I preached this morning at our church here in Durham as the culmination of a study we did on the Book of Job. This is the text of my sermon, “The Last Word.”
Only four Saturdays have passed since a group of us gathered to study the story of Job together, and yet way more than a month of life seems to have passed by since then. One of the things that has changed for me is I have returned to teaching high school English, which means I’m once again reading books with my students. My ninth grade class is reading Night, Elie Weisel’s personal account of surviving not one but five concentration camps as a teenager, finally being freed from Buchenwald by the Allied forces, but not before having lived through brutal and dehumanizing things that hit at the core of his faith. As he describes one experience he writes:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never.
We read those words in class and I thought of Job and the string of surviving servants who showed up to tell him who and what had been destroyed. I thought of Job sitting on the garbage heap, scraping his open sores with a piece of broken pot as his wife implored him to “curse God and die.” I returned to our discussions around the tables in the Fellowship Hall where we listened to Job’s friends try to explain his suffering by blaming him or giving some sort of pat answer, but never really listening, never being willing to share the pain with him. And I wondered why his tragedy didn’t murder God or destroy his faith. “I know my Redeemer lives,” he said, even as he struggled to find God in the midst of his anguish.
We don’t have to look back to Job, or even look far to find similar examples of devastation. This morning, people in Mississippi are digging out from under the damage of the tornadoes that touched down there. The families and friends of the miners who died in West Virginia are gathering for a memorial service. They have still not found the eleven workers who were on the oil rig that blew up earlier this week. Though the stories are no longer attractive to our media, Haiti and Chile and China still live in the aftermath of earthquakes. Ginger and I were in New Orleans this week and heard people tell their stories of life after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And we have not even talked about Darfur and Congo, AIDS, malaria, or those who starve to death daily in our world, as wellas the personal and overwhelming pain that comes with depression, or Alzheimer’s, or financial hardship, or severe illness.
It doesn’t take long in this life to get to a place where we ask where God is, as Job did, or seek to offer some sort of explanation as to why life has turned sour, as his friends were quick to do. “You’ve done something wrong,” they said to Job. “This must be your fault somehow because God wouldn’t do this to a good person.” “It’s your fault; repent and God will fix everything.”
Isn’t it great to have friends who care?
Job took all that was heaped upon him, including the lectures and advice, and kept calling God to show up and answer for what was going on. Finally, God did show up – or perhaps we are better to say God revealed God’s self because when God spoke the voice came “out of the whirlwind” – from the center of the struggle. God was in the middle of the storm, not as the cause, but as a Presence. And when God spoke, God did not say anything about Job’s sin or who was at fault or why Job had managed to pull the house down on himself and his family. God didn’t give any advice or offer any explanations at all. God asked questions.
Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? . . . Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war? What is the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
God called Job to a different sense of perspective.
Yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the launching of the Hubble Telescope (as a follow up to our wedding, I’m sure). NPR has a wonderful story asking different scientists to pick out their favorite Hubble image over the years. One chose “The Ultra Deep Field,” which was taken by aiming the telescope at what appeared to be an empty patch in the night sky and left the lens open for about eleven days, soaking up all the light it could see and capturing the oldest light ever seen by humanity. The frame is full of tiny dots of light, each one, the astronomer said, containing a hundred million stars – all in a space we thought was empty.
“When I gaze into the night sky,” the psalmist wrote, “and see the wonders of your hand, who are we as humans that you are mindful of us?”
We are called to hold together the depth of pain and suffering that makes up our world, as we see at Auschwitz or in Rwanda or in the poverty of Haiti or the aftermath of Katrina along the Gulf Coast or in our personal struggles, and the wonder we have been shown by Hubble reminding us that if we leave our eyes open long enough in the dark the light, the ancient light as old as creation, will finally shine.
Francois Mauriac wrote in the foreword to Night,
We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to God.
All is grace. Listen closely: all is grace. We do not earn suffering anymore than we earn the love that God pours out on us from the moment we are breathed into existence. Life is difficult, sometimes even crushing, but not because we deserve to be crushed.
And our God is one who is acquainted with grief, who bears our grief, who never stops making stars, and who speaks out of the storm. Our God is one who responds to our cries, rather than simply answer our questions. Our God is stronger than death and destruction, more tenacious than any cancer or circumstance, more loving than any sense of alienation or worthlessness.
This is our Resurrection Story: all is grace; the last word for each of us belongs to God. And that word is Love: unfailing, unflinching, unending Love. Amen.