“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or 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 38:1-11
“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”” – Mark 4:35-41
The stories we read in the Old Testament take place a long time ago, so long ago that the world they take place in often seems foreign to us. I sometimes hear people ask if the Old Testament is even relevant any more. To those folks I would say: yes, it is, because the people we meet in the Old Testament are facing the same challenges and life issues we face.
The book of Job tackles the tough question “why do bad things happen to good people?” – and I can’t think of a more appropriate subject for this week.
Let’s begin by looking at Job and his story. Back in the days of Job, people believed if you lived right and kept the Ten Commandments you could expect your life to be blessed by God. The law of Moses said:
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God…; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God…” (Deut. 11:26-28)
So it stood to reason if someone wasn’t being blessed they must have disobeyed God somehow. If someone got injured, they must have done something wrong; or if someone got sick, they must have broken one of the commandments.
That’s what Job’s friends were saying to him. Job had lost his children, his home, his wealth, and his health all in a rapid-fire series of tragedies. And his friends told him, ‘You must have done something wrong’.
But it wasn’t true. Job chapter 1 verse 1 tells us Job “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
In spite of that, most of the rest of the book of Job is a debate between Job and his friends over the causes of Job’s tragedy.
Debating over the causes of tragedy… doesn’t that sound just like the public conversation that’s been going on this past week over the killings in Charleston? Blame lack of education. Blame lack of gun control. Blame mental illness. Blame a lack of security in the church building.
The problem with all this blaming is, whatever you blame the tragedy on, if you’re able to find a fault, it then follows logically that the tragedy could have been prevented… which essentially, if indirectly, results in blaming the victims. That’s what Job’s friends were doing, and while the pundits on our TV screens may not mean to that’s what they’re doing too.
When tragedy happens, the essential thing is to listen to the ones who are suffering. When Job had finally had enough of his friends’ not listening to him, he cries out to heaven for just one day in court with God to present his case and defend his innocence.
And that’s when God answers Job with the words from our reading for today.
God answers Job saying: “Where were you when I laid out the foundations of the earth? Who decided on its size? Who sank its foundations? Who set the limits for the oceans and told them ‘thus far and no further’?” God continues along these lines for another page or two beyond our reading.
God’s answer seems a bit strange, doesn’t it? Almost cold-hearted. But it’s not. Speaking as someone who has lived through tragedy, for someone who is hurting, the answer God gives is the only answer that makes any sense. Some things are just beyond our knowing. For anyone who has ever been caught in depression, or despair, or the dark night of the soul, the best help is the help that listens, and then lifts up our heads so that we can see some light, somewhere, somehow. God lifts up Job’s head and helps him to see beyond the immediate moment to God’s eternal glory and Job’s part in God’s kingdom.
And that’s what we can see God doing in the lives of the family members of those murdered in Charleston. The best help is the help that listens… and as we listen to them we can catch a glimpse of the glory of God that Job saw. Listen to the words of the survivors:
- Alana Simmons, who lost her grandfather, said: “They died at the hands of hate… [but] They lived in love. Hate won’t win.”
- Ethel Lance, who lost her mother, said: “You’ve taken something very precious away from me… but I forgive you.”
- Chris Singleton, who lost his mother, said: “We forgive right now, for all that has happened. It’s going to be tough but I know we’ll get through it as a family.”
- Another family member said: “We are the family that love built. We have no room for hatin’ so we have to forgive.”
- Mourners outside the church said: “You can’t have love and hate residing in the heart at the same time… we’re just going to have to love one another.”
- The home page of the Emanuel AME Church says: “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”
- Anthony Thompson, who lost his wife, showed the most amazing love of all. He spoke to the killer and said: “Take this opportunity to repent. Give your life to the one who matters the most: Christ.”
If that’s not a demonstration of God’s glory and mercy and power and love I don’t know what is. After the most horrifying event in their lives, these people are speaking God’s truth to the whole world.
Did you know that the word for witness in the New Testament Greek is ‘martyr’? Our brothers and sisters at Emanuel AME Church have been true martyrs this week in every sense of the word.
And God will honor them, just as God honored Job.
From Job’s story we see:
- That all wisdom and all power belong to God, far beyond our ability to imagine.
- That God does not bring tragedy… but God does redeem tragedy with good.
- That when tragedy happens it’s OK to cry out to God. God never tells Job not to cry or to be angry. God never tells Job not to be scared. God never tells Job not to feel what he feels. God never tells Job that he lacks faith for feeling what he feels. Just the opposite – God says to Job’s friends, “Job has spoken of me what is right”.
- That ultimately God is God and we are not.
We don’t understand everything, but God does. We will never know the answer to the question “why?” – in this lifetime – because we do not see what God sees. God sees eternity; we only see the here and now. But we can trust that God is walking with us through everything.
That’s what the disciples learned in our New Testament reading for today. In that reading, at the end of a long day of teaching the crowds, Jesus and the disciples head out across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus curls up in the stern of the boat and falls asleep. All of a sudden the wind picks up and the water becomes rough and the boat starts to sink. Is this the fault the disciples, or the boat-makers? Of course not. The disciples just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So they wake Jesus up, terrified, and they say, “we’re dying! Don’t you care?”
And Jesus gets up and says to the wind and the waves, “Peace! Be still!” And they are. Scripture says, “The wind stopped, and a great calm came.” Just like there was a ‘great’ storm in v. 37, there is a ‘great’ calm in v. 39. However great the storm was, that’s how great the calm was.
The funny thing is, the sudden calm scared the disciples even more than the storm did.
It’s a frightening thing to be in the presence of the living God. Not because we don’t love God, and not because God doesn’t love us… but because God is so far beyond us. Which is why Jesus came to earth as a human being: to show us the truth about God in a way that we could understand and not be afraid.
The story of Job and the events in Mark are basically two ways of telling the same story. In both readings God’s people face tragedy. They’re caught in a storm not of their own making. In both readings the focus is on the power and authority of God’s spoken word. And in both readings people are beyond amazed at what the spoken word of God does. The disciples ask, “who is this that commands the wind and waves?” Job says, “these are things too wonderful for me”.
The question for us today then is: Is God’s word only for people who lived a long time ago? Or is it active for us too? When tragedy happens, do we know that everything is in God’s hands?
In the wake of the Charleston shootings, a sheriff out in Arizona decided to send police protection to all the AME churches in his jurisdiction today. One of the AME pastors was asked by a news crew what he thought of this. He answered, “the Bible says God has not given us a spirit of fear but the power of love and a sound mind”.
I think we need to listen to the voices of our African-American brothers and sisters. We need to hear the voices that say ‘in Christ we’re not afraid’. We need to hear the voices that say ‘people are not born racist, they’re taught it, and we need to start teaching a new message’. We need to hear the voices that say ‘our hearts are broken but in Christ we forgive’.
We are witnessing miracles this week in the hearts of the families who lost loved ones. Times like these are the times when God brings us just a little closer to eternity, and gives us just a glimpse of the Promised Land. Job says: “Once I had heard of you… but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42:5)
Whenever tragedy strikes – and it will, in this fallen world, this won’t be the last tragedy we see – we can cry out to God and then listen for God’s reply. And standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Charleston, our faith will become, like theirs, a little less like hearing and a little more like seeing. Amen.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 6/21/15