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The Whirlwind

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

October 28, 2018
Job 38:1-11, 34-41

This week finds us in the third week of our four-part series in the Book of Job. Last week, as you may remember, we encountered Job’s anger at having lost everything, his raw insistence on taking the fight directly to God, and I have to say that given the week just passed, a week that began with flood damage and water shortages and wound its way through to letter-bombs send to national leaders and then of course to yesterday’s shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I have to say that I am beyond sure that there is enough leftover anger for us to stay in that hole a little while longer. And yet Job’s story keeps going, and so we keep going, and we try to find our way out of the hole, skipping ahead to chapter 38, starting from the beginning. Listen now for God’s word.

A Reading from the Book of Job

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? 

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
   when it burst out from the womb?— 
when I made the clouds its garment,
   and thick darkness its swaddling band, 
and prescribed bounds for it,
   and set bars and doors, 
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
   and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

‘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? 

It begins with a storm. Back in Virginia, we lived up a gravel road that was slowly climbing up one of those rolling Virginia mountains — so, on a normal day, we’d back out of the driveway and slightly up the hill, and then head straight down the gravel for about two hundred yards before the pavement kicked in, and on normal day, you might not even notice the incline. But. When it snowed. And I know, this is not a concept that Austin is regularly familiar with, but bear with me. When it snowed in Virginia, we had problems. The first problem is that it’s pretty hard to plow a gravel driveway. You can’t scrape it clean down to a flat surface. So even when the plow came, there’d always be a little layer of slippery waiting for you, just enough to get in-between your tires and the ground. And the second problem was that we had a couple of front-wheel drive family sedans that were definitely not built for country living. So now to get out the morning after a storm, you had a couple of challenges. One was that your front wheels were going to have to reverse over the snow that had accumulated underneath the sides of the car. And the second was that you were going to have to reverse uphill, at least for a second, so that you could point your car in the right direction.

The first couple of storms that came through, I spent a lot of time working these challenges, shoveling out underneath the car, patiently trying to guide the reverse, always wanting to know that we could get out if we needed to. And while I was out there shoveling away I would invariably begin to compile my laments about the situation I was in. I mean, if only the plow could figure out how to come at the right time, we wouldn’t have this little extra layer of snow right underneath; or, if the plow could figure out how not to pile all the snow right at the foot of my driveway, my work would be a lot easier; or, of course, the big one, if only the state would finally come along and pave those final two hundred yards then a lot of this would just be irrelevant. I was, for a while, intently frustrated with the way in which forces had conspired against me to land me in that spot, shoveling for hours, backing out the car one inch at a time. And then I realized. It’s really very simple. The next time the storm comes. You just have to back into the spot. When you see the forecast. Just reverse in. Just point the car in a different direction.  And it’s literally downhill from there.

At some point you have to learn from the storm. Biblical Israel knew this very well. The storm can be terrible and teach you at the same time. Over and over in the Old Testament Israel interprets events of cataclysmic weather as appearances of God; think of the pillar of cloud that followed them through the wilderness as they fled from Pharaoh’s armies, or of the hail that rained down on Pharaoh’s Egypt, or the flood waters that Noah understood to be a sign of God’s overture to all creation. Of course they didn’t have climate scientists or weather forecasters, and so every storm felt like it came on God’s schedule. But I don’t think this conclusion is just an absence of modern research. It’s also a theological claim. It’s a theological disposition. Israel isn’t just interpreting weather as a theological event. It’s understanding weather to be an opportunity for divine revelation. The storm has something to say, about God, or, at the very least, that the storm gives God an opportunity to speak. And so they have to listen. And learn. From the storm.

And there’s no storm in the Bible like a whirlwind. Zechariah 9, as the prophet imagines the return of the Messiah, “The Lord will appear over them / and his arrow go forth like lightning; the Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwind…”; famously, of course, the prophet Elijah, who does not die a bodily death but rather instead ascends to God inside a whirlwind, one of three characters in the Old Testament histories to meet God face-to face. One of the others, of course, is Moses, and the last is our poor humble downtrodden hero of the month, Job himself, who gets the least glamorous of all those encounters, with his life still very much in shambles, with heart broken and his soul torn to pieces, long after Job has sunk to the deepest part of the hole, and long after Job’s friends have overstayed their regularly unscheduled welcome, God finally shows up, in a whirlwind, and speaks.

But just because the storm can be an occasion for God doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable or easy. Job himself was terrified of just this exact scenario; chapters earlier, he laid his fears on the table —  “If I summoned him and he answered me, I do not believe that the would listen to my voice, For he crushes me with a tempest,” Job says, not for a second pretending like the whirlwind is going to be his friend. This, I think, is one of those places where we undersell the richness of the Biblical faith. It’s not like Israel has weather on their side. It’s not like the cloud that accompanied them through the wilderness was some cute little animated companion. These events are terrifying. They’re dangerous. They reveal first and foremost the fragility of the community and the fragility of any of us who stand exposed before the awesome power of creation. But despite all of that. Despite the terribleness of it, despite the exposure of it, despite the deadliness of it, Israel stands in the aftermath of the storm, over and over, and asks the same question, over and over, which is: what is God saying, right now, to us, as the waters recede? They do it in the midst of grief. They do it in the midst of lament. Be as angry as you want. But also. You must. Every time. You must ask the question. What can we learn from the storm?

What can we learn from the whirlwind? What can we learn from the whirlwind of the week just past? On Monday, Austin woke up to a water-boil advisory, the lingering effect of the flood waters that overran the hill country the week before. For some that was simply an odd inconvenience layered on top of the week; for others, of course, something more exposed, and a reminder to all of us about the simple resources that we are so fortunate to take for granted. On Tuesday, Mission Presbytery’s Disaster Recovery Coordinator showed up here with a van full of bottled water to support the mission of Austin churches, which was an amazing act of outreach, but also a reminder that we are so accustomed to weather events of this scale that our presbytery now has an in-house Disaster Recovery Coordinator. We are expecting this to happen, again, and again, we have the choreography for it all perfectly in place. We can grieve for the damaged homes. We can lament the upturned lives. We rage against the unjust distribution of the damage. But also. We have to learn. Also, we have to ask the question. Also, we have to allow for the storm to say to us, that the climate is not what it was, and not what it will be, and we cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. At some point you have to point the car in a different direction.

And of course the stormy week kept going, and a tragic wind has blown in. On Wednesday and Thursday, letter bombs intercepted targeting a dozen high-profile politicians, the production of a man arrested Friday broadcasting the worst kind of radical hatred, as if he had marinated for two solid years in the most toxic parts of our cultural underbelly, and here it was, the logical extension of the hate we allow to fester. And then yesterday. Yesterday, because he believed in an international Jewish conspiracy to fund the caravan of migrants making their way through Mexico to the Texas border, yesterday a man with an assault rifle walked into a house of worship in Pittsburgh and opened fire, during a bris, during a celebration of new life. Those are our brothers and sisters, praying to the same God Job prays to, arguing with the same God Job argues with, lamenting to the same God that hears Job’s laments; indeed, we know all the same choreography. We can all grieve for the families. We can all lament the lost. We can all rage against the injustice of it. But at some point you have to learn from the storm. At some point you have to say: this country is in the grip of a hatred, a racist hatred, a misogynist hatred, a religious hatred, a hatred that can absolutely consume us. At some point you have to point the car in a different direction.

Even Job learns. In some ways it’s unfair; in some ways he shouldn’t have to; he did everything right, he was doing everything you’re supposed to do; the problem to this point in the Book of Job is precisely that Job knows everything he needs to know in order to arrive at reasonable if disheartening conclusions about the situation he’s in. But then God speaks, from the whirlwind, and calls Job to account. “Who is this that darkens counsel without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” And the speech that follows, from which we heard only a short excerpt, the speech that follows is God with a sort of divine sarcasm on full display, a condescension designed to remind Job just how much he still has to learn. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements — surely you know!” But Job doesn’t know. Job could not have known. Job could barely have imagined. Job could scarcely have comprehended what it is that God says from the whirlwind, which is course that God is bigger. That God is bigger than the storm. That God is bigger than the wind. That God is bigger than the waves. That God is bigger than the thunder. That God was there to lay the foundations of the earth. That God is bigger than all of it.

This is the Gospel, yesterday, today, and tomorrow: the storm rages, but God is bigger. I don’t always understand the details. I don’t always understand how. I don’t always understand what it means. I don’t always know the answer. That’s very much what the faith of Job is like — to think you know and find out you don’t, to find out that God is bigger that what you can comprehend, and to be awe-struck at the majesty of it. There’s so much I don’t understand. I don’t understand why sometimes the bread rises and sometimes it doesn’t but the Gospel is that God does. I don’t understand why sometimes friends come into our lives and sometimes they leave but the Gospel is that God does. The Gospel is that God is big enough to understand the storm, big enough to speak through the whirlwind, and so when the week goes like this week has gone, when we can feel the waters rising around us, when we can feel the waves crashing against the shore, when the fires of hatred surge through the countryside and the specter of death haunts every headline, when the week goes like this whirlwind week has gone nonetheless we proclaim a God bigger than any of it.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.