Out of the Whirlwind

Out of the Whirlwind

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. . . .” Job 38:1-11; 16-18

The Reverend Luther Zeigler

June 24, 2018 – 5 Pentecost

Why do bad things happen to good people? This is the central question at the heart of the classic biblical parable, the Book of Job.

I say ‘parable’ because like the Garden of Eden story from Genesis, which we read a few weeks ago, the Book of Job is not history and it is a category mistake to read it as such. It is part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. We do not know who authored the book, and even its date of composition is obscure: scholars place it somewhere between 500 and 700 years before Jesus’ day. Set in the mysterious land of Uz, which doesn’t appear on any ancient map, the book is named after its star, an unknown Gentile character named ‘Job’ with no known historical lineage.

As the great twelfth century rabbi, Maimonides, observed long ago, the Book of Job is a poetic tragi-comedy, grounded not in the historical reality of a single man and his family, but rather in the experience of all humanity, as each of us struggles to understand where God is in our suffering.

At the beginning of the drama, we meet Job, a rich and happy man. He enjoys all the ancient near Eastern markers of prosperity: seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred oxen, an equal number of donkeys, dozens of servants, along with a devoted wife and seven sons and three daughters. And, we are told, Job is widely regarded by his peers as a blameless and upright man.

But then the scene shifts to a chilling conversation in a heavenly court between a God-like figure and a fallen angel. Like a parent who is a little too proud of his upright son, God says to the satanic angel: “Did you notice my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him: a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and avoids evil.” The devilish angel is doubtful. He suggests to God that perhaps Job is such a good man only because he is so well off; if Job didn’t have all these riches, the accusing angel taunts, Job would turn on God in a second. Let’s put him to the test, the angel begs. So, God accepts the diabolical challenge, and the hellish drama begins: Job’s animals are stolen, his servants are killed, all of his children die in a desert storm, and then, to make matters really ugly, Job contracts leprosy and develops loathsome boils all over his body.

Needless to say, poor Job cannot fathom what has happened or why. His friends are convinced that Job must have some deep, dark sin in his past and that his current misery is punishment for this. They are persuaded that bad things happen only to bad people. As for Job’s wife, she quickly gets fed up with this reversal of fortune and urges Job to curse God and do himself in. But Job can’t bring himself to do that. Despite all his suffering, good old Job hangs on to his relationship with God and continues to trust.

But as his misery mounts, and the days of pain and suffering multiply, even Job begins to waver a bit. He comes to curse the day he was born. He prays to be relieved of his afflictions. Job cries out to God for some kind of an explanation. Job cannot understand his plight. Job frames for the entire Western tradition what has come to be known as “the problem of evil”: how can an all-powerful and all-good God permit innocent creatures to suffer?

So, all of that is the backdrop to this morning’s first lesson, taken from the 38th chapter of Job, in which God finally appears to Job, out of a whirlwind, to offer a response. The cover of your bulletin today is William Blake’s famous depiction of this scene from his magnificent collection of Illustrations to the Book of Job, and we’ll come back to Blake in a moment. But first, let’s consider God’s response to Job. If you listened carefully, you probably noticed that God’s answer to Job is really no answer at all; instead, God responds with a long and rhetorical interrogation: ‘Where were you,’ God asks of Job, ‘when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ ‘Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place?’ ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?’ God goes on and on for pages: ‘Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?’ ‘Do you know the ordinances of heaven?’ ‘Have you,’ God asks Job, ‘given understanding to the human mind?’

In a nutshell, God puts Job in his place. It is a response that quite intentionally does not go to the merits of Job’s question, but instead challenges Job’s standing to ask the question at all. On one level, God’s speech, leaves us disappointed and maybe even a bit put off. The human heart craves for an answer to the problem of suffering, and here God seems adamant not to give one. As some commentators have noted, the speech is so brimming with sarcasm that it almost sounds like a bully thumping his chest at the new pipsqueak on the block who deigns to challenge the bully’s reign over the playground.

And yet, there is a deep truth in God’s speech: again and again, we tend to forget just how small we are in contrast to the vast majesty and intricacy of the whole cosmos. My problems, worries, and pains are so acutely important to me that I convince myself that the universe should stop to take notice of them. We also expect God’s logic to conform to our own. But as Isaiah says, we should remember that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. As Job comes to realize, it is pure hubris for us to insist that God explain Himself and His ways to our intellectual satisfaction.

The upshot of God’s speech to Job is just this: to remind Job of the limits of human understanding, to instill in him a measure of humility, and to invite him to have enough faith in the God who creates the vast complexity of the universe to trust that this God also has the wherewithal to redeem it, even when our feeble minds can’t see how.

What is remarkable about the conclusion of the Book of Job is not God’s speech per se, for it is in truth empty of any explanation for human suffering. Evil remains the mystery it always has been. What is remarkable is God’s willingness to reveal himself at all to this one individual soul.

And this is what Blake’s illustration captures so powerfully. We see Job and his wife kneeling prayerfully, hands reverently together, with relief and gratitude and awe on their faces as they behold God. Job’s three friends, on the other hand, have their backs to God, too caught up in their own intellectual gyrations and self-righteous theories about God to even perceive his presence.

And notice this too about Blake’s depiction of God. While the face of God is the traditional one of the Father, God’s arms and legs are extended in an unmistakable image of the cross, with hands and feet exposed. The image ever so subtly points us to Jesus.

Blake understands that Jesus is the key to the story of Job, and that, as Christians, we are called to interpret all of Scripture through the lens of the Cross, through the truth of Jesus Christ. And when, with Blake, we read Job from this vantage point, we see that the story of Job’s suffering is really Jesus’ suffering, is really God’s own suffering. The detached and vain God we met in chapter 1 of the book, who is willing to gamble with the devil, is not the real God after all, but a caricature. So, too is the God who idly sits by at a distance to see whether Job can survive Satan’s sadistic tests. The real God is the One who comes to Job in the end, who hears his cries, and ultimately shows his face and offers Himself to Job. As Blake’s engraving so beautifully captures, the Book of Job merely foreshadows the God to come in Jesus.

Stated another way, the secret to understanding Job is this: We come to God wanting answers, and all God wants is to give more of Himself. God does not overcome our pain by explaining it away to our intellectual satisfaction. That would be the triumph of reason over death. Neither does God overcome our pain by eliminating it with the wave of a hand. That would be the triumph of power over death. Rather, God overcomes our pain by bearing it with us and for us on the Cross. The cross is the triumph of love over death. Love doesn’t explain, love doesn’t destroy. God’s love stands with us in suffering and death, gently holding us, and bringing us through the pain, with the promise of a joy on the other side that only the Creator of the Universe could give.

An essential part of a priest’s training is learning how to care for the sick and the dying. It is an awesome and holy responsibility, and the truth of it is that none of us are qualified to do it and, at first, it is a scary and bewildering ministry. Most of us, the first few times we sit with a dying person, we fret about what to say. We feel the burden of having to come up with the right prayers, of having neat and tidy theological answers for a family who is crying out to know why they are losing someone they love so much.

But the longer you sit with the dying, the more you realize that words are never adequate to that moment, nor are they what a dying person really wants. In death, as in life, what we really want is to know that someone cares enough to be present to us, cares enough to share in our pain, cares enough to listen to our fears, cares enough to hold our hand and kiss our cheek.

That’s all Job really ever wanted. Words be damned. It’s the radiance of God’s face that Job wants to see, and touch, and behold. And in the end, that is exactly what God gives. In the immortal words of Handel’s Messiah, taken straight from Job’s mouth: “I know now that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.”