The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
October 21, 2018
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
For a time, I was a chaplain at the Children’s Hospital in Dallas. Whatever you might think I saw, believe me, I saw worse.
But there was something about being a chaplain there, as opposed to being a parish priest like I am now. See, in the hospital, everybody knows they’re sick. That’s why they are there. Those kids had cancer, they’d been shot, they’d been abused; there was no illusion. I was there with them because they were suffering. And the parents, the families, well, you can’t really hide in a hospital room. Their suffering was written all over their faces. When you’re a hospital chaplain, your congregation is sick and suffering and they know it. When you’re wearing a hospital gown, there’s no point in trying to hide.
That’s not always the case in a church. When we’ve got our Sunday church clothes on, we bury that suffering deep down inside. But I know that everybody here is sick. I know you’ve got a hospital gown on your soul. I know it because I’ve got one, too. My suffering is conveniently hidden, but it’s there.
I think this is partially because in the 21st century, we’ve become unaccustomed to suffering. We have every modern convenience and high tech medical device at our fingertips. We have a pill that can take care of that, a pill that can take care of this. We have all you can eat restaurants. We think that we should not be suffering. But we still somehow, manage to. Psychological pain, emotional suffering, is all too real. Suffering is just part of who we are. This is the what the Old Testament story of Job is telling us. Humanity suffers. Job loses his family, his kids, his flocks and herds. He loses his health. He goes broke. He suffers in body, mind, and spirit. Have I hit a nerve with you, yet? Don’t tell me this doesn’t sound like your story – because, Lord knows, it sounds like mine.
Granted, the story of Job is strange to modern ears. It’s part myth, part poem, part story. It doesn’t start at Point A and end at Point B. It circles back around on itself. And for some reason, Satan is hanging out in heaven with God. Weird, right?
But for all its strangeness, we know this story. It’s our story. Right after Job loses everything, his friends come and start talking to him. They’re a bunch of bozos. They say, “you must have really made God mad to be suffering like this.” It’s not too different when people today say, “well, God never gives more than you can handle.” Give me a break. Or, “I’m sorry so and so died, God just needed another angel in heaven.” Gee, thanks, I feel so much better now,
To me, this only shows how uncomfortable we are with suffering. I think that what the story of Job can do for us is allow us to experience and articulate our suffering. Rather than reading Job with those Sunday church clothes on, you ought to read Job in a hospital gown with tubes and needles sticking out of you. Then you’ll get it.
Eventually, in the story of Job, Job breaks down. He cries out, “My life stinks. My life isn’t fair. I wish I had never been born.” You know, all those things you say to yourself when everything has gone south. Or is it just me? It’s not just me. Is it me? Didn’t think so.
In those moments, our minds and our hearts are swirling. Deacon Bob calls it monkey brain. When the stress, the anxiety, the suffering in your life is like this hurricane spinning around in your head. You can’t concentrate. You can’t pray. You can’t even think. And then it starts to consume all the other parts of your life, even the good parts succumb to the suffering and to the chaos inside your own head. The suffering and the angst is so great, food loses its taste. Relationships wither. Prayers dry up. It’s like you put on sunglasses over your the eyes of your heart and everything seems gray and broken. And so Job, at the bottom of his desperation says that he wants to bring his case before God. He wants to tell God just how wrong God has been. We always talk about how litigious our society is now. Phhh, that’s nothing new. Job wants to sue God for all of Job’s suffering.
God is ready for the case. The Lord actually uses legal language – “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 foundations of the earth? Were you there when the morning stars first sang out?” In the divine courtroom, God is cross-examining Job.
The traditional way of reading this is that God is shaming Job. God is putting Job in his place. Here is God, here is Job. By asking questions that Job cannot possibly answer, God is saying that Job needs to stop complaining about his suffering. Job can’t lay the foundations of the world, Job wasn’t there at the creation of all things, so Job should just get over it.
But I don’t think that is what is happening here. Look at this way – the Lord did not have to talk to Job. The Lord God has complete freedom, and is by no means required to do anything. The Lord does not have to speak to Job, but God does. This is a complete gift, this is grace. The real lesson here, I think, is that God has heard Job’s cries. God has heard Job’s suffering. And yes, God cares.
Look back, it says, “The Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind.” The whirlwind, the tempest, the chaos that is swirling around in your own head. That’s the place from which God speaks. Remember, way back at the creation of the world in the first chapter of Genesis, it says that God speaks out of the chaos. God takes hold of the dark and God takes hold of the light and separates them night and day, like a cosmic wrestler. God takes on the chaos and makes things orderly. The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind that was swirling in his head. The Lord imposes order in our hearts where there had been chaos. God chooses, yes God chooses, to care about our suffering of our lives. God chooses to control the chaos in your life.
So here’s what I have to say: your chaos is not too chaotic for God. You name it, God has power over it, even death. And God does not see you in your Sunday church clothes. God sees you in your hospital gown, with all of your suffering, and your worry, and your baggage, and your sickness, and your addictions, and your brokenness. God does not care for the highly edited version of yourself, God cares for the you that is suffering.
Often we say that the God of the Old Testament is this God whom we don’t recognize. A God who shames and belittles and smites. But if God was all that high and mighty, then God would’ve just let Job wallow and die in his suffering. Here, in what we read this morning, I see a God who cares. I see the Lord God Almighty who cares for the suffering of his servant. I see the God of love that you and I know. I see a God who chooses to stoop down to our level so that we can feel some love.
In a way, when God comes close to Job and speaks out of the whirlwind, it’s a hint of what God will do again in Jesus. God did not need to become human. God did not need to call followers. God did not need to heal people. God did not need to die on a cross. But God chose to. God made the decision to come down and be with us, to walk with us, to live with us and die with us. The Lord Jesus carries our baggage with us.
I often end a sermon by asking you to do something. Give, pray, serve. But today I only want to point out that great theological truth – the Lord God Almighty, who set the stars in the heaven and laid the foundations of the earth, loves you; even you, that little speck of cosmic dust.
Next time you find yourself in that hospital gown; next time the chaos is swirling in your head; next time you suffer, because it will happen, remember that you are not alone. Remember the words of our Lord Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”