The Comforting Whirlwind
A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 18, 2015
This sermon is my celebration of the tenth publishing anniversary of The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job and the Scale of Creation by Bill McKibben. McKibben is a writer, environmentalist, United Methodist Sunday School teacher, and the founder of 350.org. With 73 pages of elegant prose, Bill describes Job as a frustrated man, up against an orthodoxy he no longer can believe in, but surrounded by a society that continues to insist that its accustomed interpretation is the only truth.” Job is finally liberated from this worn out wisdom by being given a grand tour of creation with God as the tour guide. The sermon follows closely Bill’s book, including the invitations to humility and joy, though I did not read the “great nature poem” in light of human driven climate change, as Bill does so powerfully. That is already a continuous conversation in the White Plains Presbyterian Church. The Comforting Whirlwind was important when it came out in 2005; it has only grown in prophetic power with time. Highly recommended.(All quotations are from the book).
Job 38:1-7, 34-41 Mark 10:35-45
You’ve heard the expression, “the patience of Job?” It refers to the fact that no matter what happens to Job – and A LOT of bad things happen to Job – no matter what happens to Job he seems to bear it patiently and refuses to blame God for his travails. Those who aspire to have the patience of Job aspire to accept whatever life brings, the good and the ill, without asking why.
The problem is, Job is not a patient man.
Once a very prosperous man, Job loses everything in the blink of an eye. His great fortune in cattle and sheep, seven thousand of each, is violently taken from him, stolen or slaughtered by distant peoples; and then all his children, seven sons and three daughters, are killed when something like a tornado comes out of the desert and destroys the home they are in. And then Job’s health goes: covered in scabs and sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet, his only relief is to scrape himself with pot shards pulled from the trash pile on which he sits.
Each day I live seems endless,
And I suffer through endless nights.
When I lie down, I long for morning;
When I get up, I long for evening;
All day I toss and turn.
My flesh crawls with maggots;
My skin cracks and oozes.
My days fly past me like a shuttle,
And my hope snaps like a thread.
Does this sound like patience? More like despair, or at least depression.
No, Job is not a patient man. He is a deeply frustrated man. As one writer put it, Job’s problem “is not only that he suffers – it is that he suffers without understanding why.” And all around him are people who want to offer too easy explanations for what is ultimately unknowable.
Job’s wife wants him to simply blame God for his troubles: “curse God and die.” But Job will not lay the blame for his troubles on God.
Three friends travel a great distance in order to comfort Job. At first sight, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are overcome by the magnitude of Job’s loss – they tear their clothes, they weep, they sit in silence seven days. But when at last they speak, they have a lot to say. About Job. About how his suffering must somehow be his own fault. About how he must have brought this suffering upon himself through some secret sin, fault or failure. Or if not Job, then perhaps his children. Maybe Job’s suffering is the deserved consequence of failed parenting, the sins of the children being visited upon the parent? Once they start talking, they can’t stop. Their talk, their speeches (dare I say their sermons?) go on for 35 chapters! They are the bulk of the book of Job. All to make the same point: if God makes the righteous to prosper and the wicked to be punished, a statement they all firmly believe, then Job must be at fault.
And so when Job protests his innocence, these three friends charge him with arrogance. Pride. Self-righteousness. Even denial. There is no escape. Because you see, Job is trapped is a simple, simplistic, logic: Either he must accept that God is good and that he suffers through some fault of his own or of those for whom he is responsible, or he must admit that the fault lies with God who is either not good, or not powerful, or both.
Job can’t do either. He will renounce neither his innocence nor his God. And so he rants, he rails at God for some explanation, some answer to the question “why?”
I told you he was not a patient man.
I want to pause to say right here that I feel very blessed to be a part of this congregation. When one of you suffers, you all suffer. When one of you rejoices, you all rejoice. When one is sick, you care for one another in concrete and practical ways. I see you drive one another to medical appointments; sit in hospital waiting rooms; and run to the pharmacy for another’s medicine (and even pay for it if needed). You check in with, and check up on, one another regularly. I could ask for a testimony right now – for someone here to stand and speak about the love you have received from others, or the helping hand given, when you needed it most. And you would line up at the microphone. In just these last couple of weeks I have seen so many acts of generosity, offers of hospitality, words of gratitude, and prayer, prayer, prayer. I have been the recipient of your care myself. When someone is suffering or in need, “why” just doesn’t enter into it. There is not an Elphaz, Bildad or Zophar among you. You are good friends who know how to comfort and care for one another without empty slogans or worn out wisdom. Imagine how different the story of Job would be if Job had Chris Hughes as a wife – someone who can always find the good or possible in situations – and the three friends who came to comfort him were Carmen, Olga and Barbara Barnes. I thank God for you and this community every day. I do.
God does, finally, respond to Job’s question, but not with an answer. And yet Job says he if comforted. God does not say why the innocent sometimes suffer or the wicked prosper, why some die too young, why trouble seems to seek out some while others seem immune. God simply appears in a whirlwind and reminds Job that he, Job, is not God. God is. With biting sarcasm, God overthrows the idea that human beings are, or should be, at the center of God’s attention by reminding Job of the immense, beautiful, wild, sometimes frightening and occasionally grotesque creation that is the object of God’s love, a world of which human beings are but a part. Our doctrines about how God does, or should, work according to our very human ideas of justice and fair play are just that, our doctrines, and don’t begin to touch the wild glory of God-in-Creation. And then, in what Bill McKibben has called the first great piece of modern nature writing (chapters 38-41, especially 41), the God of life, the God of all life, speaks, and Job is introduced to a God he never knew.
Job is overwhelmed by his encounter with God. “I am speechless. I put my hand on my mouth. I have said too much already; now I will speak no more.” His question has not been answered, but it no longer matters. God has given Job what no one else could, comfort. “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.”
It is not that God does not care for human beings, God does, but in his encounter with God Job has been reminded that we are made of the same stuff, the dust of the ground, as every creature on earth. He has learned the humility that is part of our human vocation to serve not ourselves but the whole-of-this-world. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return. Jesus, too, tried to teach this to his students: as James and John jockeyed to be the center of Jesus’ attention, Jesus gently reminded them “whoever wishes to be great among you must be servant of all, and whoever wishes to be great among you must be slave of all.”
Yet Job learns more than just proper humility as a part of creation. He is called out and invited to experience joy through what Bill McKibben has called the “biologically accurate, earthy, juicy, crusty, wild, untamed poetry of God’s great speech.” (Really, you should read the whole thing).
Job is restored to life by encountering a world larger than he had ever imagined. A world of winter snows, summer rains, and sunny days, of course; a wild world made for lions and ravens, leviathans and behemoth, all creatures great and small. But it’s not all pretty. A few weeks ago Pastor Lynn asked the children to keep their eyes out for beauty in the world, and my son asked if he could look for things that were disgusting. Lynn said, “Sure, because that helps us appreciate the beauty.” But when God shows Job the vulture, who makes its home in the rocky crag, spying its prey for afar and feedings its young one with the blood – “where the slain are, there it is” – we are to see a certain beauty in even this. “Job complains that the world doesn’t make sense, and God shows him little vultures drinking blood.” This a world wilder, freer and full of God in ways Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar could never understand. “Why” doesn’t even enter into it. These are “things to wonderful for me” Job says. Truly, “I did not understand.”
I know if I asked, you could give testimony to this too, to experiences of the divine that have turned your life around, caused you to unlearn much of what thought you understood, or to drop questions you no longer need answers to, or placed your life in a much larger, even cosmic context of meaning and purpose. Mary Degener would be at the front of the line, and Wanda Van Woert, and Jackie Copeland, and Alvin Goode, and… and … I would line up too.
Great is God’s faithfulness, who always provides – if not what we think we want, then certainly what we need: comfort and hope in the whirlwind that is life.