Finding God in the whirlwind

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 25—Year B—Stewardship – The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

Today, we come to the end of our five-week run of Job. What a ride it has been! And today’s finale does not disappoint. Remember the story? God and Satan have a bet whether or not Job will remain a blameless and upright guy if God lets Satan do a little afflicting. Oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels—gone. Servants—killed by raiders. Ten children—killed by a great wind. Still, Job was a perfectly patient, upright, and blameless man. Satan gets another shot at Job and afflicts him with oozing, groce, painful sores. Now we’re talking. And after 7 days of sitting in an ash heap silently scraping his sores in the company of his three best friends (that’s a pretty desolate picture), Job opens his mouth and the sparks fly. For the next 28 chapters, Job goes round and round with his friends (who keep trying to pin the blame on Job or his children—he or they must have done something wrong), and Job rails at God. “Why? Why? Why?” Finally, he runs out of things to say, and in chapter 31 verse 40, the text tells us, in some of the most profound words ever, THE WORDS OF JOB ARE ENDED.

Then, after a little secondary material that we don’t really think was in the original story, the LORD answers 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. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And God proceeds to let Job know that God is God, and Job is not. Two chapters worth later, God says to Job, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Job is a little sheepish, “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” Basically, Job is saying, “I am a tiny speck in a very big universe; sorry God, now that you are here, I really don’t have anything to say.”  Think God is satisfied with that answer? C’mon, Job has been wanting to duke it out with God for 28 chapters. Think God is satisfied with that pitiful answer?

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me. Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be justified?” And God goes on for two more chapters. Then we come to today’s reading: Then Job answered the LORD: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ (Uh, that would be me LORD.) “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ (Uh, okay LORD, I’ll give it my best shot.) “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (I think, maybe, Job was a 4 on the enneagram.)

And then in a section that’s omitted today, the LORD turns on Job’s best buddy, Eliphaz the Temanite—“My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Job wasn’t wrong in all those things he said about God. Then God tells them to make an offering and to ask Job to pray for them. They make the offering, and Job does indeed pray for them. Then we are told that, when Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD restored the fortunes of Job; and the LORD gave Job twice as much as before. More sheep, more camels, more oxen, more donkeys, and ten new kids. And there came to him his brothers and his sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him and showed him sympathy.

STOP! If you have lost ten of your children to death, how is this ending working for you? This is a lousy ending to the book. Oh, I was right there with this book, until this lousy, pointless, superfluous, totally unrealistic ending. Hollywood couldn’t sugarcoat an ending any more than this.  This is a horrible ending. We’ll come back to that.

So, what do we see? Well, first, God wasn’t content with Job’s sheepish non-answer. If you beg to talk with the Divine, then you need to engage with the Divine when the Divine shows up. But it’s interesting, when Job finally does talk, all he can say is “I had heard of you before, with my ears, but now I see you.” What do you make of that? Do you actually see a whirlwind? Well, I guess you see the debris that gets caught up in a whirlwind, but do you actually see the wind itself? You don’t see a whirlwind so much as you experience it. All that stuff that the friends and Job went round and round about, even all that stuff that Job shouted at God, it was all about worldviews and beliefs and hypotheticals—it was stuff that could be heard—but this, this is raw experience between Job and God. This is God up close and personal.

And what is it that Job repents of? Some thinkers say that Job has to repent of his integrity, that Job has to give up his desire to be right. That’s probably a piece of it. Sometimes, in our house, when things get a little heated, we say, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?” We can get so fixated on being right that we will even sacrifice our relationships just so we can be vindicated. Sometimes, our need to be right prevents us from actually experiencing the relationship, with God, or with other people.

I think Job also has to repent of his words. He is so busy talking, talking, talking, that he couldn’t experience God, or his friends, if his life depended on it. The words are important, yes. Job falls silent two times in this story—in the ash heap at the end of chapter 2 and again at the end of chapter 37 when THE WORDS OF JOB ARE ENDED. God did not come to Job in chapter 2, God comes after chapter 37. That tells us that the words are important. Being in relationship with God doesn’t mean you can’t get angry with God; it means you can. In all those angry words, Job lets God see into the heart of his pain and heartache. But at some point, we have to stop talking so that we can experience God and hear what God has to say. When Job finally stops talking, God has space to come, and Job has space to experience God.

The other thing that Job might have to repent of was his complacency. Remember, Job says that he had heard of God with his ears, but now he sees God, therefore he despises himself and repents in dust and ashes. Maybe Job realizes that up to this point in his life, it was enough to know God through other people’s words and ideas and beliefs. But now he  sees God for himself. Now he knows God for himself. It just won’t work anymore for Job to know God through the words of others, he has to give up the safety of other’s experience of God, he has to repent of coasting on other people’s experiences. No, once you’ve experienced God yourself, once you have seen God on God’s terms, then it just won’t do to go back to other people’s words about God. It only takes one experience to know that nothing else will satisfy you. Once you know, you simply know. Jesus asks the blind man one question, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man gave one answer, “My teacher, let me see again.” Seeing, with our own eyes, this is what makes us well.

And what about that restoring of fortunes bit. Oh, I really do hate that part. It just doesn’t work that way in real life. If you experience profound loss, getting it all back doesn’t make it all okay, especially when that loss is a human one. I first encountered the Book of Job as a first year seminarian. It was spring of that year. My father had just died suddenly on Maundy Thursday of that spring. It was in that period that I understood why they call it heartache—my heart literally ached. I held God directly responsible for that death. I’m not saying that makes any rational sense, but it was how I felt. During that spring, I was either yelling at God, or we were not on speaking terms. I was taking Old Testament—Part II, and my professor was just convinced that I would find comfort as we studied the Book of Job. And I did, until this very last chapter when the author described the restoration of Job’s fortunes. I waited until everyone filed out of the classroom. My professor walked over to me with this look of great anticipation in his eyes, like, “Well?” And I responded, “This is bull.” Okay, my language may have been a little stronger than that. His face fell. He didn’t quite know where to go with me from there. And so, he invited me to write my final paper on the Book of Job—to wrestle with it, just like Jacob had to wrestle with God, until I could wrestle a blessing out of it. I took an incomplete in that class and spent the summer wrestling this text to the ground. I learned a lot, and actually, found my way back to God in the process.

In the restoration, we are told that Job’s fortunes are restored—double the stuff and ten new kids, but we are told nothing about those gruesome sores. If you go back to the beginning of the book, when Job lost all his stuff, and even his kids, he was still in relationship with God and with his family and friends; it was not until he got afflicted with those awful sores that everything went horribly wrong, and he found himself totally alone. At the end of the book, we don’t hear anything about those sores. I don’t think those painful, horrible sores were ever healed. The thing that had set Job completely apart was not healed. That painful, painful affliction was not healed, and yet Job found his way back into relationship with God, and he found his way back into relationship with his friends and family—his brothers and sisters and all those who had known him before came to him and ate with him and showed him sympathy and comforted him. In the end, his body didn’t get restored, but Job got restored to God and to his community.

Sometimes, in our suffering, the loss doesn’t get restored. Sometimes, we never get a satisfactory answer to the question, “Why did this bad thing happen to me?” Sometimes, our ears will never hear the words that will somehow make it make sense, or be okay. And yet, and yet, we still can see God. We may go through times when we break it off with God, but God never breaks it off with us. And when we have said all the angry or indifferent things we need to say to God, when our words fall silent, then it is possible to see God in a way we never have before—not as a magician who can prevent our suffering, but as a Presence who has been there since the beginning of creation and who will always be there until the end of time; we can see God as a Presence who comes to us, even in the whirlwind. Our wounds may still stand, but they don’t have to have the power to separate us—we can be restored to God and those around us who love us.

In the end, we, like Job, have a choice—do we stay in heap of ashes scraping our sores, do we keep fighting it out with our friends who are trying to reach out to us, misguided though they may be, do we keep railing at God out of our pain, or do we let go and fall into the silence and risk experiencing God on God’s terms? It is all a great mystery; it frankly defies my orderly, rational mind. But I do know that in that silence, it is possible to see God in the whirlwind, and that can change your life forever. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 28, 2012