Christ Centered Resources

Your Witness

Rev. Ed Searcy

Job 38:1 - 42:7
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 22, 2000
"Then the LORD answered Job”. Finally. Job’s request for an audience with the Almighty is granted. After thirty-seven chapters marked by the absence of any word from the Lord he is finally to hear an answer. You remember the story don’t you? Job, who is the innocent victim of terribly unjustified suffering. All of his property wiped out by what his insurers call ‘an act of God’. His sons and daughters all dead ... killed by a tornado. And then Job himself overtaken by a stigmatizing illness, his body covered from head to foot by terrible AIDS-like sores. But that is not the worst of it. Job must then endure the consolations and advice of his so-called friends: Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. You remember them, don’t you? The three of them come to sit with Job ... and to respond to his questions. They bring their best Hallmark card answers. “Job”, they say, “it must be God’s will”. “God needed your children in heaven”. But when Job reacts angrily to their little sermonettes his friends up the ante. “Well Job,” they say, “if you are suffering it must have been caused by something you have done. After all, ‘you reap what you sow’. You are reaping suffering so you must have done something to deserve it. Tell us, what was it?”. It is all too much for Job to bear. The suffering is bad enough. But the ‘kindness’ of his friends drives Job to distraction. Somehow he knows that if only he could get his hands on God ... if only the Almighty would have the courage to show up and answer for his unjustified suffering ... that then Job would be justified in his complaint. That was where we left off last Sunday. Remember that passage from the twenty-third chapter of Job. So different from that other twenty-third chapter that we know so well - the twenty-third Psalm. “If I go forward, <God> is not there”, says Job, “or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” (Job 23:8-9). So much for “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want”. And Job thinks he knows why God is nowhere to be found. It is because God is afraid to face Job’s questions. Job dreams of having his day in court. He longs to put the Almighty in the witness box and to put God under oath.“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 ... There an upright person could reason with him and I should be acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:3-7). Job wants to sue the LORD of heaven and earth for breach of contract. Job has kept his side of the contract. He has been faithful and upstanding, keeping all of God’s commandments. God is at fault and must be held accountable. Do you see why the ancient book of Job continues to hold such fascination? No one is sure who wrote this book ... or when ... or where. It is found in the Old Testament yet nothing about it suggests that Hob is Jewish. He is, instead, a universal man - everyman and everywoman. This is old, old story is also as contemporary as yesterday’s news. Job wants to know why good people suffer terribly. He demands to know why and will not be satisfied with the theological pablum that is offered up by too many well-meaning preachers. Their attempts to save God from embarrassment only make things worse. No wonder, then, that all attention is focussed on the opening line of the thirty-eighth chapter of Job: “Then the LORD answered Job”. But this is no gentle LORD with a reassuring pastoral voice. This God answers Job “out of the whirlwind”. This is a God of awesome force, one whose voice is tornado-like in its power. There is no still, small voice here. Nonetheless, Job does receive his wish. He is granted the rare privilege of an audience with the Maker of the Universe. Alas, his dream of placing God in the witness box is not to be. Instead, we discover that it is Job who is to testify. Do you see? For thirty -eight chapters Job has been giving testimony. He has been telling the truth about what has happened to him and responding to the questions of Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar who, it turns out, have been playing the roles of cross-examining attorneys. They have been trying to poke holes in his testimony ... without success. So now they sit down ... and the courtroom is silent as the judge turns to Yahweh, saying “Your witness”. Poor Job. He has no idea what he is in for. He thinks that he has had a tough time with the questions of his legalistic friends. But he has never faced a line of questioning like this. When the Almighty rises Job expects answers. He gets instead questions ... four chapters of questions. It is a line of questioning that is perhaps the most beautiful and haunting poetry in the entire Old Testament ... and that is read but this once in our three year lectionary cycle. And you don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize what God is up to here. These questions are meant to establish Job’s credibility as a witness. Job is questioning the Wisdom of God. He thinks that God is not running the Universe properly. He is convinced that he has been treated unjustly, that he has been given a raw deal. So, before getting to the merits of his case, Yahweh wants the court to hear Job’s credentials. Just what kind of an expert is Job when it comes to understanding how the world works and what it means to be the Creator of all things? Listen ... ‘Would the witness please answer this: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements? What is built on? Who laid the foundation when the morning stars and heavenly beings shouted for joy on that first day? You were there, were you Job? Just answer with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ please ... Have you commanded the morning since your days began? ... Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? ... Do you give the horse its might? ... Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars and spreads its wings towards the south?” Job is overcome by the questions. He realizes that he doesn’t know what he is talking about, that he is no expert when it comes to the mysterious workings of the universe: “I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (Job 40.4-5) . Job decides to end the legal proceedings here and now. But he cannot step down from the witness box. The line of questioning continues. The voice from the whirlwind continues to press Job: “Look at Behemoth ... Can you take it with hooks or pierce its nose with a snare? Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? “ In other words, “Job, would you please tell the court if can control even the most dangerous beasts and darkest forces in the universe? Do you have any idea what it means to be God or do you only think that you know what problems the Almighty must contend with?”. Job is overwhelmed. He no longer awaits an answer. He stammers from the witness box:“I have uttered what I did not understand ... I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees you ... therefore I repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6). All of which leaves most modern commentators baffled. This, they say, is an unsatisfying conclusion to the Book of Job. And these commentators are not alone. Remember a few years back when we studied Job at University Hill. A number of folk wanted to understand why bad things happen to good people. They had heard that this is the question at the centre of the Book of Job and so we decided to spend six weeks reading it together. You could hear us cheering Job on at the beginning. We liked his chutzpah ... and wondered how many times that we had offered the same unsatisfying answers and advice that he receives from his so-called friends. But when the long awaited voice came from the whirlwind we found ourselves confounded. What kind of an answer is this? It is just pages and pages of more questions. God answers by overwhelming Job - and us - with our ignorance. And we don’t like that ... we especially don’t like that when our name has the word University in it! Because, you see, our age is marked by its pride in what we know. We have uncovered so many secrets of the Universe and made such apparent progress that we have come to believe that there is nothing that we cannot uncover if we just put our minds to it. For us there can be nothing quite so unsatisfying as being told that “You will never understand the answer to your question”. Which is what the Book of Job leaves, finally, as the answer to Job. It proclaims that the question of unjust suffering is beyond human comprehension. It reminds Job - and us - that we are creatures like the horse and the hawk. We are not the Creator. We cannot comprehend how the Universe works. Period. End of story. Question answered. This, of course, means that Job’s friends are also wrong. They keep telling Job that they understand how the Universe works. Their religious answers are all carefully worked out. They have studied their Bibles and come quite prepared to fill in the blanks of Job’s suffering. But notice what the LORD says to these three friends who thought that they could answer for God: “My wrath is against you ... for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Did you hear that? The ones who tried to rescue God by answering Job ... by trying to make sense of his suffering ... by giving him the card of condolence that says “It is God’s will” receive the Almighty’s wrath. But Job speaks the truth. Job who shakes his fist at God ... and who holds God to account ... and who finally earns an audience with God ... speaks of God ‘what is right’. Do you see? We thought that this was a place of answers to the question of suffering. We thought that the church is here to make it all better, to resolve the pain and to make sense of the world’s injustice. But it is not. God’s wrath falls upon the church when it, like Job’s friends, tries to explain away suffering. Of course, in an age of explanations of age old questions it is very tempting to fall into the trap of offering up easy answers. Instead we find ourselves in a community which dares to bring before God the most perplexing riddles in the Universe. Here we dare to ask the most painful questions of the most innocent sufferers of the most indescribable torture. We sit, after all, at the foot of a Cross and can never forget the sight and sound and smells of terror. And here we find ourselves learning to place trust in a Creator whose ways are way beyond our comprehension. Here we be become a people who live in the world as creatures, not as the Creator ... asking, questioning and wrestling with the Maker ... finally knowing that we cannot know ... but only trust in the Elusive One whose mercy made us and still, somehow, sustains us.