A Scary Story
| Job 38
||Sun, October 19, 2003
Rev. Doug Goodwin
|You know, when I hear God’s speech it reminds me of one of those profound phrases that leaps out every once in a while and sticks in your memory, that seems to sum up something deep, something important, something true. Here it is: “If you call on God, God will answer… and it will scare the hell out of you.”
I used to have it tacked up to my file cabinet where I could see it from my desk. I kept it posted beside the first note my young son ever wrote to me, a message in big red crayon which read, “Stoopid Dad.” Be mighty wary if you ask for the truth from your children; you might get it. Be even more careful if you ask God to speak to you; God just might.
And if God does, it might not be something you want to hear; it might be something you need to hear.
Job wants to hear some kind of vindication. He wants God to admit that he is an upright man, a good man, one undeserving of the suffering he suffered. That isn’t an unreasonable request. We know that God does think Job is OK; that’s what got Job into this trouble in the first place. God thought Job was so upright that he made a bet with Satan that Job would remain upright no matter what happened.
God knows Job is upright; Job knows Job is upright; we know Job is upright… so why doesn’t God just come right out and do what Job asks? What would be the harm? “You’re right, Job, you are innocent; you don’t deserve any of what happened to you. I just had a bet going with Satan, that’s all… and I won! Thanks a lot! You made a lot of bookies happy up here in the heavens.”
It would have been so easy. It would have been true. Why not just say it? But God doesn’t.
Job’s friends argued that if Job was suffering it was because he was being punished; he had done something wrong, probably lots of things wrong, and he was only getting his just rewards. When Job protested his innocence they became very profound and pointed out that his very protests showed arrogance and a lack of humility which, of course, were sins in themselves. Even as he argued his innocence, they smiled, Job was proving more and more his sin! A pretty clever argument. No wonder Job got peeved at them.
Of course we know the friends were wrong. We know it and the first ones to tell the story of Job knew it. You don’t suffer because you are being punished. It doesn’t take a long book in the Bible to know that the innocent suffer. The newspaper Friday told the story of children as young as four working as slaves in some African mine. I still picture leading worship while looking down at the coffin of Jeremy, a twelve year old who suffocated in a few inches of snow, at his mother bravely smiling, saying goodbye, his father in a trance. Pain and suffering is not punishment at the hands of God.
No, the friends of Job are not hard to dismiss. Harder to dismiss is Job himself. Job, after sitting on the ash pile and scraping at his sores long enough, is more profound than his friends. He knows the innocent suffer… because he is one of them. He knows there is not a strict correspondence between what you do in this life and what you get as a result. He did good and received evil. And it makes him mad. And it makes him rage. And although he never really comes right out to curse God like his wife recommends, he comes darn close.
Job’s friends claim there should be justice, balance, good for good and evil for evil in the world… and that there is. Job argues that there should be justice, balance, good for good and evil for evil in the world… and that there isn’t. And he is right.
Job is a modern hero, picking a fight with God because God does not return good for good and evil for evil… because, in fact, God is not just. God is not just. At the heart of the universe, at the centre of all that is, at that point where there is only what is really real, there is no justice. “Just stand before me, God,” Job shouts, “and I will make you admit it!” And we tremble with fear because we know Job is right.
Now, if the story of Job was written in the year 2003 or so it would be on television, and this would be the exact point where there is a freeze frame and that little title would appear, “Continued Next Week.” I have watched enough episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to know that right when there is no way out and the fate of our lives and the whole world hang in the balance, for some reason it takes a week to move the plot forward. But Ed is back next week and he won’t want to preach just the last half of a sermon so I had better move on myself.
So we finally get to that part of the story that I read some minutes ago. Job demanded God answer… and maybe he didn’t really expect it and maybe he was just as surprised as you or I would have been… but God did answer. So back to my original warning: if you call upon God, God will answer… and it will scare the hell out of you.
Because God didn’t answer meekly. God didn’t answer with shame, or confession, or repentance. God didn’t respond with a sympathetic ear, or a kind, pastoral hug, or the way we were taught to respond to such things: “I hear you say that you are angry. Let us embrace the anger.”
No, God speaks out of a whirlwind, from the midst of a storm… and I do not think it would be far wrong to picture one of those Hollywood concoctions where thick, black, almost living darkness swirls and twists and uproots trees and hurls cows through the air. And out of all that noise and commotion and chaos comes that booming voice, “Who is this that darkens counsel?” Who is this that is even darker than this dark storm? Who is this that knows nothing about anything? Talk about a bad bedside manner.
God knows who it is. God hasn’t been asleep through this whole story and only now woken up a bit confused and dazed or something. God knows this person. God pointed him out to Satan, called him by name, way back in chapter one. God responded to his plea to come and speak. God knows who this Job is, so imagine the power of these words, “Who is this?” Your mother or your father looking at you angrily: “I don’t recognize you. I don’t know you.”
If God went to VST God never would have graduated from Pastoral Care 101. Probably been kicked out.
Job demands an accounting. God comes in a whirlwind, cuts off all knowledge of one he once placed a bet on, and then for the next four long chapters pounds Job sarcastically with more or less the same question: “where were you when…?”
Where were you when the very foundations of the earth were laid? Where were you when the waters were pushed back to form seas and dry land? Where were you when light was created, snow first formed? Where were you when the stars and constellations were lovingly placed in the skies? How many lightening bolts have you tossed? Have you been to the bottom of the oceans? Do you have any clue why ostrich’s act the way they do, how to make a mighty horse, how to soar like an eagle? Do you have any inkling why those creepy monsters Behemoth and Leviathan even exist? All they do is scare you; they aren’t good for anything. You can hardly even comprehend them.
I didn’t read all those parts earlier but trust me, God says it, more or less like that.
God just lays it on. I read all of chapter 38 because I wanted you to get a feel of it, one thing after another, just building up… and I only read one of the four chapters where God speaks in pretty well the same tone. “Where were you?” “Do you know anything?” “Who the hell do you think you are?” God says it a bit more politely but that’s basically it.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” That’s from the book of Hebrews, a verse, by the way, that the lectionary decides to skip. We don’t even read it once every three years. Never. Too scary, maybe… but something that Job would have well understood.
Scary to be in the hands of God…but not because God is mean or punishing or arbitrary or cruel. Listen to what God is saying… and not saying. God is not condemning Job. God is not punishing Job; God is not calling Job a mere worm or helpless wretch or worthless lump of quivering flesh or anything like that. God is simply speaking the truth. It is fearful to be in the hands of God because God speaks the truth.
It was not that Job was wrong about his innocence. We know he wasn’t wrong. The story tells us he wasn’t wrong. God knows he wasn’t wrong. It is just that Job got caught up, like his friends did, like we do, in his own, little, limited story. He got stuck in his own, little story. It looked like a big story. After all, he lost children, wealth, home, health. What more is there? What bigger story could there be?
Well, apparently there is one… and it has something to do with the creation of the foundations of the world… and it has something to do with the way the stars and constellations were first placed in the sky… and it has something to do with the way the mother lion brings home enough of the prey so her cubs can feed and grow and become adults and have their own offspring. Apparently it is such a big story that there is no need to even mention Job in it… or any other person, for that matter; a story about a desert where no one ever walks yet where rain nevertheless falls to nourish grass which will never be seen and never eaten, no human purpose for it, yet still it happens.
Job’s world was centred on the conviction that he was innocent, and that justice demanded that balance be restored. And God never says that is a bad idea. But it is not big enough. That story is too small. The God of that story is too small… an idol, really, more like the Egyptian goddess named Ma’at, a name meaning “justice” or “balance”, a god visualized holding scales, the scales of justice, the god of “evil deserves evil and good deserves good.” Not the God that speaks to Job.
That God is much much bigger. That God created the heavens and the earth. That God watches over a universe where everything from the stars of Orion’s belt to the helpless baby ravens being fed by their mother are included, from the mighty monster Leviathan blowing smoke through its nostrils to the silly, wildly strutting ostrich that allows its eggs to get trampled on.
Job’s story is too small… just as ours usually is. Job thought the world revolved around him… just as we do. Job was sure justice for him was the meaning of the universe… just like us. The whirlwind calls him into a bigger story, a story as big as creation itself, a story that begins and is sustained and one day will end right where it began, in the womb of the creative grace of God.
I was called to the home of a young mother. When I arrived she was surrounded by friends and family, trying desperately to comfort her after the crib death of her baby. I tried, too. That was my job… not one I was good at then or now… so I gave up comfort and, because I had two young children at home, I felt deeply pained so I guess a bit of truth squeezed out of me, and I asked her, “do you know the story of Job?” And I still vividly remember how intensely she listened as I told it, as if her sanity or perhaps even her life depended on it.
I doubt it provided any comfort to her… and I wouldn’t recommend it as a pastoral strategy… but in such a situation what words can you say? All you can really do is tell a story big enough to encompass life and death, innocence and innocent suffering. You can’t really give “answers”, can you? All you can really do is tell a truthful story… and Job is one of the most truthful stories I know.
It is not unlike that other story we know, and think we know so well that we sometimes feel a bit bored with it and look for something new and fresh and trendy. Because the story of the cross begins “in the beginning” in the heart of a loving God, and proceeds to embrace the whole world, including its births, its innocent suffering, its pain, its death in the body of the man, Jesus, and ends not filled with death but empty – an empty cross – with all that life and pain, birth and death, caught up once again in the loving, grace-filled, creative heart of God.
It’s a big story. It’s a scary story, scary because it is truthful, scary because it means your life… scary because it calls you always to enter into and claim as your own.
Thanks be to God.