Thursday, November 5, 2015

The God of the Whirlwind (and Jesus too) - a sermon from Job 38:1-7

For many chapters God has been silent and that perhaps as much as anything is basic to Job’s agony and dilemma. In our text today God finally responds. God speaks. But God does not speak to a single question Job agonized over. Instead of answers God responds with more questions. Basically God asks: Who are you to question how I do things? Where were you when I created all these different forms of life? What do you know about all of this? Can you influence the elements of this vast creation? Do you have the wisdom to run things? So instead of answers, Job gets more questions that seem to be aimed at putting him in his place. But the amazing thing about this is that this seems to be enough. I will say more about that later.

But first note how God speaks. God speaks out of a whirlwind. What’s the significance of that? Maybe it’s a way of saying that you can’t hold God down, you can’t limit the way God works to four spiritual laws, or the Nicene creed, or the Baptist faith and message. You can’t explain this God. You can’t define or confine this God to propositional statements saying God is this or God is that because God is always more than this or that. God cannot be reduced to a text or a creed. This God is dynamic and on the move and appears in many forms and speaks in many ways. Here God is in the whirlwind.

The next thing to note is what God says. God simply points out all the wonders of the creation, the variety of life forms. God says take in all this mystery and wonder and beauty and terror. This is my doing. I am responsible.

Nature poets have a keen sense about the vastness of creation and our place in it. Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on . . . meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.” It’s a way of saying it’s not all about us. We are part of something that is much larger. And now we have these dazzling images from the Hubble Telescope which bears witness to the unfathomable vastness of the universe. Some images show multiple galaxies, each galaxy made up of billions of stars. Can you imagine?

William Sloan Coffin in his book, Letters to a Young Doubter, tells about the time he first began to realize this. When he was an undergraduate, three friends coming back late from New York crashed their car and were killed. The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel. Coffin was angry when he attended the funeral service. It infuriated him when the priest taking the service began to intone from the back of the chapel the words from Job: “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Coffin said he sounded nauseatingly pious. Looking around, he could see him coming down the aisle his nose in the prayer book. He thought about tripping him up. And just as we was about to stick out his leg, a small voice as it were, asked him, “What part of the phrase, Coffin, are you objecting to?” Coffin said he thought it was the second part: “the Lord has taken away.” Then it suddenly dawned on him that it was the first part: “the Lord gave.” It hit him hard that this was not his world and all of us are only guests. Of course the Lord does not take anybody away. Coffin points out, “God doesn’t go around the world with his hands on steering wheels, his fist around knives, his finger on triggers.”

The God who speaks to Job is not an answer giver or problem solver. Here God is the transcendent Other – which is important because we need a transcendent reference point that centers our lives and helps up put everything in perspective.

If we allow God to be God, that means we are not. But letting God be Lord is not an easy process for those of us who have lived our lives as if life were all about us. The private ego – the little self – likes to cling to its self-importance and will rationalize and resist any reality that subverts its sense of control, power, and autonomy. Many of us want to think and live as if it’s all about us. Often the result of such independence it that we feel cut off not only from God, but from others and this good creation. But that is where we have deluded ourselves, because we are not cut off at all.

We are connected, even though we might feel isolated. In reality we are one with the Creator and the creation. Healthy religion is always about nurturing this sense of connection to God, to others. and to the creation. Healthy religion helps us awake to and take responsibility for the larger world which we are part of. Healthy religion gives us a transcendent Other who is the ultimate reference point so that our significance comes not from the private self, the cut off self, the egocentric self, but rather our significance comes from who we are in God and who we are as part of a much larger whole.

There are many today who desperately need an awareness of this connection to the transcendent Other. Though, I have to tell you, God as the transcendent Other has its limitations. But it is an important starting point. Job is moving us in the right direction.  For in Job we have a God who speaks. This God doesn’t offer answers and doesn’t solve the conundrums of evil and unjust suffering, but this God engages Job. This God speaks to Job and for Job that seems to be enough. Job knows that he has been heard, even if God doesn’t answer a single question or charge. And maybe that’s the point. The amazing thing is not what God says to Job, but that God says anything at all. God shows up. God is present and engages Job.

So now we are on our way (we are not there yet, but on our way) toward a belief in a God who is not only the transcendent Other, but a God who is imminently near and intimately engages the creation. This is the God we meet in Jesus.  

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He just knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

This story suggests what is most profoundly expressed in the Christian belief of incarnation, namely, that the most complete revelation of God’s self and will to humanity is through humanity. The Christian’s quintessential symbol and example of course is Jesus of Nazareth, who expressed the fullness of God. If discipleship to Jesus means anything surely it means learning from Jesus how to embody the life and character of God.

While Jesus’ life centered on God as the ultimate reference, Jesus did not often reference God as the transcendent Other, but as intimately near and close. Jesus spoke of God as Abba, the all compassionate one, who is as close as the air we breathe and who is gracious and forgiving and kind to all people. And while Jesus’ religious contemporaries kept trying to limit God to a chosen few, Jesus kept breaking down boundaries making God accessible to all.

Jesus does not resolve the dilemma we face because of the enormity of evil in the world or the unfairness of unjust suffering, but what Jesus does do is he brings God right into the mix. The God of Jesus is not way up there somewhere, but right here. He told his contemporaries that the kingdom of God was within them or at the very least in their midst and within their grasp. Jesus opens the way for the understanding that is expressed by Paul when he says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.” God was in Christ and God is in us too. That’s the miracle of incarnation. God inhabits our humanity.

The New Testament writers often reference the Divine as Spirit or Christ, but whatever term they use they are speaking of the same reality. Paul expresses this when he says to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” God resides in human flesh. God is both the transcendent Other and the true self who dwells within. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says, “But you are not in the flesh (here he does not mean physical flesh, but rather the ego dominated self); you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (8:9a).

This should give us a profound respect for all human beings, for all human beings bear the image of God. And not only with regard to all human beings, but this should cause us to reverence all forms of life on this planet, because in some unfathomable way God is present there too. The transcendent Other in the book of Job says to Job, “Do not think you are the only game in town. Look at all this variety of life. I am responsible for this.” But then the living Christ takes this further. The living Christ says, “I am not just responsible for all this, I am part of all this. I live and dwell in the midst of all this.”

In Romans 8 Paul speaks of the whole creation being in travail, groaning in labor pains awaiting ultimate redemption. Then he says that we too, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we hope and wait for the redemption of our bodies and the ultimate healing and liberation of the planet. The sense is that the Spirit who indwells us and fills all creation suffers with the suffering creation. God somehow – in ways that we will never grasp and comprehend – enters into the tragic pain, loss, and suffering of our lives and of the creation as a whole.

Jesus hanging on the cross is our ultimate symbol of God suffering with suffering humanity and the suffering creation. I love the symbol of the Celtic cross that has a cross inside a circle, with the edges of the cross touching the circle. It points to the truth that Jesus not only suffers as the representative of humanity but for and with the whole creation. In the book of Colossians the writer says that through the cross God reconciles not just humanity but all things in heaven and on earth.  

When we are living fully in the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, walking in the Spirit, enlightened by the Spirit, then we are not only living in fellowship with and connection to God who is both the transcendent Other and the living Christ, we are also living in fellowship with and connection to everything else. In the Spirit we are awake to our connection to everything. We realize our responsibility to the planet – to manage and care for all living things as well as one another. We sense a deep reverence for all creation.


Our good God, nurture and grow within a deep gratitude for the wonder and mystery and variety of life. Help us to see that you are not just Creator, you are Co-laborer with us sharing in the joy and sadness, the goodness and tragedy of life on this planet. And while you give us no answers, you give us yourself, which is so much more. May your Spirit that filled Jesus fill us with love and compassion and a passion for justice. Amen. 

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