What will Job’s answer be? (Job 38.25-27; 41.1-8; 42.1-6) [Sermon 07-31-2016]

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July 29, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, July 31, 2016. From a series I call “Job: Theology in the Raw.”

Texts: Job 38.25-27; 41.1-8; 42.1-6.

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.


Everything happens for a reason?

Last week, we watched in astonishment as the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind (Job 38.1). Not long ago, a whirlwind had killed all ten of Job’s children. Now a whirlwind has come for Job!

Job—whom both the biblical storyteller and God himself have affirmed was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil. The satan—the adversary, the accuser of humans—didn’t argue against God that Job didn’t really fear God or avoid doing evil to his neighbors. Instead, the satan accused God of bribing Job to be good. The satan told God: But stretch out your hand and strike all he has. He will certainly curse you to your face.

The satan believed that humans are only good in order to receive rewards or avoid punishment. God knows the satan is wrong, and believes in Job to prove the satan wrong. So he allows the satan to test Job, but he also places firm boundaries on how far he can go. For instance, he cannot do anything to Job that will kill him. But otherwise, God says: Look, all he has is within your power. The satan is testing Job. But God, God’s justice, and how God orders the world, is what is really on trial.

And so the satan unleashed the power of hell on Job. He sent raiders to steal Job’s herds and murder his servants. He sent lighting to burn up Job’s flocks, and their shepherds with them. He sent a whirlwind to kill all ten of Job’s children. Then he made Job break out with malignant sores from head to toe. Job was left ruined. His children, his livelihood, and his health were all gone. Even his wife and all his friends had turned on him. But Job didn’t do what the satan thought he would do. He never cursed God.

Job never cursed God. But his experiences did leave him questioning God’s love, goodness, and justice. Job’s view of his world—and his life in it—as orderly, safe, and fair had been blown away. Now Job wants answers. He wants to know why his life has been destroyed. He wants to know why—from his vantage point—I have integrity; but God declares me perverse? (Job 9.20). Remember, Job and his friends believed that God orders the world on a strict system of rewards and punishments. So if all the sudden your good is repaid with evil, what else could you believe? You can only think there’s been some mistake in the cosmic order!

Job comes to the point where he gives up trying to figure it all out and concludes that it’s all the same to God. God destroys the blameless and the sinners, he says (Job 9.22).

One consequence of believing that God runs the world by a straight doctrine of retribution—that everything is cause and effect, reward and punishment—is that we can come away with an image of God as a gotcha! God. We make God into a cosmic bureaucrat, a bean-counter. A God who follows us around looking for something to punish us for. Instead of the creator, sustainer, redeemer, and lover of the universe.

That’s what was going on with Job when he cried out to God:

What are human beings, that you exalt them,

    that you take note of them,

    visit them each morning,

    test them every moment?

Why not look away from me;

    let me alone until I swallow my spit?

If I sinned, what did I do to you,

    guardian of people?

Why have you made me your target

    so that I’m a burden to myself? (Job 7.17-20)

When we suffer, or we encounter suffering, that’s all we can see and feel, isn’t it? You can be the perfect picture of health and vitality; but stub your pinky toe, and all you will notice is that pinky toe. Suffering can sometimes make us self-centered like that. And then, if you also believe that your suffering is from the hand of God—what else can you conclude but that God has put a target on your back? That’s what Job thought.

Of course, our suffering can also draw us out of ourselves, to notice the pain of others; to take note of injustice; to lament and protest. And even empathize. Job comes to that place, too. In 24.1-4, Job wants to know:

Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment?

    Why must those who know him look in vain for such days?

There are those who move boundary stones;

    they pasture flocks they have stolen.

They drive away the orphan’s donkey

    and take the widow’s ox in pledge.

They thrust the needy from the path

    and force all the poor of the land into hiding. (NIV)

Job wants to know: If God is so good, why is the world so full of evil? If God is so just, why is there so much injustice in his world?

By showing up in the whirlwind, God demonstrates to Job that he can wrangle chaos. He is in control. God reminds Job that he created this universe. He set the boundaries for the sea from the beginning. He flips the script on Job. Why doesn’t every storm crush children? Why doesn’t every lightning strike incinerate an entire flock? Why aren’t there deadly tidal waves every day? God wants Job—and us with him—to understand that there is infinitely much more order and goodness and beauty in the universe than chaos and ugliness and evil.

A lot of times when bad stuff happens, and we can’t see the purpose for it, we say something like, Everything happens for a reason. I suspect that when we say that, we mean something close to Job’s words the day he lost everything: The Lord has given; the Lord has taken; bless the Lord’s name (Job 1.21). We mean that God must be allowing—or even willing—that we go through this painful experience for some grand purpose. As part of a divine plan. I think the conversation we overhear between God-in-the-whirlwind and Job should make us reconsider what we mean by that. Maybe it’s true that everything happens for a reason. But what if that reason has nothing to do with us? What if—sometimes—we just get caught up in something greater than we are? Isn’t that what happened to Job?

And so last week, we saw God come to Job in the whirlwind. But he hasn’t come to answer Job’s questions. He’s come to question Job:

Who is this darkening counsel

    with words lacking knowledge? God asks.

Prepare yourself like a man;

    I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me.

How will Job answer God?

God of ravens and sea monsters

Here’s something God asked during his four-chapters long interview with Job.

Who cut a channel for the downpours …

     to bring water to uninhabited land,

        a desert with no human

     to saturate dry wasteland

        and make grass sprout?

Did you hear me a little while ago? When I said, Maybe everything does happen for a reason; but maybe those reasons have nothing to do with us? The questions God asks Job are all leading in that direction. God wants Job to see that not only is everything not about him; many, many things that God does in his world aren’t even about humans, period. Job has just been reminded that God makes sure it rains in the wilderness where no humans live. Why? So that the grass grows, so that the animals who roam the uninhabited land will have food and drink.

One of my favorite questions that God asks Job in this part of the story is found in 38.41:

Who provides food for the raven

    when its young cry to God,

    move about without food?

Did you hear that? Were you listening? God just told Job that when raven chicks are hungry, they pray to God for their food!

God goes on to show Job his power and care for mountain goats, wild oxen, ostriches, and even war horses. And when the fighting is over, the bodies of war horses and humans are strewn all over the battlefields, God directs his attention to the carrion birds: hawks, eagles, and vultures. God tells Job:

They dwell on an outcropping of rock,

    their fortress on rock’s edge.

From there they search for food;

    their eyes notice it from afar,

    and their young lap up blood;

        where carcasses lie, there they are.

God wants Job to see and understand: You humans have your big reasons for your aggression and your wars. But as far as my birds here are concerned, the only reason you go to war; the only reason you exist at all; is to be their dinner!

God shows Job that every millisecond of every second of every minute of every hour of every day, God is hard at work, and most of what he’s doing has nothing to do with us. God is answering the prayers of baby ravens. God is midwifing mountain goats. God is getting tickled by the antics of ostriches. God is in awe of sinewy horses rushing off to battle. God is directing the eyes of vultures to the killing fields, where they will feed on our carcasses.

Earlier, Job had asked God:

What are human beings, that you exalt them,

    that you take note of them,

    visit them each morning,

    test them every moment?

All these questions are God’s reply. They’re God’s way of saying: Job, you humans sure are full of yourselves if you think I’m always on your tails, watching for you to mess up. I have a universe to keep going.

How do you think Job will answer God?

Again, God challenges Job from his whirlwind:

Prepare yourself like a man;

    I will interrogate you, and you will respond to me.

Would you question my justice,

    deem me guilty so you can be innocent? (40.7)

Remember, Job—like everyone else he knew—believed that God’s justice was strictly retributive. Good is rewarded, evil punished. It’s all tit-for-tat, cause-and-effect, reward and punishment. But Job’s good has been repaid with evil. And he wants God to acknowledge that mistakes were made. But God wants Job to see that his ideas of what constitutes a just moral order are too narrow. What seems good to God is for everything and everyone to be allowed to be themselves. For God to rule the universe with integrity, God’s freedom and creaturely freedom must both be respected. And this means there is order in the world, because God wills order. But there will also be randomness. There will be chaos. And at times, there will even be genuine evil. Because we humans are often not doing God’s will. And just like the satan, there are also spiritual forces that are not always doing God’s will. And whenever and wherever some will other than God’s is done, there’s bound to be chaos and disorder.

When I say that there is genuine evil, I mean that there are things that happen in the world that truly go against God’s will; that God did not plan or ordain. We just heard God tell Job that carrion birds feed on the bodies left in the wake of a war. But that doesn’t mean that God ordained a particular battle just to feed some birds.

Everything happens for a reason; but the reasons are not always God’s reasons, either.

God wants Job to see that even God must battle against powerful forces in the cosmos. The struggle is real. To do this, he reminds Job of two creatures of ancient myth: Behemoth and Leviathan. We already met Leviathan in Job 3. Job had wished that Leviathan could be aroused to swallow up the night of his conception. He pleaded: May those who curse the day curse it, those with enough skill to awaken Leviathan (Job 3.8).

Ancient Near Easterners believed that Leviathan was an evil sea serpent with seven heads, who had been defeated at the foundation of the world. The ancients thought that Leviathan could swallow up creation. And that the only reason Leviathan didn’t is that God kept him bound up and walled in.

God tells Job: Look at Behemoth, whom I made along with you … Only his maker can come near him with a sword … Can anyone pierce his nose by hooks? (40.15-24) Behemoth is beast of beasts. He goes around devouring the grass of the countryside as if he were a whole herd of cattle. He could swallow up all the water in the Jordan river. God tells Job, I made Behemoth, and I am the only one who can control him. You can’t. No human can. Only me. Behemoth is a force of chaos in the universe who would make the land desolate and drink the rivers dry if God did not intervene.

God spends even longer talking about Leviathan. I think that’s specifically because Job had asked for Leviathan earlier. God is basically saying: What was that, Job? You wanted someone to wake up Leviathan? Let’s talk about Leviathan, then!

In our readings today, we heard God ask Job: Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook … pierce his jaw with a barb? Do you want to go fishing for Leviathan, Job? Will he … speak gentle words to you? Do you think you can reason with the sea monster? Will he make a pact with you so that you will take him as a permanent slave? Will you tame the old serpent and domesticate him? Can you … put a leash on him for your girls? Touché, God! You know full well Job’s daughters are dead! Will merchants sell him; will they divide him among traders? Job, do you think you’ll ever see Leviathan fillet on sale at the fish market? Will you ever be able to grill Leviathan on your barbecue? Should you lay your hand on him, you would never remember the battle. Because you wouldn’t live to tell about it!

This wasn’t in our readings today, but God has plenty more to say about Leviathan. Job had asked for someone to awaken Leviathan. But God says: Nobody is fierce enough to rouse him (41.10). God says that: None on earth can compare to him; he is made to be without fear (41.33). No human—not even blameless Job—can handle Leviathan. Unlike other beasts, the fear of humanity is not in him. The divine beings dread his rising; they withdraw before his thrashing (41.25). Even the armies of heaven tremble at the sight of him. There is no one on earth or in heaven to control Leviathan. Except one. God tells Job: Everything under heaven is mine. I’m not awed by his limbs, his strength, and impressive form (41.11-12). Only God is not afraid of Leviathan, because God made Leviathan. Only God can restrain Leviathan.

Behemoth and Leviathan are representative figures. They stand for chaotic forces and beings in the universe—like death and the satan—that we humans can’t control. In 1 Pet. 5.8, the author says: Your accuser, the devil, is on the prowl like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. At the outset of Job’s story, when God asks the satan where he has been, he replies: From wandering throughout the earth. And when the satan goes out seeking to devour Job, the storyteller says the Adversary left the Lord’s presence. Just like the first murderer, Cain. Point is, the satan and other forces of chaos and evil are out in the world doing their own thing. What they do is not the will of God. And only God can defeat them. And God is at battle with the satan and his forces of chaos and evil all the time.

Like I said, maybe everything does happen for a reason. But those reasons may have nothing to do with us. And they may not be God’s reasons, either.

God never tells Job directly about the satan’s role in his suffering. He just points out that his administration of the universe is so much more complicated than rewarding human obedience and punishing human sin. There are beings and forces in the universe that are more powerful than humans, but less powerful than God. But like humans, they can choose to do God’s will, or their own. And every second of every day, God is also responding to their choices. Only God can. That’s not our work. That’s none of our business.

But twice, God has invited Job to get back to his work. To the business of being human. Prepare yourself like a man, says God. Prepare yourself for battle, like the warriors I made humans to be. Prepare yourself for hard work, like the servants I made humans to be.

How will Job answer God? Better yet, how will we?

Job’s answer: “I’m leaving the ash heap”

Well, here’s how Job answered God:

I know you can do anything;

    no plan of yours can be opposed successfully. Job has learned that God is always at work in the world, seeing his plans through, even when we have no idea what God is doing.

You said, “Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?”

    I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand,

    wonders beyond my comprehension.” Job has learned that his worldview was too narrow and too self-centered. God doesn’t run the universe simply by cause-and-effect, reward-and-punishment. There are forces outside our control that affect us. When we suffer, it may very well have nothing at all to do with God disciplining or punishing us.

My ears had heard about you,

    but now my eyes have seen you. Throughout the story of Job, his friends reinforce a very narrow view of God. They told Job again and again that his suffering is from God’s hand. But now God has made himself present for Job, and given him a new perspective. Job has learned to see more of the big picture. Job was stuck, but God has given him what he needs to move on.

Therefore, I relent and find comfort

    on dust and ashes.

That last line is difficult Hebrew, and that’s a shame because it’s probably the most important thing Job says when he answers God. The NIV says: Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes. The NLT is even more explicit. In that translation, Job says: I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.

There’s a couple of problems with those translations. First, Job didn’t need to sit on dust and ashes to show his repentance. He was already sitting in dust and ashes, remember? Has been since chapter 2. What’s he going to do? Stand up then sit down again? But second—and this is the bigger issue—Job has nothing to repent of. Not to post too much of a spoiler for next week’s sermon, but in the very next verse, God tells Job’s friend Eliphaz: I’m angry at you and your two friends because you haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job. According to God, Job doesn’t need to take back anything he has said. It’s Job’s friends—who continued to tell Job his suffering was God’s punishment—who need to repent.

Anyway, the Hebrew is difficult, but probably the best way to hear what Job is saying is: I repent of dust and ashes.

In other words, Job is done protesting. He’s finished lamenting. He’s ready to climb off of his ash heap and get back to work.

And what is that work? Well, God has made us to be gardeners and warriors and artists and teachers and healers and lovers and nurturers and thinkers and builders and all sorts of other work we can do in God’s image and likeness. We can choose to live out the human vocation. To work for and fight for the things that are in our power.

And leave what is out of our power—Behemoth and Leviathan, whirlwinds and death and the satan—up to God.


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