Sunday, October 21, 2012

Proper 24

Job 38
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

There seems to be a moment when we finally realize summer is over.

Maybe surrender is more accurate: surrendering to the realization that summer has ended. It might be the frost warnings, the colourful then fallen leaves, or simply the knowledge that the sun will set tonight at 6.24 pm. Of course, it could be worse, since there will be a few days in December when the sun will set at 4.41 pm.

Maybe the best defense against such a painful realization is nostalgia: focus on the summer that has passed, some holiday time, or going to the cottage, or maybe a trip to one of the city’s beaches.

For some, this will seem like a stange idea. Toronto beaches were very popular long ago, then became something to avoid, and in recent years have once again become a popular destination in summer. The water quality is better, that helps, there seems to be more activities happening near and in the water, and summer is just too hot to stay away from the water.

Oddly, this summertime fascination with water is fairly recent. Until the Victorian era, only the rich seemed to notice that the seaside was worth a visit. The rest were working, and so the water, by extension, was a place to work. Fishing, transport, even quarrying from the waters edge were far more common than actually sitting in a chair beside the sea.

It was only late in the nineteenth century that working class people were given vacations (unpaid) to journey to the piers and palaces erected by the sea in places like Brighton and Blackpool. Suddenly miners and millworkers were given the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about, and rub shoulders with their social betters.

You might argue that before the nineteenth century, many if not most people had a form of thalassophobia, fear of the sea. And it was well-founded, with ocean travel or working on the sea amoung most dangerous things you could do. I think there is even an echo of this fear in our modern and unending fascination with Titanic, the sub-conscious fear of the open and unforgiving ocean, and wondering how we would manage in the face of such disaster.

In many ways, we have come full circle. The sea was something to be feared, then something we overcame, and now we fear again. First, our fear was well-founded, then we perfected navigation, or we simply flew over it, or made it into a holiday destination.

And all the while, while we were busy filling the atmosphere with CO2 and poisoning the oceans with chemicals and fishing the creatures to oblivion, the sea began to turn on us, and became a source of fear once more. Low-lying places will flood, island nations will disappear, and science may yet prove the link between climate change and extreme weather, something that seems perfectly intuitive.

From fear, to comfort, and back to fear: It is the same fear and hesitation that we heard in our reading this morning, even more fearful in a Barbara’s Bristish accent:

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.

These are God’s words, spoken to Job out of the whirlwind, a passage that is part rant, part recrimination, and some argue an entirely unique description of the creation. But before I say more, I should give you a bit of the setting of this retelling of creation.

Perhaps the result of a wager, Job suffers great loss, endures the so-called comforting of his friends, challenges God to explain his suffering, and comes to understand that there is no explanation.

I say ‘perhaps’ because some scholars have argued that the author of the book of Job has melded two stories, or a story and an arguement between friends, and turned them into one work of literature. It seems entirely possible, since the beginning (and the end, for the most part) reads like a parable, or a folktale, with God and Satan making a gentleman’s bet at the expense of poor Job.

The theological argument, however, gives the book substance, with a persistent back in forth on the nature of God and of God’s ways. Job claims his suffering is undeserved, his friends insist it cannot be. It all hinges on the classical wisdom belief that the good will prosper and the wicked will suffer. ‘Tell us,’ Job’s friends ask, ‘what evil you did to deserve all this suffering?‘ The three will not let it do, nor will Job concede any wrongdoing:

Therefore I will not keep silent;
    I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

God, hearing enough of this argument, gets the last word on the limits of human understanding. Where it might be enough to say “I am unknowable” or “I am God and you are not” as one author said, we instead meet the whirlwind:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

This is an angry and even snippy God, something that some find hard to face, and others reject. Yet the content of the very one-sided response should be enough to convince us that this is the voice of an unknowable God. There are unanswerable questions, and even the framing of the questions seems a great mystery. There are things larger than we can contemplate, and in such great number that we are taken-aback. God demands to be unknowable, not something easy to explain or something predictable in response, or something consistent with the pet theories of three amateur theologians named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

And so we see the track of human interaction with God. God was a great mystery, something (or someone) to be feared, like the sea. Then we brought God down to our size, through the rambling of Job’s ‘comforters,’ or by reducing God to a single idea (“God is love”) or by even thinking of God as some kind of ‘divine buddy.’

We refused to let God be God because we think we can understand everything and because we want to live without fear. But the fear of God that Job 38 describes is not the harmful fear that we should all live without, but the fearfulness that is better described as awe, and sense that there is something bigger than ourselves in the universe.

So we need to return to a fear of God, a healthy fear that helps us remember that we did not create ourselves, but we are part of the world God made. We need to remember that an unknowing God is far more than just love but must also be judgment, not the ‘you’re going to hell” kind of judgment but the kind of judgment that says ‘when I made the world and everything in it, it existed in a finely tuned balance--how is it now, humans?’

So when we fully understand that there is something bigger than ourselves in the universe, we will see that everything is bigger. We think we understand our planetary home and God says ‘think bigger’ and shows us more. We think know the far reaches of space with our fancy telescopes and such and God says ‘think bigger’ and shows us more. We think we understand God’s capacity to forgive us and then we prove more foolish than ever and God says ‘think bigger’ and forgives us more.

May we continually ‘think bigger,’ letting God be God and letting us be us, and sense the awe and a little fear, now and ever, Amen.


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