The character of Job in the Bible is a good man. He does what is right and reveres God. But in spite of this, or rather because of it, he is crushed; afflicted with terrible suffering. His livestock and his servants are killed or carried off by marauders, his children perish, and he contracts an agonizing skin disease. And all this God allows Satan to do to him, to see whether Job will reject God. Job’s three friends come to comfort him, or at least that’s how they see it, although what they mostly try to do is to convince him that he must have done something to deserve his terrible fate.
But Job insists that he will not confess his wrongdoing, because he has none. He will not plead for forgiveness, because he’s done nothing that requires it. The more his friends tell him that he is a stubborn fool, that he must have done something to anger God, the more Job insists on his innocence. And he demands his day in court, to stand face to face with God, and to plead his case to the almighty Judge. In the end he gets what he wants—sort of. In the passage that we read this morning, God breaks his silence, and speaks to Job out of the heart of a storm.
But God doesn’t talk to Job about his innocence or guilt. He doesn’t address the question of whether Job deserves what he got, or why he should suffer so much if he doesn’t. Instead, God cross-examines him. “What do you know,” God asks Job, “of the creation of the world, of the mysteries of its intricate order, or the sources of its power? Who do you suppose is the master of its elements, who sustains the lives of its creatures?” And God isn’t really expecting an answer because he knows that Job has nothing to say. In contemplating the creation, Job can only stand in awe and admit how puny his knowledge is. In the face of the immensity of the world, who is he to question its creator and source? What does he know of the ways of God, or of God’s justice, that he accuses God?
In the modern period, many people came to think that the argument in the Book of Job had lost its power. We are no longer in awe of the forces of nature, they said, because science has discovered how they work. We may not have been there at the foundation of the world, but we might as well have been, because now we know what happened. With each piece we add to our knowledge, the thinking went, a little more of the “mystery of existence” is shown to be no mystery at all, and the less room there is in the world for God. We don’t need an answer from God, like Job did, about suffering, because we can remove the causes of suffering with our technological prowess. We don’t need justice from God, like Job did, because our political parties and nation states with their laws and ideologies, their education and welfare systems, will eliminate injustice.
But, though many still refuse to admit it, that project has long been unraveling. 100 years ago last month, on one battlefield in France, the wondrous new techniques of poison gas and aerial bombing made their first appearance on the world stage. A young poet named Robert Graves was in that battle, and the memoir he wrote about it is as good an epitaph as one could want for the supreme self-satisfaction of the Victorian age—Goodbye to All That.
By now, in 2015, we have to ask whether the quintessential modern achievement is lasting peace or never-ending war, shared prosperity or extreme inequality, universal enlightenment or total surveillance. Is it a cornucopia of abundance, or a world made barren, so exhausted and polluted that the survival of civilization is in doubt? The expansion of human knowledge of the material workings of the universe has only brought into sharper relief our ignorance about what holds it all together, and how to be in it as servants and celebrants of life, rather than captives of death.
Some people still try to make the case that our modern scientific knowledge puts us on a different plane from people of the past, such as the ones who wrote the Book of Job. They do this by making a distinction between the knowledge itself and the uses to which it is put. But the Bible would answer that the human being is one. We are one creature, and our knowledge is one. A mind splintered into fragments is mentally ill, and what we know is not separate from what we feel, or what we suffer, what we love or what we hope, what we will or what we do. So if we use our science to create a world of illusion, or to despoil, pollute, and kill, it is proof that our science is incomplete. For all its impressive achievements, we still don’t really know who, or where, or how we are.
Thankfully, we have another source of knowledge, the revelation of the glory of God. That revelation says that God’s glory fills heaven and earth, so it must be possible to investigate the world, as science does, and to use that knowledge to alter it, but to do so with humility, in a spirit of reverence and prayer. It is very common nowadays to hear people say that the beauty and grandeur of nature is where they have their most powerful experience of God. As far as I’m concerned, those people are not wrong. But here again we have to ask if we are looking with a splintered mind, because to contemplate the whole of nature in today’s world is to witness a vast and deepening tragedy. It is to worship in a temple that we are destroying. If we are going to do more than just think that nature is holy—if we are going to act like it—we have to find our way back to encounters with God like the ones recorded in the Bible. We need experiences of God that change the way we live.
And for that, we need a revelation of the glory of God in human life; not only in the transcendent power of the thunderstorm and the singing of the morning stars, but in human persons, in human community. We need an experience of God that unites what our knowledge has splintered: to seek the true glory of woman and man, not only in the rulers and great men, but in the powerless and poor. We need to find glory not only in achieving our goals and satisfying our desires, but also in grief, in failure and disappointment. We need to know glory not only in the people we love, but also in the people we hate, and the people who hate us. And to have this kind of experience we need to learn to see the God’s glory not only on the outside, but also on the inside, even in the ignorance and waywardness of our own hearts.
The New Testament says that God has revealed this glory in Jesus Christ. His is the fullness of the Glory of God, because in him God’s glory fills even what we consider empty—of meaning and beauty and grace. There is a word that means to take what is profane and make it sacred by offering it to God. That word is “sacrifice.” And what Jesus sacrifices is his life. Every aspect of his human life, from humble birth to ignominious death, is sacred, because he offers it to God, in thanksgiving to the giver of the gift.
Sacrifice is the work of priests, and God raised Jesus’ human life from death and gave it to us, so that we might share in his priesthood, and reveal the glory of God in our lives of sacrifice. We are priests of the new covenant in Jesus when we take what is profane, what is ordinary and earthly and human—bread and wine, flesh and blood, time and money, and offer it to God in thankfulness, in unity with Christ. And God makes it holy— we don’t know how.
We call our offering “stewardship,” because the things we are offer are gifts we have received. But we are stewards, the Bible says, of mysteries. We come to church to sacrifice our lives, to offer them to God so God can make them holy, and use them for the new creation of the world. But how this happens is a mystery. In church we see Christ, but only in part, in symbols of word and sacrament that hint at the all-encompassing glory that fills even the darkest corners of our lives. Here the Holy Spirit gives us just a little taste of what we will know and who we will be when we see him face to face.