Job's Grandchildren

You may listen to Father Mullen's sermon here.

It’s a good thing that Job never heard the story of Jesus calming the storm.

Remember that Job, who was a blameless and upright man, had lost everything: his seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants to marauders.  And then his seven sons and three daughters were killed when, while they were eating and drinking together as a family at their eldest brothers’ home, the house collapsed and killed them all, leaving Job bereft.  Robbed of his wealth and his family, a storm at sea would have been a welcome distraction to Job.  The violent hailstorm that tore through Philadelphia the other night would have seemed like a bright moment beneath the dark skies of Job’s life.

Job, of course, is a stand-in for anyone who suffers – and especially for those whose afflictions are inexplicable and unfair.  His life is the embodiment of the ancient question: Why do bad things happen to good people?  And his story, as it is told in the Bible, resolutely refuses to provide an answer to that question.

Its climax comes when after sitting through the lengthy diatribes of his friends, Job hears the voice of God speak to him from the whirlwind, of God’s own awesome power, and knowledge, and wisdom.

“Where were you, little man,” God sneers,

“when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Have you commanded the morning since your days began,

and caused the dawn to know it place?

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?

Who has cleft a channel for the rain,

and a way for the thunderbolt?

Can you bind the chains of Pleiades,

of loose the cords of Orion?

Do you give the horse his might?

Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars,

and spreads his wings toward the south?

Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up,

and makes his nest on high?

Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? 

He who argues with God, let him answer it.”

This is a response, of course, to the question of why bad things happen to good people, but it is no answer.

The story does tell us that Job was given seven new sons and three new daughters, and that he had grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.  The story does not tell us anything at all about the latter generations of Job, but I think we actually know a great deal about them.

I think we have been hearing about the children of the latter generations of Job in the news these past weeks.  I think some of them have been testifying in court, as they choke back tears, about their suffering at the hands of an abuser.

In another courtroom, we have been hearing about how the church failed to protect children in her care, and how her priests used them for their pleasure.

Elsewhere, there is a four year old child, who was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, and whose parents are now numbering his days.

There is a man who is burying his father this weekend long before it was time to do so.

There are girls who are being sold into sexual slavery somewhere in the world today without any idea of the misery that awaits them.

There are mothers who cannot scrape together another enough food in the refugee camp to keep their children healthy and alive for another week.

There are families who are trying to plan right now for what it will be like when Dad is gone, and wondering if he will make it through the summer.

There are children who are being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, whose parents are trying to figure out how their lives have now been changed for ever.

There are families who have been counting the weeks of unemployment as they go by, and wondering what will happen when the checks stop coming but still there is no work.

There is a road in Virginia that a couple will not drive down, since it passes the tree that marks the spot where the ambulance took their son’s body away, when the tree would not yield to his car late one night.

There is an altar over there, vested with a quilt that reminds us of those taken from this parish before doctors knew how to treat AIDS.

There are bodies, or pieces of bodies, still being shipped in flag-draped boxes to an Air Force base not too far from here, from a war no one is very interested in anymore.

These are the latter generations of Job.  These are families who, not long ago, were just eating and drinking together, and whose lives collapsed around them, crushing them, robbing them of whatever joys they had.  It’s true that the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, but he gave no guarantees to his descendants.  And we are all the latter generations of Job: all contending with the same question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a good thing that Job never heard the story of Jesus calming the storm.

What is a storm on the Sea of Galilee to Job or to his latter generations?   How can the disciples who are with Jesus sound like anything but pathetic whingers to those who have experienced the sufferings of the latter generations of Job?  A strong swimmer could probably make it to shore from almost anywhere in the midst of that lake.

It is telling that nowhere in the Bible – not even in the one book of it that spends pages and pages and pages exploring the question – is the answer given to that old question: Why do bad things happen to good people?  There is only the whirlwind, and the voice that speaks from it: “Gird up your loins like a man: I will speak to you, and you shall answer me!”

I cannot tell if the winds that stir up the waters of Galilee come from that same whirlwind, but I suspect they do.  Even the breezes that fill the sails of the boats on the lake, I suppose, come from the same source – from the same Spirit who once brooded over the face of the waters that would eventually reveal the lake we often call a sea.  I know that a voice does not often speak from the whirlwind.  It’s own lingering winds speak in mostly softer tones now, even when the weather is rough, leaving so much more open to interpretation.  And leaving the big question still unanswered.  Responded to, but fundamentally unanswered.  God is unwilling to make his ways known to us in so many things, and certainly in this – one of the deepest and most confounding mysteries of life.

But something did change when the disciples found themselves frightened in the boat that day, when the windstorm arose, and still the Lord was dozing in the bow, and they shook him and accused him: “Don’t you care that the wind and waves are beating us, that we are soaked and taking on water?  Don’t you see how frightened we are, and don’t you care?

The wind was right there, and it was the perfect opportunity for him to use it as his own megaphone; to speak through it so that they could be sure not to miss a word he said.  He could have taught them a lesson that day and put them back in their places.  He surely knew the lines:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?

Have you entered into the springs of the sea,

or walked in the recesses of the deep?

Can you send forth lightnings,

that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’?

Is the wild ox willing to serve you? 

Will he spend the night at your crib?

Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?”

Oh, he knew the lines, and could have recited them with authority from the prow of the boat.  What right had they to call on him, to accuse him of not caring?  Had they not yet guessed at his fate?  Had they no hint of his mission?  Did it never dawn on them that this would not end well for him?  Had they no faith?

But he did not use the wind for his voice, though it was his breath that gave the wind its life, its force, its power.  He did not rebuke them much at all.  He only challenged their fear.  And instead of speaking through the might wind, he spake to it:  “Peace.  Be still.”

These words still provided only a response to their fear; it was no answer to it.

We latter children of the latter generations of Job, know our fair share of fear and misery.  God has not yet put a stop to it.  God has not yet given us an answer as to why it happens thus.  But he has given us something new.  He has spoken differently with the wind, and his word brings new promise:  Peace.  Be still.

Bad things still happen to good people: this is as true as it has ever been.  The latter generations of Job, like our own, have known suffering and sadness and misery and pain.  But the wind no longer scolds us to keep us in our place.  Instead there is a new command given to the wind that so frightens us: Peace.  Be still.

And it has been so long since we knew stillness or peace, that this seems like a very odd response to our fears, and certainly no answer about all the bad things that happen to good people.

But we find that as prayers go, this one – built on his command to the wind and the waves – serves us well.  Peace.  Be still.  And we think that in the calm we find faith… which is exactly what we need, and is our rightful inheritance, as the latter generations of Job, who was a blameless and upright man, and whose fortunes were restored by the God who made him, and who never stopped loving him.


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

24 June 2012

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 26, 2012 .