Dust

October 28, 2018/Job 42:1-6, 10-17


Eugene Peterson died this week.

Even if you’ve never heard of Eugene, he has touched you.  Maybe through his popular paraphrased version of the Bible, The Message.  Maybe through his influence on someone who stood here in this pulpit.

It was early in my seminary studies that Eugene appeared in Charlotte one Saturday to lead chapel.  I don’t remember what he said, what he talked about, but I do remember it touched me in a way most of those chapel preachers didn’t.  I began to read his copious works, pen in hand so that I could underline and write notes in the margins.  Because with Eugene, there always was something that resonated, that spoke deeply to the heart.

When I picture Job in my mind, he looks like Eugene.  Small of stature, head bald with age, beard neatly groomed, a smile on his face.  Kind.  Patient.  Nearly shining with the love of God.

I don’t know that Eugene suffered as Job suffered.  But I suspect Eugene must have, at some point in his life as a pastor, husband, and father, wrestled with God.  I suspect he must have asked questions of God and wondered to God about things.  Maybe, like me, he kept a list of questions to pose to the great I AM once he landed in God’s presence.  I believe this because I don’t know that Eugene could have expressed the deep faith and trust in God that he shared through his preaching and his writing without having asked hard questions of God – hard questions like those asked by Job.

When we meet Job this morning, there is no question that he has suffered greatly.  His friends have rallied round him but have only added to his suffering.  Even his wife has compounded his misery.  Despite all of his pain, all of his loss, all of the judgment laid on his shoulders by those around him, Job has remained steadfast.  He has steadfastly maintained his innocence; he has steadfastly maintained his faith; he has steadfastly shaken his fist at God and asked why.

And now that God has answered him, Job has come to an understanding of sorts.  Frederick Buechner puts Job’s reaction like this:

All his life he had heard about God, about his glory and his holiness, about his terrible wrath and his great mercy, about the way he had created the earth and all its creatures and set the sun, moon, and stars in the sky so there would always be light to see by and beauty to gladden the heart.  He had sometimes thrilled and sometimes trembled at the sound of these descriptions, and they had made such an impression on him over the years that not even the terrible things that had happened to him or the terrible questions as to why they had happened or the miserable answers to that question which his friends had proposed could quite make him curse God as had been suggested although there were a few times when he came uncomfortably close to it.  But now it was no longer a matter of hearing descriptions of God because finally he had heard and seen him for himself.

He had seen the great glory so shot through with sheer, fierce light and life and gladness, had heard the great voice raised in song so full of terror and wildness and beauty, that from that moment on, nothing else mattered.  All possible questions melted like mist, and all possible explanations withered like grass, and all the bad times of his life together with all the good times were so caught up into the fathomless life of this God, who had bent down to speak with him though by comparison he was no more than a fleck of dust on the head of a pin in the lapel of a dancing flea, that all he could say was, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).[1]

Eugene Peterson in The Message put Job’s response to God this way: “I babbled on about things far beyond me, made small talk about wonders way over my head.  I’m sorry – forgive me.”

Job has heard firsthand from the God of all creation, and he is humbled.  He admits that his knowledge was nonexistent in the face of the all-knowing God.  He now understands “what it means to be dust and ashes before God and in the world.”[2]

Humility is not a characteristic that is high on most of our lists.  Rarely do you hear someone speaking in praise of another person say, “He’s just so humble.”  But Job wears his humility like a badge of honor, because his humility has brought him deeper understanding of the Almighty than all of his previous strength, power, wealth, or knowledge could provide.

“Rarely do we acknowledge our ignorance, even when it comes to the mind of God.  Job’s broken and contrite heart nonetheless resonates with those of us who have known despair, loss and the dark night of the soul.  There is a freeing honesty about his raw confession.”[3]

Yes.  Job hits spiritual rock bottom, but that is the place where he meets God face to face.  Sitting in the ashes, nursing his sores, Job finds himself in the company of God.  There, Job learns that “to be dust in God’s image is to enjoy and to be responsible for the order manifest in creation; it is to enjoy and to be responsible for the freedom which is also manifest in the events of the world and which resides by God’s gift in the human soul.”[4]

Eugene Peterson served as pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland for thirty years, all the while writing to encourage other pastors.  “I’ve loved being a pastor,” he said in an interview with Christian Century in 2002.  But he had no illusions regarding the sinfulness of humanity.  “The only way as a pastor to be discriminating and aware of the deeply ingrained idolatrous nature of human beings is by learning to love a particular group of people in one place over time,” he said.  “Formation of spirit, cultivation of soul, developing a contemplative life, realizing congruence between the way and truth – all this is slow, slow work requiring endless patience.”[5]

The patience of Job.

In these closing verses of Job’s story, we witness the reconciliation between Yahweh and Job, “a reconciliation in which they once again see eye to eye.”[6]  With that reconciliation, Job now understands his place before God and in the world.

Having studied Job’s life of riches and suffering, we are no longer able to interpret the blessings that come our way or the tragedy that befalls us in terms of reward or punishment from God.[7]  Instead, with Job, we might understand our place in the world, and the steadfast presence of God there with us.  Instead of crying out to God asking why, we will ask of God, “Can you help me?”  “We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, not to be rewarded or punished, but to be strengthened and comforted.”[8]

[1] Frederick Buechner, “Job,” Peculiar Treasures

[2] J. Gerald Janzen, Interpretation: Job, 248

[3] Jill Duffield, “Seen and heard, saved and redeemed by Jesus Christ,” Looking into the Lectionary, October 22, 2018

[4] Janzen, 259

[5] “Eugene Peterson, author of The Message and pastor to pastors,” dies at 85, christiancentury.org, 10/23/18

[6] Janzen, 247

[7] Ibid., 267

[8] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 37

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