21st Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 24) | St. Paul’s, Evansville
Joanna Benskin | 17 October 2021 | Job 38:1-7, 34-41
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God who answers from the whirlwind and meets us where the monsters roam.
Friends, we’ve been reading the book of Job for the past 3 weeks and I think it’s one of the weirdest and most beautiful things in scripture. It’s a difficult book, but I think it has a lot to say to us in this moment.
The book starts with a once-upon-a-time story about a “blameless and upright” man named Job. (This was our reading a couple of weeks ago.) According to the story, Job lives a long, long time ago in a country far, far away. Job does everything right and enjoys wealth and happiness, but then the heavenly beings start talking about him and things go sideways. The heavenly beings are arguing about whether humans are good from pure motives, or if they’re only good because they think they’ll keep getting blessings in return.
God makes a bet on the quality of Job’s goodness, and God allows a character known as the satan, the accuser, to strike Job with various calamities and see whether Job will curse God. The accuser sends raiders and disasters to take out Job’s flocks and herds, which were what made him wealthy. Next, the accuser kills all of Job’s ten children in what looks like a freak accident. Finally, the accuser strikes Job’s own body, leaving him alive but in constant pain.
After all of these terrible losses, Job’s friends come to comfort him. They do a good job for the first seven days by sitting in total silence. But then they start talking. They all argue together about why Job is suffering. This argument between Job and the friends goes on for 34 whole chapters of beautiful, difficult, theologically complex poetry. Then God answers Job from the whirlwind (and we read part of God’s answer today). And then at the very end of the book (which is next week’s reading), we go back to the fairytale mode and we hear the happily-ever-after ending of the story—how God restores Job’s health and wealth and new children are born to him.
So we kind of have two different books in Job: we’ve got the tale of Job’s destruction and restoration at the beginning and end, and then, stuck in the middle of that story, we’ve got this long poetic debate and God’s answer. Scholars think that the beginning and end go together and might be an older folktale, and what probably happened is that later authors read that first story and thought it brought up a bunch of really interesting questions, and so they added more stuff in the middle about the questions they cared about.
We’ll talk about this middle part of the book today—the arguments Job’s friends make, Job’s reply back to them, and what God says when God speaks from the whirlwind. In this middle part of the book, Job’s friends keep on trying to tell him he must have done something wrong if he’s suffering this way, and so he needs to repent of whatever it was he did. They tell Job that he needs to look for how God is trying to teach and correct him with this suffering.
Job’s friends talk like this because they have a map of the world that says suffering is God’s punishment for wrongdoing, and success is God’s reward for doing right. Job’s friends didn’t make up this map, and they’re not the only ones to use it. Most of the book of Proverbs uses this same map; it sees the world as basically fair and logical, with God in control to make sure people get what they deserve.
We often use a version of this same map too whether or not we intend to—maybe we hear about someone’s misfortune and our first thought is to wonder if this could have been prevented if they’d eaten more veggies or made a budget spreadsheet; maybe we turn to wealthy people to teach us the kind of good behavior that will help us succeed too.
And to a certain extent, the map works: often the world does work by cause and effect. Mapping life this way sometimes helps people make wise decisions, and it sometimes helps people make sense of the pattern when they look out over the landscape of human success and misfortune.
Using this map helps Job’s friends find meaning in the world they know. It gives them clarity. It helps them to see the world as fair and orderly and in balance: Good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. What goes around comes around. And that means that they’ll be okay too if they do what’s right; making good choices will protect them from suffering, so there’s a sense of safety in the map for them.
But what if this orderly view of the world isn’t always true? When Job talks back to his friends, he says you can’t always explain suffering as God’s right and fair punishment for sin. Job laments what’s happened to him, he expresses deep anger at God for the unfairness of it, and he’s frustrated that his friends aren’t hearing him. He says he didn’t do anything to deserve this, and yet it’s still happening to him. And the story gives us a reason to believe Job is right about that. We already know that he was “blameless and upright.”
So something’s got to give. The map Job’s friends are talking about makes a lot of sense to them, and it sometimes makes sense to us too, but it doesn’t seem to apply to Job. According to the map, Job can’t be both truly suffering and truly a good person. The fact that Job doesn’t fit the pattern is so unsettling for Job’s friends that even though they care about Job, they keep on telling him he has to be wrong; they keep on pointing to the map and trying to figure out where Job belongs.
Sometimes in early maps they used to fill the edges of the paper away from the known world with pictures of monsters—lions and bears and even dragons and sea serpents and terrifying things that marked the unknown parts of the world. If you watched the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, you might remember that when things are about to get especially dicey, Captain Barbossa says the line, “You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters.” And that’s where Job is. He’s off the edge of the map. Here there be monsters.
Job even accuses his friends of treating him like a monster at one point in their argument: Job asks, “Do you think I’m I a dragon that you need to guard this way?” Job’s suffering has taken him into a place beyond all explanations—he knows that what his friends are saying isn’t true, but he doesn’t know why all this has happened to him. He believes in God, but he doesn’t know why God would do this, and he’s angry about it. His friends feel threatened and afraid of the thought that their map doesn’t work, and they turn on Job and treat him like a problem, like one of the monsters menacing them from the edge of the map. The argument has started to go in circles.
And then God comes on the scene in all God’s power and glory. God speaks from the whirlwind. But God doesn’t answer any of the questions that Job and his friends have been arguing about. God never tells Job and his friends about the bet with the accuser. God doesn’t explain how God can be just and fair despite Job’s suffering. God doesn’t make a ruling on whether the map Job’s friends are using is correct or not. Instead, God talks about monsters and mountain goats.
God’s answer wanders through the beauties and terrors of the cosmos. While Job and his friends have been obsessed with questions of human morality and divine justice, God seems more interested in ostrich feathers and lion cubs and where light and water come from.
Instead of answering questions, God asks questions. God asks questions like: “Were you there when the stars learned to sing?” and “Do you know how baby ravens get enough food?” and “Have you ever been to the bottom of the ocean?” and “Do you know when mountain goats give birth?” and “Do you know how to tame sea monsters?” and “Do you even know how awesome these sea monsters are?” (That’s a paraphrase but I promise I’m not making any of these up; you can go read God’s speech!)
In some ways this is a frustrating non-answer. Why doesn’t God explain Job’s suffering? Why doesn’t God explain where the map went wrong and tell them how to fix it? After all these really smart arguments and really hard questions, why is God talking about how awesome the sea monsters are and when mountain goats give birth?
People don’t agree on what God’s answer from the whirlwind means. Some people hear it as a show of force meant to silence Job’s questions and accusations. Maybe God is saying: “I know about all this stuff and you don’t, so sit down and be quiet.” But that’s not the way I hear it, because God will later affirm that Job has “spoken rightly” about God even in Job’s grief and anger.
Another way to hear it is that God is reminding Job more gently of human limitation—there are things we just can’t understand. Or maybe it’s about how complicated creation really is—maybe with mountain goats and monsters to manage and singing stars and ocean depths to keep in balance, sometimes suffering just happens to happen amid the chaos of that complexity, without any intention. Or we could hear it as God’s love song to the beauty and wildness of the cosmos, expanding Job’s view beyond his own suffering. There are lots of good possibilities for how to hear what God says.
But as I’ve spent time with God’s words from the whirlwind this week, I’m hearing them a little differently. Maybe when God talks about mountain goats and monsters and the bottom of the ocean, God is saying to Job: “I am here with you off the edge of the map. I am here with you in the things you can’t explain.”
Maybe God is saying, “I am here with you when you you’re off the deep end where the monsters are. I am here with you among the things that are mysterious and terrifying, and there is mysterious beauty here too. Do you think you’re the only one who knows what it’s like out here? You’re just learning about the edges of the map, but I’ve been here all along. You’re not alone among the monsters—I meet you here.”
Friends, God is with us when we’re off the map. The last couple of years may have taken a lot of us to that place beyond explanation; some of us have been into the wilds before in other sufferings or other explorations, and some of us may be seeing this uncharted territory for the first time.
There are some parts of this pandemic that are pretty easy to explain, and some parts that are not. And we definitely have to use the best explanations we have to understand what’s happening and try to act as wisely as we can to take care of each other. But I think sometimes we dwell on the explainable parts of the situation to feel in control; sometimes for me at least, it feels less painful to keep on explaining the parts that are explainable instead of taking time to grieve, time to be angry, time to face the suffering that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t fit on the map.
Because there is a lot to grieve right now, and not all of it makes sense. Some of us are mourning deaths that shouldn’t have happened. Many of us are facing burnout and exhaustion from work and family care on top of grief. Nearly all of us have a giant pile of smaller griefs we may or may not have taken time to mourn—the birthdays and holidays uncelebrated, the plans cancelled at the last minute, the Sundays we couldn’t have communion together and the Sundays we couldn’t sing. Maybe it’s a devastating calamity like Job’s or a maybe it’s a thousand little losses piled into a mountain.
Whatever the shape of your loss now, I want to tell you that it’s alright to let explanations go for awhile and just be sad or angry or whatever you need to be. Job cries and screams and blames God for his suffering, and God is okay with that reaction; Job acts with integrity by expressing his grief and anger.
This may sound like a weird thing to hear in church, where many of us come looking for emotional stability—but I want to give you permission to have a meltdown if you need one. And if you need a priest to be with you while you’re sad or angry or even saying a bunch of harsh stuff to God like Job does, Holly and I are here for you.
Making better maps is good work too, and it’s also work we can do together. We can sometimes find better frameworks, better understandings that really help us find peace and practice compassion and make sense of a wider range of experiences. We’re here too if you need support to make better maps. But however well we do that work together, we’re probably still going to end up off the map sooner or later.
And if these days you do find yourself off the map in a place where the monsters are, you’re in good company. People of deep faith have gone before you, and people of faith walk together here now.
This place beyond explanations is full of God’s wondrous creatures. This place beyond explanations is where unspeakable suffering lives right alongside the secret joys of the universe. This place beyond explanations is where God has been all along. Know that if you are in this place, you are not alone. And may we meet our loving Creator together among the monsters.