by David Baer, August 21, 2016
As the parent of a toddler, I’m often awakened by wails and loud shouting. So long as it’s my son doing the wailing and shouting, and not some infernal specter, I don’t get too alarmed by it. In the wee hours of the morning, we exchange words about the time of night and the advisability of going back to sleep, often to his grave and vocal dissatisfaction. But I get it. When you wake up and everything is dark around you, you want somebody you know and trust to be there, to be present.
There’s a story about a slightly older little girl who wakes up frightened by a thunderstorm and repeatedly asks her parents if she can come into their bed. The exasperated mom tells her, “Go back to bed and say a prayer, and don’t worry. Jesus is with you.” To this the little girl says, “I know, but sometimes I need Jesus with skin on!” When the world is rumbling outside your window, you don’t need a theology of God’s omnipresence—you need a pair of arms to hold you close, and a voice to whisper in your ear that everything is going to be all right.
This summer we’ve been reading from the book of Job. Job’s entire world collapsed before his eyes, as he lost his property, his children, and his health—all for no reason, as we’re meant to understand. Job has done nothing to deserve what’s happened to him. Even so, his companions flock around him to try and reason with him about why he bears the responsibility for his suffering, and what he ought to do about it. They spin out wonderful, insightful theological theories that do absolutely nothing to bring Job peace or lighten his burdens in any way. Meanwhile, Job has discovered a new way of pursuing a relationship with God. He cries out in protest and demands an accounting from God for everything that has happened. Show me my fault, says Job, and I’ll be satisfied. As time goes on, Job begins to question God’s competence as the ruler of a universe where the wicked prosper while the good suffer. He keeps voicing his complaint, and he sharpens it more and more. We can hear echoes of the ancient courtroom in the language he uses—essentially he’s bringing a lawsuit against God.
Finally, Job gets his wish… sort of. God shows up and speaks to him out of the whirlwind. But God isn’t here to answer Job’s complaint. God launches a brutal cross-examination of Job: tell me, God says, the measurements of the universe. Tell me how it is the surging ocean was made to stay in its place. Tell me how the wild creatures receive their food, and who provides for them. God asks a dumbfounded Job to explain the mysteries of the created order, and Job is at a loss. God draws attention to those parts of the creation that have nothing to do with humans—the wild and desolate places where God nonetheless cares for the grass by sending seasonal rains. God brags about creating fearsome creatures like the sea monster Leviathan, who is a kind of giant crocodile. No human beings could ever hope to exercise mastery over it, and yet it has its place in God’s creation. And more than that, God is proud of having made such a dangerous beast!
The effect of all of this is to show that, when Job complains that the universe is broken, that it doesn’t make sense, that it’s all random, he’s speaking from a limited, narrow point of view. God is prepared to go on and on, and all the books in the world couldn’t hold the things Job doesn’t know about creation. Last week we talked about appreciating the savage, wild beauty of God’s world, and how the things that hurt the most come hand-in-hand with the most beautiful, wonderful gifts that we would never want to give up. You grieve when you someone you love dies, because it’s a wonderful, amazing thing to love someone. In God’s untamed, wild world, roses have thorns, and happiness comes joined with risk of loss. So while this side of God is not necessarily what you want when you’re sad or anxious and looking for comfort, there is wisdom in the words that sound out of the whirlwind.
But in spite of being brutalized on the stand, so to speak, Job is satisfied. He admits that he spoke of things he didn’t understand. But what’s important, he says, is this: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” God is wild, free, unharnessed and untamed, but out of this wild freedom that God enjoys, God shows up to be with Job. It doesn’t happen right away, and we’re not told why God has been silent all this time. But God does show up in the place where someone is suffering. And God does all these things not because of some immutable law that says God has to do it, but as someone who is free and sovereign and beholden to no one. “I am who I am,” God told Moses. Only God gets to decide who God is going to be. And God’s freedom creates the space for grace. At first it sounds frightening to have a God who is free and wild, who may not operate in ways that we can predict or make sense of. But time and again God uses this very freedom to give us more than we can hope for or deserve. So this is how Job is transformed. He used to believe in a theory. Now he believes in a living God. And so he says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (42:5).
And then Job says something else, something our Bible does a poor job of translating. The translation we have has Job following up this transformation with these words: “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” That makes it sound like, after all this time, God was able to do what Job’s friends couldn’t do, and Job finally decides to knuckle under and admit that it’s his fault. But as we’ll see next week, in the verses that follow, God turns to Job’s friends and tells them, “I’m angry with you, because you spoke wrongly about me. Job was right.” So that can’t be what Job means. He can’t be giving up. And it turns out that where our Bible translates “I despise myself,” the Hebrew text doesn’t have the word “myself.” It just says, “I despise,” or “I reject,” or “I dismiss.” And this fits with the courtroom language Job has been using in his complaint against God. What Job is rejecting is not himself, but his case, his complaint. He’s withdrawing it. And instead of repenting in dust and ashes, Job is repenting of dust and ashes. He’s done with lament, with protest, because these things have achieved their purpose—God showed up. It’s not that Job has been defeated. It’s not that he is suddenly admitting that he did something wrong. Instead, he’s found a new relationship with God, and he can begin a new moment of his life.
“Now my eye sees you,” says Job. This new relationship is one where God is still free, still beyond human control or understanding, but it’s one where God freely hears and chooses to be with someone who is suffering. In the Christian faith, we understand this part of who God is not only through the story of Job, but most fully through the story of Jesus. A few moments ago, I told you a story about a little girl who wanted Jesus “with skin on.” But the truth is that there’s no other kind of Jesus. There’s no such thing as a disembodied Jesus that exists only as an idea or a hope or a wish. Job had an idea about God—that because he was faithful and good, nothing bad should happen to him. His friends had an idea about God—that God visited suffering on human beings only because of choices that are within our power to control. Both of these ideas fell to pieces in Job’s experience of innocent suffering. But the point of Jesus isn’t a new idea, a new theory about God. The point of Jesus is God “with skin on.” The point of Jesus is God crying as a little baby on a cold Christmas night. The point of Jesus is God hungering and thirsting. The point of Jesus is God touching and healing, feeding, embracing with skin on–our skin. The point of Jesus is God beaten and whipped and spat upon, in our skin, like too many others in our world. The point of Jesus is God dead and buried—as all of us one day will be. The point of Jesus is God with skin on—the same skin as ours—risen again, promising something more for our skin than it has within itself. One of the gospel stories reads, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). We had heard of God by the hearing of the ear, but in Jesus our eyes have seen him, our hands have touched him.
The mother in the story told her daughter to pray and look to Jesus for comfort, and I don’t doubt she was describing something she herself does when she’s afraid. But I don’t think the mother believes Jesus is there when she prays just because someone once told her so. When she was small, someone she loved put their arms around her as they prayed together. Her daughter asked for Jesus with skin on, but the truth is that there isn’t any other kind of Jesus. What if the mother were to take this child in her arms and pray with her? What if she were to communicate Jesus with skin on, to communicate Jesus in the same way this Jesus, this word of life was revealed to her?
No, there isn’t any other kind of Jesus than Jesus with skin on. How are you being called to communicate, to be Jesus with skin on for the people close to you? For some of the people in your life, hurting or anxious or wondering, Jesus with your skin on might be the only way they have of arriving at the words Job says to God, “I had heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
Thanks be to God who hears us when we cry, who answers us not with mere words but with presence and power. Thanks be to God who takes on our skin, our hurt, our struggles in Jesus, and raises us up to new life. Amen.