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

Your Arm's Too Short to Box with God

Sermon 4 in the Book of Job Series

Rev. Kathy Donley

08/21/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  Job 38:1-21, 42:1-6

 

Today’s bulletin cover has a poem by Wilber Rees.  In case you haven’t read it yet, it says: 

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.

Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,

but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk

or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don't want enough of God to make me love a black man

or pick beets with a migrant.

I want ecstasy, not transformation.

I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.[1]

 

Three dollars worth of God is a kind of immunization against going crazy with religion.  It’s enough to be respectable without crossing the line into radical faith.  It’s not what Job wanted.  Job wanted the whole enchilada.  He wanted God to hear his complaints, to answer his questions, and to defend God’s actions.  Even though he knew that demanding answers from God was risky.  I’m still not sure he expected what he got.

Job has complained and complained.  Job has challenged God to act like a judge in a courtroom, hearing arguments, weighing the evidence.  Job has rejected his friends’ bad theology.  He has waited for God to respond and perhaps by now, he thinks God will never speak.  But God does.  God speaks from a whirlwind, spinning out one question after another: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . Who determined its measurements? . . . Who laid its cornerstone? . . . Have you entered the storehouses of snow? . . .  Have you seen the storehouses of hail? . . . Can you send forth lightning? . . . Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? . . . Do you give the horse its might? . . . Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?”

For 129 verses, God goes on and on.   This is way more than $3 worth of God.

The English writer Virginia Wolfe once said, “I read the book of Job last night. I don't think God comes out well in it.” 

Another scholar said Job wants answers about the universe's justice, or lack of it, and God blusters on about the creation: the sea, the dawn, the earth, etc. As the speech progresses, God speaks of the wild creatures of the world, even the ostrich, whose foolishness knows no bounds, but whose speed is wondrous.  What are we to make of all this? Job wants justice, and God says, "Have a look at the stupid but fast ostrich!"[2]

Some people think that God’s speech from the whirlwind is overpowering, overwhelming.  The way they see it, God’s answer boils down to “Because I’m God, that’s why.” 

Frederick Buechner writes, “Just the way God cleared his throat almost blasted Job off his feet, and that was only for starters. It is the most gorgeous speech that God makes in the whole Old Testament, and it is composed almost entirely of the most gorgeous and preposterous questions that have ever been asked by God or anybody else. . . . You can think of God as a great cosmic bully here if you want, but you can think of him also as a great cosmic artist, a singer, say, of such power and magnificence and so caught up in the incandescence of his own art that he never notices that he has long since ruptured the eardrums of his listeners and reduced them to quivering pulp.”[3] 

I agree that God does not answer Job’s questions, especially not in the way that Job wanted them answered.  But there is more going on here than God overwhelming Job.   

When you are really hurting, what you really want is not an explanation.  You don’t want someone to explain the statistical probability that you would suffer this kind of injury or to map your genes and offer the rational that this disease runs in your family.  When you are really hurting, I think you want two things.

First, you want to be heard.  If you have suffered an injustice, you want acknowledgment of that injustice.  You keep telling your story to anyone who will listen, because you want them to say you’re right.  Job gets that. God tells Job’s friends “My wrath is kindled against you for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

The other thing you want, if you are really hurting, is hope.  And, in some paradoxical way, I think Job gets that too.  Even though God does not answer in the way Job wanted, at the end Job does not seem unsatisfied with God’s response.  Job’s last words in 42:4-6 are notoriously difficult to translate.   The NRSV says, “‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Verse 6 in the Tanakh, Jewish translation reads “Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.”

And a translation that seeks to maintain the poetry of the Hebrew reads, “Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”[4]

What Job learns from this encounter with God is humility.  He learns that the world is larger and deeper and more mysterious that he had imagined.  And he begins to understand something about his own place in it.  He sees that, contrary to many of our assumptions, human beings are not the center of creation. 

One example, in Job 38:25-27, God says “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?”

“God seems untroubled by the notion of a place where no [person] lives – in fact, God makes it rain there even though it has no human benefit at all.  God makes the wilderness blossom.”[5]  Christian ecologist Bill McKibben says, “what stronger way could there be to make the point, what more overpowering fact to rebut the notion that we are forever at the center of all affairs.”[6]

Job learns humility.  He sees that human beings are a part of creation, but only one part, and that God delights in the wonder and beauty of things that Job has never seen.  We know much more about the universe, about weather and geology and plants and animals that Job and his friends did, and yet, we too need to hear this call to humility. 

In 1874, a young German man named Max Planck applied to study physics at the University of Munich.  The head of the physics department told him to study something else because everything in the field of physics had already been discovered.  Planck studied physics anyway.  In 1905, he read publications by someone named Albert Einstein, something about a special theory of relativity.  Then in 1918, Planck himself received the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum theory.   It turns out that there was more yet to be known about physics in 1874. And there still is.

Humility means remembering that we don’t know all there is to know.  Remembering that we are not the center of the universe.  Remembering that the earth is the Lord’s and that God delights in it.  This kind of humility is especially important as we see the effects of climate change like devastating floods in Louisiana, bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, and the melting ice caps which threaten penguins and polar bears and all kinds of animals created for God’s pleasure. 

Job learns humility. He realizes that he is the creature and God is the Creator.  He is hopeful because, on the vast scale of the universe, he is so small and yet God attends to him.  God vindicates him.  And perhaps more hope may be found in recognizing the power of the Creator.  This God, who inspires wonder and awe, can construct new possibilities where none seemed to exist before.   God may yet make a way where there seems to be no way.

Many of you know the Rev. Peter Carman.  Peter is the pastor at Emmanuel-Friedens Church in Schenectady.  We talked about this text earlier this week.  I said that I didn’t think that God gave answers, but that instead God just gave Job new questions. And Peter suggested that perhaps this is how we know it is God, when instead of getting answers, our questions get re-framed.  That re-framing comes because our perspective has shifted radically.  I think this has been true for some people who experienced a near-death experience or a life-threatening illness.  They come out of that with a re-ordering of their priorities, a different sense of what is important, not so much answers as a new set of questions about the meaning of life. 

Mike Yaconelli was a pastor and an internationally known leader in the field of youth ministry until he died in a car accident in 2003.  In the midst of working out a very conflicted personal relationship, he wrote these thoughts:

I haven’t wanted my faith to make me face the issues in my life, I have wanted my faith to help me avoid the issues. I didn’t ask my faith to give me the courage to do what needed to be done, I asked my faith to do what needed to be done for me. I wasn’t asking for courage to do the difficult, I asked, instead, for the removal of the difficult. I didn’t want my faith to make a difference, I wanted it to remove the need for a faith that made a difference. I didn’t want my faith to give me clarity in the midst of a difficult situation, I wanted my friend’s faith to give him the clarity he needed to quit making the situation difficult for me. I didn’t want everything to work together for good, I wanted everything to be fixed. I wanted faith to change everything but me. I wanted faith to change my circumstances quickly, without any discomfort or pain. . . I am beginning to understand that faith is not the way around pain, it is the way through pain. Faith doesn’t get rid of the opposition, it invites it over for dinner. Faith doesn’t give you the winning point at the last second, it ties the game and sends you into overtime. Faith doesn’t give you the solution, it forces you to find it. Faith doesn’t teach you at the moment, it teaches in retrospect.. . . It gets in our faces and reminds us that it is not irrelevant, even though it seems irrelevant. . . .  In summary:   “It is God shouting to us in our circumstance, “Faith in Me does matter; you figure out how!”.[7]

Perhaps Job and Mike have compared notes.  There is a wisdom that comes from experience, from encounter with God.  We may have to work out what it means and  it may be hard to explain to  others.  And so Job says, “I spoke without understanding, of things beyond me, which I did not know.”  

There is a wisdom in humility.  In recognizing that we have a place in creation, but it is only a part of the whole.  It is, actually not all about us.    

And in this wisdom, there is wonder and awe, wonder which may lead to us to deep and abiding joy.  May it be so for you and for me.

 


[1] Wilber Rees, $3.00 Worth of God, (Valley Forge:  Judson Press, 1971).

[2] John Holbert, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=330

[3]  Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures:  A Biblical Who’s Who (New York:  HarperCollins, 1979), p. 75. 

[4] Stephen Mitchell, The Book of Job, (New York:  HarperCollins, 1992).

[5] Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind:  God, Job and the Scale of Creation (Cambridge, MA:  Cowley Publications, 2005) p. 28 

[6] McKibben, p. 28.

[7] Mike Yaconelli, “Annoying Faith”  at

http://youthspecialties.com/blog/annoying-faith/

 

 

 

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