The Twenty Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: November 10, 2013
Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
Preacher: Thomas Cahill
The Book of Job is the most complex book of the Hebrew Bible, that collection of texts that we usually refer to as the Old Testament. This long collection is full of exciting and horrifying stories and of personal and wrenching poetry. But there is no other book written in the Hebrew language that has drawn such an immense library of learned commentary and captured the attention of so many ordinary readers as the Book of Job — over the (perhaps) seven centuries since it was written by an unknown hand. The Book of Job belongs on a high shelf with the greatest literary masterpieces ever conceived and fashioned by the most extraordinarily creative imaginations in all of human history.
The Book of Job gives us both a story and a debate. Job’s is a story that reads like a Greek tragedy. The man is a happy and wealthy chieftain, to begin with, who loses all his wealth and all his beloved children and is brought down by painful, even disgusting, diseases and by every conceivable physical malady. His relatives avoid him, and those who were once the recipients of his generous hospitality forget him entirely. Four friends, however, arrive to comfort him by telling him that he must have sinned — or else all these terrible calamities would not have been sent to him by God. So the “comforters,” though they jabber on and on, give Job no comfort at all.
Job, however, though he mourns and complains, knows that he has done nothing whatever to merit such treatment by God. He is the first figure in all the Hebrew Bible to reject the idea that God is punishing him for his sins. Rather, he defends himself, insisting that God has not sent him these terrible sufferings as retribution for his sins. In the most famous passage in the Book of Job, Job delivers the ringing assertion of this Sunday’s first reading:
“I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth,
and even though my body has been destroyed,
in my flesh shall I see God, who shall be on my side!”
The Hebrew of these verses is so difficult that it has spawned many controversies and many translations. But it is an amazing statement. For in the time the Book of Job was written the Jews did not believe in resurrection and life after death. This was why it was so very important to them to believe that a good person would always be rewarded for his good deeds in this life. This is why Job’s comfortless comforters believed that he must have sinned or else he would not have been the object of God’s punishment. Job’s insistence that he has not merited God’s judgment and his wild belief that he will somehow be justified by God in the end are completely new thoughts in human history.
The Hebrew word that is here translated as “Redeemer” is go’el, which has a history of its own, for Job lived in a time, not of nations, but of families and tribes. If something horrible happened to me — say, another tribe destroyed my cattle or killed my children or stole my wealth — it was up to my nearest of kin to act as go’el and to take revenge. A go’el is a “redeemer” if I’ve been sold into slavery and need to be redeemed; otherwise, my go’el is my avenger. It’s a pretty startling, even a spectacular, word to apply to God. But more important, it’s the beginning of a new way of thinking about God and about human life: my reward for leading a good life will not necessarily come to me in this life, for there will be another life, another chance for happiness. Even after death, I have a future; and that future, like all futures, is in the hands of God.
Job’s startling assertion of a future beyond death is the first. It will be followed by the songs of the Suffering Servant in the Prophecies of Isaiah, which bring us even nearer to the climax of our salvation history. For that climax will of course be the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “For as in Adam all die,” insists Paul to the Corinthians, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Job we have the first hint of the story to come; in Christ we have the reality.
I’d like to tell you one more story: the story of my Aunt Agatha, a thoroughly depressing woman, who seemed to depress everyone she knew. Aunt Agatha always knew best, you see, and could enthusiastically point out to you all the things that you were doing wrong. If a movie were ever made of her life, her part would be played by Maggie Smith.
Many years ago I was informed by family members that Aunt Agatha was dying in a nearby hospital. Something told me to go visit her. When I got to the hopsital, she was alone. Despite her large family, no one wanted to spend more time than necessary at her bedside.
I remembered the one thing we had ever enjoyed together. Aunt Agatha liked to sing; and I would accompany her favored, often antique repertoire on the piano. So as Aunt Agatha lay there, I sang to her:
Four strong winds that blow lonely,
Seven seas that run high,
All these things that don’t change, come what may.
But our good times are all gone
And I’m bound for movin’ on.
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.
I realized that even many of the songs she liked were dark.
After many songs, I asked her if she’d like to pray. “I don’t know any prayers,” she said somewhat testily. So I sang:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Just as I am: thou wilt receive;
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
“Sing. That. Again,” commanded Aunt Agatha. And when I’d finished the second time, Aunt Agatha told me to go home to my family. It was getting late and she was afraid we might be disturbing other patients — something Aunt Agatha would never permit herself (or anyone else) to do. She would be fine, she said.
I also believe she knew that she had little time left and wanted to do some thinking (and maybe even some praying) on her own.
She died about an hour later. That was the night Aunt Agatha — “poor, wretched, blind,” as the hymn says, like all of us — that was the night Aunt Agatha met her Redeemer. Amen.