Our Old Testament lesson this morning is a very small bit of the Book of Job, that really sort odd bit of Biblical literature that tells the story of a wager between God and Satan. Some scholars believe that it may find its origins in an earlier Babylonian work known as the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, that the Jews in Exile became familiar with the older Babylonian story and adapted it to their own theology.
Job begins with a scene in the heavenly court where God is in conversation with character called, in Hebrew, ha-satan which is translated into English as Satan. However, this is not the Devil of later Christian mythology, the ruler of Hell portrayed by Milton or Dante or even Walt Disney (in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in the movie Fantasia). Rather, ha-satan is a sort of heavenly district attorney or prosecutor who goes “to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,” scoping out sin and iniquity and bringing it to God’s attention for judgment.
God and Satan (I’ll use the English transliterated name now) are talking about the nature of human dedication to God and God asks, “Have your seen my servant Job? He is a righteous man, wholly devoted to me.” Satan answers, basically, “That’s only because he has been rewarded with a good life.” Satan urges God to create hardship for Job, arguing that Job is faithful only on account of his wealth and good fortune. Take those away, Satan claims, and Job will blaspheme. God permits Satan to take away Job’s wealth, kill his family (except, for some reason, his wife), and afflict him physically, none of which induces Job to rebel against God. Because of a wager between God and Satan, Job is deprived everything; his life is turned in to a river of … crap, and he knows he doesn’t deserve this.
Now the theology of the day would have it that bad things don’t happen to good people. If something bad has happened to you (and a lot bad had happened to Job), you must have deserved it. The way to deal with it is to repent, make a sacrifice, appease God. Job is visited by three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They are thoroughly convinced that Job’s suffering is a punishment for sin; after all, God doesn’t cause anyone to suffer innocently. So they advise Job to repent and seek God’s mercy. Job’s wife also believes all that has happened to him (to them, really) is Job’s fault and her advice is even more blunt: “Curse God, and die!”
But Job takes a different approach: he demands a hearing. He wants to take God to court! He frames his case, his argument of his innocence, and he wants God to come and present his evidence that he, Job, deserves what has happened. He wants God to defend what God has done to him. It’s clear from the way he speaks that Job doesn’t really expect God to do that, even though that’s what Job repeatedly says he would like have happen. Much to Job’s surprise, I think, God does show up.
However, God doesn’t answer Job’s complaints; God doesn’t say a thing about whether Job does or does not deserve all these calamities; God doesn’t defend what has happened to Job, at all. Instead, God lays out a vision of the beauty of creation, starting in this brief bit we heard this morning with the taming of the sea and the weather and moving on, in later chapters (this speech extends quite a bit) to talk about the teeming life of the planet.
God goes back to the beginning asking Job, basically, “Who are you? Do you know? Were you there?” I’m always curious to hear what tone of voice our readers will use when they read God’s words: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” How do we read God’s “tone,” God’s “state of mind”? Is God being sarcastic? Is God angry? Is God demonstrating God’s overwhelming power, that “God is God and Job is not” (as one scholar has put it).
Could be, I suppose, but I think there’s another way to read God’s speech and I take my clue from the very words God says when he asks Job if Job was there when the sea was born
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….”
I think what we have here is God speaking words of love and gentleness, speaking not in tones of anger or sarcasm or power; this is God the midwife who birthed creation, the maternal God who held and swaddled and instructed the sea as a beloved infant. I think God is speaking to Job with that same loving gentleness of maternal correction.
God does not rebuke or reprove or condemn Job with anger or sarcasm; God does not even speak to Job on Job’s own terms as a courtroom adversary or opposing litigant. Rather, alongside Job’s complaint of undeserved suffering and unfathomable chaos, this maternal God lays an alternative vision of beauty and order.
Let’s leave Job for a moment and take a look at the complementary story from Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been teaching on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, sitting in a boat telling parables to a huge crowd. Eventually the lessons come to an end and he says, “Let’s go over to the other side of the lake.” So his disciples get into the boat with him and, just as he is with no additional preparation, they set sail. Jesus falls asleep on a pillow in the back of the boat and, as they are going along, a storm suddenly and unexpectedly kicks up. The boat is swamped, fills with water, and is in danger of sinking. Jesus sleeps through it all until the disciples rouse him with a question, “Teacher, don’t you care?”
Sound familiar? This is just another form of Job’s question: “God, where are you? Why are you letting this happen? Don’t you care?” The disciples here are Job, just as we are all Job from time to time when bad things happen, when circumstances get to be too much for us to handle, for us to accept, when life seems to be a river of crap, when our boat seems ready to capsize and sink. “Teacher, don’t you care?”
Notice that the disciples don’t call Jesus “Lord”. This is early in the gospel story, so even though they’ve chosen to follow this man, they still aren’t sure who he is other than a charismatic and attractive, possible prophetic, teacher.
Jesus wakes, stills the sea and calms storm … and then he speaks to them and, just as when we read God’s words in the Book of Job, we need to figure out his tone of voice, his attitude toward the disciples when he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Is it sarcasm? Is it anger? Is it frustration? Mightn’t it be the same gentle, loving, parental, almost maternal tone we heard in God’s words to Job?
I don’t believe Jesus is berating them. Jesus does berate those who are in error, as when he speaks the truth to those in power, to the Scribes and the Pharisees whom he calls “whitewashed tombs” and compares to dirty drinking cups, looking clean on the outside but filled with the filth of sin. But when Jesus exhorts his listeners to faith, his tone must be very different, the patient voice of an instructor. And here in the boat it is the encouragement to faith that he speaks.
Sometimes this story is read together with another of Jesus’ admonitions to faith, the one where he says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” And what comes from such a reading is the idea that the disciples (and, by implication, we) with enough faith (as if faith were some sort of psychic electrical power) could have stilled the storm themselves. Such an understanding, sometimes called “the power of positive thinking” or “science of mind,” incorrectly suggests that we can change reality simply through our beliefs, sort of like that scene in the movie The Matrix. Did you see that movie?
Neo, the character played by Keanu Reeves, is taken to meet a woman known as the Oracle. And while he is waiting in her apartment to talk with her, he witnesses young children who seem to be manipulating reality. One of them bends a spoon simply by looking at it. The child then looks at Neo and says,
Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth…there is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.
Well, that is not what Jesus is teaching here. Jesus never denies the physical reality of the world, nor does he teach (other than as a metaphor) that we can manipulate the physical world with thought or faith. Rather, Jesus encourages his followers to see the world in a more complete way. Just as God, in answer to Job’s complaint of suffering and chaos, throws down the parallel reality of beauty and order, Jesus’ admonition to faith is an encouragement to see that greater reality.
It has been said that faith is the flame that lights the candle of life without which we are blind. The American author Nathaniel Hawthorne is quoted as saying
Faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows – standing without, you can see no glory, nor can imagine any, but standing within every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors.
Faith is not a power to change reality; it is the ability to see reality in all its fullness.
No more than God defends what has happened to Job, Jesus in our gospel story does not solve the disciples’ quandary. They are still in a boat filled with water threatening to capsize in the middle of the Galilean lake, but now (perhaps) they have some better perspective.
You all took art classes at sometime during your schooling, right? You remember what “perspective” means in that context. It’s the technique for creating an illusion of three-dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. You pick a point at what will be the horizon in your picture, then you draw two lines from that point which diverge or separate as they seem to come toward the viewer. From the viewer’s perspective they converge at that point way out in the apparent distance.
Picture this. You’re standing on a long, straight railroad track, one rail on your left, one on your right. You look down the track and the rails seem to converge to a vanishing point, or alternatively they seem to separate as they come toward you. If you didn’t turn around, you could imagine them continuing to separate behind you. But, no! If you turn around, what do you see? The same thing! The lines which seemed to converge to a point far ahead of you, now seem to be converging on a point far behind you.
When I think about this, I remember the writings of the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He taught that everything in the universe is fated to converge to a final point of divine unification which he called the Omega Point. Behind us, from which everything diverges is the Beginning in which God spoke, the Big Bang of science, the Effectual Word of Christian theology, from which all that is came. Ahead of us is the Omega Point, into which all that is is going. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” “As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever,” we sing in the Doxology.
Let’s return to our train track, to Job, and to the disciples on the boat. And let’s say that the left rail is comprised of all the garbage in life, all the crap that happened to Job, the swamping of the boat, the fear, the negatives, all the disorder and chaos. Over here on the right track, on the other hand, is all the loveliness and goodness, all the joy and happiness, everything that is true and honorable, just and pure, pleasing and commendable, excellent and worthy of praise, those things that St. Paul urges us to contemplate. The right track is the beauty and order of creation that God laid down for Job alongside Job’s complaint of ugliness and chaos.
Between the rails of the train track are those timbers called “ties” that hold the two together. The ties on our track are called faith, hope, and love, the attitudes of life to which Jesus calls us here in today’s gospel admonition to faith, in encouraging his followers to hope rather than worry (“for the Holy Spirit will teach” us what to say and do), and in the summary of the Law (“Love God … Love your neighbor”).
Yesterday, I had the privilege with Evelyn to participate in the celebration of some friends’ 60th wedding anniversary. As I talked with the husband, we both reminisced about how marriages of many years are filled with both good and bad, and we don’t really know or appreciate at the time which is which. Times when everything seemed to be going really, really well, when we look back … not so much. Times when everything just seemed awful, it was all going bad, when we look back … not so much. When we look back, it’s not all good, it’s not all bad; it’s a life, a life together, a full life. We go through marriage, we go through life, in the same way that St. Paul said he preached the gospel.
He wrote to the Corinthians in today’s epistle lesson that he had endured times of great suffering, “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger;” there’s that left-hand rail of the train track, all that chaotic stuff Job complained about, all the water swamping the disciples’ boat. But Paul’s life as a preacher was also characterized “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.” That’s the right-hand rail laid down for Job by God, the beauty and order of creation. And it is all held together, all held in relationship by the ties of faith, hope, and love.
The tracks run parallel and to get where we are going, we need them both. If we run only on the left-hand track of suffering and chaos, we will crash into depression and despair, and find ourselves taking Job’s wife’s advice: Curse God, and die. We will perish. If we run only on the right-hand track of loveliness and beauty, without the groundedness of earthy reality, without acknowledging the truth of suffering in our own lives and those of others, we will soar off into flights of fantasy and delusion, and (just as on the left-hand track) we will crash. Like the train in the old gospel song, “this train is bound for glory,” but only if we stay on both rails of the track. We need to be fully engaged with both rails, held together with the ties faith, hope, and love.
“As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever….” In the past (from our perspective) there is Eden, the perfect paradise, Creation, the Big Bang, the Effectual Word, however we want to envision it, whatever we want to call it. From it all of reality flows, the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly; when we look back to that beginning point, before they separate and diverge, we cannot distinguish the one from the other. In the future (again, from our perspective) there is the point of convergence, the vanishing point of artistic perspective, Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point, “a new heaven and a new earth,” the New Jerusalem, the new creation. To it all of reality flows, the good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly; we look ahead to that final point, as they join and merge, we cannot distinguish the one from the other.
It’s all a matter of perspective. That is the lesson of today’s readings: keep things in perspective. Do not despair over the bad, do not get dragged down by the ugly, do not get lost in the chaos; but, also, do not soar off into flights of beautiful fancy, do not disengage from the world’s suffering, do not get lost in delusions of cosmic order. Live a full life, keeping everything in perspective, with faith, hope, and love. Then, and only then, will this train be bound for glory, carryin’ us, the righteous and holy;
this train is bound for glory.
This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2018, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons used for the service are Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3,23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; and St. Mark 4:35-41. These lessons can be found at The Lectionary Page.)
 Job 1:7 (Return to text)
 Job 2:9 (Return to text)
 Job 38:2,4 (Return to text)
 William Safire, The First Dissident: The Book of Job in Today’s Politics (Random House, New York:1992) (Return to text)
 Job 38:8b-11a (Return to text)
 Mark 4:35-41 (Return to text)
 Matthew 23:27 (Return to text)
 Matthew 23:25 (Return to text)
 Luke 17:6 (Return to text)
 YouTube (Return to text)
 Quoted in John Phelan, An Appeal for Unity in Faith (Donohue & Co., Chicago:1911), page 9 (Return to text)
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (Harper Perennial, San Francisco:2008) (Return to text)
 Revelation 1:8 (Return to text)
 Daily Morning Prayer, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 82 (Return to text)
 Philippians 4:8 (Return to text)
 Luke 12:12 (Return to text)
 Matthew 22:37-40 (Return to text)
 2 Corinthians 6:4-5 (Return to text)
 2 Corinthians 6:6-7 (Return to text)
 Revelation 21:1 (Return to text)
 Revelation 21:2 (Return to text)