Sermon: The Humbling of Job
Preached on 9th August 2009
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
John Rutter's Gaelic blessing is intended to create in us a sense of peace and harmony both with the creation and with Christ, the light of the world. The words are adapted from an ancient Gaelic rune which comes from a time when people were close to nature, felt its rhythms deeply and inhabited a holistic spirituality where mind, body and spirit moved as one. My own experience of life in Gaelic isles has been limited but has furnished me with a certain degree of suspicion about this text. When I have been in that part of the world the running wave has not always been that peaceful, that the air has often done far more than flow and that the stars have often been eclipsed by layers of thick and fast moving cloud on nights that are far from gentle. Maybe John Rutter had better luck with his summer holidays than I have, but I do sometimes wonder about the picture of the natural world which we paint when we, centrally heated and doubled glazed modern people, pick and mix from the traditions of the Celtic fringe. Certainly I have never felt as close to death -and for all I know have never been closer to death -than I was when, while sailing off the west coast of Scotland, an equinoxal storm blew up. That day remains etched on my mind and I vividly recall the sky all but disappearing as the swell grew larger and larger. If I were setting the experience to music the text would be verses from Psalm 107.
They that go down to the sea in ships and occupy their business in great waters
These men see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep
For at his word the stormy wind ariseth which lifteth up the waves thereof.
They are carried up to the heaven, and down again to the deep. Their soul melteth away because of the trouble .
They reel to and fro and stagger like a drunken man and are at their wits end.
So when they cry unto the Lord in their trouble he delivereth them out of their distress.
For he maketh the storm to cease so that the waves thereof are still.
Then they are glad because they are at rest and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be. (Psalm 107 23-30)
The peace comes, but it comes after the storm. It is not peace from nowhere but peace out of a story that has this plot: wonder, storm, fear, wits end, peace. To be fair to Rutter, I expect that his music is written to reassure, comfort and bless those who are sufficiently well acquainted with being at their wits end as to need no musical reminder. But the danger remains that such words and music can tempt us to think that the natural world is a place of easy spiritual comfort.
Such a prospect is decisively challenged, however, when we open ourselves to the reality of the natural world, human experience or the testimony of Scripture. And all three come together in today's Old Testament lesson which is part of the speech of God to Job towards the end of that poetic but troubling book of experience, wisdom and tough theology.
To try to summarise Job is like trying to summarise any poetry and to miss the point. However it is necessary to know that the man Job is living a good and happy life when all sorts of things go wrong and he is ruined. The book then explores through a series of dialogues and monologues the way in which Job's faith is challenged and ultimately matured though encounters with three rather annoying friends, a very annoying stranger and, ultimately, God himself. The book refers to the activity of mining (chapter 28) and is itself a rich if not inexhaustible quarry for wisdom.
The passage we heard today from chapter 39 and 40 is part of a longer section which begins in chapter 38 where God answers the complaining Job out of the whirlwind. There is no deep peace in the Lord's response. Job hears the voice of a storm and the crashing of surf as God challenges the one who will hold him to account. ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man.' (Job 38 2-3)
God's address to Job is a series of rhetorical question which begins ‘where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?' and does not end until we are given the picture of the young eagles sucking up the blood of prey and carrion. Here is nature red in tooth and claw. Here is material and emotional honesty. And, as we heard in the reading, it has the effect of humbling and silencing Job:
‘See I am of small account what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer, twice but I will proceed no further.' (Job 40 3-5)
With Job silenced, God continues in similar vein, and still out of the whirlwind. In chapter 39 we heard about the silly Ostrich but in chapter 40 and 41 we move on to the hippopotamus and the crocodile, two remarkable, puzzling and awe inspiring creatures to be sure. This is God in the guise of David Attenborough, taking a camera crew to the ends of the earth and bringing back pictures of the extraordinary natural word with its human-humbling wonders. ‘Have you seen this? Have you seen that? Look at this and stop thinking about yourself.'
In the context of the Bible this is remarkable and strange stuff. When the book of Genesis tells the story of creation it does so in such a way as to emphasise the power and pattern of God and the singular importance of humanity. Nowhere is it very interested in the animal world. But in Job we get what you might call wildlife poetry, nature spirituality. Humanity is seen only in the context of a much larger ecology. It is almost as if the author of Job were an ancestor of Charles Darwin.
Some commentators notice that this great speech of God is full of rhetorical questions. But the fact that the sentences are full of embedded pictures of the natural world is just as important. Indeed it is vitally important to the way in which we interpret what God is doing to Job in this pyrotechnic speech.
Let me explain. There are I think two possible ways to describe what is happening to Job here. He is either being humbled or humiliated. The two words sound very similar but theologically and spiritually the processes are very different. They paint different pictures of God and they have different consequences for human beings.
If your emphasis is on the overwhelming impact of rhetorical questions then you will inevitably see God as a kind of cross schoolmaster with a tendency for sarcasm. ‘If you are so clever you should be able to answer this one. So let's hear you boy. Come on I can't hear you. Speak up.' Not a very attractive view of the Deity.
If, on the other hand, your emphasis is not on the rhetorical question aspect of this but on the fact that it all adds up to a fantastic slideshow of the wonder of the natural world, then God is seen very differently. This is a God who is drawing Job out of himself and into a new sense of what is real and worthwhile.
In the first case Job is being put down. In the second Job is being put in his place.
This difference is a vitally important one for us to get our heads around as people of faith for it lies at the heart of what our relationship with God might be like and what it might mean to learn through life. It might be that the distinction between being ‘put down' and ‘put in your place' sounds contrived but it is at least conceivable that some people sometimes need to be elevated to their proper place, and not put down to find it. Indeed the point is made in the Magnificat and runs through Luke's gospel. God puts down the mighty but exalts the humble and meek. For the mighty this is humiliating. For the meek it is humbling. The words are similar but the reality and the experience very different.
In the case of Job it is a matter of humiliation. But the reason for this is not because Job is a man who has suffered but because of his arrogance. An arrogance that was in him before his suffering but which only came out when he began to speak from the experience of suffering.
When he first begins to suffer Job goes quiet. But after a week of silence he begins to complain that life is not fair, indeed that it is not worth living. Job protests that there should be a natural order in which the righteous are rewarded with success, the good are given riches and the excellent rise to the top as leaders of society. One of the many lessons of the book of Job is that it reminds us that our conceptions of justice are inevitably provisional, limited and self-interested. There is no doubt that when we are fortunate enough to be doing well in life, in terms of success or riches or whatever, we tend to the view that we deserve it. However, when we do badly, get ill or experience a tragedy in the family, we feel and protest that things are not fair, not just, and we think that God is either not there or has got it all terribly wrong.
Job is not the answer to every issue that we will confront but it is a strong worked example of the kind of journey which many human beings must undertake if they are to get anything like a glimpse of the wisdom and perspective of God. A perspective that sees each human being in the context of a wonderfully diverse, awe-inspiring created order, where suffering and death are part of the process and where justice is a project, not an already achieved state of affairs.
God's speech to Job is a great text which can help us all to glimpse the deeply-textured and endlessly-permutated variety of life in the real world. Like Rutter's Gaelic Blessing, it invites us to connect our faith in Christ with the processes of the nature. Unlike that blessing it admits a good deal more dark and disorder onto the canvas, not because these are divine but because they are real.
Job is a very challenging book. But it is also a book that speaks across the centuries with a candour, integrity and openness that makes it more than ever relevant. Its message to arrogant humanity is that we should get over ourselves, wonder at the world and develop a respectful love for the creator. Ultimately, whether we find it humbling or humiliating or both is beside the point. Its wisdom is eternal and can guide us to our proper place, our eternal home: to the haven where we would be.