Questions from Suffering series (#4)
Job 31:35-37, 38:1-11
A sermon preached on July 24, 2016 for Brookmeade Congregational UCC
Once upon a time, a few years ago, I decided to go to seminary. That story began with my certain belief that I wasn’t going to seminary to become a pastor. Indeed, when I started seminary, I knew I wasn’t going to become a pastor. I went to seminary because I wanted to take some advanced classes in Sunday School subjects like Bible and theology. That seemed very interesting to me. Maybe I wouldn’t even finish the degree program. The whole idea seemed harmless enough.
There was a lot I didn’t know.
One surprising thing I discovered was that some of my seminary classmates had been warned to hold tightly to their faith — to guard their beliefs — to not be swayed by any new information they might be fed about Bible or theology.. Seminary, you see, had the reputation of stirring up a person’s faith and shifting a person’s beliefs — changing people.
I started to get an inkling of the disrupting potential of seminary classwork in my first theology class. Up until then, the work had been pretty much what I expected: listen to lectures in a subject — like Intro to New Testament or The Philosophy of Theology — read books about the subject matter, write papers that put it all together, and take tests to seal the deal.
And then . . . that first theology class. Oh, we had lectures on theology and read books on theology. The subject of the first paper, however, was to answer this question: “How do you know God exists?” The assignment came with a warning: Do not base the answer in anything other than your personal knowing of God’s existence.
“How do you know there is a God?”
The answer is harder than the simple question implies. We were reading works by famous theologians who talked a good talk about God. Their excellent rationale could not be offered up as my answer. All of my years of church and Sunday School was built on the assumption that there is a God. “Because my Sunday School teachers said so” was not MY answer to the question “How do I know God exists?” The Bible says, “In the beginning, God . . .” “Because the Bible tells me so” was not MY answer to the question.
Then, what I thought was my most excellent brilliant answer — “I experience God in nature” — was sent back for re-thinking and re-writing. Was I saying that, without nature, there is no God? Is God dependent on nature for God’s very existence?
Tricky question it is:“How DO you know there is a God?”
And so todays’ SERMON EXTRA is that very question. It is your homework — your life work, even — should you choose to take advantage of the opportunity is to answer the question: “How do I know God exists?” There is a risk that you will check out on me right now and start that thought process. It’s not a bad use of sermon time, I’d say.
“How YOU know that God exists?”
You have an index card in your worship bulletin today. Your answer to how you know God exists can go on that card, in one sentence. Sharing your answer is not part of the game, but you can, of course. The process is for you, and whatever answer there may be is for your life:
“How do you know that God exists?”
We are now in week four of a six week sermon series on the book of Job. The story has gone on for 30 chapters now. In the first chapter, the Sabeans took Job’s oxen and donkeys and killed those servants. Then fire burned up Job’s sheep and those servants. Then the Chaldeans took Job’s camels and killed those servants. Then Job’s ten children were killed when a great wind collapsed a house on them. In chapter two, Job is afflicted with horrible sores all over his body and his wife is encouraging Job to go ahead and curse God already.
Who in Job’s situation wouldn’t curse God? Job cries out to God, and keeps crying out, for some 30 chapters now.
The first 31 chapters of book of Job is a long story of suffering and a prolonged anguished lament — amid taunting and advice — the likes of which is not found anywhere else in Scripture. Good thing. I don’t want to find that anywhere else. Ever. Do you? Because who wants to be immersed for a long time in all that anger and grief put-downs?
And how can a Bible story go for so many chapters without God speaking?
What good is God if God is silent?
Can God exist at all if God is not speaking?
By chapter 31, Job has no idea if he is talking to the wind or if God is there, somewhere.Job
31:35a: “O that I had one to hear me!”
Job 31:35b: “(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)”
Mic dropped. Done.
But, not everyone is done. Elihu has a few chapters of things to say to Job. Chapters 32-37 are all Elihu speaking. About Job. About suffering. About Job’s other “helpful” friends. About God.
After 37 chapters of Job speaking and everyone else speaking . . .
Or as we in the United Church of Christ like to say “God is still speaking.”
“God is still speaking” is a gift from the Congregational Church part of the history of the United Church of Christ. Reverend John Robinson was a pastor of some of the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower in 1620. The congregations they established here were part of our Congregational Church history. Rev. Robinson did not come over with them, but sent them on their way with the message:
“I Charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.”
“More light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word” inspired the UCC slogan: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma: God is Still Speaking.”
Liberating words: Words on a page are not all of God: God is still speaking.
Challenging words: Yesterday’s Holy agenda is updating and re-booting: God is still speaking.
Comforting words: God is not silent; God is still speaking.
“God is still speaking” — if there is a God.
And how can we know there is a God if God is silent?
There were those who disputed the UCC slogan “God is still speaking” by claiming “Never put a comma where God has placed a period. God has spoken.”
If there was not a chapter 38, where God does speak again to Job, would God exist?
How would Job know?
How do we know that God exists when God is silent?
What does God sound like when God is speaking?
These are not esoteric questions for the intellectually minded, the theoretically focused or the theologically adept.
This is what was so scary about seminary learning for us: We were required to answer God questions with who we are — not with our intellect alone — and not even with our heads and our hearts — and, looking back, I think that work had to happen in community. That kind of growth experience can be only be had by looking each other in the eye when we dare to audaciously claim God’s existence — and then hearing “me, too.”
The paradox is that answering the question of God’s existence with who I am — from my experience — and naming that eternal reality as the Holy Other — changes my own existence.
Even that sounds a little woo-woo and “out there” doesn’t it?
It always happens that way. In this book (Bible) and in every story I’ve ever heard. How about you?
That’s what we do here, dear friends, and nowhere else. The agenda of our shared life is that our very identities are being formed by the Holy Other as we do — in our own ways — together — what Job did with his friends and his wife: Job brought his real self into their presence and into the presence of God — even when God was silent — and did his best to re-member the God that had been real the day before. And God spoke. Again.
I have been urged — encouraged — to put the dots close together on this thing we do and how we are working together to do that thing we do called “church.” So here’s how this plays out in our life together here (as we organize our ministry into teams):
We GATHER TO WORSHP — the focus is on God — re-membering God that has been real before — revealed to us the day before — or longer ago — we re-member — God in ritual, in song, in story, in hugs, in all the things we do when we gather.
We CREATE COMMUNITY — where we re-member that God is relational — God relating to us and us relating to one another — and then to the world. We embody that community together and it’s in that community that our God stories get told and made real all over again.
We GROW and LEARN and CHANGE together here — new information from Scripture, from books, programs, speakers — and asking tough questions together — ever deeper in wisdom and more courageous — becoming more adept at hearing God speak.
We GO to SERVE — God’s mission has become our mission — individually, in groups, sometimes as a congregation. Someone out there is longing to hear God still speaking in a word of encouragement, in an act of forgiveness, in a labor of love.
This is our Holy work. To worship, relate, grow, serve.
The message itself never changes. God is still speaking IS the message.
If God IS still speaking, the methods will change.
If God IS still speaking, the programs will change.
If God IS still speaking, the players will change.
The message is eternally the same.
The message is all through the Bible.
The message all through church history.
The message all through this church’s history.
The message all through our lives.
The message: God is still speaking.
That is, if there IS a God.
How do you know God exists?
And, if God is still speaking — to us — what then?