Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “theodicy

God Is Bigger

 

I could preach all four readings in one sentence: God Is Bigger. But we live in a time when clichés and bumper sticker theology won’t cut it, even if they’re true. We face serious issues, serious life-threatening, heart-rending issues. In the face of incarcerated children crying for mothers they’ve been told abandoned them, politicians threatening each other with bodily harm and some inflicting harm, the daily harassment black folk are subjected to by white folk using the police to harass us for simply being in public, women learning that the folk in their lives–parents, friends and sometimes pastors–aren’t safe to confide in their histories of sexual assault, the war in Syria that the news isn’t covering anymore, the starving children in Yemen caught up in their government’s conflict with Saudi Arabia and the weapons we sell used in this slaughter, in the face of all of this, “God is bigger” sounds like a cop out.

            Yet that’s exactly what God says to Job. Well, not exactly. It takes God one hundred and twenty-six verses between Job chapter 38 and 41 to say it. And she says it poetically, and indirectly. God calls Job to contemplate the wonders of creation and God’s revelation in and through it that Job might see God and God’s power in it, but also see Job’s own insignificant place in it.

1 ”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. 2 Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 8 Or who shut in the sea with doors w hen it burst out from the womb? 9 when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, 10 and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, 11 and said, Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped? 12 Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, 13 so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it?

        Well, have you? God says, “This is who I am. Who are you?” Eventually Job will say, “I’ve said too much,” and put his hand over his mouth because he knows God is bigger and he is comparatively insignificant. But there’s a twist in Job’s story. In order to understand it, we need to understand how Job found himself in this place being interrogated by God veiled in a whirlwind, face to force.

Job was beset by horror. He lost everything in the building waves of a tsunami of catastrophe. Job lost everything he owned; he lost it all through violence. He didn’t make a bad deal or risk the wrong stock. He went from the Forbes list to having no way to feed himself or his family. It doesn’t matter how much you have or how you got it, losing everything hurts. Contemporarily we have a lot of shame about money and its loss, trying to keep up appearances, needing help, hunger and poverty in the suburbs, even in nice churches like this.

            Job didn’t even have a moment to muster up the strength to ask for help when he was beset by unfathomable tragedy. All of his children were murdered. The book of Job may be a story the Israelites used to teach and debate theology, but the scenarios it constructs are deeply rooted in reality. These stories are somebody’s stories. People knew folk who had had those kinds of losses in the ancient world, and we do too. In part the book of Job exists because there are no good answers to why such awful things happen to people. And the truth is, even the best theology falls flat when you’re looking at a murdered child.

Job gives voice to our desire to ask – no – demand God explain this mess: this broken world, murdered children shot in school, others killed by their own parents, women and girls and some boys and men subject to sexual harassment and assault, some for years, disbelieved if they report, blamed if they don’t, hungry children in a world of abundance, new obstacles and some of the same old obstacles to voting set up just fifty years after the assassination of Dr. King, white supremacists marching in the streets, the police being used and letting themselves be used to harass black folk for being black in public, shopping or trying to enter our own homes. And though the world and the news cycles have moved on some of are still saying Black Lives Matter as the faces of new victims fill our TV screens. Like Job I have questions for God. And while I’ve never seen that particular whirlwind I too shouted into the wind.

Job took all of his hurt and horror to God. He also took his faith that there had to be a way to make sense of his world that didn’t involve bad theology. There’s a lot of bad theology out there. Some of it’s in churches. Some of it’s on TV. Some of it’s in churches on TV. Some of it’s on the lips of politicians. And some of it is ours as we do our best to make sense of the world with the tools we have, the sermons we’ve heard, the folk wisdom of our families, and too many self-help books and TV shows. And then there are the folk who love us who have definite opinions about what is going on in our lives, what we’ve done, what we need to do and what it all means.

Job had the kind of friends who stayed with him through the worst of his grief; then they started explaining how he was ultimately responsible for what happened to him. There are people today who blame women for being abused at home, harassed at work, or assaulted in the street. There are folk who buy into new age theologies that say you get whet you give and draw bad energy to you. There are even Christians who will say you didn’t pray enough, or have enough faith.

But Job knew there was nothing he could have ever done to bring any of what he suffered on himself, so he went to God. But it didn’t turn out quite like he expected in our lesson. He went to God holding the pieces of his broken heart in his hands to ask God why and God said, “I am bigger.” All of our lessons make that claim. Our psalm: Bless the Living God, O my soul. Holy One my God, you are very great.God is bigger. Our epistle: Jesus having been made perfect became the source of eternal salvation. God is bigger. Our gospel: Are you big enough to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? I know you think so. This is what bigger really looks like: whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Woman came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Even when confined to human flesh God is bigger.

God is bigger than our circumstances, preconceptions, and misconceptions. God is bigger that our faults and our failures, our dreams and our schemes, our hope and our hurt. God is bigger than this crucified and crucifying world. God is bigger than this nation and its borders. God is bigger than our theologies and our politics. God is bigger than our church. God is bigger. God is even bigger than the bible. God is bigger than it’s slave-holding culture. God is bigger than the bible’s patriarchy and the sexism and misogyny of its interpreters. God is bigger than the understanding of gender in its pages. God is bigger than the bible’s Iron Age theology. And yet and still God still speaks through it just as God spoke to Job through the whirlwind.

God spoke to Job but didn’t explain why. The people who put together the book of Job knew that even when you find your way to or back to God after a tragedy you don’t get all the answers if any. You may never hear God speak to you about your sorrow. But you will find, as Job found, a God who is present, and yes bigger and greater and grander and more exalted and more majestic than you can imagine, but also a God who sees your tears and hears your cries shouted into the wind. And sometimes, even when not answering the questions you asked–and it’s ok to ask–God will choose to answer the question you need. For Job it was that he was not wrong, nothing that had happened to him was his fault, and his friends and their bad theology were all the way wrong.

The God who attended Job in the whirlwind is the God who in the psalm is clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment, stretches out the heavens like a tent, sets the beams of her chambers on the waters, makes the clouds her chariot, rides on the wings of the wind, and makes the winds her messengers. That same God became a child, begotten, birthed, breastfed, bathed, baptized, and buried. God came to us in a form less terrifying and more fragile than a whirlwind, in our own human flesh. In living, in loving, in healing, in teaching, in dying, in rising God in Jesus is the answer to questions we did not ask as much as the answer to the questions we shouted into to wind. And unlike Job’s whirlwind, Jesus remains and stays with us through the storms and through the calm and all that will come our way. Whatever it may be, God is bigger.

God is bigger. God’s love is bigger. God’s grace is bigger. God’s mercy is bigger. Bigger than our need. Bigger than the world’s hurt and hunger. God is bigger. God is enough. Amen.

For today’s scripture lessons (Track 1) click here.


Suing God

Job 38:1 Then the Holy One of Old answered Job out of the whirlwind: 

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 

3 Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall respond to me.

 

Let us pray: Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

 

If I knew where to find God, I’d sue. That’s what Job said and that’s what Job did; he sued God. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, Social Security and Medicare rolled up together. He has even made it his business to treat his slaves as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of Job’s children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – they can never be replaced. And so he sues God. I understand. I am haunted by Job’s children, by the shades of his murdered children; they attend my teaching and preaching on and from the book of Job. They are three daughters and seven sons whose names and ages are neglected in the text. I will never forget them nor allow them to be forgotten.

 

The basis of Job’s lawsuit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his children to be butchered, his body to be afflicted and his wealth to be erased. After all, Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. And he knows that the prevailing theology of his day is that if bad things happen to you you are not a good person, you deserve whatever you get. But Job knows that he does not deserve any of this. (However, neither Job nor the biblical author take up the issue of whether wrong was done to Job’s murdered children.) 

 

Where was God and what was God doing while Job’s life was being destroyed? God was there. And God did nothing. God permitted it, sanctioned it, suggested it. And if Job knew what we know from the narrator who speaks to the reader – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children and all of their lives to prove a point. But Job does know that God is, that God is there and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right. 

 

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Now, in order to sue God Job had a number of obstacles to overcome which he explains his friends. First, God is no ordinary defendant, (9:32-34):

For God is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer God,

that we should come to trial together.

There is no umpire between us,

who might lay a hand on us both.

If God would take God’s rod away from me,

and not let dread of God terrify me,

then I would speak without fear of God,

for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

 

Second, he had to figure out how to serve God a subpoena. Job discussed his search for God with his friends in 23:3-5:

Who will grant that I might know

where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode?

I would set my case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with arguments.

I might know what God would answer me,

and understand what God would say to me.

 

Job also spends quite a bit of time with this idea in chapter 9, verses 1, 14-16, 19-20:

If one wished to sue God,

one could not answer God once in a thousand…

If it is a contest of strength, God is the strong one!

How then can I answer God,

choosing my words with God? 

Though I am innocent, I cannot answer God;

I must appeal for mercy to my accuser… 

If I summoned God and God answered me,

I do not believe that God would listen to my voice.

If it is a matter of justice, who can summon God? 

Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;

though I am blameless, God would prove me perverse.

 

Job had to find someone among his kinfolk and skin-folk, an advocate, a go‘el, (traditionally translated redeemer) to represent him. That was the system set up from the time of Moses – if you got into any type of legal or even financial trouble, one of your relatives was supposed to bail you out, literally. But who could serve as Job’s redeeming relative? The relatives who abandoned him when he fell ill and lost all his money wouldn’t help him sue God. He says (in 19:13), “My relatives and my close friends have failed me.” Of Job’s attempt to find legal representation to take on God, one of his friends (Eliphaz) says in 5:1, “Call now; is there anyone who will answer you? To which of the holy ones will you turn?” But Job is convinced that this thing can be done, he also knows he may not survive it and wishes to leave an account for all who follow, 19:23-24:

“O that my words were written down!

O that they were inscribed in a book! 

O that with an iron pen and with lead

they were engraved on a rock forever! 

 

He got his wish. Perhaps most importantly, Job knows that there is someone who will take his case and he will surely get his day in court. He says:

For I know that my Advocate lives,

who will at the last stand upon the earth; 

and after my skin has been so destroyed,

then in my flesh shall I see God, 

whom I shall see on my side,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

My heart faints within me!

 

Job’s Advocate, his Redeeming-Relative is One who can summon God and require faithfulness of God. Job doesn’t know it yet, but his Advocate and Redeeming-Relative is God. Meanwhile, Job’s faux-friend Elihu acknowledges that there may indeed be such a mediator in 33:24-25:

Then, if there should be for one of them an angel,

a mediator, one of a thousand,

one who declares a person upright, 

who is gracious to that person, and says,

‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit;

I have found a ransom. 

Let his flesh become fresh with youth;

let him return to the days of his youthful vigor.’ 

Then he prays to God, and is accepted by God,

he comes into God’s presence with joy,

and God repays him for his righteousness.

 

With every fiber of his being Job ached and thought, if I could just see God… And then, God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up and God blows up the courthouse. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!” 

 

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? (God uses both genders in Job.) Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

 

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of those you hold dear, including your precious children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God face-to-force, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.” 

 

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. And the book of Job is scripture to bear holy witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Yet God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind about what God is doing to you, with you and the ones you love. 

 

That’s what the disciples do in the Gospel. They are on the Sea of Galilee which can be a good place to have a party. That’s what I did on my first trip to Israel. I danced across the sea on a party boat. It was late summer. On my second trip, it was July and I was buttoned up against the cold and braced for the wind. And even with our modern, motorized boat we were buffeted on that tiny lake like we were in the ocean. And if Jesus had been onboard, I would have woken him up too. Loudly. That's what the disciples do, giving Jesus a piece of their minds: Get up Jesus! What do you think you’re doing? I can’t believe you’re lying there asleep while we are dying. Get up and do something!

 

Job teaches that even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in Job’s life. God changed Job.

 

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? Because whenever I need to – and I need to frequently, I give God a piece of my mind. I have filed more than one lawsuit myself. Shall not, the Judge of all the earth do what is right? I know that I have a living Advocate to plead my case. Somewhere there is for me, a redeeming relative, some kin to help me save my skin. I know I will get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but when I have my say then I know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe.

 

Job sued God. Shouted at God. And it was all right. It was more than all right. It was healing and transformational. And Job died old, contented and full of days. 

In the Name of God: 

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. Amen.