Sermon for March 19th, 2017
1“I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. 2 I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. 3 Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the schemes of the wicked? 4 Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see? 5 Are your days like the days of mortals, or your years like human years, 6 that you seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, 7 although you know that I am not guilty, and there is no one to deliver out of your hand? 8 Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me. 9 Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again? 10 Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese? 11 You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews. 12 You have granted me life and steadfast love, and your care has preserved my spirit. 13 Yet these things you hid in your heart; I know that this was your purpose. 14 If I sin, you watch me, and do not acquit me of my iniquity. 15 If I am wicked, woe to me! If I am righteous, I cannot lift up my head, for I am filled with disgrace and look upon my affliction. 16 Bold as a lion you hunt me; you repeat your exploits against me. 17 You renew your witnesses against me, and increase your vexation toward me; you bring fresh troops against me. 18 “Why did you bring me forth from the womb? Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, 19 and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave. 20 Are not the days of my life few? Let me alone, that I may find a little comfort 21 before I go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, 22 the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness.”
Job's Prayer of Despair
Knock, knock. (who's there?) Despair. (despair who?) Despare tire is flat.
Today we're talking about Job's "prayer of despair" in chapter 10. So let's dive right in to some things I want to point out in today's text. I'm going to read a few scattered verses throughout this chapter, and I want you to listen to the type of language that Job is using and see if you can connect the dots:
Verse2: "I will say to God, Do not condemn me"
Verse 7: "although you know that I am not guilty,"
Verse 14: "If I sin, you watch me, and do not acquit me of my iniquity."
Verse 17: "You renew your witnesses against me"
Job is using the language of the courtroom, of a legal trial. This is one of the reasons some scholars suspect the Book of Job is not as old as is sometimes supposed: The complex legal vocabulary, which reflects complex legal systems, didn't develop until much later (6th/5th centuries BCE) in Ancient middle eastern societies and languages.
In any case, Job seems to think that God has put him on trial. And there is some truth to this, if you read the first two chapters--All heaven is watching as jury, God has commissioned Satan as a sort of prosecuting attorney, and God himself will be the judge.
But Job does something unusual, something bold and gutsy. Rather than defending himself (why bother with that, if God already sees everything and knows everything?) Job goes on the attack. He attacks God, the judge. He turns the entire trial motif upside down and puts God on trial.
Verse 3: "Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the schemes of the wicked?
Then, in verse 4-7 he (sarcastically) compares God to a human being: "Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see? Are your days like the days of mortals, or your years like human years, that you seek out my iniquity and search for my sin, although you know that I am not guilty?" In other words, we would expect that kind of behavior from a person, not from a divine being.
Then Job's accusation comes in verse 8: "Your hands fashioned and made me; and now you turn and destroy me." You're the one who is doing all this, without provocation or cause. You're the one who is guilty, not me.
As witnesses in verses 9, 10, and 11 he calls out common household crafts: pottery, cheesemaking, and knitting. The idea is that no skilled craftsman makes these things just for the sake of destroying them.
Then Job's concluding argument in verse 14: "If I sin, you watch me, and do not acquit me of my iniquity, (therefore) if I am wicked, woe to me!" But...(even) if I am righteous, I (still) cannot lift up my head, for I am filled with disgrace and look upon my affliction."
Either way, whether I'm innocent or guilty, I am punished. The system is broken. Justice is broken. God is broken.
So just leave me alone, "that I may find a little comfort before I go, never to return, to the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness.”
In this bitter prayer, Job--having exhausted every attempt to understand what is happening to him and why--decides that it's just not worth it anymore. And so he resolves to walk away from God.
I think Job is not alone in this sentiment. Many of us, in the face of tragedy or sufffering, have put God on trial in our minds. Many of us have, at some point or another, resolved to walk away from God. And many have gone through with it, as Job says, "never to return."
This kind of prayer, a prayer of desperation, is usually the last prayer of the struggling Christian and the first prayer of the athiest or agnostic.
Today I want to speak for awhile to the atheists and agnostics in our midst. And no, I don't presume that just because you're sitting in a church Sunday morning that you are a Christian...any more than sitting in a coffee shop would make you a cup of coffee. Hopefully as a church, we aim to produce good Christians, the same way a coffee shop aims to produce good coffee...but just stumbling through the door and occupying a pew doesn't guarantee anything.
Still, whether you are a Christian, an agnostic, an atheist, something in between, all of the above or none of the above...we're glad you're here today. You never know...you might learn something!
So for the next few minutes, I want to speak to the atheists and agnostics. If that's not you, if you consider yourself a Christian, then you can mentally check out for a while, but while you're doing that I want you to consider what exactly it is about the way you spend your time and your resources--not your words or the bumper sticker on your car, but your actual time and resources--what is it about the way you spend those things that distinguishes you from an atheist or an agnostic in a visible way for all the world to see? Think about that, and if you can't come up with a good answer the question, then come back and hang out with us atheists and agnostics.
To my fellow atheists: And yes, I said fellow. That's because the very earliest Christians were labeled atheists by everyone else in the 1st - 3rd century world. The early Christians rejected the mainstream gods of Greek and Roman civilization, and what they called "God" didn't make sense to anyone, so people assumed they were atheists. And by the definitions of "acceptable theism" at the time, they were.
So if you are an atheist because, like Job and the early Christians, you walked away from the mainstream understanding of God in your time--
Maybe it was the God of your childhood religion that no longer made sense in a grown up world;
Maybe it was the Genie in a Bottle God who is supposed to give us everything we want at the drop of a prayer, but otherwise remain largely invisible, not interfering with our lives or choices except when summoned.
Maybe it was the guardian angel God who is supposed to protect us from all pain, suffering, danger, and loss, so that we're always perfectly happy all the time (a God who is quite obviously fictitious);
Maybe it was the angry and spiteful God of judgment and wrath and selected political causes that someone in some other church tried to sell you as the true God of Christianity, but who looked all too human at the end of the day;
If you gave up on a God like that and walked away, good for you! Better to be an atheist than to keep pretending that God is real.
But... if you're an atheist because you reject the possibility that anything bigger, better, wiser, more powerful, more divine than us could possibly exist, I would ask you (humbly) to rethink that. I cannot prove to you that God exists. No one can, no matter what they claim. But neither can anyone prove conclusively that God does not exist. It takes exactly as much "faith" to believe either one of those unproveable claims.
There is, of course, a middle ground. That's agnosticism (i.e. "I don't know"). Technically, according to the classic definition of agnosticism, every self-proclaimed Christian who has ever lived was/is, in fact an agnostic. Including me. The Greek word gnosis means knowledge. A-gnosis means no sure knowledge. And none of us, not even Christians have sure knowledge (proof) of the existence of God. We are all agnostics.
Most non-Christian or non-religious agnostics, then, are those who just try to keep an open mind to the possibility either way: There might be something out there, there might not be.
As an intelligent and reasonable "Christian agnostic," I could affirm the same thing--there might be something out there, there might not be...but (here's the difference) I hope there is. In fact, that hope is so strong that I might say I have faith, or confidence (not proof or sure knowledge) that there is something out there.
I choose to put my hope in a story and a tradition and a person who walked the earth 2,000 years ago and taught people to love each other and to take care of each other. Because of this, they called him Christ. And when we live up to his teachings, they call us Christians. And that way of life, that faith, offers me hope in something good, something beautiful, something infinitely larger than myself, which I will call God.
Job's prayer in our reading today ends in despair. It ends with Job resolving to walk away from a God that no longer makes sense to him. The word "despair" comes from the Latin word "desperare," which in turn is made up of two parts. The "de" as usual, negates something (deform, deemphasize, deconstruct). What's left is "espero" (spanish esperanza / french esperer), which means "hope." So despair literally means "without hope." No hope. Devoid of hope. "Desperate" comes from the same root.
In Dante's Divine Comedy, the gates of Hell are inscribed with the words "Abandon hope all you who enter here." I think that's actually a pretty good understanding of what Hell actually is: It's when you reach the point (in this life or beyond) where you have abandoned all hope.
Skipping forward to the end of our story, Job eventually finds hope again, he finds a new way to understand what he calls God. We'll get there in the next couple of weeks.
But as we leave today, I want to ask you this one simple question, whether you call yourself a Christian, an agnostic, an atheist or anything else: Where does your hope come from?
If you put your hope in yourself, or your family, or another person, what do you do when that person lets you down? Or when you let yourself down? Because inevitably, despite our best intentions, we do. Putting your faith in humanity these days can be pretty dicey, when we know all perfectly well what frightening things humans are capable of.
Still... you ought to find hope in something, if you want to live a life that is whole, and not desperate, or hopeless.
Some of you right now (like good Presbyerians) are thinking, "I put my hope in God." That's the right answer, isn't it? Easy. Well, no so fast. Let me challenge you a bit:
If you put your hope in God, is it a God worthy of putting your hope in, or just one you inherited without thinking too deeply about? Will your understanding of God let you down when your world falls apart, when tragedy strikes or when your most desperate prayers go unanswered? Can you really put your hope in your God? And if so, is that hope reflected in where you spend the largest share of your time and your resources? Because if it isn't, it's probably not where you *really* put your hope.
Where do you put your hope?
If you really want to know where I put my hope, or what my understanding of God is, or how I can be an atheist, an agnostic, and a passionate Christian all at once, just ask me sometime (when you have an hour or two to chat, preferably over coffee or some other beverage).
But today, I want you to leave asking yourself the questions: Where does my hope come from? Am I a hopeful person? In what can I truly trust and put my faith?