Year B, Pentecost 5
Shortly after college, I served as youth minister in a small Methodist Church in the middle of Pennsylvania. It was the beginning of what would be a very short long distance relationship. It was clear to me in my first few weeks in this town that my relationship from college was not going to work out. But I refused to accept it. I had a key to the church and was living right next door in the old rectory. One night I went over and decided to pray about it. I asked God if this relationship was worth saving. I asked God to give me a sign that this was going to work out. I begged. I pleaded. I cried. Suddenly, there was a clap of thunder. I thought, well that could really go either way. Maybe God was really in favor of this doomed relationship. I asked God for another sign as that one was unclear. There was another clap of thunder and bolt of lightning and the lights in the sanctuary were extinguished. All I could see was the rain pelting the stained glass image of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. If you ask God a question, you should be prepared for an answer you might not want. I was not prepared. I sat in the dark wondering how I could spin this one. I was reminded that Jesus said that we should not ask for signs and this was a reminder of that. I left the dark church and returned home to plot the way that I would save this relationship.
This reading from the Book of Job comes at the end of the book. Most people know this Biblical book as it is often referenced in relationship to the question of “why bad things happen to good people.” Job was a good and righteous man. God loved him as he loves all his children, but he also distinguished him as one of the most righteous of his children. Job had a good life. He had a wife and many children who loved him. He had land, animals and money. Things were going swimmingly. Then God and Satan got into a little argument about Job. Satan argued that Job was only good because his life was good, and what would happen if things turned bad? Would he still be righteous? They decided to test Job. Now, this part in and of itself is problematic, and I don’t have time to address it. My guess is that this was the author’s way to dramatize the suffering and make it a good story. So let’s just skip over the whole God and Satan making a bet part.
We can’t be sure why, but things got ugly for Job. His animals died. His children died. His wife died. He lost everything. When he was the only one left, he caught some illness that covered him with boils. To his credit, he lasted a long time before getting angry. I would have never made it as long as he did. However, even he could not stay positive through this devastation. Yet instead of giving up and deciding that there was no God or at least no God worth talking to—he talked to God. He talked and talked. He defended his innocence. He questioned God. Why would God let this happen to him? Why was God absent? Why was God ignoring him? He was asking the questions that many of us ask at one point in our life. He begged God to respond and give him an opportunity to state his case.
Finally, after all of this catastrophe, God spoke out of the whirlwind. He started off with one of my favorite quotes from scripture: “Gird up your loins like a man…” Men in this time wore tunics. If they were about to go into a battle, or partake in any major physical exertion, they would gather the fabric up around them and tuck it in their belt. When God told Job to gird up his loins, he was inviting him into a confrontation, one that promised to require energy and work. One translation interpreted this phrase as, “Pull yourself together. Up on your feet.” (See: https://churchpop.com/2016/02/02/an-important-biblical-skill-how-to-gird-up-your-loins/ for helpful illustration on how to gird your loins.)
After that God proceeded to ask Job question after question. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” In other words… “Who do you think you are talking to?” We talked about this reading at our staff meeting and at vestry and I could not find one person who thought this was a helpful response from God. In seminary, we are trained to provide pastoral care to those in need. One professor told me, “The greater the tragedy, the fewer the words.” Because sometimes, there is nothing helpful to say. However, there are unhelpful things one can say and God would have surely flunked his class in pastoral care with this response.
Yet…for a moment, let’s look past what we think of this response and look at how Job responded. After many chapters of God’s questioning, Job finally says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted…I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you…” While God’s response might not appeal to us, it seems as though it worked for Job. He might not have liked the response, but he was grateful for it because it proved to him that God was still there. God cared enough to appear to him personally.
Originally the theme of this sermon was going to be, “If you ask God a question, you should be prepared for an answer you might not want.” But I thought a lot about the times I asked God questions and ignored the answers. If I had just listened to God about that guy, it would have saved me months of heartache. A more recent example was my decision to adopt. There were many times when I heard God whisper in my ear “Adopt” and I ignored him because that was not my plan. The thing is that even if we are not prepared for the answer, we should still ask the question.
For some reason, Job needed this talk. In some ways, it was what he had asked for. Perhaps the reason that God went on so long was because it took Job awhile to get on board. Perhaps God sat there with him for days or months. I like to think that is what it looked like—that Job came to his revelation slowly and God was patient with him. Because even when I have asked the question and ignored the answer, the seed was planted.
Would it have been better had I listened the first time? Sure. But eventually I got there, because I never stopped talking to God and at some point…I let him talk and I listened. Ask the question that you are afraid of asking. Ask it. You might not like the answer. If you don’t like the answer that’s a good sign because that indicates that you are really hearing God. If it was your own voice, it would be telling you what you want to hear. If you are not ready to hear the answer, that’s ok. Keep asking. Keep talking. One day, you will find the strength to accept the answer that God has given you and to follow the path that moves you closer to who God wants you to be. Ask the question.