This week I am at Christ Church in Rochdale - a part of Leicester. The readings for this 21st Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost include God speaking to Job out of the whirlwind.
Once upon a time there was this man from Uz, named Job. He had it all: a beautiful wife, well-adjusted kids, a great job, good health, and plenty of friends. And then the bottom fell out. He lost it all, practically overnight. It sounds a bit like a warped fairy tale and maybe it was originally just that; a simple story meant to explore an interesting question. Will people stay faithful if they aren’t being rewarded for their good behavior? What if they faithfully pray the Prayer of Jabez, but bad things still happen to them?
All of us come across people in our daily lives who have way more than their share of troubles, usually because of circumstances beyond their control. And once things begin to spiral downward it is difficult to turn all of that around. What is amazing to me, and scary to me, is just how quickly a well-ordered life can unravel. All of a sudden the company we worked for closes its doors to open a plant where labor costs are lower. Think Detroit, or maybe closer to home of GE closing up plants in Pittsfield or Fitchburg. Overnight the salary we had assumed would cover college tuitions and the mortgage on the summer place is gone. In the blink of an eye your marriage is falling apart and your middle child is addicted to pain-killers. It can happen so very fast.
So last week we heard Job crying out to the God whom it is no longer clear is even there. It’s just too dark for Job to tell. He looks to his right and left, in front and behind, but he can’t find God. And he needs to find God because he wants his day in court. He wants to make his argument, to make his case before the Almighty: what has happened to him is not fair. And we kind of left it there.
Perhaps you’ve been there, or known someone who has. We owe it to God and one another to speak truthful words here, even when those words are difficult ones. Job is no whiner and his complaint is justified, I think. His questions are fair ones that go to the heart of faith and that I’ve heard on the lips of ordinary parishioners over many years now as a priest: if God is just, and if God is powerful, then why is there so much pain and suffering in this world? Why is it coming at me? What did I do to deserve this?
So today, as the story continues, God shows up like a whirlwind in the midst of thunder and lightening! Imagine that! Imagine yourself praying for a sign, praying for God to show up and it happens just like that. Only God doesn’t show up sheepishly to be cross-examined by Job. Nor does God show up with answers as to why the just suffer or to be more specific why this bad stuff has happened to this good man. Instead, God shows up loaded for bear. God shows up with God’s own set of questions. In fact that is the first thing I want you to notice because I think it is of profound importance theologically. Job had one big question for God: “why me?” God literally comes at Job with a whirlwind of questions: “gird up your loins like a man, Job and I will question you…”
Who is this…?
Where were you…?
Who has put…?
Who has given…?
Can you lift?
Can you provide? …
Can you send…?
Can you hunt…?
We’ll have to wait until next week to hear how Job responds, but for today it is our task to reflect on this whirlwind speech. What does it mean?
One interpretative trajectory focuses on the sovereignty and inscrutability of God: God gets to be God, not us. God’s questions remind Job (and more importantly the reader of the Book of Job) that we aren’t as smart as we think we are. God’s ways are in fact not our ways. That isn’t an answer to the question of human suffering, but it’s a clear reminder that the universe doesn’t work like a clock and God isn’t a giant clock-winder in the sky.
I think of the film, Bruce Almighty, which I love not only because I happen to be a fan of Jim Carrey and Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Aniston, but because I also think underneath all the laughs there is a pretty serious point directly related to the topic at hand. You may recall that Morgan Freeman plays God in that film, but he’s tired and in need of a break so he leaves Jim Carrey in charge of the universe for a while. One of my favorite parts is when he just grants every prayer request as if prayer was like throwing a coin into a wishing well. Everyone wins the lottery; I mean everyone who prayed that they would win does win. So the “jackpot” is split so far that the winnings total about 49 cents each! Granting every prayer request leads to chaos, because most people don’t really know what is best for them, but only what they think is best for them.
So maybe we can imagine Morgan Freeman here today and playing the role of God again, and speaking those words we heard from our Old Testament reading this morning and sounding a bit beleaguered. And sort of saying to Job something like this: “Do you want to switch jobs for a while, Job? I’ll take a little vacation and leave you in charge of the universe for a week or so and we’ll see how that goes, alright? You up for that?” Gird up your loins like a man, boy!
Another possible meaning of the whirlwind speech starts at the opposite end, with Job. One thing about suffering - and this is an observation, not a judgment: suffering can make us very self-centered. Our world becomes smaller and smaller. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her work on the stages of grief, spoke about isolation and depression as stages one who is going through loss has to navigate. That is very real and part of what has happened to Job. Granted, his friends are real schmucks. Nevertheless, Job’s very real pain has meant the loss of family and a rift with his friends. He’s literally all alone in the world and his support system is gone, and so of course it feels as if God has also abandoned him. He had looked to his left and to his right but he felt all alone and in the dark.
So the mere presence of God is a kind of grace, because at least he knows that he is not alone in the universe, or completely crazy to have put his trust in God in the first place. Notice how God’s speech points Job outward, beyond himself to the natural world. God helps Job get un-stuck, like a tough but wise therapist. So one might hear God’s whirlwind speech as something like this:
Job: you need to go on a whale watch and consider Leviathan that I made for the sport of it. Or take a walk along the ridge of the Grand Canyon, or hike the Rockies or camp underneath Pleides and Orion in Acadia National Park. Or consider the glorious array of maples from the top of Mt. Wachusett on a clear autumn day in central Massachusetts. Sit on your porch during a lightning storm and consider. Consider the ravens and the mountain lions. Consider the lilies of the field…
Now this trajectory isn’t mutually exclusive from the first one. In fact, I think they might be just two sides to the very same coin. The first focuses on God’s sovereignty and the second on human limitations. In both cases we are reminded that the job of being the Almighty is not in fact open, Hollywood comedies aside. And this is a good thing; we aren’t in charge. It’s not all about us.
That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about us; it does mean that our measure of the universe can’t always be about what is or is not working for us at any given moment, even when we are in real pain. This in no way means that our pain is less real, but we cannot usually find a good explanation for unexplained loss. What we can do is grieve, and then by God’s grace move forward one day at a time. A child is killed by a drunk driver, and there is no answer to that question of why God has “allowed this to happen.” In fact I think it’s the wrong question. I don’t need to defend God; I just think the universe functions in a certain way and human beings cause these things to happen and too much alcohol and a machine that can travel at fast speeds is a terrible combination. But there are other children and there are other drunk drivers out there. So when mothers get M.A.D.D. together and step beyond their own circle of pain to embrace the needs of others, both they and the world are in some real and tangible way set on the path toward healing. Things begin to change. And I think that’s God at work in the world.
Or a man sits and waits for his chemotherapy and notices this incredibly brave nine-year old girl who has lost all of her hair, and it dawns on him that he is not the only one fighting this terrible disease and the link between them is strong enough to inspire him to keep fighting, not only for himself, but as part of something bigger than self. I think that is God at work in the world.
The Book of Job may generate more questions than answers. It may have multiple interpretations. But it stands for us, I think, as a reminder that the synagogue and the church need to be places where there is room for such questions. Where we come sometimes to scream at the heavens: why? Just as Jesus cried out on a dark Friday, “why have you forsaken me, O God?”
Did we really expect that God to show up and say to Job, “Well, Job, your questions are very fair so let me sit down and explain to you how this universe thing works?” There will be time at the end for further questions!
Perhaps it is enough simply that God does show up not just in Job’s life but in our lives to point us to some new questions. Perhaps the question “why me?” is not the best or only question for us to ask. As someone has written, “why not me?”
The Book of Job doesn’t answer the question about why the just suffer. What it does do is to point us toward some new and bigger questions that have the potential to lead us to hope. New life is possible. We gather here on the Day of Resurrection to remember the Paschal mystery, which is just another way of saying that Good Friday never gets the last word. It is hope that brings us together in communities like this one, not only to share our joys, but to share our sorrow and pain as well. It is into this time and this place, into our lives, that the inscrutable, sovereign Creator continues to speak to us out of the whirlwind, reminding us that our vocation is to be faithful creatures – not the Almighty. That job is taken.