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 Knowing the Unknowable

Sermon - 10/28/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Job 38:1-11, 16-18

We're looking at the story of Job. Last week, I looked at the introduction to Job, and this week I'm going to look at the conclusion of Job, and I realize that leaves an awful lot out in-between. So I'm going to try to cover some of that this morning, to give a little sense of the entire story of Job.

As we talked about last week, Job begins by telling us in no uncertain terms that Job is innocent. He does not deserve that which is about to happen to him. So the story reads much like a John Grisham novel. You know the defendant is not guilty. And you know who the guilty party is -- it's God! Right? But the problem is, how do you defend Job without blaming God (the chief law-giver)? How would you go about doing that? It's very problematic.

And it plays itself much like a courtroom drama. Witnesses taking the stand in defense of God, questioned by Job. Job taking the stand in defense of himself, questioned by his supposed 3 friends (back and forth it goes). And then near the end, like any good Perry Mason story, trial drama, there's a surprise witness who appears -- Elihou. Not mentioned previously, lays out his case, and then disappears and is not mentioned again. The whole point of Elihou is to refute both Job and his friends because they haven't adequately explained God's role in all this. Most scholars believe that Elihou actually reflects a later tradition that was inserted into the story of Job by one of our ancestors of faith who was not satisfied with the answers provided in Job.

When you read these speeches by each of these 5 principal characters, as well as that of God that comes at the conclusion, you don't get the sense that you're listening-in on some intimate conversation that occurs in the living room of Jobs home. That's not it at all. It begins with the 3 friends of Job coming and sitting with him just in silence, just to be with him. And so they get that right, at least that much -- they come to be with him, to share with him in his suffering and his pain. It's when they open their mouths that the problem starts :) They say things that no one would want their own friends to say.

When the speaking finally starts, it goes on for 35 chapters before we even get to the testimony of God. That's longer than any of the 4 gospels take to describe the entire life of Jesus! So, Job is the first to break the silence, and he begins with a lengthy lament, and I'll just read the introduction to it in chapter 3:

After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. 2Job said: 
3 ‘Let the day perish on which I was born,
   and the night that said,
   “A man-child is conceived.” 
4 Let that day be darkness!
   May God above not seek it,
   or light shine on it. 
5 Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
   Let clouds settle upon it;
   let the blackness of the day terrify it. 
6 That night—let thick darkness seize it!
   let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
   let it not come into the number of the months. 
7 Yes, let that night be barren;
   let no joyful cry be heard in it. 

Do you get the sense Job wishes he had never been born? He's really laying if on pretty thick.

So, if you had lost all of your possessions, you've lost your entire family, your children, your grandchildren, you're covered from head to foot in sores, you're living in pain and suffering, would you be so inspired by your suffering that you would suddenly break out into a Shakespearean sonnet to describe the depth of your pain? Well, maybe.

The friends to Job respond themselves with very lengthy speeches, defending the ways of God. So, for instance, Eliphaz, one of the friends in chapter 5 says:

8 ‘As for me, I would seek God,
and to God I would commit my cause.
9 He does great things and unsearchable,
marvelous things without number.
10 He gives rain on the earth
and sends waters on the fields;
11 he sets on high those who are lowly,
and those who mourn are lifted to safety.
12 He frustrates the devices of the crafty,
so that their hands achieve no success.
13 He takes the wise in their own craftiness;
and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.
14 They meet with darkness in the daytime,
and grope at noonday as in the night.
15 But he saves the needy from the sword of their mouth,
from the hand of the mighty.
16 So the poor have hope,
and injustice shuts its mouth.


17 ‘How happy is the one whom God reproves;
therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.*
18 For he wounds, but he binds up;
he strikes, but his hands heal.

Oh, if only that were so!, Job says. You know, this all sounds wonderful, but it's really just a lot of platitudes about God and Job wants to know where's the proof? His life is a testimony to the opposite.

And so the friends just give the conventional wisdom about God. Whereas in Job, we hear the pain of anyone who has suffered unfairly, and is victimized by some terrible injustice. We here in Job's voice that universal cry of anguish: "Why God, why? Why me?". And then the friends respond with this conventional wisdom full of all its platitudes of the goodness of God, saying: "Well, no one is truly innocent. We're all guilty Job". And another one of the friends says: "Know that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves". And this, from a friend! You had it coming Job, you might as well admit it, right? With friends like that. . . .

Their claim is 'God would not do this to you if you did not deserve it'. It's Karma. We all get what's coming to us. And furthermore, they say, it's blasphemous to question the ways of God. So jus accept, Job, that God is just and fair, and therefore you had it coming. Anybody want a friend like that?

Job's response is an emphatic "No!". He insists that he is innocent. And therefore, it is God who is unfair and unjust. And, if God is just and good as we all claim God to be, then at least God will answer his complaint and explain what Job has done to deserve this suffering. So does this sound familiar at all? Is that not the universal desire of all who feel that they are suffering unfairly, unjustly? Explain yourself God. And so we want to know "Why me?" What have I done to deserve this?

Speaking of prolonged suffering, the election comes to an end in about 9 days :) This too will pass :) I have to tell you, I thought, I really thought with both of the vice-presidential candidates being good, devout Catholics, and one presidential contender being a devout Mormon and the other being a supposed protestant (but we all know that secretly he's a closeted Muslim born in Kenya, right? :), that at least religion would become a hot topic in this election campaign. And so I've been sorely disappointed and yet strangely pleased that it actually has not been. Disappointed because I love the topic -- I mean, religion and politics, that's almost up there with the Ducks :). But pleased, because the religious affiliation of the candidates should not be an issue. That's why the constitution of the United States specifically says (and the only time religion is mentioned, other than in the first amendment), that "there shall be no religious test of any candidate for public office".  So good for us that we have not made this an issue as some feared that it might be.

So in a sense, God has been left out of the campaign. Bless Richard Mourdock, candidate for U.S. Senate in Indiana (you know where this is going :). He was asked about abortion in cases of rape, and to his credit, he did not deny (as did another candidate for the Senate, earlier) that there was not an issue by claiming that the natural defenses of the woman's body wouldn't protect a woman from getting pregnant in that horrible situation (which is of course absurd, just plain wrong). Instead, Mr. Mourdock was quite honest and forthright in sharing publicly his faith, that after much personal struggle, he had to conclude that because life is a gift from God, "Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen".

Well, so God was brought into the election debate kicking and screaming :) But nevertheless, it sparked a conversation (and the inevitable firestorm that followed, including an apology from Mr. Mourdock for his poor choice of words), because it implied to some that he was suggesting that therefore the the rape was intended by God, and that's a little problematic.

National Public Radio ran a story this week with an evangelical journalist, Amy Sullivan, who writes for the New Republic, exploring some of the theology behind his remarks. The interviewer is Steve Inskeep, he asks: "There's also this broader notion, trying to figure out why horrible things happen in the world. Isn't it fairly common for people to ask 'Why did God bring this hurricane? Why did I crash my car? Why did my mother die?'" Those are questions right out of Job! And they're being discussed on National Public Radio!

Sullivan responds: "People have been asking that for all of human history, and it's something that we really have no answer for". I wish they'd ask me :) Why don't they ever ask me?! I would have had an answer. She continues: "So people continue to debate it and to argue about it. I think this fits in, as well, as it fits in with frankly a very long Jewish tradition and Christian tradition of believing that God can bring goodness out of bad things, out of even evil things". Yeah, that's right.

Inskeep: "So you feel that's what Richard Mourdock meant when he was answering this question about why he opposes abortion even in the cases of rape"?" Sullivan: "It seemed pretty clear to me that he was saying that he had done a lot of thinking about it, and he could not get around the idea that if a life had been created, that that was was something God wanted to come into being".

Well now, at least we've got the basis for a good theological discussion here. And with Mourdock I would have to agree -- life is a gift from God. The problem comes when you couple that with the belief that life begins as conception, then you are inevitably led to the conclusion that a conception that came about through a rape is something God intended. And you see, that's a little bit problematic.

It would be all fine-and-good if a woman who has such a belief chooses of her own free will to carry such a pregnancy to term, because that would be her choice. But to impose such a religious belief on every woman in that horrible situation, by the power of the state, is not simply a violation of the separation of church and state, it is the definition of state-sponsored immorality. Perpetuating an injustice imposed upon a woman against her will violently, and denying her constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as she sees it [applause from the congregation].

So, Sullivan concludes that the problem here is bad theology. But whether it's good or bad, any theology put into law will inevitably lead to bad law. And bad theology leads to even worse law. So the example that Mr. Mourdock has unwittingly provided us here precisely illustrates the dilemma of Job. When bad things happen to good people, is that the will of God? And then you see, you end up justifying the rape or any other bad thing as the will of God.

And you see, Job demands an answer. As have countless others long before Job, and long after. And finally, God himself takes the stand in God's defense, and says in chapter 38:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 
2 ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
   I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 

4 ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
   Tell me, if you have understanding. 
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
   Or who stretched the line upon it? 
6 On what were its bases sunk,
   or who laid its cornerstone 
7 when the morning stars sang together
   and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

8 ‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?— 
9 when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors, 
11 and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”? 

16 ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
   or walked in the recesses of the deep? 
17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
   or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? 
18 Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
   Declare, if you know all this.

 

Any questions?! Yeah, I've got a few! Like, answer the original question, God! Even though God chastises Job's friends for not believing in Job's innocence and for saying false things about God, remember that when you read the defense of God that the friends give about how good God is, about how God is just and fair -- in the end, the pronouncement is, all those arguments are false.

And even in spite of that, and Job's fortune is restored (God gives him a new family), God never offers in the story any explanation for the suffering of Job, or anyone else. So in the end, we are still left with the fundamental question of why bad things happen to good people? And so the first lesson of Job is that questioning is very much a part of our faith. For Job dares to question God -- Job even dares to shake his fist at God. And yet lives to tell the tale of his encounter with God, and is praised by God for his integrity and his faith.

You see, part of the point of this non-answer given by God out of the whirlwind is that God is bigger than any of our questions. And therefore we should not fear asking those hard questions of God, for God can take it.

Indeed, as Job discovers, it is in asking those hard questions we may just find ourselves face-to-face with God, who also may then have a few questions for us (are we ready for those?). The point is that it is in our willingness to face those questions that we also face God, and thereby deepen our faith.

The second insight we gain from God's lofty response to Job is this dramatic shift in the perspective. Job sees the world from his limited perspective. And then God gives him this higher perspective. And even if God does not give Job a satisfactory answer to all his questions, God does give Job this new perspective that helps him to see his place in the larger web of life, that dwarfs his self-centered concerns.

Tom Hayden, the antiwar activist of the late 1960s, turned politician in the 1980s, elected to the California Senate, wrote his reflections in the 1990s, titled "The Lost Gospel of the Earth", in which he comments on the story of Job. He concludes that this encounter of Job with the divine causes Job to be born-again, "Converted from an ego-centered to an eco-centered consciousness, based in this new awe for creation and mystery and the wonder of the world". And Haydon, who was a former rabble-rouser (arrested, you may remember, at the Democratic national convention in 1968, trying to disrupt it) offers his lesson from Job's epiphany: "We need a spiritual base to sustain ourselves as human beings. I have come to the conclusion that being spiritual is not a matter of choice on a menu of selections, but a matter of understanding that we are spiritual. It is part of being human to be connected to eternity and it's cycles, to a living creation, something larger than ourselves".

And that is precisely the message of Job. That we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. The real meaning of our lives, with all of it's grief and joy, can only be seen from a much larger perspective where the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly, are woven into one harmonious whole in the tapestry of God.

Third, we learn from Job's example that mature, authentic relationships with God are not based in a system of rewards and punishments (do good and God rewards you, do evil and God punishes you). But rather, the deepest faith in God offers minimum protection and maximum support. In other words, God offers no guarantees against accidents or disease, injury or heartbreak. What God does offer is presence -- that you will not have to face any adversity alone.

And lastly, to answer the proverbial question: learning from Job in my own experience of tragedy, I can only conclude that bad things happen to good people not for some greater purpose, not to teach us a lesson, not to test are faith (though we may gain and learn from those bad experiences -- good can come out of them, that is the power of God, that is the power of the transformation of the cross, that even death can be transformed into new life), but that is not the purpose, that is not God doing those things to us, so that that will happen (though it sometimes may be the result).

No, bad things happen simply because bad people are intent on doing evil. Sometimes they happen because we don't take adequate precautions. Because we build buildings in the floodplains, or not adequately to stand up to hurricanes. Sometimes bad things happen because we make bad choices and put ourselves in dangerous situations.

And sometimes bad things happen just because of the randomness of life. And I know that may be the hardest of all to accept. But you see, war kills innocent people. Not because they deserve it. Disease takes innocent lives, not to teach them a lesson. Hurricanes and earthquakes do not care how good you are. Airbags do not deploy to save only the righteous. God does not choose who lives and who dies on any given day. There is no divine scorecard to determine how long you will walk on this earth.

The ultimate message of Job is to teach us to appreciate the special-ness, in part because of the fragility, of life. To know the beauty, even with the ugliness of the world. And to see in all of it the goodness of God, even in the midst of unexplainable evil.

For only in the dark do we appreciate the gift of life. Only in the midst of war do we know and understand the true gift of peace. Only in death do we fully comprehend the meaning of life.

Such is just the beginning of what we have to learn from the wonderful wisdom of Job.

 


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