by David Baer, August 17, 2016
Text: Job 31:35-37,38:1-11
There is much, much more to the world than we can possibly imagine. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, at the end of the first act, after Hamlet has seen a vision of his dead father, begging Hamlet to avenge him, and upending everything Hamlet thought he knew about his family, Hamlet says to his friend, “There are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Things are often more than they seem. Again and again, I’m astounded to find out something new about nature. I learned something about how trees work in high school biology, I learned about how they make their food through photosynthesis, and how they have special kinds of tissue to pull water upward from the ground. And I basically thought I understood trees. But as an adult I learned something that just astounded me. Trees need fungus. They need it. In many forests, trees can’t get the nutrients they need to grow without a particular kind of fungus that grows on their roots. The fungus helps them recycle nutrients like phosphates from dead leaves. When you walk through a forest and see fungus growing alongside trees, understand that this isn’t a coincidence. These organisms need each other. They’re connected, and without this relationship we wouldn’t have forests.
Maybe you’ve experienced something like this. Maybe you can remember a moment when you discovered something amazing about nature that just completely blew your mind. When you were a kid, and you learned that giant lizards walked the earth millions and millions of years before you born, that was an awesome feeling, wasn’t it? Or maybe you planted a seed with your mom or dad and watched something still and plain and dead to all appearances grow into a beautiful, colorful flower. Have you ever just thought about all the chemical reactions that are going on every second in your body, all of them absolutely essential to keep you alive? Have you held a newborn child in your hands as she took her first breaths? And these are all experiences that come from a very tiny corner of an inconceivably vast universe, which I can’t help but believe contains beauties and wonders beyond anything we could ever imagine. There are more things in heaven and on earth…
This summer we’ve been exploring the story of Job, a man who struggles under the weight of immense undeserved suffering. It’s important for understanding the story to remember that, just like the parables that Jesus crafted, the book of Job is a story, not history. It’s important, because it allows us to believe the story’s premise that Job is really innocent, that he didn’t do anything to deserve losing his children and his property and his health. Job’s companions—I’m not sure they deserve to be called “friends”!—try to convince him that he must have done something wrong, but Job steadfastly refuses to deny what he knows to be true. We have heard Job crying out in lament and protest to God, and we saw that this way of praying is open to us, too, when we feel angry or confused or disappointed with God because of what we’re experiencing. Last week we heard Job’s desperate hope that God would remember him in his distress, using that rich and weighty word, remember. In the scriptures, when God remembers Noah and his floating zoo, when God remembers the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, God isn’t simply preserving their past, but getting ready to give them a new future. Job hopes that God’s goodness is not exhausted for him.
The most heartbreaking thing Job cried out for in our text last week was his desire to see God, to behold with his own eyes the one he held responsible for everything that had happened to him, and the one who continued to be his source of hope. Job’s suffering was compounded because, for the time being, God was nowhere to be found. This week’s reading picks up on this cry.
Job must have had some experience with the law, because his words echo the language used in ancient courtrooms. The beginning part of chapter 31, which we had to skip, shows Job giving the equivalent of a deposition or sworn statement. He’s testifying to the fact that he hasn’t done anything wrong, invoking curses on himself if he’s not telling the truth. In the verses we heard, Job demands a formal indictment, to show him exactly what he did to deserve all the bad things that have happened to him. But the problem is that God is the only one who can answer this complaint, and God can’t be summoned to court like an ordinary defendant.
But as we skip forward, we see that Job’s prayer has borne fruit. God answers out of the whirlwind. But it’s not the kind of answer Job was expecting, was it? Job wanted something like a hearing in a court of law where he could prove his innocence, but today he can’t get a word in edgewise, as God subjects him to a relentless cross-examination.
“Gird up your loins like a man,” says God. (One Biblical scholar translates this, “Hike up your big-boy pants.”) “I will ask you questions, so that you can educate me.” And then it’s almost as though God draws Job into the whirlwind as they tour the creation, starting with the beginning. Were you there, God asks, in a haunting and lyrical phrase, “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” And then they’re off…
For reasons of time, we skipped a lot of God’s words in the reading this morning, but God seems to show special delight in showing Job scenes like a rainstorm in a desert, where no human beings or their crops are present to drink the water. Or fierce and wild creatures like wild donkeys and horses, which God seems to brag about like a parent brags about their children. We might be inclined to be afraid of hungry lions and birds of prey, but they are God’s creatures too, and they need to eat. So God asks, “Who provides their food?” God provides for them, of course, which sounds nice until you realize, other animals have to die in order for these creatures to be fed! At one point God starts riffing about a creature called “Leviathan,” which sounds like a kind of giant crocodile: “I will not keep silence concerning its limbs, or its mighty strength, or its splendid frame. Who can strip off its outer garment? Who can penetrate its double coat of mail? Who can open the doors of its face? There is terror all around its teeth.” And God says that like it’s a good thing! God is pleased at having made such a fierce and dangerous creature, one that destroys everyone who challenges it. “Isn’t it awesome?” asks God. This whirlwind tour reveals a creation that is vast, beautiful, and anything but safe. There are more things in heaven and on earth…
Job’s complaint was that what was happening to him wasn’t reasonable. It wasn’t fair. The fact that someone like him who hadn’t done anything wrong could suffer these terrible things didn’t fit with his ideas of justice and equity. He couldn’t make sense of it. He wanted to confront God, and he thought God would back down. He thought God would bend to Job’s ideas of what was fair and reasonable. Instead, he finds himself on a wild ride through time and space with a Creator who sounds fiendishly proud of having made such a fearsome, chaotic universe. But if we listen closely, we also hear a God who cares deeply for the whole creation—and not just the human part of it. God is compassionate, but God sees the creation from a wider angle than we do. There are more things in heaven and on earth…
Biblical scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker says that God “would probably fail a present-day pastoral care class.”1 God’s lecture in response to Job’s complaint violates everything we rightly expect about normal human relationships. We might want to remember that this isn’t the only picture the scriptures give us of God drawing alongside suffering human beings. The psalms tell us that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). That famous shortest verse of scripture, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35), shows Jesus grieving right alongside his friends. And the testimony of all four of the gospels is that Jesus died on the cross. Through Jesus, God enters right into the middle of our brokenness. These scriptures also tell us something true about God. The book of Job is not the whole story.
But it’s an important story. It de-centers us. From our limited point of view, the way the world works can seem cruel and disorganized. That was Job’s complaint. And it’s an accurate observation, from where he sits. But when you zoom out, when you start to look at things from a God’s-eye view, there is a kind of savage beauty and even order that emerges. And there is grace and freedom to be found in taking God’s invitation to live as part of the larger world.
I’ll never forget one segment I heard on a call-in advice show. The host responded to a message left by a woman who had left no name or contact information. It was an absolutely heartbreaking plea for help. Between sobs, the woman said that the man she was engaged to had died, and she asked, “How do I go on? How do I live after this?” And the advice she got was beautiful, compassionate, and at the same time de-centering. I am so sorry, the host said. No one deserves to suffer what you’re going through. Find a support group, he said. Find others who are living a similar story, so that you don’t feel so alone. Understand that you will probably not ever fully heal from this, but one day you will rediscover laughter and joy. And then came the de-centering part of his response—he said something like this: the reason you are experiencing so much pain and so much sadness is that you took a risk. You opened yourself up to love, and when you did that you made yourself vulnerable to loss. Immense grief is the flip-side of great love. A life that is open to love is a risky life, but at the same time it is so much more rich and beautiful than one that isn’t. The things that make us vulnerable to pain are the same things that make our life worth living.
Living in God’s world is not free of risk, as Job knew all too well. But his story invites us not just to embrace the risk, but the beauty, the majesty, the awesomeness of the world God made. Job never did get the answer he was looking for, and much of the hurt we experience may also be wrapped up in mystery and silence. But Job did get one thing that he wished for: God showed up. God spoke to him and invited him to step back, to consider the larger story that his hurt and his suffering were part of. I don’t know whether that was comforting to Job, but as we’ll see next week, the fact that God showed up meant more than anything to him. Not in the way he wanted. Not with the answer he wanted. But God showed up, wild and fierce with compassion for the whole of creation. Big enough to throw lightning bolts and caring enough to feed the ravens and lions. But the point is that God showed up.
When you are hurting like Job, my prayer for you is that you might find the places in your life where God is showing up. The surprises that come from children in our families, in our church, and in our neighborhoods. An breathtaking natural vista. A friend who shows up at a time you most need some company. A beautiful piece of music. And whatever your circumstance, whatever life may throw at you, may you find freedom and grace and beauty in being part of God’s world. Amen.
Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Job 38:1-7 [34-41].” workingpreacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1456. Accessed 08/14/2016.