September 15 2019
Job 39: 1-12, 26-30
What Do We Know?
Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church
This morning’s scripture reading comes to us from the Book of Job, one of the most famous and most ancient stories we have inherited addressing the question of human suffering. In fact, this story is so ancient, that although it’s thought it was first recorded about 3,000 years ago, similar stories have been said to have existed for over 5,000 years. Humanity has been grappling with the question of suffering and particularly the question of why bad things happen to good people, for a very, very long time.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the story of Job, the story begins with conversation between God and Satan in which God encourages Satan to have a go at Job to see if Job will remain faithful to God even under tragic circumstances. Bit by bit, Job begins to lose everything he ever held dear. First his animals die and his servants are killed. Then, all 10 of his children perish. If that isn’t enough, Job himself becomes afflicted with a debilitating skin disease. Adding insult to injury, Job’s so-called friends try to come up with explanations for his suffering. Surely he’s done something to deserve what has happened to him. They plead with him to scour his past looking for the misdeeds that have led to his sorrow. They even suggest that the severity of his suffering is an indicator that he probably deserves even greater punishment than he has received. But Job insists he has done no wrong.
As Job wrestles the question of why these horrible things have happened to him and to his family when he has been such a blameless and faithful man, as he wonders why wicked people prosper and the innocent suffer, he calls upon God over and over again to tell him the reason why this is happening. For 37 chapters of the story the voice of God is silent.
Finally, the poet who authored the book of Job has God respond. When that happens, it’s as if he has God saying “Job get out of your head. Quit trying to figure out things that you will never figure out and searching for answers that simply cannot be found. Get out of your head and get into your heart, into a place of reverence and awe.”
Whenever tragedy strikes, whenever something bad happens to good people, to us or to those we love and we are left feeling blindsided or bewildered, even when disasters occur that we know could have logically been prevented, there’s something in our human nature that makes us want to figure out why. It’s one of the ways our minds try to help us control the uncontrollable. If I can figure out why this happened maybe I can prevent it from ever happening again. If I can make sense out of what has happened then maybe I won’t feel quite so vulnerable.
We humans really don’t like to be out of control. That’s why a 5,000 year old story still has wisdom to offer us about suffering today. What it offers us is a reminder that when we are stuck in our suffering, trying to figure out the whys and the what fors of life, one of the things that can help us move forward is lifting our heads up out of the quicksand of our suffering and getting a look at the bigger picture.
In chapter 38, when the writer of the book of Job finally has God speak to Job out of the whirlwind, he has God re-direct Job’s focus away from his personal suffering and towards the vast array of life that surrounds him. When that happens, we are pointed towards truths about the nature of God and life itself embedded in the cosmos and in our kin, the animals and therefore embedded within us as well.
Consider the lionesse. Do you know how to instruct her to stalk her prey? What about the ravens. Was it you who figured out what diet suits the ravens best? Did you teach the hawk to fly or command the eagle to build her nest in the heights? No you didn’t did you? Because God made her so that she would know how to do that for herself.
Think about what we actually have discovered and what we actually do know about the natural world since the story of Job was written down thousands of years ago. For example, we now know that male seahorses carry and give birth to their young. The female seahorse transfers her eggs into a pouch on the belly of the male and he carries them around for about six weeks until he gives birth to the baby seahorses. How amazing is that?
About a dozen years ago, a zoologist at the Central Park zoo in New York city observed two male penguins pairing up. He watched them make a nest and take turns sitting on a rock just like the other penguin couples made nests for their eggs. He decided to see what would happen if he gave these two male penguins a real egg to sit on. So he brought them an egg and sure enough they took turns sitting on it until it hatched. When baby Tango was born, he became the first penguin in the zoo to have two daddys.
Our awareness of these and other realities doesn’t just elicit wonder and awe. It teaches us things about the nature of God and the created world. Observing the wild kingdom shows us that there is resiliency built into nature. Over and over again species have evolved and adapted to their environment. Science has taught us that there was a point in history when sea creatures grew legs that brought them up onto land and insects grew wings and learned how to fly. There are birds that have grown longer beaks over time to adapt to birdfeeders and reptiles living in the desert that have developed skin over time that “drinks” dew.
Of course we know also that many species have not been able to adapt to changes in our environment but a remarkable number have.
Considering even one type of animal illustrates the incredible diversity in which we have been created. There are 71 different types of domestic cats, 9 types of tigers, 7 types of leopards, 5 types of cougars, two main categories of lions and more. God has an amazing imagination. Why would we want to limit our own imaginations when it comes to dreaming up new solutions and seeking out new possibilities.
When we reach those moments when we think we have come to the edge of our knowing, observing and connecting with our animal kin can encourage us to keep reaching for more.
Many of us are familiar with J-pod, the resident orcas that live in our local waters. Last summer, the story of J35 drew international attention when she carried her dead calf for 17 days last summer in an act of mourning. The wild kingdom can even teach us about the presence of compassion and empathy in the natural world.
So, maybe like the animals, we too are more resilient than we often think we are. Perhaps we are more capable of adapting to new experiences both good ones and not so good ones. Maybe there are more possibilities in seemingly impossible situations than we think. Perhaps, if God so abundantly provides for the lioness and the raven and the hawk, when we find ourselves in need, we too will be compassionately and graciously provided for.
Our human centered thinking has created a myriad of problems for us and for our world over the years. Right now it is bringing us to an unprecedented crisis on our planet. If we don’t turn things around in the next 12 years scientists are predicting catastrophic changes to our environment.
The story of Job provides no truly satisfying answers for presence of suffering in our world. It gives no good reasons for why the wicked prosper and the blameless perish. It doesn’t help us understand why one person gets a life threatening illness and the next person doesn’t or what anyone ever did to deserve any of the challenges they have faced in life.
What it does is point us towards our connection with the living world. And in so doing, it redirects us to the mystery and awe in which we were all created and the power within us to thrive and to flourish, to find solutions to the problems we have created It reminds us of the wonder of creation itself and the inherent possibilities that have been embedded in our dna. It encourages us to pay attention to our kin the animals and to see in them the revelation of something bigger and beautiful at work in the world and a reason for working to save it.
There are many things we don’t know about the whys and what fors of our lives and the way things work in the world. There are many things we do know. I can’t help but wonder if we were to spend more time connecting with our animal relations on a regular basis, if we considered more often the way they mirror back to us the image of the divine in which we were all created, if when we found ourselves in those moments of inconsolable and disorienting suffering we might know with greater certainty in the midst of our unknowing, the wisdom of our Creator and the promise of sacred presence that accompanies us.