Sunday, October 18, 2009

Out of the Whirlwind

Out of the Whirlwind

copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 18 , 2009

Job 38:1-7 (34-41)

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth...?”

Perhaps the thing that frightens us more than anything when we read through Job is our unspoken fear that his fate could possibly be our own in one way or another. We know full well that we live in a world filled with risk, which suggests to us that no matter how secure we may fool ourselves into thinking we are, at any moment dramatic, cataclysmic forces beyond our control could change our lives forever. No one likes to dwell on this, but we all know it is true, and we generally work very hard doing everything we can to assure ourselves and our families of some measure of safety and security.

Last week we heard in our scripture reading Job’s cry for understanding in the middle of his undeserved suffering.[1] Today we hear a little portion of God’s response. In this, our third week in the book of Job, we come to what sounds like Job’s verbal spanking, administered by a God who strikes us as more or less annoyed by the whole matter. Indeed, if you have ever read the entire book of Job, probably by chapter 38 — after all the death, suffering, diseases, and irritating blame-the-victim remarks from Job’s “friends” — you may be a little annoyed yourself. “I come to the Bible for words of hope, cadences of comfort,” we might complain, “what is with this story of useless, unrequited, and hapless suffering and blaming?”

Still, true stories from our own times make Job seem more relevant than we might like to think. Consider that a year after Hurricane Katrina, there are still hundreds of thousands who once lived in the comfort of their own homes in Louisiana and Mississippi who remain homeless. It is all too easy to forget. We don’t like to dwell on it. But thousands perished. Folks from our own church family who have taken assistance to the area report devastation on every street as far as the eye can see, even from the air.

Or a family has a child born with cystic fibrosis;

Or one minute a few hundred people are sitting on an airplane reading their morning paper, and the next minute they are plunging to the earth due to any of a number of factors;

Or a poorly-timed glance down at the floor of the car results in a devastating wreck on the highway;

What is with this story of useless, unrequited, and hapless suffering and blaming? Good question. Job probably could not have stated it better himself. And if we had been reading all the previous 37 chapters of the story, we would probably arrive at this point and say, “Finally! God at least makes an appearance!” Given the choice, though, I’m not sure a challenging voice from a tornado is exactly the sort of response a suffering person like Job would have sought:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth...?! God thunders.

Job might have responded, “May I please have another question Alex?”

As one preacher reflected on our passage for today, which represents only a tiny fraction of God’s response to Job’s questioning:

“God’s rebuttal goes on for four whole chapters, but never does answer Job’s question. Job’s question was about justice. God’s answer is about omnipotence, and as far as I know that is the only answer human beings have ever gotten about why things happen the way they do. God only knows. And none of us is God.”[2]

It’s been said that Virginia Woolf once wrote to a friend, “I read the Book of Job last night—I don’t think God comes well out of it.”

Every secure domain that we know can be invaded, it is always possible that we could be turned out: apparently secure homes can be lost through foreclosure, jobs can be lost when consumer tastes change or the economy slows down, investments can turn sour overnight, academic achievement is as vulnerable as the next grade report or the half-life of a now outdated and useless degree, good health is forever on the cusp of an encounter with some powerful new disease, professional certification can be withdrawn, colleagues can conspire to lie about us and cost us our position, lawsuits can be filed, the IRS can run roughshod through our personal finances. There is no secure place which we can create for ourselves which is truly and absolutely safe. We live in a world of risk.

Not long ago, as I walked by a late-model car piled high inside with pillows and blankets and parked on a downtown street, I saw the door was open to the sidewalk and a young woman was leaning out over the curb to brush her hair, the way you and I would do in the privacy of our homes in front of the bathroom mirror when we get up in the morning. I wondered what catastrophes had occurred in her life that apparently she now lives in her car. What were her prospects, since the good condition of the car suggested a recent time of more prosperity than she knows now? Was she alone? How far from her situation are any of us, really? One large lawsuit against our assets over a bad car wreck, or a conviction for professional malpractice, a loss of a job and a longer-than-anticipated search for a new one, who knows how much it would take to reduce any of us from apparent security to utter dependence, until one day we find ourselves waking up in the morning staring up through the windshield? So the next time some grocery clerk tells you to have a nice day, receive it as a sort of intercessory prayer.

This is part of the disturbing nature of the story of Job. His story could be ours. We know in the backs of our minds that disaster could strike from out of nowhere, changing the makeup of our lives forever. Where would we turn?

Job turned rather insistently to God, and for 37 chapters he got no direct answer. Only his self-righteous friends and a wife who should have been on Prozac responded to his cries for understanding, and none of them responded too well. Then at last in chapter 38, God answered Job’s laments. But God’s response fails to satisfy us if we long for an answer that amounts to “There, there, everything will be alright.” We all know that in life, lots of times things do not ever turn out alright. What then? Is there only a God when it is sunny, and when all is good health and ample food and comfortable housing?

One colleague of mine once wrote, “The world is complex and painful. But the One who laid the foundations of the world did so in order that there might be a world, and so that we might be in it. Any effort to reduce this complexity to anything shy of mystery will probably live only as platitudes. At least this can be said: a life of pleasant circumstance is no foundation for righteousness, for even the righteous will suffer. The foundation for righteousness can only be found in the gracious commitment to life witnessed in the creator God. In the midst of the consistent inconsistency of life’s circumstance, there may be found the grace sufficient to live in grateful faithfulness.

Suffering comes. Answers may not. Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff’s son one day fell to his death on the side of a mountain. I cannot imagine an answer that could provide a satisfying response to the inevitable “why” question about the suffering this father must have endured. Yet, as he went through that experience and its aftermath, Professor Wolterstorff wrote, “I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not.”[3]

If there is an answer to the problem of unmerited suffering in Job, and we can all see that if there is, it is far from easy to find, then the answer can only be something like this: the worst thing that can happen is suffering with no reason, suffering without God, without hope, without an aspiration for a reality beyond that suffering. All torment pales beside the prospect of abandonment by God. That’s what Job really wants to know. Is God here? Is God in this with me?

When all the crops are burned to a crisp and the last shovelful of dirt has been thrown on the last grave of the last child to be buried and all that is left of all the stuff we thought we possessed is a stiff, dirty rag to wipe our bleeding noses, what still remains...

“ the God of creation, who never runs out of life, and whom we may always ask for more...”

As far as we can tell from Job’s experience, we don’t have to be all that bashful about it either.

“In the end, God prefers Job’s outrage to the piety of Job’s friends. When in pain, we are allowed to yell as loudly as we can. ‘Why is this happening to me? Answer me!’ Devout defiance pleases God.”[4]

It may even help us in our own struggle to see God. It may make all the difference between suffering that opens a door to hope, and anguish that asks too little of God and so receives less than enough.

[1] Job 29:1-17.
[2] “Out of the Whirlwind,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, from her book Home By Another Way, Cowley Press, 1999, pp. 162-167.
[3] Lament for a Son, by Nicholas Wolterstorff, Eerdmans, 1987, p. 26.
[4] “Out of the Whirlwind”.