Sunday, October 25, 2009

On Speaking Without Understanding

On Speaking Without Understanding

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 25 , 2009

Job 42:1-17

[God said]: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”
[Job said]: Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

Some things in the world are so familiar to us that we no longer see them. The air we breathe is essential to us during every moment of our lives, yet days, perhaps months go by without our consciously remarking on the miracle of respiration, the exchange of oxygen in the lungs to keep us alive. Take a breath. There it is again, the miracle of air! No other planet we know of has it. Yet every time we need some, there it is for the breathing.

The blink of the eyes; I have read somewhere that the normal rate of blinking is 20 times per minute. It is necessary to sweep and wash the eye surface with this frequency to keep it functioning. Still, at the rate of 20 per minute, 1,200 times an hour, how often do we stop to consider this miracle of our nature for the lifelong health and use of our means of seeing the world? Yet here we all are, fanning each other with the 300 or so blinks we will each blink during this sermon.

Some things, many things, are just so there in the world, so ubiquitously present that we no longer even take note of them. Who grew the orange from which our morning juice was squeezed today? Who, decades ago, fashioned the pews on which we sit today? Who toils through the night and the wee hours of the morning to bring us our morning paper? Who picked the beans that made our morning coffee possible, and under what conditions?

G.K. Chesterton, early twentieth-century journalist, novelist, and Christian apologist, once wrote “[Our] age needs first and foremost to be taught the nature of wonder...” He believed this was best accomplished through religious faith which could “provide that longest and strangest telescope — the telescope through which we could see the star on which we dwelt.”1 More importantly, Chesterton helped his readers to recognize that “it is the gift of the strangest of all religions, Christianity, to reveal that our existence on this star is a chronic miracle, with further miracles in store.”2

I like that way of seeing it: life as “chronic miracle.” Chesterton is probably all but unknown to most readers today. It’s a pity. As Western Civilization continues to move into what some have called a “post-Christian” period, Chesterton was just the sort of person who could write of the mystery of our faith in such a way that its very mystery served to draw us in closer. Contemplation and enjoyment of mystery is a task of all religious people. Dead, lifeless, unquestioned certainties are foreign to a faith that is alive and percolating.

In our reading today, Job repeated a question the Lord asked of him in our text from last week: “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”3 then answered, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” This reminds me, in this election season, of a question once put to another early twentieth century thinker, Will Rogers. He was spotted listening to a politician on the stump one day, and someone asked him what the man was speaking about. “I don't know,” Rogers replied, “he doesn’t say.”

If we have been paying attention to the readings the past 3 weeks, we will remember having heard Job raging, angry, intemperate, at the suggestions from his so-called friends that the purpose of religious faith is to drown out uncertainty, to stifle inquiry, to forbid doubt and questioning. Job’s persistent questioning challenges sophomoric faith, pat religious sloganeering. The purpose of religious faith is not to stifle questions, and religious people, it turns out, are allowed, as Job was, to call out to God and shake their fists at the sky. What would be a better response from the families of those who died on 9/11 and in the battles that have followed? And Job simply would not have any of it. He knew, several centuries before before Paul wrote those famous words, what it was to see the world “through a glass darkly.”4 The author of Job created a character who still speaks for everyone who encounters suffering and tragedy in life and has the temerity to ask, “Why?” Job asked it, even though, toward the end, he despaired of ever receiving an intellectually honest answer.

As long as I am bringing up twentieth century writers and thinkers, I want to cite briefly from Swiss theologian Karl Barth, author of thirteen massive volumes in dense German of a work he called Church Dogmatics. In a small, much less intimidating book, carrying the delightfully upside down title, God’s Search for Man, Barth warned against seeking a little god whose answers always fit our questions. He wrote, “Were we to hear only of a God who, fortunately for him, measures up to our rule and is able to do what we can also do ourselves without Him, what need have we of such a god? Whenever the church has told [people] of such a tiresome little god it has grown empty. That radical daring, our yearning for the living God, will not be denied.”5

We are like Job, even though we may not often recognize it. I often include in my prayers, both public and private, the phrase, “hear especially the prayers we should have made, had we been wise.” It is a prayer from the same spirit behind this difficult story. Job’s “why” questions of God were about justice; God’s answers are about omnipotence, as God apparently chose to answer the questions that Job should have asked, had he been wise. But make no mistake, God honors Job’s asking, his clear-eyed view that we inhabit a world where blessing and curse are not often all that far removed from one another.

Some religious folks try to stretch inadequate answers to fit big questions. Why was my husband, the fire fighter, on duty that day the World Trade Center towers fell on him? Job’s friends respond, “Perhaps he sinned, and this was his punishment for sin.” Don’t like that answer? Me either.

Why are thousands of minority Christian people being murdered when they find themselves running for their lives from armed gangs in the Darfur region of Africa? One TV evangelist responds, “For some reason, God allowed that so as to teach all of us a lesson.”

Such answers fail to satisfy, moreover, such answers do no service to God. Otherwise forensic specialists would not spend months tediously poring over pieces of wrecked airplanes and buildings. To every increasingly exasperated question we might ask, there can come some flat-footed answer that fails to satisfy, eliciting only another demand to know “Why?”

As I was thinking about the sermon for today, one article I read on this passage was titled “From Silence to Sight.” When I thought about it, I realized that is a wonderful insight by way of a mixed metaphor. It seems to me the easier title would have been either something like “From Silence to Soundings,” or “From Blindness to Sight.” But the metaphors of sound and seeing are mixed. Job’s questions literally go unanswered, as he persists in asking “Why,” while God’s ultimate answers concern “Who,” and “How.” Perhaps God is answering the prayer Job should have made, had he been wise. Easy for us to say, if we have suffered little, what then can we know of wisdom?

But having suffered in a story especially created to provoke hard questions more than answers, Job stands before God in the end as the God of creation, without whose creativity there would be no creature to demand answers, no human to see justice as preferable to injustice, or sight to be found preferable to blindness. Job comes to understand something of the profound difference between God and ourselves. God’s ways, truly, are not our ways, nor are his thoughts the same as ours. Why would God want to create an aardvark? The rabbis would say, “We don’t know.” And we don’t. We may know how. We do not know why. Only God knows why there needed to be rain forests and blue whales.

When at the end of our reading Job is blessed with more than he had to begin with, we have to wonder if it made him happy. Double the blessing, of course, would mean double the risk of losing it all again. You may come to some different, equally valid conclusion, but I think Job’s acceptance of the gifts of God the second time around demonstrates the faith of a person simply embracing life as it comes, life as a profound and mysterious gift of God, embraced in an act of faith and trust that is both extraordinary and courageous.

Copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 quoted in “Generation GK” by Carol Zalenski, Christian Century, July 18-25, 2001, p. 30.
2 Ibid.
3 Job 38:2 and 42:3
4 I Corinthians 13.
5 God's Search for Man, Round Table Press, 1935, pp. 29-30.