lament

idolatry and tyranny

Have you not known?

In the Presbyterian Church, our constitution has two parts.  Part one is the Book of Confessions, and part two is the Book of Order—the guidelines for how we live together as the church.  It strives to bring “order” to our lives.  Of course, both are subservient to the holy scriptures.

Our Book of Order has a statement which calls us to recognize “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny” (F-2.05).  The book of Isaiah might go along with that.  The prophet speaks of idols created by workers, goldsmiths, and artisans (40:19-20).  It is the work of hands, no doubt pleasing to the eye, no doubt packed with the latest features.

Speaking of the latest features, I heard that the next generation of smartphones will allow you to smell the person you’re talking to.  So take a bath!  (And yes, I am suggesting that cell phones can become idols.)

Have you not heard?

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With whom, with what, can we compare God?  We constantly fail to get the message.  Hear the words of the prophet:

“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing” (v. 26).

We’re constantly discovering new galaxies; we’re constantly theorizing about other dimensions.  We’re constantly discovering planets around faraway stars.  Some of those planets are gas giants; some of them are earthlike, even in the “Goldilocks” category—not too hot, not too cold.

I’ve always been a fan of exploring space.  (I like Neil deGrasse Tyson as much as the next person!)  We can see the revelation of God stretching back over 13 billion years.  The advancement of human knowledge is definitely worthy of celebration.  Even so, it’s also true that a healthy perspective means knowledge and humility go hand-in-hand.

So, what does this have to do with us right here and now?  How does the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny appear in us?  Hold that thought!

With chapter 40, we begin a new era in the book of Isaiah.  We move to the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon.

I’ve heard it said that the exile cured the Israelites of idolatry.  I think that’s a hasty conclusion.  As you see in our text, they still need to be reminded that the old Babylonian gods are powerless and represent something that really doesn’t exist.  Verse 18 asks, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?”  But certainly, those gods aren’t the only form of idolatry!

On that matter, George Knight said, “[We have] first to make [our] gods, or create [our] concepts, before [we] can bow down to them and worship them.”[1]

We devise all manner of concepts.  Even our concept of God can become an idol.  There are other things we conceptualize, which also can become idolatrous.  Our beliefs regarding life together are certainly in that category.  For example, so many of the posts on Facebook and other social media make claims that are taken out of context, are half-true, or are simply false.  Of course, we see this all over the place.

Sometimes we need to step back, take a deep breath, and ask if it’s really necessary that we put this out into the universe.  Still, sometimes getting tied to our idols is just too much fun!

If you think I’m kidding about idols being fun, think again.  In her book, From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Idols aid us, console us, and give us direction…”[2]  And yet, “The Bible is relentlessly anti-idolatrous.  And I don’t think it’s all out of some sort of prudish, narrow-minded…pagan-hating disapproval of certain rituals.  I think it’s an astounding revelation that however much idolatry seems to secure life, it actually diminishes it.  It doesn’t make life, it takes it.  It may provide stability and orientation, but it is giving our lives to what is not alive.  Idolatry is death.”

I like the way verses 19 and 20 answer the question about to what we can compare God.  There’s a mocking reply about a gold-covered figure with silver chains or someone getting sturdy wood and having an image carved that won’t tip over.  By the way, the Hebrew word for the fellow who chooses that wood means “to be impoverished.”[3]

Knight says, “With biting sarcasm [the prophet] suggests that if a man is too poor to rise to a gold-plated image, then he can be happy making do with a piece of wood, provided only that it does not fall over.”[4]  Hey, it’s okay if you can’t afford the top of the line.  You don’t need the latest features.  You don’t need the cell phone that lets you smell people!

If you hadn’t noticed, verses 18 and 25 ask similar questions.  “To whom then will you liken God?”  And also, “To whom then will you compare me?”  They both are answered by verses 21 and 28.  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?”

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There seems to be a bit of theological amnesia going on.

How often does that describe us?  When things are running smoothly, when the car is running well, when we have plenty of Granny Smith apples (okay, that’s me), we can say, “God is good, God is good all the time.”  However, when things fail to run smoothly, when the car breaks down, when we only have onions (again, that’s me), we can find ourselves saying, “Where are you, God?  What is happening?”

We might be like the psalmist who proclaimed, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’  By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain; [but then] you hid your face; I was dismayed” (Ps 30:6-7).  We don’t know what happened for the psalmist to say God’s face was hidden, but I think we get the point.  We can forget the blessings of the past when the present seems grim, and when the future seems dark.  I don’t believe any of us are immune to that.

Indeed, there is a space for mourning.  There is a space for sadness.  The Bible is filled with notes of lamentation.  It is honest.

We hear verse 27: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?”  Is this a voice of faith or faithlessness?  Here’s a question: would it make sense for a truly faithless person to bother calling out to God in the first place?

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “He’s covered idolatry.  What about tyranny?  How is that a human tendency?”  Good questions.

The prophet says God “brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing” (v. 23).  Another translation speaks of “princes” as “dictators.”[5]  We might not be dictators of a nation, but we can be dictators in other ways.  Has anyone ever had a boss who behaved like a dictator?  If you haven’t, consider that a blessing from God.

We can have our own inner tyrant.

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Political affiliation can become idolatrous and tyrannous.  Wouldn’t it wonderful if we avoided the insults and the giving of childish nicknames?  We might expect behavior like that in middle school.  It’s quite another thing when full grown adults engage in that infantile behavior.

And it’s not just politics.  We really do it with religion.  Sometimes it gets really nasty, such as labeling others as “dog people” or “cat people.”

Labeling can actually be a form of judging.  We assign worth­­ to people.  We can sum up their whole lives.  As Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:1-2).  We get what we give.

Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  There’s something else about a tyrant.  A tyrant doesn’t want to be told.  Tyrants don’t want to hear.  Tyrants assume they already know.  Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

My inner tyrant would have me close my ears and tell me I know all I need to know.  My puny god idol raises its head.  Sometimes, though, that tyrant works in the opposite way.  Our inner tyrant can bully us and tell us there’s no point in hearing.  We don’t know anything; we are not capable of knowing anything.

But that’s where the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, steps in.  The one who does not faint or grow weary; the one whose understanding is unsearchable arrives on the scene.  Trying the carry the world on your shoulders will wear you out.  (Do you believe me?)  However, the Lord empowers; the Lord strengthens.  “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (v. 30).

Your days of forced labor are over, O you exiles returning home.  Be rid of the idolatry and tyranny that have been your taskmasters.  You need not enslave each other.  The good news is that Jesus casts out demons, be they literal demons or the demons of besetting sin­­—the demons of continual letdown.

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Idolatry and tyranny can’t stand it when we wait for the Lord.  They demand to be heard.  When we ignore their voices—and they will be there to rant and rave—we open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.  The promise of waiting for the Lord is that we will fly like an eagle.  We will run like a gazelle.  We will take the long walk and remain strong.

 

[1] George A. F. Knight, Deutero-Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1965), 38.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2008), 21.

[3] סׇכַן, sakan

[4] Knight, 39.

[5] Knight, 39.


light up the sky

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  Rip it into shreds.  Let the fire fall.  Light up the sky!

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So begins Isaiah 64, our Old Testament text for today, the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament, a lament of the entire nation.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we give it much thought!  In any event, maybe that’s the perfect theme for this year.

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

It might be considered the difference between chronos and kairosChronos is time measured in seconds, hours, years.  It is clock time.  Kairos is time measured in moments, especially the right moment, the opportune moment.  It is time as experienced.  Advent might be considered kairos time, with the understanding that kairos time can’t be willed into existence.  However, we can prepare ourselves for it.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  Hallmark started showing Christmas movies last month.  This is no time for sober self-examination.  Live it up!

Scriptures like the one I just mentioned might only prove the point of those who don’t like Advent.  What’s all this doom and gloom!  Or as Batman’s arch enemy the Joker would say, “Why so serious?  Let’s put a smile on that face!”

2 is(Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Jonathan Aigner, who teaches music to elementary school students and also serves as music minister in his United Methodist Church, has some thoughts on the season of Advent as a time of expectation.[1]

“It prepares us.  It leads us through all the steps in the story so that we can experience the hope and longing.  We look in on John the Baptist crying out, ‘Prepare ye the way!’  We feel some of Mary’s joy and anticipation.  With each week, the longing and anticipation builds.

“But it’s a discipline, and part of discipline is having to wait for the events to come.  In this case, the discipline includes holding off on the celebration while the rest of the world, which doesn’t particularly care about the true reason for Christmas, is busy with its own frenetic energy and excessive indulgence.”

Reflecting his calling as a musician and lover of Advent hymns, he laments,I’ve been put on the spot in front of the choir and the congregation by Advent grinches.  I’ve been insulted and maligned in adult Sunday School classes.  (Ironically, children are usually quite receptive.  It’s the adults who sometimes act like children.)”

Really, what does our consumer culture do with words like, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, / And ransom captive Israel, / That mourns in lonely exile here / Until the Son of God appear”?  That business about “captive” and “lonely exile” doesn’t lend itself very well to commercials intent on selling you a car, complete with a red bow mounted on the roof!

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Of course, as already suggested, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people well after the return from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book likely deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was hoped.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the dreams of the people.  (More on that point later.)

Please understand.  I’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

Let’s follow the original thought of verse 1.  Rip open the sky, “so that the mountains would quake at your presence…  When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence” (vv. 1b, 3).  Some big-time seismic activity is on the agenda!

Maybe that can be expected, because the prophet says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him” (v. 4).  The apostle Paul quotes that in 1 Corinthians 2:9.

Things start to get interesting.  The scripture says, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5).  Come now, who’s really at fault?  You took off and left us to our own devices.  It’s been noted, “If parents left a bunch of toddlers and puppies at home for a few hours and the house was a shambles when they returned—would we blame the puppies and toddlers for making the mess or the parents for leaving?”[2]  In a way, blaming God for our sin is as old as the human race.  Adam pins the blame on the woman he says you, God, created.

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I remember watching a football game a few years ago in which a receiver dropped a pass in the end zone, missing a chance at a game-winning touchdown.  (I won’t say what team it was.)  Afterwards, referring to the play, he tweeted, “I praise you 24/7!!!  And this how you do me!!!”  Hey, it wasn’t my fault.  I need to make sure the coach knows about this.

Having said all that, truth be told, the Hebrew here is unclear.  It could also go something like this: “because we sinned you hid yourself.”  The sequence is reversed.  Still, I think it’s more fun to blame God!

We quickly move on.  “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…  [And again] you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (vv. 6a, 7b).  The word for “delivered us” (מוּג, muwg) means “melt” or “dissolve.”  We are being dissolved by our wrongdoing; we are melting into it.  It is swallowing us up.

Isn’t this an inspiring thought for Advent?  Don’t worry; we’re getting ready to turn the corner.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (v. 8).  There’s a transition.  We belong to you, O God.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Make of us what you will.

Can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  We hear a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.

There is a confession of how the temple and cities have been ravished.  The anxious and accusatory appeal finishes the prayer: “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord?  Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (v. 12).  It does end on a dark note.  It does turn out to be a lamentation.

On that note, is there honesty, even beauty, in lament?  If so, what is it?

When my sister and I were kids, our family celebrated Christmas in much the same way as others did.  My dad strung the lights out on the house, sometimes putting some in the bushes in front.  We put up the Christmas tree, glistening with ornaments, its own lights, tinsel, and an angel gracing our presence, hovering high above.

Then, of course, there were the presents.  This was, after all, the crowning feature to the whole business.  We tore open the gifts and we posed with them while my parents photographed us.  (I don’t know if others had that tradition.)  However, it didn’t take very long until the novelty wore off.  It only took a couple of days—sometimes even later on Christmas Day itself.  “Is that all there is to it?”  I had a rather empty feeling inside.

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For my parents, there was an almost palpable sense of relief.  “I’m glad that’s over!”  It was communicated that, when all was said and done, Christmas was a chore.  (Maybe it was just them who felt that way!)

I’m not sure what I felt was exactly lament, but it was close to it.  I felt like I had been robbed.  I felt like I had been robbed while getting presents on a holiday which many people lamented was being commercialized.  (Again, maybe it was just me who had that feeling!)

We as a nation, as a church, need to own our lament.  We need to acknowledge it—especially this year.  Something tells me that won’t be difficult to do!

How does lament help prepare us for the Lord’s advent?  Can we see the honesty in it?  Can we see how, in its own way, lament paves the way to healing?  We short circuit the process when we take a short cut—when we jump to conclusions.  That can lead to a refusal to mature in the faith.  Too often, I fear I’ve done that.

Lament can lead to healing when we come clean, as stated earlier, when we repent.  It’s when, by the grace of God, we change our minds (which is what “repent” literally means).  We are made ready to welcome our Lord’s advent.  We have the promise of the apostle Paul that God will “strengthen [us] to the end, so that [we] may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Co 1:8).

Come Lord, light up the sky.

 

[1] www.patheos.com/blogs/ponderanew/2020/11/23/how-to-explain-advent-to-people-who-think-its-already-christmas/

[2] www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/advent1b


come on down!

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.”  So begins Isaiah 64, the Old Testament text for the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This chapter is a prayer of lament—a communal lament.  That’s not exactly how we think of Advent.  That is, if we think of it at all!

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[photo by Ruan Carlos on Unsplash]

Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of penitence, much like the season of Lent.  It is a time to reflect, to repent, to reevaluate how we are living life.  It is a time to reconsider our life of faith in preparation for the coming of the Lord.  (Advent means “coming.”)  Certainly, those are concerns throughout the year, but in Advent, they are meant to especially come into focus.

Advent begins in late November or early December, smack dab in the midst of the holiday season!  Can’t you hear the well-wishers and jingles from every nook and cranny?  This is no time for sober self-examination.  It’s time to party.  (Please note: it is possible to have a genuine check-up and still be of good cheer!  Trust me, I’m no fan of sourpusses.)

Of course, this year the celebrations are muted.  A pandemic has a way of doing that.  And so, perhaps we can relate to the communal lament of the Jewish people returning from exile in Babylon.  (This part of the book deals with that time period.)  The initial joy at the homecoming has gradually faded.  Things aren’t working out as well as was expected.  The prophet recognizes the sin that has worked to overturn, to infect, the hopes of the people.

2 oI’m not saying Covid-19 resulted from sin!  Still, the way we’ve treated each other and the planet has been more than a little sinful.  Maybe Mother Earth is voicing her disapproval!

So can we relate to this image of Advent?  This isn’t the advent of gentle Jesus born in a barn.  This is the advent of the grand and glorious power from on high.  This is a desperate and disconsolate cry for deliverance.  A sincere plea for release from prison can only come from a heart of faith.  The prophet’s prayer acknowledges that “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Come to us, O Lord, feeble as we are.  Come to us, this Advent.


the testing of Job

Let me tell you something that happened one day when I was in high school.  We were sitting in class (I forget which), and the discussion somehow turned to the Bible.  One of my classmates voiced his problems with believing it.  Referring to Genesis, he demonstrated God gathering some dirt, and—presto!—a human being.  (To be honest, even then I had my doubts that it happened quite that way.)

Then he mentioned the book we’re looking at today.  “God tortured Job!” he said.  At the time, I felt the need to open my mouth and say something.  My very enlightening response was, “It was a test.”  That’s all I had.  Of course, that only seemed to confirm what he had just said.

1 jobDuring all of this, our teacher was looking a bit nervous.  I don’t suppose it had anything to do with his theological viewpoint.  I imagine he was visualizing a conversation with the principal of our public high school as to how our class turned into a Bible study!

The book of Job, admittedly, is a challenge.  It’s mainly a series of poems, with Job, his friends, Elihu, a young man who seems to appear out of nowhere, and the Lord taking turns at speaking.  The long section of poetry is bracketed, front and back, by passages of prose.  The introduction and the conclusion have been recognized as a sort of legend about a saintly man who loses, in sequence, his wealth, his children, and then his health.  This ancient story sets the stage for the book of Job as we have it.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that or heard that question.  The frequent unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  Some of what that means is that we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  And Job certainly fits into the category of “good people.”  That’s how the book begins.  Besides being extremely wealthy (indeed, the richest man in all the East), Job is described as a good man—more than that, as a righteous man, one who reveres God.

It seems that something more fundamental is going on than the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”  The book challenges a key notion of how God deals with the human race.  It calls into question something that the orthodox faith of the day held about divine reward and punishment, which was: the righteous prosper, the wicked suffer.  Period.  Case closed.

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There are plenty of scriptures saying that very thing.  Here’s just one example, from Psalm 32: “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (v. 10).

Don’t we all believe something like that?  You will reap what you sow.  What comes around goes around.  That’s what Job’s friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—keep telling him.  (By the way, there was a news report about an archaeological discovery.  A tablet was unearthed with an engraving of Zophar’s last name: apparently, it was Zogood.)

Our tendency is to feel that people ought to get just what they deserve.  That does seem to be the way of justice.  People should be praised or punished, based on what they’ve done.  That’s only fair.

Our scripture reading speaks to that.  I want us to notice something in the conversation between God and Satan.  In chapter 2, the Lord says that Job “still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason” (v. 3).  For no reason.

It can be hard to remember that sometimes…stuff happens.  Pain, disease—something suddenly going wrong with the car—can leave us feeling like all the forces of the cosmos are arrayed against us.  It’s not that God is ticked off at us; it’s that we live in a world with a lot of complicated things going on.  The more complicated a system is, the more there is to it that can go wrong.

(I’m especially fond of cars nowadays that are almost completely computer-run.  That’s good until it isn’t.  I like having a car with a stick shift.  I sometimes think of it as an anti-theft device, since there are lots of people who can’t drive stick!)

There’s something we should note about the character called “Satan.”  Actually, in the book of Job, this creature is known in Hebrew as הַשׇׂטׇן (ha-satan), “the satan,” which means “the accuser,” “the adversary.”  In legal terminology, he would be a prosecuting attorney.  Actually, given his stature, he would probably be the district attorney!

3 jobThe decision to capitalize the word gives the wrong impression.  (By the way, the Hebrew language doesn’t have upper and lower cases.)  At this point in time, “Satan” is not considered to be a name; it’s just a title.  To the early Hebrews, he fits a necessary role.  “The satan” isn’t really seen as evil.  After all, God approves his plans, which might seem to bring us back to my high school classmate.

This “satan” says something we should notice.  In chapter 1, Job loses his wealth and his children.  Still, verse 22 tells us, “In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”  Now, in chapter 2, here’s what the Accuser says: “All that people have they will give to save their lives” (v. 4).  Thus, the attack on Job’s health.

“All that people have they will give to save their lives.”  Is that true?  In the story, Satan refers to Job’s wealth—and even to his children.  It’s an unflattering picture he paints of Job, and for that matter, of everyone.  What would we give to save our lives, to save our skins?  What is our price?  How about our integrity?  It’s hard to say what we would do until we’ve walked in Job’s shoes.

Job’s friends hear of the horrendous things that have happened to him, and wanting to comfort him, they set out together to go and see him.  That right there says something.  They choose to put themselves out and go to their suffering friend.

The scripture says, “When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him” (v. 12).  I, like others, have had the disconcerting experience of seeing those who’d been, so to speak, through the meat grinder—and at first, not recognizing them.

That really hits home for some of us.  Several years ago in a different church, we visited our hospitalized organist, and I thought we’d entered the wrong room.

Job’s friends go through the ritual of mourning, of grief.  They weep; they tear their robes; they throw dust in the air, and they sit down on the ground with Job.  No one says anything.  According to the text, this goes on for “seven days and seven nights,” a poetic way of describing the long time they keep a silent presence with him.

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Remember my “Zophar Zogood” attempt at a joke?  Well, let me say that for Job’s friends, it is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They are being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s done that understands the difficulty—but also the love.  It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving unwanted advice that Job’s friends earn the description “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Hearing them go on and on and on seems to help Job realize he’s now grown beyond the level of faith and understanding at which they’re stuck.  He’s been forced to do it!

Maybe some of us can relate to Job.  Maybe you find yourself in unfamiliar terrain, in which the supports of the past have failed.  Old certainties have turned out to be illusions.  (By the way, that’s not an entirely bad thing!)  Life has led you down paths that you never would have chosen.  The testing of Job is the testing of ourselves.

I want to finish with some words from Richard Rohr, who wrote a very interesting book, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections.[1]  He speaks to that lonely feeling when it seems like the whole world has tossed you out like trash.

5 job“When you are feeling abandoned,” he writes, “pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.

“Often, that’s the only way out of self-pity and a preoccupation with our own feelings.  We have to choose solidarity and the ‘communion of the saints.’  There, we realize we are carrying the weight of our brothers and sisters, and they are carrying ours.”[2]

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996)

[2] Rohr, 94.


warm up the celebration

It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday.  This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray.  What kind of communion is that?  Actually, this might be a good description of our world!

This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple.  In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5).  So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends?  He asks, “You see all these, do you not?  Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

But he wasn’t wrong.  In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.

(Here’s a quick note.  Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear.  This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground.  We are in a doomed structure!  And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)

Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”  Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me.  It still really speaks to me.  The love of many will grow cold.  Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!

It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it?  In some ways, it might be true of us today.  Love is growing cold.

Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore.  People are not routinely burned at the stake.  And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism.  They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish.  Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river.  Here’s your baptism!  (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)

2 lmIn any case, there are some things one hopes we have left behind.  One hopes we aren’t put to the test if our civilization were to come crashing down!

A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea.  The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile.  The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.

According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out.  Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.[1]

The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24.  We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20).  The grim reality is recognized.  “But this I call to mind.”  We’re turning a corner.  There’s a light in the darkness.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22).  Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.

In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church.  And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is.  It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed.  Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.

(Who knows?  If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)

3 lmOur poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24).  Unfortunately, the struggle continues.  A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible).  Lord, what are you going to do?

As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!”  Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy.  (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence.  It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle.  He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.)  I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.

In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration.[2]  It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go.  That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.[3]

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One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.”  Some of us have more trouble in that than others!  I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor.  We humans didn’t invent humor.  Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?

Did you know that humor is a powerful weapon?  Brian Doyle in The Thorny Grace of It speaks to this point.[4]

“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness.  What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you.  It advances the universe two inches.  If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words.  You and I know this is possible.  It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”

Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor.  There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle.  When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility.  When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted.  We laugh at the expense of others.  We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames.  We can become vulgar.  We can’t laugh at ourselves.

There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold.  The discipline of celebration entails gratitude.  When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude.  In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels.  For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.

5 lmIngratitude and love have a hard time co-existing.

The apostle Paul has his own take on love.  “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage.  It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again.  Let me try.

James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James’ love has not grown cold.  That can be a high bar to set!

A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.

I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday.  But why not?  If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion.  This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found.  And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.

The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).  That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished.  We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

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What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria.  Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.

Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts.  We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.

 

[1] “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)

[2] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.

[3] Calhoun, 26.

[4] www.loyolapress.com/products/books/spirituality-inspiration/the-thorny-grace-of-it


keep Herod in Christmas

We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red.  Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!

1 mt I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas.  I guess that’s to be expected.  Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist.  What business does he have with Christmas?  Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.

This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents.  We just celebrated their feast day.  They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out.  This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.

(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)

Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance.  They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews.  That kind of talk terrifies Herod.  He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this.  All of Jerusalem is in an uproar.  So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi.  He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it.  Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).

As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod.  This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.”  Make a fool of me, will they?  I’ll show them!

Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach.  The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.

Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas.  I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas?  Jesus is born into a violent world.  His homeland is under military rule.  Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is.  They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.

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The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.

So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story.  We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.  Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.”[1]  So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.

Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis.  An angel warns him of Herod’s plan.  As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).

The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today.  Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”[2]

He draws out the image even more.  “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō].  Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life.  The wise men fled.  Jesus’ family fled…  It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.”  It has a haunting similarity to our own country.

Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”!  And according to Luke, the family is also poor.  When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).

3 mtI hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas.  It’s right there in the Bible.  In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen.  In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.

Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.”[3]  As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.

Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants.  Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty.  But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!

I like the way Caryll Houselander describes the Holy Innocents.[4]

“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven.  Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children.  We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year.  They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child.  They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...

“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”

There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).  The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile.  Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.

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Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings.  While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression.  That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.

It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it.  It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses.  We all have mini-deaths in our lives.

Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod.  Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone.  However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe.  Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee.  The family settles in Nazareth.

So, our story does not end with Herod.  Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3).  We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod.  We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible.  We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church.  (Maybe especially within the church!)

Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas?  Is it enough to know he’s already there?  Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle?  Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle?  Perhaps.

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But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short.  They are constantly reborn in us.  Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[2] www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIII/Matt2.html

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[4] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.


Job, the enlightened one

My previous sermon dealt with Job.  And here we go again!  We saw how Job poses some angry—and anguished—questions to his God.  God’s response to Job is very unsatisfying if we’re looking for answers to questions like: why does Job suffer?  Why does evil exist?  People often get irritated at God’s so-called “answers,” which consist of questions about creation Job can’t possibly grasp.  It seems as though it’s but a way of putting Job, and us, in our places.  It seems like the Lord is just being evasive!

I wouldn’t say there’s any one single way to resolve this.  Still, we can see God’s revelation to Job about his place in the cosmos as a healing revelation.  To limit it to reward and punishment puts Job, and us, into artificial constraints.

And so, here we are at chapter 42, the end of the book.  The long section of poetry is wrapped up.  We’re back to the ancient story of the suffering, but innocent man.  It very much has the feel of: “and they lived happily ever after.”

1 Job

The Lord lets Job’s dearest friends know they didn’t get it right; they need Job to pray for them.  And as for Job, he’s blessed with double the amount of livestock he lost, but with the same number of children—seven sons and three daughters.

Clearly, this is where the legendary nature of the story needs to be emphasized.  People can’t be replaced.  Period.  Full stop.  The last thing the scriptures do is to devalue human life.  Something we can take from this is that the joy of one so bereft as Job has now been restored.  However that happens, the children he lost are not forgotten.

And now, back to the legend!  He gives his daughters poetic names, and we’re told, “In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and [with an act unheard-of in the ancient world] their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers” (v. 15).

It looks like he truly has become an enlightened fellow.  He doesn’t want any of his daughters to be dependent on some man!

Right now, I want to focus on a single verse.  It has a number of different nuances, and in some ways, it affects how we understand the entire book.  It’s verse 6, which contains the final words we hear spoken by Job.  This comes right after he admits his ignorance.  As I said before, God shows him scenes throughout creation and asks him the “hows” and the “whys.”  All Job can say is, “Heck if I know.”  (Which in many ways is the beginning of wisdom!)

In verse 5, he says he’s known God by means of hearsay, so to speak.  “I’ve heard about you, but now, I have seen you!”  Something has happened.  Job has had a direct experience of God.  He has caught a vision.

After Job—after any of us—has had an experience like that, nothing is the same.  We are forever changed.  In Christian terminology, we recognize ourselves as a new creation.  The old, tired, dead rules of how we imagine the future and life itself are erased.  Liberation is at hand.  Something wondrous has happened.  Of course, frail creatures that we are, we need to revisit that time and again!  And so, here’s verse 6.

In the NRSV and the NIV, the verse reads, “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  The King James Version says, “I abhor myself.”  This is strong language!  It suggests at least a deep sense of remorse, and some might say it even goes to self-hatred.

The Good News Bible takes a slightly different slant: “I am ashamed of all I have said and repent in dust and ashes.”  The focus here isn’t on Job himself, but on what he considers his foolish talk.

Whichever of these we go with, it still seems to contradict the claim that Job is innocent, that he doesn’t deserve the horrors he’s had to face.  In fact, we read in the very next verse God saying to Eliphaz, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you did not speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.”

Two Hebrew words might be the guilty parties in the confusion.  The first one, מׇאַס (ma’as), means “reject” or “despise,” but it can also mean “melt away” or “dissipate.”  The second one, נׇחַם (nacham), means “repent,” but it can also mean “to comfort.”

Earlier, when referring to God’s message to Job—when he’s asked all those magnificently irrelevant questions—I said I don’t believe there’s any one single way to resolve this.  Well, the same thing is true here.  Does Job repent?  If so, of what does he repent?

In his book On Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez, looking at those Hebrew words, sees the verse this way: “I repudiate and abandon (change my mind about) dust and ashes…[being] an image for groaning and lamentation.”[1]  So by repenting of “dust and ashes,” Job is turning away from—he is rejecting—his whole attitude of complaining about his fate.  He figures he’s grumbled long enough.

2 JobBut beyond that, Gutiérrez says, “Job realizes that he has been speaking of God in a way that implied that God was a prisoner…”[2]  He has thought of God as a machine, without any control.  Be good, and you get a cookie!  Be bad, and you get an onion!  (As you might guess, I don’t like onions.)  It’s only after God steps in—only after God intervenes with the storm—that Job is liberated; he’s able to see beyond all of that.

Earlier, I referred to Job as “enlightened.”  Many might assume that means he has the answers, even answers to the questions of the universe.  One thing the book lets us know is that its title character has very little in the way of answers!  Still, by repenting, by turning from “dust and ashes,” Job declares he is in a new relationship with God.  Job doesn’t need to have the answers.

Indeed, Job accepts and embraces who he is.  He is without a doubt “dust and ashes.”  Stephen Mitchell sees that as the meaning of verse 6.  “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”[3]

We can see the book of Job as a story of conversion.  Despite the claims of God’s being irrelevant or evasive in responding to him, I suggested God gives Job a new vision—a healing vision.  By admitting the past is gone and by looking forward to a new way of being with God, Job invites us to do the same.

This is a call to be the change Christ would have us be.  It’s a call to accept ourselves as a new creation; otherwise, we’re like those friends of Job!

In the liner notes of his album, Silence, Night, and Dreams, Zbigniew Preisner includes a sort of meditation:[4]

3 Job“Why are the poor so stricken by despair? / Why do the rich feel ever more alone? / It embraces everything, night and dreams, Silence that arouses anxiety. / Night that envelops sadness and despair. / Dreams of hope for a transformation. / Let us take heed of Job. / Then maybe we’ll prevail against / The slogans, the labels, illusions and indifference, The cradles that surround us.”

Job is a model for transformation, for getting out of our cradles!  He is a model for growing up, as painful as it is.  We must literally be dis-illusioned.

There was a book on Job published in 1900 by Robert A. Watson.  I like some of his closing thoughts on our hero.  “Job has passed through the furnace of trial and the deep waters of doubt, and at last the way is opened for him into a wealthy place.”[5]  As we’ve seen, that’s wealthy in every way.

“‘Now mine eye seeth Thee.’  The vision of God is to his soul like the dazzling light of day to one issuing from a cavern.  He is in a new world where every creature lives and moves in God…  In the microcosm of his past dream-life and narrow religion he appeared great, perfect, worthy of all he enjoyed at the hand of God; but now, in the macrocosm, he is small, unwise, weak.”[6]

Small, unwise, and weak—and that’s just fine; in fact, that’s awesome!

I spoke of the vision God grants Job, the vision that brings healing and enlightenment.  I spoke of the old, tired, dead rules of how we imagine life, and how we play the game of life.  Those old, tired, dead rules govern the judgments we make of others.  Job’s friends said he had done wrong, that he was wrong.

Are there people, groups of people, who we believe do wrong because they in themselves are wrong?  Even though we would never say it out loud, are there groups we believe are unworthy, despicable, even (using a less charitable word)?

That final understanding, the vision God grants Job, changes his world.  He no longer feels the need to justify himself, but he has been vindicated.  And he has traveled a long and painful road in the process.  He’s been a laughing stock, an object of disgust, and one whose words of wisdom have been rejected (12:4, 19:13-19, 29:21-30:1).  He’s been the object of fear and loathing.

But that’s not the end of the story.  We’re told, “After this Job lived one hundred and forty years [remember, this is legendary!], and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations.  And Job died, old and full of days” (vv. 16-17).  Full of days.  In the final chapters of his life, this good and just man is blessed like never before.

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“So the Lord Blessed the Latter End of Job More than the Beginning” (William Blake)

I won’t claim to have more than the tiniest, teeniest taste of what Job went through.  For me, it’s mainly ideas.  Some of you have felt it.  But if there’s any truth at all in this book, we can say beyond the pain, there is a sort of freedom.  It’s freedom from intolerance, freedom from cruelty, freedom from fear.  There truly is an immense opening to enlightenment, an opening to kindness, an opening to love.

 

[1] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1987), 86.

[2] Gutiérrez, 87.

[3] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York: HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.

[4] memories.will-i-be.com/post/2815585326/to-love-zbigniew-preisner

[5] Robert A. Watson, The Book of Job (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1900), Kindle edition, Chapter 28, section 1, paragraph 12.

[6] Watson 28.1.15-16.


ask the questions!

Today I’m using a reading from the book of Job, the beginning of chapter 38.  It actually appears in the lectionary in October, but I can’t wait!  I can almost hear you saying, “Job.  Oh goody!  That’s my favorite one in the Bible!”  It might seem strange, but I love the book of Job.  There are all kinds of good stuff to be found in it.

Obviously, in speaking of “good stuff,” I’m not talking about the numerous disasters that are visited upon our title character!

There is chapter after chapter of beautiful poetry.  The poetry is bracketed by prose narrative at the beginning and at the end.  This narrative is thought by many to come from an ancient legend—the story of a man who was wealthier than anyone else in the land.

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But more than that, he was “blameless”; he “turned away from evil” (1:1).  He was a good and righteous man.  In fact, he was so righteous he would offer sacrifices to God just in case his children had done something wrong!

Of course—just his luck—an argument breaks out in heaven, and the Lord points him out to the Accuser.  This creature is “the satan.”  He isn’t yet considered to be the evil Satan of later centuries.  A bet is made that Job can be forced to curse God.  (I don’t think I would want any part of that wager!)

He loses all of his wealth, then his children, and finally, he loses his health.  We are told “that his suffering [is] very great” (2:13).

Does he break?  Does he curse God?  According to the scriptures, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).  Understand, there’s no comment on what must have been going through his head!  As we see in the poetic chapters, Job does have some questions.  He has plenty of questions—plenty of soul-baring, agonizing questions!

If the saying, “the patience of Job,” applies to the Job we meet in the prose section, it definitely does not apply to the one we meet in the poetry.  This Job is anything but patient!

Job still has some friends, though: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.  They have traveled a great distance to exercise what we might call the “ministry of presence,” albeit with mixed results.

(On a side note, understanding that some here in the congregation have an interest in science, I wonder if that reaches to archaeology?  I mention that because of some recent discoveries.  Among them was a surprisingly well-preserved fragment of pottery.  It seems to have belonged to Zophar himself.  Etched on it is Zophar’s second name.  Apparently, it was “Zogood.”)

Actually, for Job’s friends, it really is “so far, so good”: at least, regarding their behavior.  They’re doing a very difficult thing.  They’re actually being there with their friend in the midst of his pain.  Anyone who’s simply been with a suffering friend or family member knows that it isn’t fun.  It requires a sacrifice of self.

It isn’t until they open their mouths and start giving advice that Job calls them “miserable comforters” (16:2).

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is forced to undergo the tragedies that have come his way.  And they can’t understand how their decent and honorable friend is asking the questions they hear.  After all, everyone knows the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

“So Job, you must have done something wrong.  Why don’t you just repent?  All of this terrible stuff will go away!”  Job’s friends have to say that, because the way they look at God, and at life itself, is being challenged.  And they aren’t able, or willing, to question themselves.

2 job
"When the Morning Stars Sang Together" by William Blake

Questions sometimes associated with the book of Job are, “What is the origin of evil?” or, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

Why do bad things happen to good people?  We’ve all asked that question: maybe not with those exact words, but the unfairness of life inevitably occurs to every human being at some point, usually when we’re still quite young.  I say it’s inevitable; it can’t help but happen, because we’re created in the image of God.  And part of what that means is we have an innate, an inborn, sense of right and wrong.  We have a sense of justice.  How we act on it is an entirely different conversation.

If we approach the book of Job seeking the answer to that question—Why do bad things happen to good people?—we may come away feeling…unsatisfied.  We never see one secret formula or one explanation that solves the puzzle.  Instead, in today’s reading, what do we see when God begins to answer Job?

Things certainly are dramatic.  We see that “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind” (v. 1).  The whirlwind, the storm, the tempest—aside from any literal meaning in the text, all of those are pretty good descriptions of what Job’s life has become.

As I just suggested, the answer might be unsatisfying.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me” (vv. 2-3).  If I were Job, I don’t think I would like where this is going!  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding” (v. 4).

In his book on Job, Stephen Mitchell makes it sound even more abrupt.  “Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness?  Stand up now like a man; I will question you: please, instruct me.  Where were you when I planned the earth?  Tell me, if you are so wise.”[1]

Job is presented with questions to which he either can’t possibly know the answer, or the answer is obviously “no.”  Here’s a quick sample from later in the chapter: “Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (v. 19).  “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (v. 31).  “Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?” (v. 35).

This goes on for four chapters.

Our poet seems determined to point out Job’s ignorance.  There seems to be a concerted effort on demonstrating this whole business of the unknown.

So, does that mean Job is wrong in asking the questions?

In the final chapter, here’s what the Lord says to Eliphaz: “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” (42:7).  Eliphaz and his friends have positioned themselves as the defenders of orthodoxy.  They are the defenders of the faith, and there are some questions you just don’t ask!  Apparently, the Lord disagrees.

Could it be that questioning faith, provided it’s not done in an insincere, disingenuous way, is actually a good thing?  It must be so, that is, if we follow Jesus when he says in Mark 12 to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (v. 30).

Job asks some angry, demanding questions of God.  And his friends are horrified.  As I’ve suggested, if Job is the good, honest, even holy man they’ve known him to be, then something doesn’t compute.  Their worldview begins to collapse; it’s in a state of free fall.

What about us?  What about our questions?  Have we been trained to not ask the anguished, soul-searching questions?  Have we been told to not admit it, when honestly, we doubt some stuff, maybe a whole bunch of stuff?  Has that defender of orthodoxy told us that to do so is wrong?

In her book, The Psalms for Today, Beth LaNeel Tanner talks about this kind of thing.  These aren’t “the nice salutations contained in [our] Book of Common Worship…  [She’s a Presbyterian; that’s why she mentions it.]  How can we speak to God in such a disrespectful manner?”[2]

She continues, “To speak honestly and demand that God come and do something, speaks volumes about the relationship between the one praying and God.  If I dare to speak my fears and my greatest hurts, then I am also acknowledging the importance of this other to me and the power that this other has in my life…  It is praise not because it is polite or politically correct, but because it is brutally honest and open.”[3]

It is only the voice of faith that can ask those sacredly brutal questions.  I think a lot of us here are in that category.

Job is the role model: loss of wealth, loss of children, loss of health—loss of identity.  And loss of friends!  There are friends who no doubt mean well, but you just want to say, “Please keep your opinions to yourself.  I beg you.  I don’t want to be harsh, but please, shut up!”  Has anyone here ever felt that way—or sadly, been the one who needed to hear it?

Of course, questions need not be about suffering.  When we ask questions with sincerity and love, we can be accountable the way a community of faith should be.  We help to bear each other’s burdens.  That especially happens when we don’t have the answers.

4 job

In fact, learning to ask the right question is often, if not usually, more important than having the right answer.  Too often, the church is ready to give answers, but less ready to ask questions—and much less ready to simply listen.  So I’ll pose some questions for us to consider, as we continue our journey together.

“What do you mean by that?”  That’s one I’ve posed to Banu many times.  I’m not trying to be obstinate or difficult; it’s just realizing the same word can mean different things to different people.  We too often use labels as shortcuts into thinking we really know what the other person believes.

“How do we fail?”  This brings us back to Job and his friends.  Do we fail with dignity?  Are we too defensive about our failures?

I’ll finish with a quote by Richard Rohr, in his reflection on Job.  “When we are feeling overwhelmed by our guilt, on those days we feel inadequate, when our littleness and brokenness seem too much to live with, when we may even get to hating ourselves, that is when we should get in touch with the humble Job within all of us.

“When you are feeling abandoned, pick up Job’s book and speak Job’s prayers and know they have been prayed before and that we are part of a great history and we are all in this together.  There are no feelings we feel that others have not felt before.  At such times, in our prayer, we unite ourselves in solidarity with others who suffer and who have suffered before us.”[4]

Don’t be afraid to ask the questions!

 

[1] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job (New York:  HarperPerennial, 1992), 79.

[2] Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Psalms for Today (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 61.

[3] Tanner, 64.

[4] Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering: Spiritual Reflections (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 93-94.


gospel in the dark

How about Psalm 88 as a way to lift your spirits?  And then there’s John 11:35, “Jesus began to weep.”  Or as it’s more commonly rendered in the King James and other versions: “Jesus wept.”  After the scripture readings, saying, “This is the word of the Lord.  Thanks be to God,” might feel pretty strange!

There’s a song that is not in the blue hymnal which we use (The Presbyterian Hymnal), but it is in the older red hymnal (The Hymnbook).  It’s “Be Still, My Soul.”  It’s set to the wonderful tune, “Finlandia.”  The hymnal includes three verses, but it doesn’t have this one:

“Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, / And all is darkened in the vale of tears, / Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart, / Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears. / Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay / From His own fullness all He takes away.”[1]

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart, and all is darkened in the vale of tears.  What a beautiful and haunting image: “the vale of tears,” the valley of tears.  It’s a somber description of our life in this mortal coil.  It’s omission from the hymnbook is a commentary on how we often reshape our singing and liturgy to avoid awkwardly acknowledging certain topics.

1 lamentStill, I think that song would be loved by those who are into Goth music!

There’s a prayer website called Sacred Space.  Among the things they post are thoughts for the week, things to help guide prayer.  I made a note of something that appeared some time ago.  It dealt with a topic that is one of those uncomfortable subjects: death.  (At least, in my experience, when I’ve gone to parties, it’s not often a topic of conversation!)

According to the prayer guide, “Of the many ways to die alone, the most comfortless and solitary is when family and friends conspire to deny the approach of death.  They may feel, ‘I couldn’t take away her hope.’  But without acceptance of the truth, they remove the possibility of spiritual companionship at the end.”[2]

We’re told that in his book, How We Die, Sherwin Nuland “remembers with regret how the family conspired to avoid the truth when his beloved Aunt Rose was dying.  ‘We knew—she knew—we knew she knew—she knew we knew—and none of us would talk about it when we were all together.  We kept up the charade to the end.  Aunt Rose was deprived, and so were we, of the coming together that should have been, when we might finally tell her what her life had given us.  In this sense, my Aunt Rose died alone.’”

I think there’s a parallel between how we often speak of death, and in a broader sense, of lamentation, expression of grief, in general.

2 lament

[The above image is from diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54142, “Angel of Grief.”]

That’s also seen in the worship of the church.  I just mentioned how we try to avoid those unpleasant realities in our hymns and liturgies.  The folks who put the lectionary together tended to leave out the problematic, uncomfortable verses.  Maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Stuff like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” and “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (Ep 6:5, 1 Tm 2:12).  Admittedly, those need some big time work done to them!

Another good case is the story in 1 Kings 3, where it talks about Solomon’s dream, in which he asks God for wisdom (vv. 3-14).  God congratulates him for not asking that his enemies be killed or that he be made a wealthy man.

What conveniently gets skipped over is Solomon’s marriage to the Pharaoh’s daughter to form an alliance with Egypt.  My guess is that’s one of those awkward subjects!

In the same way, there are certain psalms that appear nowhere in our lectionary.  Hint: Psalm 88 is one of them.  After listening to that litany of doom and gloom, maybe we can see why it got left out.

Still, one of the most treasured psalms, Psalm 22, is filled with anguish.  Jesus on the cross screams out its beginning: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  But it does have notes of hope, and by the time we get to the end, the psalmist announces, “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vv. 30-31).

3 lamentSurely Psalm 88 follows the same path.  It’s in the Bible; shouldn’t it also wind up as praise?  Verse 1 says, “Lord God, my savior, I cry out all day, and at night I come before you” (GNB).  Surely by the time we’re finished, we’ve worked out some kind of resolution.

Here’s how it ends in the NRSV: “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v. 18).  That doesn’t sound very much like praise.

I think some of the other translations sound even less like praise.  Here’s the NIV: “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”  I think the New Jerusalem Bible is even gloomier: “You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark.”

“All that I know is the dark.”  Friends, this is some serious lamentation!  We are looking at the only psalm without a single note of blessing.  It’s the only psalm in the Bible without one word of hope.

There’s something we need to realize about this ancient poet.  When we read these words from so long ago, we have to keep something in mind.  This is a person of faith.  This is not the work of someone engaged in ridiculing or mocking.  Psalm 88’s first three words in Hebrew are translated into English as “Yahweh [Lord], God of my salvation.”[3]

Even though our psalm has no breath of blessing, it is still praise.  It is dark praise, and that makes us uncomfortable.

4 lamentDominique Gilliard is a minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church; he’s the executive pastor of New Hope Covenant Church in Oakland.  He wrote an article called “Reclaiming the Power of Lament.”[4]  It is a revelation.  It is a challenge.  And I think it’s a perfect meditation for the Lenten season.

“Somewhere along the way,” he says, “we modern Christians got lament wrong: we began thinking of it as optional instead of a required practice of the faith.”  That goes along with our reluctance to even mention it.  Still, scripture is filled to the brim with lamentation.  Here’s just a taste: the book of Lamentations (of course), the book of Job, a huge number of the Psalms, Paul’s grief about his thorn in the flesh, and again, Jesus’ weeping.

Gilliard speaks about tragedies in our nation.  Among others, he mentions Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston.  The hits just keep on coming—and that’s not counting disasters all over the world.  They just wash over us until we can’t keep track.  In response to that, he says, “Lamentation, however, forces us to slow down…  Lamentation prevents us from becoming numb and apathetic to the pain of our world…  Lamentation begets revelation…  It opens our ears to the sounds of torture, anguish and weeping that are the white noise of our world.”

Here’s something I find fascinating and challenging.  “To live without lament is to live an unexamined life.”  We lose touch with what makes us human.

5 lament

[A man in Ferguson, Missouri, holds on to a fence on August 15, 2014, at the site of a convenience store destroyed during rioting after the shooting death of Michael Brown by police.  Bigstock/Gino Santa Maria]

We don’t have to look very far for something to lament.  There is much in our lives to provide reason for mourning.  But we need not yield to despair.

Our friend Dominique hits on something.  “When faithfully engaged and authentically enacted, lamentation keeps us accountable to our baptismal vows.  It reminds us of our need for God, one another, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.”

Our baptismal vows!  When the sacrament is celebrated, we “as members of the church of Jesus Christ,” are asked to “promise to guide and nurture…by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging [those being baptized] to know and follow Christ and to be faithful members of his church.”  We vow to be accountable to each other, to watch out for each other, as we walk the journey of faith.

Blest be the tie that binds.  “We share our mutual woes, / Our mutual burdens bear, / And often for each other flows / The sympathizing tear.”

And what about Jesus when he weeps?  Is he putting on a show?  Surely his understanding that he can raise Lazarus from the dead would prevent the need for tears.  Does he weep with empathy for Mary and Martha, because they are weeping?  Here’s my guess.  Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he still feels the pain himself.  After all, he is human!

If we also acknowledge that Jesus is the image, the icon, of God, that also says something.  Do we think of lamenting, of grieving, as weakness?  If so, so be it.  God laments.  At the end of the day, maybe that’s enough.  God’s weakness is greater than all the strength we can muster.  The weakness of God serves as a model for us.

Lent reminds us that we must pass through the valley of tears before we arrive at the resurrection.  We do not honor each other by ignoring the reality of lament.

In the book, Uncommon Gratitude, Joan Chittister says, “Darkness deserves gratitude.  It is the alleluia point at which we learn to understand that all growth does not take place in the sunlight.”[5]

Think of the hymn, “Abide with Me.”  It’s listed in the section of our [Presbyterian] hymnal called “Evening Hymns.”  I imagine that’s due to the first lines.  “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide!”  The hymn speaks of things in our lives which pass away.  But unlike our psalm, it ends on a strong note of praise and affirmation.

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; / Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: / Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; / In life, in death, O Lord, / abide with me.”

As incredible as it is, deep in the depths of that darkness, there is gospel.  At the bottom of the bottomless pit, there is good news.  Even there (perhaps especially there), Christ reigns in victory.  There is gospel in the dark.

 

[1] library.timelesstruths.org/music/Be_Still_My_Soul

[2] sacredspace.ie (26 Sep-2 Oct 2010)

[3] יהוה אלהי ישועתי (salvation-of-me, God-of, Yahweh)

[4] www.faithandleadership.com/dominique-d-gilliard-reclaiming-power-lament

[5] www.friendsofsilence.net/quote/2012/10/darkness-deserves-gratitude


psalms for goths

  Goth+praise
Those familiar with Goth music recognize it as exploring the shadow side of ourselves.  (Obviously, like any other genre, some of it is quite creative and plenty of it is simply derivative.)  In our study of the psalms, we come to the chapter in Beth Tanner’s The Psalms for Today, “Living in a Broken World.”  She focuses on Psalm 13, which begins, “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?” 
 
We’re looking at psalms of lament.  We have left behind the airy, sweet feelings of praise.  Tanner notes, “We come together in worship to praise God and to give thanks for our life, and that is well and good.  But what of lament?  When does the church gather to cry out, either for itself or for the injustice in our world?  All around us we have people who are hurting, people who would rather hear Psalm 13 on a Sunday morning than another story where Jesus heals.” (68)
 
We tend to downplay the images of lament in the Bible.  Perhaps we say that that’s no way to approach God—that we’re being ungrateful.  But maybe we’re speaking more about ourselves than anything (or anyone) else.  If we’re uncomfortable with confronting that darkness, then maybe we will pretend that it doesn’t exist, or that nothing can be done about it anyway. 
 
What do we miss if we never lament?