Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Last week we reflected on the Old Testament book of Job and the powerful example it offers of lament – candid, honest, sometimes even fairly raw declarations of pain in the face of suffering. And we noted that these are complaints directed not just to the world in general but often to God specifically. In his laments the character of Job stands solidly in biblical tradition, keeping company with the psalmists, and with prophets like Jeremiah, with the book of Lamentations, and so on. Scripture clearly teaches that lament can be a legitimate form of faithful prayer – crying out to the God of justice when life feels terribly unjust, crying out to the God of love and mercy when innocent people suffer for no apparent reason.
As the book moves toward its conclusion, though, Job’s long lament comes to an end, and a different voice takes center stage: the voice of God. God’s been pretty quiet for those intervening chapters since the initial set up of Job’s situation in the introduction of the book. But now it seems the Lord of the universe is ready to weigh in. And when we pick up our reading again today in chapter 38, we find God answering Job from a whirlwind.
Remember, all along Job has essentially been asking “why” questions. “Why am I suffering?” “Why, God, have you allowed these awful things to happen?” “Why are you punishing me when I’ve done nothing wrong?” Questions I’m sure we’re familiar with, questions we may have asked at times in our own prayers.
Job’s been asking those “why” questions, but God’s response, when it comes, doesn’t offer any explanation for why so many awful things happened to Job. Instead, God changes the conversation entirely. “Who is this talking about things he doesn’t understand?” says God. “It’s my turn to ask the questions, Job. Let’s start with: ‘where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... who determined its measurements… who laid its cornerstone?’” (Job 38:1-6) In fact, the Lord takes four chapters to detail his credentials as creator and sustainer of the universe. We only read a small portion of the divine speech this morning, so let me offer a sampling of other questions God’s said to ask Job, just to give you the general idea: “Have you walked in the recesses of the deep?” (Job 38:16) “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow… or of the hail?” (Job 38:22) “What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?” (Job 38:24) “Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?” (Job 39:19) “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars… is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?” (Job 39:26-27) Four full chapters like this of beautiful poetry full of creation theology and the providence and power of God.
And … it doesn’t answer Job’s question. Job asks “why?” and God says: let’s talk about the “Who” with a capital W. Who’s the author of all creation? Whose power, whose wisdom, whose command made all of this happen? Who brought into being everything you see around you? Was it you, Job? Hardly!
As readers, we may find God’s response from the whirlwind comforting, or we may find it disappointing in not answering Job’s question the way we might wish. But whatever else it may be, it’s certainly humbling. What can Job do but essentially mirror back: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” (Job 42:2-3)
Remember, the Old Testament wisdom tradition has been all about gathering knowledge and discernment and understanding. So among other things, the book of Job functions to remind us of the limits of human wisdom. As hard as we try to understand the world around us, there will always be things we can’t fathom. To quote a few more lines from God’s majestic speech at the end of the book, we don’t “have an arm like God,” can’t “thunder with a voice like his.” (Job 40:9) We can’t “play” with a giant whale “as with a bird” or “put it on a leash” for our daughters (Job 41:5). Bottom line: God is God and we are not.
Whether there is a reason for human suffering – an actual answer to Job’s questions and our own that makes sense in heaven – this is something I suspect I’ll always wonder about. I’m cautious about moving too quickly to a greater purpose as if God actually wills or wants his creatures to suffer. I’m just not convinced that’s the case. At the very least it’s difficult to reconcile that with what we know of God’s love. So I suspect I’ll keep on pushing and questioning and wondering and yes, sometimes even shaking my fist right along with Job, in my prayers. But I’m also becoming more willing to embrace mystery and admit there is a whole lot I will never understand. Naturally not everything is going to make sense to those of us who didn’t lay the foundations of the earth (Job 38:4) or prescribe the bounds for the sea (Job 38: 10).
The good news, if the book of Job is any indication, is that our lament will still be met with the presence and person of God. When we express our pain, when we rail against innocent suffering and the apparent injustice of the universe, with or without an accompanying whirlwind, God will show up.
Just after the verses Cheri read for us this morning, we find Job repenting in dust and ashes in response to God’s speech. Almost immediately after that, though, we’re told by the narrator that Job’s friends were wrong, and Job was right about his innocence. So I don’t think Job’s changing his story here or saying he did anything to deserve his awful fate. It seems to me he’s primarily expressing humility before God. He’s argued and pushed and shouted at the heavens, but in the end, he also knows his place before the Creator of the Universe. God is God, and Job is not.
It reminds me of the story of Abraham back in Genesis 18. When he learns of God's decision to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham stands before the Lord, daring to bargain with the Creator of the Universe over the fate of that city. "Surely, Lord, you wouldn't destroy the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you to do such a thing!" And then follows this fascinating dialogue. Abraham has the audacity to keep standing there, to keep asking, to keep pushing God on the point: "Will you destroy the city if there are 50 righteous inhabitants? . . . How about 45? Or 40? Or 30? Or 20? Or 10?"
The Lord doesn't appear to lose patience with Abraham but listens and takes him seriously. And Abraham asks persistently, almost to the point of stubbornness, because of what's at stake for him, both personally and theologically. On the one hand, his nephew Lot and his wife and children are in that city and Abraham doesn't want them to be killed. At the same time, Abraham wants to be sure that the Judge of all the earth really will do what is right. He's asking: "Are you the God I know you to be? What about everything you've taught me about justice and righteousness?" And God listens. And God responds.
But in the final verse of Genesis 18, we’re also told: "Abraham returns to his place." Perhaps the narrator is simply telling us it was time for him to go home, but I think there's more to it than that. Abraham had pushed the boundaries, he had argued and bargained and pleaded with God, but he'd also prefaced his pleas with acknowledgements of the greatness of God and of his own limitations. All along Abraham knew who he was talking to, and knew that the Lord might not grant his request. And in the end, when the Lord ended the conversation and went his way, free to act as he divinely chose, Abraham returned to his place.
The ending of the book of Job, too, seems to teach that the posture of prayer requires this delicate balance: we can be persistent in demanding justice from God, but we also need to know our place, remembering which one of us in the conversation is the Creator and which one is the creature.
So what are our takeaways from all this?
Again, the biblical tradition permits us to raise our own voices in lament and protest. It’s ok to register with the heavens a strongly dissenting opinion on how things are being handled down here! But ultimately our tradition also teaches – and our sanity perhaps requires of us too – that we move on, confessing there are significant limits to human wisdom and understanding. God is God and we are not, which means there will always be more going on than we can possibly know.
Because we’re invited throughout the Scriptures to consider the image of God as a parent, I wonder if there’s a useful analogy in the way a young child can be supported through a moment of crisis. When the world isn’t working the way the child wants it to. When life feels incredibly unfair, or exhausting, or painful. Depending on the age of the child, they may well want an explanation. But as adults we know that what they need even more than logic, in that moment, is love. When we can’t help them with an answer to their “why” questions, we can at least offer them a reliable “who.” Showing them their pain is seen and heard by someone who cares. When the crying dies down or the meltdown passes, it can help to notice that mom or dad is still sitting right there beside them, or even holding them in a tight embrace. Perhaps not explaining their pain in a way they can understand. But not dismissing it either. Just being there, solid and steady, reminding them someone strong and trustworthy is in charge.
There’s a lot I’m sure I’ll never understand about innocent suffering, and a lot I don’t know about the book of Job too. But I’ve taken comfort this week from pairing the lesson about humility before God we’re given at the end of Job with another lesson about humility offered us in Psalm 131, which reads:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
Remember, it’s the very same God who schools us from the whirlwind in Job 38, putting us in our place by reminding us of the limits of human understanding who, in the words of Psalm 131, also holds us in a deeply tender place as a mother holds a young child. To say the same thing a different way, borrowing from our worship songs today, the God of whom we sing “How Great Thou Art” is also the God who is our “Hiding Place.”
Will it decrease our pain in any given moment to remember that God’s in charge? That probably depends on the person. Will it increase our capacity to understand innocent suffering to pan back and find in creation reminders of God’s matchless power? I’m afraid that’s not something I can guarantee.
But could it help us stumble our way through the mystery of it all to remember, with humility, that we are seen and heard and held always by the God who made us? That’s my prayer for you, and for us all. Amen.