July 27, 2014
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
Genesis 1:14-19, Job 38:1-20
Couldn’t You Just Carry Us on the Beach?
Today we celebrate the fourth day of creation. God makes the sun and moon, and sets these lights in the dome of the sky to mark the time. It was back on the first day when God made the light come out of the dark. Today things get a little more specific and orderly. God sets the stars and planets in motion; the sun begins to rise and set in a rhythm you can trust, and God turns on time. Really, this much we can imagine. See if you agree, but I’m thinking it’s not a problem for us to imagine God as the one who establishes order in the heavens. She sets the tempo and gets the planets a’whirling, and I’m thinking we can believe in this God.
For us, we think of outer space in the same way the people in the Bible thought of the wilderness. It’s an actual place of course, but it also represents the undiscovered darkness between worlds. It is dangerous and thrilling, inhabited by debris and angels. On this day of creation, we remember our wild God makes the galaxies and groups the stars. He is powerful, distant, and alien. Space reminds us of all that we do not know, and so does God.
God is so far beyond our ability to understand. Who doesn’t know what it is to issue a prayer, then hear back nothing. This is how you get a glimpse of the vast, horrifying distance between God and us. Now Jesus can help in solving this distance, bridging the chasm. Still we know this distance too well; it seems wrong and out of tune.
Yet I can’t help but wonder, what if this distance is actually something we prefer? What if there’s a little part of us that thinks, maybe it would be all right for God to stay up in the heavens with the spinning planets and glittering stars. No need to come down here, thank you. Divinity up there, humanity down here, we’ll just keep things in order.
My third grade teacher was brilliantly creative in coming up with ideas for rewards for our class. There were always chances to win prizes. One time I won the prize, lunch with the teacher. She came to lunch with me in the cafeteria. She sat at my table with my friends, and it was really fun to have her attention outside of class.
But I gotta tell you, as much as I love this expression of hospitality and boundary breaking, I don’t think she would have liked to eat lunch with her students every day, and I don’t think we would have wanted her to. It changes your experience of lunch when your teacher is sitting at your table. It is unfortunate, but in my elementary school there was a mutual appreciation for teachers and students eating lunch in their own cafeterias.
Our God is almighty and alien, and God is with us. She breaks into the world, like it or not, and this could be the answer to our prayers. This could be a terrible problem.
Today our scripture comes to us from Job, the whole book one story told in several voices. The action begins when God makes a bet with a character called the Adversary, imagined to be the devil. God is bragging about the faithfulness of his servant Job when the Adversary says to the LORD, “If you touch what he has, he will curse you to your face.” So God says, Okay. Do anything you want to Job, short of killing him, and we’ll see what happens. (See what I mean about wanting God to just stay up in his heaven?)
As you can guess, the story tells the tale of terrible things happening to Job, and we get pulled right into the path of his faith crisis. Job is blameless and upright. He loses his house and livestock. His children are killed, and his body is covered with painful sores. If you have ever prayed the lament that goes, “God, what did I do to deserve this?” then you know the prayer of Job.
He curses the day he was born like anybody would. During the course of his suffering, three friends visit and offer their theories on why God is letting bad things happen to a good person. Maybe it’s all a test, maybe it’s Job’s fault after all. Their theories abound…
Something I find remarkable is that Job doesn’t give up and shut down. Throughout the book, Job defends himself to his friends and makes his case before God. “I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me” (Job 30:20). Job’s situation is unique, but his prayer is strangely familiar. If you have ever read the Psalms, you have heard this prayer before. If you have ever known suffering, you may have heard this prayer rise up from your own soul.
How do we do this. How do we human people stand in the middle of the terrifying possibility that God is not coming and still make our voices speak the words of a prayer. It’s like there is a holy human impulse to issue prayer from the earth to the stars, even though forces all around sigh, “It’s no use.”
Four years ago, thirty-three men were trapped two thousand feet below the earth’s surface in the San Jose Mine in Chile. There was a massive collapse and the mountain tumbled down on itself, crumbling the architecture of the mine. An enormous stone blocked the exit ramp, and the men were trapped. As the rocks kept falling through the caverns, the men said, “The mine is weeping.” It was crying down stones sealing their fate. They were trapped for sixty-nine days before getting rescued. And they were starving.
Here in the bowels of the earth, these men prayed to our God. They said, “We aren’t the best men, but Lord have pity on us… Jesus Christ, our Lord, let us enter the sacred throne of your grace.”
Their prayers rise from the deep underground all the way to God in his office above the solar system. The prayers of Job rise up from the dust all the way through the dome of the sky. And we might think this will be the moment when God goes quiet. All the prayers rising up and only the echo back, “It’s no use.”
Or we might be ready to jump ahead to the happy ending, surely God saves. You know the story of the man who walked along the beach with God and there were two sets of footprints, except in the worst times, then there was one set. Not because God was gone, but because he was carrying the man on the beach, and that’s how it should be. Call out to God, and she will come carry us on the beach every time, right? Or not. Or this happens instead…
Job issues a challenge to the divine. “Let the Almighty answer me!” In the scripture we hear today, God does come to answer Job. And God is fuming and furious. He spills out of the whirlwind hurling a series of rhetorical questions at Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding… Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4).
Looking at this whole speech from God, Bible scholars call our attention to the particular examples the LORD invokes. God does not talk about human beings with their houses and pets. Her rant invokes the wild animals, the sea monster that embodies chaos, the constellations in the sky, the boundary lines between what we know and what we don’t.One way to sum up the message of the LORD is to say, “Job, you simply don’t understand. Creation is not all about you and your problems.”
As if this message weren’t harsh enough, I can’t get past the tone God takes with Job. The writer of this book imagines our God so indignant and over-the-top! It’s like our mild-mannered, cool, in-control creator just loses it. “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer… when they crouch to give birth to their offspring?” (Job 39:1,3). Um, no. No I don’t.
This portrayal of the divine reminds me of a Saturday Night Live impression. This has to be a caricature of God! Surely, our maker doesn’t really go around acting with such melodrama, throwing accusations at a man in the middle of his suffering. This is not the behavior we expect from our God!
Maybe this is a terrible problem. Maybe this is our best hope. We are not in charge of the LORD.
Like it or not, God comes to be with us, and not always on our terms. I believe God was with those men down deep in the mine, the mountain was weeping, and they were not left alone to die. But here’s the thing, they were so hungry. Their bodies began to shut down, their brains began eating their muscles. What does it mean to believe God is in the starvation, not just in the bread? What does it mean to know God is on the plane that gets extinguished from the sky?
I want God to swoop in and solve the problem! It’s not wrong for me to make that my prayer. I can pray louder than the forces that sigh, “It’s no use.” But I also imagine the LORD saying to me the same thing he told Job, “Mariah, you don’t understand. Creation is not all about you and your problems.”
When this happens to you. When you’re the one suffering and God shows up in all the grit and glory, we’d do well to remember that this terrifying power we cannot control is the source of grace we cannot control. The mighty power of God establishes the heavens and sets time into motion. This is the same God who is concerned about the mountain goats giving birth.
God who groups the stars into their constellations and delights when the planets sing for joy is the same God who is present in the signing of our divorce papers. God who is almighty and alien comes into the elementary school cafeteria to have lunch with the third graders, like it or not. Her compassion doesn’t follow our rules.
And so it is, the God whom we pray to while we’re driving home from work is the one who makes the two great lights and sets them in the sky to mark the seasons and the days. There was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.