Pain & Penitence
Lent begins tomorrow. For those not in the know, this is the 40 day period (excluding Sundays) prior to Easter observed by Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists – yes, even some Baptists. Today is widely known as Mardi Gras, thanks to the French, but the Anglicans call it Shrove Tuesday, a day to confess and repent of one’s sins so as to be ready to enter the Lenten period, which is itself a time to prepare oneself to celebrate properly the Resurrection.
But before there is resurrection there is, of course, death. In this case, death by crucifixion. The long-awaited Messiah had come, but did not drive out the hated Romans and restore the kingdom of David. Other than a small handful of devoted followers, he was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. A pitiful excuse of a trial brought the inevitable sentence. Those few who had placed their hopes in him are scattered, disillusioned, fearful and without hope. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
Surely you can relate. Every one of us has had to wrestle with loss and disappointment. Your marriage wasn’t what you’d hoped for. You lost your job. Your dearest friend betrayed you. Your parent died too soon. Your child died, which no matter when it happens is too soon. Life wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
Seven statements Christ made in his agony on the cross; they have, over the centuries, been studied, and preached, and entire books written on each one individually. One above all stands out to me; before looking at it, we would benefit not merely to look back 2,000 years toward Calvary but still further, millennia before Christ was born in Bethlehem and well to the southeast of it. There, on the plains of Edom, once lived a man named Job. You’ve heard his story; you know his lament. What you may not know is that for hundreds upon hundreds of years the book of Job has been read as part of the liturgy of Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church. There’s good reason.
Job chapter 9 (NIV):
2 “How can a mortal be righteous before God?
3 Though one wished to dispute with him, he could not answer him one time out of a thousand.
4 His wisdom is profound, his power is vast. Who has resisted him and come out unscathed?
11 When he passes me, I cannot see him; when he goes by, I cannot perceive him.
12 If he snatches away, who can stop him? Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
15 Though I were innocent, I could not answer him; I could only plead with my Judge for mercy.
16 Even if I summoned him and he responded, I do not believe he would give me a hearing.
20 Even if I were innocent, my mouth would condemn me; if I were blameless, it would pronounce me guilty.
29 Since I am already found guilty, why should I struggle in vain?
32 He is not a man like me that I might answer him, that we might confront each other in court.
33 If only there were someone to arbitrate between us …!
35 Then I would speak up without fear of him, but as it now stands with me, I cannot.”
That word ‘arbitrate’ in verse 33 is rendered in other translations ‘umpire’ or, better still, ‘mediate.’ Job is looking for someone who can intervene and referee between these two who are in opposition to one another: God and mankind. Someone who understands both parties and is able to reconcile them. Someone whom he elsewhere referred to as “my witness in heaven” (Job 16.19) and “my Redeemer” (Job 19.25).
Not only did Job – believed to have been a contemporary of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – have extraordinary faith to hope for the existence of such a redeemer, the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that Job’s tremendous faith and tremendous pain prefigure or picture for us the suffering, obedience, and sacrifice of Christ. Because Christ was a man, he can legitimately represent us to God; because he was God in human flesh, he can act as God’s representative to us. And suffering was a necessary part of that work. He knew first-hand hunger, pain, loneliness, sleeplessness, arguments and hostility, betrayal and the loss of friends, the loss of loved ones – and the loss of his own life. He knows what we struggle with.
And at the very last, among the final words of his human life, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Friends, I tell you, Christ is not only the divine intermediary, not merely a great teacher, he is our role model I tell you to take this prayer of his and make it your own.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” because I cannot control this life, as much as I try. I hurt, I suffer, I don’t understand. My plans don’t work out. Help me commit my spirit into your hands because my own hands are inadequate. I commit myself to you because I am helpless without you, more than I realize, even in my best and wisest moments. By your grace alone I commit myself to you because this life is brief and I cannot navigate my way into the next life apart from your watchful care.
Make this your prayer, and then choose to live out that prayer on a daily basis. Commit to him your hopes & dreams, your fears & failures, your plans, your time, your relationships, your money, your very life – because your life will end someday, and you will be judged not merely by your survivors but by your Maker. May your faith be at least as great as was Job’s, and may his words be your words:
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” – Job 19.25-27