Fourth Weekend of Pentecost B
Preached at First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Muskegon, MI, while on Internship.
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
From the moment I was born, my family has had dogs. German Shepherds are our breed of choice—one day I hope to have one or two of my own.
When I was around 6-7 years old, my family’s German Shepherd was named Sheba. She was a big dog, almost as big as my sister and I, and she loved us. She could always be counted on to protect us and would strategically place herself between us strangers and us.
She used to follow me up to bed every night, and she’d hop up onto the foot of my bed and lay there until I fell asleep. During the night she’d go back downstairs and sleep with Mom and Dad until morning, but she always started the night with me.
I remember one morning I woke up and she wasn’t on my bed. She was never there in the morning, but this morning, something was odd. I could feel it. I went downstairs looking for her, and I found out that Sheba had died suddenly during the night. Dad had let her out after we’d all gone to bed, and when he went to check on her a few hours later, she was dead. To this day, he insists she was poisoned, but we never did learn why she had died.
What I did learn that morning was that some things are out of my control, and I can’t change them no matter how much I want them to. I cried at night for weeks, wishing that I could have her back. There was something comforting about having her around, watching over me whether I was awake or asleep. But I couldn’t bring her back. She was gone, and there was nothing I could do about it. It was the first time I can remember that feeling.
We live in a world, on a planet, that we have no control over. Oh, we try. In New Orleans we built seawalls to keep out the ocean. In Chicago, we reversed the flow of the river to suit our needs. In Panama, we dug a canal to connect the two largest oceans on the planet. In Brazil, we’ve cleared nearly 20% of the Amazon Rainforest in the last 40 years for failed farming.
But try as we might, we never seem to be able to get the world completely under our control. We can’t contain a tornado. We can’t stop an earthquake. We can’t hold back a hurricane or tsunami. We can’t keep people from getting sick no matter how many diseases we immunize against.
We can’t tell the earth how fast to turn or how far away from the sun to revolve. We can’t order the stars to rearrange themselves into new constellations. We can’t reverse the phases of the moon or the peculiar rotation of Uranus.
We can’t even keep our children from growing up and killing each other. And we can’t stop people from dying.
When things happen that are beyond our control, it seems to be the natural human tendency to find someone to blame. When our dog Sheba died, my father insisted that someone must have poisoned her. When family members have a falling out, someone always tries to blame someone else.
Sometimes, like Job, we even blame God. Everything that can possibly happen to a person happens to poor Job. He loses his property, his animals, his servants, his family, and even his own health.
In ancient times, people believed that if you do good, you get it, and if you do bad, you get bad. Honestly, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten rid of this belief, even though we can observe all around us that it is simply not true. So that’s how Job thinks. But Job can’t figure out what he could have done wrong, and comes to the conclusion that, in fact, he has done nothing wrong and he is being punished unjustly.
He demands to speak to and question God so that he can show God how righteous he is and how God is mistreating and picking on him. His friends try to persuade him otherwise, but Job will have none of it. He wants to hear it straight from God: I’m sorry, Job, I’ve not treated you well, and you deserve better from me.
Well Job finally gets to talk to God, but it’s not at all what he desires or expects. God appears to Job in a vicious whirlwind. Uh oh. As one commentator put it, this is no pretty little burning bush, or God speaking with a still small voice. This is a whirlwind, a torrent of wind and sound that overshadows anything human beings have control over.
God’s response to Job, our first reading today, is one of my all-time favorite speeches by God. God is not above using colorful language when the need arises.
“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.’”
In other words, “Who the heck do you think you are? Stop your whining and put on your big boy pants. Now shut up, listen up: it’s MY turn to question you, and YOU will give ME answers.”
And then God proceeds to show Job just how insignificant he really is: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of this planet, hmm? Tell me! Where were you? Were you there when I shaped it, divided its seas and raised its mountains? Were you there when I smashed another planet into the Earth, creating the Moon? Were you there when life first appeared on the planet? Were you?
“Then what makes you think you can truly understand the way in which it works? What makes you think you have any say or any control over it? I have a big universe to take care of. You can’t possibly comprehend it all.”
With these words, God silences Job’s hubris and pride, for that was the unrighteousness of Job. He tried to overreach what he was capable of and put himself on an equal footing to interrogate God, much like the first man and woman tried to overreach their limitations and be like God. And he gets smacked back down in his place.
Now I’ll be the first to admit, God makes me more than a little uncomfortable in this speech, which, by the way, goes on for four whole chapters after our reading today. God doesn’t sound very nice, very loving, very compassionate, or like anyone I would like to know better. When the church I attended in Jackson, MS studied the book of Job, we really struggled with what to make of God in this story.
But here is something I would note about God in this story: despite the smackdown and the utter humiliation of Job, God does do what Job wanted. God answers Job, even if it was not in any way how Job expected. As big as the universe is, and as insignificant human beings are in the grand scheme, God takes the time to personally answer Job. So maybe we aren’t as insignificant in God’s eyes as we may at first appear.
Job tried to exert his control over God and the universe and failed. But his interactions with God show me that in between all of the workings of the planets, stars, and galaxies, there is an important place for human beings. We ARE being taken care of.
It’s hard to see every day. Violence is everywhere, from gang wars to civil wars, ethnic cleansings and genocides. Hurricanes still come and go. Tornadoes still destroy whole towns. But in the midst of it all, God’s call is one of trust. God hasn’t forgotten about us. We’ll come through it okay.
I am amazed that, when Jesus calms the storm on the Sea of Galilee, he asks his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I feel like saying, “Uh, DUH, what do you THINK they were afraid of?! Their ship was going to sink!”
But I think the greater question is, “What did Jesus have faith in?” Was it his own ability to calm the storm? I doubt it, since he was asleep in the boat and didn’t know about the storm until his disciples woke him.
I think what Jesus had faith in was that, in the end, it would all be alright. We may not be the center of the universe, but God does keep track of us and is aware of what happens to us. The disciples attempted to take control of the situation (and failed), but Jesus trusted that the situation was out of their hands and in the hands of God.
I am strangely comforted by the truth that all of the universe is not in my hands. If I think leading a church community can be tough, I can’t imagine what taking care of the whole universe must be like (and I mean that, I can’t). Far from being a nasty reality and a party crasher, the knowledge that I don’t have control over everything is a liberating reality in which the really big things, the really important things are in the hands of someone much better qualified than I. Why should I be afraid? In this I have faith: that when the world feels like it is spinning out of control and I can’t stop it, I don’t have to. It’s being taken care of.
So no, I can’t rebuild the ozone layer because I want to. I can’t stop the rip currents in Lake Michigan from being a danger to swimmers. I couldn’t stop Sheba from dying that night.
But neither could I wrap the Earth in a magnetic field that protects it from deadly solar winds. Neither could I create the cells in the human body that repair damage. And neither could I give life to everyone who dies in the first place.
Thanks be to God that neither I nor you can truly understand and control the universe. “Why are you afraid?”