Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – June 21, 2009

(RCL) 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 and Psalm 9:9-20; or 1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16 and Psalm 133; or Job 38:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asked the Adversary in the first chapter of Job. And that was the fateful question, the catalyst, the push that set in motion a chain of events that would leave Job near despair.

Job had seven sons and three daughters, and his livestock numbered in the hundreds. He was not only prosperous, he was good, or to use the more appropriate and specific Biblical word, he was “righteous.” In defending himself before God, Job declared, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. … I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me.” And we have no reason to believe that Job was not telling the truth.

But disaster overcame this man of righteousness and prosperity. The livestock were killed by marauders and natural disaster, and his children were all killed when a tornado struck the house in which they were having a party. Finally, Job himself was afflicted with a chronic, painful, debilitating illness.

However, Job still had his wife and his friends, although he may have wished more than once that they, too, had been in the house with his children. “Curse God and die,” his wife urged. And his friends were no better. “Who that was innocent ever perished?” they asked. And “Happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” In short, these friends insisted that Job was in the wrong and God was in the right.

When Job could take it no longer, he burst out, “God has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me. … God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces … though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” What kind of God is this, Job asked, who allows the wicked to “live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? … How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out?”

The story of Job, of course, is the human story. His misfortunes were more dramatic than the misfortunes most of us will encounter, but they were different from ours only in degree, not in kind. Life is tragic, and to fail to appreciate the tragedy of human life is to fail to be fully human.

But what makes Job most like us are his questions. Job’s questions went on and on and on until he was worn out, and his friends were worn out, and God was just about worn out.

To be human and to be thoughtful at all is to question much. Job’s questions are our questions: “Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer?”

Other questions, less momentous but no less persistent, linger at the corner of our awareness: Does the one I love also love me? What can I do with my life that will give me happiness and fulfillment? Will I have enough resources to live on in old age?

And above all we wonder: Why must I suffer and die? Why must those I love suffer and die?

At times these questions spin about us like a whirlwind. Job’s questions were like that, too, until finally, one day, Someone spoke to Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

Job’s questions got answered with more questions. In asking Job these questions, God seemed to be saying that there is no answer to Job’s questions, or at least, there is no answer that Job can understand. The point of the Book of Job appears to be that there are some questions to which there are no answers, or no answers that the human mind can wrap itself around. That’s can be frustrating, especially to those of us who like to believe that any question can be answered, any problem solved, if we apply reason to it and study it and do research.

So, is Job merely a rebuke to human reason, to the quest to make sense of life and answer unanswerable questions? Or does Job offer us some comfort in those sleepless nights when our mind just won’t stop asking questions?

The answer of Job is more, much more, than the mere assertion that life’s big questions are unanswerable.

Job got more than just a rebuke; he got God. And so do we. In the midst of the questions, in the midst of the whirlwind and turmoil, there is God. Just as surely as God came to Job, God comes to us.

Furthermore, this God who came to Job and comes to us is a God who hears our questions and speaks to us. God doesn’t always answer our questions, for perhaps we do not even know enough to ask the right questions, much less to understand the answer. But this God who speaks in the midst of the whirlwind is a God who chooses to be in relationship to us.

Consider another Biblical tale that we heard this morning. Jesus and the disciples boarded a fifteen-foot fishing boat to cross from west to east across the Sea of Galilee. It should have been a short, uneventful journey, but instead they encountered a fierce storm. The comparison to human life is irresistible.

Job, too, had every reason to think that his journey across life’s sea would be uneventful, that he would grow old and die in prosperity, with the comfort of his wife and family around him. What more can any of us wish for?

But storms arise. Like Job, the disciples asked, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” It is a question that we are bound to ask time and time again on life’s journey.

Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, and if that were the only sign over human life, we might well despair.

However, the Christian faith asserts that there is another sign over human life: the Cross. For we have not only to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind and replied to Job’s unanswerable questions with more unanswerable questions. We have also to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind on the Sea of Galilee: “Peace! Be still!”

In the tempest of questions that fly about us, God comes to speak peace. And when we ask the question that the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” there is an answer: He is the Crucifed and Risen Lord who is with us in the storm and the calm, on sea and on land, when we have all the answers and when we have nothing but questions.

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama and is rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

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