Due to a technical glitch, we are unable to provide the audio for this sermon. We did manage to capture the audio of the song with which the sermon closed: “Where Were You,” written by Alana Levandoski and for us in worship by Gord Johnson and Larry Campbell. Scroll to the end of the sermon text to hear the song.
This is the third Sunday in a row that the lectionary has us reading in the Book of Job, with one more section coming next week. To give a quick recap, Job has found himself in a place of unfathomable suffering and loss, and while his initial response had been one of patient trust, he’d moved next to a place of hopelessness and despair, and then into a posture of stubborn protest, complaint, and lament. This final move was actually triggered by some counsel offered him by three of his friends, who have insisted that his suffering is a sure indication of his sinfulness. But Job can see nothing in his life that would make him deserving of such punishment, and in a long series of debates with those friends again and again he challenges them—and then God—to show him where he had gone wrong. The three friends keep debating with him, yet Job keeps slipping from argument with these three characters into a posture addressing God; he keeps moving from theological debate into prayers of protest and lament.
That’s pretty much where we left him last week (Job 23:1-9, 16-17); in a place of unresolved questioning and sorrowful despair. The book continues in this vein for several more chapters, and then at chapter 32 a new figure is introduced: a young man named Elihu. Elihu’s words run for five consecutive chapters, during which he reiterates much of what the three friends have already said, accuses Job of blasphemy for speaking so boldly, and appeals to the inscrutable ways of God. As the book is structured, Job doesn’t answer the young man; in fact, the other characters don’t even acknowledge his presence… it is almost as if his speeches are launched into thin air.
And then finally in chapter 38 we hear God’s response to Job. Were I the Lord God, I would have responded with something like the words spoken to a desolate Jerusalem through the prophet Isaiah—“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”—or the message Jeremiah offers to that same city in the midst of his agonizing Lamentations:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (3:22-23)
For the Lord will not reject for ever.
Although God causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for God does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone. (3:31-33)
Well, evidently I am not God… and as Kathryn Schifferdecker notes, the response God does give to Job “is not, in a conventional sense, very comforting. God would probably fail a present-day pastoral care class.”
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me. (38:1-3)
“Gird up your loins like a man,” or as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message, “Pull yourself together, Job! / Up on your feet! Stand tall!” Really?
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. (38:4)
Job apparently just stands there, thunderstruck, as the voice roars at him from out of that whirlwind. And it is at Job that the voice roars; the other characters have now been set to the sidelines. This is Job’s experience, and Job’s alone.
God’s reply runs fully four chapters, as the voice speaks of both the wonder of creation and of its wildness and danger. There is a section of nine verses which describe the hippopotamus, of all things, and a full chapter describing the power of “Leviathan,” which different scholars understand variously as a mythical sea monster, the crocodile, or the whale. Midway through these chapters, Job does manage to open his mouth— “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?” (40:5)—but the whirlwind simply roars again: “I will question you, and you declare to me. / Will you even put me in the wrong?” (40:7-8)
It is too easy, too simplistic, to chime off those words from Isaiah 55:8, that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, / nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord,” and attempt to leave it at that. Yet the response Job receives is more difficult. In the words of the novelist Reynolds Price, “For all his expansive detail and haunting imagery… God’s answer to Job may be reduced to sixteen sublimely unsatisfying words—‘If you were not my active partner from the start of creation, then stay silent now.’”
It is an achingly bleak way to summarize the answer poor Job receives. There must be some consolation in his having received an answer at all, for chapter after chapter Job has been calling on God to appear—he’s been all but demanding his day in the divine court, in fact—but this? It is an experience of the order of which Rudolf Otto described in his seminal book, The Idea of the Holy, as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans: an experience of the Divine before which one both trembles and is fascinated. Job’s is an unfiltered encounter with God.
There are other narratives of divine encounter in the biblical story. Some do speak in not dissimilar tones of the wildness of God and of the risk of drawing close—Moses at the burning bush, for instance, or Paul on the road to Damascus—but not all. Abraham and Sarah encounter God in the form of three visitors who they host for a meal, while Elijah meets God in a “still small voice.” And the gospels tell of encountering God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who, while at times tough and uncompromising, does things like tells stories, reach out in compassion to heal the blind and the leprous, and welcome children, and even cook breakfast on the beach for his friends.
You’d wish for Job that maybe God could have come and cooked him breakfast, all the while telling him the story of why he was suffering so much and how it would all be compassionately reconciled. But then we always like to turn to those more lovely narratives, and so again this week I’m simply not going to rush to the story’s conclusion. Next week we’ll take a look at where this landed Job, and what it might mean for us. For now, we need to let Job be for a while, facing the mysterium tremendum, and also to remind ourselves that his God is also our God. To dare to stand before our God and to open our mouths is not only an act of faith and trust, it is also an act of boldness. Observing that she did “not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions,” the writer Annie Dillard once asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” and then went on to compare the church to “children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.” God’s reply to Job tells us something of the God we “so blithely invoke”…
But you know, as we now stand to sing a song based in these texts and written by Alana Levandoski, we do it as a people who know not only Job’s story but the gospel story as well. The answer Job receives to his complaint can become for us an act of worship; one that locates us with Job facing the unfathomable mystery of the Holy, and also under the deep and equally unfathomable mercy of the cross.
- Press play to listen to the song: