Fifth Sunday After Pentecost ~ Proper 7B

TEXTS: Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “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 38:1-3

If any of you are familiar with the Revised Common Lectionary—which prescribes the Scripture readings for any given Sunday—you will know that occasionally several choices of readings are given. Proper seven, year B is like that. The passage from Job was listed as the alternate reading. The other choice was from the First Book of Samuel—and it was a doozie! It was the story of David and Goliath, for goodness sake—a veritable gold mine of sermon ideas.

So why did I choose the reading from Job? Why did I pick out this passage from what well may be the most disturbing, and obscure (and depressing) book in the Bible?

David and Goliath—now there’s a story chock full of all the stuff that makes for a great movie. It is impressive. It is an epic tale of good versus evil, wherein the underdog triumphs. The big, powerful, arrogant Philistine is brought down by this apparently insignificant young shepherd boy. And when David socks it to Goliath, we all jump up and cheer.

The story of Job, however, is not like that at all. Here, there doesn’t seem to be a clear victory by the forces of good. In fact, if you persist in reading through all 42 chapters, you may be left wondering just where the forces of good are in this story. I’ve always found Job to be a troubling book. Reading it almost invariably upsets me. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of the story of Job.

Remember, Job was not only a righteous man, but also a genuinely good one—“blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1b)

Job had been blessed by God. The Bible tells us:

There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. (Job 1:2-3)

And Job was grateful. He never ceased to praise God for his good fortune, and he sought always to do God’s will as he understood it. But as the story unfolds, things fall apart for this good man. Satan challenges God, who has held up Job as a shining example of faithfulness. “Of course he’s faithful,” says the devil. “You’ve given him everything a man could want! But if you take it all away, I tell you: Job will curse you to your face.”

So—to prove a point—God takes everything away from Job: not just his possessions and his livestock, but also his children, and finally his health. However, God does leave him a wife (who tells him to kill himself) and three friends (who tell him his misfortune is somehow his own fault).

Finally, Job snaps. He curses the day he was born. He declares himself forsaken by God. He complains—at length—about the unfairness of it all, and finally Job puts his own challenge before God:

“I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me. You lift me up on the wind, you make me ride on it, and you toss me about in the roar of the storm.” (Job 30:20-22)

Finally, in the passage we read today, God answers Job directly. And what are God’s words?

“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. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.” (Job 38:2-4)

Then the LORD proceeds to tear a strip off poor old Job, basically telling him that he’s just an ignorant human being, and he’s got no right to complain or to question.

I told you this was a troubling book! I cannot imagine a less flattering portrayal of God, or a more daunting passage on which to preach. And yet this passage is the one which, many years ago now, led my best friend into Christian faith. This very passage which I find so repulsive is the one which spoke to him—and spoke persuasively—at the end of the darkest night of his soul.

I vividly remember my conversation with him—and my own amazement—as he told me that God used this passage to end his struggle with doubt and despair. He became a Christian, he said, because of the way God spoke to him through it. God set him free from the “impossible need” to understand—and gifted him with the sacred ability to trust.

To this very day—even in times of severest trial—my friend displays a solid, serene confidence which transcends and surpasses all understanding.

Every time I read or hear the words, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” I think of my friend, and I re-visit my own astonishment. And I suppose the reason I am still astonished is that I cannot imagine myself finding in those words anything resembling comfort, or resolution, or peace.

But my friend did. And as I consider that fact today—and as I consider also our gospel reading for today—I see that there is in all of this something of a revelation for me (and maybe for you, also).

The revelation, I think, is just this: the Bible was written not for one kind of person, but for all kinds—“all sorts and conditions of men” as the old, politically-incorrect language states it. Because you see, for all the many things which my friend and I have in common, we are in certain ways very different.

He has always been brighter, and braver, and more analytical than me. His struggle with doubt had to do with understanding. He thought he had to sort out the problem of evil before he could believe. He was one who asked the question, “How can a good God allow bad things to happen?”

I, however, have always been more like the disciples who were in the boat with Jesus in our reading from Mark. When cast upon turbulent waters, I’m always way too scared to analyze the situation. In the moment, why it’s happening never seems important to me. The fairness of it never seems to matter. Making sense of it isn’t something I even try to do.

If my friend is like Job, who called God to account because he felt God had abandoned him, I am like the frantic disciple who rushed to the stern of the boat to grab Jesus and shake him and wake him up—all the time babbling and ranting, “Help! We’re all going to drown! How can you sleep through a thing like this?”

Probably also like that frantic disciple, I’m never really sure what Jesus can do to help, but I wake him up anyway—and then, invariably, I am dumbstruck when I see what he does.

If my friend was one who needed to be set free from the notion that he had to understand God before he could trust God, I remain one whose continuing need seems to be a need for rescue.

And whatever level of trust I have in God … well, I guess that’s shown by the fact that Jesus is the One I rush to; the One I turn to, the One I rouse and cling to whenever the sea of life gets rough. He probably wishes I didn’t panic so easily … but even so, Jesus always calms the storm, somehow.

And maybe, if there’s a moral in common between the two stories—between the story of God speaking to Job from the whirlwind and the story of Jesus saying, “Peace! Be still!”—maybe it’s just this: God gives us what we need. When it comes to faith, God gives us what we need, whatever that is for each of us: words of comfort, or words of challenge; a tornado that picks us up and spins us around, or a place of refuge from the storm.

It strikes me that, whatever it is that each one of needs in order to build faith, it’s really all about learning to trust. Or, to put it another way, it’s about learning what to cling to, and what to let go of. Before my friend could embrace faith, he had to let go of the idea that faith had to make sense. And as for me: well, I think I’ve learned how to cling to Jesus, even though I haven’t quite figured out how to let go of my fear.

But that’s okay. Just as God did not smash Job with the whirlwind, he’s never let me fall overboard, either. He’ll keep you safe, too, if you let him. And he’ll give you what you need—even when what you need surprises you. I think that’s good news. Thanks be to God for it. Amen.

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