Losing My Religion: Who Will Save Your Soul?
You know what they say: “Be careful what you wish for!”
Truer words were perhaps never spoken when it comes to today’s Hebrew text from the book of Job.
Today is week three of a four week series called, “Losing My Religion,” where we’ve been making our way through the book of Job, some of the oldest text in our bibles, some of the most beautiful poetry in the Hebrew language. Through an allegory, a story, the book addresses that central human question, a question we all ask: why do good people suffer?
Recall that in week one we encountered a man named Job, a righteous man who was suffering deeply—he’d lost everything he owned and cared about: his property, his animals, his family, his health—stunning—and he couldn’t understand why. He’d done everything right, followed the rules as he’d been taught, but still—his life had been destroyed. To add insult to injury, all he could hear when he shouted protests at the sky was the sound of silence.
Then, last week we met Job again, sitting on a pile of ashes, scraping at the sores on his suffering body, sick and tired of the platitudes of his friends, who tried to help but for the most part showed their true colors: their own fear and inability to answer those questions for themselves.
When we left Job last week he was eager to present his case to God and to prove his innocence and to get God’s final and fair judgment. He wanted to know: who will save my soul?
Today…today God finally speaks, out of the whirlwind.
Be careful what you wish for.
Today we heard 21 verses, part of over 2 chapters of divine speech—two chapters of God talking about who God is. Beautiful, terrifying poetry.
Throughout the biblical tradition God appears often in situations of dramatic natural events, called theophanies. It seems that when God needs an illustration to go along with his message, God often employs the vast power of the natural world. Created by God, untamed by us, creation is one way we can begin to see what God wanted to communicate to Job, to us. That is: I am God…and you are not.
When I was twelve my family rented a beach house on the north side of the island of O’ahu, where I grew up. The idea was that family would all fly out to the islands for the Thanksgiving holiday and we’d lay around on the beach, play board games, eat turkey, and generally get a break from real life.
And that plan worked well, until we moved into the house, bringing all the things we’d need to cook Thanksgiving dinner away from home, and got the news that slowly approaching the islands was a storm system quickly gaining power. Tropical storm Iwa became Hurricane Iwa late on Tuesday, and Wednesday the storm hit the islands with wind gusts exceeding 100 mph and waves over 30 feet high.
It is under these conditions that one wishes one had not rented a house on the beach and dragged along all the food you’d need to cook Thanksgiving dinner.
The night before Thanksgiving we sat, huddled together in the darkness (no one thought to bring candles!) watching the waves—too close to the house—crash with a terrifying power, and 50 foot tall palm trees flattened to the ground. In the end, Hurricane Iwa caused severe damage to the Hawaiian islands and ultimately caused us to experiment with cooking Thanksgiving turkey…on the grill.
Perhaps those of you who lived through Sandy or another powerful storm can imagine, like I can, the raw power of wind and water swirling around you, trees flattened to the ground, the visceral awareness of how very small and weak we truly are. And this is how God showed up for Job, with a natural illustration as backdrop for his answer to Job’s questions.
Job desperately wanted to put God on the witness stand; he wanted God to answer for all the terrible and unjust things that had happened to him. But you’ll note that God does not step up to answer Job’s questions; God does not offer him a refund; God does not explain Job’s suffering.
I suspect Job had hoped God would answer by saying something like, Oh dear, we billed the wrong person. Or, our department of suffering made a mistake. Or, we’re so sorry, sir, and we’d be glad to compensate you for your sorrow. Instead, God turns the tables on Job and starts to ask HIM the questions.
We know that translation means everything to those of us not reading Job in its original language. I always thought these first comments of God’s must be some fancy literary way to say something like, “Who’s there?” or “Who is that bothering me?” Really, what the Hebrew means is: “Who do you think you are? Richard Rohr says it’s something like: “Aw, just shut up, , Job!”
God says, “Get ready. You wanted to talk? Let’s talk.”
Be careful what you wish for.
So God says . . . well, God says . . . well, God doesn’t really answer the question. God says instead, hang on, because this is what I have to say about you and your questions: Who are you? Sit still and listen to what I have to say, you foolish child. I am in charge here and I can see the whole picture. You cannot. The larger reality is so much bigger than you think. Crashing waves and brutal winds . . . what is your suffering compared to my power?
Where were you, Job, when I laid the foundation of the earth? And where were you, Job, when I gave birth to the sea? Do you ask the sun to come up in the mornings? Have you walked along the bottom of the ocean lately? Do you have any idea what lies at the end of the earth?
Job’s answer, the only one he could stammer out? No. No, I haven’t, and no, I didn’t, and no, I don’t.
And with that, all of our images of God as a friendly next door neighbor fly straight out the window. Turns out the God who answered Job was not a teddy bear kind of God, the kind of God we can put in a box and control to our liking. God shows up, but the God Job meets is an all-powerful presence, the one who spun the universe into being, who hung the stars and animates the world. What are we? What is our suffering that God would even notice?
This might stun us, as it did Job. We were so wrapped up in our own pain that we never stopped to think about the big picture. And, having been reminded of God’s power, our immediate response might be to write God off as a power-hungry, out-of-touch tyrant who has no idea what we are going through.
But let’s recall that we don’t want a God who is like us. And neither did Job. Job didn’t want a God who was like his foolish friends or his complaining wife. We want a God who is like God. When we cry for an answer and hear a booming voice out of a whirlwind, however, we might start to wonder: can we handle a Godly God? Can we handle a divine presence that doesn’t fit our expectations, that doesn’t cater to our whims, that doesn’t become whatever it is that we expected God to become?
A friend of mine once described this text to me by saying: we all have a structure of reasonable thought with which we interpret this confusing human life we live. For example, if we see a bird fly by, we can look at the bird and something in our brains computes: bird, flying. Birds fly. That makes sense. But what would happen if we looked out the window and saw a cat fly by? We’d turn to hang that piece of information on our rational framework of reasonable thought and what would happen? The machine would start rattling and smoking. Cats do not fly. Therefore, a flying cat does not belong in the rational framework with which I interpret events of my life.
This encounter Job had with God, this glimpse of divinity, it must have been like Job looking out his window and watching a cat fly by. He’d grown up all his life with a certain understanding of how it is that human beings encounter God. Recall he, like many of us, had firmly ingrained in his understanding of God and equation of retributive justice: if you do what you are supposed to do, then you’ll live a happy and successful life. If you’re bad, bad things will happen to you. He’d thought, in other words, that life with God was fair as he understood it.
Job got a communication with the divine all right, it just wasn’t exactly what he had anticipated.
But…isn’t that ALWAYS how God comes to us? In the rush of a whirlwind, in the tenderness of a tiny baby in a manger, in the most ludicrous, unexpected, unanticipated, scary and unfathomable ways? If that’s not the case, then it’s likely we have constructed a nice box in which we’ve placed the God we understand, and in doing that have missed the divine altogether.
When Job saw the whirlwind and heard the words of God, Job finally saw that his rational construct could not contain God. Instead, this God was the God who had reached across the human divide to us “I AM THAT I AM”, which, translated more accurately reads, “I AM WHATEVER I WILL BE”. No doubt.
Job’s reaction? We see it in chapter 40: “I am unworthy. I dared to speak to you, but now you are asking me questions for which I have no answers. I will say no more. I put my hand over my mouth.”
Job had asked for an answer, but maybe not this answer . . . . See, Job had begun to believe in his own power. And why not? He was a man who had had everything . . . everything a person could possibly want or need out of life: position, power, money, family, possessions, good reputation, faith . . . he had it all. But what he didn’t have, and what God’s divine appearance gave him, was perspective. Perspective. The idea of who he was in relationship to who God is.
Job got a glimpse of the divine and a healthy dose of perspective. He also got an invitation to trust God—an invitation that’s extended to us, too. Augustine wrote, “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.” And that is perhaps the good news of this portion of Job’s story: that God, powerful and other, so different from us and so much bigger, so justified to be impatient with our whining, still desires relationship with us.
God spoke to Job. And that speaking was yet another example of the many ways in which the Bible records God’s overtures to humanity, God’s openness to know us and to become intimate with us and to live in loving relationship with us.
We take this story of God’s appearance to Job as an invitation to intimacy: not for God to become more like us, more like what we’d like a favorite friend to be, but for US to become more like God. We live in a world of true paradox: a creation ordered by the divine, more vast and unfathomable than we can imagine…and the reality that there is suffering and pain in this world that doesn’t always have a reason.
Rather than explaining it away, let’s take this powerful, confusing, OTHER God straight out of the text. Let’s not see how we can explain away all the hard things God says. Instead, let’s welcome the voice of God in our own lives and think about how it is WE become more acceptable to GOD, rather than making God into something more acceptable to us.
When tragedy strikes,when we’re in pain, when all is lost and we can only cry out in agony, when we are desperate to know who will save our souls…God shows up, as God did for Job, with a healthy dose of perspective and an invitation to the mystery of relationship with the divine.
And if, after considering the power of God and God’s scary invitation to relationship, we still want to know who will save our souls, we’d best like Job, hang on for dear life, fall to our knees and cover our mouths. Because despite the vast mystery of who God is, God will eventually show up, not to conform to our demands but to invite us to remember who we are: insignificant in the big picture of the universe and deeply, fiercely loved by the divine.
Thanks be to God.