“Who Are You? Where Were You? Are You Able?”
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
For a while now I’ve thought that the story of Job would make a great stage production. If you’ve ever seen or read Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” you know that Godot never shows up. It’s an absurdist kind of view of life that Becket presents. The two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon just keep on waiting. Nothing matters. There is no purpose to anything. In the book of Job, God shows up. The way we feel about God is going to determine the way we feel about the way that God shows up here. George Bernard Shaw said this – “If I complain that I am suffering unjustly, it is no answer to say, ‘Can you make a hippopotamus?’” (Some people think the reference to the Behemoth in ch 40 is about a hippo)This passage has been interpreted in as many ways as people see God. We may come to this passage and find it a little disappointing. We were expecting answers to certain questions about suffering! We come to it confessionally. We come to it, in other words, bringing what we believe about God. Norwegian theologian Peter Wessel Zappfe describes God’s appearance and words like this: “(Job) finds himself confronted with a ruler of grotesque primitiveness, a cosmic cave-dweller, a braggart and blusterer, almost agreeable in his total ignorance of spiritual culture… What is new for Job is not God’s greatness in quantifiable terms; that he knew fully in advance… What is new is the qualitative baseness.”
Or this from Elie Wiesel – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals. God did not say: You sinned, you did no wrong. Nor did He admit his own error. He dealt in generalities, offering nothing but vast simplifications.
Two things of which we can be sure – one is that God’s speaking will not support “conventional wisdom” – we’ve already seen that in the story in the speeches of Job’s friends and Elihu. The second is that we will have a place to stand.
So where do we stand as we read God’s words? “Where do we stand?” is really the existential question of our lives. This is what we’ve been saying from the outset. Why are the righteous pious? Do you still persist in your integrity? Do you still persist in your love and adoration and attention and worship toward God? No matter what is happening…
Or do you not? Is all of this meaningless, and by all of this, I don’t mean this (Job) or this (Bible) but life? What we believe will colour how we see chapters 38 to 41 of Job’s story. But we still need a place to stand. Let’s ask for God’s help as we seek a place to stand together.
We’ve spoken from the beginning of July about the power of questions. Questions that can lead us into a deeper understanding of God, ourselves, the world. We’ve said that the question that has underlined the whole story is “Is God worthy of our love and adoration and worship no matter what our circumstances?” To expect God to answer questions about why the innocent suffer or where the justice is in innocent suffering is to do the text a disservice. It’s also I believe to do God a disservice. And we who follow Christ are called to serve yes?
It doesn’t mean we don’t have questions or doubts. Of course not. Often we think we come to church or a person of faith or a religious professional to have our questions answered. Equally and possibly more important are the questions that are asked of us. It’s a famous rabbinical teaching technique. Jesus did it all the time. The teacher does not so much give you the answers as ask the right questions so that you may answer them.
What we have here is God asking Job questions. I do not read this as God bragging or asking questions that Job will find impossible to answer. “Where were you when I…” not in the sense that we might say to someone “If you think you could have done a better job than be my guest!” I don’t believe that Jesus asked his followers “Are you able to drink the cup that I am going to drink?” in order to brag and show off and say “Hey I’m the Son of God! I’m the only one who can do this! Do you think you can stand in for me or something? Outta my way!”
I don’t think Jesus was asking that to brag and I don’t think God is bragging here. God is asking questions (ironically but God is not without literary talents) in order to bring Job and us to a deeper understanding of three questions – Who are you? Where were you? Are you able?
Who are you? Where were you? Are you able? Deep questions I know but we like those.
The thing about this situation that Job finds himself in here is the same about the situation that we tend to find ourselves in when we face suffering. We find ourselves at the limit of our own abilities and know how. We find ourselves unable to extricate ourselves from a dire situation. We go from sunshine to something else and God speaks to us. God speaks to us in silence yes. God spoke to Elijah not in the wind and not in the earthquake and not in the fire, but in the stillness. Here God speaks from the storm. From the whirlwind. Look at how the imagery changes. Elihu speaks of the light when it is bright in the skies, when out of the north comes golden splendour and around God is awesome majesty. earth being still because of the south wind. He speaks of how no one can look on the light when it is bright in the skies, when the wind has passed, and cleared them and out of the north comes golden splendour and around God is awesome majesty.
- Sunny days that speak of the glory of God, the majesty of God.
Then comes the whirlwind. Then comes the voice for which we’ve been waiting.
When sunny days become a whirlwind it tends to focus things. We’ve been talking about this since the beginning of the summer. Getting to the essence of things. When we are confronted with a whirlwind – our own finitude our own mortality – it tends to take us to the essence of things. I was in a dental office not long ago with this passage on my mind. They took this 3D scan of my mouth. When I sat back in the dental chair, the screen showed the image along with a skull in the upper right hand corner. I thought it was my own skull! I thought “Well isn’t that way to be confronted by your own mortality.” I turned out it was a generic skull in the end anyway.
There’s a story I read which shows the kind of thing I’m talking about. It’s long but I think worthwhile from a US philosopher called Henry Bugbee and a book entitled The Inward Morning: “It was in the summertime, at a summer resort, along the North Fork of the Trinity River in California, on a day, like so many summer days of bright sun streaming through the tops of pines. Most of the length and breadth of that long, smooth, flowing pool lay translucently exposed to the bouldered bottom. Children played on the sandy shores, or splashed along the fringes of the pool. The air was of ambient fragrance of pines, reassuring warmth and stillness, refreshing coolness of moving water… The roar of the rapids below the pool might have been but a ground-bass of contentment, filling us all.
There came a cry for help, seconded with a cry of fright, and I turned toward the tail of the pool just in time to see a young man desperately, failingly, clinging to a great log which had been chained as a boom across the lower end (to raise the water level in the pool). No one could reach him in time. An enormous suction from under the log had firm hold of the greater part of his body and drew him ineluctably under. He bobbed to the surface of the first great wave of the rapid below, but there was no swimming or gaining the bottom to stay what seemed an impending execution on the rocks…some hundred yards down. But it chanced that the river was abnormally high, and as it carried this helpless man doomward it swept him just for a moment under the extremity of a willow which arched far out from the bank… With a wild clutch the young man seized a gathering of the … branches and held. Everything held… He had barely the strength and the breath to claw himself up the muddy slope onto firmament.
I had run across the log and arrived on the opposite side below the willow, where he now paused, panting and on all fours, unable to rise. Slowly he raised his head and we looked into each other’s eyes. I lifted out both hands and helped him to his feet. Not a word passed between us. As nearly as I can relive the matter, the compassion that I felt with this man gave way into awe and respect for what I witnessed in him. He seemed absolutely clean. In that steady gaze of his I met reality point blank, filtered and distilled as the purity of a man.”
Meeting reality point blank. Getting to the essence of everything. No words passed between them. Is it any wonder that Job tells God here “I lay my hand on my mouth.” 40:4 He has gone back to silence in the face of the whirlwind. The river you see doesn’t care about the morality of its actions. The river has no time for moral philosophy. When you’re swept up in the river it is not the time for endless arguments about cause and effect and theodicy and how can a just God be righteous or why does this happen or that not happen or of us putting our own ideas about suffering and justice on God in our great wisdom.
It's time for questions and the questions are asked of us.
Questions like those that are laid out here. Questions that are there to lead us into a deeper relationship with God. Not belittling at all but affirming. Who are you? Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? It’s the same question that Moses asked himself about himself when he met Yahweh at the bush that burned but was not consumed. Who am I? It’s the same question that the Psalmist asked in a broader sense – What is humanity that you are mindful of them? This talk of creation points to the answer! I am a creation of the living God who made me in His image! Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Not in the sense of “I didn’t see you doing this or helping me!' or 'Who do you think you are?' but in the sense of do we know the answer to this question? Where were you? Where was I? I was chosen by God in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love, destined for adoption as his child through Jesus Christ according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace! (Eph 1:4-6a)
Gird up your loins like a man or woman or child and pray to God to help you to live into this identity because that is who we were created to be! Sing praise to God just like the morning stars that sang together and the heavenly beings who shouted for joy. Let us join them in praising our loving God who is over all and through all and in all and who both restrains and sustains – “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb – when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band.” God made it, God restrains it and God sustains it.
Isn’t that wonderful? I like to say I have a healthy respect for the power of the sea and I don’t even have any experience of it! There are things more powerful than we are but not more powerful than God. My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do, we sang as children. It seems we are made to recognize powers beyond ours. When we’re children it’s often our parents that we think of as invincible until life sadly disabuses us of that notion. We have notions of care though and justice and rightness because we are made in God’s image. We are also dust of course and it does not do to place our own preconceived notions of such things on God. This is a call to trust. To trust God who looks after the mountain goats and the deer as they have their baby deer and who looks after the wild donkey and gives it the steppe for a home and who…
So clothes the lilies of the field. And who is aware even of the sparrow falling.
Are you willing to trust this creating nurturing sustaining God? Whose son talked about the lilies and the sparrows. Whose eye is on even the sparrow and whose limits mean that injustice will not rule the day. Who will determine that the arc of history is long and bends toward justice. Are you able?
This is our invitation. The last question we’ll talk about this morning. Are you able? Are you able to trust in God who doesn’t provide easy answers and sometimes doesn’t provide any answer? God has provided us with a willow branch to grasp onto. A prophet once told of a shoot that would come from the stump of Jesse. Not so much a branch but an arm with an open hand held out to us, to which we could cling and that would cling to us and draw us up out of the torrent and onto solid ground. A place to stand. A foundation.
Christ Jesus. A foundation who asks his followers who wonder about greatness and who will be considered great in his kingdom – “Are you able to drink the cup?” Not in a way that suggests bragging or belittling, but an actual choice that is laid before us.
Are you able? To drink this cup is to recognize that while suffering cannot be explained, we are led by a suffering Saviour who brings life even from death. To recognize that the way of God, the way of greatness is the way of self-giving love. Are you able to be led by such a Saviour?
Who are you? A beloved child of God. May God help us to recognize this and live into this. Where were you? Chosen by God from the foundations of the world to be holy and blameless not in ourselves, but before him in love, adopted as His children. May God help us to accept our royal identity in Christ. Are you able?
Are you able? God grant that for each and every one of us the answer might be a grateful and loving “Yes.” May this be true for us all. Amen