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Lessons from a Whirlwind
Job 42:1-6 (10-17)
by Rev. Thomas Hall

The End." That’s how we might describe our lesson for today in the book of Job. As most readers will probably agree, the most fascinating part of a good novel-especially if it contains numerous strands of subplots-is how the writer will end the story. Will it be a dark and foreboding ending with the heroine dying apart from her lover-like the Gothic novel, Wuthering Heights? Will the story end with a resolution of conflict with the bad guys getting the shaft and the good guys winning like Dicken’s, Dombey and Son when the guy we love to hate, nasty Mr. Carker, finally meets his doom? Or will the story just stop abruptly leaving us wonder where the ending went-like one of those "to be continued" types? Endings-like good beginnings-hold us to the story and enable us to enter it. And in the ending we can look back and learn from the story. So it is with Job that chapter 42 officially brings the story to its end with its happily ever after ending: "Then Job died an old man who had lived a long, good life." The End.

What we can learn from the story of Job, looking back over it from the summit of the final chapter? Well for one thing, Job throughout has stood solid in his conviction to the very end: he has been an innocent sufferer. Just as resolute, Elihu, Bildad, and Zophar, too have held to their theology; they’ve unflinchingly championed a theology that is long on answers and short on compassion. And now at the end, God too, finally joins the conversation. A mighty whirlwind swirls around Job and his friends as God speaks. But instead of the expected "correct" answers we were anticipating or some moral truth to the problem of suffering, God seems more interested in holding an FAQ session: Frequently Asked Questions. God raises one mind-boggling question after fabulous question about the intricate and beautiful world that Job and his friends inhabit and about the macro world that they can only glimpse overhead on a starry night.

Q & As; they’re absolutely foundational to all learning and growth. Consider the "answer" part of the Q & A team for a moment. Answers are such wonderful building blocks, aren’t they? To change metaphors, answers are rungs on the ladder of knowledge that allow us to climb higher and higher. Answers move us to new places of understanding. They lay bare the fraud that stands behind the curtain that has kept the cowardly immobilized by fear, and the heartless from gaining new passion and courage, and the ignorant from knowledge. Not that answers are easy to come by like garage sale items. Occasionally, answers come to us at great expense from trial and error. Yet to have an answer to a perplexing problem is worth the effort.

But there can be a downside to answers. I have on my desk a booklet entitled, "Why Does God Allow Suffering?" The contents include examples of suffering-the whenbadthingshappentogoodpeople stories. What is remarkable throughout this booklet is the sheer confidence by which the author raises-and resolves-the problem of suffering. Suffering, he says, is not part of God’s original created order. Sin has brought suffering to us and whether its our sins or the sins of other people, suffering in the world is the result. The end. I am uncomfortable with short answers and closed answers when it comes to weighty problems that we must wrestle with.

Too often, yesterday’s answers can become today’s doctrine. Answers become stop signs that shut down further discussion. They can dam the flow of a questing spirit. They can become quick fixes pasted over perplexing problems. In the world of answer, yesterday’s theology often becomes tomorrow’s dogma. Answers-divorced from wisdom and humility-morph into dead ends that block further discoveries.

That’s the conclusion that Rabbi Kushner arrived at in his bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Bad things certainly do happen. To others. To us. Bumper sticker reality could reduce the idea to two words-"Sh__ Happens." Sure does. Everyday. Everyway.

But America’s rabbi also adds an important word about answers. Says that when people are hurting-really hurting through the loss of a loved one-throwing answers at the loss frustrates instead of comforts. Telling a bereaved parent that "God loved your daughter more or needed her more than you did," doesn’t heal nor soothe wounded spirits and grief-filled souls. Turning tragedy into a "learning moment"-explaining to a suffering person, for instance, about the mosaic of God: that all we see on this side of life are the tangled skeins of tragedy and suffering, but on the other side is a stunning mosaic of divine meaning and beauty-doesn’t educate anyone who’s listening to Rock of Ages in a crowded room banked by flowers.

Part of what we pastors do every week is to listen for God speaking through Scripture so that we can say some things with faithfulness and confidence. We give a lot of answers to folks over that pulpit each week. Our theological traditions guide us in that conversation with Scripture. Helps us to remember our heritage and be faithful to what others have heard from God.

But theological traditions can also become hard of hearing, says Thomas Long, one of America’s popular preachers. Our traditions "tend to become fixed systems no longer open to listening to any new claims of Scripture." He goes on to say,

Whenever a church or a preacher hears in scripture only that which has been heard before, finds there only a confirmation of what is already known and believed, be assured that the theological tradition has ossified and is being employed not as a means for hearing the living word of scripture but as a replacement for it.

In his book about devotional classics, Richard Foster agrees with Long’s assessment of traditions. Foster says . . .

It is our conviction that we need to be experiencing all of these traditions if we are to have a balanced vision of faith and life . . . very few of us are strong in all of them . . . We are a little like the gymnast who can excel in the floor exercise, the balance beam, and the parallel bars but who cannot compete on the high bar and the vaulting horse. Such a person is simply not very balanced in gymnastic skills . . . Each tradition-even our favorite one-will throw us out of balance if it is all we know.

The end of the story of Job-the book’s assertions and answers and God’s Qs-show how ludicrous it is to think our answers are destination points. That’s like the little boy who scoops up a pail of seawater and runs along the beach claiming, "I’ve got the ocean!" All of our answers added together might fill a teacup. But it is the questions that will keep us going back for more water.

Questions, to be sure, are connected to answers. But behind the Q’s are eyes wide-open to the wonder of God’s mystery; in honest questions there is a humility that will take us beyond our own paradigms and narrow assertions. Questions fire up our imagination and stoke our questing spirit.

A friend of mine, a professor emeritus of a physics department at a large university has all of his life carried around a little book-no matter where he is. "Never know when they come," he twinkles. He’s talking about the Qs. So he carries the composition notebook around to record every question that he thinks of. I’m not sure how many answers he’s come up with, but his life-long journey of questions greatly exceed the answers.

"There are secret things that belong to the LORD our God," says the writer of Deuteronomy, "but the revealed things belong to us and our descendents forever." Maybe that’s the balance that God calls us to . . . to approach our theologies about ecology, cosmology, God, and humanity with the humility of someone who is painfully aware that they don’t nor will ever arrive at the answers that promise complete illumination and insight. We’ll never be able to say of our theology, of our tradition, of our quest for God, "The End. What is revealed to us we can humbly be guided by.

In the end Job comes to some learning moments of his own about this business of Questions and Answers. Job learns humility. And he also demonstrates that humility in a repentant act. In the New Living Translation, God thunders, "Who is this that challenges my wisdom with such ignorance?" Like the sergeant storming into the barracks bellowing, "Okay, listen up NOW! Who’s the wise who wrote on the bathroom wall?" Silence. However, in the biblical text, three words follow God’s strong "Who are you / Where are you" question: "It is I," Job whimpers. That is the one answer Job can speak with confidence! "It is I," he says from under the heap of ashes. " . . . and I take back everything I said, and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance."

God next confronts Elihu and to all three friends God commands, " . . . My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer on your behalf . . . for you have not been right in what you said about me."

God too responds at the story’s end: God the Magnificent Questioner restores Job and forgives all. And Job lived happily ever after. The end.