Sermon for March 8th, 2020

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Job 9:1-35

1 Then Job answered:

2 “Indeed I know that this is so;
    but how can a mortal be just before God?
3 If one wished to contend with him,
    one could not answer him once in a thousand.
4 He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength
—who has resisted him, and succeeded?—
5 he who removes mountains, and they do not know it,
    when he overturns them in his anger;
6 who shakes the earth out of its place,
    and its pillars tremble;
7 who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
    who seals up the stars;
8 who alone stretched out the heavens
    and trampled the waves of the Sea;
9 who made the Bear and Orion,
    the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
10 who does great things beyond understanding,
    and marvelous things without number.
11 Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;
    he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
12 He snatches away; who can stop him?
    Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’

13 “God will not turn back his anger;
    the helpers of Rahab bowed beneath him.
14 How then can I answer him,
    choosing my words with him?
15 Though I am innocent, I cannot answer him;
    I must appeal for mercy to my accuser.
16 If I summoned him and he answered me,
    I do not believe that he would listen to my voice.
17 For he crushes me with a tempest,
    and multiplies my wounds without cause;
18 he will not let me get my breath,
    but fills me with bitterness.
19 If it is a contest of strength, he is the strong one!
    If it is a matter of justice, who can summon him?
20 Though I am innocent, my own mouth would condemn me;
    though I am blameless, he would prove me perverse.
21 I am blameless; I do not know myself;
    I loathe my life.
22 It is all one; therefore I say,
    he destroys both the blameless and the wicked.
23 When disaster brings sudden death,
    he mocks at the calamity of the innocent.
24 The earth is given into the hand of the wicked;
    he covers the eyes of its judges—
    if it is not he, who then is it?

25 “My days are swifter than a runner;
    they flee away, they see no good.
26 They go by like skiffs of reed,
    like an eagle swooping on the prey.
27 If I say, ‘I will forget my complaint;
    I will put off my sad countenance and be of good cheer,’
28 I become afraid of all my suffering,
    for I know you will not hold me innocent.
29 I shall be condemned;
    why then do I labor in vain?
30 If I wash myself with soap
    and cleanse my hands with lye,
31 yet you will plunge me into filth,
    and my own clothes will abhor me.
32 For he is not a mortal, as I am, that I might answer him,
    that we should come to trial together.
33 There is no umpire between us,
    who might lay his hand on us both.
34 If he would take his rod away from me,
    and not let dread of him terrify me,
35 then I would speak without fear of him,
   for I know I am not what I am thought to be.

The Book of Job: (Un)Answered

I am fascinated by questions for which there seem to be no answers. For example:

  • Why does a round pizza come in a square box?
  • If someone becomes addicted to therapy, how would you treat them?
  • If Jimmy cracked corn and no one cares, then why is there a song about him?
  • If the professor on Gilligan's Island can make a radio out of a coconut, why can't he fix a hole in a boat?
  • If the Disney characters Goofy and Pluto are both dogs, why does Goofy walk and talk, while Pluto remains on all fours?

And since I'm also fascinated by language:

  • When someone tells you, "heads up" why is the appropriate reaction to duck?
  • Why is it when two vehicles "almost" hit each other it is called a "near miss"?
  • Why is someone IN a movie, but ON TV?
  • Why do we say someone "slept like a baby" when babies wake up every two hours?
  • If you fix something that is "out of whack," does that make it "in whack?"
  • Why do fat chance and slim chance mean the same thing?
  • What disease did cured ham actually have?

These are the things I wonder about, but even the most advanced scientific minds of our time have their own unanswerable questions:

  • Is the universe infinite? (The observable universe is 93 billion light years...but that's only the "observable" part)
  • What happens inside a black hole?
  • What is matter made of?
  • What is anti-matter made of?
  • Why do we dream?

Philosophers and Theologians have long had their unanswerable questions, too:

  • What is consciousness, what is intelligence, and what makes someone human?
  • Why are we here?
  • How do you know your perceptions are real?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?

That last question is one of the key themes of the Book of Job, which we are exploring during this season of reflection and introspection that the church has called "Lent."

Six times in today's scripture passage, we come across the Hebrew word עָנָה (anah) which is translated into English as "answer" or "answered." In our own language, the word "answer" comes from the Old English word "andswarian" which shares a common root with the word "swear." So when you answer a question, you are (in a sense) swearing to the validity of your words, and your expert ability to give a correct response.

No pressure.

It's a little bit ironic, then, that chapter 9 of the Book of Job begins with the simple words, "Then Job answered." What (or who) is he answering? In the previous chapters, his friends Eliphaz and Bildad have done their level best to comfort Job, and to explain the source of his misfortunes. Like Job, (and presumably most of us) Job's friends are pious, God-fearing believers, so the source of Job's misfortunes cannot possibly be God.

At the outset, Job agrees with them. Verse 2: "Indeed, I know that this is so." BUT (he continues) hypothetically... just for the sake of argument... IF one wished to contend with him... IF someone (asking for a friend here) wanted to take issue with God... is that even possible?

Yes, yes, I know God is wise, God is mighty and all that. God moves the mountains and calls the stars into existence (in verses 4-10 Job is affirming all that he and his friends "know" about God) BUT... skip down to verse 11:

"Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him;he moves on, but I do not perceive him. He snatches away; who can stop him? Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?"

In other words, who holds God accountable? Who judges the judge?

And then, in verse 14, the "answer" word really starts to flow: "How then can I answer him, choosing my words with him? Even IF I am innocent, I cannot answer him; I must appeal for mercy to my accuser. If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that he would listen to my voice."

In this chapter more than any other in the Bible, the language of the courtroom--of prosecution and defense--is prominent. If I wanted to prosecute God, he would be both the defendant and the judge. Or if I'm the defendant, God is both the prosecutor and the judge. There is no possibility of a fair trail.

Those of you who know me pretty well know that, when it comes to driving, I have a little bit of a lead foot. In the 27 years since I got my driver's license, I have become very well acquainted with the defensive driving course. 99 percent of my tickets have been entirely deserved. So on the one occasion, about fourteen years ago, when I received a ticket for running a stop-sign after I had very clearly stopped, I decided to fight the ticket.

I made diagrams of the scene, requisitioned the video footage from the police officer's dash camera, took pictures of the large shrubbery that prevented the officer from seeing my vehicle come to a complete stop. I showed up to court over-prepared, and passionately argued my case. The judge was impressed, and told me that I would make an excellent lawyer. And then he paused, and said "but I see no reason to doubt the testimony of the police officer. I find the defendant guilty as charged."

I was crushed. That one incident called into question my faith in the entire American judicial system. I mean, I get it--the judge and the police officer were on a first name basis, and probably had to work with each other on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, was no one--just one case on a docket full of people waiting to get on with their defensive driving courses. But I had always been taught that justice is blind, justice is impartial. We even have a famous image of Lady Justice, holding the scales aloft with a blindfold over her eyes.

For me, it was just a traffic ticket. I got over it (mostly). But I realize for many, that distance between the "ideal" of justice and its practical realities are more serious, and often far more devastating. How much more so, when we perceive that the injustice comes from our creator--or for those who don't subscribe to that idea, from a cold, unsympathetic universe? This is what leads Job, in verse 22, do declare "It is all one; therefore I say, he destroys both the blameless and the wicked alike."

For Job, it is precisely when justice IS blind that (verse 24) "The earth is given into the hand of the wicked; he covers the eyes of its judges—if it is not he, who then is it?" True justice is not blind--rather it is to be seen and heard fully, not to be passed over, not to be ignored or dismissed out of hand.

The final section of chapter 9 sees Job descend into self-doubt and self-loathing. If "I shall be condemned," he says in verse 29, then "why do I labor in vain?" Why bother? And here, for the first time, he shows his hand. Up to this point, he has been speaking of God in the third person (he does this, he does that, still hypothetically) but now he addresses God directly. Verse 28: "I become afraid of all my suffering, for I know YOU will not hold me innocent." And verse 30 and 31: "If I wash myself with soap . . . yet YOU will plunge me into filth."

And for the next 32 chapters, the trial is on--despite Job's reluctance, and despite the fact that we're never quite sure who's on trial: God or Job or justice itself. Or maybe it's all three.

So what do we take from all this, and from chapter 9 in particular? Are we meant to be the jury? Are we like Job's friends, trying to give answers which we are not qualified to give in a trial that is not our own? Or do some of us today identify with Job, questioning the hand we have been dealt in life and seeking answers to unanswerable questions?

I want to end with a parable that originated somewhere in Buddhist tradition, but has been repeated in many other places. You've probably heard it before, but bear with me for a moment. It's a parable about three men, blind from birth, who were introduced to an elephant, and asked to describe what sort of creature it was. The first man felt the elephant's trunk and concluded it was most like a snake. The second man felt the elephant's side, and concluded it was like a large horse. The third man felt the elephant's leg and concluded it was most like a tree.

Later, when comparing notes, they began to argue, each man certain about the truth of his own experience, and equally certain that the other two were either lying or completely out of their minds.

I suspect that if Job had been with these men, he would have been the one the elephant stepped on, and he would have come to an entirely different conclusion about elephants.

Last week, I said that Job was not at fault for asking the simple question, "why?" In the same way, I don't think it's ever wrong to seek answers to difficult or seemingly unanswerable questions. A question only truly becomes unanswerable when people stop asking it. Someday, I truly hope that scientists figure out what happens inside a black hole. And someday if I have the privilege of standing before God, I will certainly ask why round pizzas come in square boxes. Actually, I'm fairly certain that one of you will come up to me after the sermon and try to explain that one.

But whether you seek your answers from science, from religion, from personal experience, or directly from God, I hope you'll always do it with humility, with grace, and with the patience of Job (who wasn't really very patient).

Werner Heisenberg, who was the father of quantum physics, said that "what we observe in nature is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

For what it's worth, Heisenberg--a man who asked answered more unanswerable questions than most of us ever will--also said that "the first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass, God is waiting for you.”