A sermon delivered by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., on October 21, 2012.
The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost
Job 38:1-7 (34-41)
Then the LORD answered 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. “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? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? “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’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?(NRSV).
Last week we spent some time talking about what theologians call “The Problem of Evil”: the problem that presents itself when bad things happen to good people. I told you how Frederick Buechner states the problem by saying: 1. God is all-powerful, 2. God is all-loving, 3. terrible things happen. He says we can reconcile any two of those propositions, but not all three. We can decide that God is all-loving, but not all-powerful, and therefore helpless to stop the bad things that happen to good people, or we can decide that God is all-powerful, but not all-loving, and may in fact cause many of the bad things happen to good people. But we can’t reconcile all three of those things at the same time, and that’s the problem. When bad things happen to good people we want to know why.
But that’s not the problem in the book of Job. Even though bad things happen to good people (or, as I once put it, “terrible things happen to wonderful people”), we don’t have to ask why: we know why. We were there in the heavenly throne room when God said to the Accuser, “Have you considered my servant Job, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and turns away from evil?” But the Accuser said, “Why wouldn’t he? You’ve given him everything. If you took it all away from him he would curse you to his face.” And so God gave him permission to take away everything Job had, and in a single day he did—his 7,000 sheep, his 3,000 camels, his 500 donkeys, his 500 yoke of oxen, his 7 sons, his 3 daughters—and yet, in the end, Job was able to say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I shall return there. The Lord gives, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Did you hear that? Blessed—not cursed—be the name of the Lord. God has won his bet. Even when terrible things happen Job does not lose his faith, he does not give up on God. Two weeks ago I quoted Dr. James L. Crenshaw, who says in his introduction that what’s at stake in the book of Job is “the very survival of religious faith. If people will serve God without thought of the carrot or the stick,” he says, “then religion will outlast any eventuality.” [i] But what he doesn’t say is that if people won’t do that—if they won’t serve God without the prospect of reward or the threat of punishment—religion won’t survive, and as I told you two weeks ago I’m afraid that’s where we’re headed in America.
In that sermon I quoted some ten-year-old statistics claiming that 95 percent of the people in this country believe in God while in England only about 35 percent do. [ii] But I’ve done some more research since then. A survey taken four years ago allowed participants to respond on a scale with “I don’t believe in God” on one end and “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” on the other. In this country, how many people would you guess believe that God really exists and have no doubts about it? 95 percent? 85 percent? According to this survey only 60.6 percent of Americans do, while in Great Britain the number is only 16.8 percent. And that was four years ago. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that 20 percent of Americans claim they have no religious affiliation, up from 15 percent in 2007. In other words nearly sixteen million people who would have said five years ago that they were Baptist, Catholic, or whatever, now say they have no religious affiliation at all.
Do you think those people are going to church? They are not. And more and more people in America are not. When you call them and ask them if they go to church about 40 percent of Americans say they do, but when you ask them if they went to church last Sunday the percentage is much smaller. The most recent statistics suggest that on any given Sunday only 17 percent of Americans are in church. Now, I know there are some people who would love to go to church, but can’t. Many of you watching right now fit into that category. But think about it: if 60 percent of Americans “know God really exists and have no doubts about it,” and 40 percent claim to “go to church regularly,” how is it that less than 20 percent end up in the pews on a beautiful Sunday morning like this one?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, and one of the things I think is that church attendance in this country is declining because people don’t believe in God very much. They might say—if you called them up this afternoon—that they believe in God but they might also say—if you pressed them—that God is not the central passion of their lives. They can take God or leave him, and more and more of them appear to be leaving him. I think it’s because many of them don’t really believe that God created the heavens and the earth; they put their faith in the theory of evolution. And many of them don’t believe in heaven and hell; science has taught them that heaven is not “up there” somewhere any more than hell is “down there.” And so (they reason), if God is not in their beginning nor at their end why should they bother with him in the middle? They stop going to church and soon discover that the world doesn’t come to an end, in fact, in many ways, the world seems to get bigger. They find that can get along without God just fine, thank you.
But not Job. Job is a passionate believer. Even when he loses everything he has he says, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” But the Lord he believes in is one who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. And for those reasons he can’t understand why he’s suffering as he is. His friends assume that it’s because Job has committed some secret sin, and they keep pestering him to tell them what it is. But Job insists on his innocence, and eventually demands an audience with God. In last week’s reading he said, “Oh that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling. I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments” (Job 23:3-4). In today’s reading Job gets his wish, he gets an audience with God, but listen to what God says. I’m reading from a translation by Stephen Mitchell:[iii]
“Who is this whose ignorant words
Smear my design with darkness?
Stand up now like a man;
I will question you: please, instruct me.
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Tell me, if you are so wise.
Do you know who took its dimensions,
measuring its length with a cord?
What were its pillars built on?
Who laid down its cornerstone,
While the morning stars burst out singing
And the angels shouted for joy!
Let me read a little more and ask you to give your full attention to these words, because this is what it sounds like when God writes poetry:
Were you there when I stopped the waters,
As they issued gushing from the womb?
When I wrapped the ocean in clouds
And swaddled the sea in shadows?
When I closed it in with barriers
And set its boundaries, saying,
“Here you may come, but no farther;
Here shall your proud waves break.”
Have you ever commanded the morning
Or guided dawn to its place—
To hold the corners of the sky
And shake off the last few stars?
All things are touched with color:
The whole world is changed.
Have you walked through the depths of the ocean
Or dived to the floor of the sea?
Have you stood at the gates of doom
Or looked through the gates of death?
Have you seen to the edge of the universe?
Speak up, if you have such knowledge.
Where is the road to light?
Where does darkness live?
(Perhaps you will guide them home
Or show them the way to their house.)
You know, since you have been there
And are older than all creation.
Have you seen where the snow is stored
Or visited the storehouse of hail,
Which I keep for the day of terror,
The final hours of the world?
Where is the west wind released
And the east wind sent down to earth?
Who cuts a path for the thunderstorm
And carves a road for the rain—
To water the desolate wasteland,
The land where no man lives;
To make the wilderness blossom
And cover the desert with grass?
Does the rain have a father?
Who has begotten the dew?
Out of whose belly is the ice born?
Whose womb labors with the sleet?
(The water’s surface stiffens;
The lake grows as hard as a rock.)
If you shout commands to the thunderclouds,
Will they rush off to do your bidding?
If you clap for the bolts of lighting,
Will they come and say “Here we are”?
Who gathers up the stormclouds,
Slits them and pours them out,
Turning dust to mud
And soaking the cracked clay?
It goes on from there. God talks about how he hunts game for the lioness, how he tells the antelope when to calve, how he unties the wild donkey and lets him wander at will, how he decks the ostrich with wings and gives the horse its strength. And then, at the end of that long recitation God says to Job, “Has God’s accuser resigned? Has my critic swallowed his tongue?” And Job says:
“I am speechless: what can I answer?
I put my hand on my mouth.
I have said too much already;
Now I will speak no more.”
But God isn’t finished yet:
Do you dare to deny my judgment?
Am I wrong because you are right?
Is your arm like the voice of God?
Can your voice bellow like mine?
Dress yourself like an emperor.
Climb up onto your throne.
Unleash your savage justice.
Cut down the rich and mighty.
Make the proud man grovel.
Pluck the wicked from their perch.
Push them into the grave.
Throw them, screaming, to hell.
Then I will admit
That your own strength can save you.
Still God isn’t finished. He points out some of his most ferocious creatures—the hippopotamus and the crocodile—and dares Job to confront them. The crocodile, for instance. “Go ahead,” God says, “attack him: you will never try it again…. His skin is hard as a rock, his heart huge as a boulder. No sword can stick in his flesh; javelins shatter against him.” The implication of course is that Job can’t even handle one of God’s creatures, much less the Creator. In the silence that follows Job says, “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quieted, comforted that I am dust” (Job 42:5-6). Job, in other words, is humbled. All his talk about his own innocence is silenced in God’s awesome presence.
In the Book of Job, this is the solution to the problem of Evil: it’s not so much that God is great and God is good, but that God is God and we are not. Frederick Buechner puts it like this: “While Job’s friends offer an assortment of theological explanations for his suffering, God doesn’t offer one. God doesn’t explain. He explodes…. Maybe the reason God doesn’t explain to Job why terrible things happen is that he know what Job needs isn’t an explanation. Suppose that God did explain. Suppose that God were to say to Job that the reason the cattle were stolen, the crops ruined, and the children killed was thus and so, spelling everything out right down to and including the case of boils. Job would have his explanation.
“And then what?
“Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn. God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face.” And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee.” Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf. At least for the moment.”[iv]
When people come to me with questions about God that I don’t feel competent to answer I sometimes say, “Write it down on a piece of paper, stick it in your pocket, and hope that when you go to heaven you’re wearing those pants.” But don’t you think that most of our questions about God, as well as most of our complaints, would appear ridiculous in his presence? Don’t you think we would stand there, holding that little slip of paper in our trembling hands, and realize that none of those things mattered anymore? That’s what I think the whole world needs sometimes—a good, strong dose of God’s glorious presence, the kind that makes your knees knock together and your mouth go dry, the kind that makes you whisper, “My Lord and my God!”
Maybe that’s why I like to go backpacking, because there are times when you have just that kind of experience. You spend three hours huffing and puffing to the top of a high mountain just to see the whole world spread out beneath you when you get there. If you had any breath left the view would take it away. Or you come around a bend in the trail to witness a huge waterfall tumbling off a cliff, thundering into a pool below, deafening you with its roar. Or you lie in your sleeping bag on the desert floor, looking up at a sky full of stars that make you wonder along with the Psalmist, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Sometimes, in those moments, Chuck, my backpacking partner, will say, “Remember, Jim: there is no God.” And what he means of course is just the opposite. He means that it would be impossible to look on something like that and not believe in God. Impossible for him, anyway. Impossible for me. But not, apparently, impossible for everyone. I wish some of those people could have been with us the night Chuck and I camped out in the Cranberry Backcountry in West Virginia, when we strung our hammocks under the trees and stretched a clear, plastic tarp above us just before a storm rolled in. We lay in those hammocks trembling with fear as lightning exploded around us, as thunder cracked and boomed.
We thought we were going to die.
If God had asked us in that moment, “Now what was that little thing you wanted to know? That tiny, troubling question you wanted to ask?” we would have said, “Forgive us, Lord. We had heard of you with our ears, but now our eyes have seen you, therefore we will be quiet, comforted that we are dust.”
For the moment, at least, we would have gotten all the answer we needed.
[i] From the introduction to the Book of Job in the HarperCollins Study Bible.
[ii] According to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), pp. 61-62.
[iii] The Book of Job, translated and with an introduction by Stephen Mitchell(New York: HarperCollins, 1979). Thanks to the Rev. Justin Joplin for this loan from his theological library.
[iv] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (HarperSanFrancisco, 1973, 1993), pp. 56-57.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.