A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 18, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

May family's cottage in New Hampshire

My family’s cottage in New Hampshire

I return to this cottage from time to time because here I can detach, here I can slow down, here I can listen to my soul more easily because here there are not distractions of YouTube or email or TV or Facebook. Here my smart phone is a dumb as it can be, for I get no signal. There is a landline, but few know the number and every outgoing call costs money and my Yankee thrift keeps me from calling others.

I return to this cottage from time to time to renew my spirit. Here, the rocks and trees and water remind me that I am of the earth. Here, the rocks and trees and water remind me that I, too, am part of God’s creation. I can hear them here because I am not distracted. I can listen here.

So, I hear it before I see any evidence of it: off in the west, the drawn out rumbling of thunder. The sun is still out enough to cast shadows and the birds are still singing, but there’s no mistaking that sound. I step outside with my smart phone.

It’s coming this way. I can feel it in the air, sense it in the stillness. I don’t understand how a storm can move when things are so still, but it’s coming. I can smell it. A resident loon is floating on the water. I know enough to stay out of the water in a thunderstorm. Does the loon?

Now I can watch it coming. The sky darkens under the weight of the clouds. And then the thunderstorm lets loose. Every now and again, the sky brightens with a flash of lightning. The thunder is right there, almost simultaneous with the lightning. It’s right on top of me. The lights flicker and go out. I sit, staring out the sliding door at the power. The energy being discharged is immense. Standing in the pond up to my neck or standing in the rain, I would be equally wet, but with that lightning I stay inside.

I listen and watch.

The wind is blowing hard now and the understory of the woods are showing the underside of their leaves in the wind. Both rain and wind cause enough noise that only the thunder is louder – rain on leaves, rock, porch, and roof.

And then it starts to dissipate. Oh, I should film this, too, I think, and I open the porch door to film.

And before long, it’s over. The rain moves on. The thunder becomes distant, only now it’s in the east. I no longer see flashes of lightning and the thunder has that drawn-out rumble again. Eventually, the rain sounds gentle and the lake quiets down.

When the sun breaks through the clouds, it surprises me. And then I notice that the noises I hear are from the traffic on the state highway on the other side of the lake, beyond that stand of trees. Was the traffic at a standstill during the storm? I certainly couldn’t hear it.

The birds start calling again. Do they sing praises to God for the sunshine? praises to God for getting them through the storm? Or do they merely proclaim, “Storm or no storm, this is my territory!”?

A squirrel jumps from one branch to another and water still held by the leaves cascades down in to the underbrush. And it is not long before the cicadas remind me that it is still summer. The lake is glassy still.

I return to this cottage from time to time because here I can detach, here I can slow down, here I can listen to my soul more easily. Here, natures sings and storms and tells me of the glory of God. Here, I am reminded that in the vast universe, I am really quite insignificant – and God loves me anyway.

May family's cottage in New Hampshire

I’m lucky that I have this place. I’m lucky that my father hasn’t decided he’s too old to keep it – though that day is getting closer. I’m lucky that I have the resources to be able to travel to New Hampshire and visit.

Job had no such retreat. He had lost everything. Everything. Not just the material things, but he had lost family and health, too. And so, in his misery, in his emotional and physical pain, he cried out to God. For some 35 chapters Job cried to God and heard no answer. His friends offered their counsel. Surely he must have done something wrong, surely he had sinned in some way, for him to be suffering so. But Job knew he hadn’t. Surely God is reasonable and this was so unreasonable. And so he yelled at God, demanded an audience with God. He wanted to take God to court.

Finally, here in chapter 38, the whirlwind approaches. We know how the story is supposed to go. Job will be crushed in this tempest. Elihu told Job that that’s what would happen. God will speak like thunder and shout down his complaints. “We know what to expect from these ancient storm deities. God the cosmic bully will finally put Job in his place.

“Job has lamented his losses, pleaded his innocence, declared the injustice of creation, raised suspicion about the fairness of God, and cursed his own existence. Eliphaz points out that these attitudes are hardly conducive to religious faith and practice (15:4). Elihu wonders who could say to God, ‘You have done wrong’ (36:23). Job hasn’t quite said this, but he has come close enough for his friends to recoil in outrage. Now God takes over the conversation with a whirlwind to blast away Job’s complains. It is time for the Lord to answer all the questions and clean up the confusion.

“Which is precisely what does not happen when ‘the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.’ God ‘answers’ Job only by asking questions – more question, more intriguing question, and more dazzling questions than have been asked in all the conversations leading up to this most crucial one. God’s questions, only briefly interrupted, go on for four chapters. This week’s … verses are just the beginning.”[1]

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? … Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?”

This is not a satisfactory answer! I want to know why bad things happen to good people, and all God seems to be saying is, “I’m God and you’re not.”

“God’s response to Job highlights the notion that God is not an automaton, rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. Understanding divine/human relationship in this way was fairly [common] in the ancient Israelite context,… In the Book of Job, both Job and his friends hold this view, although they disagree about how it is functioning for Job. For Job, this system has worked for him – he’s been good and received reward – up until now. Now he wants to know why the system seems to have broken down and why God isn’t doing God’s job. On the other hand, Job’s friends argue that God hasn’t failed but that Job has erred.”[2]

And that is why the answer is unsatisfactory. We want the good guys and gals to win in the end. Righteousness should lead to blessing, and a little material blessing would be just fine. And all God says about how this is working out is, “I’m God and you’re not”?

I want to know why bad things happen to good people! All this book says is that bad things happen to good people.

There is an invitation in these questions that God asks Job that goes beyond Job’s (and my) attempts to understand why bad things happen to good people. Hebrew Scriptures scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this story invites us to look beyond the goodness of people to the goodness of God. “Yes, hang on to your integrity, Job, for it is never questioned,” Brueggemann writes. “But learn a second language. Learn to speak praise and yielding which let you cherish your virtue less tightly.”[3]

Job thought that his virtue should be his salvation (and a lot of us think the same thing). But we are not saved by our virtue. We are even spiritually blocked by it at times. “No one,” Brueggemann writes, “can stand in the face of the whirlwind on a soap-box of virtue … Being right is no substitute for being amazed.”[4]

That is the blessing of the New England thunderstorm. It brings me to a place of awe. And awe brings me to a place of praise.

I suppose it is easy for me to say. I had shelter and the electricity would probably be restored before I went to bed. What about for the person who is crying out from the ash heap? Or how about when we witness the suffering of innocents? We want there to be reason for the suffering.

And so often there isn’t any. Sometimes suffering happens without reason, but perhaps Barbara Brown Taylor is right, that “the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason, but to suffer without God – without any hope of consolation or rebirth.” We can get angry and even impolite, she says, because “God prefers Job’s courage to the piety of Job’s friends.… Devout defiance pleases God. It may even bring God out of hiding, with a roar that lays our ears back against our heads (and makes the angels shout for joy).”[5]

I think perhaps our problem is not with God, but with our understanding of God. We expect God to be in charge. We want God to be reasonable. And we want things to be fair.

But what if God’s not like that?

What if God is not some great watchmaker up above us all who sets the world in motion and makes sure that virtue is rewarded and evil is punished? What if God does not direct the universe, but underlies it? And what if, to quote Annie Dillard, “The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand and multiply it on earth, the more God is ‘on the field’”[6]?

And I think I should stop there, even though that means I’m concluding my sermon with that series of questions. But concluding this sermon with questions seems appropriate given the scripture lesson, even though doing so may feel unsatisfactory.

Amen?

[1] Patrick J. Willson, “Living by the Word,” Christian Century, 14 October 2015, 22; emphasis added.

[2] Karla Suomala, “Commentary on Job 38:1-7 [34-41], Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2671 (accessed 13 October 2015).

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “A Bilingual Life, The Threat of Life, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds October 18, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_october_18_2015#Job (accessed 13 October 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Out of the Whirlwind,” Home by Another Way, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds October 18, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_october_18_2015#Job (accessed 13 October 2015).

[6] Annie Dillard, “Holy Sparks: A Prayer for the Silent God,” from the collection Best Spiritual Writing 2000, quoted by Kathryn Matthews, “Sermon Seeds October 18, 2015,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_october_18_2015#Job (accessed 13 October 2015).

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