Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, January 8, 2017
I began 2017 by inviting the church to join me on a quest. We seek to see God. Just as an iceberg looks impressive, and yet we only see above the surface all the while knowing there is much more beneath, so then, God is that much more amazing. Yet for all the wonders we know of God, there is much more we do not know.
Together, we go into this year seeking to know more of God. We are made to know God. Each one of us was created by God intentionally. God made us to be in relationship with him. Our quest, this morning, brings us to a man who got to know more of God than he bargained for. In fact, he wasn’t even looking as we are and yet he saw more of God than most ever do.
Turn with me to the book of Job.
There is a gorilla named Koko who learned signed language.[i] She was able to communicate complicated concepts. Think about how remarkable this is: an animal, not human, having a real conversation with humans.
However, an earthquake hit scaring the poor primate half to death. She had never been taught the word for earthquake. All she could say, that is ‘sign’, is “Floor. Big bite.” I think Koko the gorilla is to be appreciated and even admired. Using what vocabulary and concepts she did have, she tried to say what happened and how it made her feel; obviously terrified. She couldn’t possibly know things about tectonic plates or seismographs. She gets high marks for saying what she knew even though we know an earth quake is more than the floor taking a bite out of us, however apt the metaphor may be.
We are like Koko when we try to describe God. We lack the words and the experience. Still, we try. With our insufficient vocabulary, we speak about God and attempt to know God because God created us for relationship with Him. From my reading of scripture to my study of the history of Christian theology to my own logical conclusions to longings deep within my soul, I am thoroughly convinced that God wants relationship with us and wants us to reach to Him.
Even pronouns are insufficient. God is Him. Some might be upset if I said God was “her,” but either pronoun fits and at the same time falls short. For tradition’s sake, when pronouns are necessary, I will use the male, but rest assured. I don’t think God is male.
As I have talked to others about this launch into 2017 – a quest to see more of God that we might be drawn closer to God and also grow in our ability to speak about God and for God in the world – I appreciated counsel I have received. More than one person has reminded me – we only see of God what God chooses to reveal. One book in the Bible is called “Revelation,” but the content of the entire Bible is what God chose to reveal. Jesus is God revealed in human flesh. In upcoming weeks, we’ll look at bits from Jesus’ life and see what we can learn about God. We’ll probe, inch by inch, beneath the iceberg’s surface. This morning we do the same following what is revealed in the book of Job.
In the beginning of the book, Job’s life is ideal. His 10 children – 7 sons and 3 daughters are young adults who all get along with each other. They dine in one another’s homes. And Job oversees it all. Chapter 1 verse 5 says Job makes a point of sacrificing on behalf of his children in case they have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.
I get a sense that from the outset, the book of Job presents God as a distant, punishing deity Job appeases both for himself (by not sinning) and for his children (by offering sacrifices on their behalf). God holds Job in high esteem, but I don’t get the sense that Job has a prayer relationship with God. God is impersonal.
Then things fall apart. Satan and God talk and God allows Satan to harm Job and wreck Job’s life in order to prove Job’s righteousness. After Satan kills Job’s children and afflict Job’s health, chapters 3-37 are commentary. Job talks about his plight with his three friends. The friends think Job’s problems are God’s punishments for sins Job must have committed. Job insists he is innocent and repeatedly demands an audience with God.
We see in the opening verses a comfortable Job who is happy with life and happy with keeping God distant and appeased. That placid Job is contrasted with the agitated Job who occupies the central portion of the book. The agitated Job is much more motivated to have a personal encounter with God. The agitated Job wants to have a face-to-face with God and to give God a piece of mind.
Various theological perspectives led me to think of Job in terms of contrast – placid, comfortable Job v. agitated, insistent Job. First, the great reformer John Calvin from whom we get the term ‘Calvinism.’ Calvin believed that God directs everything in life – even our misery. In his most famous work, ‘Calvin’s Institutes,’ he writes, “Whether poverty or exile or prison or insult or disease or bereavement, or anything like [these things] torture us, we must think that none of these things happen by the will and providence of God.”[ii] This view accord with the theology of Job. Job would need to sacrifice to a God like this because he would fear this God’s discipline upon his children. Job’s friends appeal to this retributive theology when they urge Job to confess his sin and thereby alleviate, or at least understand his suffering.
Against is a 20th century theology that has appeared at various times in church history. The 20th century version, represented by Clark Pinnock is called open theism.[iii] Open theists believe that God, as an act of supreme love, has created beings – humans – who are capable of choosing to love God. God is affected, we might even say changed, by the way his created being act toward him. Open theists believe that God knows all that can be known. However, since the future hasn’t happened yet, it cannot yet be known. Thus God doesn’t know the future.
Calvin severely limited human free will. What happens is predetermined by a sovereign God. Pinnock and other open theists limit God’s sovereignty. I don’t believe either position can be defended with certainty. I don’t know all that God knows. I don’t know if it is possible that there are things God doesn’t know. I find both positions uncomfortable. I am uneasy about the thought that my very words and ideas were predetermined by a sovereign God who micromanages the universe. And I am equally unsettled by the thought that there are limits on God’s power and knowledge.
Job dealt with the tension between a distant punishing God and the frustrated desire to get up close and personal with that God. Calvin presented an all-knowing, all-controlling God and open theists respond with a God who is in process and experiences new things. A third contrast I found comes between a wholly other God v. a familiar and close God.
In the book Reaching for the invisible God, Philip Yancey shares his experience in Russia shortly after communism fell in the early 90’s. He went with a Russian Orthodox priest to visit prisoners.[iv] One of the others in their party requested that the Orthodox priest have prayer with the inmates. The priest brought out an icon. He donned an elaborate prayer outfit involving gold crosses and other vestments. He went through a complex ritual. I have visited people in prison. When it’s time for prayer, I and the inmate each bowed our heads and prayed. That’s too simple and too cozy for the Orthodox priest Yancey described. For that priest, God is ‘wholly other.’ Conversation with God is not like conversation with another person and it should not be approached that way.
Contrast this with the way many popular American praise songs approach God. Yancey quotes from Chris Tomlin’s song “In the Secret.” “I want to know you more/I want to touch you/I want to see your face.” It is a very intimate reaching for God. Yancey observes and I have observed this too, that some praise songs are indistinguishable from teen-aged romance songs. Just insert God’s name for the name of the intended lover.[v] One of my seminary friends often joked that these are “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” songs. Yancey goes on to remark, “Nowhere in the Bible do I find a promise that we will touch God or see his face.”[vi]
Which is true? Is God so removed that like Job the best we can do is offer sacrifices? Or find a priest who will don gold crosses and kiss them in elaborate rituals as he prays on our behalf because God is unapproachable? Or is the relationship to which God invites us so intimate, we dare to liken it to romance?
What has been your own experience? How have you experienced God as all-knowing, all-powerful ‘wholly other’ who inspires and awe and fear? How have you experienced God as close, personal relation? What would the word be? Father? Friend? Disembodied Spirit that dwells within?
“Oh that I might find him,” Job lamented in chapter 23. “That I might even come to his dwelling.” He knew the theology that ran through the Old Testament beginning with Moses. Anyone who sees God will die. Job knew this. His wife, as a wrought with grief as him, told him to “curse God and die” (2:9). She spoke out of her pain, not out of malice. But Job wouldn’t take that easy route. He would accept death, but he wanted a word with God first. Though he lived in an era dominated by the Calvinist-type of Sovereignty of God theology which the Orthodox priest would also appreciate, Job broke the paradigm by demanding an appointment with God. Only the select few – Abraham, Moses, the real heavyweights – came that close to God. Job did not care. He would not rest until he had his audience.
God gave Job what he asked for but it didn’t happen as Job thought it might. Remember his self-assurance? He said, “An upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.”
When God came to Job, it says God spoke out of a whirlwind. Have you ever been in a tornado? I haven’t and don’t want to be. And yet, I propose that we do what Job tried to do – see God and speak directly to God. I don’t know if we are like the Orthodox priest or like one of today’s praise song writers. God came to Job in the whirlwind, but never ever answered a single one of Job’s questions. Remember, as hard as we look, we only get to see what God chooses to reveal.
“Where were you, when I laid the foundation of the earth?” God asks Job, and us. Yes, God is wholly other. No, we weren’t there when God, with tender care, formed every creature, made the earth in a way that it truly is good. But in the end, Job was found to be righteous. It wasn’t because of his sacrifices. He was, I believe, because he sought God.
If out of our brokenness, out of our confusion, out of our pain, out of our curiosity we seek God, here is what we will find. We will find that God will not give us everything we ask for. God will not fix everything the way we think it ought to be fixed. God will give us what God gave Job; not in the way it was given to Job. Each person’s encounter with God is unique. But God will do for each person who seeks Him, what He did for Job. God will give us God’s very self.
“Would God contend with me in the greatness of his power? No. But God would listen to me.”
When we explore beneath the surface and begin to see a bit more of God we discover that God created us to be in relationship with Him. And when we call out Him, God hears us.
[i] Student’s Life Application Bible (1997), Tyndale House Publishers, p.984.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes, Book 3, Chapter VIII, section II.
[iii] C. Pinnock (2003), chapter 6 in the book Alister E. McGrath & Evangelical Theology, edited by Sung Wook Chung, Paternoster Press (UK), p.147-164.
[iv] P. Yancey (2000), Reaching for the Invisible God, Zondervan books (Grand Rapids), p.26.
[v] Ibid, p.31.
[vi] Ibid, p.32.