Are You Able?

October 21, 2018/Job 38:1-7 (34-41)


When we left Job last week, he was suffering through the “comfort” of his friends.  Three of his contemporaries had dropped by, and for seven days they did everything right.  They hardly recognized him, so horrible were the sores that covered his body, the anguish that marked his face.  They wept with him.  “They sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).

But then they just couldn’t help themselves.  They engaged in great theological diatribes.  They launched accusations regarding Job’s guilt.  They pointed out his shortcomings and his need for God’s correction.  In response to Job’s heart-torn question – Why? – they declared, well obviously it is your fault, Job.

Then the young upstart Elihu appeared.  He didn’t think the answers that Job’s friends offered were any answers at all.  No, Elihu said, “the destruction of Job’s property and the death of all his children and his leprosy were probably just God’s way of helping him to improve his character and sharpen his sensitivities.”[1]  “He delivers the afflicted by their afflictions,” he explained, “and opens their ears by adversity” (Job 36:15).

A good friend called one day during the time that I was living with my mother, waiting for the leukemia to win and her to die.  It was a rough day, and I was tired, and I just wanted to know why.  Why did she have to be sick?  Why did she have to suffer?  Why did I have to watch her?  The friend said, “But you’re so strong!”  It was as if Elihu had spoken up – God is using adversity to make you stronger.  My response?  I don’t feel very strong.

Paul writes in I Corinthians, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13).  That verse usually gets translated something like, God will not give you more than you can handle.  That’s not exactly what Paul is saying.  First of all, Paul is not talking about withstanding suffering or trials; he is talking about resisting sin.  And he is pretty clear in his comments to the Corinthians that they will be tested.  While God may equip them to help them endure that testing, Paul does not suggest that such testing is designed to help them “grow in their faith.”

Job protested his innocence to his friends.  In our readings last week, he complained that God refused to give him a hearing and “was silent in the face of his suffering.  This week God replies.  Silent no more, God lets Job have it in a breathless ‘who do you think you are?’ diatribe.  These verses have an ‘and another thing, Job’ quality to them.  Just when you think God is finished taking Job to task, God adds another piece of evidence in the case against Job’s audacity.”[2]

While Job might initially have been relieved finally to hear from Yahweh, his relief undoubtedly turned to terror.  God isn’t concerned with Job’s why – God is concerned with Job’s place in the world.  God’s “questions [Who are you?  Where were you?  Are you able?] have to do with the issue of Job’s willingness to enter upon human vocation to royal rule in the image of God, when the implications of that image are intimated in terms of innocent suffering.”[3]

God describes the created world as a masterpiece of power and magnificence and invites Job “to participate in the drama of existence.”[4]  “It is the most gorgeous speech that God makes in the whole Old Testament, and it is composed almost entirely of the most gorgeous and preposterous questions that have ever been asked by God or anybody else.”[5]

“Job’s sufferings are now seen as part of a vast scheme of things which is far too transcendent for any mere mortal to comprehend.  … If there are areas that human wisdom cannot penetrate, it is not because Yahweh’s wisdom is deficient.  It is because human wisdom is too limited and puny.”[6]

Job finally has his audience with God, but he is not prepared for the conversation because he has consistently underestimated God.  God’s words focus on the creation God has wrought, poetically exploring creator, creativity, and creatureliness.  God asks questions of Job as representative of humankind concerning the rest of creation.  Through these questions Job – and we – learns that to be a human being is to be a creature who is addressed by God and whom God calls to care for the rest of creation.[7]

“We so often do not know what we are asking for when we approach God.  We think we know exactly what is best, what we need most, what God ought to do for and with us – forgetting that our ways are not God’s ways, our thoughts not God’s thoughts.”[8]  God’s questions for Job are concerned with who Job is in relation to God.  God’s questions remind Job that his place in creation is vastly less than God’s.  But the questions also remind Job that his role in that creation is greater than that of all other creatures, for it is Job with whom God chooses to be in relationship.

“The voice from the whirlwind is persuasive: this is God’s world, not Job’s.”[9]  In the midst of his suffering, sitting on his ash heap and scraping his sores with broken pottery, Job asks only one thing – why.  That’s the same question we’ve asked, isn’t it?  Why?  “Why did I get sick?  Why was my son the one in that teen-driver car wreck?  Why did I get stuck with a job in the third company in a row that has been taken over by a big corporation?  Why am I still living when all my friends and my whole generation of the family is dead?”[10]

“The question [why] is a cry of pain.  [And we] know good and well that there is no answer.”[11]

Instead, God shifts the focus from problems of humankind to the world around us.  With God’s questions, God paints “images of wonder, lifting us from our accustomed ways and amazing us that there is anything here and not nothing at all.”[12]  These images help Job picture life in the future.  “The image we have of God’s intentions for a world in which all creatures are fed and life thrives in abundance can shape the choices we make about how to live.”[13]

Job hears God’s words from the whirlwind and – what?  How does he respond to these overpowering questions from God?  How do we respond?  Perhaps, with Job, we can ask a new question.  “Not ‘Why do I and other godly people suffer?’ but ‘How may I find peace with God in the midst of my suffering?’”[14]  “When we do not know what we need or what we are asking God to do for us, when we don’t know our proper place or recognize God’s will, when we can’t see past ourselves or our circumstances, when we think we know what is best but fail to seek what God says is better, Jesus intercedes for us.  In one of the most pastoral sentences in Scripture we are told [in the Gospel of Mark], ‘He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself was subject to weakness.’  We have a great High Priest who meets us in our ignorance and asks us with sincerity, ‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’  And then does for us so much more than we can ever ask or imagine.”[15]

[1] Frederick Buechner, “Job,” Peculiar Treasures

[2] Jill Duffield, “I feel for Job this week,” Looking into the Lectionary, October 15, 2018

[3] J. Gerald Janzen, Interpretation: Job, 225

[4] Ibid., 227

[5] Buechner

[6] Walter Brueggemann et. al., Texts for Preaching, Year B, 551

[7] Janzen, 229

[8] Duffield

[9] J.S. Randolph Harris, Feasting on the Word B/4, 173

[10] Thomas Edward Frank, Feasting on the Word B/4, 172

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 174

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brueggemann

[15] Duffield

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