Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 18, 2009

2009.10.18 “The Voice from the Whirlwind – The Story of Job, part 3”

Central United Methodist Church

“The Voice from the Whirlwind – The Story of Job, part 3”
Job 38: 1 – 7; 34 – 41
Pastor David L. Haley

October 18th, 2009

 “Then the Unnamable answered Job from within the whirlwind:

Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness?

Stand up now like a man; I will question you: please, instruct me.

Where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me, if you are so wise.

Do you know who took its dimensions, measuring its length with a cord?

What were its pillars built on? Who laid down its cornerstone,

while the morning stars burst out singing and the angels shouted for joy!

If you shout commands to the thunderclouds, will they rush off to do your bidding?

If you clap for the bolts of lightning, will they come and say “Here we are”?

Who gathers up the storm clouds, slits them and pours them out,

turning dust to mud and soaking the cracked clay?

Do you hunt game for the lioness and feed her ravenous cubs,

when they crouch in their den, impatient, or lie in ambush in the thicket?

Who finds her prey at nightfall, when her cubs are aching with hunger?

 (Job 38: 1 – 7, 34 – 41, The Book of Job, by Stephen Mitchell)     

 

     One of the most influential and most performed plays of the last 60 years is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

 

      Just this year, a Broadway revival starring Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin was nominated for 3 Tony Awards. In London, a production starred Sir Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the two lead roles.

 

      In this play, first performed in 1953, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for the arrival of someone named Godot. They claim him as an acquaintance but in fact hardly know him, admitting that they would not recognize him were they to see him. To occupy themselves while they wait, they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide — anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay”. “We’re saved!” they cry on more than one occasion when they feel that Godot may be near, but he never shows up.

 

Although Beckett, who died in 1989, refused to ever say what the play was “really about,” one of the most common interpretations is that the two characters represent the human situation as we wait for God to “show up.” In the post-holocaust age, when six millions Jews were murdered, you can appreciate the question recorded by Elie Wiesel in his famous book, Night, as in a Nazi prison camp – he watched a child die by hanging: “Where is merciful God, where is He?” (Elie Wiesel, Night, translated from the French by Marion Wiesel (Hill and Wang, New York, 2006) p. 64-65.)

 

      As we have seen in the Book of Job, this is not a new question, but a question as old as human beings. It is a question asked by Job after he loses everything: his herds and flocks, his wealth and possessions; his beloved sons and daughters, and finally even his health.

 

When friends arrive to comfort him, they try to answer Job’s question with answers of their own, though their answers, which they think orthodox, Job finds cruel.  He is not the last sufferer to be treated cruelly by so called “comforters,” especially religious ones.

 

His friend Eliphaz, for example, suggests that his suffering just might mean that God was teaching Job a lesson. A modern day Eliphaz might say, “This is all God’s will. God has a reason for this, there’s a reason for everything.”

 

His friend Bildad tells him that if he were pure and upright God would reward him with prosperity, not poverty and suffering; Bildad today, would be a prosperous TV preacher.

 

 And then there’s Job’s friend, Zophar, who goes on the attack and tells Job he’s fortunate he hasn’t received all that God could have given him.  Like a Minnesota Lutheran, Bildad reminds Job, “It could be worse.” Perhaps these comforters are where the phrase came from, “with friends like these, who needs enemies.”

 

Through all of this, through three cycles of speeches and responses, Job maintains his innocence, and pleads for God to only hear his case:

 

             “Oh if only God would hear me,

                   state his case against me,

                   let me read his indictment.

             I would carry it on my shoulder

                   or wear it on my head like a crown.

             I would justify the least of my actions;

   I would stand before him like a prince.”

 

        Then, something amazing happens: unlike Waiting for Godot, God shows up. In Job chapter 38, out of a whirlwind, whether literal or figurative, Job hears God’s voice.  But what God says is not what Job expects.  It’s never what anyone expects.

 

        Some say God’s response reduces itself to something out of the Wizard of Oz: “How dare you question the creator of the world? Shut up now, and submit.”  After several pages of eloquent browbeating, Job can say nothing but what amounts to “Yes sir, Boss. Anything you say.”  You really have to read Job chapters 38 and 39 to seek how satisfactory you think God’s answer to Job is; and whether, if you were in Job’s situation, in would suffice for you.

 

John C. Holbert, who is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, says he remembers the first time he read the speeches of God in the Book of Job. 

 

After not growing up in church, in 1968 he went to seminary, where he grew so enamored of Hebrew that he took 7 semesters of it – two of those given to the study of Job.  As he got into the story, he couldn’t wait to see what God would say.  And then, said Holbert:

 

“As I read chapter 38, I was furious! Job wants answers about the universe’s justice, or lack of it, and God blusters on about the creation: the sea, the dawn, the earth, etc. As the speech progresses, God speaks of the wild creatures of the world, even the ostrich, whose foolishness knows no bounds, but whose speed is wondrous. What are we to make of all this? Job wants justice, and God says, “Have a look at the stupid but fast ostrich!”  I just did not get it.”

 

But Holbert went on to say, that over time, after multiple readings, and much prayer and reflection, he did began to get it.  Says Holbert:

 

“Job and his friends were completely wrong about God. God is simply not in the business of rewarding and punishing human beings. God’s revelation to Job and to us is that the universe is far bigger, far stranger, and far more mysterious than we can imagine. A longer look at the ostrich and the sea and the eagle would help us to begin to see that.”

 

“We would also learn that we are not in creation’s center either. The world is not our oyster, but it is God’s oyster, the God who “brings rain on a land where no one lives, on a desert, empty of human life” (38:26). Why would God do this? Because God is God, and we humans do not determine how God will act, nor are we always the reason for God’s actions. In the end, God is holy and other and fleet. The world is God’s, not ours. Job needed that revelation, and so do we.” (WorkingPreacher.org, June 21, 2009)

 

      The Hebrew Bible scholar Kathleen O’Connor also sees this speech as a turning point in Job’s life, not because God put Job in his place, but because this speech turns the question from Why to Who? God does not answer the question, “Why?” Hope is not found in the answer to the question “Why?” Sometimes there simply is no answer to “Why?”  Life happens, that’s why. The rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike and the sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous alike.” It’s not about Job, any more than it is about us.  Finally, it’s about God.

 

        The truth is, when we suffer, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, we tend to focus upon ourself, our suffering, and our universe shrinks to the boundaries of our skin and psyche.  What God seems to be saying is we need to get out of ourselves, out of the house, out of the hospital, out of the church, and take a good long look at the universe and nature and the world: whether cosmology, meteorology, even zoology, any of those will do.

 

– Go for a walk in the rain.  Don’t go for a walk in, but sit in the car (preferably a storm chaser car) during a Great Plains thunderstorm.

 

– Walk along the ocean, better yet, swim in it: ponder those crashing waves.  Each drop is a part of the ocean; yet the vast ocean is made up of every drop.

 

– Visit a national park, as we all recently did in Ken Burns spectacular series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Be awed by their overwhelming grandeur and majesty.

 

– Take a ride across the African Serengeti and watch the elephants, the giraffes, the wildebeest – as someone said, which God made of leftover parts – and of course observe the mighty lions.  It is the Circle of Life.

 

– Look into the night sky, and consider the stars and infinite space. Go to the Alfred Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, and view “Journey to the Stars.”  Come out and tell me how your perspective has changed, and where do you now see yourself in the order of things.

 

        Perhaps then we will appreciate God’s question to Job: Who are you, Job?  Where were you when I planned the earth?

 

        Job’s first response is awe.  He can barely speak.  He puts his hand over his mouth, appalled at his ignorance.

 

        But now, God – demonstrating conclusively that he/she is Jewish – asks a series of questions, explicitly about good and evil. 

 

        Is this what you really want Job, this moral sense of yours projected on the universe? Do you want a god who is only a larger version of a human judge, rewarding those who don’t realize that virtue is it’s own reward and throwing the wicked into hell?  If that’s the kind of justice you’re looking for, you’ll have to create it yourself.  Because your justice, Job, is not my justice. (Mitchell, xxiii)

 

        Stephen Mitchell argues that what comes next – Job’s final speech – is what gives the book of Job its final meaning.  Mitchell argues that when the King James Version and most other versions present us with a Job who, in his last words, “abhors himself and repents in dust and ashes, they do so on the shakiest of philological grounds, reading their own theology more into than out of it. 

 

        An amazing translator, Mitchell renders Job’s final words this way:

 

“I know that you can do all things

                        and nothing you wish is impossible.

I have spoken of the unspeakable

                        and tried to grasp the infinite.

I had heard of your with my ears;

                        but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I will be quiet,

comforted that I am dust.”

 

Job’s final words, says Mitchell, issue not from surrender; but from submission. The difference is this: Surrender is always a power transaction, between slave and master or defeated and conqueror, and always a mode of spiritual depression; there is no joy involved.  For some of us, our faith may have begun that way, it may even still be that way.

 

Submission, on the contrary, means the wholehearted giving-up of oneself. It is both the ultimate generosity and the ultimate poverty, because in it the giver becomes the gift. It is what Jesus was talking about when he said, “For the Son of Man has come, not to be served, but to serve.”

 

When Job says, “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you,” he is no longer a servile God-fearer, only for what good it will bring him or what hell it will keep him out of.  He has faced evil, has looked straight into its face and through it, into a vast wonder and love. (Mitchell, xxvii, xxviii) It will not be the last time in the Bible that love will be seen through suffering.

 

Job has let go of everything, and surrendered into the Light.

 

So also, my dear friends, must we.  So also must we.

 

[I acknowledge my debt to The Book of Job (Translated and with an Introduction) by Stephen Mitchell.  It is on my list of recommended books, and may be purchased on Amazon.com through our church website at www.skokiecentralumc.org, which enables a portion of your purchase to go to our church.]

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