Why Bad Things Happen
Do you know what it’s like to have your mind blown?
Some of you may know that I studied physics at university. One of the great things about studying physics is that it gives you a nice orderly view of how the world works.
Maybe you remember high school physics. Falling objects, blocks sliding down inclined planes and all that. One simple equation plus the force of gravity can be used to calculate the motion of everything from basketballs to planets. And once you throw in additional forces like electricity and magnetism, you can explain just about anything. You get this nice, orderly, mechanical, deterministic way of understanding the world: a world in which there is cause and effect, there are universal laws, and if you have enough information about where things are and how they’re moving, you can calculate everything you need to know about the future. It’s pretty powerful, powerful enough to give us the industrial revolution, modern astronomy, electricity and telecommunications.
However, for a university physics student, all that wonderful certainty and order starts to fall apart when you arrive in second year, and they start to teach you quantum physics and relativity. Particles turn into waves. There is randomness and indeterminacy. Events with no cause. Electrons that can be in two places at the same time. You learn that if you can figure out just where a particle is, you can’t actually say anything about what it’s doing, so you have no idea what it will do next. You learn that events that are simultaneous for me don’t happen at the same time for you. Space starts to curve, time starts to dilate. My eyes start to dilate. My head starts to hurt. Day after day, second year quantum physics class was a mind blowing experience.
Years later, I was given the chance to teach the quantum physics revolution to first year university students, in a history of science course, without all the math. They would come in with their nice orderly views of how the world worked. I would explain to them how the world really is according to modern physics. And their eyes would dilate. They complained a lot about headaches. They would walk around in a bit of a daze. Because when someone changes your whole understanding of how the universe works, it’s a mind blowing experience.
That’s what happened to Job. Job thought he had the universe figured out. He was a confident man, wealthy, and deservedly so, because he was a righteous man, and God blesses the righteous and curses sinners. At least, that’s what he thought, and so did all his friends. Theirs was an orderly, somewhat mechanical, somewhat deterministic view of the world, with human beings right at the centre.
And then it all started to fall apart. Job experienced great suffering and loss. But he and his three friends still clung to their theology of retributive justice, to their worldview. Job was so confident that he was right and that his suffering was some sort of cosmic mistake that he wanted to find God, to reason with God, to make God understand that it was time for God to get back to playing according to the rules.
So Job calls out to God. He wants to argue his case. But he gets no response. He is in pain. His friends have condemned him. He experiences God as absent. He is in a dark place.
But he will not be silent. He goes on speaking, he speaks for a long time, what for Job must seem a desperately long time.
And then out of the whirlwind, God speaks.
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.”
Gird up your loins. Get ready for a challenge, Job. God is about to blow your mind.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements – surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
God answers Job in soaring poetry, a response that goes on for four chapters, much more than the few verses that we heard this morning. It is a poem that paints a picture of this beautiful, awesome world which God has created and in which God continues to be intimately involved. I encourage you when you get home today to pick up the book of Job and read the whole poem, chapters 38 to 41 – or better still, close your eyes and have someone else read it to you, and allow yourself to be immersed and overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the world that God has created.
There is a definite wow factor as we listen to God speak out of the whirlwind. The same God who sets the galaxies and the planets in their courses cares for the baby ravens who cry out for food. This universe of ours is huge, and our planet teems with life and beauty, and to contemplate it is a humbling experience.
But the picture that God paints is not of a cosmos that is comfortable and benign. This world that God has created is beautiful, yes, but it is also wild and dangerous. It is a universe that is not centred on humanity, it is much greater than that. And it is a world that is not entirely safe for humans. God speaks of the unruly seas, which symbolize chaos and danger. He takes Job past the gates of death and darkness. In this universe there is birth and death, the hunter and the prey. There are great monsters, the Behemoth on land and the Leviathan in the sea. This is an awesome, immense, wild, beautiful and dangerous place that God has created, and all of it is under God’s dominion, within the patterns and limits that God has set. There is indeed order in this creation, but it is not our order, it is God’s, and from our perspective it is a mystery that we will never completely understand, and it may look awfully unruly at times.
How does Job respond? He responds like a man whose limited way of understanding the world has been cracked wide open. When God gives him a first opportunity to speak, Job’s words are words of humility, which seems entirely appropriate. “I am of small account” says Job to the Lord. This is a moment for silence, and so Job lays his hand over his mouth, allowing God to continue.
“Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you and you declare to me.
Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?”
For a moment here it looks like God might actually answer Job’s initial complaint more directly, but instead the speech moves to a lengthy description of two primeval monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan, both of whom are mythical symbols of cosmic chaos, both of whom are unpredictable and dangerous.
“No one is so fierce as to dare to stir up Leviathan. Who can stand before it?
Who can confront it and be safe? Under the whole heaven, who?”
Certainly not Job! In fact, not one of us is safe. This wild and dangerous world that God has created is awesome and beautiful, but it is not all about us, and there is much we don’t understand. There is chaos and there is randomness, symbolized here by these mythic beasts. To live in this world is to be exposed to suffering and danger, as well as to be filled with awe and wonder. We are not in control. Sometimes we try to create the illusion of control by squeezing creation into our own limited worldviews, into our own frameworks of cause and effect – but our understandings will never be able to contain all of creation.
But we have been created to live in this universe, and to live in relationship with our Creator. Yes, it’s a risky business. Yes, there will be suffering. But when we do suffer, we can cry out to God, just like Job did. And God will respond.
When God has finished speaking, Job speaks once more. But this time it’s different. A transformation has taken place in Job. He is filled with awe and wonder, having heard “things too wonderful for me, things which I did not know.” But also, his relationship with God has been taken to another level. “Before I had heard of you, but now my eye sees you.” And so Job relents, he lets go of his old understanding, and he repents, totally changing his orientation towards God, creation and his own life.
And here, the transformation of Job is complete. His world has been broken open. He is still on the ash heap; he still has his sores, he still suffers. But he has moved from wanting to die, to crying out for justice, to being overwhelmed by awe and wonder, to the determination to live again. He will live in this wild world that God has created and he will do so in relationship with God. Job’s life may be a whirlwind, a whirlwind of suffering, uncertainty and injustice. But even in the whirlwind, God speaks and God is with us.
Because in the end, the really amazing thing about this story of Job is not the picture it paints of creation, it is the picture it paints of the relationship between the God who created it all and one, particular, misguided human being named Job who cried out to God in his pain. The marvellous thing about God’s great poem of creation is not just what God says in his answer to Job but the fact that God answers at all. The God who created the heavens and the earth cares about you and me.
So why do we suffer in this good creation created by a loving God? We may never have a fulsome answer, but the book of Job suggests that for reasons we may not ever understand, God created a beautiful and wild world which contains within it elements of randomness and chaos, the Behemoth and the Leviathan. There is a surprising parallel here with the story told by modern scientists of the randomness and chaos embedded in the sub-atomic world. Humanity as we know it owes its very existence to the random genetic mutations that allowed us to evolve into who we are today – but we know too that these same random mutations also created the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
Stuff happens, and sometimes there is suffering as a result. But we, along with Job, have been invited to live in this wild world in relationship with God, the one to whom we can cry out, the one who answers our cries, the one who cares for us, the one who draws near when we suffer, and the one who can redeem even our suffering and raise us once more to new life.
Homily Yr B P30 Oct 24 2021 Trinity
Readings: Job 38.1-7, 34-41; 41.1,19; 42.1-10; (Ps 34.1-8; Heb 7.23-28; Mark 10.46-52)
Image by Nicolo Ubalducci, Creative Commons