Sunday, November 18, 2012
As Christians, a major point of our self-definition, a question we either ask or have asked and answered is a question that does not concern Job. Christians are not the only ones who ask this question, but the question’s importance is central in Christian faith and theology. From the book of Romans, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one. … All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:10, 23). In the book of Acts, the warden in the Philippian jail says with great fear, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas respond, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31). This question of salvation is a New Testament question. We believe all people are cut off from God by our innate sinfulness and by our sinful choices and actions. To die in that “cut-off” state is to be destined for Hell. We want relationship with God and we want a Heavenly eternity. We need to know how one is saved and we need to know if we are saved.
Job is an Old Testament book. The story belongs to Israel and is read as the word of God for the Chosen People. They don’t fret about being saved. They’re already the people of God. Job is not asking about salvation. His concern is purpose. What is the meaning of innocent suffering?
We come to Job, but the question shaping our faith is how can I know I am saved? Job welcomes us. But, he’s not telling how to be saved. He’s asking – is there meaning in suffering? Has this led to a frustrating misunderstanding on the part of many Christians who want to read Job and hear the word of God.
We must move past the “how do I get saved” question, but we must not diminish the importance of it. Salvation will always be central in our story of relationship with God. Without it, there is no relationship. Until the salvation question is answered, we are stuck in our sins and the pain they bring. But we “how?” Again, the man who imprisoned Paul and Silas in the city in Philippi and then fell impotent before them when a force of God ripped open the prison walls. Trembling he asked, “What must I do to be saved?” “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the gospel.
The question of purpose is the next question. As we have seen, Job is the story of a man of true faith. He was the model of worship; the model of confession. If he lived today, he would be the ideal Christ-follower. His relationship with God is completely right.
But his life falls apart. He loses everything. His responses to his suffering are varied. David Clines has observed that in his 11 different speeches, Job adopts a different theological posture each time (World Bible Commentary, vol. 17, p.xlii). Is Job patient? Yes. Does Job complain endlessly? Yes. Does Job become suicidal? Yes. Does Job hold onto hope and life with everything that is in him? Yes. Job’s experience is complicated and his speech is varied. All of his lows are a part of his tortured quest for meaning.
The Philippian jail warden baptized by Paul (Acts 16:34). What’s next? We have had several baptisms lately. All who follow Christ come the journey by stating their faith and being baptized. What comes next? Baptism is a climactic moment that begins a story. What happens in the rest of the story?
Our experience of reality, and in reality, changes. We previously lived for ourselves. Now we live in Christ. The world around us, our culture, provided a frame of reference for how we made decisions, what we valued, why we thought the way we did. Now, our frame of reference and our moral motivation and what defines us is the kingdom of God. Once we are saved, at Paul says, we are new creations, born again. From salvation we move to the question of meaning.
Job’s quest for meaning was born in his suffering. Not all of us come to Job’s story as sufferers. Some do. Some readers resonate because as they read they are in the midst of pain and turmoil. Or they’ve lived through significant periods of very real suffering. They read Job and they say, “Yes, I can relate.”
Others though, have not been in Job’s shoes. To say it in a ridiculously simple way, some readers of Job are people who have happy, good lives. Things have mostly gone very well. The difference in experience with suffering creates distance. Still, all readers can glean from Job inspiration for the pursuit of answers to the question “Why?” Job shows us that we can, ask God why? Job also shows us that God answers and Job shows what happens when God answers.
Imagine Job’s ragged robe, only it covers not him, but you. You are Job’s place before. You’ve dared to pray boldly, demandingly, courageously, and through tears, and now God answers. Now, God is the speaker and you the listener. Out of the whirlwind, God bellows, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”
All confidence evaporates. Naked? Yes. Scared. Oh yeah. No place to hide? No place to hide. Who are you to stand before God?
The booming voice commands. “Gird up your loins. Stand up like a man. Stand your ground like a woman. Be the human being you were made to be. You will answer me. You will answer my questions.”
The questions that follow are impossible. No one could answer. Is God just making a point of showing how big God is and small and insignificant we are? I don’t think so. If Job were so unimportant, why does God even bother? The God of the universe is taking time to give Job individual attention. It is true that the speeches in chapters 38-41 accent the awesomeness of God and the smallness of Job and of all humans. God says much and never once mentions humanity. But, God does not take time to explain himself to horses or to leopards or tigers or anacondas. Pick your favorite animal. God doesn’t deign to speak to that one, not in the way God speaks to human beings.
In the Bible, over and over, the Almighty steps out of eternal glory and into our time-bound experience in order to relate to humans. Job is blown away, but this whirlwind speech is a personal gesture on God’s part. While Job is never told why he suffered, he is re-created and given new life. He is invited to God’s life.
“Gird up your loins. I will question. You will answer.” God invites Job to conversation – and us too. The invitation shows the special place of humanity in the creation. Think back to Genesis 1:27. “God created humankind in his image.” Whatever anyone can ever say about you, you are made in the image of God. You and I – we are God’s image bearers.
Flip over to Genesis 2:18. “It is not good that man should be alone.” God is relational and God made us relational beings. God made birds and animals and brought them to Adam to see what Adam would call them. Look closely at Genesis 2:19. God waited to see what the man would name the animals and whatever name he came up with, that was the animal’s name. The way that verse reads, God did not know a turtle was a turtle until Man looked and said, “mmm … turtle.” Before that, God has created a bunch of these slow, shelled creatures, and an angel says, “Lord, that’s kind of a dopey looking thing. What do you call it?” God kind of shrugs. “I am waiting on Adam.” And Adam is there thinking. “Oh I don’t know. Turtle … terrapin .. tortoise … God what do you think?” “Adam it’s up to you, but we have a lot of animals to go, so could you kind of get on with it?” Genesis 2:19 tells us God brought everything living thing to the man to see what he would call it and whatever he called it, that was its name.
Now we are in Job. He’s cowering even as God tells him to stand. God’s command, if we remember it in terms of Genesis, is for Job to be who God made Job to be. The questions of Job 38-41 cannot be answered. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job and you and I have to mutter and sing, “You, O God, are creator, and we are nothing.” But we are not nothing. God gave us work – name the animals. Have dominion. Manage my creation. Be who I made you to be.
Throughout these words God unleashes on Job like a tidal wave, there is the refrain, “Can you?”
“Do you know the ordinance of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on earth” (38:33)?
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you” (38:34)?
“Can you hunt the prey for the lion” (38:39a)?
More poignantly, God turns to the mythic monster of chaos that filled men with complete dread. “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a chord? Can you put a rope in its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook” (41:1-2)? Leviathan represented every sea-dragon ever thought of in any ancient myth, every Greek titan that stepped on humans as if they were ants. The only thing the ancients did in reference to Leviathan was run away. And if they were out on a boat, lost at sea, and they fell under Leviathan’s attack, they considered themselves dead, without hope.
If we are tempted to dismiss this ancient literature and say, “Oh, we’ve sent submarines to the deepest parts of the ocean. We know there is no Leviathan. That’s just a myth.” If we do that, then we miss the power and truth in it. God’s words to us, along the same lines could be, “Can you blow a hurricane the size of Katrina or Sandy as if you were blowing out a single birthday candle?” The things that totally overwhelm are as playthings to God.
No, we cannot establish the rules of the heavens.
No, we cannot hunt the lion’s prey for him or fish out Leviathan with a hook.
No, we cannot command the clouds.
But wait a minute. We are in God’s image. We are called to work – God’s work. To be human is to have vocation that is rooted in our relationship with God. If our sins block the way and make impossible for us to do God’s work, well, God has done something about that. In Jesus, God has made a way – a way for salvation. God has made a way for us to be sons and daughters of God. God has made a way for us to do the work we were created to do as God’s image bearers.
God says, “Can you?” We say, “No we cannot.” But Jesus could and did. He commanded the clouds to stop raining and they stopped. He died, and in the resurrection, pushed death aside. If we put Jesus in Job’s shoes, and he went through the impossible quiz of Job 38-41, and God said to him, “Can you,” Jesus would respond, “yes Father. I can, and I will.”
Moving from salvation to meaning, we follow Job. We follow Job and in our own lives, as saved persons, sons and daughters of God, we search for meaning. We search for God’s purpose in our good times, in our suffering, in our losses, and in our triumphs. When I say that we are made new so that we can live out God’s vocation for us, I hope you know the specifics of living out God’s vocation are unique to each person. In your life, God will show you what it means to be the human He created you to be.
But there is this warning. Once we go where Job went and we stand before God, the whirlwind swirling about us, about to engulf us, we will die – die to self. Death is crucial in salvation and in the search for meaning. We die in our sin. This is seen in another “Can you” type of question. This one was asked by Jesus.
He had predicted his suffering and violent death. Two disciples, James and John, completely ignoring the death part, said, “We want to sit at your right hand and left hand in your glory” (Mark 10:37). These guys were at this point operating in the limited worldview of Job’s friends. Eventually, James and John would die to self and in being born again, they would surpass even Job in Heavenly wisdom, but at this point, they were seeking their own glory. And Jesus invited them into the whirlwind.
“Can you,” he asked, “drink the cup that I drink?” Can you sacrifice yourselves for the Kingdom of God if that is needed? Jesus was arrested and they fled in terror, cowards running wildly in the night. These guys thought they were going to be at side of the King. At the first site of danger, they booked it out of there. Then came the cross. Then the empty tomb. After resurrection, James and John stopped asking about sitting at Jesus’ left and right hand. They were in Jerusalem preaching salvation, which leads to meaning, and they preached so hard, they got imprisoned and exiled and beheaded. And they smiled all the way because it is better to be in prison if that is part of God’s vocation than it is to sit on a royal throne and not know why you are there. And what about those thrones anyway? Read the final book - Revelation. There the 12 disciples sit on thrones.
But what about Job and you and me? Where does all this leave us? The God life is different for each person. I know this. Sin keeps us from God. But if we’ve put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, then we have salvation. If we have salvation, then we are invited into the whirlwind. We are invited to that terrifying moment where we are asked to name the animals and drink the cup and preach the word. We are invited into relationship, and in that relationship, where we live God’s life, we have purpose. We – you, me, each one of us – we have that moment. The unspeakable splendor of the Almighty fills all existence until it is just you and God and he says, “Gird up your loins. I will speak. You will answer.”