(This is the second sermon preached on the Book of Job. The first sermon found as “Job1:1-2:13; 42:7-17 “A Question of Motive” should be read first. The beginning of that first sermon explains the distinction between the prose and poetry parts of the Book of Job.)
In the vast poetry section of Job (some 39 chapters), we find Job gradually losing all his patience. He lashes out at God in anger. He accuses God of being a Cosmic Bully, an all-powerful Sadist who delights in torturing helpless humans at random. He charges God with being deaf to the cries of pain in the world and of refusing to answer the frantic questions of innocent sufferers.
In the middle of his loss and pain, Job is visited by several friends who come to comfort him (remember that word “comfort”). They come to give him their answers to his dilemma, and they come to defend their understanding of God. They say things like, “Job, learn from your suffering. All this can have value. You can be a better person for it. Remember: no pain, no gain.” Or “You know, you really should never question God or the divine will.” Or “Job, nobody’s perfect. Confess your sin and God will forgive and remove your suffering. Surely God would not allow all this to happen to you unless you were in some way guilty. Now think back. Where did you blow it?”
When Job can endure their prattle no longer, he tells them to get lost. Faced with their inability to listen before responding (which is a primary requirement for ministry), Job tells them to scram. And now alone, Job directs his conversation to God. Gradually we realize that Job’s biggest problem is not his sufferings and loss. His biggest problem is the silence of God. His greatest burden is that the God he once loved and worshipped seems arbitrarily hostile and beyond his reach. So Job begs, cajoles, pleads, threatens, and denounces God in an attempt to force an answer from heaven. And finally “out of the whirlwind” God answers. But listen to what God says: READ 38:1-7.
For four chapters God speaks like this. The divine address to Job is a stream of counter questions all concerning the wonderful power of God in creation as evidenced by the structures of the world, the stars, the mysteries of the seas and the habits of animals. And God asks Job questions like, “Do you know what keeps the stars in the heavens? Are you aware of the birthing process of the mountain goats? Do you decide the seasons?” On and on God goes. “Teach me, Job, if you are so clever.” And after what no doubt seemed an eternity of questions, Job gives his answer: READ 42:1-6.
We can all recognize that God’s speech passes judgment on Job’s presumption that he knows enough, is good enough, and is powerful enough to judge God. Job’s wisdom should have included an awareness of a limit to his understanding. Job clearly had gone too far in his indictment of God. But is God’s speech nothing more than a negative judgment of Job? If that is all it is, then we are left with the impression that God is a Cosmic Bully after all. There is a hint that there was more to God’s speech than a negative judgment of Job, whom we know to be an innocent sufferer.
The hint comes in v. 6 “I repent in dust and ashes.” The word translated “repent” is not the usual word for repent in the Old Testament. This word literally means “to breathe heavily/to sigh.” Depending on the context, it can mean “to sigh in grief or sorrow” (and thus to repent) or “to sigh in relief” and thus to be comforted. The same word is used of Job’s friends in 2:11. (That’s why I asked you to remember the word “comfort.”) If Job was comforted even in the dust and ashes of his life, there has to be more to God’s speech than meets the eye. And it is to that more that we now move.
First, we must recognize that Job heard something positive, energizing, and wonderful in God’s speech that escapes our modern ears. When we read God’s words about the foundation of the world, the movement of the stars, the regularity of the tides and seasons, the vast oceans teeming with whales and great fish, the mountain goats and wild beasts of the field and forest, the silly ostrich and the other mysterious creatures who somehow know their place in creation, we are baffled. We want to ask God, “What does any of this have to do with poor Job and his suffering?” But Job saw a connection and was comforted by God’s words.
You see, we moderns view ourselves as apart from nature–apart from the world–apart from creation. We view the wonders of this planet and the mysteries of the vast frontier we call space as mere stages and props for our comings and goings. In our minds and attitudes, they exist for us. They are so much raw material for us to use and abuse, to waste and discard. And consequently, we have abandoned the notion that nature can bear witness to God and that creation can teach us about who God is and who we are. But not so for Job. Job saw himself as a part of creation. And he knew that if there were mysteries in creation beyond his full comprehension, then there were mysteries in his own life as a part of that creation that were also beyond his understanding. He knew that if God acted with power, wisdom, and purpose in the care of this world, then God would act with power, wisdom, and purpose in the care of him as a part of that world. God’s speech, rather than putting Job in his place, gave him a place. And as Job found his place in creation, he became willing to trust the Creator with that which he could not see and understand. In other words, Job was able to put the whole world, including his own little life as a part of that world, back into the hands of God. With far more understanding than we are capable of, he could sing that old spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
Jesus, too, believed that creation could teach us about God and about ourselves. In the Sermon on the Mount he told his disciples to “consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air and to be as they are. Learn to trust the God of the flowers and the field–of earth and heaven. Find your place as a child of God.”
We shall never understand who we are or why we are apart from nature and apart from the mysterious weavings of life in creation. We shall never touch base with our purpose or our destiny without first finding our place as a part of this world. Perhaps so much of the confusion and fear, so much of the loneliness and spiritual amnesia of our modern era has its roots in this tragic loss of perspective. One thing is for sure–without that perspective we will be unable to hear that word from God which Job heard and which can give hope and make us feel we belong.
We shall never hear God out of the whirlwind until we consider the lilies of the field, until we look at the birds of the air, until we rediscover our place in a wondrous and mysterious creation. We can’t come home to God without finding our home in God’s creation.
But there is more to be said than this. Job was comforted by more than a reminder of his place in the world. Listen to his words: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
There are two ways of knowing God. There is a hearing and second-hand knowledge which comes from tradition or from the testimony of others. Job had had both and found they were not enough to live or die by. For that he needed (and we need) a deeper way of knowing God. We need a personal knowledge—a first-hand experience to which we can testify. And Job testified that in his encounter with God—in their face to face meeting out of the whirlwind—he had experienced God in such a real and dynamic way as to override all the second-hand knowledge of his past.
From that personal experience he was able to be comforted and to feel he belonged and mattered even as he sat in the dust and ashes of his life. Job found in that encounter with God not an answer to his questions but a Presence out of which he could live and die. He found not the removal of his pain and suffering but the power of faith and the strength of trust. He found not the reversal of his fortunes but the reorientation of his soul. And even in the dust and ashes, that was enough.
We know that Job’s fortunes will eventually be restored. His illness will be cured, and he will be blessed with children, family, and friends. But it’s important to realize that Job did not know any of this beforehand. He was comforted before any of this happened. Even in the dust and ashes of his life, God’s presence—that first-hand experience—was enough.
Would it be enough for us? At this point we come to the heart of the Book of Job. The book is really not about why the innocent suffer. It’s about the essence of authentic religion, and that essence is a relationship, a personal experience and a first-hand knowledge that can be testified to with the content of one’s life.
That essence is a faith that trusts even without all the answer;, a hope that reaches out even when it cannot see beyond the horizons; a commitment that is unbending regardless of the consequences.
Job found that essence, and if we are wise, so shall we.
The word “companion” has a special meaning for Christians. It has a Latin etymology and literally means “one who eats the same bread.” Since we eat the same bread at this Table, we are companions. Listen to these words from Dom Helder Camara, one of the great Christians of the twentieth century, about what it means to be a companion in the Christian faith:
“Happy are they who feel they are always on the road and that everyone they meet is their chosen companion. The good traveler takes care of his weary companions. He guesses when they lose heart. He takes them as he finds them. He listens to them. Intelligently, gently, above all lovingly, he encourages them to go on and recover their joy in the journey.”
We eat from the same bread, and what sacred bread it is! And at this Table we realize we have a companion with a capital “C” and many companions with a small “c” who walk by our side.
We eat the same bread for a purpose to sustain us for the journey of Christian discipleship. We are nourished and refreshed so that we might incarnate the gospel in the world. Let us go about our mission with a song in our hearts confident of the Companion by our side. Amen.
Depart now in the fellowship of the spirit with a faith that trusts even without all the answers; a hope that reaches out even when it cannot see beyond the horizons; and a commitment that is unbending regardless of the consequences. And never forget who walks by your side. Amen.