Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Wager: Sermon on Job 31:35-37, 38: 1-11, 42: 1-6, 10-17

William Blake: God Answers Job Out of the Whirlwind

Scripture can be found here...

I am a swimmer. And these days I do my swimming at the downtown YMCA, but I grew up swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t like swimming in a pool. The water in a pool is clear and the pool is marked with wide lines down its length, so that you can be a good neighbor and stay in your own lane as you swim your laps. The ocean is turbulent, and the turbulence kicks up the sand that makes up the ocean floor. There are no guidelines. The times I have endeavored to swim straight out into the water, on a course perpendicular to the coastline, I have found that I usually end up on a wide diagonal from my starting point—thanks to the waves and the current. And, except for the occasional big splash when someone jumps or dives in, there aren’t usually waves in a pool. In the ocean, the waves are part of what makes it both fun and scary: enormous waves can lift you and throw you around. Fun. They can also swamp you and smash you into the ocean floor. Scary.

Also: in the pool, you always know exactly where the lifeguard is. Help is no more than about thirty yards away. If you are swimming in the ocean you can very quickly get yourself a significant distance from help. By the time people get into trouble help can be a quarter of a mile away. For the swimmer, a quarter of a mile means the help is all but invisible to you… you have no idea where the help is.

I lift my eyes to the hills… from where will my help come?

Job is a swimmer, navigating the sea of life, and for more than thirty chapters of the book that bears his name, he has been calling for help. The seas he is swimming in have been dangerously rough—he has been slammed around by waves that have caused the destruction of nearly everything he holds dear. He has been trying to keep his head above water while calling out. So far, he hasn’t heard a sound in return.

But Job is staking his life on this hope: that help is out there. That God is out there. That somewhere, beyond his sight, God—all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing—stands ready to answer his call.

One of the few books that actually stayed with me from my days as a philosophy major in college was Pensées by Blaise Pascal. (Pensées means “Thoughts”). Pascal was one of those renaissance men who excelled in just about everything—he was known, among other things, as a mathematician, an inventor, and a Christian philosopher. Pensées falls into that last category.

Probably the most famous moment in Pensées is a passage known as “the wager.” It goes something like this: Either God exists, or God does not exist. And every person bets their life on one or the other of these possibilities. And we have to make the wager—it’s not optional. We have to decide. For Pascal, the question is: what is the potential benefit and loss to each bet?  He writes, “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Pascal does a quick cost-benefit analysis of faith. And his conclusion is that the upside of believing far outweighs the upside of not believing.

Job has made that wager. He has staked his life on his faith that God is out there, ready to answer his call, to respond to his questions, to hear his cries.

Before she left for college, my daughter Joan helpfully clarified the problem for me, as it was outlined in one of her religion classes. People of faith hold to three basic things about God: God is all-powerful, God is all-knowing, and God is all-good. The problem of suffering seems to challenge our ability to hold all three of these together. We can hold to any two of them, and it all makes sense. For example, if God were all-knowing and all-good, but not all powerful, we would simply understand that God can’t prevent suffering. If God were all-good and all-powerful, but not all-knowing, we would assume God didn’t realize what suffering was taking place. If God were all knowing and all-powerful, but not all-good… it would be a terrible realization, but one that we could comprehend. But our problem and the problem as outlined in Job’s story, is that we—and Job—firmly want to hold on to all three of these attributes. We won’t let any of them go, so our only hope is to get to see God face to face, so that we can ask our questions directly.  Our only hope is that God will show up and provide us with some answers.

And God finally does show up. Job finally has the face-to-face contact he has been longing for. But God has no answers for Job. God has only questions.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding… Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? ~Job 38:4, 8-11

There are a few different ways we can look at this response. To stay with the ocean swimming analogy, there is something about this that feels a little like trying to reason the swimmer out of drowning. But you could also look at it this way: instead of throwing him a rope, the rescuer has cast out a net and lifted the swimmer right out of the water. Now, instead of drowning in the violent waves, the swimmer is looking down at them.

God is trying to give Job a different perspective. Job is bogged down—he is drowning—in the sorrow of his losses. God tries to take him out of his one little life, and show him the entire cosmos. Rather than explaining the problem of suffering, God directs Job’s attention elsewhere. God gives Job the tiniest taste of what it is to be in God’s shoes—because, after all, even a few chapters of Divine poetry about the wonders of creation don’t actually capture the wonders of creation. God holds the divine Macro side by side with Job’s Micro.

As I have shared here before, I was in New York City, at the beginning of my second year of seminary, on 9/11/2001. Wherever you were in this country, that was a terrible day, a fearful day, and a day of great pain and loss. And we all respond to loss in our own individual ways. I had just taken a full year of Hebrew, and for some crazy reason I decided to pray the mourner’s Kaddish. The Kaddish is a Hebrew prayer, prayed by devout Jews every day for one full year following a death—usually a very close death, like the death of a parent. I decided to pray it for all those who had died, and to pray it for a full year.

So, I went online—Judaism 101 is a great website for such things!—and I found the Kaddish, in both English and Hebrew. I was shocked. I had expected a prayer of mourning. I had expected a prayer of sorrow and loss, a prayer calling out to God for comfort. Instead, I found a prayer of unabashed praise of God, in all God’s goodness and glory.

Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba, Amein,… it begins

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified, Amen,
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now say: Amen.[i]

Judaism 101 explains:

After a great loss like the death of a parent, you might expect a person to lose faith in G-d, or to cry out against G-d's injustice. Instead, Judaism requires a mourner to stand up every day, publicly… and reaffirm faith in G-d despite this loss.[ii]

God’s response to Job is to invite Job into what will become one of the most enduring and powerful practices in Judaism: The wholehearted praise of God, and recognition of God’s greatness, even in the face of terrible loss.

Biblical scholars believe that the last chapter of the book of Job is a later addition, a framing device, added along with the opening section—essentially, everything in your bible that is not in poetic form. In this later-added section, God restores “all that was lost” to Job. But we know that God doesn’t actually restore all that was lost, because what Job lost cannot be measured in numbers—this many herds, that many children. Job’s loss is unquantifiable. The idea that giving Job more children will make it all better is a little shocking to parents everywhere who know what that loss feels like. We are left…unsatisfied.

But we are not left alone.

The book of Job does not explain God to us, because God leaves much unexplained. But it provides a faithful look at this problem of suffering, of bad things happening to good people.

We see Job’s faithfulness: He clings steadfastly to his trust in a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and yes, all-good and loving.

We see Job’s faithfulness: He speaks to God honestly and directly, he calls out in pain and anger. He is a model for us.

We see Job’s faithfulness, even in the weird post-script, as he dares to live and to love again, even after the terrible losses he has endured.

We so Job’s faithfulness, as one scholar put it, as he “[delights] in a world that is wild and beautiful and risky, trusting in the faithful God who created and still sustains that world.”[iii]

In the end, Job still stakes his life on God, still places his bets on God’s goodness and trustworthiness. In the end, Job invites us to do the same.

So, along with Job, along with everyone who has suffered, everyone who has been buffeted and tossed about by the crashing waves of life, everyone who has cried out to God, I invite you to pray with me the mourner’s Kaddish. I invite you to affirm with me the greatness and goodness of God, who would hardly be God if we could fully understand all God’s works and ways.

May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One:
Blessed is He,
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now say: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven
and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: Amen.[iv]

[i] “Mourner’s Kaddish,” Judaism 101,
[ii] “Life, Death and Mourning,” In keeping with Jewish custom, this website is very cautious in writing out the name of God, and here uses the abbreviation “G-d.”
[iii] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Notes for a six-week preaching series on Job,” Working Preacher,
[iv] “Mourner’s Kaddish,” op. cit.

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