Job 38:1-7, 34-41
1 Then the Lord 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 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?
34 ‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
and the clouds cling together?
39 ‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
For thirty-five out of forty-two chapters in the book of Job, God is either the subject of conversation or its target. During those thirty-five chapters, God listens silently while Job questions, complains, and attacks God, trying to make sense of his suffering. Finally, in today’s text, God responds. Compared to the words of Job (24 of those 35 chapters), God’s response is mercifully short (just 2 chapters). And so, in my sermon today, I am going to attempt to follow God’s example. Mercifully short.
Let’s jump right in. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”
Many people interpret this as God putting Job in his place: “Who are you to question me? Can you do all the things I can do? Sit down and shut up, you puny mortal!”
I find this interpretation a bit harsh, especially given what we, as readers know from reading the first two chapters: That all of Job’s suffering, the loss of his children, his property, his health, were all instigated, approved, and carried out under God’s supervision and authority, in order to settle a cosmic bet with Satan about whether or not Job would “curse God” if he lost these things.
Incidentally, and for what it’s worth, God lost that bet a long time ago, probably somewhere around chapter 7, and several times thereafter, when Job’s famous patience ran out. But I don’t think God was ever really that interested in winning the bet. No, I think that from the beginning, God’s interest was simply in Job, for better or for worse, in his wealth or in his poverty, in his happiness or his despair.
Regardless of the source of any of these things, God knows Job. God loves Job. And so God knows that Job’s loss and his pain are real, and his angry, impatient, heartbroken words flow from that experience.
Given all of these things, I think it’s possible to read God’s words in a different light, with a different tone. God may be putting Job in his place, but if so I think he does it gently, not in anger, condecension or judgment.
It’s easy to read God’s words to Job, “Where were *you* when I laid the foundation of the earth?” with the implied answer: “Nowhere because you aren’t God.
But elsewhere in the Bible, in Ephesians 1:4, we read that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Holy and blameless. That’s what God calls Job in chapter 1. Read in this light, there is a different implied answer to God’s question:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? You were with me, already, all the way back then, because I chose you and knew you and called you by name all those aeons ago. You may have forgotten, but I haven’t. Let me show you…”
And then, I believe, God takes Job on an amazying mystical journey–kind of like in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol, when the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future take Ebeneezer Scrooge on a wild journey outside of himself to see things that his limited sight would not otherwise allow him to see and understand.
God shows Job the wonders of creation, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy,” of the clouds that bring forth nourishing water as well as terrifying, destructive lightning, of the powerful lion when it provides food for its young, as well as the mournful raven, when it cannot provide food for its young. There is a balance to this creation, one that celebrates joy and beauty and splendor, but also one that does not deny or shy away from violence, tragedy, and suffering.
I wonder, if somewhere in the midst of all that, Job got a glimpse of his beloved, departed children, also with God from before the foundation of the earth–like all of us, their days fleeting and numbered, but eternal in the arms of their creator.
Nowhere in this divine vision are the answers or justice Job is looking for…and yet, through it all is solace and wisdom. The kind of wisdom that can only come experiencing the good as well as the bad, strength as well as weakness, joy as well as pain, beauty and simplicity, life and death, order and chaos, and how all of these things interact and weave together to form this amazing world we inhabit for a short while.
As Job, and we the readers, descend from that divine vision, from all that heavenly wonder and mystery to wrap things up today, I’d like to make a transition that might seem somewhat strange, but bear with me for just a while longer.
Throughout the year, here at First Presbyterian Church, we focus on the four commitments that those of us who are members made when we first joined the church–commitments to support the ministry of this church with our prayers, our study, our giving, and our service. In the months of February, March and April, we focus on the “service” part of all that.
And today, near the entrances and exits of the sanctuary, you’ll find our “service” commitment card. It details all of the different opportunities you’ll find here to serve each other and our community, and it asks members (non-members are welcome to fill one out too!) to make a commitment to one or more of these things in the year to come. This is a practice that goes all the way back to the 1960s and the ministry of Rev. Bill Burroughs, who wrote the eloquent words inside the commitment card entitled “Our Need to Serve.”
What does any of this have to do with Job, or with God’s words to Job in today’s scripture passage?
Well, in previous scripture passages, Job has reminded God of all the things he had done for others–Did I not weep for those whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger.
This is service to others. Basically, Job is saying, “Look at all the things I did for other people.”
Then in today’s passage, God says, “Yes, you have done many things to serve others. But *everything* I have ever done, everything I have ever created, everything I have and everything I am, is all to serve you and all of my children in this world I created for you.
This is echoed in the words of Jesus, who says in Matthew 20 that the rulers of this world lord it over them, but not so among you. Whoever wants to be first among you should be last, and whoever wishes to be great must be a servant to all, just as the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve others and give his life as a ransom for many.
Whether you take as your example God, or Jesus, or Job, know this (what Job knew, what Jesus taught, and what God ordained: That there is great value, and meaning, and fulfillment, and solace and wisdom in devoting one’s time and energy to the service of others.
In our times of joy and in our times of sorrow; in our weakness and in our strength; in our wealth and in our poverty, may we do likewise.