4th Sunday after Pentecost

June 21, 2015


In the storm

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known 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 sons of God shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb,
when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your
proud waves be stayed’?
(Job 38:1-11 ESV)

You can’t necessarily tell the outcome from the beginning. Beginnings are full of optimism and hope but as we know in this world that doesn’t match reality. Whether it be the birth of a baby, the beginning of a painting, the commencement of studies, the starting of a business, walking down the aisle at the wedding, the opening sequence of a film, they don’t necessarily have happy endings. Conversely, hearing the beginnings of nasty words spoken, the first horror of daily bullying, the first time your doctor says ‘it is not good news, I’m afraid’, the first shots of war don’t necessarily spell bad endings. Whether one is a fatalist, idealist, or realist; an optimist or pessimist outcomes in life are not the automatic end results of programmes immutably occurring. We can be surprised. Things may not be what they seem. People can make mistakes. And so we live conscious that our behaviour – our daily behaviour affects and impacts what has begun and will shape how it ends.

Today’s first reading is from chapter 38 in the book of Job – so not the beginning – and since Job has 42 chapters, it is almost at the end. We’ve come in more than half-way into what is happening with Job – and to be honest, I suspect that the lectionary compilers are interested in this reading not because of Job and the message so much as for the links that it has with the Gospel – that Jesus stills the storm and God in Job almost lives in the storm, the whirlwind – in other words, Jesus is God who is not afraid or powerless against storms.

However I want you to consider this first reading for what it is – God responding to Job having heard Job and his three friends discuss Job’s situation of misery with the friends arguing that Job must have brought it on himself somehow and that God was treating – even punishing – him in response. Job was defending himself and saying that he hasn’t done anything to warrant this suffering and he wants to take God to court as it were. His relationship with God is one of faith and trust and that is precisely why he won’t curse God and die as his wife suggests (Job 2:9) but he doesn’t understand this storm that has devastated him where he has lost so much. So we’ve had 37 chapters almost (minus the setting of the story about what has happened to Job) of people talking about God and suffering.

Now in chapter 38 God turns up! Now it is God who speaks and addresses Job with question after question – which makes claim after claim. Please make it a project this week – even this afternoon or this evening – to read Job 38 to 42. I’ll give you the outline … God questions Job ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge’ and God challenges the prosecution’s case. Come on – tell me – where you were when I began the world? Who determined its measurements, its boundaries, its laws, its stability? Who made the heavens, sea, earth and keeps them in their place?

That’s what our reading asked but the chapter goes on and on about the seasons, the stars in the sky, the depth of the seas, and even food for the animals. Chapter 39 is just more of the same and the questions are now from the animal world. Two verses to give you ‘taste’ …

Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars
and spreads his wings toward the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up
and makes his nest on high? (Job 39:26,27 ESV)
God ends with: Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it. (Job 40:2 ESV)
And Job answers: “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4,5 ESV) Seriously outclassed and overmatched, Job senses he is tiny in comparison to God. His eloquence are little bird cheeps and he is seeing the futility of his words.

What does God do? You might think he says something understanding, comforting, consoling but no … he launches another round of questioning! You’ve put me in the dock, Job, in your court – now you answer me!
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?
Have you an arm like God,
and can you thunder with a voice like his? (Job 40:6-9 ESV)
Job 40 continues on and on – more and more questions!
Job 41 begins with still more questions and concludes with God spending a lot of time talking about the mysterious creature, the Leviathan, which he knows all about and of course Job doesn’t. By the end of chapter 41 you feel like you’ve been in a storm!

Chapter 42 begins:
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6 ESV)

This is the last time Job speaks. It’s one thing to hear of God but now to see God – or maybe sense God since God is in the whirlwind, Job says ‘I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes’. That is not the last message human beings want to say. That’s not the ending we want to have. The chapter continues on but it is about God and how he responded to Job’s three friends and how he restored Job to the living and a rich living at that but these are Job’s final words.

This is not an old story – putting God on trial. People do it all the time – believers who cry out ‘Why?’ and non believers as well. It can happen in the pub, in the classroom, in the hospital, anywhere. It can be erudite and found in books and angry and passionate and found among tears. We usually can deal with pain and with consequences of actions when we can see cause and effect but there is a mysterious quality to suffering especially when God is involved that doesn’t make it easy – in fact having God around can make suffering more difficult – especially if your God is supposed to help. When misery and suffering happen God becomes scary – maybe because the storm gets closer.

God is scary because we sense he’s not like us – a bigger and better version of us – but someone very different, whose ways are not our ways and we sense that our words and concepts are just pale imitations of his words and views. Love, justice, good, evil, mercy, obedience – we think we know but then when we get close to God, we’re not so sure.

Like getting close to the sun with all its energy and realising how tiny and weak we are, so God can seem so different and this doesn’t make him soft and cuddly – a cosmic pacifier / dummy that we can suck when things are not going well. No! Our God told Abraham to sacrifice his son. Our God consumed Aaron’s sons who offered unholy fire in the tabernacle. Our God didn’t spare David and Bathsheba’s first child because of their sins. Our God taught the early church through the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira that lying wasn’t a smart move. Our God talked about obedience in direct ways – to me first. Simple. What is there to discuss? No wonder Adam and Eve, Jacob, Moses, the people in the wilderness, Isaiah, even Peter in his fishing boat either hid, or cried out that they were doomed, or wanted God to depart when God was close! God isn’t domesticated. As Mrs Beaver told the children about Aslan, ‘he’s not a tame lion!’.

So what’s the point of God if (a) he doesn’t help; and (b) he might cause suffering or make it worse?
That’s a mighty good question! It boils down, I think, whether we believe that God should have a purpose – some utilitarian function – to make things better for us? And if we say ‘yes’ then I think we’re in trouble because we’re making God in our image and for our benefit. What Job sensed perhaps – I don’t know – was that God is totally beyond us and we are dust – walking dust, fleeting dust – in comparison to him. We don’t understand God so as to know how to programme him. Yet Job realised that he was in God’s hands and at God’s mercy. I suspect we largely hear those words negatively – being at the mercy of another is not a place we want to be. We’d prefer to be merciful not receive mercy – because then you’ve got little or nothing to say.

I don’t have any magic words to make suffering more bearable or go away. I don’t know how to read beginnings and endings but I can point you to God who is not soft and cuddly – but battered, bloodied, and tortured – nailed to a cross – and declare to you that this God you see on the cross is good. Yes, this God is scary because sin is serious and God’s rescue of sinners is oh so costly. And that there’s no guarantee of success or earthly happy endings but there is a promise of God’s presence, his grace and his mercy. And when even those words seem to amplify suffering and we’ve no words left to say, the God who took hold of us in baptism will not let us go.

And the church has learnt through the centuries – Luther mentioned it as the first of the 95 theses – that repentance is the hallmark by which we should live. That behaviour shapes how we see the world around us and how we live. Repentance guides our ethics and our wisdom. It is not a bandaid or an excuse we can use lightly when things get tough but it can help us live in our relationships here – usually – but we also learn that we can’t control other people’s behaviour and God isn’t our cosmic butler. This is something we will struggle with all the time – as we face each day – storm or no storm – but that doesn’t change the fact that God is good – and in Jesus we discover how good.

Bible References

  • Job 38:1 - 11