Saturday, March 26, 2016

Job's answer

“If a man die, shall he live again?  All the days of my service I would wait, till my release should come.”  Job 14:14

“I would wait,” Job said.  The Book of Job is full of unanswered questions, of frustrating riddles, disappointing shortcuts.  Job is in misery, and he cannot understand why.  His friends offer advice that rings hollow.  They blame him for things he knows he never did.  They claim logic and justice in God that Job cannot see.  Job has lost everything, he is at the point of death, hopeless and desperate.  But he will not give up.  He wants an answer, a trial where he can present his case, and a fair judgment will follow.  He wants to face God and know, once and for all, why all of this has come upon him. 

And in his quest, he runs head on into the great cul-de-sac of life.  Man is mortal, we all must die.  “We are of few days, he says, and full of trouble.”  We fade like a flower, we are cut down like a tree, we dry up like a pond.  God has allotted us a few days, and after that there is no more.  We will never rise, even if the whole created order falls to pieces.  After death, there is nothing.  No man gets his answer.

Of course, this is the cry of wounded man, one who has seen everything he loves destroyed.  It’s the cry of a man who knows he has been terribly wronged and can’t find any way to explain it.  But there’s nothing unfaithful about his claims by the standards of the Old Testament.  They all thought that there was only this life.  He speaks for the faith of the whole people of Israel.  The law, they believed, was the summit of God’s work because it showed a man how to live during his determined days.  Perhaps a few great men might go to God after their death, Moses, Elijah—but for the rest of us, the life after death was only existence in Sheol, the dark place, a place of anguish and confusion.  It’s a sober view of life, and it’s no so hard to turn it into a meaningless view of life.  Vanity of vanities, said the Preacher, all is vanity.  Job isn’t quite ready to go there yet, but he’s certainly considering the temptation. 

And yet, alongside that conclusion that all is meaningless, that death closes it all, there an even more radical hope lurks in Job’s heart.  The stump, after all, sometimes buds afresh.  The dry lake can be renewed.  “If a man die, shall he live again?”  It’s a question Job has already answered once, like all his people, with a resounding no.  But what if it could happen, what if someone should come to Sheol, and fling back those gates that are never opened.  What if the dead would rise up again, and flourish, and know God and the answers to all the riddles of this short and troublous life?  If you ask the religion scholars, they will tell you that the doctrine of the resurrection is a very late addition to the faith of Israel, that it dates only to the second century, that even in Jesus’ time, it was a highly disputed concept, like all new and radical ideas.  But here in Job’s desperate plea, five, maybe even ten centuries before, there is a glimmer of that powerful hope.

And today, Holy Saturday, this is the day that Job’s question was answered.  On this day our Lord rested in the tomb.  His body lay in the shroud, but in His Spirit, he was at work.  Today he went, Saint Peter tells us, and preached to the souls in prison.  He went down into the dark and confusing realm of Sheol, to the souls of all the faithful in ages past, and He told them of this new covenant.  He announced that the price of sin had been paid, that God would give everlasting life, peace, union with Himself to all who believed.  Job was there, and old Abraham and Jacob, even Adam and Eve.  And they all heard the message and their wildest hopes were realized.  An ancient homily describes it this way, “The bars broke, the gates were shattered, the graves were opened, the dead arose. Then Adam, thankfully rejoicing, cried out to thee: ‘Glory to thy humiliation, O merciful Master.”

There are still many people who live today in a kind of Sheol.  They are our friends and neighbors, maybe even members of our family.  They think that this life is all there is.  They have seen the generations rise and fall, they know the injustice of the world, they are weary and sad and lonely.  But perhaps like old Job, sitting by the fire, they entertain a wild and radical hope.  Could there be something more?  I’ve thought it through a thousand times before, and I know there can be no way.  But what if?  Today, you can go like Christ into that place of darkness, and you can encourage them, ask them to come with you to church tonight at the Vigil or tomorrow morning, to see the great miracle.  Christ is risen, He has conquered death, and He brings His hope to all who live in deep darkness and the shadow of death.  Nothing in all the world can hold back the power of His love.  Job found his answer, may God use us to bring the answer to those in our world who so desperately need to hear it.

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