Scripture - Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
34“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? 35Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? 36Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? 37Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 38when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? 39“Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?
There was an image I saw this week on Facebook - it was something that someone had shared on Twitter a couple years ago. If you don’t know anything about Twitter, here’s a quick run down - if Facebook is where people tend to share pics of their kids and grandkids, interesting articles, etc - Twitter is where you get more of the humor and satire and edginess.
So here’s the Tweet - an imaginary conversation between Job and God:
Job: Hey god you killed like literally all of my kids what’s up with that
God: How dare you speak that way to the inventor of the hippopotamus
It’s a little flippant...a little irreverent...but it does capture the essence of how things shake down in Job’s story. In case you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the quick rundown:
It starts off with Job, an upright man who does all the right things - fears God, shuns evil. He’s got 7 sons and 3 daughters, a lot of livestock and servants and wealth. He was so righteous, that when his children would throw feasts, he’d offer proper sacrifices on their behalf in case they sinned.
One day, God and Satan - which isn’t, by the way, the devil with a pitchfork and red horns, but rather something more along the lines of “tester” or “adversary” - have a conversation in which God brings Job to Satan’s attention. Kind of boastfully - like, “have you seen how good this guy is?” And Satan is like - of course he’s good, you’ve protected him and blessed his hard work -- but if you take all that away from him, he will curse you to his face.”
So God says, “well fine then - you have free reign to do whatever you want to what he has, but you are not allowed to lay a finger on him.”
Satan takes away his livestock, kills his servants, kills his children - in this doesn’t sin by laying the blame at God’s feet. So after a second conversation with God, in which God gives permission to harm Job as long as he doesn’t die, Satan gives Job these painful sores and boils. Job’s wife tells him to curse God and get on with it, but Job does not. His three friends hear about Job’s troubles and come and sit with him in silence for seven days. The rest of the book is one long conversation between Job and the three friends in which the friends try to give him advice about why he’s going through this and Job laments and gets frustrated and angry - but again, never once sins against God. This goes on for 37 chapters.
Then, in the 38th chapter, God weighs in. And doesn’t respond to any of Job’s questions. Not one. Instead, God has a few questions for Job. Like, “where were you when I created the world? While the stars sang as I laid its foundations? Can you call forth lightning? Count the clouds? Make rain fall from the sky? Know the rhythms of the animals - like when they are hungry or give birth or where they live and how they grow? All of them?”
Can you imagine how Job might have felt with this barrage of divine power on display? I mean, how can you possibly deal with the immensity of one who tells you: “29From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven? 30The waters become hard like stone, and the face of the deep is frozen. 31“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? 32Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? 33Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?”
It’s a moment, I imagine, where Job might have been blown away by it all - both in that the One who orders the universe has taken the time to address him and in that humankind is only one small part of creation...and Job only one small part of humankind. In the first case, God here engages with Job and Job is free to question and argue and wrestle with God. Humans are free to have this kind of relationship with God, where we challenge God and doubt God and question God. There is something unique and special about that kind of connection with the divine, and that God would bring attention to Job certainly merits a view of humankind where people are able to handle the immensity and responsibility of divine encounter.
In the second case, God’s response to Job places things back in perspective - that Job and humanity by extension are important, but that God’s concerns aren’t just with human beings, but also with the stars and the lions and the hippopotamuses and the seas of the deep and so much more. As Debie Thomas writes, “Humanity’s place in creation is honorable but not exclusive, significant but not central. God’s perspective on justice for humanity is not bound by Job’s retributive calculus. Of course God cares for Job. But God also cares for the creatures of the forest, the movements of the planets, the patterns of the weather, the currents of the sea. God’s concerns are much wider, broader, deeper, and higher than Job’s puny mind can fathom.”
We humans like to place ourselves at the center of the story - we do this as individuals, we do this as a species. When it comes to suffering, well - we like answers, we like knowing that it is the result of something we did - a direct consequence of our action or inaction. We like to think that if we get the inputs right (the right job, the right relationship, the right therapist, the right grades - whatever), that life comes out right and if life doesn’t come out right, if we are suffering or if we are having a difficult time, then something must have gone awry. We just need to figure out what happened...and fix it. Or think about the world’s problems - the right technology, the right amount of money, the right ideology - we can fix the problems in the world. Everything is within our control.
Except it’s not. Things are laughably not in our control - and God’s response to Job here just draws that out. There are limits as we come up against the mystery of who God is and how God works. The issue of suffering here is not one to be fixed - it’s not something in our control. That isn’t to say God causes it or doesn’t cause it - it is to say, however, that it is a part of life, and the place where we do have control is how we sit with our suffering in relation to the whole of creation.
Job isn’t an object lesson in the fact that someone’s always worse off than you are - that in my suffering, there is always someone who is suffering more. Job isn’t also about meaningless suffering - though it may look that way because he has almost nothing left in his world but himself, his wife, and his friends. Job is, however, about the context in which that suffering takes place.
Our pain matters to God. Our suffering is seen by God, even as God has ordered, protected, sustained, nurtured, preserved, and cherished the entire cosmos. And I think God’s response to Job reminds him - and reminds us - that even as we navigate our own personal trials and hardships, that we are part of a whole - and that’s something I think it’s easy for us, especially in our culture, to forget.
Theologian Sallie McFague says, “We have lost the sense of belonging in our world and to the God who creates, nurtures, and redeems this world and all its creatures.”
We are not meant to relate to God solely through our individual lives and experiences. We are part of a glorious and wondrous whole that includes the ravens and the lions and the seas of the deep and the stars in their courses - we are caught in this inescapable web of mutuality and our personal suffering becomes one piece in the whole of creation which God cares for and tends.
As enfleshed writes, when we suffer, our experiences can almost always be somehow tied to the whole. When someone has a certain form of a cancer, it’s impossible to disentangle that from our collective systems around food,
medical care, production and pollution. When a single individual struggles to find to find housing or food, that’s part of an entire set of systems that has failed them/us. When someone’s life ends too soon, whatever the cause, it’s related to the actions of others whether those actions are morally good, bad, or neutral. Every storm that comes our way can be connected both to the realities of climate change in our time and to the simple fact of the ecosystem being what it is - a place where storms occur. There is simply nothing that happens in this life that is not related to the collective reality. In this text, we see a God who cares deeply for the individual - even the baby ravens hungry for a meal - but also for the whole of Life unfolding.
And carefully, we can be reminded that we are held by the hand of God but not because we are the center of things, but because we belong to the whole of things.”
It makes me think a bit about William Shatner this week - oddly enough - who became the oldest person to go into space. William Shatner, who played a captain of a spaceship on Star Trek Original Series - who went on the Blue Origin mission this week and had this transcendent experience - he was moved to tears by the vulnerability of the planet, the wonder of it, the beauty of the blue air transitioning suddenly to the blackness of space -- he said, “It has to do with the enormity at the quickness and the suddenness of life and death.”
We are part of a whole. God’s response to suffering can never be reduced to an if/then statement...and neither can our lives. Life is complex - and we together bear the wounds and the joys and the sins and the suffering of it all - the impacts of the individual weaving together to form the whole. The beauty of it however is that God is present with us through it all - breathing in and through all of creation since before time, drawing us forward in pathways of love and justice - and we are held in this deep love...we are held in this deep beauty...we are held in this deep mystery in the midst of it all.
My hope and prayer for us is that we take this knowledge with us into the world, that it may give us greater compassion for ourselves and for others as we consider the wounds of the world, that we may be reminded of the God who not only holds us all but came down as Jesus to experience those wounds in his very body, even unto death, that our hearts may be stirred to greater action as we are drawn to offer ourselves in love on behalf of those who suffer - and that God may raise new life from our endeavors. May we be held in God’s love this day and always. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.