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God and the Geber
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall

What an interesting passage before us this morning! Have you ever been in such a one-sided conversation as the one in which Job finds himself at the end of the book? Finally, after slogging through nearly thirty-seven chapters of heated debate over suffering-with mud-slinging, angry denials and rebuttals-finally we come to what we’ve been waiting for all along: God’s response to the problem of suffering.

What does God have to say about all of these conversations? Inquiring minds want to know who’s been right and who’s been wrong. You may want to spend an afternoon and read through the book of Job to see how each character thinks about suffering. To sum up, Job’s three friends-Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar-live in a black and white world. They are convinced in what we might call retributive justice. That is, they believe that God has established boundaries in this world. Boundaries established by the long-held and revered wisdom of the ages. Such conventional wisdom describes how God acts toward those who worship God and how God acts toward those who choose to go it alone.

One thing for sure: to step outside of God’s boundaries is to stumble into disfavor with God. As the ancient wisdom goes, no one is never left to guess who’s out and who’s inside the boundaries of God’s favor. Such step-outers are clearly marked by a plethora of bad things that happen to them-bolts of lightening like smart bombs that strike them in a crowd of people. Judgment will come to them sooner than later. And to their children, and even to their grandchildren. So according to this conventional wisdom those who suffer severe reversals in life are step-outers. They are people who through their own actions have brought God’s retributive judgment upon themselves.

I can imagine this conversation happening today in a Barnes and Noble bookstore sitting around a table between sips from lattes. Soon the conversation takes a serious turn. Here’s the gist of what was said that will help us to appreciate what God will say in response. So listen to some guys talking from somewhere in a Barnes and Noble in the Land of Buz . . .

"Hey, Job," says Eliphaz, "accept this suffering as God’s discipline and then God will restore you."

"But don’t you get it? I don’t need correcting; I’ve done nothing wrong!"

Eliphaz throws off his polite I’m-okay-you’re-not approach and cuts to the chase. "You don’t know nothing, Job! Our wisdom comes from gray-haired people. You know as well as I do, that the wicked will not prosper-we’ve always believed that way and you’re definitely not prospering."

"But I’ve done nothing wrong!" Job remonstrates. "I am innocent so why is God is using me for target practice?"

"Whatever," Bildad retorts. "But God never twists justice. It’s a simple syllogism, Job. Wisdom says that A. only bad guys suffer; B. You are suffering. Therefore, C. You have done something heinous and so God is punishing you." But Job can only grimace as he’s turned over on his other side. "In fact, Job," Bildad continues, "it is written that, quote, ‘a deadly disease spreads over their bodies and causes their arms and legs to rot.’ Unquote. That is so you, Job-just look at yourself!

"Stop insulting me already," Job cries. "You dare to point to my suffering and take that as proof that I’m a God-hater, that I’ve stepped over the line? How stupid. But get this in your thick head, that God has condemned me-though innocent-to wither and die in suffering."

If this were a tag-team event, Zophar would now jump into the ring. "You really make me sick, Job. Even you know that though the wicked start out wealthy, healthy and successful, yet at the height of their Fortune 500 lives they will be crushed; God will punish them. Period. No exceptions."

Job grows exasperated with their air tight theology, so he sort of plays dirty. He breaks the silence of what they’ve deliberately and conveniently left out of their theology-Job cites notable exceptions.

"Oh yeah?" he says. "You guys say that God puts people into hermetically sealed categories-"The Wicked" over there and the "In God we Trust" crowd over here? Well, what about . . .

Old Pennysniff-the guy’s 100 years old and cusses God everyday

Rashana, LeRoy, and George-grandkids-they’re A students in school

The executives who cheat their employees out of bonus checks and use the money to buy yachts and backyard golf courses?

My neighbor who sics her dog on the poor whenever they come to her door?

"It’s just not as simple as that," Job concludes. "Your theology doesn’t always work."

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar still live in our world. They sometimes sit in the pews of our churches; they lead committee meetings; they usually live quiet, well-structured lives. Conventional wisdom has generally worked for them. And on those occasions when it hasn’t worked, they have placed the deficiency elsewhere. Eliphaz and friends live on easy answers and within rigid boundaries. There may be such a thing as innocent suffering that happens through violence and wars and such. But personalized suffering? That’s different. We can control that, they reason.

When applied to marriage conventional wisdom makes divorce the unpardonable sin and punishes the offender in a hundred different ways. When we leave no discussion and no other way to listen to Scripture, Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar have just walked into our lives with easy Bible answers and a lot of judgment.

This kind of wisdom works well as long as bad things are happening to some body else. If a kid grows up in a Christian home but makes choices that lead her far from her faith and community, the parents have apparently not followed the biblical instructions well. "Raise up a child in the way he/she should go and when they are old, they will not depart from it." That’s conventional wisdom-wisdom that normally guides our direction. But when such wisdom ossifies into doctrine, then Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar live again.

Job’s friends once joined Jesus’ disciples as they walked by another suffering Job. "Pssst! Hey Teacher, who sinned? This man or was it his parents? Which was it that caused this man to be born blind?" That’s how Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar would have framed the scene. That’s what retributive justice would have concluded. That’s what the norm of conventional wisdom would have taught. That’s how the disciples viewed Job’s suffering. "Which? We know it has to be one or the other that has caused this suffering." Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar still offer answers at the place of suffering.

Let’s take a look at Job. He is us-the human family that experiences suffering. I am struck by the depth of his agony and discomfort. This is primarily about relationships, according to one theologian. Job’s relationships have been disrupted, disoriented, or destroyed. His children are dead, his spouse has left, and his norms of relating to God have been radically altered.

In his suffering Job gropes for meaning. He staggers like a wounded animal in a bullfight; he curses his life, the day he was born, curses God’s absence, and prays for death. He probably would have been helped by Nietzsche’s popular advice: if a person has a why they can bear almost any how. If you know what the conversation has been about, know why you’re going through the pain, that knowledge alone can help us to stay the course with faith. But sometimes we don’t know all of the answers, haven’t heard the heavenly council, and so we wonder why. Why this? Why now? Why me?

Probably the greatest gift we can give Job-the woman who now sits alone in the same pew that she had shared with her late husband for forty years; Job, the father who tries to explain to his nine year old why he gets so tired after his chemo every third week; Job, the stunned mother who has unexpectedly been abandoned by her boyfriend; Job, the friend in hospital room 118-the greatest gift we can give Job is the gift of comfort and hope. We don’t need to be answer guys nor theologians. Job doesn’t need air tight theologies of why this has happened. What Job yearns for is a friend, a presence who will sit with them and silently help suffer with them.

So God finally speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. But did you notice how God addresses him? God comes to Job with the strange word, geber, or gibbor. Geber is a Hebrew word connected with courage. English equivalents are "able man," "chief," "champion," "giant," "mighty one," "strongest," and "valiant one." Job? A mighty one? What is this, divine sarcasm? A tongue in cheek way to show how presumptuous Job has acted? Some commentators think so. But not all. Some see behind that word God’s great confidence in Job who has been valiant and courageous through his suffering. And God knows that even now Job can withstand God’s confrontation with him.

Job is disfigured and broken, but God sees something else deep within him. Calls him courageous-a valiant man. Whatever is loaded into that title, it does take courage to experience unbearable sadness and pain and yet to trust God. Takes a valiant person who can place their brokenness in God’s hands even when they don’t have all the answers. Job hasn’t a clue of the conversation between God and The Satan in the heavenly court. Nor do we catch all the conversations going on about our lives.

Now that God has Job’s attention, what does God say? Well, the short answer is that God gives him no answer. Now God turns tables and becomes the questioner. Yet, strangely in the torrent of questions, God speaks to a powerful and mysterious vision of creation and the role that humans play in God’s large and intricate universe. So God puts Job in the theater seat of creation and fills it with surround sounds and powerful images of earth, sky, and sea. Job’s head spins with questions about cosmology, meteorology, control of the sea, death, the nature of light and darkness, the movements of constellations and the intriguing qualities of lions and mountain goats and donkeys and ostriches and vultures.

The questions that occupy us-What’s in it for me? How fast is it? How much does it cost? How much ram? Are we there yet?-pall in the presence of God’s mind-stretching questions. We start with the particular-God begins with the universal that moves out toward the particular. The very radicalism of God’s questions says one theologian, shatters our anthropocentric world that we’re so comfortable with. In the wall of questions a pattern of truth about God emerges-God is the Creator and Artist of a magnificent and expanding universe. The Wisdom that knows and cares for such a creation often moves with its own rhythms, and may even defy our best theologies that try to explain suffering. God will not be contained by our best thinking and reasoning, yet there is something comforting in the questions that speak to the faithfulness of God to maintain and nourish what God has created.

A clergy couple recently provided a home for three foster kids. The children had witnessed the violent murder of their father by their mother, and then had watched as the SWAT team handcuffed their mother and led her away. The first night in the clergy couple’s home the family gathered to read together the creation account in Genesis 1. These kids had experienced the sudden, violent loss of both parents and needed to know that there was something upon which they could still rely. You can imagine the impact the words of creation had on them-the measured and ordered way that God put the created order together. Everything was good that God made and just hearing about it within the presence of a loving family became the first of many steps the children would take toward restoring their own world of trust.

Sometimes our world of trust will be shaken. Job’s was. The book of Job closes without denying the chaos and suffering that human beings live with. But in that very suffering God calls us Geber-valiant ones who will entrust their present and future lives to the God who upholds the universe by the Word of his power. Amen.