What you hear at church should sound simultaneously strange and familiar.
August 28, 2011
Earthquakes and hurricanes
Best comment I heard all week: “Earthquake…hurricane…if we start seeing locusts, I’m going to think God is trying to tell us something.”
God is always trying to tell us something.
This morning’s sermon is the final one in a series of sermons on the attributes of God. We have been asking, “What is God like?” We should never ask questions like that as theoretical curiosities. Life is our context for pursuing God.
We began in June by saying that God is “knowable” – but immediately clarified that this does not mean God is “predictable.”
An earthquake is knowable. You can study earthquakes and learn about fault lines, seismic waves, and the Richter scale. But earthquakes are anything but predictable in terms of when or where they will shake the ground under your feet.
A hurricane is knowable, from eyewalls to storm surges to historic storms – Katrina, Tip, and Camille. But it is ultimately not predictable, in terms of exactly when or where it will hit land, whether it will strengthen or weaken as it moves through open water or across the land, or how strong and devastating its winds and floods will be.
God is knowable. He is not predictable. I like “unfathomable” as a description for God. The ocean is unfathomable to the average boater. You can know something about the water below you, but its depths are beyond exploration. The universe is unfathomable. You can know something about some of the stars, but it is beyond your understanding.
You can know God – what he chooses to reveal of himself and even that part of him that he places in you as his “image” (likeness). But God is unfathomable. You cannot plumb the depths.
To flesh that out, let’s turn to today’s two Scripture readings.
God in the dock
The first reading, for me anyway, is a perfect example of God’s unfathomableness. It comes toward the end of the book of Job, whose story you probably know.
Job is a good man – a family man, a successful businessman, a man of integrity, consistency, and morality. If you inquire in the land of Uz for the name of a model human being, everyone will say Job.
Satan dares God to let Job be tested. The only reason Job is good, Satan accuses, is because he is blessed. If you take away his stuff, if you rob him of his family, if he loses his health, he will curse God and choose evil. God gives Satan permission, in a two-step process, to take everything from Job except his life, to which he painfully and regretfully clings.
As far as we know, Job never learns anything about that unseen and unheard dialogue between God and Satan. All he knows is his misery. He is left with three friends, then one more, to ponder the meaning of life and suffering. His friends have good theology. Their arguments are rational. God is good, and God is just. If you do well, you are rewarded. If you are suffering, you deserve it. Job is being punished for some secret sin. If he would admit it, he would rise from the ash heap to prosperity. Job responds that he is innocent. Soon Job tires of defending God and begins to demand an audience with him.
Job’s story reminds me of a classic paragraph from C. S. Lewis, one of twentieth century Christianity’s greatest thinkers and communicators.
The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. (BT comment: Job’s story illustrates this was not always the case, but hear Lewis’ point.) For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge; God is in the dock (defendants’ box). Man is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defence for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God in the Dock. (God In the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, 244).
Paul Young’s 2007 novel, The Shack, includes a marvelous chapter where the lead character, Mack, who has experienced a “great sadness” in his life (the kidnapping, rape, and murder of his young daughter), has an opportunity to “judge” God for letting it happen. It’s worth a re-read if you have the book. If you’ve never read it, especially if you struggle with God’s character in the face of suffering, pick it up.
Job is in his own shack in chapter 38. Picture him worn out, scraping pus sores with broken pottery, sitting in misery in an ash heap while three of his best friends and one amateur theologian lecture him on what they absolutely know to be true of God. Their theology makes too much sense. That should be a warning to us. They do not take their argument further to admit, “God is unfathomable.”
In that setting, God finally appears. This is the part of the story that is unfathomable for me. With everything I know of God, I know exactly what he should say. He should say, “Job, I’m sorry you’ve had to endure this. But you need to know that Satan declared you only honor me because I bless you. I told him you were wrong. I defended you. It wouldn’t have made my point if I had told you about that conversation. I had to let you suffer to validate your faith. But as you suffered, Job, I grieved. I love you because I made you. My heart burst with pain to see you in your physical and spiritual agony. But now I’m going to make it up to you.”
God says no such thing. God explains nothing. God does not affirm, does not empathize, does not encourage. God simply reverses the role that Job has assumed, and puts Job back in the Dock while God takes the Bench. A storm arises – shall we say a hurricane? From that storm God begins to fire questions at Job – the grieving, hurting, beaten down sufferer: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me.” Unfathomable.
God gets downright sarcastic in the following verses as he speaks of the earth’s foundations and the sea’s boundaries. “Where were you when I made the earth? Tell me if you understand?” Why must God badger Job with a hurricane of questions?
Of course, we moderns know the earth doesn’t have “foundations.” And we know about the hundreds of millions of years of continental shift that created mountains and ocean floors. We know so much more than Job, more than the Bible, more than God. (Imagine God’s sarcasm today if we voiced those words to him.)
The phrase that grabs my attention more than any other in this passage is “words without knowledge” (1). As a person who speaks a lot of words in public, I find it almost frightening to ask whether I have enough knowledge to back up my words.
Is that not the point of Job’s story? The point is not that God and Satan are in a tug-of-war over each of us; it’s that there is much we do not know.
Think of Job as Lesson One in the Bible’s teachings on suffering. It’s the primer. Most scholars believe Job is the oldest story in the Bible – older even than the story of Abraham. Lesson One is that the God who gave the earth its foundation and the ocean its boundaries – so that even when hurricanes and tsunamis strike the sea still knows its place and returns to it – that God deserves the benefit of my doubt in any situation.
Is that the Bible’s only lesson on suffering? Of course not. But every subsequent lesson builds on that one, including the Ultimate Lesson – that God himself chose to identify with our suffering in Jesus Christ so that we would never think him heartless or removed from our pain.
The mystery of God
Revelation 10, today’s other Scripture text, offers another angle on the unfathomable God. The name of the last book of the Bible is “Revelation,” which means, “unveiling.” The book’s purpose is to uncover God’s plans during a time of great suffering for the church.
Revelation reveals much, though not as much, in my view, as some believe it reveals. Timelines and charts of Bible “prophecy” that unfold the end of time with precision are not what Revelation is about.
Even those who would differ with me on that point must come to chapter 10 and admit Revelation doesn’t tell us everything about the end. Seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls are each explained. But not the seven thunders.
In Revelation 10 a colossal angel, colorful as a rainbow and bright as the sun, appears with one foot planted on land and the other on the sea. The angel roars like a lion as seven thunders “speak” – presumably uttering more judgments comparable to the seals, trumpets, and bowls – earthquakes, floods, plagues, and more.
John is told to hold his pen – not to write what he has heard. This strikes me as a powerful symbol that God is unfathomable. This is only a small piece of what we cannot know.
The angel adds that “the mystery of God will be accomplished” (7). The New Testament uses the word “mystery” not in the sense of something unknown, but as a way of describing what only God can think up, and only God can make known.
The “mystery of God” is a synonym-phrase for “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” As I said in an earlier sermon, “You can’t make this stuff up.” The gospel – that God redeems the world by sharing its suffering – is a “mystery” only God could conceive of and reveal. The promise of the book of Revelation is that it will be finally revealed and fulfilled. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, we will know fully even as we are fully known.
We come to the close of this series of sermons on God’s attributes – what we know of him. I was humbled to start it; I am more humbled as we close. I don’t know that I’ve said anything new. Maybe that’s a good thing.
What you hear at church should sound simultaneously strange and familiar.
It should sound strange because it should not sound like the messages you are bombarded with the rest of the week. I’m not doing my job if I simply take the prevailing wisdom of the world and repackage it interspersed with Bible verses. The world has lots of ideas about God contrary to his self-revelation – “God helps those who help themselves,” for example, or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” (Tell that one to Job.) Pop theology should be displaced by solid biblical understanding.
What I say should also sound familiar. To invent some new angle on the mysteries of life or claim unique insight into the Bible is the stuff of cults. The “mystery of God” has been revealed, and my job is that of a reminder. In this series of sermons on God’s attributes, I have not said anything that hasn’t been said by many others before me, most of whom said it better than I can. God is knowable, but he is not tamable, predictable, or exhaustible.
What shall we take with us? For those of you who (like me) prefer some summary bullet points, here they are.
First, embrace God’s complexity. You and I live our lives with an understanding of God unworthy of him. As J. B. Phillips famously said, “Your God is too small.” Your God is too much like you. Your God was shaped by your parents and your early environment. Your God was shaped by your culture. Even if you have studied the Bible or theology, the way you read the Bible or ponder theology was probably shaped by your parents and your culture.
A series of summer sermons cannot correct this problem. We cannot study a few Bible stories and do a little theology to say with confidence, “I get God.”
Quite the opposite. The point of these sermons is that we understand more clearly that we do not understand. We can understand some things about God. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. God is merciful and just. God is infinite in power, wisdom, and knowledge; he is everywhere present. We will not join postmoderns who insist nothing can be known about God.
But we will also not join the rationalists, Christian or otherwise, who reduce God to a theological outline. We embrace God’s paradoxes, his infinities, and his depth. We stand in awe and worship. We will not seek or claim to fully grasp or predict him.
Second, choose your evidence. I suppose all of us “judge” God. But on what evidence? You can judge him by earthquakes and hurricanes. You can judge him by the disappointments in your own life. You can even judge him by his silence or what you perceive as his distance or indifference. You can judge him by the unchecked freedom he gave humans – freedom even to harm and destroy others.
If you’re going to judge God, look at all the evidence. Judge him by sunrises and sunsets. Judge him by the smile of a newborn. Judge him the taste of a peach ice cream cone or the wonder of a hug. Judge by the number of days we live in peace without disasters or wars. Judge him by the compassion of his people. Judge him by the foundations of the earth and the boundaries of the ocean. Judge him by the joy of life itself. Judge him by his Word that comforts and exhorts. Judge him by Jesus – his teaching, his life, his death for our sins, his resurrection. Choose your evidence.
Finally, invest time in knowing God. This personal knowledge of God is especially critical in times of suffering and difficulty. But those are also the hardest times to invest yourself in Christian disciplines, so chooses the disciplines in periods of stability and prosperity. Learn to pray, choose Christian community, study the Scriptures – so that you will know the heart of God. Then you’ll be more prepared to face suffering – your own or that of others.
Have you ever noticed that the more knowledge you have of a person, the more they get the benefit of the doubt? If you criticize the governor of New Jersey or a businessman from Hong Kong for poor decisions, I am likely to agree with you. But if you criticize my wife, my children, or my staff – I will stand up for them because I know them, I know their heart, I know their story. Even if their flaws are evident or their actions mysterious – they get the benefit of the doubt.
When you get to know God better, you trust him more. Those who remain at the fringes of Christian community, never fully investing themselves in the body of Christ or worship or personal disciplines – they’re the ones most likely to allow earthquakes and hurricanes to disturb the core of their faith.
Don’t let that be said of you. Take the time to know God. When you do, you will look into the face and into the heart of the One who made you, who weeps with you in your pain, who loved you so much that he gave his Son to die in your place, who longs for your heart to be connected to his. That’s what it means to know God. Amen.