"When God Answers"
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on October 17th, 2021 ,the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost , by Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
The Lord Answers Job
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[a] shouted for joy?
34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? 35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? 36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,[a] or given understanding to the mind?[b] 37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 38 when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?
39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40 when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41 Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
I missed being with you all last week. Garrett, June and I went to Philadelphia to visit my brother and his family and we had a really nice time. Being there over a Sunday allowed me to visit the church that I attended while I was in college and that was a really great treat. In just four years the people of that church became like family to me and the Bible studies and conversations that happened within those walls stirred up so many questions about God for me that that church family became a big part of my desire to continue being a person of faith.
I had grown up going to church my whole life; it was comfortable; it was routine; it was familiar. But it wasn’t until I was on my own that I needed church to be something else. I needed church to help me through real life. Because after we leave the little bubble of a life we have in our growing up years, we enter the real world. And in order to stay faithful in a real world, we need a place to ask hard questions; to be skeptical when things don’t add up; to challenge assumptions; and to do it all in place where we don’t have to be alone.
So here’s something I’ve been thinking about regarding church, in general. What makes a good church special is that it brings people together who get comfortable enough with each other that they can help each other work through some of the greatest struggles and questions real life has to offer. We get to wrestle with questions of our existence and grapple with our pain and very humanity. We get to do all of this while not being alone, but rather in community with others who probably have the exact same questions as us. I’m grateful for this church because you are also a safe landing place for people who wrestle daily with questions about their faith.
This is a great Sunday for acknowledging our questions about God because today we are looking at the Book of Job, one of the most question-producing books in the entire Bible. And thank goodness that none of us has to do it alone.
So let’s review just a bit since you all starting looking at the Book of Job last week when I was gone. Who’s Job? Job is a man whose life is pretty great. Until it isn’t. He had a good job, a large family, lots of wealth, a big house, lots of land, you get the picture. But within the first chapter, Job loses everything- his house, his livelihood, his children and the next 38 chapters of the book are about Job trying to figure out why he, an upstanding citizen and devout follower of God, would be dealt such a bad hand.
Job’s wife tells him to abandon God because it surely must be God’s fault. Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something in his life to warrant such an outcome. And all the while Job refuses to abandon God and knows deep in his heart that he doesn’t deserve what’s happen to him. He pleads with God to show mercy on him because he feels like it’s not at all what he deserves.
For Job’s whole life this is what his religion had taught him. That if you be a good person, good things will happen to you. If you’re a bad person, surely bad things will happen to you. This is what the leaders taught and the scriptures said. So WHY, Job wonders out-loud in real-life is this not working out for him?
Job begs God for answers and for 38 chapters God provides none. There is nothing except silence. This is where we left off last week as Rev. Amy Butler reminded us that even in silence God can make God’s presence known.
But Job was not satisfied with silence from God. He insists on knowing what he has done wrong. “Teach me, and I will be silent,” he pleads with God, “make me understand how I have gone wrong.” (6:24). But until Chapter 38 God has refused to be pulled into the argument.
But in chapter 38, God breaks the silence. God answers Job. Well, sort of. Chapter 38 starts: “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 answer me.”
Yikes. This is no intimate moment of a warm fuzzy God being a friend and comforting Job through his hard times. This is God essentially saying, out of the howling winds of a storm: who do you think you are, Job? If I had been Job I think I would have just turned around right there and high-tailed it. We can imagine Job, exhausted by chapters of pleading with God; exhausted by grief; worn down by silence. Job just wants to know why he has been made to suffer?
When Job asks: “everything must happen for a reason, what is the reason?”
God replies: Who are you again?
When Job says: “how could such bad things happen to me when I’ve been nothing but good.”
God replies: I laid the foundation of the earth.
When Job says: “pay attention to me, I’m hurting”
God gives a thundering speech about how the earth works and how it’s God who makes it all happen.
It’s as if Job and God are speaking from different frames of reference entirely. In Job’s world, Job and his problems are at the center and God should be there to respond to Job directly. And in God’s world, Job is part of a larger whole, one small piece of a creation in which there are floods, and lightning bolts, and whirlwinds and bears and mountain goats. And God is the underlying creator of it all. The one who sustains every natural system in the universe.
When Job demands an explanation for his suffering, God delivers a speech about God’s grand-ness saying I can see the larger picture; you can’t. What is your suffering compared to my power?
This is …not exactly… the answer Job was expecting. Maybe he expected God to say, “Oh, I’m sorry Job, I got the wrong guy! Here, I’ll make it all better again.” Or maybe he thought God would say “Job, dude, remember that thing you did as a teenager you thought you would get away with? Well, I knew the whole time. Sorry, man, you had this coming.” Was that what Job was expecting? I don’t know. It sounds crazy, but on the other hand, I know that we’ve all been in situations like Job’s. Where we prayed to God for a certain answer and we expected God to deliver for us like a short-order cook. To give us the answers we requested.
But God isn’t like that. God is huge and mysterious and so far outside of what we could possibly understand or know. No other passage in the Bible makes that more clear than this one. God is willing to break the silence and show up in Job’s life, but it isn’t the answer Job wanted; it was the answer Job needed.
Job’s grief was too much to bear alone. Job needed God to speak out of the whirlwind because on a deep subconscious level Job needed God to be bigger than his grief. Job wanted relief to his suffering, but even more so Job needed a God who was more powerful than his suffering. Job needed a God who couldn’t be put in a box. A God who wasn’t bound by clichés like everything happens for a reason and good things happen to good people.
Job’s real life and our own real life have proved a real challenge to these colloquial sayings that well-meaning religious folk, like Job’s friends and some of ours, too, will throw at us in times of suffering. When someone we love dies, it must be God’s will. When a flood devastates an island, those people must have done something to deserve it. When we lose our job or fight bitterly with a friend, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. But I, for one, really struggle with that mindset. In the midst of world-shattering grief, it doesn’t help me to think the grieved one is to blame or that God has some strange, perverted master-plan that intentionally causes suffering in order to test humans to the very edge of their limits.
I need to believe that God doesn’t just arbitrarily take away some people’s suffering and not others based on how good they’ve been. I need to believe that God is bigger than that. That God is above all of our suffering combined. I need to believe that while I suffer God is there holding up the very foundations of the earth. When grief consumes me, I want God to hold my hand, but I need God to remind me that somewhere in the world God is still making rain fall on dry earth and feeding the ravens who are hungry. When our world feels small, we need God to remind us that we are one part of a much bigger, complex and wonder-full creation.
But here’s the terrifying thing: to push back against these cliches (everything happens for a reason, etc) means to open our life with God up to uncertainty, wonder, and risk. It means God won’t always answer in the way we want, but in the way that we need. And that means giving up our control and handing it to God.
This morning, I thank God that in the pain and suffering of this world, none of us are alone. That God is with us, laying the foundation of our existence. I thank God that when we come to church we enter a community that walks with us through our greatest challenges and gives us space to ask hard questions. I am grateful that even though well-meaning church folk can lean a little too hard on clichés, we also as a church preserved in our tradition this Book of Job, a piece of astonishing, de-centering scripture that reminds us that God is always bigger than our suffering, holding us with grace and letting us belong to an unfolding mystery.
There is more to say about Job and we’ll get there next week, but for now I want to leave you with the words of the poet and pastor, Steve Garnaas Holmes who wrote this week on the topic of God’s answer to Job.
Let us pray:
“When fear for the world overtakes me I join Job on the ash heap, questioning suffering, ranting against injustice, suffocating for hope. And God answers. Creation is bigger than you, and greater than your suffering, even greater, far greater, than all the suffering of the world. It's hard to see from your little corner but the universe is good, and beautiful. Stars and whales sing of it; your breathing proclaims it. My grace is in it; my hands are beneath it all, and you belong to it, even as you are, though you can never know this mystery, your part in this wonder and blessing.”
Steve Garnaas Holmes