By: Rev. Marissa Coblentz
Let’s read together from the last chapter of Job, chapter 42, starting in verse 5.
“I had heard You with my ears,
But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent,
Being but dust and ashes.
After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, “I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job. Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, My servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about Me as did My servant Job.” Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, went and did as the Lord had told them, and the Lord showed favor to Job. The Lord restored Job’s fortunes when he prayed on behalf of his friends, and the Lord gave Job twice what he had before.” (Job 42:5-10)
Where do you envision this conversation taking place? If you’ve read the book of Job, or as you’ve been following along for the last few weeks, where have you imagined this conversation happening? In Job’s living room? In front of his house so the furniture doesn’t get dirty from all that dust and ashes? In the town square? In the middle of a field?
In all the settings in my imagination, there is a lot of dust. But, I want to invite you to consider another image that seems really incongruent with a lot of these images: a courtroom. I still picture Job, covered in sores, dust, and ashes, but surrounded by well-dressed lawyers, stern, exacting judges, and lots of gleaming marble and carved wood. These two images may be incongruent, but there is a trial taking place here at the end of Job.
Who is on trial? Anyone want to venture a guess?
This is a bit of a trick question because the ancient Israelite practice of determining guilt and innocence was different than our American court system. In our justice system, depending on the case, we have either a plaintiff or a prosecutor and a defendant. The person who is accused of doing wrong is the defendant and the purpose of the trial is to determine if the accused is guilty. No one else is on trial.
In the highly educational, completely factually accurate court documentary, Legally Blonde, for example, the primary witness for the prosecution eventually confesses to committing the crime herself. The movie ends with her being led away in handcuffs, but no one expects that she would be sentenced immediately following her confession. Instead, there will be another trial with the whole same process—a prosecutor, a defendant, a judge and jury, etc.
This is not how it worked in ancient Israel. In a sense, everyone present was on trial. There were punishments for the defendant, should he or she be found guilty. But there were also punishments for false witnesses and for those who made false accusations. In other words, if the defendant was proven innocent, the tables turned and suddenly the accuser was on trial, right then and there. Job, therefore, was calling God into the courtroom, but by doing so, he was also putting himself on trial.
These verses at the end of the book of Job are the verdict pronounced on everyone present. Job is indeed found innocent. His three friends are pronounced guilty. God acts as judge, pronouncing the verdict on Job and his three friends. But, if everyone present is on trial, then what is the verdict against God?
This is the central question of the entire book of Job. Theologians call this area of study ‘theodicy.’ It is an entire realm of study devoted to the question: If God is good and if God is all-powerful, why do bad things happen?
Let’s talk about that for a minute. If God were powerless to stop evil, then that would explain the evil and terrible things that happen in our world. God wants good for his people, but he cannot do anything to stop natural disasters and war and criminals. But, this is not what we believe. We believe that God is all-powerful and could easily stop these things. In fact, we believe that sometimes God does. People tell stories of a tornado that turned right before destroying their house or of a gun that misfired when they were about to be executed by their persecutors. It seems that sometimes God does intervene. So, why doesn’t God intervene every time?
That might lead us to assume that maybe God is not good. But, again, that is not what we believe. We believe that God is good and that we have experienced God to be good. Many of us in this room can tell stories of finding peace during times of trial. Or we can name a time when God carried us when we could not carry ourselves or share about a time when we experienced freedom and release from something that we could not break free of ourselves. We have not only heard of God’s goodness, we have experienced it firsthand.
So, if God is both good and all-powerful, why do bad things happen? Have you ever, like Job, wished that you could put God on trial and ask God just exactly what God’s up to? What would God say? What did God say to Job?
There is a Hebrew scholar by the name of Troy Martin who offers a very interesting explanation of the verdict that God pronounced against himself. According to Dr. Martin, we’ve often misread verses 4, 5, and 6 because what they really say does not make sense to us. Verse 7 begins with this phrase: “After the Lord had spoken these words to Job…” Wait, which words were those? I always assumed it was the bulk of the previous chapters. All that stuff about the leviathan and “where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” I always assumed it was kind of the cap on the conversation, more like “Job and the Lord had said these words to each other” or something.
But Dr. Martin, who has a much more extensive knowledge of the Old Testament than I do, said that if that were the case, this would be the only time in the entire Old Testament when that phrase didn’t point to a direct quotation right before it. Every other place in the Old Testament where we read, “After so-and-so had spoken these words…” it is referring to what we just read that they said.
If we read these verses that way, it is not Job who repented in verse 6, but God. The translation I read says, “I recant and relent.” Did you hear that? God pronounced the verdict and the only one who was innocent was Job. God recanted. God said, ‘I take it back.’
Now, hold on a second. I don’t know about you, but I have a big problem with that. God does not make mistakes. God does not mess up. God does not need to ask forgiveness!
Instead, I want to suggest another way of understanding this. To repent is to turn around, to go in a different direction. Could God simply choose to go in a different direction? What could possibly make God do such a thing?
I think there is something incredibly powerful when two people come face to face and sit down and really, genuinely listen to one another. Something so powerful that even God is moved by this act of listening.
The next line offers some more explanation. “Being but dust and ashes.” Now, God of course, is not dust and ashes. But the Hebrew language can say in two or three words what it takes in English five or six words to say. In Hebrew, this verse really does not expound a lot beyond simply saying dust and ashes. It’s not that God was dust and ashes, but rather that he went to the place where Job was and he joined him in the dust and ashes.
That is a beautiful picture of the God who comes and joins us right where we are. What does that mean to you? Have you ever been in a place where you couldn’t imagine God going with you? Maybe it was a literal place. Maybe it was a party or club or something where you saw what the people around you were doing and thought, “God could not possibly be in this place.” Or maybe it was a place of desperation. The underside of a bridge where homeless people were passing their days in filth and poverty, surviving from one day to the next mainly on the strength of their addictions, and you thought, “God could not possibly be in this place.” Or maybe it was an emotional place. Maybe the days and months following the loss of someone close to you and your mind seemed to be full of darkness and you thought, “God is not here. God could not possibly be in this place.” Or maybe it was just day to day life, as you look at our world, full of violence and hatred, of the pain that humans inflict on one another. Maybe you look around at our world, and you think, “God could not possibly be in this place.”
We want to call God to trial. “God, what are you doing here? Why have you inflicted such pain on your creation?” And God’s response to Job and God’s response to us is that God joins us. God joins us in our dust and ashes. God joins us in our brokenness and desperation. God joins us in the cloud of our addictions and the darkness of our grieving hearts. God joins us in the messes that we have made of our lives. And in joining us in these places, God demonstrates that God is not immune to our suffering. God is moved by our pleas, by our passionate cries for vindication, for justice.
And then do you know what God did? God followed God’s own laws of restitution. God paid Job back everything he had lost and more. God comes to us and God joins us, but God doesn’t simply sit with us in our brokenness. God gives our lives back to us, but God doesn’t just give us what we had before. God gives us more. God gives us the opportunity to follow him, to go and sit with the one who is crying out to God from the dust and ashes. And it is in sitting with them that we, likewise, are called to repentance. But, it is in this place of repentance that we find grace and life.
I hear this a lot from teams that go on short-term mission trips. They come back and say something like, “We expected to serve them, but they served us! We expected to bless them, but they blessed us!” I said that about camp. I expected to help a group of campers, but they helped me! When we go to the place where people are, it not only impacts them; it impacts us.
It is so easy to look on the broken people around us from a distance and to say to them, “Gird up your loins and speak like a man. You speak without understanding. You speak of things you don’t know.”
I have to admit to you that I am hesitant to broach this subject, but I can’t help but think of the Black Lives Matter campaign. I’d like to take a minute and share some of my experience. When I lived in Denver, I lived in a neighborhood and worked at a school where people from all over the world lived and worked together. I left rural southern Indiana and was pleased to discover that it seemed that our country had moved beyond racism, that people of all colors and nationalities could live together in peace.
But, then I moved to Kansas City and saw a different world. I had only been here a few months when I was riding my bike one day and heard gunshots. When I heard the gunshots, I stopped immediately and looked around to see what was happening. Across the park next to me, there was a basketball court, and everyone on it instantly dropped to the ground. I heard squealing tires and saw a car race away. And running after it was a young kid holding a gun in his hand. I didn’t know what to do. I was stunned. Like I said, I had stopped my bike to watch what was happening, but then when it was quiet I panicked! Should I hit the ground? Should I keep riding? Should I turn around and risk riding back through the danger zone? That was the first time I really saw the difference between my childhood and the childhood these kids experienced. They all knew exactly what to do when a gun was fired. I had no idea.
And, then, I experienced my next shock. I rode back home as fast as I could and called the police. “I just saw a kid shooting a gun!” Like I said, I grew up in a small town. I expected the operator to say, “Oh no! We’ll send an officer right over! Are you safe? Is anyone hurt?” Instead she asked in a bored voice, “What was the location? Can you describe the person?” I told her the location, but I couldn’t offer much of a description. “He looked to be about fourteen. Black. Shaved head. I couldn’t see much more than that.” She didn’t say these words exactly, but her uninterested response communicated pretty clearly, “Yep. That’s what I figured. You must be new here if you think that a kid shooting a gun in that part of town is worth calling the police over.” In that moment, I began to learn what it meant to live in “that part of town.” And, in living in this part of the city, I began to learn what it felt like for one’s life not to matter.
My life didn’t matter to the city. My husband was on a first name basis with the city help line because he called over and over to request basic maintenance to city parks, roads, sidewalks. We regularly went to other parts of the city and saw acres and acres of perfectly manicured grassy parks, but it was like pulling teeth to get the city to take care of the park next to us. The lives of the people in that part of town didn’t matter to the city.
My life didn’t matter to grocery store owners. I learned about food deserts. There are parts of the city where there are not any grocery stores—only convenience stores selling junk food and alcohol. My life, and the lives of my neighbors, did not matter to the owners of those stores either.
My time and well-being did not matter to medical professionals. I spent hours waiting in the doctor’s office. On one occasion, I waited only to find out that they didn’t have the supplies on hand for the procedure I needed and that I would need to schedule another appointment and wait all over again.
My vote, and those of my neighbors, did not matter. When I voted in the 2012 presidential election, I was eight months pregnant. I waited in line for over an hour in the November cold. I saw other young mothers trying to keep kids from going crazy, elderly people struggling to stand. I saw workers on a break show up, take one look at the line, and simply turn around and leave.
In short, I learned that my life mattered in other parts of the city, but as soon as I moved to the black side of town, it didn’t. I sat in the dust and ashes of a part of the city that I had never dreamed existed before I moved and witnessed it firsthand.
And, because of my experience, I repented. I took back my accusations that the people who cried racism didn’t know what they were talking about. I took back my ideas that people whose lives were not what they wanted should just ‘gird up their loins and face it like a man and do something.’ I repented of my ignorance, for taking all the opportunities that I have had for granted, instead of using them to help those suffering and crying out to God. I went and sat in the dust and ashes and I listened to the stories of others. And, I repented.
I want you to know two things today. The first is that no matter where you are, God is sitting with you in the mess and the brokenness of your life. God is sitting with you and God hears you crying out to him. And, God is extending an invitation to you to accept something better, to accept the new life that God wants to give you.
And the second is that, just as God joins us in our brokenness, God is calling us to join others in their brokenness. To sit with them. To hear them and to let ourselves be moved by their pleas for God to intervene. It is not our job to have all the answers. Our job is simply to join them in their suffering, in the place of dust and ashes. Maybe God is not calling us to move to a rough neighborhood, but maybe God is calling us to listen to our neighbors, our co-workers, our family members—the ones that are always crying out for justice, the ones that seem constantly injured, the ones that are quietly suffering, the ones that are a mess. God did not move on to someone whose life was not a mess. God went and sat with Job. And we are called to do the same.
Some of you need to hear the good news today that God is with you, and I am here to tell you that God is with you. No matter where you are at, God is with you. And some of you need to be encouraged to leave your place of comfort and go to those who are suffering. And some of us—maybe all of us—need a little bit of both. God is with us. Therefore, let us go and be with others.
Troy Martin, « The God We Want or the God Who Is, » (sermon preached at College Church of the Nazarene, Bourbonnais, Illinois, June 21, 2015).
Rev. Marissa Coblentz serves as co-pastor of Countryside Church of the Nazarene in Centerview, MO.