Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Silence of God (Sermon: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Mark 10:17-31)

Sell all you have and give it to the poor?  Hmm . . .  I’m not going to dwell on today’s gospel reading, one that we could actually roll about in our minds and hearts for weeks without reaching definitive conclusions, but I do want to take note of it.  Not for the usual reasons: the teaching that wealth places a barrier between us and God, and that we would do well to dispense with as many of our material goods as possible.  No, I want us to think of this passage in a reverse kind of way, a more positive kind of way.  What might Jesus be saying about the benefits of depletion?  Might he be saying that there are profound ways in which we pursue God only when we are bereft of what we hold dear?

What might Job have to say about that?

When we left Job last week, he was huddled on his heap of ashes, the very picture of misery.  His crops, his animals, his servants, his children – all had been taken from him as the Satan, the member of God’s heavenly court whom we identified as the Accuser, sought to demonstrate that, given enough provocation, Job would turn from God.  Job hasn’t done that.  As we watched, he muttered words which no doubt some of us have repeated.  “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.”  “Shall we accept the good and not the bad from the Lord?”  “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Phrases which have caused people for centuries to refer to “the patience of Job.”  And I asked you: Is that enough?  Is it enough to talk about God in times of trouble, to offer the teachings of faith in the face of catastrophe?   

Today, we’ll hear one answer to that question and, as you might have imagined, it’s a resounding “No!”  Job’s patience is at an end.  Job is finished with platitudes.  Job is finished pretending that what’s happened to him is in any way acceptable, or even tolerable. The pious, willing-to-bear-all-without -argument Job – he’s gone.

Two things have happened to Job in between last week’s reading and this week’s.  First, he has these  . .  .  friends.  Job’s friends – have you ever heard that phrase?  Have you encountered any of them?

At first, Job’s friends are reduced to silence by the enormity and gravity of his plight.  So much loss!  They step away, and wait in silence, accompanying him in that manner which is so often the best of all – a quiet, sharing of grief, a stunned stillness of wonder that so very much can go wrong.

But then they begin to get restless, these friends of Job.  They, like most of us most of the time, believe that life should be just, should be fair.   In our presumptive ideal world, bad things do not happen to good people.  And so they begin to accuse Job:  You must have done something wrong.  You must have made some terrible mistakes.  You must have engaged in evils about which we do not know.  The only possible explanation for the calamities that have befallen him?  They’re his fault.  “The righteous are not cut off,” they tell him; the wicked are punished.  Job must have deserved what has happened to him.

We know those feelings and ideas, don’t we?  Every one of us.  Have you ever heard about a teenager’s bad behavior and muttered, “Those parents . . . I thought they were all right, but there must be something going on in that house.”  Have you ever thought, “That wouldn’t have happened to her if she’d dressed decently; it wouldn’t have happened to him if he stayed out of that neighborhood?”  Have you ever wondered, when something terrible has happened in your own life, whether God is punishing you for something?

We want life to be fair.  We want God to be just.  And we want to understand when things appear otherwise.

There’s a theological term for this kind of dilemma.  The word is theodicy.  It refers to the questions raised by our beliefs in the power and goodness of God and the incontrovertible evidence that bad things do happen to good people.  Theodicy: the huge question at the heart of Job.  

Job, too, wants life to be fair and God to be just.  And he know that fairness and justice, at least not as we humans understand them, are not words that can be applied to what has happened to him.  Remember, it was made very clear to us at the outset of the book that Job was a completely righteous man, a man who deserved none of what was about to happened to him. And when his friends can no longer contain themselves, and begin to insist that he must somehow be at fault, he finally roars -- his grief over his losses, his fury at his friends and, most of all, his bewilderment at God’s apparent abandonment of him.  

And that’s the second thing that has happened between the readings for our two Sundays: Job has begun to speak of his anguish and frustration with honesty.  Job has begun, even, to speak to God.  His so-called friends?  Those he describes as “miserable comforters with windy words.”  But God?  God he wants to hear from.

“I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  I will say to God, ‘Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.  Does it seem good to you to oppress? . . . Do you see as humans see? . . .  you know that I am not guilty . . . [and yet] you turn and destroy me.”

Where is God?  That’s what Job wants to know, and in crying out for an answer, he echoes the long biblical tradition of lament.  Sometimes we think, or perhaps we’ve been told, that it’s somehow wrong, incorrect, inappropriate, to express our deepest angers and fears and sadness to God.  I don’t know where we get that idea, but we do.  We think we are only allowed to express gratitude to God, or that we are only allowed to ask God nicely – that we are somehow rejecting God if we give voice to our hurts and sorrows.

But the Bible is filled with expressions of human unhappiness.  The Bible is filled with voices crying out to God: Why?  How?  Where are you?  What are you thinking?  

Many of those voices are heard in the psalms, the songbook and prayerbook of the Jewish people, and most particularly in the specific psalms of lament.  There’s even a book in the OT entitled Lamentations.  Other laments are heard in the voices of the prophets, and in the words of Jesus himself.  As he dies upon the cross, he calls out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – the words of the first verse of Psalm 22.  His words echo the lament of human beings for centuries before him.  Where are you, God?  Why have you abandoned me?

Those words continue to be heard today.  Was there not someone who stood at the roadside earlier this week, at the intersection of 302 and 49, which looked like hell itself as the smoke and flames engulfed the collision of trucks and house and wondered, “Why have you forsaken us?”  When a young girl in Pakistan is shot in the head for speaking out for the education of girls, when a child we know dies of cancer or is catastrophically injured, do we not wonder, in the words of the Psalmist, “O God, why do you cast us off?” [Psalm 88]  How many times during the Holocaust of WW2, surely one of the seminal events of the twentieth century, did words from the Psalms rise into the sky with the smoke of the furnaces in which human beings were incinerated? “O God, why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?” [Psalm 74]

No, this movement of Job, from pious words about God to expressions of anguish made to God, falls within a powerful Biblical tradition of lament.  And from what does that power extend?    The words themselves, the poetry, the images – yes, surely, all of those.  When Job says, in today’s reading, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him” – when he deplores the resounding echo of God’s silence – those of us who have been there turn to him in gratitude for his expression of the wails of our innermost hearts.

But surely the greatest power of these laments lies in the fact that they address God.  Job, like those who gave words to the psalms of lament, like the prophets who contend with God in the face of disaster – he goes directly to God.  These voices do not circumvent God; they do not take a detour to avoid a direct confrontation with God.  Even Psalm 88, the only one of the 150 Psalms in which no resolution of hope whatever is uttered, begins with the words, “O Lord, God of my salvation when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry” – a direct approach to God.  When everything is gone, when all has been lost, these ancient speakers still turn to face God.  

Even in the silence, they insist upon God: They insist upon speaking to God; they insist that God is present, somewhere; and they insist upon God’s faithfulness.  Do you know that one of the most beautiful reflections on God’s presence in the entire Bible is found right here, in the midst of Job’s agonizing sense of abandonment:

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

We are used to hearing those words sung – “I know that my redeemer liveth” – in the context of Handel’s Messiah, which we sometimes hear at Christmas, and sometimes at Easter, and sometimes at funerals.  But do we know that they come from Job?  From the broken, hurt, bewildered Job, who has lost almost all and is set upon by comfortless comforters, but is insistent upon God’s faithfulness?
So insistent, in fact, that in today’s reading, Job calls for a trial.  Listen to him:

Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Job cannot find or see or hear God, but he remains undeterred.  What is the great grace, the great gift of God, reflected in Job’s words?  That he longs for God.  That his hope in God, that his belief in God’s care for him, persist.  That he is certain that the silence of God is not the last thing that he will hear.

The silence of God – it’s very silent, indeed.  And it’s difficult for us to interpret. We are people of story, of narrative, of proclamation, of conversation – people of a multitude of words.  We know, from the first verses of Genesis, that God spoke creation into being.  We know, from the first verses of the Gospel of John, that Jesus is The Word – God spoken and speaking into humanity.  And we know, when we, like Job, experience that vast silence in which God resides seems to reside in times of trial, that we, too, long to know that God is there.  We long to know that God witnesses our suffering and hears the protestations we are called to utter.    

And, if we have the integrity of Job, we say so.  If we have a remnant of hope, even in the face of the destruction of all we love, we say so.  Wendell Berry, the great writer of the natural world whom I’ve mentioned before, says, "The distinguishing characteristic of absolute despair is silence. There is a world of difference between the person who, believing that there is no use, says so to himself or to no one, and the person who says it aloud to someone else. A person who marks his trail into despair remembers hope -- and thus has hope, even if only a little."

Job himself, along with the psalmists of lament, the prophets, and Jesus himself, tell us that we are not called to remain mute in the face of suffering.  We are not called to pretend to celebrate when we sorrow.  We are not called to be stoical in the face of rejection.

There is no one answer, of course.  No one demeanor we are called to exhibit, no one form of conduct to which we are called at all times.  In fact, there are few people more convinced of the value of silence and listening in the context of prayer than I am.  But there are times in which our honest voices are welcomed by God.  Times in which we are not required to make do, to accept pat explanations, to suffer in silence.   God may be silent, but we may be called to give voice, to who we are and to what we experience.  

I have a friend who often writes, when I am going through difficult times, that she is praying for me “fiercely.”  I love that word, “fiercely.”  And I think that it characterizes Job, and his prayer, and his lament.  Job is fierce in what he perceives as the injustice of his situation and, even more importantly, in his relentless pursuit of the God whom he believes will hear him and respond.  So are we called to be.  

Remember that young man, rich in material possessions, in today’s gospel reading?  Does he pursue God fiercely?  No . . . he’s like most of us.  We try to cling to prosperity and wealth – material, physical, intellectual.  We don’t want to lose our belongings, our physical strength, or our mental acuity.  We resist those losses with all of our might; we think of them as destroying our very identity.  What we do fiercely is that we try to hang on – but not to God.

Job didn’t have a choice about his losses, but he did have a choice about his response.  Unlike the rich young man, he doesn’t simply walk away.  Unlike his original patient, long-suffering self, he doesn’t simply say those things he might think that God wants to hear. 
No – the growing, maturing Job, the Job whose relationship with God calls him to integrity and honest self –expression – that Job responds fiercely.   He leaves his friends way behind, and he heads directly for God, the God whom he believes wants to hear from him, just as he wants to hear from God.  Somehow Job knows: there is no rejection of God in lamenting our deepest woes to God.  The rejection comes when we walk away or refuse to speak our truths.  To bring our anger, our hurt, our bewilderment, our misery to God – that is to honor the living God.  To approach the God with whom we claim relationship, not merely in the midst of plenty, but in the desert of nothingness – that is fierce faithfulness. 


  1. Very powerful, Robin. Very nice connection you made at the beginning between the two scriptures, turning things upside down just like Jesus did! You do in your sermon what you are preaching about.

    Thank you, Robin!

  2. Thanks, ladies. Always good to get a dose of RGBP confidence the night before!

  3. One of my most listened to songs is by Andrew Peterson and is called The Silence of God. I told my sister today that I could not be happy, happy in order to make anyone feel better but that I was sure the most honorable thing I could do was be honest with my feelings. I've finally given myself permission to be where I'm at.
    Surgery is Monday morning. It still feels surreal that it's going to happen.

  4. Oh, Hope. Surreal is the word. You will be much in my heart and prayer tomorrow.

    And no, you are not required to be happy because that would make it easier for other people. Be who you are, today and tomorrow and the next day -- all different people, because drastic alterations in our bodies change who we are -- and yet still, intensely, yourself.

  5. After my mother had her stroke which has left her (a woman who spent her life studying everything she could) unable to read, concentrate or follow conversations very much I thought alot about this. So did she because, in one of her 'more like her old self' moments she talked about being rather than doing. Who we are is more important than ability or doing. And she has her moments of despair, when the loss of who she was is very apparent.

    Thank you for this opportunity to reflect on this.