You have heard this sermon before.
Maybe not this exact sermon,
but something close to it.
It is said, and you are a better judge of this than me,
that preachers have only a few core sermons.
Even the very best, most insightful preachers,
they say, have at most six or seven sermons
on top of which everything else is a repetition.
If that is true, today is one of my seven.
It may be number one even.
Blame it on Job.
That excerpt from the Book of Job
is one of the best, if not thebest, speech
written onto the lips of God
in all the thousands of pages of the Bible.
I am not shooting sparks here;
that speech in Job
is the coup de grace of divine utterances.
But before God’s big speech,
it is Job who has been making speeches.
Job earnestly explains,
and at length,
why God has done or allowed
so many bad things to happen…to HIM!
He has been explaining with eloquence
and a degree of plausibility, WHY –
when HE is such a good guy –
all the darkness and suffering of life
has found its way to him.
No one argues with the premise that Job is a good guy.
He is sweet, trusting,
He has all the qualities of a good friend
and all the characteristics that a just and loving God
would want in a human being.
And yet…he suffers.
There is a backstory
to both the Book of Job and your story
As good and kind
and sweet at Job is,
he does not have a clue
as to the depth of his own ignorance
or his unintended arrogance.
and his arrogance
are so deep a BP oil rig couldn’t plumb them.
Job is you and me.
What Job wants most of all
is to have God declare him innocent.
Job wants God
to explain to his family and friends
how all his tragedies came to be,
and how they are God’s providence
not the result of his failure.
Just as an aside,
the minute you and I feel ourselves
pointing the finger of blame
it is time to get out the mirror.
Seriously, as soon as we feel that urge inside
to blame someone else for something –
or have ourselves declared innocent and wonderful –
we can be darn certain
that we are operating with our blinders on
and wandering around without sight.
That is just a little aside
that the story of Job has for us,
but that isn’t the main point.
Here comes the good stuff in Job.
So God has listened for thirty-some chapters
to both well-reasoned
and superstitious explanations
from Job’s family
and his friends
and from Job himself.
Finally, after demonstrating amazing patience,
It says that God speaks out of a whirlwind.
That’s a pretty cool image.
As if a batter that had been returning soft lobs
suddenly hits a line-drive with horrendous force,
God hits Job between the eyes.
“Who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”
Words without knowledge…
Hold that now: Words without knowledge.
Let’s stop and think about how often
we make statements and declarations
Here is just one little innocuous example
we hear all the time in everyday conversation,
and we may have said it ourselves.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Everything happens for a reason?
That is an arrogant Job-statement
if ever there was one.
How do we know everything happens for a reason?
It is said so glibly
and with such earnestness
that Job himself could have said it.
But what do we know?
“Everything happens for a reason?”
Those are clearly words without knowledge,
said to make us feel better about our ignorance.
Anyway, after smacking Job with that opening line
God goes onto say,
“Pull up your pants, boy!
It’s my turn to question you
and your turn to answer me.”
In the 21stcentury
we don’t like God talking to us like that.
It seems a little too much like bullying
and we don’t like our god with a hard edge.
We like our god to be serene,
an Earth Mother,
ever-so-gentle and unconditionally kind.
I am so very glad
that the Bible was not written in the 21st century.
Instead, what we have in Job
is a cigar-smoking prosecutor.
God, with a Churchill-like posture,
chomps down on the nasty wet end of his stogy,
squints hard as he stares Job in the eyes,
“Okay pup, you answer me this:
Where were you
when I rolled out the universe?
Huh? Where were you?
If you know so much, tell me:
Where does it all begin
and where will it all end?
Does the universe end?
When the morning stars sang
and the heavenly bodies shouted for joy,
did you hear it?
Hey Job! I’m talking to you.
Have you even heard the stars sing? Ever?
Well son, where were you then?”
It is a brilliant scene, just brilliant.
What a story.
Job is a story that creates dissonance
inside our heads.
If we allow it,
it will create dissonance
inside our lives.
And that is what biblical wisdom does:
it’s not a comfort pillow,
it is a source of dissonance that,
if we allow it to,
creates for us a new vision
or the ability to see something
that has always been in front of us
but from a startling new perspective.
For example, the story of Job was told to a people
who could not understand why God
had abandoned them.
Israel had been a people
and a religion
based upon the promise of land;
for over a thousand years
Israel was defined by the land.
God had promised they would be in covenant –
in a special relationship with God –
and that the land
was the physical proof of that relationship.
The landwas like a wedding ring
that is a symbol of the vows
by which two people enter into marriage.
But suddenly, the people of Israel
were in exile without the land
and with no foreseeable way to ever get it back.
To them, it was as if the ring
had been ripped off their finger
and given to someone else –
someone they hated,
someone they feared,
someone they thought was beneath them.
It seems to me that the United States is suffering
from that kind of cognitive dissonance right now,
and that instead of looking in the mirror
we are pointing fingers of blame at each other,
and of course immigrants from other countries.
We have always told ourselves
that the U.S. is the biggest
and the bestest
and the richest
and the most just and righteous
of all nations in the world.
If we are not the best
we are nothing at all –
that’s the way the logic was constructed.
But then things happened
to create dissonance with that self-image.
When there is dissonance between what we believe
and what we see and hear,
it slaps us in the face with a choice.
When our view of reality
does not match up with the reality we are living,
then we can either
go on pretending – which means
denying our actual experience –
or we can open ourselves up
for a new discovery and a new perspective.
But I want to get back to Job,
and underscore this particularly powerful
and pointed tip of the Job story,
which is the very soil of spiritual growth.
is what a great deal of religious history
has not dealt with very well.
Galileo, for example,
was told by the pope to put the genie back in the bottle,
which he pretended to do for a little while.
But human history is rife with many such examples
of church or mosque
or synagogue or temple
being presented with new insights
that jar or crack open, even shatter
what the religion has declared
as orthodox (“right belief”).
And when that cognitive dissonance arrives
and our worldview
and our values
and our ideas and our assumptions…
are challenged by new information, new insight
or new understanding,
we can openly consider the possibilities
OR we can snap shut
and insist that things are the way we say they are.
But religion is not the only human endeavor
to resist openness.
It is also so very evident in our politics
and science –
all of which have a propensity toward dogmatism.
When the old answers have not had the intended effect,
but they keep getting declared louder
and with more vehemence anyway;
and still more resources are thrown at the problem
in the hopes of making the old answers work
even though it has little impact;
then we know we are at that place
of cognitive dissonance.
It seems to me that we are currently
wandering through a small epoch
of cognitive dissonance
in which many of our institutions
and tried-and-true solutions
We can fiercely defend and blame
or we can open and listen.
Defend and blame or open and listen?
Back to Job.
To all of Job’s questions
and in response to his very sincere
and eager desire to have answers,
All God does is show Job how small he is.
Reading it this time, reminded me
of what we are told these days about the Cosmos.
We are told by awesome and brilliant physicists
who study the cosmos
that twenty-five percent of the universe
is composed of Dark Matter.
Dark Matter is stuff we cannot see
and we cannot touch or study it.
As a matter of fact, they tell us Dark Matter
is the very substance that holds the universe together.
On top of that, they say,
seventy percent of the universe
is actually Dark Energy.
Dark Energy is what is pushing the universe
to expand outwardly from its core moment
at the Big Bang.
Plain old Matter – the stuff we can touch and feel –
not Dark Matter or Dark Energy,
comprises only four and half percent of the universe.
In other words,
the stuff we CAN actually see
is less than five percent
of what actually exists in the cosmos.
Now I don’t have a big problem with all of that
because, like most of you,
I haven’t got a clue about any of it.
And even though I love to read about it
my understanding of what I read
would not even fill a thimble.
So, if some really smart people
that spend their lives looking through telescopes
and creating mathematical models
tell me that ninety-five percent of the universe
is composed of stuff we cannot see
or feel or study,
and that we may never be able to see…
well then, I can live with that
in the same way that Job could live with God
when God was done
with God’s great and wonderful speech.
God gave Job no answers.
God said simply,
“I am God and you are not.”
Job did not turn around and create dogmatic answers
in order to fill his ignorance.
Instead, Job said,
“Hmm, it turns out I am very, very small.”
He did not stop believing
or knowing God
simply because he received no answers.
Instead, Job learned to hold that place of silence.
Please, get this now,
because it is right there for us the reach and hold:
Job learned to hold that place of silence
in whichwisdom is not composed of beliefs,
and words without knowledge
are not spoken.
We live in a cloud of unknowing
that swaddles the thick darkness,
and if we can hold that place of accepting our ignorance
it will lead us to an encounter
with the mystical presence of God;
a presence that is always and everywhere
in our midst.
So here is my best advice
from one of the very few sermons I preach.
When we encounter tragedy;
when we smack up against a universe that seems
to prefer injustice to balance;
when we sit in the shadow of death
grieving for those we just want to hold again;
when we do everything we are supposed to do
and still things do not work out right…
please do not reach
for old answers
that have yellowed and cracked
and been made brittle by our dissonant experiences.
Instead, hold the silence.
Hold the silence and listen.
Hold the silence
and open up.
Hold the silence
and open up
to the mystery of a God that is present
here and now –
and even here, even now.