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The Ballad of a Man Named Job, Part 3

Thomas J Parlette

“The Ballad of a Man Named Job, Part 3”

Job 38: 1-7, 34-41


Last week during the children’s time, Jay talked about the children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” And you could immediately see the kids perk up – and many of the adults too. The book strikes a chord in all us – whatever our age may be. I suppose it’s comforting to hear about other people’s bad days – even when they are so comically extreme as poor Alexander. From gum in his hair, to the teacher liking his friend Paul’s picture of a sailboat better than his drawing of an invisible castle, to his mother forgetting to pack a dessert in his lunch – nothing works out for Alexander. So he decides to escape to Australia. But unfortunately, life just has days like that, even in Australia.

I do think that Alexander and Job would have found a lot to talk about. Job certainly knew about terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days. He had had his share of those – he was the original Alexander.

When we left Job last week, he was complaining bitterly that God was no where to be found. No matter where he turned, left, right, forward, backward – God remained hidden. All Job wanted was a fair hearing before God, he wanted a day in court to air his complaints and get a few answers. But no – God was not around, and apparently, at least in Job’s opinion, not even listening.

Well, today Job’s prayers are answered – or at least his request to have a hearing before God is honored. God shows up. And as they say, “be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it.” God shows up in a whirlwind.

I remember a time about 15 years ago when I was taking some acting classes at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York. The teacher was a guy named Steve Hamilton. During one class, he spoke to us about the importance of a strong entrance. One of the examples he used was the character Kramer from Seinfeld. Whenever Kramer entered the room, you knew it. He had this way of exploding through the door of Jerry’s apartment, and suddenly he had your attention – you couldn’t help but listen to what he was going to say. I remember Lenny and Squiggy from the old Laverne and Shirley show used to have the same sort of effect – a perfectly timed entrance followed by “Hello” every time – and the stage was theirs. And then there’s the classic entrance of Dick Van Dyke on his classic show from the 1960’s – when he would take a pratfall over the ottoman when he came home from work. Great entrance!

Well, God makes a great entrance of his own here in Job 38. God sweeps onto the stage in the midst of a whirlwind – and he’s got our attention, not to mention our fear and awe as well. God answers Job out of the whirlwind – “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.”

Then God hits Job with some questions of his own. Actually, it seems like the same question over and over again. “Where were you?” asks God. Where were you when I created the world? God pulls rank on Job. God puts Job in his place and reminds Job that he is not God.

I remember a time I was sitting around a conference table having lunch with some other pastors. Whenever the conversation starts to peter out in a group of ministers, you can always count on someone asking – “So what are you preaching on this Sunday.” Well, the subject of Job came up, and we were discussing this passage. Together we wondered out loud – “What kind of an answer is this?” It seems like a very unfair response in some ways, saying to a man who has gone through the suffering that Job has, “What right do you have to question me? Just do what I say, you don’t need to know why. You have no right to question.” In this Divine putdown, can we not see the prototype of all those put down answers that religious institutions and authorities have made over the centuries to anyone who has dared question their authority? “Who are you to question the church? Who are you to question our authority as the interpreters of God’s word. Who are you to question ANY authority or institution? Who are you to question the government, your political leaders, your teachers, your parents? Sit down and be quiet. You are not qualified to question. You lack understanding, you have no right to complain or demand accountability.” That’s the gist of what God seems to be saying here. As Carl Jung has argued, does God not act unjustly, even blindly, attempting to squash and bury his own injustice by overpowering the one who rightly questions it? Around the table with my fellow preachers, the question was asked – “Is this a compassionate response from a loving God?” Or does this just reinforce all that is negative in relationships between the powerful and the powerless? What kind of an answer is this?

On the surface, God’s response here does seem rather heavy-handed and harsh. But be sure to look closely at the text. Notice that God never condemns Job for asking questions. God is actually reprimanding Job’s friends when he talks about those who darken counsel by words without knowledge. God never demands an apology from Job for his complaining – God never tells Job that he needs to take it all back. God’s response to Job is not, “I’m in control, how dare you judge how I run the universe!” That’s not really what God is saying here. God’s response is to ask Job if he understands the deep wisdom upon which the foundations of the earth were laid. God turns the tables on Job and reframes the question. God is telling Job that he needs to look for wisdom, not simply raw power, in his search for God. In other words, this is not meant to be a put down, but simply a reminder. “You are out of your league Job. You don’t give batting advice to Pete Rose. You don’t tell Michael Jordan how to take a foul shot and you don’t tell Tiger Woods how to drive a golf ball. I know things you can’t comprehend Job. I am God, and you are not.” God possesses knowledge and wisdom and power that is simply beyond our capacity to understand.

Through Job, we are reminded that we live and move and have our being in a world we did not create, with a God we cannot comprehend. Especially in a world now far advanced in scientific knowledge and technical capabilities, where many of the questions that God poses to Job can be answered scientifically, this is a timely reminder of our mortality and our limitations. However clever and searching our scientific knowledge of the natural world may be, there are limits to what we can know. Of course the greatest questions of all – Why is there something and not nothing? Why do we exist? What is the purpose of my life? – are no more answerable today than they were in the ancient world. Job 38 is an invitation to stop in our egocentric tracks, and contemplate the wonder of our existence and the awesome being and mystery of God. A God that cannot be fully known and is not accountable to humanity.

Perhaps this idea can be best expressed in a story. I once knew a woman who became the caretaker for her elderly grandfather when he was 94 years old. She moved him from his home in a small southern town to the mid size city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She didn’t like her grandfather to leave the house without her knowledge. She wanted to know where he was at all times so she could come to his aid if something happened.

Well, one day she came from work, and he was gone. He was nowhere in the house, no where in the backyard – and this woman started to panic. She got in her car and drove all over the neighborhood, looking for her grandfather. She called friends, neighbors, but nobody knew anything. She was just about to call the police, when in through the back door walked her grandfather. She immediately confronted him, “Where have you been, I’ve been worried sick!”

Old Grand Dad squinted his eyes and held up his finger – “I went to the store, and I’ve been going to the store long before you were born, missy!” That being said, Old Grand Dad plopped down in his favorite Lazy Boy. With that retort, Grand Pa reminded his daughter’s daughter that he was older, wiser and more experienced that she. He was not answerable to her. Those words, he thought, were strong enough to give him authority. Of course, his granddaughter had other ideas – but that’s beside the point.

This is an encounter of unequal power. God is God – and Job is not. God possesses knowledge, wisdom and power that we cannot understand.

I will not claim that that is an easy thing to hear. It certainly isn’t. There is no way to wrap up Job’s whirlwind encounter with God into three points and a poem. It’s impossible to send you home today with a  comforting sound-byte. This passage demands that we struggle with it, think deeply about it and spend time wrestling with our incomplete knowledge of an unknowable God.

What Job discovered in his whirlwind encounter is what we have been promised in Jesus Christ – that God hears our cries and feels our hurts. God cares, and shares our pain. God is present with us in our sorrow and in our suffering and gives us the courage to go on.

The word of hope I can offer today is that when we’ve exhausted our human resources, our wisdom and our knowledge – isn’t it comforting to know that God can step in like a whirlwind with his divine, unknowable power and stand with us in our suffering?

That may not be what we want to hear from this divine whirlwind. But that’s what we have. And it will be enough to sustain us – as it did Job.

God is God, and we are not. Let us find our rest in the wisdom and power of a God who is wiser, kinder and more powerful than we can ever know.

And for that – may God be praised. Amen