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broken worlds: a sermon on Job and Hebrews 2:8-10

October 9th, 2006 by isaac · 7 Comments

Preaching on suffering makes the soul weary.

This past Sunday the lectionary led us into dark waters. There weren’t any easy texts to retreat to, where I could preach a pet messege. The gospel text was Jesus’ teaching about divorce (Mark 10). I didn’t dare attempt a sermon from that. The Old Testament reading introduced us to Job—it was a selection of verses from the first two chapters (the prologue). And, suffice it to say, Job is not an easy text; not only is the message of the book difficult, but the text itself is an assemblage of genres with many complicated textual variations at important places in the book. For example, Job’s final word in the book is quite ambiguous; how should we read 42:6? Option 1: “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” Option 2: “Therefore I retract my words and repent of dust and ashes.” Option 3: “Therefore I retract my words and have changed my mind concerning dust and ashes.” Option 4: “Therefore I despise and repent of dust and ashes.” (Carol Newsom lays out these options in her book The Book of Job, p. 29). As you can see, that ambiguity makes a difference for the message of the text. All this to say, Job is a difficult text. It’s so slippery. Jerome, writing in the late 4th century, compared the book to an eel: “if you close your hand to hold an eel, the more you squeeze it the sooner it escapes.”


But I tried to say something. Although I felt like I didn’t feel very confident about what I had to say, the sermon sparked a very interesting conversation during our time where we discern the Word together.


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Title: Broken Worlds. Date: 10/8/06. Lectionary texts: Job 1:1-5, 2:1-10; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12.


A funny thing happened yesterday, around lunch time. I think I met Job…and, among other things, it meant I had to re-think this sermon. I got a call on the church phone and this stranger told me about his problems and asked if I could meet him to pray—all he told me he wanted was prayer… but that turned out not to be the case, but I’m getting ahead of myself. He needed to meet right away, he said. So I did. I drove over to some hotel off the freeway in Durham and met this man in the lobby—I’ll call him James.


I don’t want to say too much about James; it wouldn’t be right. But I will say this: as he spoke to me with his drunken slur, I thought to myself… “Is this Job?” The connection wasn’t necessarily self-evident. There were many important differences between James and the Job I was reading about in the Bible. If it was any other week, I probably wouldn’t have asked that question. But I couldn’t help it; I’d been thinking about Job and working on this sermon all week; the bible character was fresh on my mind.


There are many things I could have said about our Job from the text. Lots of stuff to preach about, and, I must admit, lots that I read and shook my head at in disbelief—like a God who, as it says in 2:7, “afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head.” I’ll be honest: I’m not sure what to do with that image of God. But talking with James brought my attention to something in the text, something right there at the end of the passage, 2:9: “His wife said to him, ‘Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!’” Then Job replies, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”


In an instant, Job went from the pleasant pastures of life to the misery of the valley of the shadow of death. In a moment all the good things of life were stripped away. He lost it all. He lost his wealth, his sons and daughters, and his health. And after all that Job’s closest companion turns into a nihilist: “Curse God and die,” she says. Your life is headed toward death, she says. Embrace it. Accept it. Forget the God of your past, all those pathetic promises, and turn towards your own death. “Curse God and die.” There’s nothing more worth living for. Everything is misery.


But he doesn’t. And that’s what I found in James, the stranger I met and prayed with at the Hampton Inn. Amidst the slurs, the shifting stories, the manipulation—under all that stuff, I was struck with James’ will to live, that same will to live I see now in Job. They both are fighting to continue on. They fight to live. Even when it looks like the universe is plotting against them, even God at times, Job and James refuse to give up. They stay in the game. James was doing whatever he knew, using any possible strategy in order to make it through the day, and the week. Sure, for James it involved skills of deception—and that’s not a good idea. But I saw something underneath that, some desire at work behind that, although misdirected. He wanted to keep on with life, even when everything collapses, when the world falls apart.


At the heart of these stories, these two lives, is a question: How to go on when the world gets turned upside down? The Bible story shows us how Job’s known world falls apart. And in the lobby of the Hampton Inn, I began to see how James’ world fell apart a long time ago. But they keep on going, trying to make it in an unfamiliar world.


How to go on when the world gets turned upside down? That’s what our passage from Job asks us. But it’s also the same question at the heart of our passage from Hebrews. I’ll explain. At the very beginning of the letter we hear a glorious vision of Jesus, the Son of God. 1:3: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” That’s quite a glorified vision of Jesus: the radiance of God’s glory, seated at the right hand of majesty, superior to the angels.


It’s the same sort of vision of Jesus repeated in chapter two, in the quotation from Psalm 8: “You crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” Then the writer of Hebrews goes on—this is the second half of verse 8: “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him.” These passages speak of a world completely under Jesus’ lordship—everything is under his feet, it says. This is a vision of a world that obeys the command of Jesus, the good will of God, where the good and the true triumph. This is the world that all of us want, a world without pain and suffering, a world without powers that tempt us with sin, a world without evil, a world where I don’t have to face the news of more deaths in Iraq, a world where a powerful politician doesn’t take advantage of teenagers, a world where a violent man doesn’t kill Amish children at school, a world where Durham teenagers don’t murder.


That’s the world that I want. And that’s the world the writer of Hebrews starts with. “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him.” But then you can almost sense a pause in the writer’s thought. He has been caught up in this glorious vision of a triumphant Jesus who is in complete control of world affairs… he can barely write fast enough as he tries to describe this wonderful world, the world offered in the Psalm he quotes. But then he stops. He pauses. He puts down his pen. He feels the weight of experience, of pain and suffering, of sin. And then he writes, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.” (2:8b). And with that, everything comes crashing down. It’s the same thing that happens with Job. The perfect world collapses. And that question I mentioned before comes back again: How to go on when the world gets turned upside down?


I’ll read from Hebrews 2:8 again: “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.” Now listen to this next part in verse 9: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”


When the glorious vision of the world collapses under the weight of experience, the writer of Hebrews offers us Jesus: “But we see Jesus.” And it’s a Jesus who knows suffering—“who suffered death” and “tasted death for everyone.” When we wonder about how to go on when the world falls apart, or when the world we hope for is nowhere to be seen, we are offered a vision of a suffering Jesus, a Jesus who is familiar with pain, with death, with the human condition, the human struggle.


I have to admit, part of me cringes as I read that line in Hebrews 2:9—“But we see Jesus.” I cringe because I’ve heard too many sermons that stop there. So, the call at the end of those sermons is to somehow look with my mind’s eye at Jesus, to close my eyes and think about Jesus, or see some figure of Jesus in my head. And at that point I hear all the voices of criticism in the recent centuries—all those important figures that claim that Christianity is for the delusional, for those who deny the world around them in order to escape into their own psyche. Or I hear the voices of my friends who look around and see the Christian mainstream in this country as a myth that provides comfort for souls as people go about supporting the harshest of evils.


But we need to go further. If we want to believe something that is more than mere spiritualism, mere piety, mere Christianity, then we have to follow the gaze of Hebrews 2:9 further than most want to go. “But we see Jesus” must be more than a retreat into the caverns of our own heads. It must be more than escapism. It’s a call to look deeper, a call to look into the suffering Jesus, into those wounds and see the wounds of humanity. Jesus doesn’t bypass suffering. Jesus doesn’t offer salvation as a short cut to the messiness of life. No. As Hebrews 2:10 puts it, the author of our salvation is made perfect through suffering. Not around it. Through suffering.


This is what I think this means for us. We have to go back to Job and that man I met at the Hampton Inn yesterday, James. If you know the story of Job, then you know that the rest of the book (except for the last few chapters) is a conversation. Job’s friends show up and try to explain away Job’s suffering. And then at the end God shows up and has something to say. But what the friends fail to realize is that through Job’s pain and suffering, Job is lead into new mysteries of God. Suffering has broken his comfortable world and led him into something new, a conversation with God, a struggle with God, a struggle which is a new intimacy.


Here’s my question: Is it possible to “see Jesus” in those who suffer? Is it possible to hear the call to “see Jesus” as a call, not to escape into your head, but to sit and wait and pray and serve those who know suffering and pain? “But we see Jesus”—Can we look with the writer of Hebrews, and follow that line of sight into the realities of a world turned upside down and learn to see the mysteries of the suffering Christ? A Jesus who chose to suffer with us instead of the comforts of heaven.


This is not to say that all those who suffer are innocent victims. That’s also delusional. It was pretty clear to me in the lobby of that hotel that James wasn’t simply a victim of circumstance. He wasn’t exactly Job, nor was he Jesus. But that’s where I think we need to hear the call to look more closely, to look deeper, to reach further, to wait patiently for the strange appearance of our Lord.


Let me close with a story. It goes something like this. In an interview with Mother Theresa, a reporter asked her how she found the strength and hope to work day after day in the middle of so much suffering. Mother Theresa replied, One day a long time ago I went to nurse a woman with leprosy. Her body was covered with sores. So, I began the slow work of tending to the sores up and down her arms. And when I reached her hand, I saw a sore in the middle of her hand that looked like it went though. And I thought to myself, My Lord has holes in his hands. Then I prayed, “Lord, is this you?”

Tags: sermons

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jonathan Kelley // Oct 12, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    Isaac,

    I really enjoyed your sermon. I am living in Little Rock, Arkansas serving Calvary Baptist as their Student and Recreation Minister. Life is busy, but work is enjoyable. Blessings.

  • 2 isaac // Nov 4, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for reading the sermon. And thanks for visiting the site. Please come again and let me know what you think.

    It’s good to hear that you got a job, and are on your vocational journey. I hope all is well, and that you have time, in the midst of the demands of ministery, for your wife (I’ve definitely learned that this is important).

    peace

  • 3 Tim Janning // Oct 2, 2009 at 8:21 am

    Issac,
    I was surfing the web for some sermon ideas and ran across a sermon you wrote in 2006 titled “broken world.”

    First, I wanted to comment that your reference to Hebrews 2:8 identifies Jesus as the one whom creation is subjected to—my reading of that passage is that the passage is referring to human beings not Jesus.

    Second, you make reference to wanting a world in which there is peace. If you are not already familiar I would recommend to you the works of Rene Girard. Gil Bailie has a book titled “Violence Unveiled: Christianity at the Crossroads,” that is based on Girard’s work. I would also recommend the website: http://girardianlectionary.net/ .

    I did enjoy your sermon overall.
    Tim

  • 4 isaac // Oct 2, 2009 at 8:36 am

    hi Tim,

    thanks for visiting this site and for reading my sermon and for making a comment. I very much appreciate it. I hope my sermon provides fodder for your own.

    One thing about your comment… Why do you draw a line between human beings and Jesus: “the passage is referring to human beings not Jesus,” you write. Jesus is a human being, he is the Human Being, the only “truly human” one, as the Chalcedonian Creed puts it. We are human in that we are created to grow into the One in whose image we are created. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, we are created ad imaginem, toward the image. Humans grow into and participate in the truly human one, Jesus Christ.

  • 5 Tim Janning // Oct 2, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Issac,
    I agree with your response. I think my comment was more to the point that you seemed to be limiting the reference to Jesus only to the exclusion of other humans; whereas it seems to me it refers to all humanity including Jesus.

    I will admit my comment does seem to exclude Jesus from humanity and therefore poorly worded.

  • 6 Canon Andrew White // Sep 13, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Dear Isaac,

    I am the vicar of Baghdad. A long time after you wrote this sermon it has given me real hope. It has been very difficult for us since the Quran Burning Fiasco. Four of our guards were shot dead. Job was from Iraq, here he is known as Ayoub and his shrine and grave is here. It is good to know you are a mennonit the MCC is wonderful.

    Love from Baghdad,

    Andrew

  • 7 isaac // Sep 17, 2010 at 6:10 am

    Andrew, I am deeply grateful and encouraged that you have stumbled across my sermon and have found that it speaks good news in your world. I can’t imagine the trauma that comes with ministry in your context. May God continue to give you strength and wisdom.

    I have a friend who spent a few years in Baghdad as the MCC coordinator. He was there just before the US invasion and remained for as long as he could. He wrote a powerful essay on what it means to “celebrate” Easter in Baghdad:
    http://www.rustyparts.com/wp/2008/03/29/easter-in-baghdad-peter-dula/