Friday, March 23, 2018

Then the Lord Answered Job

This is a sermon given at North Falmouth Congregational Church, UCC
a few years ago.

Based on Job 38:1-7, 34-41

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”  How did we get to this holy place today?
The Book of Job fearlessly tackles the problem of suffering in the world.  You’ve heard people wonder, time and time again, when disaster strikes where was God.  If God was all-powerful, they say, God would have prevented every fill-in-the-blank horror ever visited upon humanity.  People get angry when the Hand of God doesn’t scoop them up out of harm’s way.  What happens to our faith when we know we did nothing to invite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  What do we do?
We open the Book of Job to chapter 1, verse 1, which reads: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.  That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
And yet, his life comes undone.  We say today that so-and-so ‘had the patience of Job,’ but you find out when you read the book cover to cover that Job was anything but patient.  The word patient comes from Latin and means sufferer.  That would be Job.
It’s easy to talk about Job and his suffering because it’s not ours.  The people who put this book together knew that when our pain is too close, we stop talking, but we can talk about Job’s pain.  He lived “in the land of Uz,” and even then no one knew where that was.  At best, it was far enough away for us to know that whatever happened to Job, probably wouldn’t happen to us.  And his name was Job.  He wasn’t even Jewish, yet he calls on the Jewish God of the covenant.
Long story short: Job’s life falls apart through no fault of his own.  His friends come to help but they just make everything worse.  During the course of the book, Job even threatens a lawsuit against God!  In chapter 23, he says:
I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  
I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.  Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  
No; but he would give heed to me.
Job wants to know why his life was ruined – he needs to be heard – and he’s even willing to cross-exam God in open court.  Throughout the book, we also learn something else: it’s all about Job.  He’s angry and becomes blind, as any of us might, to the world around him.
But God remains silent.  Finally, after much dialogue between Job and his three friends, and a fourth man, a younger man named Elihu who offers his perspective, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, which brings us to today’s passage.
The National Lampoon recorded some comedy albums and made some films back in the Seventies and Eighties.  At one point, they recorded a parody of a New Age poem called Desiderata and called theirs Deteriorata, which was pretty funny, for the times – find it on youTube.  Anyway, at one point the narrator says, “Make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be – hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.”  I have always imagined God in Job as the hairy thunderer, mostly because I think I was set up to expect that through the first 37 chapters, but the text itself may show us another way to read God’s speeches.
For one thing, up until now, Job himself has called on Shaddai, the Almighty.  The authors also refer to El, God.  Now, in these final chapters, it’s the Lord, YHWH, the God who raised up Israel out of Egypt, who speaks.  Is the compassionate God of the covenant also a hairy thunderer?  Is YHWH angry with Job?  It’s hard to tell with what we have to work with but it makes a difference to how we as Christians understand God’s nature and how God relates to humanity and humanity’s suffering.
English translations tend to steamroll meaning.  God says, “Gird up your loins like a man,” which is Bible-speak for “get ready because here it comes.”  Except, most translations leave out one word which translates as “I pray” which itself means, in modern English, “please.”  So is God being ironic or is God approaching Job as an equal?
Good news!  First, God heard Job’s lament!  And then God answered.  God had to, either to maintain a sense of honor or perhaps Job had pushed too far.  Or maybe Job was beginning to show signs of real stress – an explanation might help him hang in there.  He also needed to get back into relationship with God, and that’s another reason for the switch to YHWH – when God establishes contact in a direct, personal way (think Moses or Jonah), it is YHWH the covenant God who shows up.  This is a sign of YHWH’s steadfast love and faithfulness to the people of the covenant.
Throughout the book, Job has raged against God, and that, I think is something he had to do before he could return to God.  We know his faith wasn’t broken but his trust in God was.  And now they’re talking, the first sign of reconciliation.
God asks a series of questions: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Can you do this?  Who can do what I do, asks the Lord.  Up to now, Job has been preoccupied with his own problems.  His life has become chaos, so God shows him the vastness of Creation.  Job never saw beyond his own picket fence, and now he has a new perspective: Yes, there are predators and there is prey.  There are limits.  There are boundaries, drawn by God.  There are reasons for everything.  You matter, God says, but other things matter too; Job, you are not the center of the universe.  In the end, Job says to the Lord, “I had heard of you but now my eyes see you; I withdraw my case against you,” or words to that effect.
In our time, we still want to know: what is the meaning of suffering?  Why?  Does God indeed control everything, or did the Lord simply wind the metaphorical clock and then step aside?  We tend to think that you reap what you sow, but we also know that stuff happens.  We are all eligible to slip on God’s banana peel; we are all subject to what David Bentley Hart calls the “imbecile forces of chance.”
We want the world to be fair.  Yet it’s a two-way street.  We know good things happen to bad people too.  After becoming a fugitive from the FBI, Whitey Bulger won the lottery – twice.  But we want – we expect – Evil to be punished and Good to be rewarded.  We want the fighting in Syria to end.  Some of us secretly root for the Cubs.  It doesn’t always happen the way we want it to.
Are there boundaries we can’t cross with God?  If we keep the Commandments, are we then free to say anything to the Almighty, as long as it comes from the heart?
When God answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” I think what YHWH is really saying is, “Here I am.”  Never too far away.  Always within earshot.  Through the Book of Job, we learn that we can return to God just by speaking up.  We are welcome to question God and demand a hearing.  We learn that God’s steadfast love is unwavering.  And we learn that while there might be no answer to the questions we ask, we better be ready for the answer we get when it comes.

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