Tuesday, November 17, 2015

God's Presence in Job's and our Incomplete Wisdom by Peter Hawisher-Faul

Delivered September 30, 2015
Text: Job 38

Before we get into the scripture for today, I think we need to lay out Job’s perspective at this point in the book. Job was a man who did everything right. He feared God and he turned away from evil. He even offered sacrifices on behalf of his family just in case one of them sinned. He was pious and hard working. He was an accomplished businessman for his time, owning thousands of livestock. If he was a student, he would have worked his hardest to become valedictorian and get involved in an impressive array of extracurricular activities. If this story was set today Job might have cured a disease, been a master of invention, or maybe a political reformer. Whatever your picture of success is, Job had it. Job was a man who got everything you might hope for out of life.
At least, until it was all taken away from him. All in one day, thieves stole his livestock and killed his servants, fire came from the sky and killed servants and livestock the thieves didn’t take, and his house collapsed on his children, killing them all. Job still worshipped God even after that. Then Job’s body started to suffer. He got boils and blisters all over his body. From all appearances, Job went from being God’s favorite to being God’s enemy. Job began to question why this had happened to him.
Throughout the book of Job, three of his friends try to find any reason why Job might have angered God. Maybe Job did something wrong. Maybe, he was about to do something wrong. Maybe Job’s family had angered God. Maybe Job unintentionally or accidentally committed a grievous sin he wasn’t even aware of. Job’s friends use their best understanding of God to try to help their friend. From everything they knew about God, Job looked like sinner that had to be guilty of something.
Think of how you might react to a friend who starts to struggle with addiction of some kind. You might empathize with their pain, but you might still want them to recognize that they have a role in their own recovery. That’s what Job’s friends thought of him. They thought, surely there must be some reason Job has been punished. If Job could just find the reason and work harder, they were certain his life would improve.
Job however, defiantly assured them that he had done nothing wrong, and he surely hadn’t done anything that would deserve such a harsh punishment. What could he possibly have done that would justify killing his family, taking his possessions, and striking him with disease? As the book goes on, Job begins to demand a trial, between him and God. If Job is at fault, he wants to know what he has done. If God is at fault, Job wants to know why. Job is no longer certain of anything and he demands answers.
Eventually God shows up, which is where the scripture we read begins. God gives the personal audience Job demanded, but it’s not quite the trial Job imagined. God questions Job with questions he can’t possible answer. He asks (in my paraphrase), Where were you when I built the earth? Who laid the boundaries of the oceans? Have you been to their deepest depths? Do you even grasp how big the world is? I bet you couldn’t even imagine the universe. Do you know how water came to this planet? Do you know who birthed the ecosystem? Did you cultivate the planet with rivers as irrigation? Do you have the power to move the stars through space? Could you harness nature as a weapon? Do you have the power to sustain life on this planet?
What would you answer? What could you answer?
It might be tempting to list some of the impressive accomplishments of modern science, but every scientist knows we still have much to learn. We might be able to find some really good theories on the formation of the planet and the evolution of life, but we weren’t there. It’s not observable and repeatable. We can’t claim to have the knowledge and power of the creator of the universe.
God asks the questions rhetorically because the answers are clear. We are dependent on the tools, resources, and knowledge we have available. We are dependent on what we have been given. It’s part of the human experience. Part of faith is recognizing that we are dependent on God. We can only know so much, and that which we know is by the grace and creative work of God.
Using the image of a trial, God cross-examined Job and undercut his credibility as a witness against God, but God did not declare a verdict. God doesn’t judge Job for his anger, only his lack of understanding. Job may be innocent of wrongdoing, but that doesn’t put him on equal footing with God. Because Job does not understand everything that God does, he is not able to cast judgment on God.
But did God recount the awesome power of creation just to put Job in his place? I don’t think Job is the only audience of God’s speech. When God finally declares a verdict, it is cast upon Job’s friends. God declares, “My wrath is kindled against you, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Job was angry with God and demanded answers from God, but that’s an appropriate response to the suffering he experienced.  Job’s friends on the other hand used their theology to try to speak for GOD and find a way to blame Job, the suffering victim.
Job receives the audience from God and it is Job whom God addresses, but Job’s friends must also ask themselves, “Were you there at the creation of the world? Do you claim mastery over life and death?” Job’s friends claimed to know with certainty that fault must lie with Job, but that claim was beyond their understanding. Job was right to seek another answer.
It’s easy to criticize Job’s friends, but we come up with all kinds of ways to explain success or failure while claiming knowledge of divine or natural law. Sometimes we use God to blame someone for their own suffering through theology, but sometimes we use some understanding of the natural order. We might explain that some suffer because of the survival of the fittest, and we might say that others suffer because they did not work hard enough to deserve a better future, it’s still the same kind of thing Job’s friends were doing. When we do this we might need someone to ask us, “Where were you at the creation of the world?” Just as Job had insufficient understanding to judge God, we have insufficient understanding to judge others. Human wisdom has its limits.
Life isn’t always fair. So where is God in unjust suffering? According to the book of Job, God hears our cries for justice and can even find our anger to be righteous. God doesn’t need defending. Rather than claiming understanding of God’s plans or the natural order we ought to acknowledge our ignorance and the frailty of human wisdom. When faced with the power of our creator, our understanding will always be incomplete, but God hears us and shows up nonetheless. Thanks be to God.
For our response, I would like you to choose one or both: With Job’s friends in mind, Name one of the ways humans claim to have a complete understanding of God or the world. With Job in mind, Name a tough question you want God to answer for.

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