Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Challenging an Elusive God

Sermon 3 in the Book of Job Series

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Job 23:1-17


St John of the Cross was a Christian mystic in Spain during the time of the Inquisition.  He joined Teresa of Avila in her efforts to reform the Carmlite order, returning to a focus on prayer and spirituality.   John of the Cross wrote,  “Silence is God’s first language.”   A twentieth century monk Thomas Keating added, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.  In order to hear that language we must learn to be still and to rest in God.”  And yet another monk, Thomas Merton, wrote, “God [is] hidden within me.  I find [God] by hiding in the silence in which [God] is concealed.” [1]

These spiritual leaders are speaking of silence as a way to find God.  They are encouraging a practice of intentional silence, in which we turn off the TV, the radio, the internet and even put down good books in order to be still enough to be aware that we are in God’s presence.  It is a practice claimed by every major faith tradition, but one that very few of us actually engage.  It is an intentional keeping of silence, a refusing to attend to anything which would distract us from the possibility of communion with God. 

There is another kind of silence.  It happens when we are in physical or emotional pain because of tragedy, grief, heartache or loss.  It is a silence which is deafening, a silence which drowns out all those things that we would normally hear.  It is the silence of God’s absence. 

Many of us are familiar with C.S. Lewis.  He was a British Christian of the last century, perhaps best known for his books The Chronicles of Narnia.  His wife, Joy, died after only three years of marriage.  In his book, A Grief Observed, he describes the pain and grief he felt, including the pain of God’s absence.  He writes,

“Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is he so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?”[2]

It is this silence, this absence that Job is enduring.  Job is suffering and God is silent.  Job is wounded, baffled and angry. 

Remember that Job’s friends keep repeating the conventional wisdom – Job is suffering because of his sin. This is God’s punishment.  If he wants it to end, he has to admit his sin.  But for 23 chapters now, Job has insisted that he has not sinned.   In the last sermon, I suggested that Job has a couple of options. He could accept the opinion of his friends and think he deserves what he’s getting.  That would be giving up on himself. 

Or he could accept the opinion of his friends and believe that either God is unjust or that there is simply no God.  That would be giving up on God, giving up faith.  But he doesn’t choose either of these.

Instead, over and over, he has challenged God.  He wants his day in court, where God will hear his case and judge him fairly.  As a human being, he wants to argue with the Creator of the universe.  What is going on here?  Is Job indulging in some kind of foolhardy boldness, an insolent arrogance that dares to presume that he is equal to God?  Or is this the most profound kind of faith, a deep trust that making this kind of demand of God is the only way to get through the silence?[3]

I’m going with option #2.  This is deep faith, not arrogance.  Job does not share his friend’s opinion that God rewards good and punishes evil, but he is holding on to something, some bedrock belief in God’s justice.  Even though he is being treated unjustly right now, he is confident that if he can only talk with God, things will be right again.  That is bold faith; faith bold enough to challenge God. 

This is another possible outcome.  Instead of giving up on God or himself, Job pushes on in a direction which may end up re-shaping his understanding of God.  And it’s possible that he may not like what he finds.  C.S. Lewis said that he wasn’t in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  He wrote, “The conclusion I dread is not ‘so there’s not God after all,” but, ‘so this is what God’s really like.  Deceive yourself no longer.”[4]

Job is not alone.  There are others in the Bible who challenge God.  But it is not without risk and so it only happens rarely.  One other significant example is Abraham.  It happens in Genesis 18.  God has warned Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah are going to be destroyed.  Abraham has the audacity to try to talk God out of this plan.  Abraham says, “You would sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there are 50 righteous people in the city?  Would you spare the city for the sake of 50 innocents?”  And God says yes.  So Abraham tries again, “What if there are 45 innocent? Would you spare the city for the sake of 45?”  And God agrees.  If 45 righteous people can be found, God will spare the city.  And Abraham keeps going bargaining with God, until God agrees that if there are only 10 righteous people, God will change the plan and preserve the city. 

The popular theology in Abraham’s time said that the gods loved nothing better than smiting people.  It was believed that the gods, including the God of Israel, just went around watching people, looking for bad behavior that would give them an excuse to destroy them.  But Abraham believes that the God of Israel is better than that.  Abraham says, “Far be it from you to slay the righteous with the wicked.” Abraham believes that such action is not worthy of God.  Abraham is challenging God to prove that God is holy and compassionate and not a capricious tyrant.

Walter Brueggemann says, “The result of the argument is that it will take only a very small number of righteous people to save a community, even though it is largely populated with guilty people.  . . .God is now more attentive to and more moved by those who obey than those who do not.” [5]

The way the story is told in Genesis, Abraham and God talk it over, as much in face-to-face conversation as a human can have with the divine. In fact, if the story is read carefully, it is almost as if Abraham is God’s theology professor.[6] It hasn’t happened that way for anyone I know.  But I think Abraham’s story is still instructive.  Daring to challenge God, daring to challenge popular ideas about God, even the most orthodox ideas about God, is one way that we come to understand God and ourselves more deeply.  So if we find ourselves demanding answers like Abraham or Job, we are in good company.

Abraham receives an answer from God.  Job is not yet so fortunate.  Job is still waiting in the deafening silence.  In chapter 13, he said to his friends, “Keep quiet, I will have my say, come what may upon me.  How long!  I will take my flesh in my teeth; I will take my life in my hands.  [God] may well slay me; I may have no hope, Yet I will argue my case before Him.”  (Job 13:13-15, Tanakh translation)

There is a rabbinic story of a Jewish man who escaped the Spanish Inquisition with his wife and child and made his way in a small boat across the stormy sea to a stony island. A flash of lightning exploded and killed his wife. A whirlwind arose and hurled his child into the sea. Alone, wretched, naked and barefoot, lashed by the storm, terrified by thunder and lightning, his hair dishevelled and his hands raised to God, the man made his way up onto the rocky desert island and looked to God: 

“God of Israel,” he said, “I have fled to this place so that I may serve You in peace, to follow Your commandments and glorify Your name. You, however, are doing everything to make me cease believing in You. But if You think that You will succeed with these trials in deflecting me from the true path, then I cry to You, my God and the God of my parents, that none of it will help You. You may insult me, You may chastise me, You may take from me the dearest and the best that I have in the world, You may torture me to death - I will always believe in You. I will love You always and forever - even despite You.”[7]

This is where we leave Job for the week.  In the midst of silence so strong it might feel like a kind of presence.  With his questions still unanswered, his case as yet unheard, but holding fast to his audacious faith.  “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in God.”    Amen.

[1]Jonathan Montaldo, ed. Entering the Silence: Becoming a Monk and Writer. The Journals of Thomas Merton.  Volume 2:1941-1952 (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 187.

[2]A Grief Observed, copyright 1961 by N.W. Clerk, restored 1996 C.S. Lewis, (New York:  HarperCollins), pp. 5-6.

[3] R.B.Y. Scott, The Way of Wisdom in the Old Testament (New York:  Macmillan, 1971), p. 141.

[4]A Grief Observed, p. 5 

[5]Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching,  (Atlanta:  John Knox Press, 1982), p. 172

[6] Brueggemann, p. 168

[7] From Zvi Kolitz, Yosl Rakover Talks To God  translated by Carol Brown Janeway (New York:  Random House, vintage edition 2000),pp. 23-24.