Out of the Whirlwind
Rev. Ed Searcy
Job 38:1 - 42:6
University Hill United Church : Sun, October 22, 2006
Have you heard of “the patience of Job”? I don’t really know what it means to say that someone has the patience of Job. All you have to do is open up the book of Job and you discover a very impatient person. He is the Bible’s ‘everyman and woman’. He is not Jew or Gentile. He has no country of origin or residency. He exists as a good, upright, clean-living person whose life is suddenly overtaken by terrible trouble. His property is wiped out. The insurer’s call it an ‘act of God’. His children - all of his sons and daughters - killed by a the whirlwind of a tornado. Then Job himself is overtaken by an ugly, disfiguring, stigmatizing sickness that covers his body from head to toe in terrible sores. This is Job. He is a surprisingly familiar contemporary. And he is patient, sort of. For thirty seven chapters he puts up with all manner of helpful advice. Well, it is intended as helpful advice. You know the kind. It is the kind of advice that you receive when you are afflicted with some great loss or heartbreak or illness. Job needs “the patience of Job” to survive his three so-called friends. These three friends must have just about the best names in the entire Bible. They must be included in the sermon, if only because I love saying their names out loud: Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite. These are the original three wise guys of the Bible - Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. And they do think that they are wise. They are a trio of helpers. They remind me of Jack Shaver’s warning about helpful people and churches and nations: “The helping hand strikes again”. Too often those who arrive to help are no help at all. That is what Job discovers when his so-called helpers arrive with a mission. They come to rescue God from Job. They arrive with their little sermonettes and hallmark cards and fridge magnet sayings to convince Job that his problems must be self-inflicted, deserved, God’s will in some way that he has not yet seen. These three wise guys are out to rescue God from Job’s perplexing situation. And Job is surprisingly patient with their tinker-toy explanations of the great mystery of human suffering. He listens. He argues. He listens some more. It is a kind of patient impatience that Job has with his three wise guy friends. But Job is mostly impatiently patient with God, the ultimate Wise One. Even Job’s wife cannot believe his patience with God. She invites him to despair, to give up on God, to let go and die (Job 2:9). Yet Job is insistent. He refuses to give up the struggle to obtain a personal audience with the Almighty. And it is a struggle - thirty-seven chapters of poetic, dramatic, harsh struggle. Job is brutally honest about God’s absence when Job is most in need. Just now, when Job needs an answer to the cause of his miserable and unjustified suffering, God is conveniently out of the office. All emails returned. The voice-mail box full. As Job says: “If I go forward God is not there, 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). Job suspects that he knows the reason for this sudden disappearance. God does not want to testify in court. Because, if the Holy One of Israel were to actually take the stand and swear on a stack of Bibles, Job would eagerly serve as the prosecuting attorney. He has his line of questioning all ready to go. Job puts it this way:“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. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me” (Job 23:3-5). Job has been impatiently patient for thirty-seven chapters. His impatience is revealed in scathing homilies in which he proclaims what so much unjust suffering tells the world about God. These diatribes are hardly what we associate with patience. For us patience is mostly quiet waiting to get to the teller or politely sitting in the doctor’s waiting room. The patience of Job is a rude patience. He will not be quiet, he will not pretend to be satisfied, he will not give up. This is holy patience - not giving up on God, being determined to wait and wait and wait upon God for a response, an answer, a word in reply. It’s not the kind of patience the church has always encouraged or modeled or hosted. More often than not the church - with its resident wise guy preachers and teachers and caring helpers - has thought its role is to satisfy and mollify and silence Job. And that work has been done so well that now most assume that the “patience of Job” refers to a silent, stoic response to suffering. But the book of Job imagines that those who live Job’s story will practice a holy impatient patience. A church with room for Job will make room for the impatient patience of sufferers - all manner of sufferers - who need and want to verbalize their pain, their questions, their anger at God. We had thought that such pain, questions and anger should not be at home here. We were wrong. Job’s pain, questions and anger is all meant to find a home here. Now we open the book at the precise moment when Job’s patience finally pays off. Thirty-seven chapters of impatient patience. Then the thirty-eighth begins: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind”. It is one of the most majestic moments in the entire Bible. The image on the cover of the order of service this morning is taken from an edition of the book of Job that includes twenty-two engravings by the poet William Blake. It portrays this climactic moment that Job has waited for. It is the event that Job’s impatient patience has demanded. Job has finally been granted the private audience that he has longed for. But notice that it is not a typical Sunday morning sermon or anthem or peaceful meditation that Job receives. When the Almighty answers Job it is “out of the whirlwind”. Other translations say it differently. They say that the LORD speaks out of “the tempest”. Apparently God does not live in some peaceful retreat, distant from the world’s chaos. When God’s voice is heard it is over the background noise of a destructive tempest. Is it God’s almighty power that causes the noise? Or is it the sound of the dark powers that God struggles to overcome? The text leaves it up to you to decide. But the text is clear about one thing. YHWH - the LORD - is a powerful adversary. Job has dared God to show up in court. Job is sure that he has a winning argument and that he can successfully prosecute God. The first words out of the mouth of the Almighty suggest Job may be in for a surprise: “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” (Job 38:2-3). If Job’s demanding, insisting stance is regularly problematic for an overly polite church then imagine how God’s overwhelming avalanche of questions sits with any church that habitually strives to make God nice. Remember the author Annie Dillard’s insight into the dangers of coming here this morning: “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” The same God who answered Job’s plaintive “kyrie eleison” is the God who today speaks from the tempestuous whirlwind in reply to us, to our world’s pain, questions and anger. Now may be a good time for you to put on your crash helmets and seat belts. The four chapters of God’s response to Job provide the script of a long line of questioning in court. Job sits in the witness box, where he had hoped to pin God. The LORD paces back and forth asking question after question meant to establish the witness’s credibility. Job has been bold enough to claim to be an expert on the problem of unjust suffering. He has gone on talk shows and written articles based on his personal experience. Now God wants to determine just how much Job actually knows about running the Universe. Question after question is asked. Nothing is said of Job’s replies to these questions. We are left to assume that he nods a silent ‘no’ to each one, or perhaps he whispers ‘I don’t know’ with head downcast: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Who determined its measurements? What is it 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 it wings towards the south?” Imagine these same questions asked of us, here on a university hill where so much knowledge about the earth and its creatures resides. We are easily tempted to imagine that we know and understand more than we have any right to claim. At times we answer one another’s questions about God’s purposes with apparent ease. We fill in the blanks and gaps in our understanding by claiming it must be God’s will. We use God for our own purposes, to buttress our favorite hobby horses. We abuse God’s name and reputation so that we can look good. But when granted a personal audience with the Almighty we find ourselves brought to account. Just how much do we know? Just what expertise do we have? We want to have answers to Job’s questions. We want God to satisfy our hungers with something sweet and tasty to eat. Instead we find ourselves confronted with questions that are hard to stomach - questions that humble Job and that humble us into a stunned silence. First Job tries to put a stop to the proceedings saying: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer” (Job 40:4). But the LORD is not finished. Now the questions focus on two huge beasts: Behemoth and Leviathan. These mythic beasts demand God’s time and energy. God asks Job if he can lock up either of them. The LORD wants to know if Job or any woman or man can control the dark forces that trouble the human heart and that tear apart human family and that set nations at each other’s throats. Job has been berating God for not setting right his own awful suffering. God wants to know if Job can cope with the damage done by the dark beasts that haunt the universe. Job is overwhelmed. He recants. He retracts. He repents. Having met the Almighty, having realized his incompetence in matters of managing the Universe, Job drops his case against God. He will not appeal to a higher court. There is no higher court. The case is dismissed. That’s it. That’s it? That’s the answer? That’s it. Job discovers that he cannot understand. He realizes that he is a creature, not the Creator. He will not know the answer. But he is no longer haunted by not knowing. Job has received an answer, just not the one he came expecting. He no longer knows of God in the third person. God is not just someone he has heard others talk about (Job 42:5). The LORD has spoken directly to Job and reminded him of the vast difference between mortals and the Maker of Heaven and Earth. The LORD also speaks to Job’s three ministers - I mean, friends. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all come to Job as spokespersons for God. Now they are saved from God’s wrath by Job’s willingness to pray on their behalf. Their helpful sermons and books and visits are judged by God to have been fraudulent (Job 42:7-9). It turns out that Job’s impatient patience is right and acceptable speech before God. But this should not be news here. It should not be news to a people who worship at the foot of a cross, the instrument of unjust suffering on which God’s beloved is tortured. We worship at a cross where we hear Job’s question voiced by God’s own child: “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” It is a Good Friday cross which stands like a monstrous question mark in the face of so much terror and suffering. It is also an Easter Sunday cross, transformed from question mark into an inexplicable exclamation point that shouts out “Questions answered” and “Suffering ended” and “Injustice overcome”. How? How do Job’s Friday questions become the Sunday exclamations of the church? How does the risen life of Christ happen here, now, to us and this world? That is a good question. The answer? God knows. Thank heavens. God knows.