- Alternate First reading and Psalm
- Second reading
4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. … 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
Bruce Chilton is a senior colleague and a friend. In many ways, I could be considered a younger Bruce as he preceded me as a scholar of the rabbinic literature called Targum and as an Episcopal priest. In fact, I met him at my first ever academic conference in Cambridge and he was wearing his priest’s collar with a red seersucker shirt. You may know of some of his works; he wrote a very popular book called Rabbi Jesus where he drew upon his knowledge of ancient Judaism to place Jesus firmly within his proper religious milieu. In that book, Bruce writes about our Gospel passage asking, “How can we take this story if not literally? How might we believe it without a leap of faith that flies in the face of reason?”1 He affirms that the story is true, the disciples were in a storm and then they were not, but, Bruce says, “the part of us imbued with a scientific worldview recoils when we read that he stilled the storm.”
And here is where I depart from my senior colleague, not because the modern thinker in me does not recoil or flinch, I do, but because Bruce does not see a miracle here, but rather a coincidence. Jesus, he suggests, was in a meditative trance and simply happened to come out of it at the moment when the storm stopped and so the disciples “would never see [Jesus] the same way again.”
Yet it was a miracle, something that should not have happened in the natural order of things, and the Bible knows it was. We have this tendency to think that the ancients were comfortable with the miraculous, that they believed any story ever told to them and accepted that all sorts of things “just happened.” The reality is that they were as cynical and doubting as we are today. They knew this didn’t “just happen,” they knew that storms on the sea took sailors to the grave all the time. That was the point, that is why this and these other events described in the Gospels are miraculous, because they are not supposed to happen.
The Bible has a very realistic view of the world, but we can be forgiven for thinking it is otherwise. The normal bits of life are…normal and so they didn’t record much of that. Instead, we have books that contain the abnormal, the events that didn’t happen all the time, but rather were so special, so unique, so miraculous as to be worth recording. That is why we might get the impression that God is always talking with Abraham, it sure seems like it if you read Genesis straight the way through. But if you break it down, you realize there are decades that went by where there is nothing recorded, no discussion of God hanging out at Abraham’s tent flap.
Normal life is boring and yet tragic. It is exciting, full of love and hope, but it is also full of hard, repetitive work. But sometimes, occasionally, the miraculous happens, the unique and strange occurs and that is worth recording, worth sharing and remembering.
Job’s life was, ironically, not very normal at the beginning of the story. Job was very wealthy with lots of animals, servants, and children. That is not the norm. Then everything is taken from him. He had done nothing wrong, and yet it was all taken from him. Now that is fairly normal. Life happens, perhaps not in such a grand scale as described in the Book of Job, but it happens. We are just doing our daily life and along comes a cancer diagnosis, a truck crashes into a school bus, the economy takes a nose-dive and we are out of a job. Tragedy is normal, that is what happens all the time to all of us, at least some of the time.
So Job has lost everything, his wealth, family, and health. He is left with a wife who famously tells him to “curse God and die” and friends who advise him to just admit that he deserves what has happened to him. If only he would confess his sins against God all would be well. The point is that we don’t (always) deserve what happens to us. So Job maintains his innocence, even before God. And then…
Job 38:1 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
What is God’s answer to Job? We only have a small portion of God’s response in this morning’s reading, but we have the gist of it. “Who are you? I will tell you: you are not God.”
Doesn’t seem very satisfying, does it? We want to know why things happen to us, yet that is the answer we have so often in life, “It is what it is.” A horrible, trite phrase, and yet perhaps one of the most important for us to embrace for our own spiritual and emotional health. We live in a broken world where bad things, horrible things happen. That is what it is. And yet…
Yet God enters into our world. God’s answer to Job wasn’t the words that he said, but his presence, the fact that he heard Job’s complaint and he spoke. We may not hear God directly, many is the days and nights I have longed to hear him as directly, but he is present with Job and speaks.
God continues to speak. Miracles do happen. Lives are preserved when all things reasonable say that they should die. People have been healed when medicine says there is no hope. People still die, wickedness continues, but every so often the waves are stilled, the storm is silenced.
Does this offend our “scientific worldview”? Perhaps. Should it challenge it? Absolutely. Yet the scientific method, enlightenment requires that we take into account all the evidence. The testimony remains that some survive when they should not, some are healed, against all odds, and that Jesus died and three days later rose again. This is what we confess, the greatest of all miracles, that he came down from heaven, became incarnate, suffered death and was buried, and on the third day he rose again.
The One who laid the foundations of the earth can do these things. It does not always happen. In fact, it rarely does. That is what makes it miraculous. We are offended by the suffering and pain we see in this world and we should be. We cry out to God, perhaps even questioning whether God even exists, and we should, demanding to know how these things can happen, why God does not intervene. I cannot be anything but honest with you: I don’t know why. I don’t know why God does not intervene more often, I don’t know why all our prayers are not answered just as we want them to be. But I know that we are to continue, as Job did, demanding an answer from God. We are to continue, as the disciples did, asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Then we must listen. Because God continues to speak to us. God speaks through us. God speaks through those around us. So we must learn to listen and then, we too must speak up.
- Bruce D. Chilton, Rabbi Jesus: an Intimate Biography The Jewish Life and Teachings That Inspired Christianity, (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 2002). [↩]