Job 38:1-7, 34-41; 42:1-5
For almost 90% of this book that bears his name, Job has struggled with God’s apparent absence. Through losses of truly biblical proportions, God was silent. Job sulked and pleaded, bargained debated, screamed and shook his fist and cursed the world. God let him get it all out. And now, speaking from out of a holy and terrifying whirlwind, God answers him. Just as Job had asked. Sort of.
"Who is this," God asks Job, "who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man!”
“Gird up your loins" is the biblical way of saying “put on your big boy pants, young man, and act like a grown-up.” “Gird up your loins” is what God said to the prophet Elisha when Elisha protested that he really didn’t want to deal with evil kings. It’s what God said to Jeremiah when he complained that the people would not be very happy to hear the message God wanted him to share. “Gird up your loins” is what’s said in the Bible when the situation calls for courage, commitment...and an end to complaining.
“You wanted answers, Job? Well here they come, so gird up your loins, put on those big boy pants, and listen.”
But the Q & A session that Job has longed for and claimed as his right over all those chapters turns out very differently than he had hoped for or expected. In the fashion of parents and teachers in all times and places, God answers Job's question with a question...actually a series of them.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" Were you there? Job has no answer, because there is only one possible answer: "Nowhere. No. I was not." God goes on, reversing the charges that Job had brought against God.
The creation of the earth, the sea, the heavens, the snow, the hail, the thunderstorm, the constellations of stars, the cycles of the natural world and the animal kingdom – of all of these, Job is ignorant.
Not once had he thought of the mountain goat or the wild ox.
The dwelling place of light; the expanse of the earth, the chains of the
Pleiades, the desert rain – it had not occurred to Job to think of these, much less to discern where they came from.
Clearly, he is out of his depth.
"Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, who has given understanding to the mind? “Not me,” is the only possible answer. The point is that just because Job
did not know or recognize or feel God’s presence doesn’t mean that God wasn’t there. Indeed, God is very much at the helm. God is, after all, God. Job...is not.
Those able to keep a cool head even in the middle of a whirlwind probably noticed that God never actually responds to Job’s most persistent question, “Why me?” It might seem that God’s answer is not satisfactory. Doesn’t Job deserve something better after all he’s been through? His life has been emptied of all that gave it joy and meaning and purpose. Shouldn’t God have the decency to offer an explanation?
The Sufi mystic poet Rumi wrote about the whirlwind visitor, whose violent arrival empties everything out of the house that is your life:
The Guest House By Rumi
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they're a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Consider your life not as a house, but as a map or a graph. On the left side is the day you were born, and on the right is today. In between are the major events of your life, the things that have made you who you are: your family of origin, schools, friends, jobs, significant relationships like partners, spouses or children, illnesses, gains and losses.
You are likely to notice that times of difficulty bear some relationship to times of growth.
It was when your family moved for the fourth time in five years that you learned to enjoy your own company.
It was when your partner left you that you remembered what else you were going to do with your life.
It was when the doctor called about the spot on your lung that you made up with your sister.
Those crowds of sorrows, as Rumi calls them, are probably not what you would have chosen as teachers of wisdom, but they worked.
Suffering is not optional for human beings...but our reaction to it is. We can try to avoid it, we can deny it, we can numb it, we can fight it. In truth, the majority of us do everything in our power to avoid suffering.
We spend a great deal of money on painkillers.
We drown our sorrows in alcohol.
We tell ourselves that it’s not really happening, or that it doesn’t hurt, or that
it’s not important.
We can do any, or all, of those things in reaction to suffering. Or we can engage it, as a voice out of the whirlwind, so that it teaches us what we need to know. Not the answers to our questions, but the truth about ourselves and our relationships to one another, and the universe, and God.
This is the truth that the Book of Job exposes – not the Right Answers to our questions, and certainly not Logical Articulations of doctrine, but the wisdom born of suffering when it is allowed to be our teacher.
The fact that the Book of Job actually made it into the Bible is a testament to those who decided to include it. Organized religion and its penchant for neat answers and clear commandments does not come out looking good in this book. Whoever decided to keep it in the canon must have recognized that an uncensored account of
the depth of human suffering is more valuable than any correct doctrinal answer to it.
Job doesn’t get the answer he wants and thinks he deserves. What he gets instead is a truer understanding of himself; a clearer picture of his place in the universe. God doesn’t answer Job’s question “Why?” But God does give Job the chance to learn more about “who” – who God is, who Job is, who Job is in relation to who God is.
In fact one biblical scholar said that it’s not so much the content of God’s answer that matters, it’s the “relational caliber.”
If you read my article in the latest Tower Alert you know about some of the books I’m reading and that one of them is by a poet and editor named Christian Wiman. Wiman is a talented writer, and he’s also a man living with a chronic and incurable form of cancer. The way he describes his illness reminds me of Job.
I have been in and out of treatment, in and out of the hospital. I have had bones dies and bowels fail; joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk. I have filled my body with mingled mouse and human antibodies, cutting-edge small molecules, old-school chemotherapies eating into me like animate acids. I have passed through pain I could never have imagined,
pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and to leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone. I have been isolated even from my wife, though her love was constant, as was mine. I have come back, for now, even hungrier for God, for Christ, for all the difficult bliss of this life I have been given. But there is great weariness too. And fear. And fury.
The “answer” that Wiman has found is not, of course, an answer, or even a series of answers. His questions have not been put to rest, his fury has not been abated, his fear has not been assuaged. But he has learned/is learning who he is in relation to God and to those God has placed in his life.
Not long after I first learned that I was sick, in the dim time of travel, multiple doctor, and endless tests, when it seemed that I might be in danger of dying very soon, I began to meet every Friday afternoon with the pastor at the church just around the corner from where my wife and I lived. I think that he, like anyone whose faith is healthy, actively craved instances in which that faith might be tested. So we argued for an hour every Friday, though that verb is completely wrong for the complex, respectful, difficult interactions we had.
Nothing was ever settled. In fact my friend – for we became close friends – seemed to me mulishly orthodox at times, just as I seemed to him, I know, either boneheadedly literal when I focused on scripture or woozily mystical when I
didn’t. And yet those hours and the time afterward, when, strangely enough, I didn’t so much think about all that we had discussed as feel myself freed from such thoughts, are among the happiest hours of my life. Grief was not suspended or banished, but entered and answered. Answered not by theology, and not by my own attempts to imaginatively circumvent theology, but by the depth and integrity...of the communion occurring between two people.
It’s not the answers, it’s the relationships that are important.
We began this three-Sunday sermon on the Book of Job listening to God and a member of God’s Divine Council, The Adversary, debate the authenticity of religion. “Faith is just a way for human beings to earn themselves an easier life,” The Adversary argues. “Take away the rewards of faith and you’ll see humanity give up on you, Lord, in a second.” Is religion just a form of self-interest? we asked. Or is it possible for us to desire an authentic faith? Can we love God not for what we get but for who God is?
Faith, Wiman says, true faith is seeing the big picture -- the earth, the sea, the heavens, the snow, the hail, the thunderstorm, the constellations of stars, the cycles of the natural world and the animal kingdom, the mountain goat, the wild ox, the dwelling place of light, the expanse of the earth, the chains of the Pleiades, the
desert rain – faith is seeing that big picture and recognizing one’s small part in it... and offering praise.
What you must realize, what you must even come to praise, is the fact that there is no right way that is going to become apparent to you once and for all. The most blinding illumination that strikes and perhaps radically changes your life will be so...obscured by doubts and dailiness that you may one day come to suspect the truth of that moment at all.
The calling that seemed so clear will be lost in echoes of questionings and indecision; the church that seemed to save you will fester with egos, complacencies, banalities; the deepest love of your life will work itself like a thorn in your heart until all you can think of is plucking it out. Wisdom is accepting the truth of this. Courage is persisting with life in spite of it. And faith is finding yourself, in the deepest part of your soul, in the very heart of who you are, moved to praise it.
In last week’s reading, from chapter 13, Job had listened to his friends try to explain his suffering and decided he had had enough: “My eye has seen all this, my ear has heard and understood it” he protests. None of their arguments persuaded him. He was sure of his innocence and of his right to call God to account.
But now, faced with this whirlwind, this awe-full, utterly vast and mysterious divine presence, Job learns that he has no right to call God to account. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
Seeing God, Job has learned that there is greater wisdom to be had than the wisdom of the world, in which the good are praised and the bad are punished, and therefore you must have done something wrong if bad things happen.
God’s response to Job reminds us that there are things beyond our understanding, a whole universe at work around us. We human beings are but a small, temporary part of the universe.
And yet, and yet, God is mindful of us. Even when we forget who God is, God does not forget us.
Barbara Brown Taylor. “The Practice of Feeling Pain.” An Altar in the World: A
Geography of Faith. HarperCollins. 2009.
Christian Wiman. “Sorrow’s Flower.” My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern
Believer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2013.
Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, David Lose, and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brainwave Podcast #257 - Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. Posted October 14, 2012. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=333
Karl Jacobson Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41]. October 18, 2009. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=410
Rev. Mindi. Worship Resources for October 21—Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost. Posted October 12, 2012. http://rev-o-lution.org/2012/10/12/worship-resources-for-october-21-twenty-first- sunday-after-pentecost/