| Job 38:1 - 42:7
||Sun, October 22, 2000
Rev. Ed Searcy
|"Then the LORD answered Job”. Finally. Job’s request for an audience with
the Almighty is granted. After thirty-seven chapters marked by the absence
of any word from the Lord he is finally to hear an answer. You remember the
story don’t you? Job, who is the innocent victim of terribly unjustified
suffering. All of his property wiped out by what his insurers call ‘an act of
God’. His sons and daughters all dead ... killed by a tornado. And then Job
himself overtaken by a stigmatizing illness, his body covered from head to
foot by terrible AIDS-like sores. But that is not the worst of it. Job must then
endure the consolations and advice of his so-called friends: Eliphaz, Bildad
and Zophar. You remember them, don’t you? The three of them come to sit
with Job ... and to respond to his questions. They bring their best Hallmark
card answers. “Job”, they say, “it must be God’s will”. “God needed your
children in heaven”. But when Job reacts angrily to their little sermonettes his
friends up the ante. “Well Job,” they say, “if you are suffering it must have
been caused by something you have done. After all, ‘you reap what you sow’.
You are reaping suffering so you must have done something to deserve it.
Tell us, what was it?”.
It is all too much for Job to bear. The suffering is bad enough. But the
‘kindness’ of his friends drives Job to distraction. Somehow he knows that if
only he could get his hands on God ... if only the Almighty would have the
courage to show up and answer for his unjustified suffering ... that then Job
would be justified in his complaint. That was where we left off last Sunday.
Remember that passage from the twenty-third chapter of Job. So different
from that other twenty-third chapter that we know so well - the twenty-third
Psalm. “If I go forward, <God> is not there”, says Job, “or backward, I cannot
perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right,
but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9). So much for “The Lord is my shepherd I
shall not want”. And Job thinks he knows why God is nowhere to be found.
It is because God is afraid to face Job’s questions. Job dreams of having his
day in court. He longs to put the Almighty in the witness box and to put God
under oath.“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even
to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with
arguments ... There an upright person could reason with him and I should be
acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:3-7). Job wants to sue the LORD of
heaven and earth for breach of contract. Job has kept his side of the contract.
He has been faithful and upstanding, keeping all of God’s commandments.
God is at fault and must be held accountable.
Do you see why the ancient book of Job continues to hold such fascination?
No one is sure who wrote this book ... or when ... or where. It is found in the
Old Testament yet nothing about it suggests that Hob is Jewish. He is,
instead, a universal man - everyman and everywoman. This is old, old story
is also as contemporary as yesterday’s news. Job wants to know why good
people suffer terribly. He demands to know why and will not be satisfied
with the theological pablum that is offered up by too many well-meaning
preachers. Their attempts to save God from embarrassment only make things
worse. No wonder, then, that all attention is focussed on the opening line of
the thirty-eighth chapter of Job: “Then the LORD answered Job”.
But this is no gentle LORD with a reassuring pastoral voice. This God
answers Job “out of the whirlwind”. This is a God of awesome force, one
whose voice is tornado-like in its power. There is no still, small voice here.
Nonetheless, Job does receive his wish. He is granted the rare privilege of an
audience with the Maker of the Universe. Alas, his dream of placing God in
the witness box is not to be. Instead, we discover that it is Job who is to
testify. Do you see? For thirty -eight chapters Job has been giving testimony.
He has been telling the truth about what has happened to him and
responding to the questions of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar who, it turns out,
have been playing the roles of cross-examining attorneys. They have been
trying to poke holes in his testimony ... without success. So now they sit
down ... and the courtroom is silent as the judge turns to Yahweh, saying
Poor Job. He has no idea what he is in for. He thinks that he has had a tough
time with the questions of his legalistic friends. But he has never faced a line
of questioning like this. When the Almighty rises Job expects answers. He
gets instead questions ... four chapters of questions. It is a line of questioning
that is perhaps the most beautiful and haunting poetry in the entire Old
Testament ... and that is read but this once in our three year lectionary cycle.
And you don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize what God is up to here.
These questions are meant to establish Job’s credibility as a witness. Job is
questioning the Wisdom of God. He thinks that God is not running the
Universe properly. He is convinced that he has been treated unjustly, that he
has been given a raw deal. So, before getting to the merits of his case,
Yahweh wants the court to hear Job’s credentials. Just what kind of an expert
is Job when it comes to understanding how the world works and what it
means to be the Creator of all things? Listen ...
‘Would the witness please answer this: “Where were you when I laid the
foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements? What is built
on? Who laid the foundation when the morning stars and heavenly beings
shouted for joy on that first day? You were there, were you Job? Just answer
with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ please ... Have you commanded the morning since your
days began? ... Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of
waters may cover you? ... Do you give the horse its might? ... Is it by your
wisdom that the hawk soars and spreads its wings towards the south?”
Job is overcome by the questions. He realizes that he doesn’t know what he is
talking about, that he is no expert when it comes to the mysterious workings
of the universe: “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will
not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (Job 40.4-5) . Job decides to
end the legal proceedings here and now. But he cannot step down from the
witness box. The line of questioning continues. The voice from the whirlwind
continues to press Job: “Look at Behemoth ... Can you take it with hooks or
pierce its nose with a snare? Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? “
In other words, “Job, would you please tell the court if can control even the
most dangerous beasts and darkest forces in the universe? Do you have any
idea what it means to be God or do you only think that you know what
problems the Almighty must contend with?”.
Job is overwhelmed. He no longer awaits an answer. He stammers from the
witness box:“I have uttered what I did not understand ... I had heard of you
by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees you ... therefore I repent in dust
and ashes” (Job 42:2-6). All of which leaves most modern commentators
baffled. This, they say, is an unsatisfying conclusion to the Book of Job. And
these commentators are not alone. Remember a few years back when we
studied Job at University Hill. A number of folk wanted to understand why
bad things happen to good people. They had heard that this is the question at
the centre of the Book of Job and so we decided to spend six weeks reading it
together. You could hear us cheering Job on at the beginning. We liked his
chutzpah ... and wondered how many times that we had offered the same
unsatisfying answers and advice that he receives from his so-called friends.
But when the long awaited voice came from the whirlwind we found
ourselves confounded. What kind of an answer is this? It is just pages and
pages of more questions. God answers by overwhelming Job - and us - with
our ignorance. And we don’t like that ... we especially don’t like that when
our name has the word University in it!
Because, you see, our age is marked by its pride in what we know. We have
uncovered so many secrets of the Universe and made such apparent progress
that we have come to believe that there is nothing that we cannot uncover if
we just put our minds to it. For us there can be nothing quite so unsatisfying
as being told that “You will never understand the answer to your question”.
Which is what the Book of Job leaves, finally, as the answer to Job. It
proclaims that the question of unjust suffering is beyond human
comprehension. It reminds Job - and us - that we are creatures like the horse
and the hawk. We are not the Creator. We cannot comprehend how the
Universe works. Period. End of story. Question answered.
This, of course, means that Job’s friends are also wrong. They keep telling Job
that they understand how the Universe works. Their religious answers are all
carefully worked out. They have studied their Bibles and come quite
prepared to fill in the blanks of Job’s suffering. But notice what the LORD
says to these three friends who thought that they could answer for God: “My
wrath is against you ... for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my
servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Did you hear that? The ones who tried to rescue
God by answering Job ... by trying to make sense of his suffering ... by giving
him the card of condolence that says “It is God’s will” receive the Almighty’s
wrath. But Job speaks the truth. Job who shakes his fist at God ... and who
holds God to account ... and who finally earns an audience with God ...
speaks of God ‘what is right’.
Do you see? We thought that this was a place of answers to the question of
suffering. We thought that the church is here to make it all better, to resolve
the pain and to make sense of the world’s injustice. But it is not. God’s wrath
falls upon the church when it, like Job’s friends, tries to explain away
suffering. Of course, in an age of explanations of age old questions it is very
tempting to fall into the trap of offering up easy answers. Instead we find
ourselves in a community which dares to bring before God the most
perplexing riddles in the Universe. Here we dare to ask the most painful
questions of the most innocent sufferers of the most indescribable torture. We
sit, after all, at the foot of a Cross and can never forget the sight and sound
and smells of terror. And here we find ourselves learning to place trust in a
Creator whose ways are way beyond our comprehension. Here we be
become a people who live in the world as creatures, not as the Creator ...
asking, questioning and wrestling with the Maker ... finally knowing that we
cannot know ... but only trust in the Elusive One whose mercy made us and
still, somehow, sustains us.