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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Because God is God...and we're not

Job 38

Pr. 24, Yr. B


My son Stephen refers to it as “The Rant of Death.” Maybe this never happens in any of your households, but here’s what periodically occurs in ours: I’m home at the end of a particularly challenging day of work. After walking in the door and setting down my purse, I put dishes in the dishwasher; pick up dirty clothes from the floor and toss them in the laundry, then fill up the load and start it; sort through the mail and pay a bill or fill out a form; scrub off the mess someone else left behind on the cutting board; change a light bulb that’s burned out; on and on, all while preparing dinner, and not having sat down since I entered the house. In the midst of this, I ask one of the boys to put away clean laundry, and he invariably responds with the complaint, “Right now? Why does it have to be this minute? Why do I have to do everything?”

And at that point, I completely lose it. “Just what is it that you do so much of? Who picked up the dirty laundry and put it in the washer and moved it over to the dryer and cleaned out the lint filter and let you know when it was done? Who went to work to earn the money to buy the clothes? Who pays the gas and water bills so we can do laundry? Who signed the mortgage that gives us a house in which to have a washer and dryer? And did you pay for the bureau and put it together? For that matter, you wouldn’t even be able to wear these clothes if we didn’t feed you, which means Daddy and I planned meals and bought food and cooked it and will probably be the ones to clean it up. So don’t tell me that you do everything around here!” There is a longer version if I’m really on a roll, and with practice I’ve developed a shortcut in which I glare at the child before me and simply say, “You do not want to go there.” And yes, I’ll admit that when I was a kid and the center of my own world, I was fully capable of eliciting a similar reaction from my mother!

Now maybe I’m putting my personal experience into the text, but the minute I started reading today’s lesson from Job, I detected a trace of my own tone of voice. Job is having an awful time with life; his 7 sons, 3 daughters, very many servants, and 11,000 oxen, sheep, donkeys, and camels have all died, he’s broken out in painful, oozing sores, and all his terrified friends can say is “You must’ve done something to bring this on yourself.” He’s justifiably furious and is taking his anger out on God.

Finally God has had it with Job and his friends, and out of a whirlwind speaks back: “Job, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about…put on your big boy britches and listen up,” and then proceeds with a 4 chapter, 125 verse litany of questions and declarations about God’s own labors in creating the world, and wisdom and knowledge in watching over it in its greatest expanses and smallest details. My “rant of death” can’t hold a candle to the scope, eloquence, and intensity of God’s tirade about the source of life!

Make no mistake: Job has gotten a raw deal. The basis of his argument—that he’s been an honorable and upright man who deserves neither his suffering nor God’s apparent abandonment—sounds perfectly true. He hasn’t done anything to bring on these horrors; the way the story is set up in the beginning makes it absolutely clear that he doesn’t deserve them. He’s literary proof of the painful lesson we all have to learn along the way, that life isn’t fair.

Many people look to the Book of Job for explanations about suffering and evil, about how a loving and just God can allow awful things to happen to innocent people…in other words, why life really is fair. Those are troubling and universal questions, and well worth every bit of theological mind-power we can put to them…but they aren’t what this particular book of the Bible is about, any more than my rant to one of my children is an explanation for why he should put away his laundry.

In some ways, the first 37 chapters of Job—his tragedies, his friends’ justifications, and his arguments in reply—are a set-up for what I see as the real point, which comes in the last 4 chapters, the first of which was excerpted in today’s reading. “Where were you, Job, when I was doing all this? Do you know how the world works? You wouldn’t even be able to ask your questions if I hadn’t given you the ability to think!” In other words, like it or not, God is God, and we’re not. That’s what this book is about. The author of Job reminds us that when we try to bring God to our level and the limitations of our human mind and reason, we end up confused, angry, and frustrated. Just because Job can’t figure out how God is working in all this doesn’t mean God’s not there, only that human perception is so narrow in comparison to the vastness and power of God’s presence.

That may not be very comforting when our hearts are breaking from grief, when fear or depression overwhelm us, when our bodies betray us, when anger over personal or community injustices consumes us. We legitimately want explanations, and unfortunately, we very rarely get them. Oh, some people will try, like Job’s friends, for all sorts of reasons; they’ll tell us that it’s part of God’s plan or that it’s better this way or that we just need to be stronger or have more faith. I don’t buy those. I think there are a lot of bad things that happen and we have to live with them without understanding why.

There might be better books in the Bible to look to for comfort and strength when our world is collapsing or exploding around us, words that are more soothing or hopeful. But…but…when we’ve reached the end of the line, maybe this is the place to go. Not because the book of Job answers our questions, but because it doesn’t. These verses honor the pain and mystery of some of life’s hardest realities without sugar-coating them, offering any false sense of security, or trying to explain them away. God’s words in Job are the bedrock: God is God—that’s ultimately reassuring—and we’re not—which also might be something of a relief if we can accept it. If you go home and pick up Job from chapter 38 forward, you’ll read about the God who was there when the foundations of the earth were laid, when the morning stars sang together and the heavens shouted for joy, who shut the doors of the seas and numbers the clouds; the God who gives the hawk strength to soar, satisfies the appetite of the young lions, and knows when the mountain goat gives birth. When, like Job, my questions are unanswerable, that’s the God I want beneath me, beside me, before me, behind me…within me.

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