Prof. Pless preached this sermon at the LCMS Life Conference on January 23, 2013.
Text: Job 30:16–24
This evening’s text from the Book of Job puts us with Job in the midst of the ruins, teaching us how to lament—that is, how to cry out to God. In a day when worship is judged effective and meaningful if it is upbeat, inspirational, celebratory, and positive, there is not much room for lament. It is far too negative, too depressing to meet our refined taste for liturgies that are affirming, creative, and exciting. But where the church lacks the capacity for lament, a fragile human optimism replaces the hope which does not disappoint and the praise of God becomes shallow and empty. In fact, we may even praise ourselves under the guise of adoring God.
We stand with Job tonight who knows God’s judgment and wrath cannot be evaporated by wishing them away. We stand with Job, tossed about by a God who plays rough with his children to paraphrase Luther. We stand with Job who does not explain away the hidden work of God—his inscrutable ways which as Luther said often appear as those of a mad axe man let loose in the forest, chopping and hacking way. We stand with Job, slimy and muddy in the mire of our sin, ourselves like him “dust and ashes” and bound for death. We grieve over a wrecked society where the murder of children is considered a fundamental human right and the elimination of the injured or aged is thought to be an act of compassion. We stand with Job, whose complaint is not merely about faceless forces or evil, a decadent culture, a cancerous secularism, or corrupted enemies; His complaint is directed to the Almighty God who, he says, “has turned cruel to me.” We stand with Job who is not asking for an answer to the riddle of evil but for the Lord’s salvation.
Hence Job’s lament: “Yet does not one in a heap of ruins stretch out his hand, and in disaster cry for help?” We know, of course, something about life in the middle of devastation. The ruins among which we live, move, and have our being is not a bombed out Dresden of crumbling, charred buildings but of a land where death is regularly administered under the most clinical of conditions. In fact, the ruins are hailed as monuments of enlightened progressiveness. We may indeed reflect on how we have come to such a time as this where the weakest of our neighbors are the most endangered. We may look for reasons for the shifts in morality and the denial of truths once held to be self-evident. We might well look at strategies to recover and restore the recognition of the inherent value of human life and God-given dignity. We may seek venues for teaching and advocacy. This is all well and good. But tonight we are not here for that. Tonight we are here to stand with Job, with outstretched hands praying in the midst of a disaster.
Our prayer, like that of Job, is nothing other than a lament. It is a protracted “Kyrie, Elesion!” It is a plea for God’s own mercy; his compassion. Lament might be described as prayer in those times when God leaves “the wound open” to use the words of Oswald Bayer. It is not a self-directed whine, but a prayer addressed to God himself. Job’s lament is not the whimper of one who sees himself victimized by society or circumstances, but one who has a God-sized problem. Listen again to his lament: “God has casted me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. . . .You [that is, God] have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm. For I know that you will bring me to death and to the house appointed for all the living.” Job’s lament is directed to God who is his judge, his critic, who stands by, gazing on his shame but does not act, at least not yet.
Like Job, we lament before the God who leaves the wound open. We lament before the God who certainly has the power to bring an end to all that contradicts his will. We lament before a God who has the power to put down the mighty from their thrones, close abortion clinics, and reverse the hearts and minds of those who institutionalize evil. God instead leaves the wound open.
In the fullness of time, Job’s lament was answered. The redeemer whom Job confessed that he would see in his own flesh and with his own eyes has come into this ruined world where we live. The Book of Hebrews tells us that this Jesus, God’s own Son, was given to lament: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to him who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7). This Jesus is the Word of God come in our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. He is God’s own answer of grace and truth, of life and salvation, through the forgiveness of sins to God’s wrath revealed from heaven against all unrighteousness. Jesus’ wounds—his side split open by a Roman spear and his nailed-pierced hands and feet—are forever the foundation of our confidence to live in a world where God leaves the wound open.
In that confidence we live and work, repenting of frustration and weak resignation. Bringing our exhaustion, unbelief, and fatigue to his cross, we have his promise: “Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Resting in the wounds of this Jesus and alive in the hope that his resurrection guarantees, we stand in the midst of the ruins calling upon the Lord in this troublesome day, knowing that he will hear and he will hear and that our lament will be answered “for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will be our shepherd and he will guide us to the springs of living waters, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes” (cf Rev 7:17).
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus to life everlasting. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless teaches at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.