"A New and Truer Worship"
March 4th, 2020
From: "A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching out to God in the Lost Language of Lament"
Everything a person could imagine, Job lost. He was the target of practically every sort of pain and loss a human being can know. He was the successful businessman who experienced sudden and total financial ruin. He was the AIDS patient, hopeless and beyond all cures, full of sores, abandoned by his friends. He was the victim of a senseless terrorist attack. He was the parent who lost not one, but all his children in one unthinkable catastrophe.
As the intensity of these torments crash down upon him in progressive waves, Job deals with the sorrow as best he can in varying degrees. The first messenger tells of the loss of some of his livestock and the servants who were attending them due to an attack by the Sabeans. The second messenger tells of what appears to be an attack by God Himself. The "fire of God" has fallen from the sky and killed the sheep and more of his servants.
The next messenger tells of the Chaldeans' attack on Job's camels and of the execution of still more of his servants.
The book speaks of no response from Job upon hearing any of these dreadful reports. Apparently he was able to cope with these losses somehow on his own. Job has felt the enmity of the Sabeans and Chaldeans before. Even the "fire from God" that struck his sheep...certainly natural disaster was nothing new.
But then the final messenger comes with an unthinkable message. A mighty wind had blown in from the desert, striking the four corners of one of the homes of his children. They had all been together at one of their frequent celebrations. No building could have survived such an assault, a wind striking from four directions at once. They are, all of them, dead.
How could Job find it in himself to "deal with" this final message? The answer is simply, he could not. He could see in his mind's eye each of his precious children lying there in the rubble. In the split second flash that only the human brain can create, he saw them all as infants, learning to walk. He could hear the stammering of their first words. He remembered them growing to adulthood, getting married, having their first children. He could see it all, could see them all, each one of their precious faces. And now they were simply gone.
It is vitally important to really hear the first two words of chapter I, verse 20. They say it all. "At this," it reads, Job got up, tore his robe, and shaved his head. These were the prescribed, cultural things he knew and could do without thinking in his numbed state. They would have been expected of his by his community. For the lack of a better term, Job made the motions of entering into mourning.
What he does next, however, is totally unexpected, even unimaginable. Until this moment nothing remotely like it has happened in the Bible. Till now Job has responded as he should have, as he was expected to respond, as you and I would probably respond. What he does next seems unthinkable, almost impossible.
"Then he fell to the ground in worship."
That response alone determines the rest of his experience in the book, both good and bad. It must have been that aspect of his spiritual life that had caused God to boast about him in the throne room scene in the first place. Job is the sort of man who will simply not let go of God. To him, this is what worship means. He will stubbornly cry out in the groanings of this lament, which is worship until God answers. As Brueggemann would say, he refuses to leave the dance floor until the dance is done.
Because Job had the audacity to worship God in the midst of such indescribable pain. Satan will step up the attack with ferocious intensity. This time the battlefield will be Job's unfortunate body.
The tone set by 1:20 is the key not that must inform our reading of all of the rest of Job's story. It is not theology or theodicy, but a note of genuine grief, the depth of which few of us will ever know.
In the least it is inadvisable, at most impossible, to reduce the laments in the book of Job to a simple outline. Though, as we shall see, there are forms within lament, it follows no present or predictable formula. There are roughly, however, five focused songs of lament that we hear from his lips.
3:1-26. After their week-long silent retreat is over, after he has had all that time to ponder the alternatives in his mind, Job has concluded that he will curse the day he was born. If only he had died at birth, none of this would have ever happened. He would have blissfully gone to wherever it is that infants who die at birth go. (Job's uncertainty about life after death and heaven is one of the indications of the great antiquity of the book.). This self-curse is really a form of emotional suicide. Though he is not "suicidal," it seems painfully obvious to him that it would have been better if he had not been born.
6:1-7:21. After Eliphaz's reproof, Job erupts once more in lament. Though Eliphaz seems to believe that such language directed toward God is inappropriate, indeed blasphemous, and a clear indication that Job is a sinner after all, Job refuses to let go of God. "Let Him crush me," Job cries out. In the desperate intimacy that can only be articulated through lament, Job addresses God by an incredible new name, "You." A foundational concept in the Wisdom Writings is that fear of the Lord is where true Wisdom begins (Proverbs 1:7; 2:5; 9:10). But that statement begs the question, "what is the end of Wisdom?" The chasm caused by the righteous fear of God is bridged by lament. As we cross over from fear to love (which must be the true end) we have on our lips a new name of God, the costly form of direct address, "You."
10: 1-22. After engaging Bildad in a debate over the central issue of retributive justice, Job renews his insistence on his own innocence. "I know I am not guilty," he says.
13: 17-14:22. Finally, exhausted by the nit-picking of his friends and the silence of God. Job goes to a place that most laments inevitably go. He laments the absence of the presence of God: "Why do You hide Your face from me?" Jesus will echo the same dark lament from the cross.
28: 1-31: 40. Job has endured the criticisms and insinuations of his friends for long enough. This, his final lament, reflects the tone of his exhaustion. In spite of his friends and their tiring theological arguments, Job still struggles to keep one swollen eye on God. He grapples to hold on to Him, not as a topic of discussion, but as his last reason for hope. "God has disarmed and humbled me," he moans.
We must never lose sight of the fact that all these laments flow from that first faithful response in 1:20, "Then he fell to the ground in worship." They are all connected to that initial act of worship by the threads of lament that weave together the fabric of the entire book. Job stubbornly insists on maintaining the dialogue with the God who, for a while longer, remains infuriatingly silent. He continues to offer up to Him all his suffering, his suicidal groanings, his confusion and hurt, even his own deep disappointment with God. He has come to the desperate understanding that there is no other place to take them but to God. They are the only offering he has left. He cannot lose now because he has nothing left to lose. Despite his heartbroken and heartbreaking accusations against God - that He no longer sees nor cares - Job sees with a crystal clarity provided by suffering that he simply has no place else to go.
Today we would ask Job to leave all these negative emotions at the church door. They are not appropriate to nor do they fit inside the narrow confines of our definition of worship. And so, likewise, those of us who have nothing else to offer but our laments find the door effectively closed in our faces. It cost Job everything to teach us this lesson. It is time we learned it.
Worship is not only about good feelings, joy, and prosperity, though they are at the heart of it. If this were true, then according to this modern American understanding of worship, the poor have nothing to say, nothing of value to bring to God. While Jesus would pronounce a blessing on those who mourn, we pronounce this curse. Those who "labor and are heavy laden" can find no place in our comfortable churches to lay their burdens. We reason, "Who could possibly conceive of a God who would want to receive such worthless empty offerings?" But Job desperately clings to such a God, one who encourages us to offer everything to Him, every joy and every sorrow. All our broken hearts. All our contrite spirits. Because He is worth it.