Sunday, 31 October 2010

Job – Putting things in their place

Preacher: Lesley

This is the third of our sermons looking at Bible and Ecology, following the book of that name by Richard Bauckham. Although, traditionally, our relationship to the natural universe is explored through the Creation narratives in Genesis Bauckham says that to get a balanced view of what the whole Bible says, we need to take a broader view and see what attitudes to Creation are revealed in other biblical scriptures. So today we leave the book of Genesis and turn to Job.

It might seem strange to think about Job when we want to discuss Creation. Last week at the weekend away we touched briefly on Brueggeman’s scheme for interpreting the old Testament scriptures: that they basically comprise Israel’s core testimony about God, but also there is a strand of counter testimony. The core testimony is that if God’s people remain faithful to God, obeying all the commandments, then they will be prosperous and happy. If they disobey God, they will have conflict and will lose the promised land.
We saw that last week in Psalm 139 “ You search

But there is another thread that we hear in the Hebrew Scriptures, We heard it last weekend in Psalm 88: “ I am desperate, your wrath has swept over me…O Lord why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?”
Many of us have felt like that over the years, some more often than not. Job is a story which addresses the question of why do the innocent suffer. For it is true that a body of people, who live generously and avoid wasting money on unnecessary things, that strives to maintain relationships and to deal honestly, that does not gamble and not to overvalue material wealth will, as a whole, taken over generations, be prosperous and content. You can see this with the Dutch Mennonites and the Quakers.

But it doesn’t seem to work quite like that for individuals. This is a problem that every religion has to deal with if it believes in a god who is loving or at least just. The story of Job is a fable set in the time of the patriarchs and it seeks to address this question. Job, the righteous, rich man is seen to lose everything that constitutes wealth in his society – his flocks and herds and his many sons and daughters. Finally his health is affected.

Christians who are feeling that God has abandoned them or is even against them are often recommended to read the book of Job, as I was.

So then, imagine the suffering Christian reading through Job. First of all there’s God having a kind of bet with Satan that Job is not a good man only because he’s prosperous. Is my situation some sort of test like that. Then there are pages and pages to plough through of Job’s 3 friends insisting that he must have done something wrong because God doesn’t do things without a cause. These are punctuated by Job reiterating that he has lived blamelessly and calling for some way to put his case before God (that sounds better) Let’s skip some more of this stuff and then the young man Elihu saying that God is just and Job is too proud to listen to him,

At last after 37 chapters – a section headed ‘The voice of God’ Now, some answers for Job and perhaps for me.

So God answers Job out of the whirlwind. ”Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” ?

Reading Job 38 4-7

"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?”

So here is God, the cosmic architect – building by a careful design that Job never knew anything about. But God is making Job face the reality of his own insignificance.

He goes on to question what Job knows about the control of the sea – a great symbol of chaos in the ancient world:

Reading Job 38 8-11

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'?

God goes on to point out that Job knows nothing about the dawn, which limits the wickedness that goes on in darkness and he asks about Job’s knowledge of the underworld.

Reading Job 38 16-18

"Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.

God continues in the same heavily ironic vein to question Job’s understanding of light and darkness, of good and bad weather, controlling the stars. Job must be cringing by this time and the questioning of him may seem brutal, but God does not seem to be angry and the poetry shows the huge sweep of God’s imagination and power, in keeping in check all these powerful elements, in ways he cannot imagine. His only response must be humility before these majesties of the Cosmos.

These days we might say, “No I don’t know that, but I can look it up on Wikipedia.” Humanity as a whole does know a great deal more than could be known in the time of Job. But we don’t all know it by any means.

This reminds me of an argument I had with my Mum and Dad one day when I was a teenager. I happened to mention the limitation of the human brain and they both immediately declared that No the human brain isn’t limited. Maybe I remember it because they were both on the same side for once or because it didn’t seem to be rationally possible that any physical structure could be limitless.

The human brain contains trillions of neurons and a great deal of computing power. Peter can tell you all about that. But still no human being can know all human knowledge. Even what is in all our computers does not tell us all about the universe. Those who delve into its mysteries tend to become more humble before the awesome complexity of the Universe.

There are theories saying that we can never know all about the Universe, because that would entail knowing where each atom and electron and proton and quark is at any given time. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a mathematical law which basically says if we know where an electron is, we don’t know when it was there and vice versa. In other words complete knowledge is a human impossibility. So we could say that God is the one who transcends the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. But even then, if we found some way of getting round the principle, we would still find more layers of stuff we don’t know. God is not just the God of the gaps, providing an explanation for what we don’t yet understand.

God hasn’t finished with Job. He then moves on and asks Job to consider 10 selected animals and birds. The questions are pretty much the same: does Job know, can he understand; can he control? But there is also whether Job can provide for these creatures, as God does. He starts with carnivores:

Job 38: 39-41

"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 lair? Who provides prey for the raven, when his fledglings cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”

We often assume that knowledge means power and yet we can make deadly assumptions about the animal world. I heard last week that by the beginning of the 20th century, the large herds of antelopes and other big herbivores in Southern Africa were being wiped out through shooting and the encroachment of farming. So in many game reserves a policy of killing off all the top predators – lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, wild dogs and crocodiles, for instance, was put into practice. But the herds did not recover and it was realized that removing predators affects the whole eco-system. We may be uncomfortable with the idea of God supplying prey for the lions. It summons up ideas of ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson put it. But in the wild, predators don’t have any pride about what they catch. They just go for the easiest meal – the confused or abandoned young one which would not have survived or the old or injured animal. They don’t attack the breeding adults in their prime. But if the old and injured survive longer than they might, it means less food for all when the rains are delayed.

In Job, the words ascribed to God are closely observed descriptions of the way animals behave and especially how they care for their young. They are almost entirely descriptions of wild animals, stressing that their lives are completely independent of humankind and are not subject to human will:
“Is the wild ox willing to serve you; will he spend the night by your crib?”

The exception might seem to be the horse:

Reading Job 39 19-25

"Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with mane? Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible. He paws violently, exults in his strength, he goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; he does not recoil from the sword. On his back rattles the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin. With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; at the sound of the trumpet he cannot stand still. When the trumpet sounds, he shouts ‘Hurrah! ' He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.”

But this is a war horse - a stallion whose natural instincts are to fight. Humans could not force him to fight. The poetry makes it very clear that this is an independent being. There is no rider in this stanza; if it were not for the weapons rattling on his back, this could be a poetic description of the stallion going out to meet another horse challenging his dominance.

Some commentators see metaphors in these passages which apply to human beings, using them to underline humanity’s superiority to the animal kingdom. The commentary in my Harper’s study Bible, for instance says:
Underlying God’s comments here is his divine compassion toward the inferior creatures on the planet; he takes tender care of them. Therefore Job has no reason for charging God with unkindness toward him. Later The hawk and the eagle function by the natural power and instinct given them by God…Shall not humankind, the highest of God’s creation confess their own weakness and ignorance and give glory to the one who has made them?

I don’t think that it’s that complicated at all. This comes from the mindset that God could not be concerned about anything that isn’t to do with humanity. But there are no humans in all this vivid picture of the natural world. The seas and skies and land require no intervention from Job – even if he were able to affect them. Even closer to home, there is a whole section of the animal kingdom which goes it’s way without intervention by humanity. Not only does God care for each of these creatures – none of it for human benefit, but in the vivid descriptions of their independence and uniqueness, it is clear that God also loves them as he does humanity.
So not only is Job lacking in knowledge and power – humanity is not the only focus of God’s creation. He is just a created being, looked after by God amongst other created beings, which are not there for his benefit.

Job is speechless but God goes on to challenge Job to assume a mantle of power and to punish the proud and wicked. Of course Job lacks the power to rule even the human world.

God continues with a description of the great land monster Behemoth.

Reading Job 40 15-17, 19; 22-24

"Look at Behemoth, whom I made just as I made you; he eats grass like an ox. His strength is in his loins, his potency in the muscles of his belly! He stiffens his tail like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are knotted together. He ranks first among the works of God, even his Maker can only approach him with a sword.
The lotus trees conceal him in their shade; the willows of the brook surround him. If the river rages, he is not alarmed; he is confident, even though the Jordan surges against his mouth. Can anyone capture him by the eyes, or pierce his nose?”

To us it seems like a hippopotamus – but this is more than any hippo we’ve seen on the documentaries. It is huge and not to be captured. At that time, the hippo was native to the Nile river in Egypt and there was much interaction with Israel. Though sometimes given the form of a God, it’s likeness was also worn as an amulet. But there are also pictures surviving to this day of Egyptian hippo hunts. It seems as if the writer of Job is using the form of the hippopotamus to indicate something much more.

Together with Behemoth goes Leviathan, who seems to be a great water monster modelled on the crocodile, but what crocodile was ever like this?

Reading Job 41 1-3; 13-15; 18-21; 31-34

"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope through his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will he make many supplications to you? Will he speak soft words to you?

Who can strip off his outer garment? Who can penetrate his double coat of mail? Who can open the doors of his mouth? Terror is all around his teeth. His back is a row of shields tightly sealed together. His sneezes flash forth lightning, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. Firebrands pour from his mouth; sparks of fire leap out. Smoke billows from his nostrils, as if from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds. His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.

He makes the deep boil like a cauldron; he makes the sea like a pot of ointment. Behind him he leaves a luminous path; one would think the deep had white-hair. On earth he has no equal, created as he was without fear. He looks down on all the arrogant; he is king over all who are proud."

These two monsters are supreme over land and water. This is not a return to the previous description of animals. These are mythical beasts of great strength – they cannot be wounded or subdued. Leviathan is found in Canaanite mythology as a personification of chaos. Here he is also king of all the forces of arrogance and evil that defy the creator.

One of the reasons people so frequently give for not believing in, or following God is ‘Why should God allow so much evil in the world?’ The book of Job asserts that yes, there is evil in the world, but, just as we heard that God contained the proud waves that would burst their banks, so God limits the forces of chaos and evil personified as Leviathan and Behemoth. Not only has God restrained everything that works against God in Creation, but Job 41 implies that eventually God will destroy them.

Job 41; 10-11

No-one is so fierce as to dare stir him up
But who can stand before my face
Whoever confronts me I will requite, for everything under the heavens is mine.

Isaiah 27, 1 explicitly says that at the end of time, God will destroy Leviathan.

By the end of God’s speech about Leviathan, Job has been thoroughly put in his place. Not only does he not understand the world and how it was made, he has been shown that God loves other creatures as much as humanity and provides for them as well. Job has neither the wisdom nor power even to rule humans, let alone the forces of the Cosmos. He may complain about evil in the world but is entirely ignorant of how God strives to force back and eventually overcome the forces of chaos.

The message is that Job is simply a part of a Creation he does not understand and over which he can claim no lordship or control. For us, whose power and knowledge have grown since those days, the implication is that if humans aspire to godlike creative power and challenge the divine order, then they share the arrogance of Leviathan and join the proud, over whom Leviathan is king.

I can’t finish there without telling the happy ending. Job’s honour was vindicated and he regained his health fortune – with even more flocks and herds than he had before. And once again he has seven sons and three daughters. So what has changed? This time, instead of the sons having feasts in turn in each others houses and inviting their sisters, the emphasis is much more on Job’s daughters. They are each named (names for women are not common in the Hebrew Scriptures) and Job defies convention by allowing them to inherit as well as their brothers. It is as if in seeing his place as just another creature in Creation, he has also recognized that all humans are made in God’s image – perhaps why there is an emphasis on the beauty of the daughters. Sadly, we don’t hear anything about Mrs Job, who also lost her prosperity and all her children originally and then may have had the task of producing another seven sons and 3 daughters. But perhaps that’s to ask too much of an ancient patriarchy.

We’ve learnt that God’s answer to why the innocent suffer is not a detailed explanation of God’s purposes and plans – we could not possibly comprehend it all. It is to be reminded that we are simply a small part of God’s creation, a part about which God cares, no doubt, but part of the community of created beings, who are not less important. Our task is to respect them, to accept that God is working ultimately for our good and join the divine resistance of the forces of chaos and destruction.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Our Creation Community

Preacher: Wayne

Readings: Genesis 1; Psalm 36

From childhood, I have known about God’s creation being good; I was taught to enjoy it; I wanted to study and teach others this same appreciation. So I went to university and got a degree in biology and natural science.

Since then along the way, I received two responses from two groups, but it was the same question: “How can you?”
One = how can you be a Christian & study science? It will destroy your faith.
Other = how can you be a scientist and a Christian? They are incompatible. So many of my scientist friends heard from Xians that they were wrong.

How people read the Bible determines how they will respond to the questions of faith & science. Also effects how we answer the question of the relation of the human part of creation with rest of created world. That is today’s topic. As a congregation, we are studying Bible and Ecology, by Richard Bauckham.

As I understand it, the purpose of science is to describe what is seen, to describe how things work, such as discovering the hidden enzymes which are catalysts for some function of the brain, for example. It is objective. Some understand the Bible as also doing this and it does bring a person to one understanding of the Bible.

For me, the purpose of the Bible is to describe the purpose and the work of God, and our relationship with God. It calls for a faith perspective. I know this is too simplistic, but it is a beginning scheme to help us sort it out.

There seems to be a duality to the way we often see this issue, as if it must be one or the other. It cannot be both, we think. This poem (at end of script) by the British poet, Felix Dennis, describes a duality which is not meant to be in the Biblical accounts.

Key texts for today are Gen 1: 26-28. They describe the role of mankind in the relationships of creation. In the text there are 3 entities to be taken seriously: God, humankind, and the rest of creation. The most controversial term here describing our role is “dominion”.

In my experience I have seen three expressions of this relationship:

-James Watt, Sec of Interior under Reagan, and a professing Christian: human domination is for our benefit; therefore use it or lose it. Christ will soon return, & then opportunity gone. In this expression humankind is dominant over the created world. It is an over-under relationship.

-other activists reverse this order. They see Christians as being part of the problem. Christians like Watt exploit the created world’s resources and spoil it, using faith as an excuse. Many of these “green” folks therefore put animals first; we are to serve their needs. This is also an over-under relationship, with animals put on top.

-Kenton Brubaker, my professor at Eastern Mennonite University. His position was that we were one with creation, serving God as a whole. This is also the point of Bauckham. Humans are part of the community of creation, and to stress dominion diminishes this community.

To get to this point, we need to define the key terms:

-“fill the earth”: This is the same command as is given to animals. The land is assigned to both humans and animals, and humans are not to fill it in such a way that it is at the expense of the other animals. It is to be shared.

-“subdue”: When this word is used with the object “earth”, it has to do with occupy, or use. The land is not an enemy to be forcibly subjugated. Genesis 2 adds to this concept with the words “till and keep”, which seem to limit our use. A preserving element is included in our management of the earth’s resources.

-“dominion”: This is Mr. Watt’s text. The word has to do with rule, and, in this way, it is different than the role given to animals. In fact, this dominion is closely linked with our being made in the image of God. We bear the divine image, and in this way we use this role in a way which reflects God’s own rule over God‘s creation. That is an awesome responsibility, it seems to me. We are to manage on God’s behalf. “It is a delegated participation in God’s caring rule over His creatures”, says Bauckham.

Because we are so prone to forget God’s intention, especially when we become full of ourselves & think we have figured things out, there are limits to our rule. To quote Bauckham again, “Our rule is restricted (it is only over other living creatures), it is exercised within rather than over creation, it may not aspire to divine omnipotence, and, perhaps above all, it is exercised in relation to fellow-creatures.” We are limited in what we are asked to do.

There are other Biblical considerations to help us sort these things out, especially since we wish to take the Biblical account of creation seriously.

1.) As humans, we are part of the flow of creation, part of the order of creation. In that sense we are one with it. Not in the new-age sense of everything being a god, but in the sense of seeing creation as God’s good gift to us and to each other. We are linked to all of it in the best sense of the modern understanding of ecology; each part is related to the other and has a unique niche to fill. If we mess with one part, we influence the rest of creation in ways which can never be exactly measured or perhaps even known. We are part of a whole which we must take seriously. If we do not, we do so at our own peril.

2.) Did you notice the word “good”? After each segment of the creation drama, there are the words, “And God saw that it was good”. I think God had fun, and I believe that God continues to enjoy his created world. I also believe this phrase reflects the heart of God, & which we, as mirroring the image of God, need to imitate. It is indeed good, and we are good, at the very core of our being.

3.) As we humans are given the role of managing on behalf of God, it becomes very clear that God is the owner, & retains that role as owner. That has not been given over to us. Humans, on the other hand, remain simply tenants. Psalm 24, summarizes this clearly when it says “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”. Humans are not demigods (small gods). We are simply tenants.

This theological concept of ownership is a thread which runs throughout the Bible, and undergirds our concern for the environment. This also is designed to lie beneath the concept of Land in Israel, as well as our offerings to God (first fruits). But so easily we forget.

This is rather heavy stuff. How then shall we begin to live within these all-encompassing life relationships? Without presuming to be complete, I offer a few suggestions. You can surely add to the list:

1.) Because we exercise dominion on behalf of God, not instead of God, we must know our own dependence on God. Only as we stay in rel with God & know our own dependence on God, each other, and the rest of creation can we rule effectively. In this way we participate in God’s created order & community.

2.) Appreciate the goodness of creation. We are part of that. Let’s rejoice and praise God as the rest of creation does. So let’s learn about it & enjoy creation with creativity. In that spirit I offer to lend my knowledge to lead a fieldtrip to see & enjoy some birds in the area. We will arrange the details & let you know.

3.) Be respectful of the created order. St Francis of Assisi called the flowers, birds, & animals his brothers & sisters. Francis tells them – including worms, fishes, wolves, lambs, & bees – that by their very existence they give glory to God. This deep respect and sense of community will lead to the next step:

4.) Let us do our part to keep & preserve this creation. This congregation takes this role more seriously than any other congregation I have participated in. Let’s keep it up. Perhaps we could even include teaching in that role, and inviting others to join us.

5.) Live humbly. What we know is very limited, yet what we do know can bring much joy. When Job was acting arrogantly, GOD asked Job whether he knew the foundations of the Earth and other secrets of creation. Let’s accept our finite knowledge and allow God to be the God of creation.

6.) Let nature be a mirror for us of the wholeness of creation & of God’s glory in it. Richard Rohr says there is a healing in our connection with everything that brings us to wholeness, if we allow it. He says that nature can bring that wholeness to us. And help us see God’s glory. He says it’s like the Celtic "knot" (*) which was found on crosses, gravestones, in manuscripts, and on jewelry. It was apparently their artistic way of saying that all is connected, everything belongs, and all is one in God.

That is how I wish to live. I invite you to join me in it. Amen.

Place a Mirror by a Tree
By Felix Dennis

Place a mirror by a tree;
Tell me now, what do you see?

Which of you will feed the earth?
Which of you contains more worth?

Which of you with sheltering arm
Keeps a thousands things from harm?

Which of you is nature’s bane?
Which is Abel? Which is Cain?

Which of you is God’s delight?
Which of you a parasite?

Place a mirror by a tree;
Tell me now — what do you see?