A Shell Ridge Sermon by Greg Ledbetter
In the end, God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends…Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads.” – Barbara Brown Taylor
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? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Nearly fifteen years ago to this day … I’d been your pastor for all of a month …we’d just finished worship … Jan drove away and then suddenly came driving back into the parking lot … “Greg, they just said on the radio that there’s a bad fire in the Oakland Hills” … a “hot-spot” that they’d thought was out got going again during the previous night … and now all anybody could do was stand and watch … which is what (I’m only a little embarrassed to say) we went and did. We trundled the boys into the car, drove over Wildcat Canyon, north of where the fire was burning, and made our way to Berkeley. We made our way to just below the Claremont Hotel where we joined throngs of people who stood in the hot, smoky night air, slack-jawed, dumbly looking up at the fire that consumed one gorgeous after another.
There really was nothing anyone could do … oh, the helicopters with big buckets of water did their part, but it was only when the fire ran out of fuel at the top of the Berkeley and Oakland ridge that fire became even remotely manageable.
Modern human beings … with all our power and technology and superiority … we modern human beings were rendered mere spectators to the suffering while the non-sentient—unthinking—forces of physics and creation had their way.
Halfway across the Pacific, about a week ago, in the place of my early years of upbringing, the ground shook as ground will at times … it shook mountainsides until they fell … it shook roads until they split … it shook buildings until they collapsed. And the earthquake that struck Hawaii was not considered particularly large.
Once again, modern human beings … with all our power and technology and superiority … we modern human beings were rendered mere spectators to the suffering while the non-sentient—unthinking—forces of physics and creation had their way.
I’ve been in way more hospital rooms than I’d care to tell about … hospital rooms where there’s one kind or another of some wildfire of an awful disease raging inside the person I’m visiting … and in way too many of these cases the top of the ridge for them … the place where their disease ran out of steam, ran out of fuel … was the place of transition for the person from life into the deep mystery beyond life.
And yet another time, modern human beings … with all our power and technology and superiority … we modern human beings were rendered mere spectators to the suffering while the non-sentient—unthinking—forces of physics and creation had their way.
We spoke of Job a couple of weeks ago … and we acknowledged that if there was a single, pulsing theme that ran through Job, a continuous thread, it was a book-long, drawn out, agonizing question that never really gets an answer as we think of answers.
It is a question that got echoed in the title of a book that a Rabbi wrote some twenty years ago after he watched his son die slowly and painfully of a disease that made his son into an old man before he was even a teen. (NOTE: the disease is called progeria)
“Why” Rabbi Harold Kushner agonized in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Why do bad things happen to good people”??? The book so powerfully hit the nail on the head, that it became a runaway bestseller … and it remains a bestseller— especially among Christians.
And “WHY”, the author of the book of Job likewise asks, “Why must our lives be so full of undeserved suffering?” “And is there any meaning to our suffering?” “And … why does God seem to stand idly by while we suffer?” “Where is God?”
I have heard people say “When I die or when I get to heaven or when I stand face to face with my maker, I’m going to ask God ________________________ [insert BIG question here].
What are your questions? Please feel free to speak them aloud … (Two of the questions: Why must little children die of starvation in poor countries? Why is there Alzheimers disease?)
Thank you … in next Sunday’s sermon I’ll come back with answers to ALL of your questions.
Many of your questions are courageous … as Job’s questions are courageous. I’ve always appreciated the courage of the author of the Book of Job and the courage of the Biblical editors who retained the book of Job … Job’s questions are stunning in their boldness … with his questions, Job grabs God by the divine lapels and yammers out one hard, aching question after another.
Job comes off a little like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick … especially in the movie where Gregory Peck playing Captian Ahab has strapped himself to the whale and cries out crazily in the midst of the wind and storm and rain.
So … in Job, we see that Job gets as close to “God’s face” as perhaps any human being ever has. Job “gets into God’s face” … you know that’s a colloquial term that means “confronts” Job has intestinal fortitude.
Who would dare to address God this way? Who would dare to rattle God’s cage so boldly? Within the mindset of Job’s time, I can’t believe that God didn’t “smote” Job … that God didn’t shoot a giant bolt of angry, divine lightening at Job for his audacity … “Take THAT, you little pest.”
And you know, the amazing thing is that Job rants on and on and for the longest time, God doesn’t do a thing … God is completely and utterly silent … God is completely and utterly silent to the point of absence.
And I suppose this represents a crisis of faith … is God only the echoes of our longing? Are we actually alone in this universe and God only the sad fabrication of our existential loneliness and frustration? Let’s not kid ourselves that the people of the so-called “Old Testament” times were crude simpletons … ancient unsophisticated brutes. Long before you and I wondered if there was a God, the author of Job plumbed the depths of that question … perhaps deeper than anyone before or since.
Some of our questions this morning … or perhaps some of the questions that rose up in us that we did not speak … surely have to do with our own crises of faith … our own agnosticism … our own frightening moments of atheism.
I’ve spoken Madeleine L’Engle’s descriptions of the cold, dark waters of atheism that broke over the bow of the vessel of her own faith when running up against inexplicable human cruelties. And St. John of the Cross wrote of the “Dark Night of the Soul” where faith becomes depressed … and then nearly impossible; the soul dry and the spirit listless. I would be lying if I said I did not know such times in my own life and my own faith. It is why I find myself turning and returning to L’Engle and St. John of the Cross and others in my own journey … in my own times of need and struggle.
Have you ever been in a setting where you were scorned for your doubts? Your questions? Your struggle with the neat little pat theological answers that so many seem to prefer? My understanding is that Doug Holmes came to Shell Ridge eleven years ago as a refugee from such a congregation where it was taboo to question the “party line” … taboo to doubt.
The character of Elihu, in the book of Job, represents such a mentality and it’s a mentality that the author of the book of Job is contending against. When Job finally falls silent in his complaint, and before God responds, Elihu jumps up and wrestles the microphone away from Job … he castigates “Job’s friends” … you know, “Job’s comforters” … he rebukes their silence in the face of Job’s suffering … he rebukes them because they are old enough to be wise, but their years have seemed to have taught them nothing.
But Elihu’s hottest anger is reserved for Job whom he believes has wrongly turned his attention from God to his own suffering. He believes Job is WRONG to contend against God … WRONG to lift up his own righteousness before God … WRONG to make his case that he is undeserving of his dreadful fate.
I don’t know that it’s that Elihu is wrong in what he says … much of it is pretty hard to argue with. It’s that in the face of such great suffering, it’s the wrong answer at the wrong time to Job’s question.
And note the name of the book, by the way, isn’t “Elihu” … it’s “Job” … Job, ultimately is the “hero” of this story … and as the hero, Job’s questions and the courage it took for Job to cry out in righteous despair and frustration to God is, in fact, heroic.
And it’s why I return again and again to this “hard nut” of a Biblical book … the book of Job. The theological view in the book of Job represents a stubborn streak in the ancient Hebrew soul that refuses to believe that God has abandoned God’s creation, refuses to believe that the universe is not somehow still within the bounds of God’s care. Job will not let go of God even though it may seem that God has let go of Job.
And so here Job is … and maybe here we are … Job is spent … he is physically spent … he is emotionally spent … and he’s down to his last theological dime. His faith is almost flat-busted, there-ain’t-nothin’-left-in-the-cupboards broke. This friendly little wager between God and Satan, with which Job’s story begins … has just about made a winner out of Satan.
And now what? I like Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on this text. She claims that "for most of us, the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason, but to suffer without God – without any hope of consolation or rebirth." We can get angry and even impolite, she says: "In the end, God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends…Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads …”
And out of hiding God comes … with a vengeance.
Jan hates it when I get too loud in the pulpit … when my voice strains … and children start looking scared. But how else are you going to depict God’s response??? God doesn’t speak in the still small voice of Elijah on Mt. Horeb. This time God IS in the wind … in the storm … in the loud clapping thunder. People who have lived in the Midwest and survived a deadly twister say that the twisters, when they pass by, sound like a thousand locomotives thundering past.
God speaks out of the whirlwind … God speaks out of the twister … and if God’s voice is to be heard over the sound of a thousand locomotives, then God is speaking UP … and speaking OUT … and speaking LOUD.
Do you get it? God is not silent. God is not absent. God IS.
Now be sure that what God has to say to Job doesn’t “feel” very kindly … it is a divine, rhetorical blast that burns every last hair off of Job’s head … but God is speaking to Job “face to face” … and Job, finally says in response to God … “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” That is to say, that God had finally become REAL to Job.
Yesterday, Jan and I were privileged to get to attend the Cal/University Washington football game (Thank you, Robert Scheid!). We sat on the aisle in the “blue section” 50 rows up. Part way through the game, I noticed someone coming up the long flight of stairs. It was woman whose progress stopped and started, stopped and started. I turned my attention back to the game, but when she got a little closer, I looked again and saw the reason for her halting progress. In her hand, climbing the stairs with her was a little girl, perhaps three or four years old. The little girl was dressed up in a pint-sized replica Cal Bears cheerleader’s uniform. Her right hand was grasped by the woman’s hand. And in her right hand was a tiny white cane that bobbed about. The little girl’s eyes were closed and suddenly I understood. (NOTE: I add, parenthetically, that the scene was so plaintive that my eyes instantly teared, though neither the woman nor the little girl asked for—nor needed—my pity nor even my sympathy..)
Now I watched discretely for a few moments as the grandmother—we later concluded—and her granddaughter made their way slowly up the stairs. It was clear that the grandmother was there to serve as the girl’s “anchor” … to hold her hand while the girl learned to “make her way” in the world. There was nothing the grandmother could do to alleviate the child’s blindness, but she was learning to make it on her own. So here was this little frail whisp of a child … lost in a screaming sea of humanity … 50,000+ of us … with a mountain of stairs ahead, an enormous journey for such a one … and what made all the difference was the familiar hand of Grandma in hers.
Might this be the story of Job in a nutshell? In being drawn out of himself—in the time of great affliction, Job was given … no answer … no protection … not even healing … only God. Only God! Do we get it? Contrary to what some might see as the evidence, God is not silent. God is not absent. God IS.
There’s an old Swedish spiritual the echoes the experience of one who has come face to face with God, one who has come to know in spite of all the reasons we might have to not believe, that God is real.
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
consider all the works thy hand hath made,
I see the stars, I hear the mighty thunder,
thy power throughout the universe displayed:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God; to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God; to thee,
How great thou art, how great thou art!
God of the whirlwind, heart of our hearts, soul of our souls, source of our life, it is you who have brought us into being in this time and this place. You feed us each day with the fruit of your earth. You quench our thirst with water that courses through our bodies. Oxygen created by you fills our lungs and without the continuous flow of your Spirit through us and all creation we would not exist. You are the never-ending flow and the ongoing process of all life and we are your creatures. Hear us now as we call to you.
There are things about our world that we do not understand
and matters for which there are no words but only feelings. Hear our prayers, O God, as we speak aloud our prayers to you:
Names are spoken out of the congregation …
Gentle, great, merciful, loving God:
In the quiet curve of evening, in the sinking of the days,
In the silky void of darkness, you are there.
In the lapses of my breathing, in the space between my ways,
in the crater carved by sadness, you are there.
In the rests between the phrases, in the cracks between the stars,
In the gaps between the meaning, you are there.
In the melting down of endings, in the cooling of the sun,
in the solstice of the winter, you are there.
In the mystery of my hungers, in the silence of my rooms,
In the cloud of my unknowing, you are there.
In the empty cave of grieving, in the desert of my dreams,
in the tunnel of my sorrow, you are there.*
*Concluding poem: In the Quiet Curve of Evening …
Words, music copyright © 1993, Juliana Howard,
www.wearethecircle.com. Used by permission.
Benediction for All Voices:
Let us leave this place
knowing that wherever we go,
God has already gone there before us,
speaking a word of healing.
And may the blessing of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,
be with us in all the places of our lives,
this day and always. Amen.