"Where Were You?"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 10/21/2018



Job 28:1-7, 34-41
“Where Were You?”
October 14, 2018
            Like Job, we want reasons for things.  We want to know why things happen as they do.  If something is going to play out in a way that we would call unfair or unjust, we want an explanation.  Occasionally, we are given a reason, and we might or might not like it.  But beyond being given a reason, God gives something far more precious, which is wisdom, and wisdom helps us to know our place in the world.
            I’m about to tell you a long story, most of which will be background, but it does have a point, so settle in.
            In the summer of 1988, I was one of five student chaplains at what was then the Delaware State Hospital, just south of Wilmington.  Two of us were from Pennsylvania, two were from New Jersey, and one lived just down the road from the hospital itself.  The way that our work was divided, there was one person who covered the intake unit on weekends and took the overnight shift, while the rest of us had separate units where we visited and provided pastoral care.  The hospital had a chapel with Sunday morning services, which we shared, and on Monday mornings when we met, whoever was working on their sermon for the coming week would present their text and an outline for discussion.
            The week in question, the preacher was going to be a guy named George, whose denominational background was Reformed Episcopal.  That meant that he was about as serious a Calvinist as anyone has ever been.  He believed very sincerely and wholeheartedly in predestination and that God exercises his absolute sovereignty and control in all things at all times.
            The sermon review session was due to start at 8:30, but by 8:15 everyone except George was there, and we got talking.  Somebody asked Jim, the weekend intake chaplain, how things had gone.  He said that on Friday afternoon around five or six o’clock the police had had to talk someone down from jumping off the Delaware Memorial Bridge, which they did successfully, but it was a complicated situation and there was a lot of follow-up.  Other than that, nothing particularly unusual had happened.  Then there was some more small talk until George came in, right at 8:30, and handed us each a copy of his outline to look over.  Our supervisor got the conversation going when he asked George to talk about the sermon, which was on having patience.
            George launched into his opening example, which was about how he had needed to get home on Friday and got stuck in traffic approaching the Delaware Memorial Bridge.  He described how he became more and more frustrated as he sat there, going nowhere.  The only part of his car moving was the needle on the gas gauge, which crept closer and closer to “Empty”, and he eventually was able to move toward an exit and get to a gas station, but it took forever and he was afraid the whole time that he was going to stall out.  When he did fill the tank, he had almost reached his boiling point, and was trying to get back into the traffic jam somehow when someone cut him off and he lost it and started screaming and leaning on his horn and doing the whole road-rage bit.
            At that moment, he said, the Lord spoke to his heart, and he was convicted in his spirit for having so little patience and so much anger.  He went on to say that, on reflection, however, he had become grateful that the Lord had chosen to teach him a lesson that he needed to learn, placing him there in that situation.
            So the remaining four of us pushed him on that.  We got him to say that God, in his rule over all things, and his particular care for his chosen elect (specifically, George), had seen to it that he would be delayed and frustrated and that the other drivers’ hearts would be hardened to him, so that, like Job, he would learn patience.
            After this went on for longer than it should have, the supervisor looked at the overnight guy and said, “Jim, why don’t you just tell him?”
            Jim said simply, “There was a jumper on the bridge.”
            George just said, “What?”
            “Yeah, they brought him in on Friday.  The police had to block off traffic to get to him.”
            I don’t remember how or if George changed his sermon after that but what I take away from the episode that I still remember thirty years later is that I may have problems or challenges, and things happen all the time that make life harder or more complicated and confusing and (guess what?) they have absolutely nothing to do with me.  Just because something affects me doesn’t mean that I am necessarily a part of some chain of cause and effect in the wider scope.  The world is bigger than me, and God is bigger than the world.
            Job demanded an explanation from God of what had happened to him.  He wasn’t going to get one.  But God did Job the courtesy of telling him so, and giving him a glimpse of where he fit into the scheme of the universe.  It seems appropriate that God spoke to him out of a whirlwind, an unseen force that picks up the dust that we are made of and to which we return, and spins it around and around, tossing it up into the air until it lands who-knows-where again, because God shakes up our self-obsessed beings and spins us around to look beyond ourselves at the whole breadth of creation and the huge range of things we not only do not but cannot understand, saying, “Look at all of this.  Take in all that is happening, all at once, all across time and space.  Consider the drama, the joy, and the sorrow of all things.”
            Hear how the Bible tells it:
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 
‘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. 

‘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? 
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? 

‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
   so that a flood of waters may cover you? 
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
   and say to you, “Here we are”? 
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
   or given understanding to the mind? 
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
   Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 
when the dust runs into a mass
   and the clods cling together? 

‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
   or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 
when they crouch in their dens,
   or lie in wait in their covert? 
Who provides for the raven its prey,
   when its young ones cry to God,
   and wander about for lack of food?’” 
[Job 38:1-7, 34-41]
This is only a small part of the speech where God shows Job the wonders of nature, putting before him the whole of the universe, and asking Job again and again to see himself more clearly.
            We are creatures, beloved by God, part of his immense project.  We see only what is before us or around us.  But God beholds it all at once.  We cannot number the clouds, but God numbers the hairs on our heads, said Jesus, and cares for what happens to a sparrow.  Our purpose is not to understand, although to try to understand is part of who we are.  Our purpose is to be loved by God and to return that love, with heart and soul and mind and strength.  In the end (and I’ll talk about that next week) Job gets that. 
            Last week I read a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet who could, like Job, cried out to God from the dark and even tormented places of his soul.  Yet when he was able to lift his eyes to the world around him, he was able to write this:[1]
“Glory be to God for dappled things –
            For skies of couple-colour as a brindled cow;
                        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
            Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow and plough;
                        And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things, counter, original, spare, strange;
            Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
                        With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                        Praise him.”

[1] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Pied Beauty”.
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