Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Job’s Healing through God’s Creation

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade
Texts: Job 2:1-8; Job 10:1-9; Job 19:23-27, 42:1-6

INTRO DURING ANNOUNCEMENTS: For this Ash Wednesday service, we have built the theme around readings from the book of Job. Job’s lament sitting among the ashes is very appropriate for this service. There is secular song written by the artist Joni Mitchell called “The Sire of Sorrow.” It is a beautiful song that captures the spirit of the book of Job, and we will be playing it during communion.

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” There’s is a well-known book by that title. And it is a central question in the book of Job. From the opening chapters of the book of Job, the feeling you get about Job’s predicament is that it’s not fair. It’s not fair that Satan and God are allowed to place a gamble on his faith. It’s not fair that Job is allowed to be tested. It’s not fair that such a righteous man should lose everything - his wealth, his family, his health.

There is a whole middle section of the book of Job which we were not able to include in our readings today. It’s the discourse between Job and his so-called friends. After Job has been reduced to the ash heap, three men come to talk with him about his situation. In Joni Mitchell’s song she calls them the “Antagonists.” And that’s exactly what they do. They antagonize him, rub salt into his wounds, add insult to injury. They spout off all these pious dictums and self-righteous words that show they have no compassion for Job. They speak with an air of superiority, trying to convince Job that there must have been something he did to deserve this ill treatment.

But Job stands his ground. He knows that he did not bring on this suffering by anything of his own doing. And he insists he wants to speak directly with God to learn what he has done to deserve his suffering. If he could only talk with God, he reasons, he will understand what’s going on, why he’s made to suffer so.

And finally he gets his wish. God speaks to him out of a whirlwind, a hurricane, signifying the immensity of this encounter. But God’s answer is not what Job expected. Rather than explain what guilt Job has incurred to deserve such suffering, God takes the conversation in a completely different direction. God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of creation, showing him the overwhelming task of conjuring up the world in all its diversity of life forms, the staggering array of the cosmos and its creatures therein.
Essentially God says to Job, “Your suffering is not an issue of moral law; it’s not a question of guilt or sin, or anything you did or did not do to deserve what happened to you. Look, you’re going to have to trust me on this one. I’m God, and I know what I’m doing. Don’t let yourself be dragged into this self-doubt by the Antagonists. I created you. You’re going to be fine. Trust me.”

Finally, Job gets it. He answers God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. . . I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 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.” Actually, a closer reading of the Hebrew text at this point gives a slightly different translation: “I rid myself of dust and ashes.” In other words, he does as God advises, letting go of the tug-of-war with the Antagonists, getting up out of the ashes and moving on.

There is a deep humility in Job’s words. Seeing the breathtaking complexity of Creation has given Job a different perspective on God and his place in God’s world.  After having come through everything he endured, there is a settling into acceptance, an inner knowing that the God who created the world has you and me in God’s hands as well. And that whatever trials and tribulations we suffer, there will come a time of redemption, a time of restoration. In the story of Job this actually happens in his lifetime. All his fortunes are restored. He has more children than before and more wealth than he knows what to do with.

In a sense, you could call this a resurrection story. As Christians, we cannot help but look at the story of Job and draw comparisons to Jesus. We look to the person of Jesus, who certainly suffered as Job suffered, and more in his crucifixion. And like Job, he did not deserve it. He incurred no guilt. And, like Job, Jesus had his doubting moments, too. In the Garden of Gesthemane he wrestles with God, “If it can be, let this cup pass from me. Yet not my will, but thy will be done.” And then on the cross, he quotes this famous line from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Like Job, Jesus is stripped of everything and tortured at the hands of men. And the self-righteous religious leaders gather at the foot of the cross like the antagonists to Job, uttering their pious words of judgement, showing no compassion.

And like Job, Jesus holds his ground. Not only that, but the ground holds him.  All of Earth bears witness – the trees lashed together into the cross, the rocks that shake and split, the sun that darkens, the air that receives his last breath.  And, of course, the tomb in the cave of the earth holds all of Jesus’ suffering, cradling it, like the manger cradled his infant form so many years ago. 

Life of Jesus
But on Easter morning as the tomb lies empty and the air stirs with the breath of one who was dead, these words from Chapter 19 in Job could just as well have been uttered by Jesus: “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.”

But I’m getting ahead of things. Easter morning is a long way off. Today, we’re still in the ash heap. Today we are beginning this journey that will have us questioning, doubting, battling with inner and outer demons. And the question is, how will we be with each other during this time of testing? Will we be like those Antagonists? Or can we find another way to relate to each other?

You can probably bring to mind several people in our congregation or in your own life right now who are enduring Job-like suffering. The serious illness or death of a family member or close friend, loss of self-confidence and identity when the job, the marriage, the friendship has crumbled. Like Job we question why God would allow this to happen.”

It’s difficult to sit with people who are in the ashes. It’s much easier to stand over them like the Antagonists, analyzing their situation, prescribing remedies based on some perceived deficiency in their personalities or actions. And there’s a good reason why we don’t like to join another in their suffering. If we decide to sit with another in the ash heap it means we have to face our own mortality. We have to recall the times when we suffered. Those are the times we would rather forget. It’s painful. It’s unsettling.

When you listen to this song by Joni Mitchell song you may say to yourself, “Oh this is so depressing.” And that’s true. It’s not easy to listen to this song and read the words.  A friend of mine and former music director at a church I once served was the one who shared Mitchell’s song with me.  She wrote: “At first, its directness in dealing with the harsh realities of Job is unsettling. Yet the music Joni Mitchell set these words to is haunting and beautiful. She gives no answers, no references to the saving grace of Christ. Her life has been difficult with polio, unhappy relationships, abortion and years of hardship to attain success in the music business. And even though she has achieved super stardom, she struggles with the shallowness that accompanies fame. Can this song give healing? I feel that it does. She makes Job everyman, yet also relates to him through her own struggles. Maybe this lack of answers combined with the knowledge that these sufferings are universal, will alleviate some of the isolation of those who are grieving.” (Furia, Linda, “A Hymn Study on the Book of Job,” unpublished paper, Sept. 4, 2001, pp. 11-12.)

And, that, I think is one of the keys to undertaking this Lenten journey together. Suffering, tragedy, loss and grief are all isolating experiences. The experience overwhelms you with feelings that make it seem as if you are the only one in the world who knows what it is to truly suffer. Like the song that Ellen sang earlier in the service as the ashes were marked on our foreheads: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” And it’s true. Everyone’s pain is unique.

And yet, if you can find the heart and the courage within yourself to sit in the ashes with another who is suffering, you will find yourself connecting with another human being in the most profound way. And if you yourself are suffering, if you can allow yourself to come to a service like this, or really, any worship service, and join yourself to the community, there is something very healing in that process. And when we open ourselves up to the power of God’s holy Creation, observing the processes of life, the dizzying complexity, the astounding patterns and details from the heights of the stars to the depths of the tiniest sea creatures – we may gain new perspective on God, and on our place in God’s Creation.

So I invite you to sit with another in the ashes during this Lenten journey. And if you are feeling like Job, I invite you to bring your ash heap here among us and allow us to care for you while you are suffering. Because we are called to be a people of compassion. The Job in me recognizes the Job in you. We see our common humanity, we share in each other’s suffering.

And even as we sit in the ashes, we keep our eyes raised to the cross, knowing that Jesus has traveled this road before us. Nobody knows the trouble I seen. Nobody knows but Jesus. Indeed. The God of the ashes is the God of Creation is the God of the cross is the God of the resurrection. And we know that our God, our Redeemer, lives. Amen.

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