Mortality and Hope
Pentecost IX (O. T. 16); July 17, 2016
Job 14:7-15, 19:23-27
I remember who wrote the letter, and about when he wrote it, but I can't find it. Given my obsession with saving and organizing, perhaps it was an email. The disadvantage of emails is they are ephemeral: they come and go; they die in the ether. A written letter, however, can be saved and reread. And accurately quoted in a sermon.
Anyway, John wrote me about events in his life, and said that the "large, friendly dog" had been nudging him. He has always had a gift for metaphor, and I knew he was talking about his mortality. He was becoming aware of his mortality, and he thought of it as the big dog who bumps up against you and demands that you rub his head. Then the dog trots off for a nap or to solicit attention from someone else. So your own mortality nudges you, and then will go off and leave you be for a while, until it comes along again, demanding your attention.
I can also remember when I realized that I was going to die. I was twelve or thirteen years old and was watching a variety show with my parents. The comic started making jokes about death, and they were making me very uncomfortable. I had to get up and leave the room to try to force myself to think about something else.
Some say that religion came about as a proposed solution to the problem of death. Possibly, although most of the Bible seems to be concerned with other questions. The portion given us today from the Book of Job seems to concern itself with mortality and hope, so I'm going to start there. But not end there.
Job 14 is part of a long diatribe from old Job that begins with one of the best pieces of sarcasm in the Bible. Job has about had it with his friends' advice about how he ought to get his life together, and so he says, "No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you" (12:2). Then he goes on to accuse them of making stuff up, and complains to God about his suffering and about the way God seems to have abandoned him. And then come these reflections about mortality: if someone cuts down a tree, there is hope that a sprout may come from the stump and the tree will find life again. But men and women? If we are cut down, then we are finished.
It feels so wrong. We might put decades into forming our consciousness, struggling for maturity, learning how to treat others and how to be faithful, gentle, humble adults with a sense of wisdom and a sense of humor, and then one heart attack or drunk driver and it's over. Even if we make it to a rich old age and die gently in our sleep, it feels so wrong. Consciousness takes so much energy that it feels fundamentally unjust for it simply to stop.
So we human beings have suggested a variety of solutions; I'll mention three. One solution is simply to say yes, at death it is all over, and it does feel so wrong, so just make the best of it while you can. If life and consciousness are going to mean anything, you and I will have to figure out for ourselves what we can make it all mean. You'll find that solution in many of the great philosophers and among modern humanists.
Plato came up with a solution that is very, very popular: he claimed that body and soul are two different things, and that when the body dies the soul lives on. Consciousness, he thought, was a feature of the soul and not the body, and so consciousness will continue forever… whether you like it or not.
But the wisdom of the Bible does not separate body from soul, and knows that consciousness is enfleshed; I am not "in" my body: I am my body. And so Jewish tradition came to understand resurrection of the body to be the gift of God to the dead: though we are mortal, and we lay ourselves down at the end of our days, when God's angels sound the cry then we stand again to give praise. The large, friendly dog reminds us not only of our mortality but also of the gift of God: resurrection.
Perhaps that is what Job meant when he took up his discourse again, and said:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
And after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God (19:25-26).
In my flesh I shall see God. Not as a disembodied spirit, but in my flesh, for I know that my Redeemer lives. We usually read these words at a service for the dead, because we assume that this is Job's cry of faith during his days of torment. And because we know who the Redeemer is.
"I know that my Redeemer lives." Plato's solution for death – the immortality of the soul – is good, but about all it has going for it is good deductive logic. But resurrection has a living Lord, raised from the dead by the Father on the third day, witnessed to by hundreds who saw him, whom the Scriptures call the "firstfruit of all creation" and "the firstborn of the dead." If God raised Jesus from the dead, then we know that our Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after our skin has been thus destroyed, then in our flesh we shall see God.
There is another possibility for what Job means, however, and it is likewise hopeful, a cry of faith in the darkness of his suffering. Remember what I said two weeks ago about the role of the Satan: the accuser, the one who stands in the court of God and accuses you of wrongdoing. What do you need when you are hauled into court to stand your trial, and someone accuses you? You need a defender. You need someone to stand up for you, to take your side, to speak up on your behalf.
It is very possible, despite the music of Handel and despite the way we use the text in our funeral service, it is very possible that Job is saying that in the midst of all that is happening to him, he knows that there is someone who will stand up for him, someone who will take his case, someone who will defend him. And, furthermore, he will be able to stand before God and be vindicated.
And if that is what he means, then, my brothers and sisters, we are once again brought back to Jesus Christ. He is the one who pleads our case before God, he is the one who answers the accusations of the Evil One, he is the one who takes our side during our trials. When your problems are too big for you, who is big enough to take your side? Jesus. When your suffering is too strong for you, who is strong enough to stand with you? Jesus. When your challenges are too vexing for you, who is wise enough to lead you? Jesus. When people say untruths about you, damage your reputation, accuse you and wish to undermine your happiness, or when the voices in your head tell you that you are no good, who will remind you who are: a beloved child of God; who is your Redeemer? Jesus. Job did not know the name "Jesus," but in his suffering, compounded by the well-meaning but foolish advice of his friends, he knew enough to cry, "I know that my Redeemer lives."
Your Redeemer lives. When the large, friendly dog of your mortality nudges you, and when the Accuser goes after you, remember that your Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church