Download or listen to The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, “The Answer” (Job 38:4-18; Matthew 14:22-33)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The clouds have been gathering over Job’s head for 37 chapters. The clouds are gathering as Job loses everything. He loses his family, his livelihood, his possessions, his health. And then the clouds continue to gather as his friends come to “comfort” him. But they actually come to defend God. They come to take God’s side against Job. So they are convinced that Job must have done something terrible, something unspeakable, to be suffering like this. Because if good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people, what happens to God’s justice? To what can you cling for comfort in an unjust world if God Himself is not just? If Job is suffering like this, then he must have committed some corresponding crime. But Job is not satisfied with that sort of theology; he still has questions. He still wants to know what’s going on. If he has committed some sin, he wants God to reveal it to him so that he can confess it. See, Job is not like our modern atheists, throwing their questions and accusations at the unoccupied heavens. Job actually believes there is a God, and that this God can hear, and that He can answer. When his wife says, “Curse God and die, after all that He has done to you,” Job says, “Shall we accept only good from Yahweh, and not evil? No; Yahweh gives and Yahweh takes away. Blessed be the Name of Yahweh.” (Job 1:21; 2:9-10) But Job has been asking now for 37 chapters and there has been no answer. The clouds just continue to gather, and Job is heading toward a confrontation with God. And that confrontation will be either his death, or it will be his life.
The storm clouds are also gathering over the disciples. Actually, they’ve already gathered and broken over them. The disciples are in a boat in the middle of the sea in the middle of a storm. And suddenly the sea is not just a sea, but an almost demonic realm, where the wind and waves are actively opposing, beating, hammering their boat. The waves are trying to drag them down to their deaths. So we shouldn’t be surprised that when the disciples see Jesus walking toward them in the storm, they see a figure who might very well be demonic apparition, a phantasm, a ghost. It might be the representation of the sea, which is about to drown them all. They are headed toward a confrontation with this Figure, and it will be their death or it will be their life.
Sometimes the storm clouds gather over your head for no discernible reason. Things happen, sometimes one thing after another after another: you lose your spouse, you lose your family, you lose your livelihood, your job, you lose your house, you lose your loved ones to death. Whether it happens over a long time or a short time, the storm clouds gather. And when they do, it can feel like you’re headed toward a confrontation that will lead you to your death or lead into life. And we, like the disciples, often cannot see Jesus, but only a fearful presence. We may lose our heads in the terror of the unknown in the midst of crisis. We would like to think of ourselves like Peter at the beginning, stepping out of the boat in some sort of heroic faith. But we just can’t keep our eyes and ears on Jesus. And we, like Job, want to know why things are the way they are. Why does God allow it, or cause it? Why is your life, or your family, or your circumstances, like this? Did you do something to deserve it? What about a just God?
When we read the book of Job, when people in our world read the book of Job, we can take a sort of guilty pleasure in the first 37 chapters. We like how Job questions God, how he accuses God of mismanagement of His world. We know exactly those sorts of feelings. We like the justified anger, and the justified doubt, and the justified despair. We are very comfortable with God at the defense table, as we question Him, as we fling our accusations in His face and wait for an answer. In our infinite wisdom we want God to tell us why He has not done things the way we think they should be done. But we’re not so satisfied, not so comfortable with the last four chapters, starting here in chapter 38. Here God does answer; but He answers not with answers, but with more questions. And the questions boil down to this: Who are you? And what do you know? Who are you, Job? Are you the Creator of all that exists? Did you set the whole thing up? Do you keep it all going? Do you make the sun and the moon and the stars stay in their places? Do you know where I keep the snow and the rain? Do you know the sources of the sea? Who are you and what do you know? You little faith one, why do you waver and doubt? And, at the end, Job confesses: I spoke about things I did not understand. I am not the Creator, but a creature. I do not understand the hidden will of God. I do not understand the hidden purposes of God. He says, I had heard of you with my ears, but now I have seen you with my eyes. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:1-6). Peter can only answer: Lord, save me. But all of that is unsatisfying, because it means that we are not in control of our own destinies; we are not the creators of our own futures, or even our presents. It means we do not know what we think we know and we do not know enough to understand what God is doing. Peter is no better than the disciples in the boat: they both see terrifying things; they are both afraid; they both cry out. Often, what we call “stepping out in faith” is simply aiming at our own preferred outcome, stepping out into the unknown darkness. God answers Job and we have more questions than we did before.
It is not very remarkable that God returns fire when Job questions Him. God is God and Job is not. The really remarkable thing is that He does not answer when Pilate questions Him. When the chief priest, and the other religious leaders, and the soldiers, and the spectators are questioning Him, accusing Him, He does not answer. He goes like a sheep to the slaughter, silent. He is silent like a sheep before its shearers. He does not respond, or defend God’s honor or justice; He simply takes it. He receives the questions—your questions, even your accusations—as if they were gifts. And when they take Him out to the cross, and they nail His hands and feet to the cross, you can feel the clouds gathering. But still He does not speak; still He does not come down from the cross and call on legions of angels to defend His good Name. He does not do any of that, because He is, in that moment, not taking God’s side, but yours. He takes your side, and your questions, and your accusations. He takes your arrogance, and your pride, and your punishment. In that moment, that long moment, as the clouds gather and darkness covers the earth, the eternal Son of God in flesh approaches a confrontation that will be His death and your life. He is confronted not with our accusations, but with God’s accusations against you and me. And He stands there and takes it, until there is no more accusation. At that moment, there’s no answer, only a question: My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Jesus goes up onto a mountain to pray and there is no answer from the clouds. In that moment, Jesus is not vindicated as innocent; in that moment, He doesn’t get double what He loses: family and money and flocks and herds, like Job gets. He just dies. A Man more innocent than Job, the only good Man, and He gets precisely the opposite of what He deserves. But there, in that riddle, in that mystery, is your answer. God’s riddles are more satisfying than the questions of man (Chesterton). His mercy is more awe-inspiring than His justice. If you, O God, should mark iniquities, O Yahweh, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.
What the disciples saw on the Sea of Galilee was only a prequel to what Jesus was going to do. They saw Jesus walking on the sea, and trampling down the demonic realm of the deep. When Jesus entered the boat with them, the wind stops; it ceases. But that was nothing. While Job had not seen the depths of the sea or gone to the gates of death, Jesus did. Jesus went to the depths of death and hell, right to the very gates, and He broke them open. Not even hell itself could prevail against Christ and His Church. He entered hell victorious to bring you out. But Jesus is not finished. His salvation in the middle of a creation gone wrong, in a sea that threatened to overwhelm the disciples, is not a metaphor for how He helps us when we’re in trouble. It is, in fact, the beginning of the end for the realm of sin and death. It is the beginning of the beginning of a creation free of chaos and questioning. It is the beginning of what John saw in the Revelation: a throne at the edge of a sea like glass, completely still; a new heavens and a new earth where the chaos of a broken creation, the sea, is no more. And in this confrontation, with this Jesus: the Jesus who out-questions and out-innocents Job; the Jesus whose question is only answered in the Resurrection; there is nothing to do but what those disciples did: to fall down and worship, to believe with our hearts and confess with our mouths that this Jesus is the Son of the Living God and the same One is Lord over all creation. To rejoice in the fact that we do not have to go up into heaven or down into hell to find Jesus, because He has already come down from heaven and entered hell for you. And faith grasps Him where He has promised to be: right here, in the Word of faith which He gives into your ears and into your mouth. Take heart, and have the courage of this conviction: Everyone who believes in Him will never be put to shame. You will receive from Yahweh’s hand double for all your sins. Truly, You, O Christ, are the Son of God.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/9/14