Texts: Job 38:1-7, 25-27, 39:1-8; Mark 1:9-13; Romans 8:18-25
Date: September 17, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Let’s join our brother Job at the corner of “What the hell?” and Whirlwind. Job has confronted God with a challenge regarding what he perceives as a design flaw in the creation—that a good fellow such as himself should be suffering, even while some of wickedest people in the world flourish. He believes his integrity should have prevented his suffering, and further believes that God is not listening to his prayers begging for relief and for answers to his questions. Job’s intention is to boldly confront the Almighty with an aggrieved “What the Hell?”
God hears “What the Hell?” and answers [eek!] out of a whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Had I been writing this truly awesome poetry in the book of Job, I might have added the word “pipsqueak.” Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth, you pipsqueak?
In the ensuing verses Yahweh describes some of the aspects of creation in a widening whirlwind of words, evoking wonder and fear and amazement. Job is thoroughly pipsqueaked by the end of it. Made to feel appropriately small by the majesty of God’s earth and its many astounding mysteries. He’s astonished, the way Kathleen Dean Moore describes it. The word “astonished” comes from the Latin word tonus, which means thunder. “To be astonished is to be thunderstruck, knocked backward by a sudden blow. This is how Shakespeare’s character can say, ‘Captain, you have astonished him,’ as the victim likes stunned on the stage.” Moore muses about the fairly common human experience of being momentarily astonished by literal lightning and thunder, counting the startled seconds between light and sound. Then she speculates that an osprey must be astonished each time it crashes through the wall between sky and water; “and maybe that’s what astonishment is, this sudden entrance into another world.”
Yahweh’s words, as they are put down by the author of Job, are meant to astonish. They are meant to provide an entrance, at least via the imagination, into another world. There are several chapters of description of the world outside the human order. They sketch a God’s-eye view of rain over an unpeopled desert, the springs of the sea, the storehouse of hail, the careful arrangement of stars chained into a pattern, the mountain goats’ nursery, open rangeland of the wild ox and ass, the mountain cliffs where the eagles nest. “Pipsqueak,” Yahweh thunders, “The world does not begin and end with you and your kind.”
What’s more, one of my biblical commentaries says that one of the things God’s whirlwind speech is trying to teach Job is he shouldn’t conclude that the fact that he is suffering without apparent cause or reason is evidence that God’s plan or God’s creation design is flawed. Rather, Job needs to be reminded that a certain amount of chaos is sewn into the divine plan of creation. It’s not a mistake; “the presence of the chaotic is a part of the design of creation.” This part of the book of Job includes several passages about the sea, about God’s semi-mythological (?) creatures named “Behemoth” and “Leviathan,” all of which symbolized chaos to the Hebrew people. They, too, are part of God’s design. No matter how much human beings wish the whole universe could be understandable/predictable/containable/controllable, that’s not the world in which we live. Pipsqueak.
Is being pipsqueaked good for the soul? Is being astonished a blessing, even if it’s not altogether pleasant and soothing?
I don’t get the sense that God wanted to punish Job with the pipsqueaking Whirlwind Yahweh unleashed. It seems more like God wanted to rescue Job from the small-minded theologizing he and his friends were doing. In Job chapters 2-37 they were desperately trying to figure out how Job’s situation made sense in their overly orderly, crime-and-punishment human-centric worldview. They didn’t want to leave room for any mystery or chaos, wishing to tame creation and Creator alike. They wanted to dwell in a grid of their own surmising, square and logical. Their worldview was both out of touch with reality and much too confining. When God reminds Job of his small place in an immense universe–where some things remain beautifully mysterious and where chaos is an aspect of the divine design—Job is brought to his knees in both the positive and negative sense of that phrase. Humbled; and moved to awed silence, which is an exquisitely articulate way to praise God. Can you perceive of God’s pipsqueaking of Job as a gracious act?
Did God want to pipsqueak Jesus in the opening chapter of Jesus’ ministry? It’s intriguing, the way the Spirit descended like a dove with a message of love at Jesus’ baptism, and then immediately drove him out into the wilderness. Where he dwelled with the wild beasts. It crossed my mind that the incredible message from heaven, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” might just make you feel pretty special and big. I mean, if a divine voice calling you Beloved Son doesn’t inflate your ego to blimp size, what would? I can almost picture Jesus coming up out of the water of the Jordan with his hands over his head like Leo DiCaprio in Titanic yelling “I’m the King of the World!” Maybe even Jesus needed a little pipsqueaking. So the Spirit thrust him out of one world and into another, propelled Jesus into the wilderness to live with the wild beasts and wrangle with Satan. In the wilderness he had time and space to find his place in the world and contemplate his purpose. Mark’s gospel says “the angels waited on him.” I don’t believe this means winged beings delivered pizza and rubbed his feet; I take it to mean he was in communication with God, that he was receiving divine messages there in the wilderness, where he wasn’t in control of the environment but was a living, breathing part of it.
Maybe all of us could use a healthy dose of pipsqueaking once in a while. Whether or not it is what we are intentionally seeking, venturing into the wilderness can have that effect—making us aware of our small size in a big universe. Reminding us that we don’t know everything, can’t explain everything, and are in control of practically nothing. Pastor and writer Rodney Romney wrote a book about wilderness spirituality extolling the value of venturing into the wilderness for the good of one’s soul. In his words, “In the wilderness we find the presence of eternity, what the mystics call a timeless presence in time. In the wilderness we possess nothing but have everything. In the wilderness we learn what it means to be. We learn what it means to forgo ownership and become attentive.”
Romney mentions some of the times and places he came into contact with wilderness in such a way that he touched eternity, became attentive and found himself at home with God. Can you think of a time and place when you were in the wilderness or encountered a wild beast or force in such a way that you were astonished, thunderstruck, plunged from the ordinary world into the extraordinary?
I want to play you a song that Tom Johnson sent me recently, “How Could We Not Believe.” The words are in the bulletin, if you have trouble following them. Think about your astonishing wilderness pipsqueakings while you listen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40RZ649v22I&sns=em
I hope you were able to connect with your memory of a beautiful wild place or the company of wild beasts while you listened to that song. The songwriter includes the experience of being “free from my name” as beautiful. “So beautiful…to be free from my name and all those who lay claim, so beautiful to be free from my name.” My first thought about this was imagining running into an enraged bear and huffily saying to her, “You can’t eat me, don’t you know who I am?” (like a politician to a traffic cop). Ridiculous. But on the more beautiful side, there is a sense of losing yourself in a beautiful place or experience, but rather than it being terrifying it is liberating. As Rodney Romney writes, “The largeness of the wilderness first inflicts us with a sense of smallness and insignificance. But as we ponder and explore…and as we give ourselves over to the …wilderness…something grand and awesome enters into us. Our minds grow quiet as our soul expands. And in being lifted out of ourselves, as it were, we simultaneously come home to the self we most truly are.” Maybe the “named” self is too small to contain the soul expansion; some freedom from the person we are in the built environment can be beautiful.
The song mentions freedom not only from my name but from all those who lay claim. I don’t know what the songwriter had in mind, but when I read those words “lay claim” as the granddaughter of a homesteader, I think of claiming land without much regard for the land’s history or integrity. There is a strong note in American tradition that says if property is “yours,” you get to do whatever you want with it. Governments may impose restraints with an eye on the common good, but there’s often some pushback from the “owner” who laid claim with a land grant or purchase.
I’m reading a book by William Kittredge which includes some reflections on his family’s farming. The Kittredge family laid claim to some farmland through homesteading and purchase. William worked the family business as a third-generation farmer on a large property in Oregon that evolved into a large mechanized agribusiness: “We perfected a mechanical way of proceeding, and had reshaped our world according to the dictates of a mythology that revered efficiency. The reward was enormous power over what is called “nature,” while we used…our homeland as [a] thing.” He says they were essentially strip-mining a fertile property, creating order and profitability. They drained marshlands and dug irrigation ditches. They used chemicals to control pests that shortened their own lives. They shot coyotes and poisoned them to protect their cattle, and consequently the rodent population exploded and destroyed the alfalfa. The soils began to go alkaline and blow away. Kittredge eventually realized they were wrecking what they did not leave untouched. The farm was productive, efficient and profitable, but it was draining the life out of the land.
Reading his story, I connect it with Paul’s words about the creation being in bondage, groaning in travail. Paul speaks of the hope not just of the believers but of the whole creation that it will one day be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain freedom. I wonder if farmland like the Kittredge farm would feel enslaved if it had feelings? How about other land that is used as a mere thing, whether it’s mined or logged or paved or fracked or grazed for order and profit? Not every human use of land is destructive, but far too many are. We’re not very good at restraining ourselves if there’s money to be made.
Some of our forebears realized this, and began to set aside wilderness areas that could not be owned and exploited by individuals. Wilderness areas free from those who would lay claim to anything and everything are increasingly essential as the human population grows. Some land should remain free from the bondage of human ownership and abuse for its own sake. I think those who want to protect the expansion of the Bears Ears National Monument have this idea, in addition to safeguarding Native American heritage in that area. I know there are differences of opinion among reasonable people about how much wilderness area is appropriate. But I hope a great deal of land will remain free for the sake of all the creatures.
I believe such free places may yet rescue us from our own bondage. We need places where we can be still, where we forego ownership, where we can possess nothing and have everything, where we can feel our souls expand and enlarge. Let’s pray for the wilderness, and pray for the fortitude to safeguard wild places as children of God who share a hope for freedom and redemption. How beautiful that there are places where we are free even of our names, except for that secret name we share as we sit at the feet of our Creator: “Pipsqueak.”