Grace Presbyterian Church
October 21, 2018, Pentecost 22B
Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God
You know the saying “Be careful what you wish for?” Job is about to find out what it means.
Remember how Job was all agitated, in last week’s reading from chapter 23, to find God so he could plead his case in person, so to speak? After all his lamenting, his increasing distrust of God’s justice, and the ongoing berating of the three so-called friends, with a six-chapter interlude of more berating from a new character, Elihu, Job finally gets his wish: God appears, “out of the whirlwind” and challenges Job to speak. Except, no, God doesn’t really challenge Job to speak. To be blunt about it, God challenges Job to shut up and listen.
Job had imagined something like what we would call a courtroom situation, in which Job would argue his case and convince God that his suffering was not right and not deserved. Instead, God tells Job to get suited up, and takes him on what amounts to a field trip through creation, for most of chapters 38-41. Even when Job tries to back down in the early verses of chapter 40, God is having none of it. Somehow, God’s answer to Job’s demands for justification is a cosmic nature hike.
God first interjects Godself into the ongoing debate with harsh words: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” In truth that could be directed at any of those involved in the conversation thus far, but Job is the one out front, and Job is the one who is going to take the heat here.
After challenging Job to put on his big-boy pants and get ready to be cross-examined, God takes off. In the course of chapters 38 and 39 we are reminded in short order that Job has been neither present for nor involved in:
- Measuring and laying the foundations of the earth, sinking the base of the foundation and laying its cornerstone, to the accompaniment of rejoicing from the stars and heavenly beings;
- Sealing up the raging rush of the seas “when it burst out from the womb” (some serious feminine imagery applied to a part of creation!), enrobing it in could and mist and fog, and setting its boundaries;
- Ordering the dawn and the morning;
- Plunging down into the depths of the sea and knowing its mysteries;
- Knowing where light itself lives, where the snow and hail gather to descend upon the earth, carving out the channel for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt;
- Ordering the stars in their courses and constellations;
- Calling forth the rain and lightning;
- Hunt down the prey by which the lion might feed its cubs;
- In chapter 39, knowing the ways of the beasts of the wild, hooved animals and birds and the whole lot.
The title of this sermon comes from a sermon/poem by James Weldon Johnson, “The Prodigal Son” from his collection God’s Trombones. Like that prodigal son, Job finds he cannot possibly contend with God, and attempts to back down at the beginning of chapter 40. God’s not done, though. picking up again in chapters 40 and 41 with a downright rhapsodic celebration of two particular beasts, Behemoth and Leviathan. While some commentators try to equate them to native animals of the nearby Nile delta – the hippopotamus and the crocodile – they frankly sound more like creatures that should be featured in the Fantastic Beasts movies than anything we see walking around on earth. (It is after this that Job’s final reckoning with God takes place, but that’s for next week.)
It is wild and wonderful poetry, brash and exuberant and, yeah, a little proud in a way that a deity has a right to be. Truly, I do recommend that at some point you read these four chapters for yourself – not trying to discern the mystery or unlock some secret that will tell you when the Rapture is coming or anything like that; just read them as you might read from a book of poetry for once, and let the sheer beauty of God’s good creation wash over you and overwhelm your senses in its wildness and over-the-top breathlessness.
Still, though, we are left hanging, or so it seems. Yes, that’s lovely and all that, one might ask, but what about Job’s suffering? It’s still not fair. What does all of this have to do with that?
Theologians have grappled with this one for centuries, sometimes ending up in the theological equivalent of throwing one’s hands up in the air in resigned despair of ever coming up with an answer. I have no intention of claiming to be smarter or more gifted or more Spirit-guided than they; I can do no more than offer up one possibility. It’s deeply unsatisfying in a way, and might even throw into question Job’s declared “innocence” in this whole matter, not to mention the our own.
It is possible, that in all of this dialogue and diatribe and accusing, Job hasn’t even come close to asking the right question. (His “friends” have been even worse.)
There are many, many possible interpretations of this monologue from God here in chapters 38-41, more than can possibly be attempted in one sermon. However, the following takeaways from this monologue might be suggested, as a means of ordering what all of this means for Job, and for us, in understanding a place in creation:
1) God orders creation for God’s own purposes and for the good of ALL creation – not just us humans.
This challenges us. This challenges how we read the Bible, and frankly how a lot of the biblical writers wrote. We tend to think that everything about creation is done for our own personal pleasure and comfort. We tend to sing songs and pull out Bible stories that make us the center of the universe.
We’re not, not by a long shot.
Look again at the creation as described here. It is broad and vast and unbounded and all the good words we say and sing about it without truly understanding what they mean. If we take this passage seriously, we have to understand that we are part of creation, and not masters of it.
2) God orders and controls creation. God does not, however, tame creation.
Wild things are meant to be wild. God made them that way. Based on how Behemoth and Leviathan are described, God seems to likewild things that way. Not just the animals; wild winds, wild seas, Wildness is a feature in the fullness of God’s creation, not a bug.
Also: remember The Lion King? The big hit Disney animated movie with all the creatures of the African savanna and the young lion with Matthew Broderick’s voice who had to learn to grow up and take his place as the head of the lion pride? Do you also remember the big song as this whole assemblage, this network of creatures, played out on the screen before us? What was it called?
[singing] Circle of Life?
Thing is, though, when you invoke that phrase – “the circle of life” – there’s something included in it that isn’t so much fun to think about. Part of the “circle of life” is no less than death. Death itself is programmed into God’s ordering and controlling of creation. As such, we should know suffering will happen, and not expect creation to get out of our way and avoid harming us at all costs.
This thought leads to two related ideas:
3) If our lives seem disordered, we may need to examine whether we are truly living as part of God’s creation.
Have we as humans lived our lives so determined on our own comfort and control that we have broken our relationship with God’s creation? Have we so separated ourselves from living with that creation, as part of that creation, that we do ourselves actual harm, set off illnesses and injury to ourselves and broken our very bodies and minds by our pursuit of dominance over and exploitation of nature?
And closely related…
4) If creation seems disordered to us, perhaps we need to look at someone other than God for a reason. Perhaps we should look in a mirror.
This is where it gets touchy for us, living as we do in one of those places where our relationship with creation, the struggle over living with creation or as part of creation against taming or dominating creation, is etched deeply within our very existence in this state.
In the John Sayles movie Sunshine State, a developer who acts as something of a Greek chorus commenting on the movie’s action makes a few trenchant observations about living here in Florida. People come to Florida, or at least some do, because of (what they perceive to be) nature, the “natural beauty” of the land.
Tricky thing is, though, if many of those people saw actual natural Florida, with swamps and wild grasses and prairies and mosquitoes the size of birds, they’d run screaming in the opposite direction. What they want is tightly controlled “nature,” highly groomed and manicured “nature” instead of the sheer wildness of God’s creation. That developer in the movie freely acknowledges that this is what he sells, describing it as “nature … on a leash.”
Trouble is, as we see too often and too easily these days, our attempts to “tame” nature and put it “on a leash” only make things worse. We tame and grow things with thoroughly unnatural chemicals and end up with red tide and toxic algae. We take out native plants and animals and bring in plants and animals that don’t belong here, and we end up overrun with the less desirable plants and invasive species (ask one of your south Florida friends about Burmese pythons). And yes, we overheat the earth so badly that, just for one recent example, the Gulf of Mexico becomes a tropical pressure cooker, turning a fledgling tropical depression into a nearly Category 5 monster (speak of a behemoth!) just in time for it to slam into the Florida Panhandle. Not to mention our nasty habit of thinking we tamed nature enough that we think it’s o.k. to build to the hilt right up on the coastline, right were those behemoth storms come crashing ashore.
If we think creation is disordered, yeah, we’d better look in the mirror. Norman Wirzba, now of Duke Divinity School, puts it this way in his comment on Job:
An adequate understanding of creation and an honest estimation of our place within it require that we see creation in terms of God’s intention and scale. Attempts to reduce creation to the scale of human significance invariably result in pain to ourselves and in death to creatures around us.
Let us be clear here; Job’s moral universe, that which has formed all of his questioning and complaining, is being challenged for being entirely too small. And yes, Job’s presumed innocence is being questioned as well.
For example, what about those massive herds Job had kept before? “Seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys” just for starters in 1:3, with his ten children feasting regularly and Job praying that they didn’t do anything stupid.
I invite you to imagine the size of that farm. Imagine, if you dare, the smell of being anywhere near it. I learned enough living on the edge of the Plains that I can say that being anywhere near an agricultural operation large enough to manage or control that many animals is never more than a step away from an environmental nightmare. Was Job really managing those herds in a way that honored God’s creation? What was the effect of that massive operation on Job’s neighbors? Was Job really that innocent, in the full scale of creation?
And what, dare we ask, about us? What does our footprint do to others that we don’t even know of?
We may need, in the end, to quit peering through the microscope focused ever so tightly on our own desires and comforts, and to spend time looking through the telescope that opens up God’s full creation to us. We may need to think less about how the world is crashing in on us, and more about how we’re crashing in on the world. It may be time for us to change glasses, go outside, and look at … everything, and ask not if it is ours, but where we belong in it.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #34, Bless the Lord, My Soul and Being!; #775, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me; #625, O Lord My God (How Great Thou Art)