“Theology 401: Going to the Zoo”- Room to Breathe Sermon Series
“Theology 401: Going to the Zoo”
Job 38 & 39
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
October 17, 2021
Our son, Leo, is in kindergarten, and he is working on his numbers.
5+4. He likes to use his fingers. Nine. 4+3. Seven. He delights in the moment when he figures out how the two numbers together land on just this one, correct number.
And truth be told, I delight in it as well. I love seeing him learn, but also, there is part of me that just loves seeing some part of the universe that makes sense.
- No gray areas.
- No caveats.
- No this side and that side.
- No uncertain odds about how it will or won’t work out…it’s just this plus this = this.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have more of such clarity?
That’s one reason I think that many – rightly – love the Book of Proverbs because it is a book in the Bible that gives some equations….
- “No ill befalls the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.” (Do good = no ill; do bad = troubles)
- Or…“The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty,”
Essentially, generally…”If you do this…then this is where it leads.” But what happens when the equation fails? When good work plus diligent planning do not equal abundance? We do not turn as readily to books like Job, but Job is all about life when the equations fail.
You may recall… Job is a righteous man. A man who follows God, who fears the Lord. And he has much. He is man of means. And then one day enemy forces come and take all of Job’s oxen and donkeys and then kill some of Job’s servants all while a fire breaks out and kills still other servants and the sheep. In one fell swoop lives are lost and his entire business collapses.
That same day a great wind strikes Job’s house and killed all of Job’s children.
Shortly thereafter Job contracts leprosy.
Job is emblematic of that question that gets asked in every generation, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Not perfect people, not sinless…but certainly people trying to do the right thing.
There is a lot going on in the book of Job that we simply can’t get to this morning, but suffice it to say, Job longs to hear directly from God about Job’s unjust suffering and about the unjust suffering he sees in the world (all the places he has experienced the equation fail miserably).
And in chapter 38, fairly late into this lengthy book, God responds to Job.
And we will be looking at some of the reading you heard from chapter 38 as well as a couple of parts from chapters 38 and 39 that were not read aloud but are part of this whole, extended responses from God where God addresses the weighty questions of suffering, tragedy, pain.
Not directly. Not by answering all of Job’s questions.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
“Or who stretched the line upon it? The measure line for designing the earth.”
Rather abruptly, Job is taken from his suffering and questions about his suffering to a consideration of the very foundations of creation.
And there God is speaking of God’s self in terms of a master builder who carefully “determines” the measurements of earth’s foundation and surveys and traces the lines just so.
Who among us has known a confident engineer or contractor? The kind who knows their measurements, trusts their precision…they know they are not wrong. God speaks as one like that – God’s math has accounted for the biggest and smallest details of the blueprint.
Then God moves from the foundation of the earth to the sea – in the ancient world the sea was representative of chaotic forces of evil hostile to life.
“who knit the sea together behind doors who brought it forth gushing from the womb… and prescribed bounds for it, set bars and doors and said Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” (8; 10-11)
God speaks of God’s self as one who knit the sea and then as a midwife was there to bring forth the sea…and then set its limits. “Job, I am in total control of the sea who is like a babe to me.”
God then has Job consider the middle of nowhere desert land where there are no people at all – and God points out how the rains that fall upon this vast area that no one even sees or even considers…and yet God has remained mindful of that which is not even on our radar.
“What do you make of that, Job?”
No answers to suffering. Not even really addressing the suffering in a way that may well sound callous…but what is given invites a reframing of reality.
“If I have been this precise about creation, and this attentive even to the unknown or forsaken places…what might that mean for this suffering?”
Then in Job chapter 39, God takes this tour of creation from the grand and expansive realities of creation down to the details – the deer, the donkey, the ox, the horse…the ostrich. Did you know the ostrich gets 6 full verses of consideration by God as Job is in the midst of unparalleled suffering?
In particular, God points to the oddity of this creature whose wings flap wildly and cannot fly. And yet, even though it cannot fly which would seem to be so fundamental to being a bird… “But when it spreads its feathers and runs, it laughs at the horse and its rider.” For ostrich can outrun the great horse.
The ostrich may appear to have been overlooked, handicapped, wronged…but what about the paradox that makes it faster even than the most majestic of animals? “And does such paradoxical observation hold true anywhere else in reality, Job?” is at least one question that hides behind such observation.
God continues with the theme of birds.
“How does the eagle know to nest on high in just the right spot? How does the eagle spy its prey from afar and its young ones know to get there and “suck up blood where the slain are” as verse 30 puts it. Job, how do they know?
And…implied: “Job, is it possible that even in death, even when one is slain… there is a feeding of life happening?”
The creation tour continues, and we do not have time to consider most of it, but suffice it to say – God’s tack in response to suffering is strange at best and perhaps offensive at worst. “God, deal with the questions. If you are going to give Job a tour, shouldn’t you be stopping off at some of the great seminaries and universities that Job might be able to mine the depths of knowledge to know the why and wherefore of suffering? Should not you take him among the great philosophers and scribes and rabbis?!”
“Grade school children take field trips to the zoo; class trips to the park. Does not Job, do not we deserve more of an explanation amid what we are going through?”
I love how the Presbyterian minister and writer Frederick Buechner observed how many of us are prone to think about God’s approach in the book of Job. He says, “One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.”
We are sometimes sure that the deepest and most probing questions and pains and problems need the highest theological abilities, the deepest depths of knowledge, the learned of the learned and wisest of wisest present for us to have any hope…
…and God thinks, “actually, if you are in the midst of great suffering or carrying the suffering of another…perhaps it would be a gift if you would just walk among God’s handiwork for awhile and note the complexity, the precision, the oddity, the beauty,
the rhythms of life and death and life…”
What if a field trip among creation was God’s highest level theology class? Specially formatted for those weighed down by any number of ways that the equation has failed.
And what if in walking that class – answers never came? But instead, what if amid creation something began to re-open within? A spacious place was made… A sense of trust or even a glimmer of hope renewed – as it eventually does for Job?
To be sure…there is an unexpectedness to this tact; it risks being received as outright foolishness in light of the gravity of Job’s pain.
And, yet, in some ways foreshadows still a greater surprise, a greater foolishness of God’s. Because God’s clearest response to the problem of suffering and evil and tragedy is that God comes among us as Jesus. And he is righteous, but unlike Job, he is entirely righteous. Utterly sinless. Utterly powerful. He is God in perfection and strength and love. And he lets the Proverbs equation fail.
Jesus is nailed upon a cross by way of an unjust trial.
He takes upon
- all measure of the world’s suffering,
- all measure of evil,
- all measure of tragedy.
On the cross, he bears every form of pain and sin and even death.
“How is that an answer to my suffering? To our suffering? That does not tell me why this has happened? Why we are going through this?”
Jesus’s ultimate answer to all suffering and evil is not to explain it but to do what must seem so foolish – To be utterly righteous and good and to choose to experience the full depth of our suffering and tragedy. God’s deepest wisdom is to come alongside us in the darkness.
And…with this God, there is always, somehow, three days later, a rising of the kind that we could never have thought to ask for or even imagine. Or, as the eagle’s routine proclaims, “With this God, even in death… there is a feeding of life happening.”
Dare we trust that? Have we known this truth?
I have shared before how my parents divorced when I was 16. A very painful season of life, all the more so because it seemed we generally did things the right way – we went to church, we prayed, we read our Bibles, we tried to love God and love our neighbor as individuals and as a family. And good things happen to good people who aren’t perfect but are diligent and faithful. Right?
It was the first time I felt the equation totally fail, and I was devastated.
And I had a good friend from church and school named David. And his parents had this lodge about 2 hours outside of Cincinnati in the farmlands of Kentucky.
And since we had just learned to drive, we’d get to that lodge every few months. We’d build a fire outside, cook up our dinner, hang out, talk or not talk – we’d discuss the divorce or not.
And the truth is, I cannot remember many of the words we shared in those hours of reflection. I can barely remember the lodge itself – the look or the layout.
I remember two things:
- I remember how dark it was.
- And I remember how bright it was.
Far removed from the urban-suburban realm… have you ever seen the night sky alight with a blanket of stars? And my friend – the gift of an empathizing presence who offered no explanations, but bore my suffering. And that brightness…it carried…
David’s friendship was an instrumental reason I eventually chose Davidson College, where he also went. It was an instrumental reason I chose to take a class called “Letters and Thoughts of Paul” my freshman year because I wanted to learn more about this God. And it was in that class that I met a young woman named, Michelle – with whom I have now been married for 17 years.
None of this directly answers the questions and pain around the divorce, and no amount of any of our stories answers the cries and hurts and failed equations we have known, we have lived, we have seen.
What we are assured is that with our God,
- the barren places not even on our radar right now are getting rain.
- The overlooked and wronged are blessed with more strength than we realize.
- And there is a feeding in death.
And sometimes these strange truths that most of the time do not seem to add up in the least are best seen afresh with a trip to God’s creation. Might a hike be in order this week?
Or, the other place we can always go (and perhaps it is the reason we are here today) – we can always go again before the center of God’s foolishness where there is there is
- rain in the most barren place.
- The overlooked and wronged are stronger than we may realize.
- And there is a feeding in death.