Monday, October 19, 2009

God's Hands: A Sermon on Job 38:1-18

A subtly stewardship-ish sermon... perhaps too subtle?

"K." was baptized yesterday.


We’ve walked in to a bit of a lecture here… a scolding, really. We are hearing the voice of God as an ancient writer conceived it, and God is speaking to Job. At the beginning of the book that bears his name, Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” And Job has all the accoutrements that go along with faithfulness and uprightness in the thinking of the Ancient Near East: he is happy and he is prosperous. In Job’s world virtue equals success. He has flocks and herds and lots of property. He has ten children who actually love to spend time together, and host one another for wonderful family dinners. But all that is about to change. When a member of God’s heavenly court—a kind of devil’s advocate figure—asks permission to test Job, God says, sure. Go ahead. Test him. Let’s see what Job is really made of.

In the twinkling of an eye, Job has lost everything. By the sudden actions of enemy armies and fire from heaven and violent winds, everything he had is gone. Property, gone. Flocks and herds, gone. Even his ten children, gone. And Job spends the next thirty or so chapters of the book that bears his name trying to figure out what on earth has happened, and defending his moral character to “friends” who are sure he must have done something to deserve all this calamity. Throughout those chapters Job questions God. Job asks that classic question: why do bad things happen to good people? Why did these bad things happen to me? Why did I lose nearly everything I hold dear—property, flocks, herds, even my children? Why? Job asks God to explain.

Job is not the only one who wants answers to these kinds of questions. When the worst happens, it seems a part of our human nature to ask why. We would like to know why bad things happen to good people, why the cancer strikes or the job is lost or the company has to close its doors. We would like to know why homes burn to the ground or are flooded beyond repair, or why someone comes to feel that their only option is to commit an act of violence. We, too, would like God to explain.

The passage we have read this morning is a small part of God’s response, though I don’t think we can call it an explanation in any sense. Rather than explaining the problem of suffering, God directs Job’s attention elsewhere. The works of my hands, God says. Look at all my hands have done. Look around you at the wonders of creation. Who did you think did all this?

…who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? ~ Job 38:8-11

God speaks of the earth as if it were a tiny child—a newborn baby—and as God does, divine love and care for that earth become apparent. Despite the occurrence of calamity, God seems to be saying, do not doubt that I love the earth and all its creatures with the tenderness of a parent for its newborn baby.

See what wonders the hands of God have performed! In the ancient language of our faith, God’s hands laid the foundations of the earth while the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy. Or, as we might say in 2009, God tipped over the first cosmic domino that led to the Big Bang, and carefully watched over the debris that was flung from our medium sized star as it whirled itself into planets. Creation. However you look at it, in whatever terms you describe it, God is responsible for it. The mind and heart and will and hands of God fashioned everything that is. God says to Job, Look at the wonders my hands have done!

This response of God—this non-explanation—silences Job’s questioning. But we are still left with the problem of evil—the problem of bad things happening to good people. This problem is not resolved in Job, though some later author gets cold feet and tacks on a happy ending to satisfy those who insist that goodness must equal happiness. The heart of the book of Job points our attention away from suffering and towards evidence of God’s goodness, evil and suffering notwithstanding. Yes, life is hard—but look at the stars. Yes, you have lost much, maybe even everything—but look at the sea. I don’t know that it is a satisfactory answer for most of us.

God’s motives and methods remain a mystery to us, unknowable, unfathomable. But there is something we can know: we can know the works of God’s hands. We can know God as the one who commanded the morning to dawn and who has walked in the recesses of the deep. We can know God as the one who taught the trees to turn themselves into pillars of fire, and who created the infinitely beautiful patterns of snowflakes.

We can know the works of God’s hands. We can warm ourselves on a chilly autumn night with the bounty from the garden and the orchard… the savory winter squash, the glorious crisp apples. We can know the works of God’s hands. We can peer into the face of K., and see the beauty God has created, the miracle that is life, and the gifts that result from human love. We can know the works of God’s hands. We can look around us in this beautiful sanctuary and see people whom God has called together into community, we who have been joined in the body of Christ. We can know the works of God’s hands.

And then perhaps our response to the problem of evil and suffering in the world can be shifted. Perhaps instead of asking, “Why did this happen?” we can respond by asking “How can we help?” or “What can we do?” I heard not too long ago that one unforeseen result of the recession we seem to be emerging from was unprecedented numbers of volunteers, people showing up at non-profit agencies to offer their help. People who had lost their jobs have been reaching out to others who are struggling in record numbers.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body

Some attribute that prayer to the medieval mystic Teresa of Avila, and some attribute it to the 20th century mystic, Teresa of Calcutta. And others tell this story:

There is a church in the UK that was damaged by the Blitzkrieg, and a group of German students went to restore the church [after the war was over]. The hands on the statue of Jesus were blown off, and instead of fixing it, the German students posted "Jesus has no hands but our hands."[ii]

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Ours are the eyes with which God looks out and sees the suffering of the world, and seeks to alleviate it. Ours are the eyes that see the loneliness of the homebound neighbor, and make a decision to stop in to bring some flowers from the sanctuary. Ours are the feet that will walk to do good, seeking to eradicate hunger in our area by participating in this afternoon’s C.H.O.W. walk. Ours are the hands with which we will dig into hearts and pockets and calendars in order to do the work of God’s church. Ours is the body from which no one is rejected, of which every member is valued for his or her unique contribution. God has no body now on earth but ours. No hands but ours. God depends on our hands to continue the work of creation and nurturing God has begun.

Now. What shall we do with these hands of ours? These miracles of design and creation in their own right? Scripture and our own experience of the world remind us of the ever-creative, ever-caring hands of God at work. Look at what God’s hands have done! What shall we do with our hands? Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] Teresa of Avila? Or Teresa of Calcutta?
[ii] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America website.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this. I searched for exegesis on Job after, within the span of two weeks, my brother's mother-in-law died, my mom fell and broke her leg and faces 4-8 weeks of rehab after surgery, a good friend of ours attempted suicide, and my wife's sister-in-law fell 40 feet, breaking her back. Enough already, ya know? Anyway... found this on a Google search and it helped. God bless you.