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Holy Wonder

Ashe, my 6-year-old and I have been reading this great book we got from the library a couple of weeks ago. It’s called The Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid[1]and it details 100 incredible and interesting places around the world, both natural wonders and ones made by people. After reading several of these entries and seeing the hand-drawn illustrations, we’ve had to stop reading and google the place. We needed to see more pictures and read more about it! Some of them were almost to strange to be believed.

One of these unbelievable places is Hang Son Doong in Vietnam. It’s the world’s largest cave with one chamber that is more than 3 miles long. It’s tall enough to hold the Great Pyramid of Giza and big enough to fly a 747 airplane through. It went undiscovered until 1991 when a farmer took refuge there during a rainstorm and was surprised to realize this was no normal cave. Another place that mystified me was the Giant Crystals of Naica, Mexico. Miners in the year 2000 tunneled into a cave with glittering crystals 7 times taller than the average human and as heavy as ten elephants. It’s 125 degrees inside and scientists speculate that it took half a million years to develop the crystals. Or, consider the Marree Man in Australia. It’s the world’s largest geoglyph- a giant Aboriginal man hunting. The geoglyph is 2.6 miles long and is visible from space. No one knows who made it, or how old it is. Whether you’re considering the tree goats of Morocco, the jellyfish lake of Micronesia, or the everlasting lightning storm of Venezuela, it’s clear that this earth is full of incredible wonders. And as our children learned during Vacation Bible School, the whole universe is full of incredible wonders. And we can wonder at the beauty of those children, at the kindness of others, the love we can share, the mystery of all this goodness.

But of course, there are other kinds of wonders. Terrible, terrifying kinds of wonders. Things like unutterable violence, fires, tornadoes and hurricanes, personal tragedy, horrible physical pain, and illness. Those are all another kind of wonder, other ways to be overwhelmed, stunned, surprised. The scholar and practical theologian Kate Bowler says, “everything happens.” All of it- good and bad. Everything happens. Sometimes we can do nothing but stand back and wonder at it all.

And of course, Job, whom we have encountered in our scripture today, experiences it all. The book of Job is possibly the oldest written book of the Bible. It’s structured like a fairy tale or a fable. You can hear that from the very first sentence- “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” At the opening of this book, we know Job to be a very righteous and religious man. In fact, he’s so righteous, he makes offerings on behalf of his children just in case they have been sinful. Job does everything right, and God delights in him. But a mysterious figure called ha-satan comes to God with an idea to test if Job’s faithfulness is because he genuinely respects God or is he faithful because his life is easy and he’s happy so it’s easy to be faithful? English Bibles will translate ha-satan as “Satan” but it’s important to know that our modern concept of Satan has very little to do with this character. Ha-satan means “the accuser” or “the adversary.” Rather than imagining our cultural Satan with horns and a pitchfork, or even Satan as “the evil one,” understand ha-satan to be more like the district attorney, bringing someone up on charges. Ha-satan challenges both God and Job in this story.

So God agrees to run this experiment, and Job loses his wealth, his children, and his health. It’s a wonder he can stand upright. He never curses God though, despite his wife suggesting he “curse God and die.” Job’s three friends come to him and essentially tell him that what has happened to him is terrible, but he must have done something wrong to deserve this kind of suffering. Job laments and wails, he prays for relief. He curses the day he was born. He and his friends go back and forth. And while Job questions God’s justice and God’s judgment, he never goes so far as to give up on God. In fact, in chapter 19, he outlines his afflictions- how broken his body is, how all of his friendships and relationships have broken down, but he ends with words that may be familiar to you. For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. Back and forth Job and his friends go, talking to one another and to God, trying to make sense of this wondrous tragedy. Job is sad and angry, mystified by all that has happened to him. He wants God to account for this senseless pain.

And then finally, in chapter 38, God speaks back to Job from a whirlwind. And the words are perhaps both unsatisfactory and overwhelmingly right at the same time. “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?” the Almighty says. Throughout just about every facet of creation, God asks Job “do you know how this works? Can you do this? What do you know about any of these things?”

Job is completely humbled by God’s response. He is dazzled by the wonders of God’s creation and management of the earth. “Nothing,” Job says, “I know nothing of these things, and I can’t do any of these things.” His response are the words you heard read earlier this morning from chapter 42. “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job understands- God’s vastness and power, all of the wonder of God’s hands, none of has to make sense to him. Job doesn’t have to understand it. He says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” His previous words about seeing his Redeemer have come to pass. Indeed, Job has seen his Redeemer. But God isn’t what Job thought. Verse 6 is notoriously difficult to translate to English, but most scholars suggest that it should read something like “Therefore, I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” He has learned to let go of his useless attempts to control and understand God. Job’s fortunes are restored, although nothing will ever be quite the same. You can’t replace your dead children and Job certainly cannot forget what he experienced. It’s a bittersweet ending.

It begins and ends with Holy Wonder. Job wonders, he’s in awe, shocked at what happens to him. And he wonders and contends with God. And it ends with him marveling at the way the world so wondrously works at the hand of God. The book of Job is a story of wonder- standing in awe of the very worst and very best that the human experience has to offer. If you need to be reminded of how incredible life is, how glorious and overwhelmingly wonderful it is, just go outside. Smell a baby’s head. Eat something delicious. Listen to some beautiful music. The book of Job invites us to marvel at God’s vastness.

And it is in that wonder, that our ideas and misconceptions about God begin to morph. In her commentary on this passage, Karla Suomala shares this: “author Michael Chabon asserts that good children’s literature, in fact all good literature, should blow the minds of its readers wide open. I would go further and say that this is true of any transformative experience. ‘It happens,’ says Chabon, ‘when something you feared but knew to be impossible turns out to be true; when the world turns out to be far vaster, far more marvelous or malevolent than you ever dreamed; when you get proof that everything is connected to everything else, that everything you know is wrong, that you are both the center of the universe and a tiny speck sailing off its nethermost edge.’”[2]

That is exactly what Job experiences. The wonders he has seen have fundamentally changed the way he understands God. Everything Job thought he knew about the world has changed. Remember, he was the guy who offered burnt offerings just in case they were needed. And now he is face to face with God, understanding how small his god was before. God cannot be manipulated or tricked. God does not work on a meritocracy. God is not a cosmic concierge, making sure you get what you want as long as you do everything right. And Job knows that now. God is mystery. All along, Job knew God could do anything; what he struggled with was what he perceived as God’s injustice. He wanted God to make sense to him. Job wanted God to play by Job’s rules.

Karla Suomala writes, “I think it’s possible that Job is rejecting or renouncing his previous ideas about God — his entire sense that God simply functions as a machine that processes human behavior, rewarding and punishing accordingly… Read in this vein, we might say that Job, having seen God, rejected his previous view of God and changed his mind.”[3] Friends, holy wonder is how we expand our understanding of God. We, like Job, would like things to make sense to us. We want patterns to emerge and for good things to happen to good people and bad things to happen to bad people. But life has taught us better, right? So perhaps if we could stand back on our heels and marvel at God’s greatness, we could accept not knowing. We could make peace with all that we do not understand.

And what then? After we’ve embraced the mystery of God and celebrated the wonder. What then? Well, “Ellen Davis writes, ‘The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and every other person of integrity is this: Can you love what you do not control?’ It is a question worth pondering. Can you love what you do not control: this wild and beautiful creation, its wild and beautiful Creator, your own children?”[4] That question just about knocks me flat. Can I love what I do not control?

Because here is the reality- you can control your ideas about God. You can control what you want to believe to be true about God. You can control the outcome if you believe that God rewards goodness. But none of that will be true to the God who speaks from whirlwinds, the Almighty God who laid the foundation of the earth and hears the song of the morning stars and the heavenly beings that shout for joy. That God is completely out of your control. The god of your own making, the god of your control is easy and nice and makes you feel good and safe. But the god of your own making is not real, that god will not speak from whirlwinds or be present with you in all of the wonders of your life. The god of your own making is silent when you have more questions than answers and life is falling apart.

But the true God, the Almighty, who speaks in whirlwinds and overwhelms Job in every possible way, the God who shaped the earth and taught the sun when to rise- that God is baffling, mysterious, and confusing in so many ways. But that God is wondrous and faithful. That God was wondrous enough to stand and take all of Job’s anger and frustration and questioning and doubt, and love Job through it all. The true God never left Job and will never leave you. That God is worth loving. May we learn to embrace the Holy Wonder that expands our ideas of the Almighty. May we, like Job, learn to close our mouths and revel in the wonder of our God. May we learn to love what we cannot control. Amen.

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