic, therapeutic, transformative. 

 

      In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, there is a saying of Jesus not found in the four canonical Gospels, but which many Christian scholars believe authentic to Jesus. There, Jesus says:  “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you.”

 

      What – like Job – do we have inside us that needs to come forth, in order that we might be saved, transformed?

 

[I acknowledge my debt to The Book of Job (Translated and with an Introduction) by Stephen Mitchell.  It is on my list of recommended books, and may be purchased on Amazon.com through our church website at www.skokiecentralumc.org, which enables a portion of your purchase to go to our church.

I also acknowledge Thomas G. Long’s article in Theology Today,  “Job: Second Thoughts in the Land of Uz.” (April 1988, Vol. 45, No. 1)

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