a homily from Job 38:1-7, 34-41
This is the text of a sermon preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday October 18, 2009 by Dr Chris Holmes, Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Providence Seminary. Chris is scheduled to be ordained as a transitional deacon of the Anglican Church of Canada on November 22, 2009, and is serving a ministry placement at saint ben’s through to Eastertide, 2010.
any of you will recall the cataclysmic event that took place on December 26th 2004. That is of course the day when a horrific tsunami unveiled its furor on Asia. Hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men were killed. It seemed that within only days of the ocean’s ferocity being unleashed, voices asked: Is this proof of God’s power or of God’s nonexistence? Listening to those voices at that time often made me feel ill. Why? Because many of them could not let the horror be.
In the New York Times there appeared only a short while after the tsunami a sobering report. It told the story of a large man of enormous physical strength. He was unable to prevent four of his five children from perishing in the tsunami. While reciting the names of his lost children to the reporter, in descending order of age, ending with the name of his four-year-old son, he became utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping. The brilliant Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes of this: “Only a moral cretin at that moment would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their death had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history, and that all of this was completely necessary for God to accomplish his ultimate design in having created the world.” (Hart, The Doors of the Sea, 99-100) In other words, it is profoundly inhumane to try to justify the man’s suffering.
The lectionary is taking us on a brief tour through the book of Job. Job is a strangely contemporary book. And it is a wordy book, full of accusations, bluster, legal wrangling, protests, exhortations, confession. Indeed, it is a book that rarely invokes an indifferent response. On the one hand, some love it: it powerful testimony, they say, to God’s bigness, God’s supreme reign over the affairs of humanity. On the other hand, some cannot stand it: they say it paints a portrait of a God who is callous and cruel. This is, they say, a God who does not hesitate to put one man (and his family) through gut-wrenching suffering in order to make a point about his sovereignty. Either alternative is wanting, I believe.
The most remarkable thing in our reading is found in the first verse. In particular, four little words: “And the Lord said.” (38:1) Thirty eight chapters have past since we have heard from the Lord. Job’s friends and even his wife think that Job is a lost cause. They have told him in no uncertain terms that his suffering was brought on by himself. Guilty, they say. Secret sin, they prognosticate. You reap what you sow, Job. Job, you have obviously disobeyed the Lord’s law. Job, you know that those who break God’s law are punished. It is that simple, they say. You are guilty, Job. That is why you suffer. You wear the scarlet letter. Indeed, Job’s pals Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu have got it figured out. They know their place in the world. They know, so they think, how God works in the world. They know the system, in other words. And the system is simple. It is one of rewards and punishments: the righteous are rewarded; the guilty punished.
But little do they know. The Lord of the covenant, when he finally does speak, doesn’t give any of Job’s friends the light of day. For it is only to Job that the Lord speaks. But the Lord neither justifies what he has done to Job nor to Job’s friends. The clever remarks of his friends simply fade away. But the important thing is, “the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwhind.” (38:1) The Lord does not remain silent forever. The Lord answers Job. The Lord doesn’t crush Job. But the Lord does confront Job with the ultimate divine putdown: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4) The Lord issues the ultimate challenge, too: “Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me…. Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?” (38:3)
The issue in all of this is justice. Job and his friends thought that the world had been made in order to be immediately useful to human beings. Their song went something like this: creation exists for us. And the Lord of creation works according to the law of retribution: the sinful suffer in this life, the righteous are blessed. But it is precisely this pigeonholing that the Lord’s answer destroys.
I can recall wrestling with the book of Job soon after my conversion to the Christian faith. As a new convert, I thought that the book of Job existed primarily to teach me how to suffer well. I read the book quite differently now. Job is not really a book about Job or Job’s suffering. Job is not a moral example. The book named after him has nothing to say to the puzzle of suffering. Rather, Job is a book about God. In our reading for today, God comes across as sarcastic and amused, to be sure. But God also reassures Job. God lovingly reassures Job by teaching Job a lesson. It is this: one cannot ever presume to discover the reasons for God’s action. Neither you nor I cannot manage God’s actions. We cannot lay hands on God.
The Gospel reading for today stopped me dead in my tracks. Listen to the disciples request of Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mk 10:35) The disciples want to manage Jesus. Instead of abandoning themselves in service to him and other people, the disciples want Jesus to be at their service. The disciples’ impetuous request indicates that they think of themselves as the centre of Jesus’ universe. “Do for us whatever we ask of you.”
God’s sober answer to Job out of the whirlwind is a profound NO to any and all attempts on the part of human beings to domesticate God. The fact that the Lord goes on and on about the wonders of nature in ch. 38 & 39 reminds us that we are little in relation to God. But we are not at all unimportant. Our sin is that we think we are the centre of the universe. The book of Job is a fierce argument against a human-centred view of the universe. This is the lesson that God’s creation teaches us.
The book of Job chastens any and all attempts to replace God with self. It frustrates our attempts to usurp God’s place. But God does not resist those attempts because God is nasty or a tyrant. For God is deeply accommodating to Job and to us. God is weak, Gustavo Gutierrez reminds us, in that “God is mindful of human freedom.” Your and I are indeed free to cry out, to lament, to scream—if need be. The God to whom we call does not ignore his dearly beloved creature. It is just that God refuses to be confined within to a system of predictable rewards and punishments. Jesus reminds us that “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Mt 5: 45)
When suffering oneself or when confronted by others’ suffering, it is hard not to resist uttering “odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends.” (Hart, “Tremors of Doubt”). But resist we must. The devastation of the tsunami of 2004 defies explanation. In the case of Job, Job never does find out why he suffers. The Lord never provides Job with an answer. But that is precisely what Job’s friends wanted to know. Why? There must be a reason, Job, for your suffering. Surely we can find out why your health and belonging have been utterly stripped away. But the thing is, there is not any reason. The Lord is utterly uninterested in answering why. “Do you want to make yourself judge of my actions?” the Lord asks.
My close friend’s Father took his life some years back. In a particularly bad depressive episode, he downed his medication—all of it. What was to have made his life more bearable ended up taking it. I went to the funeral. The minister went to great lengths to assure us that my friend’s dad’s death was all part of God’s plan. Now I don’t want to deny for a moment that the world is not in God’s good, generous, and kind hands. But what irritated me was that the minister keep trying to assure us that my friend’s father’s mental suffering and death served a higher purpose. The minister seemed unable or unwilling to give us space to grieve, to weep over what should not have been. At times I could not help but think of Job’s friends offering “rational” explanations for Job’s suffering. What I believe those gathered for my friend’s dad’s funeral needed to hear was that “the Gospel teaches us to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls.” (Hart, “Tremors of Doubt”)
The remarkably good news of the book of Job is this: God does eventually speaks. God answers his servant Job. Although God never does answer why, God lets Job know that he is not a prisoner of “fate.” Indeed, the Lord uses nature to teach Job and us. While the world of nature may appear chaotic, it is not rooted in chaos. Nature is at the disposal of the God who is just and loving—as are we. The God we encounter in the book of Job refuses to be confined to a system. So God: “Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?” (38:37)
It is mid-October. In just over a month we will enter Advent. Together we will look forward to God’s coming among us in the Jew Jesus. When we see Jesus, we see God’s face. We encounter in Jesus a God who rules over the world by serving it. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45) That is grace. And God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind is grace. For God is mindful of his servant Job. God will not let Job go. God will not let us go. God hears our screams, our laments, our praise. The victory over the sin and death that cause the screams has been won in Jesus. “But it is also a victory yet to come…. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.” (Hart, Tremors of Doubt) But it is strife into which God speaks words of justice and healing.