Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Finite Suffering, Infinite Hope

Job 14:7-15; Job 19: 23-27
July 31, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We’ve come to our third installment of our series on Job. We’ll just do a brief recap of the story so far. This is an ancient folk tale, a story about suffering. The story opens in a kind of courtroom drama, with God and the adversary debating whether Job will keep the faith, even in the event of unspeakable suffering.

Within the first two chapters, Job loses everything except his wife and his life. All of his livestock been killed, and a house has fallen on all of his children. Only his wife survives, and her suggestion is that he “curse God and die.” Job’s friends show up, and first they sit with him in silent empathy. Then they open their mouths, and nothing they say is helpful. They suggest that he somehow deserves this suffering, or that he needs to just suck it up and deal with it. Job does not care for their answers and neither does God. Finally, Job himself speaks to God, demanding some answers. His words sound almost like anti-Psalms, the opposite of a song. They express poetically, eloquently, his despair.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Job 14:7-15

7 “For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. 8 Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, 9 yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. 10 But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? 11 As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, 12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.
13 O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
14 If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. 15 You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands.

In all his grieving, though, Job has never turned away from God. In all his misery, he has not forsaken his faith in the Go of the covenant. Now, for a moment, Job has a glimpse of hope. Let’s listen for those words of hope in Job 19:23-27:

23 “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, 27 whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Mary was the daughter of Methodist missionaries in China. When she was nine years old, she and her parents were taken from the Chinese mission school, and interned in a nearby town with other foreigners. That concentration camp was her home for nearly four years, until American paratroopers liberated them in 1945.[1] Mary recalls, “It was November 1942.

Wearing olive uniforms, the Japanese soldiers led us off to our first concentration camp, three miles across town. A straggling line of perhaps 200 children, proper Victorian teachers and God-fearing missionaries, we went marching into the unknown, singing from the Psalms. "God is our refuge and strength. .. therefore we will not fear...." We had become prisoners of war.”[2]

Nearly five thousand miles away, in 1944, a young Elie Wiesel was taken to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were killed. There were beatings, and daily selections of those who would be put to death. A few weeks before the camps were liberated, Elie’s father died.
He was fifteen years old.

It is hard to imagine the kind of suffering that Mary or Elie experienced. But somehow, it is easier than imagining the suffering that Job experienced. Grasping the nature of that kind of devastating misery is beyond most of us. The story of Job is so relentless as it piles on misfortune after misfortune, that it could almost seem like farce, were it not for the empathy we feel when we read this poetic account, if it were not for the ways in which we identify with Job’s suffering

Sadly, it becomes easier as we consider the suffering in the world we know. We see distress around to us, almost every day, if we pay attention to the news. Since the first of July, just before we began this series on the book of Job, thirty eight people in Chicago were murdered. Worldwide, this month, in 158 separate terrorist incidents, more than a thousand people died.[3]

Whatever the circumstances of these deaths, whether murder or terrorism, the surviving families, if there are any, must be in agony. Whoever the terrorists are whatever their aims, the victims’ suffering is beyond description. Where terrorist acts take place, the entire community suffers, and the world weeps alongside them. Closer to home, we watch, helpless, as friend are beset by illness, as they struggle to understand the diagnosis, as their families take in the prospect of loss. In our own families, and in our congregation, we suffer alongside those who suffer, heartbroken to see their pain.

Like Job, we daily confront the reality of suffering and death –and we join him in his lament: “mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.”

Not all of us are willing to confront God, in our laments. But Job calls God out, asking why God has become his adversary. Job brings his charges against God. He compares himself to a city under siege from an army with superior power. He asks what God is doing to him, and why. He presents his evidence, and awaits a verdict. He demands an explanation.

Like Job, we may rail against God.
Like Job, we may ask why?
Like Job, we cry out for relief.
Like Job, we begin to feel hopeless.
We look around for a savior.
We search for someone who will offer us some answers, any answers.
We grasp at any possible lifeline, in our confusion and pain.
If we are not careful, our pain can turn to hopelessness and to hatred.
We need something – someone - to keep our hope alive.

For Mary, during those years in the concentration camp in China, that someone who kept hope alive was the adults who were interned with her, who kept their faith in Christ,  and kept her faith and her hope alive. The adults were determined that their children would have a childhood. They organized classrooms and sports, and made winter clothes from blankets. They managed to keep the Girl Guides and Boy Scout troops going, helping the children earn merit badges. They held school each weekday, and church every Sunday.

They taught the children songs and games and hymns, and never let on how terrified they were of their captors. A few kind guards would occasionally let the children come into the guard tower, where they were let down gently to a meadow outside the fences. And a kind man they called Uncle Eric taught their science lessons. Uncle Eric, who died in the camp a few weeks before they were liberated, was Eric Liddell, the famous Scots runner, who refused to run an Olympic race on a Sunday and became the inspiration for the movie “Chariots of Fire”

With these hope-filled adults, Mary and her friends read the scripture, they prayed and sang:
God is still on the throne; And He will remember His own ...
His promise is true; He will not forget you.
God is still on the throne.

When the American paratroopers landed to liberate them, they gathered at the gates of the camp and sang the Star Spangled Banner.

For Elie, the situation was far more grim. The daily violence and death threatened his spirit. Elie recalled that eventually, the Jewish leaders in his barracks decided to hold God accountable. Like Job, they called God to account. One night, Elie’s teacher took him back to his own barracks. As Elie watched, three great Jewish scholars- masters of Talmud, Halakhah, and Jewish jurisprudence- put God on trial.

Robert McAfee Brown says they created, “in that eerie place, a rabbinic court of law to indict the Almighty.” The trial lasted several nights. They called witnesses, presented evidence, and made arguments. The final verdict was unanimous: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, accused of crimes against creation and humankind, was found guilty.

And then, after … an “infinity of silence,” the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers,”... [4]

God is guilty.
It’s time for prayer.

In the intensity of their torment, they cried out against God.
And when they were finished, they prayed.
They cried out to God for deliverance.

Like Job, in the floodtide of misfortune, we seek the solid ground of hope, grasping at anything that will keep us afloat. And like Job, we have the promise of God’s steadfast love.
Like Job, we can trust that God’s covenant of grace will never be broken.
Like Job, we can say:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side….”

Mary survived the war. As an adult she served in the New Jersey General Assembly, and as a director of a non-profit. She located every adult she could find from the camp, and met with them and thanked them personally. Elie Weisel survived the concentration camp, too, as you know. He became an internationally renowned author and speaker.

When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he said:
“Let us remember Job who, having lost everything – his children, his friends, his possessions, and even his argument with God – still found the strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. Job was determined not to repudiate the creation, however imperfect, that God had entrusted to him.
Job, our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity.
Did he ever lose his faith? If so, he rediscovered it within his rebellion.
He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours.
Because I remember, I despair.
Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.
I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope…. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,
but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, man can save the world. … Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”[5]

Our suffering, like our lives, is finite.
Our hope, the hope that comes from God, is infinite.

We remember.
We live in hope.

The hope we have in our faith is the hope we are called to share with others. That hope is for all people, so that they may know that when the lament is done, when the pain subsides, God’s grace remains. Our call is to say to ourselves, and let our lives speak to the world, the truth of the hope we have in God.

We become the people we needed when we were young.
We give the gift of hope, of peace, to one another.

So we can boldly say, with the psalmist:
Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In that hope we stand at the grave, and even there we can shout alleluia!
With Job, we remember, and we proclaim with our lips and our lives:
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Suffering is finite.
Hope is infinite.

Thanks be to God.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Previte
[2] http://www.weihsien-paintings.org/Mprevite/inquirer/MPrevite.htm
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_July_2016
[4] Brown, Robert McAfee, introduction to The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel.
[5] http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1986/wiesel-lecture.html

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