We finished the story of Job a little over a week ago at Bethany. My thoughts, again, were aided significantly by the wisdom of Sam Balentine in his excellent work on Job. We stopped with Job’s final response to God, his last words in the whole book.
Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I retract my words and have changed my mind concerning dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
So that’s it. The end of Job’s story.
Well, there’s a little more. After these verses the story returns to the fairytale tone from the beginning. God tells Job’s friends that they were wrong, and Job was right. And then God gives Job back his health, wealth, and ten new children.
But today we’re going to focus on this first ending. These are Job’s last words. They are our best clue about what all this has meant to Job.
Job has been through a lot. After his initial loss, and then shock and silence, it’s like a damn burst, and the pain and anguish, anger and questions gushed out. Sometimes people talk about the patience of Job. It’s worth remembering that the patience of Job is a screaming, groaning, angry, questioning sort of patience. Job is not satisfied by false comfort or easy answers.
And then God Almighty shows up. In a whirlwind of noise and questions God shows up in overwhelming force and plunges Job deeper into the darkness.
We might wonder if God was trying to shame Job, asking questions like, where were you when I made the world? Was God trying to bully Job into silence, shake the questions out of him?
Maybe. But that is not the kind of God to which scripture testifies. The God we find time and again in scripture is not a God who overpowers the weak, but one who lifts up the faltering. Our God, says Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah is the God of the brokenhearted, the God of the barren woman and hopeless widow. Our God, is not one who stifles every dissent, but stands and negotiates with Abraham and Moses. Our God is not like a battlefield commander who marches on, leaving behind any who can’t keep up, but is a shepherd who goes to find the lost. Our God prepares a table for us, feeds us with the bread of heaven, and leads us to waters that never run dry.
This is our God—who knows our needs before we speak, who longs for wholeness and life for each of us. And, I believe, this is the God who asks Job question by question to wade even deeper into the storm.
Job lived the first half of his life with a pretty simple worldview. If I do right, then I will have good fortune, things will work out. We might roll our eyes hearing it stated so bluntly, but most of live this way. You get out what you put in. What goes around comes around. That’s what Job thought. Then his world fell apart. Maybe you know how that is.
But God has not abandoned Job. God seeks to give Job new life.
And here, in our text today, we see the seeds of this new life sprouting from the scorched earth of Job’s world. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I retract my words and have changed my mind concerning dust and ashes.”
I retract my words and have changed my mind.
Before we get any deeper on this, I should note that the Hebrew here is tough. Translations vary. If you go home and look this up in an NRSV or an NIV, it will say something different. This, however, seems to me to be the best translation for the context.
It’s also worth noting that this phrase dust and ashes is used to refer to the human condition. It’s like on Ash Wednesday or at a funeral when we say dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Job is talking about his humanity, our human condition here.
I take back what I said. I’ve changed my mind about dust and ashes.
What is Job taking back? He doesn’t say. But I wonder if he is letting go of some of his desire for everything to go back to how it was before, for an easy way out of this life, for God to show up and give answers that fix everything.
But the questions God has asked, and the wider perspective, a view that encompasses all of the intricacies of creation has caused Job to let go of that.
He doesn’t just let go, though. Job has changed his mind. He has found something new.
He doesn’t tell us what that is, but I wonder. I wonder if some of it is a renewed sense of belonging. Pain, emotional or physical pain, isolates us. As God drew Job’s attention up and out, I wonder if he was able to rediscover that he has a place in the midst of this beautiful, broken world. Maybe he has found some coherence, some sense of belonging along with the wild mountain goats and the storehouses of snow, the big and the little, all of which holds together in God’s hands.
I wonder if he also had a renewed sense of purpose.
God has not given Job easy answers. But God has held up some mighty creatures for consideration. There’s the behemoth whose life is threatened by roiling floodwaters. In the face of this, though, the behemoth fights for life. There’s the leviathan who is threatened by hunters, man-made violence. But the leviathan struggles for life, beating back the forces of destruction.
As God seeks to give Job new life, as God seeks to work healing in Job’s life, God paints a picture not of silent, hopeless submission to the pain and horror that life can offer. No. God asks Job to imagine creatures who are free and powerful, who struggle against those forces that rob them of life, that deal destruction and death, creatures who dig deep for the waters of life.
We too have that kind of choice—as we face forces that threaten life and wholeness: addiction, uncontrollable anger, violence and poverty, carelessness and callous disregard for our neighbors’ plight, our tendency to seek the quick fix and the easy out. In the face of all of this we have the choice to be carried away on the floodwaters, or to stand and struggle for life.
I wonder if that capacity to struggle for life is what God saw in all of Job’s questions and refusal to be comforted. I wonder if that is why God showed up—not to silence Job, but to push him deeper into this struggling darkness, that he might emerge healed in some way. It reminds me of Jacob who wrestled with God in the night and emerged limping but blessed.
Job is, in some way, healed. That is his testimony here. It is worth noticing that Job claims this new life, even though the outward circumstances of Job’s life have not changed.
If we read on, as the story turns back toward a fairy-tale, the circumstances of Job’s life will change. But the heart of the matter is here. Job says his eyes are opened, his mind and heart are changed before any of that happens.
Does our understanding of healing include this kind of healing? Where the heart changes, but not necessarily the body? Sometimes I think we confuse healing with cure. But as anyone who has sat with a dying person can tell us, there is a deeper healing than the evasion of death. There is forgiveness that gives new life. There is release from old fears and deep angers that gives freedom. There is balm for old aches and resolution to deep rifts that is true healing. We who proclaim a crucified Christ know that even one who bears scars, even one who has died, can be whole, can embody life.
And though Job’s outward circumstances have not changed, he has changed. His vision has sharpened in this dark night of the soul. And he is now able to catch a glimpse of life.
He has caught sight of a vision for life where meaning comes in the struggle, the struggle against those forces, both natural and man-made, that deal death. He has caught a glimpse of a new way, a way that does not ask a person to be less, to be diminished in the face of suffering, but to emerge on the other side, scars and all, a new creation.
Job did not seek this suffering. The book tells us that it happened to him for no reason. But in spite of that, in this struggle Job has found a peace that passes understanding, a hope for things unseen. He has discovered that along with a heart that breaks, God has also given him a wild, free, powerful drive toward life.
Along with Job we may wish there was an easier way, that we could avoid the whirlwind, the dark night of wrestling. The truth is, though, it comes to almost all of us, and the life that has been revealed to us by the Spirit in the life of Jesus is a life that travels first through the land of death. And so, sometimes by choice, more often by necessity, we wade out into the deep water, trusting that the Almighty Life, the Life poured out in Jesus, the Life that met Job in the whirlwind, that wrestled with Jacob in the night, the Life poured out in Jesus, and made manifest to us in the Spirit, this Life that death cannot stop, the Life that shines in the deepest darkness, this Life is for us and with us and by the grace of God in us. For this, thanks be to God.by Sarah W. Wiles October 28, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA