Sunday, August 14, 2016

God Speaks (Let the Mystery Be)

Book of Job, Chapters 38-42
August 14, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

You heard last week some of the 38th chapter of Job, when God answered Job out of the whirlwind. God’s beautiful, powerful and poetic speech goes on for three more chapters. I want us to overhear some of conversation between God and Job. Then we’ll hear what Job finally says in response.

I hope you’ll take some time to read this entire section – it is beautiful. Just a side note here – you’ll hear in this reading about “leviathan” and if you do some reading on your own, you’ll run into the “behemoth” too. Depending on the translation you use, those may be translated as names of familiar animals. Creationists sometimes claim they are biblical terms for dinosaurs. These are primordial, mythological beasts – the behemoth some kind of land animal, and Leviathan some kind of huge, fire breathing sea serpent - think of the ancient maps that say:”here there be dragons.” They are meant to be alien and terrifying.

Well, we are not yet at the end of the story – that is next week – but we are, in my opinion, at the most important part of this tale. Listen for God’s voice to us this morning in these selections from Job, chapters 38, 39, 40 and 41, concluding with Chapter 42, verses 1-6

So God answered Job out of the whirlwind and then God asked some impossible questions:

Chapter 38
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place?
31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?

Chapter 39
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer?
19 “Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?
26 “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?
27 Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?

Chapter 40
And the Lord said to Job: 2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
Anyone who argues with God must respond.” 3 Then Job answered the Lord:
4 “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.
5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”
6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
7 “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me.
8 Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
9 Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?
10 “Deck yourself with majesty and dignity;
clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
14 Then I will also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can give you victory.

Chapter 41
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
2 Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook?
5 Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on leash for your girls?
33 On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear.
34 It surveys everything that is lofty; it is king over all that are proud.”

Chapter 42
Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have I ever told you that I am a lover of physics?
If I could have been a scientist, I’d have been a physicist.
Not that I have any real expertise – let’s just say I’m better at playing piano than I am at physics. But I love the science, and I love the amazing mysteries of the cosmos – that there is a universe in tiny little particles that are smaller than we can even imagine. These verses that we just heard from the Book of Job call to mind for me the astonishing things that physicists are teaching us about the universe.

On the Science Friday website, there’s an interview with Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, and one of the questions was:
What’s it like to study things that you can’t necessarily see?
She answered: “Well, they’re just as real— just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. All observations can be thought of as indirect, and as long as they’re reliable and reproducible, we trust what’s going on. In some ways, it’s more exciting to go beyond the things that everyone else sees, and try to understand what underlies them.”[1]

I thought, wow! That’s what I do!
I spend a lot of time thinking about things nobody can see!
And most of us spend at least part of our lives trying to understand things that nobody can understand. And that’s a lot of what is happening here in Job.

If you recall, Job was a fine, pious, upright and righteous man. And in this folk tale, there’s like a little bet going on between God and “ha-shatan,” the adversary. The adversary asks if God thinks Job would stay faithful even if his whole life fell apart, and God says, yes, yes he would. And what follows lets us know this is a parable, because God basically tells Satan: “Have at him but don’t touch him.” And we know something about what God is like, and this is not what God is like.

Job’s happy life turns into a life of tragedy and devastation. First, all of his livestock die.
One after another, his servants come and report some horrible event, saying “And I alone was left alive to tell you.” Then all of his children die. Still, he stays faithful.

God sounds kind of smug about it.
So Satan ups the ante.
“Let’s see what happens if he himself is afflicted,” the adversary challenges.
And Job is afflicted with physical pain and misery.

His friends come around and they are compassionate at first, but then they commence to offering their opinions, and they aren’t much help.

Job is basically staring up into the heavens and asking, “Why me?
You used to watch over me, God. You used to bless me.
I haven’t done anything wrong, I’ve done nothing to deserve this.
Where is the indictment from the adversary?
What is going on here? Where ARE you, God?
Why have you done this to me? Why have you abandoned me?”

And God answers.

Do you remember the story about Elijah, when God is going to speak to him? The voice of God was not in the whirlwind, nor was it in the fire, nor was it in the earthquake, and when God finally spoke, it was a “still small voice.” In Job, the voice of God is as far from a still small voice as you can get. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard’s voice booms out, “Who dares to disturb the all powerful Wizard of Oz?!”

God asks Job, “Just exactly who do you think you are?
And just exactly who do you think I AM?”

God proceeds to demonstrate to Job that he knows NOTHING about God.
I’m the one who created the cosmos, God says.
I pushed back the watery chaos and set the stars in the sky.
I know the ways of all the birds of the air and beasts of the field.
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth, 
or do you know what makes the warhorse so strong?
I made the hawk and the eagle,
and it is I who spill the rains down from the sky.
Moreover, God says, I created behemoth, and leviathan,
these monstrous creatures of chaos which are beyond taming.
And you may be terrified of them, but I am not.

These few chapters in Job, beyond their power and beauty, are, to me, a picture of God’s profound freedom. They are glimpses of the cosmos, of the infinite mystery of our world, in which physicists tell us there is so much that we do not know.

On the Science Friday radio program last week, there was a conversation with MIT physicist Janet Conrad about the search for new subatomic particles.
NEW particles? 

Part of the conversation with Dr. Conrad concerned something called “sterile neutrinos,” and how scientists are learning from some of their research in which they find nothing! She said that studies that yield nothing can lead them to new discoveries! They learn more about what they do not know.

Sometimes I imagine God watching us “discover” the Higgs Boson particle and laughing a little bit, saying “You think you know? You don’t know!”

And we don’t.

We don’t have an explanation for all the mysteries of the cosmos. Many of the explanations we do have are beyond our power to understand. If we can take any certainty away from this book of Job, that’s what it is, I think: about some things, there is no certainty. There is more to life than we know. And some things, like suffering, are simply unexplainable.

So where does that leave Job? Humbled, to be sure. In awe, as I am certain any of us would be. Ready to admit that he does not, and cannot, understand the impenetrable mystery of the almighty. But Job is also ready, as some of us might not be, to simply bow in silent humility before that mystery.

As Shakespeare said it, “There’s more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies.”
Or, on the more prosaic side, if you prefer we can go with songwriter Iris Dement, who said,
“I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”


Iris Dement: "Let the Mystery Be"

[1] interview with Lisa Randall, accessed 08/13/2016

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