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Cries from the darkness: a sermon on Job and Jesus

October 15th, 2006 by isaac · 5 Comments

Another sermon…
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Title: “Job: cries from the darkness.” Date: 10/15/06. Texts: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Ps 22:1-15; Heb 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-21.

Last week we heard the prologue to the book of Job. And there we saw a man whose world was turned upside down. This week the lectionary gives us Job’s bitter cries in the midst of his darkness. After more than 20 chapters of conversation with his friends who try to make sense of his suffering, Job’s pain and protest against God doesn’t go away. And this evening, we will try to hear those cries; we will try to listen for what this passage from Job teaches us about what to do with our suffering, and the suffering of others. But before we do that, let’s pray:

Your word, O God, is living and active; it penetrates into our depths and exposes our evil desires in order to cut away the filth of our lives and save us from self-destruction. By your grace, speak to us this Word so we may be led into the mysterious glories of your eternal life.

Let me recap what we heard about Job last week. He’s a righteous man, and a pious man… A master of spirituality. And he enjoyed all the pleasures of life—wealth, family, sons and daughters. But all those things are suddenly taken from him. And he is left in misery. In the 20 chapters we skipped, Job’s friends come along and try to help Job figure out how to make sense of this sudden series of calamities. The friends try to work out their theories about evil and try to offer Job the comfort of an explanation, some kind of reason why all this happened. They offer theories of sin and punishment; they try to get Job to admit to some sort of sin. They try to fit Job into their well-thought theologies and understandings of the way God uses evil and punishes sinful creation.

But with every explanation, Job’s misery gets louder and louder. The words of his friends bring no comfort—they only prod Job’s festering wounds, thus increasing the pain. At one point, Job has this to say to his friends: “I have heard many things like these; miserable comforters are you all! Will your long-winded speeches never end? What ails you that you keep on arguing?” (16:1-2). And again, “How long will you torment me and crush me with words?” (19:2).

And now, in chapter 23 we get Job at his darkest moment—a darkness that comes in spite of his friends and their miserable comfort. The world is dark for Job because for all appearances, God has forsaken him. Verses 8 and 9:

But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.

In other words, Job can’t find God. In the midst of so much suffering and misery, God doesn’t seem to be around.

I am reminded of something Nick said a couple weeks ago in response to Fred’s sermon on Esther. Fred noted how the name of God is surprisingly absent in the book of Esther. God isn’t an obvious actor in that story. And then Nick commented about how this is the way we experience God a lot of times, or maybe all the time. God seems to be absent. And this is exactly what we hear from Job—God has gone missing. And so, all Job sees is darkness, empty darkness. He struggles to find God anywhere, but nothing. He says, “God is not there… I do not find him… I do not see him… I catch no glimpse of him.” Not even a glimpse, some sliver of light to give him hope. No flash of lightning to illumine a path of healing, even for a moment. Darkness. Stillness. Silence.

Well, not exactly silence. We hear Job’s desperate and bitter cries. That’s what we hear at the end of the passage we read this evening: “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face” (v17). In this passage, where God is nowhere to be found and darkness settles over the face of the earth, all we hear are Job’s bitter cries. In our darkened world where God seems to have gone missing, we can’t look up into the night sky and read the stars in order to chart our way, to get our bearings. There are no stars. Or, if there are, they seem to be hidden by a fog. Our only compass is Job’s cry, the cries of those who suffer the pains of misery. And those cries are all around us, if we are willing to leave our comforts and listen to them.

But leaving our comforts behind is difficult business. That’s the challenge we hear from the story of the wealthy man who can’t give up his stuff and follow Jesus. Mark 10:21—“‘One thing you lack,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” That was a difficult word for that wealthy young man, and I can safely say that it’s a difficult word for me to hear too. This word from Jesus does exactly what our passage from Hebrews 4 talks about:

The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joint and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

Jesus calls the person in our passage to give up his wealth and follow. To give up and follow. That’s the call of discipleship, that’s the call of our devotion to God. And it’s also God’s devotion to us—remember, before Jesus tells the rich man to give up his wealth, the text says that Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mk 10:21). The call to give up and follow comes from a profound love. There’s something wonderful in store for those who hear the call, who are willing to give up their stuff and follow Jesus into God knows what.

And at this point I have to come back to Nick’s observation again, from a few weeks ago: We experience God as absent. How are we to follow Jesus if he seems to have gone missing? Well, that’s not exactly true—I’m probably over-stating the case. The Bible presents Jesus to us every time we read it, and preach from it, and talk about it. Through our Scriptures we are given an opportunity to re-present Jesus, to receive Jesus again and again, to deepen our discipleship and devotion. And we are part of tradition—the Anabaptist tradition—that takes the Jesus we read about very seriously.

But even when we think we hear Jesus’ call, and think we know where we are going, when we think we’ve looked into the night sky and seen a few stars, a few bright lights to guide us in the way—even when we’re quite sure that we’ve stumbled onto the right path, the way of Jesus, we find out that Jesus takes us into complete darkness.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.

That’s the first two verses of the Psalm we heard this evening (Psalm 22:1-2). Do they sound strangely familiar? If they do, it’s because those are the last words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. At the end of Jesus’ ministry, as he suffers his last breath on the cross, Jesus quotes the first verse from Psalm 22. Let me read Mark 15:33-34:
At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’—which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

This is Jesus in his darkest moment. God seems to have gone missing at the moment when Jesus needs God the most. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But like Job, Jesus will not be silenced by the darkness. He cries out to God the same sort of question Job asks: Why has God disappeared when I need him most? The temptation is to add a little light, a little hope, at the end in order to make those haunting voices go away—Job’s bitter cries, and Jesus’ cry of abandonment.

Interestingly, that’s apparently what some scribes did to Mark’s story. If you flip to the last page of Mark’s gospel (chapter 16), you’ll see what I mean. It seems that the original story ends without Jesus’ resurrected appearance. Women go to the tomb and see it empty and “a young man dressed in a white robe” tells them that Jesus is risen. But the book ends in fear and bewilderment: 16:8—“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” And that’s the end. It’s troubling. No resurrected Jesus to eat with like the other gospels have. This story is so troubling that good and pious scribes added a better ending to the story later on—you can read it in chapter 16, verses 9 through 20.

Job’s friends also try to silence Job’s cries of abandonment. They hear the profound abandonment in what Job is saying, and try to witness to some distant hope, some distant light that will illumine the darkness very soon. Here’s one example, one of the worst I think. This is what Bildad says to Job (8:5-7):

But if you will look to God and plead with the Almighty, if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf and restore you to your rightful place. Your beginnings will seem humble, so prosperous will your future be.

Job’s friend is basically saying, Don’t let this stuff get you down; I see a bright future ahead. They are empty words, platitudes. This is a friend who doesn’t know what to do with a suffering friend. This is a friend who can’t bear the darkness, who can’t sit still and listen, who can’t offer the comfort of silent solidarity, the gift of presence, a shared life.

Job teaches us how important it is to take suffering people seriously, so seriously that we refuse to offer them cheap hope, escapist hope, a hope that can’t bear the darkness, and instead are willing to be drawn into their pain and darkness and wait with them so we—together—might come to see a Jesus who also cries out: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani.” “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”

The skies grow dark. As we read in Mark’s story of the crucifixion, “At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land.” There’s a fog of darkness and God seems to have gone missing. We can’t see enough stars to discern the right path through the wilderness of this earth. But we do hear something. We hear cries in the distance. Those cries are our compass. We learn the way of Jesus as we learn to leave behind our comforts, our wealth of resources, and enter into a life where all we know is that we can hear distant cries in the darkness. And we walk toward those voices because that’s where we may find Job… or Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

I’m sorry that this message may be so hopeless for many of us. Let me just say, I didn’t choose these passages. The lectionary made me do it. But let me also say this: it seems to me that even though this message may not be hopeful for some of us, it is hopeful to those who are suffering, those who are in misery, those who feel the abandonment of God. I believe it is a hopeful message for them because they can know that the One we worship is also abandoned by God. Jesus is there in that same darkness. They are not alone. And if Jesus is there with them in that darkness, then maybe we should be too.
Yet to us, who may not hear this message as hopeful, maybe it means that we need to learn how to share our lives with those who know only darkness, those who know the darkened land where we last saw our Savior, on the cross, when the last word is abandonment.

Tags: sermons

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 reg kinser // Dec 9, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    I appreciate your sermon….

    In regard to your comments about the last verses of Mark’s Gospel, you need to read Dean Burgeon’s book entitled “the last 12 verses of Mark.” There is more than sufficient evidence to support the authenticity of these verses.

  • 2 b williams // Aug 24, 2008 at 4:32 am

    Thank you for this. So often we become “Bildad” when our loved ones are in darkness. We offer scriptures (many taken out of context) and empty cliches’ instead of the gift of presense. Thanks again.

  • 3 isaac // Sep 5, 2008 at 6:57 am

    Yes, B Williams, that’s right on. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading my sermon. The gift of presence is mysterious. Something happens, even when it seems like nothing happens. And nothing happens, even when it feels like something happened.

    As a pastor, I notice that a lot of times people just need someone to listen, someone to take time and just be there for them. Sure, it’s appropriate to say stuff sometimes. But there’s no shortcut around being present, fully present, available, vulnerable, honest. And that’s the hardest thing in the world: to be present and available without secret motives or goals, to be present without conceptions of success.

    peace.

  • 4 Pastor O. // Jun 27, 2009 at 8:46 pm

    I do agree with you the way you have used this sermon to lighten the heart of the discouraged.
    It is a good job. God bless your Ministry.

  • 5 isaac // Jul 11, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks, Pastor O., for the kind words.