Sermon #236 St. James the Less #143 6/20/21
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. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? "Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, 'Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped'?"
The Book of Job
This morning our first lesson was from the Book of Job. Sadly, we rarely read this this hidden Old Testament gem on Sunday mornings, and so when it does appear we must take advantage of the opportunity.
The story of Job may or may not be familiar to you, but its impact is far reaching. In fact, many scholars consider it to be one of the oldest books in the whole Bible, if not the oldest. And so, many generations before us have opened the pages of this particular book and found it to be filled with wisdom and truth—especially because of its unique perspective on human suffering.
Here’s a very short recap: Job is a man who has lost everything: his whole family has died, his home has collapsed on him, his wealth has vanished, and he is now even suffering from a painful skin disease.
Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.
In this pitiful state his friends come to him, not to help him get back on his feet, but rather to debate what great sin Job must’ve committed to have deserved all of this.
The irony is that Job hadn’t committed any great sin. He was a good and righteous man, and as his friends continue to moralize and theologize his tragedy right in front of him, Job states his innocence again and again. At times through the book, he praises God even in the suffering, and other times he wishes he had never been born. As the story goes along, we see Job experience the whole gamut of emotions.
But there’s one thing that is clear and undeniable: Job is the Suffering Man—par excellence.
And finally, near the end of the book, Job demands that God come down and answer his cries. Why has all this happened to him? Does he not pity him or care about him at all?
Job is now an expert at suffering, and he has always assumed that God is an expert at being…well…God! Job is starting to wonder if the expert has been slacking on the job, or worse, he’s indifferent or unable to help.
I mean even good experts get fooled sometimes.
Think about how often the weather experts get the forecast wrong—sometimes it’s because they aren’t very good at reading the radar while other times the weather is just that unpredictable.
But it’s not just the weatherman who can be a helpless expert. There’s a show on Netflix called “Made You Look” about a Chinese painter who was able to fool the international art community with his forgeries of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
Each of his pieces sold for millions of dollars, and some were even displayed in the world’s greatest art galleries. It’s known as the largest art fraud in American history and surrounding this very expensive drama were the well-respected art critics who supposedly could see a fake from a mile away.
Experts are not always what they’re made out to be. Some are lousy at their job, while others just get tricked.
And this is what Job wants to know: what kind of expert is God? Is he in fact a God who can relieve his misery, or does he care to?
After much silence, God does respond. Our passage picks up at this pivotal moment, “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” God will not keep silence any longer, and he calls out of a great storm cloud.
God responds but not in the way Job expects. Rather than explaining why people suffer, or why Job has gone through so much, God goes a different direction—he doesn’t even broach the subject of suffering.
God says, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”
Job is given a dose of perspective from the Almighty, “Where were you Job? You’re so old and wise, you must have been there at the beginning.” Clearly the expert is now speaking and doing so with authority.
But God is also putting Job in his place with profound beauty. He lays out the vast tapestry of creation before Job and shows him the complexity of the universe. In some of the most beautiful prose in all of ancient literature God says this,
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been shown to you? Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this” (38:16-18).
When I first read this as a teenager I was mesmerized. I think my imagination doubled in size after encountering this chapter. And I think that may be the point.
What is so stunning is that though this piece is describing the complexities of the universe, the answer is quite simple. We are not God. All of our questions that begin with “why” just won’t be answered, and as part of the created order, maybe we don’t have the clout to make demands of God. We are not the experts, no matter how intelligent or wise we think we are.
The truth is, you and I are a critical bunch—all modern people are. We love to ask questions, get answers, and many times we feel it is our God-given right to get to the bottom of things.
But Job’s questions are not resolved with logic, God doesn’t explain away his suffering, but instead Job finds comfort in the whirlwind—the very act of God speaking is enough for him.
This encounter with God resolves any doubt Job previously had and leads him from pain and despair into of all things: humility.
Job says this at the end:
“I know that you [God] can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (42:2-3, 6).
Miraculously Job’s bitterness and anger towards God has faded away. And though it may be strange that he says he despises himself, another way to translate it would be, “I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust” (Rutledge 161).
Instead of answers, Job is given an experience with the Lord of all. His questions, though unaddressed, seem to melt away. They are put in their proper place.
And so, the story of Job, that has been passed down for thousands of years is not really about suffering at all but about radical humility before God.
The truth is you and I can get in trouble with our words. We can end up eating them at times. We can also get in trouble with our expectations of others, of ourselves, and even God.
When it comes to matters of faith, clergy have to be especially careful because we are seen as the experts of religion. But if you’ve spent anytime at all with us, you’ll know we put our foot in our mouth more than others.
I’ll end with this story.
I was talking to a pastor friend of mine the other day about the first time he was in a hospital room when someone died. I wanted to know how he handled the situation, and what he said to the family immediately afterwards. I asked because despite what it looks like we’re normally flying by the seat of our pants too.
Anyways, he was called to see an elderly woman in the ICU where her adult daughter was already by her side. Over the past couple of days her breathing had become heavier, and she stopped talking earlier that morning.
Soon her husband and son walked in the room, and the pastor said a prayer with the family. Within 15 minutes she passed away. As reality sunk in for the family, there was a lot of crying and pain in the room, and for some reason he said he was still there—as if he was glued to his chair.
He didn’t know what to do. Should he walk away, should he say some more things about resurrection and hope, or should he continue sit in the corner?
He said in that moment he was so tempted to give some theological explanation to their crisis or say something profound about eternal life.
And so, he mustered all the courage he had and got up from his seat, cleared his throat, and tried to come up with something that they would remember for the rest of their life. But then he froze and thought of Job in the comforting whirlwind. And so, he slowly sat back down and remained silent.
Sometimes explanations just won’t do, especially from the so called “experts,” and they may in fact cheapen what God is actually up to.
Instead, our quest for answers should probably begin and end with the Creator of the universe—and trust that no matter how things appear, he is good and he is there.
4th Sunday after Pentecost. Year B. Proper 7. Job 38:1-11. And God Spoke to Abraham F. Rutledge.