by David Baer, August 7, 2016
Text: Job 14:7-15,19:23-27
The author Elie Wiesel died last month after a long and productive life snatched from the flames of the Holocaust. Wiesel found much meaning in chronicling what he experienced in the camps, his powerlessness watching his father decline and die, and the loss of his faith. Wiesel described memory as a duty, and his most famous work, Night, as his “deposition.” Remembering what he suffered led him to bear witness to the suffering of Southeast Asian boat people, dissidents in Communist nations, victims of the Argentine military junta, Ethiopians suffering famine, and so many others as well. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Wiesel pointed to the story of Job as an inspiration for his life’s work:
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.1
In today’s reading from Job, memory, hope, and despair stand balanced against each other. Job has suffered terrible loss for no reason, and, what’s worse, his friends have gathered around him to convince him that it’s all his own fault. As we’ve read through his story this summer, we’ve been trying to listen for wisdom about how we relate to God and our neighbors when bad things happen to us or to them.
Before I left on vacation, we heard one of Job’s friends being exceptionally unhelpful, trying to filter Job’s painful, personal story through the lens of his own limited understanding of how God works. God is always just, always fair, he says. Ergo you must deserve this. Don’t do that! It’s hurtful, and it’s not fair. When someone is experiencing pain, what they deserve first of all is someone to listen to them, to take their story for what it is, to trust them as reliable narrators of their own experience.
We also heard Job insisting on his right to protest against what he saw as God’s injustice, God’s unfairness to him. There’s a whole tradition of prayer in the Bible where human beings call God to account, implore God to do better, to do right. That’s a mode of prayer that’s appropriate, that’s authentic. We can pray fiercely, like Job, when we’re feeling overwhelmed.
Today brings something new to the mix, though. Job moves beyond simply protesting the way God has treated him to look for sources of hope. He draws a series of pictures with his words as he tries to locate a future worth hanging onto.
The first picture is a tree. In the ancient Middle East, when a fruit tree was diseased, it might be cut down to a stump. If there was any life in the roots, new healthy shoots would sprout up, and the tree would be saved precisely by being almost destroyed. Perhaps what is happening to Job is like that. But no, Job rejects that image almost instantly. People aren’t like trees, he says. They don’t grow back. Cutting them down doesn’t make them stronger. He turns to another image from nature. It’s like a spring-fed lake or oasis–when the spring fails, the water dries up, and it doesn’t come back. In Job’s world, there is no belief in resurrection. For him, once your life is over, that’s it.
And yet Job hopes beyond hope. He hopes that for God the impossible might be possible after all: “Oh that you would hide me in Sheol,” he says, using the Hebrew word for Hades, the dark underworld where the dead were thought to rest forever. Only Job dares to hope for something more: “Oh 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!” Job dares to hope that God might not forget even the dead. And there’s that word: remember.
We know from folks like Elie Wiesel how important it is for people to remember, to hold onto the stories of others so that they aren’t lost. We preserve the life of those who have died by remembering them, so that they are not lost forever. But the power of human memory ends here. It preserves what was. If it creates new possibilities, it is for those who are still alive, who can learn from those who went before, holding fast to what is good and turning aside from what is not. But what human memory can’t do is raise the dead. Human memory preserves the stories of the dead, but it can’t recover the dead themselves.
What does it mean for God to remember? When Noah and the animals in the ark were afloat on the deadly flood, the scriptures say that God remembered them and withdrew the waters (Gen. 8:1ff). When Rachel, the wife of Jacob, longed for a child, God remembered her, and she conceived and gave birth to her son Joseph (Gen. 30:22ff). When the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt and cried out, their groaning rose up to God, and God remembered them, looked upon them, took notice of them, and called Moses to lead them to freedom (Ex. 2:24-25ff). When God remembers, it is a prelude to a dramatic reversal, a prelude to blessing, to salvation. When God remembers someone, it is not to preserve that person’s past, but to create for them a new future.
What Job is hoping for is unheard of. It is a wild, illogical, irresponsible kind of hope. It is the hope that even in Sheol, even in the grave, someone might be remembered by God. Never before had it happened. Never before had God remembered and restored the fortunes of someone claimed by death. But this is what Job dares to hope, as he sees his own life slipping away.
Job wants to be remembered in the ordinary, human way too. Because his friends are doing such a lousy job (at being friends, that is), Job invokes the most durable kind of recording system he can think of—a stone monument, an engraving on metal tablets. He wants his words written down so that his protest, his complaint will live on after him, so they’ll be available, even after he’s gone, when an advocate comes forward to take his case up with God.
Job says, “I know that my Redeemer [or in Heberw, gō’ēl] lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” Gō’ēl is a word that means different things in different contexts. If someone is murdered, the gō’ēl is a family member who pursues the murderer to avenge that person’s death. So it could mean “avenger.” But if a family had to sell property or sell a family member into slavery because they were impoverished, the gō’ēl was a member of the extended family who would buy back the property or the person. The gō’ēl was an advocate from your family who pursued justice on your behalf, who set things right. It was somebody you could count on to take your side.
And then Job does something just as crazy as thinking that God can remember and bless and give a new future to the dead. The gō’ēl Job is hoping for, the one who is going to take up his case with God, to put things right, is… God himself. The family member who puts things right, who settles the debt, who will take Job’s side in this calamity that’s been visited on him by God is none other than that one and the same God. Much like Abraham, who hoped against hope for the future he was promised, even when God told him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Job hopes against hope that God’s blessing is stronger than God’s curse, that God’s anger is for a moment, while God’s goodness is for a lifetime.
What Job is showing us with these words is that when we’re struggling, when we’re scared, when we’re despairing and angry at God with all the stuff God has given us to deal with, when we cry out in protest at the unfairness of it all—Job is showing us that this disposition of protest and lament can go hand in hand with hope and trust in God. Job trusts that God can do the impossible thing that needs to happen, even as far as raising the dead to new life. Job hopes that even when God has given him every reason to believe otherwise, God is ultimately on his side, giving him a future with hope, working plans for his welfare and not for harm.
We have a gift that Job didn’t have. We’ve been blessed in a way that he wasn’t. We’ve come to know God as the God that Jesus Christ reveals to us by suffering the things we suffer, by taking our sins on himself and taking up our cause with God as our gō’ēl, our Redeemer, our friend, our advocate. We’ve come to know God as the God who raised Jesus, so that when death and all the other powers that oppress us have done their worst, at the last it will be Jesus Christ who lives and who stands upon the earth. And through Jesus’ resurrection we’ve come to believe in God as the God who will raise us, so that not even death can separate us from God’s love.
Sometimes you have to rebel, to be unreasonable in the face of the unreasonable things that happen to us, to the people we love, and to our neighbors next door and across the world. But “faith is essential to rebellion,” as Elie Wiesel says, and the source of hope that faith brings is memory, but an expansive memory that includes not only the bad things that have happened, but the story of the goodness and blessing of God. God has heard your cries. God has been pricked with your pain. God is on our side. And in the end, God’s blessing wins. We are remembered—thanks be to God! Amen.
Elie Wiesel, “Hope Despair and Memory.” Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1986. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1986/wiesel-lecture.html. Accessed 8/5/2016.