September 22, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
GOD’S TURN TO SPEAK
Job 38:1-7, 40:2-5
The third in a series of four sermons
There are many differences between high school and college. One of the first I noticed when I started at Willamette University 40 years ago this month was the intellectual level of the graffiti on the restroom walls. In high school, it was pretty crude. It was pretty juvenile. It was much the same as what you might see on restroom walls anywhere else. But in college, it was different. Much more clever. Much more original. I first noticed this in the library restroom, where I read this:
“God is dead.” Nietzsche 1883
“Nietzsche is dead.” God 1900
I’ve been waiting 40 years for an opportunity to use that. We can say what we want about God, but it’s God who always gets the last word.
That’s the Book of Job in a nutshell. Job suffers. Job and his friends fill 36 chapters with their theological reflections on Job’s suffering. It’s a high level of intellectual discourse. It’s not easy reading, but you know any reading this difficult has to be good for you! So you hang in there with it, agreeing with parts of it, disagreeing with other parts of it, not understanding most of it, until at last you get to chapter 38. That’s when it’s God’s turn to speak. God gets the last word. God bats last. Today we’re going to look at what God has to say.
What we really have going on in Job chapter 38 is God taking the witness stand. The rest of the book is written almost like Job is on trial. Job is the accused. He is assumed to be guilty. Those four so-called friends we talked about last week can’t get it out of their heads that Job must have done something bad to deserve all the bad things that have happened to him. They assume he is guilty, but they can’t prove he is guilty. Job insists that he is not guilty. He’s an innocent man. These are trumped up charges. He is not a bad person. He is a righteous person. At the beginning of the book, the narrator even says he is a “perfect” person.
It was an established principle in Bible times that if you are accused of wrongdoing, there is no proof of your guilt, and you swear to your innocence, your accuser must either produce the evidence or drop the charges. Put up or shut up. And so Job appeals directly to God. Job calls God to the stand. I’m reminded of that scene in “Oh God!” when George Burns, who is playing the role of God, is sworn in at the witness stand and says, “So help me, me.” There’s no verse like that in Job, but there is the verse, just before God speaks, where Job says, “Will no one listen to what I am saying? I swear that every word is true. Let Almighty God answer me” (31:35 TEV).
And Almighty God does just that. God takes the witness stand. It’s God’s turn to speak. God gets the last word.
We’re told that God speaks from “the eye of a violent storm” (38:1 MSG). The more traditional translations say God speaks from a whirlwind. It’s a display of the awesome power of nature that is big enough to terrify and not big enough to destroy. Certainly big enough to get their attention! And God doesn’t say a word about Job and his sufferings and whether Job has done anything to deserve his sufferings or not. God doesn’t fess up to the bet he made with Satan. God doesn’t give us the answer to the problem of suffering. In other words, God doesn’t tell Job and he wants to hear. God doesn’t tell us what we want to hear.
The whole point of God’s speech is that God is God and we aren’t. So who are we to question the way God runs the universe? “Where were you when I created the earth?” (38:4) says God. What have you done to create your own life? What have you done to create your possessions or your children or your health? And then we have question after question about the things God has created, each one making the same point. Who are you to question me? If you think it’s easy being God, why don’t you try it? Or to boil it down
to its core, I think of a sign I’ve seen.
“Stop whining, Job!” That may not be exactly what we expected to hear when God finally had his turn to speak. When we think of a good parent, we think of one who encourages questions, who patiently explains what we don’t understand, who comforts us when we’re afraid or when we get hurt. When we think of an abusive parent, we think of one who says, “Don’t you dare question me!” And yet that’s pretty much what God says. Why does God say that? Why does God say it that way? What does God’s speech mean for us?
One way to look at the problem of suffering is to break it down into three propositions: (1) God is powerful, (2) God is good, and (3) Job is good. We’d like to believe all three of these, but we run into a logical contradiction if we do.
If God is both powerful and good, then Job must not be good. Job’s comforters must be right. God has a reason to punish Job and God does so deliberately.
If God is powerful and Job is good, then God must not be good. A God with the power to stop the suffering that Job doesn’t deserve but who chooses not to use that power does not sound like a God who loves us very much.
If God is good and Job is good, then God must not be powerful. At least not powerful enough to anything to help Job. God wants to but God can’t.
Those are the three options as we try to think our way through this problem of suffering. We don’t like any of the three. I don’t. I don’t think you do either. And so the problem remains unsolved. And so we have a sermon series on this subject. And I’ll warn you. We’re not going to have the problem solved at the end of the sermon series either.
Harold Kushner in When Bad Things Happen to Good People solved the problem. He said the answer is simple. God isn’t all-powerful. There are limits to what God can do. I don’t like that answer at all. But I don’t like the other answers any better.
So here’s what I wonder. Could it be that God’s speech to Job is recorded for us in the Bible to discourage us from using our logic to understand things that logically cannot be understood? Could that be why God speaks as he does, gruff and stern, not inviting dialogue but just proclaiming with divine authority that like it or not, this is the way it is? “So quit trying to figure me out. Quit sticking your noses where they don’t belong.” And of course human beings, inquisitive creatures as we are, have never been content to leave it at that.
One of the great names in science today is Stephen Hawking. He is 71 years old. He is an astrophysicist at CambridgeUniversity. Some consider him the most intelligent man on earth. Though I love the bit of trivia that he got bad grades in school. He has advanced Einstein’s theory of relativity way past where Einstein left off. He has been at the forefront of our growing knowledge of the universe for decades now. He would be one who could answer a few of those questions God had for Job.
Way back when he was a graduate student he started having problems with his coordination. He was tripping and getting more and more clumsy. He went from specialist to specialist and at age 23 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. That was 48 years ago. No one expected him to live this long. He lives in his wheelchair. He can do little more than sit and think.
Sounds like a horrible, hideous fate, doesn’t it? I don’t want to minimize what he and other ALS sufferers go through, but I have to tell you how Stephen Hawking has dealt with it. He reports that he is happier now than he was when he was healthy. He says before his illness he had little interest in life. He drank to excess. He worked as little as possible. Then he learned he had a terminal disease. When he knew he was dying, that’s when he started to live!
Here’s what he says: “When one’s expectations are reduced to zero, one really appreciates everything one does have.” Some of us have unrealistically high expectations for what life owes us. Some of us view life, health, happiness, and possessions as things that belong to us, that are ours by right, and so when they are taken away from us we have every reason to complain.
Stephen Hawking, like Job, like every last one of us, has done his share of complaining. Whining really does come naturally. But Stephen Hawking was able to move beyond this. Listen to him again: “If you’re disabled, you should pour your energies into those areas where you are not handicapped. You should concentrate on what you can do well, and not mourn over what you cannot do. And it is very important not to give into self-pity. If you’re disabled and you feel sorry for yourself, then no one is going to have much to do with you. A physically handicapped person certainly cannot afford to be psychologically handicapped as well.”
I can’t help but think of Lou Gehrig, the great baseball player who was 36-years-old and dying of the disease that would bear his name. He stood before that capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium and said, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Maybe that was what God was helping Job see when he spoke out of that whirlwind. Even in the midst of all the horrible, ugly, unfair, inexplicable things that happen to us, we still have reason to give God thanks for what we do have. We have a right to none of it. All of it is a gift. This universe which is our home, this life that is ours for a few short years, our family, our friends, everything that enriches life for us, it’s all ours by the grace of God. And when it’s not all there, a lot of it still is. We still come out on the positive side of the balance sheet.
God tells Job not to fuss and fret over trying to understand everything. Accept life such as you have it right now, consider yourself the luckiest person on earth, and live as best you can live with gratitude.
Again we pause to pray, Lord God, not at the end of a nice, uplifting sermon that wraps everything up into a neat little package that we can now take home with us. We pause to pray, as we have the last two weeks, because there’s not much more to say. We’ve reached the limit of our human wisdom and maybe all there is left to say is something like this: Help us, dear God, to live bravely, boldly, and joyfully in this world that we don’t entirely understand but that is our home, a good home, a beautiful home, a home that we accept for the limited time we are here with the deepest gratitude. In Jesus’ name, Amen.