When we wonder why our preaching does not “stick” with too many of our hearers, we usually look to the surface of their hearing, the first layer of their reactions and the outward distractions from and alternatives for believing what we say. But in twenty-first century North America at least one more fundamental barrier keeps many from taking seriously much of the Biblical message. We North Americans have successfully tamed God, placed Him in the proper cage, where He is handy to serve us when we think we need Him, but not able to interfere and show His true face when we do not need Him. J.B. Philips observed two generations ago that our God has become too small. Grace has become cheap because God has become cheap. We are possessed and numbed by a perception of reality that comes from living in a world totally touched by human hands, and largely with success. Note our current absolute confidence and faith in the virologists that they will get us out of the corona mess so we can resume life as we jolly well please. In a world in which natural science can solve all problems, there is no sense of Jobian wonder or awe at the magnificent mystery of the person of our God.
Through the eyes of our Old Testament colleague Hank Rowold, my colleague Chuck Arand has recently confronted me with the God who revealed Himself to Job. God presented Himself to Job as a “wild and woolly” God. He is, however, the same God who has revealed Himself, making the conversation so intimate that the divine Word, the very second person of the Holy Trinity, became human flesh and blood, skin and bones, to talk to us. But Martin Luther powerfully reminds us God has not made every aspect of His being clear to us. God remains, in part, hidden. God Himself gave Job hints of His fuller character in their little tour of God’s universe in Job 38-42.
We North Americans have successfully tamed God, placed Him in the proper cage, where He is handy to serve us when we think we need Him, but not able to interfere and show His true face when we do not need Him.
God reveals Himself as a tender-hearted, deeply caring parent—even to the point of deeply grieving over us when we stop listening to Him (Luke 19:41-44). But in Job, and sometimes in our daily experience, He reveals Himself as a whole lot more. Job anticipated by a few millennia the work of Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), professor in Breslau and Marburg, who developed a theory regarding the roots of religion in his book Das Heilige (published in English in 1923 as The Idea of the Holy). His theory reflected the tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher as well as Otto’s own research in lands of what we call the majority world. He identified the “irreducible moments” of religious conviction and experience to encounters with natural phenomena behind which lurk the “mysterium tremendum” [the mysterious that makes you shake in your boots] and the “mysterium fascinans” [the mysterious that draws you magnetically to itself]. The mysterium tremendum confronts human beings in God’s demonstration of His overwhelming almighty power. It breeds the deep sense of what it means to be creature at the mercy of a person or force who or which can wipe us from the face of the earth with a single thunderbolt or a breath of the wind. A sense of absolute awe envelopes us in the moments when this fear-provoking confrontation takes place. Parallel to this experience of the Absolute and Ultimate is the experience of the mysterium fascinans, feelings of wonder that attract us at the same time to the Divine, which Otto called the “Numinous.” As a professor of comparative religions, Otto did not discourage rational inquiry into religious questions, but he recognized how the human reactions to God feature elements that reason does not capture.
Job, in his frustration with all that was happening to him, had at hand a rational theological analysis from his three friends. They were operating with God as He matches the human expectations based upon His revelation of His order for the world. In Job’s case it took the challenge of the Accuser to God’s normal way of working to strip Job of all pretense that he might exercise some element of decisive control over his life. Principles that inform the “American way of life”—the illusions that we can stand on our own two feet if we walk straight, that our accomplishments allow us to exercise control over wind, weather, and viral infections—were peeled away for Job, bitter experience by still bitterer experience. At the end of his possibilities, but with sterling theological logic, Job approached God. From his Creator he heard why theological logic works only when it arises out of awe and wonder before our Almighty Creator.
In Job’s case it took the challenge of the Accuser to God’s normal way of working to strip Job of all pretense that he might exercise some element of decisive control over his life.
In chapters 29-31, Job let his friends—and God—know he had lived an upright, pious life. He rested his defense on his account of his obedience to the standards God had set for human performance. God wanted an evaluation of their relationship focused on His own person rather than Job’s performance. In this case God did not introduce Himself with Isaiah-like prophecies of Messianic deliverance. He presented Himself as Creator of a magnificent and splendiferous universe that boggles human imaginations. Its colossal wonders and infinitesimal complexities render us silent in awe and wonder before the product, but above all before the Producer of a universe rich in awesome, wondrous phenomena. We also encounter this universe as something beyond our ability to subdue totally, with untamable, threatening, terrifying elements that loom over us and lurk behind the next corner of our survey of God’s creation. Job got a peek.
God begins with a chronological introduction to His universe. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (38:3). The question comes not from the cross but from the hurricane. We stand before the cross with the full sense of awe and wonder only when we know the person whose awesome and wondrous deeds that frame the universe is the One who hangs there for us. It was not Job who was the surveyor who planned the universe or the engineer who plotted its foundations and organized the boundaries of land and water (38:4-11). On the land, beasts prowl, knowing humans make good fodder. On the seas, angry waves and defiant whirlwinds menace and terrify us as we fail to float and paddle. God designed and executed the essentials of our existence, time, space, life, death, and the weather (38:12-30). Sometimes, each in its own way muddles and disrupts our plans and hopes. We become familiar with the regular ways and patterns of God’s designs, only to be surprised and set on edge by what is beyond our expectations.
We stand before the cross with the full sense of awe and wonder only when we know the person whose awesome and wondrous deeds that frame the universe is the One who hangs there for us.
And then there are the heavens! Job was shown the constellations (38:31-33), and God shows us some hints of the breadth and depth of His imagination with quasars and pulsars, black holes and exploding stars, deadly radiation, and stormy galaxies. Chapter 39 challenges Job to see the wonders that have ceased to amaze us because we write textbooks about the birthing of mountain goats and fawns, about the flapping of ostrich wings, the spreading of hawks’ and eagles’ wings, and the muscular structure of horses, forgetting how finely tuned the billions and trillions of instances of God’s design really are. But these things should still evoke a, “Wow!” and much more when we look closely.
God invited Job to face the behemoth and the leviathan (40:15-41:34), beasts that probably make the Gruffalo look like a kitty or a fawn. In the end, He says to Job, “Why don’t you let me be God, and you be My creature and My child, Job, the farmer.”
“Let God be God,” Luther once said. His entire understanding of trusting the Lord and the word He gives us in Scripture sang and shouted, “Let God be God.” God on His terms, God the Creator of the magnificent and sometimes terrifying universe that still attracts our fascination and amazement, our overpowering, dumbfounding, overwhelming sense of fragility and vulnerability. This larger universe defies our attempts to manage it. It turns a cold, indifferent, contemptuous face toward us. Attempting to ignore the reality of His vast creation, our reliance is on ourselves and our toys, our inventions, and our virology. Our successes in family life and occupation cloud our ability to get the slightest sense of what it means that God is this magnificent Creator.
But without some sense of the awesome and wondrous nature of our Creator, we cannot appreciate or absorb the message that He became one of us human creatures because we have defied Him and doubted His Word. We can pass by the cross and the empty tomb with little more than a, “That is nice of Him.” We never come to the full realization of the awesome and wondrous nature of His sacrifice and His reclaiming life for His own corpse (nobody else ever did that!) and for ours as well without first sensing He is overwhelming. As long as our illusions of control over storms and germs persist to govern our thinking, we will never be able to take the saving work of Christ as seriously we ought. Our self-deception trusts that our own “sufficient” behavior commends us to a Heavenly Trainer or Coach, whom we adequately reward with our fine deeds. As long as such self-deception continues to shield us from true trust in His mercy, we will never be able to pray for the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, who forgives sins and raises bodies from the grave.
We preachers need to take seriously the images of an ever-expanding universe that reveals aspects of God’s creation and can make us feel small and insignificant on our small planet. In fact, these images should make us feel particularly graced that God came to dwell among us in our flesh. Our hearers are following new developments which purport to show layers of creation that lay well beyond our imaginations even a generation ago. Into this world we are called to bring the Gospel of the God made man.
The Gospel proceeds from the Creator of quasars to demonstrate itself in the Creator who agonized on the cross and who swallowed the grave with an abrupt, “No, thank you!” The Holy Spirit uses our preaching to make His breathtaking, overwhelming presence take place in the lives of our hearers, so they may receive ears to hear and eyes to see the chastening, mortifying reality of the cross and feel the breeze of revitalization and refreshment that pours out of Heaven into our lives through His empty tomb.