Dust, Ashes, and a New Vision

All of us have experienced loss. We just named some of the people we love who are no longer in our midst and whom we continue to love. If Job were seated in these pews today he could have added the names of his first seven sons and three daughters, all of whom died in a flash. His grief is so overwhelming that he tears his robe, shaves his head, and sits on a heap of ashes. His whole body breaks out in such terrible sores that his friends don’t even recognize him. Three friends come to sit with him, and his suffering is so great that no one even speaks a word for seven days.


This is extreme loss, extreme suffering. His wife tells him to curse God and die. But he doesn’t. He curses the day he was conceived, wishes he had never been born, but he does not curse God. Over the course of 38 chapters, he rails at God, laments, questions “Why did this happen?” His friends, ever “helpful,” suggest that maybe his own sin brought this fate upon him.


Thanks, friends.


We see this thinking today. There are books with titles such as When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The Old Testament theology persists which says that if we follow the rules and stay faithful to God, we will live happily ever after. If bad things happen to us, it must be because we didn’t follow the rules or didn’t stay faithful to God. Which suggests that we have control over God and everything in our lives.


This kind of thinking gets us in trouble. It’s what Job wrestles with all the way through the book. Because we’re told right at the beginning that Job does not sin. He follows all the rules and continues to believe in God. And still the rug has been pulled out from under him. All of his children, all of his flocks, all of his servants, all of the life he worked for has been destroyed.


There is something to be said for merit. You do your homework, study hard, and you earn a good grade. You graduate with honors, and that can help set you up for a more successful life than if you skipped class all the time. That makes sense.


But sometimes disaster just happens. It’s the car accident, the bike accident, the train wreck, the flood that covers the whole first floor of your house. It’s the flu epidemic or the cancer diagnosis or the hip that falls apart. Things happen. The rug pulls out from under us and we fall on our faces.


Things can happen on a larger scale, too, to whole groups of people. Our Declaration of Independence says that all men (okay, men) are created equal, but we know that’s not quite right. Because some people are born into lives that give them lots and lots of opportunities, while others struggle with racism, sexism, discrimination because their bodies can’t do everything that other bodies do. Some people’s families have no money and no access to education. So maybe all are created equally loved by God but not with equal opportunities. This is certainly the case for blind Bartimaeus in our reading today from Mark. He has had a much more challenging life because his blindness limits him.


So what do we do when we are grieving a loss, when we are raging at an injustice that makes our lives hard, when we are lamenting a tragedy, when we are dealing with bodies that can’t do what we want them to—what do we do?


Here are two things we don’t do. We don’t stuff it down and ignore the problem. And we don’t stay in victim mode. If we try to pretend that we’re not grieving, not having problems and challenges, then we’re being inauthentic. So let it out: grieve for however long you need to grieve. Rage at injustice. Get mad at God. But be honest about it. Own it. Let people know what’s going on so they can come and sit with you or offer whatever help you may need.


And then, when the time is right, move on.


Some people get stuck in the role of victim. Job is stuck for a time. He keeps calling out to God for explanation. Finally, 38 chapters in, God ends the silence and responds. Job gets to have a personal experience of God. God goes on for some time about “Where were you when I was creating the universe?” Job comes to see that he is this tiny speck in all of creation, this tiny speck expecting God to be held to account.


The Hebrew is challenging here. We hear Job say, in our New Revised Standard Version translation, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:5-6). So Job has been taught about God, but this is his first real experience of God personally, and it is transformative. But exactly what this transformation looks like is a little unclear. Job says, “I despise myself,” but the word “myself” isn’t in the Hebrew, so it’s not certain what Job despises. “I despise… myself” or “I despise…something.” “I despise God?” And repent in dust and ashes, or repent of dust and ashes—that’s open for interpretation, too. Does he repent having spent so much time in lamentation? Does he recognize that he’s gotten stuck on the ash heap?


When the rug pulls out from under you and you find yourself face down on the floor, don’t stay there forever. Make some noise! Demand some answers! Rail against God if you want to, but don’t stuff all your feelings and needs as if they didn’t matter. They matter! You matter. We may be just a speck in all of creation, but we matter. Your healing and wholeness matter. Your relationship with God matters. Do not curse God and die. Get mad at God, or beseech God for answers, but stay in the relationship.


And be open to transformation. Because you do not have to stay face down on the floor, or stuck on a heap of dust and ashes. A new vision is possible. Life does go on.


Whatever this passage means, it is clearly the turning point for Job. He gets up from the ash heap and gets on with his life. God restores his fortunes and his flocks. Job and his wife have seven more sons and three more daughters. Not that they take the place of the original 10 children, because nothing can do that. But he gets on with his life. He is somehow transformed.


We see this transformation as well with blind Bartimaeus, so I want to shift now to that reading. Like Job, Bartimaeus is not passive in this story. He is actively pursuing his healing. He is shouting, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47.) People are trying to shush him, but he’s having none of it. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”


A couple things to note here. Bartimaeus may be physically blind, but he’s got more insight into Jesus than do Jesus’ own disciples. Bartimaeus is the first person in the gospel of Mark to refer to Jesus as the son of David. That has not been mentioned before, but he gets it.


Then there’s Jesus’ response. He has the crowd call Bartimaues over to him. This crowd, which a moment ago had been shushing Bartimaues, now gets to be part of his healing, and people start saying to him, “Hey, you’re in luck: Jesus wants you to come to him. Get up!”


Bartimaeus springs up with such enthusiasm that he throws off his cloak. You may recall that in those days people basically had two layers of clothing: the inner layer, and then the cloak. He casts off his cloak, which symbolically represents that he is ready for a new life.


You remember the wealthy man who asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life? We talked about him a few weeks ago. And Jesus says, Get rid of all your possessions and follow me. And the man went away sad. (Mark 10:17-22.) Too attached to his stuff. Not Bartimaeus. He flings away his cloak—his stuff—and comes straight to Jesus.


And then I love what happens next. Jesus doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus wants. It’s probably pretty clear that the obvious thing would be to cure his blindness, but Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:51.) Like maybe Bartimaeus is going to say, “Find me a wife,” or “Teach me to walk on water.”


“What do you want me to do for you?” I mentioned this a few years ago in a sermon and it’s worth exploring again: If Jesus were standing in front of you asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” would you have an answer? Would you know what to say?


We can rail against God when things go wrong. We can demand explanations. But when Jesus shows up and says, “What do you want me to do for you?” that’s our invitation into transformation. That’s our opportunity to engage in our own healing and wholeness.


Earlier in this chapter, two of his disciples come to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus says, “What is it you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:35-36.) Almost exactly the same response. But what they want is to sit at his right and left hand in glory. They have completely misunderstood his message and his call, not to glory, but to service.


Bartimaeus, in contrast, who is blind, has much more vision and understanding into what Jesus is about. When Jesus says, “What do you want me to do for you?” he is ready with an answer. “My teacher, let me see again.” And Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well” (10:51-52). Your faith. Bartimaeus has agency in seeking out his own healing. We may not control God or be able to stave off all disasters. They happen. But like Bartimaeus, we have agency in our healing and transformation.


Jesus tells Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has made your well.” But instead of going away, he immediately follows Jesus on the way. He gets that this transformation of his own life enables him now to serve God. And what a powerful witness he will be. I imagine him singing and shouting hallelujahs all along the way.


What if Jesus were asking us, “What do you want me to do for you… so that you could serve God with a whole and healed heart?” What holds us back? What keeps us sitting in dust and ashes? Maybe we say, “My teacher, take away my fear.” Or “Grant me courage to live something more than a small, safe life.” Or “Help me to see where my gifts are most needed, and then to serve there with joy.”


Rail at God. Cry out against injustice and suffering that bind and blind your life. And then be open to the transformation that allows you to move forward with healing and joy, to serve God with gladness. Be an active agent for your own transformation. Do not let the crowd shush you when you know the new vision that calls you. Spring forward, throwing off the cloak of what your life has been, and follow Jesus, singing and shouting hallelujahs all along the way. Amen.

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