I’m sitting there, trying to write this sermon, getting some decent thoughts on the page, typing away, me and my computer, along with everyone else and their computers, their books, their lattes—a bright day, a flood of sunshine cooled by a fall breeze. Then a song comes on, one of those songs that dazes you, that shadows all that’s good in a moment. Nina Simone singing “Strange fruit,” that classic Southern song, a honest and brutal song about racist violence. Here’s the first line, if you aren’t familiar with it: “Southern trees, there are strange fruit. Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze. Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Billie Holliday first sang it in the 1930s; Nina Simone sang it in the 1960s. Now I hear it at a hip coffee shop in a gentrified neighborhood in Durham, on a sunny day, all of us without a care in the world. “Strange fruit hanging from the popular trees… Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root.”
If the book of Job is about anything, it’s about this—to feel the world as it crumbles under the weight of unspeakable loss, overwhelming violence, and to somehow believe that God has anything to do with us as we figure out how to go on. Not that we know how God makes sense of it all. Not that we know how God fits in this world. Not that we know what God has to do with any of it. But that somehow, despite it all, we go on thinking and feeling and saying “God.”
At the beginning of the book, Job loses everything, he suffers devastating horrors, then there are over thirty chapters about God, about Job talking with friends about God, Job talking to himself about God, Job talking to us about God, and Job talking to God about God.
Then, after chapter after chapter of God’s silence, finally, at the end of the book, there’s a whirlwind, a tornado, a hurricane—as if Job’s life wasn’t already a whirlwind, as if he wasn’t already inside of a whirlwind, as if he hasn’t been suffering a whirlwind since the beginning.
There’s a cruel joke here, with the whirlwind—a cruel joke or a harsh truth about life, a severe realism about this world, because when God finally has something to say, here in chapter 38, God speaks from a whirlwind, and Job can’t help but remember that it was whirlwind, at the beginning, that took away Job’s family.
God shows up in the whirlwind, the same wind that collapsed the house where his children were eating, the same wind that collapsed his world. Here’s what it says in the first chapter of Job: A messenger ran to Job’s house and told him the news: “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead” (Job 1:18-19).
God’s voice is heard in the whirlwind, the wind that jolts Job’s mind back to that scene, the wind that pierces his heart with memories of what he cannot have, an ache for what used to be, for what could have been—the longing for another world, for a different world, for something we do not have.
Sufjan Stevens has a song called “The Only Thing.” It’s on his new album, the one about the death of his mother, but now I hear Job singing it, singing about his loss of his family. “Should I tear my eyes out now?” he sings, “Everything I see returns to you somehow. Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow… Should I tear my arms out now, I wanna feel your touch… How do I live with your ghost?”
That’s Job, haunted by the ghosts of his loved ones.
When God finally comes to Job, God doesn’t offer a fantasy of everything going back to how it was, the fantasy of time-travel, of going back to the beginning, as if nothing happened, as if what has happened to us and our world didn’t actually happen, the fantasy of all things restarted, magically. There is no restart button to life. All there is is whirlwind, an overwhelming, and in the midst of it all, finding ways to think and feel God.
All there is is whirlwind—an uncontrollable world, an uncontrollable life, and an uncontrollable God.
“The Lord answered with a whirlwind,” it says, and then there’s question after question, questions that show how Job lives in a world that he can’t control, that he doesn’t control, that he never will control.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4).
“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (38:19).
“Do you know the heavens, and can you establish their rule on the earth?” (38:33).
“Who can number the clouds?” (38:37).
Not Job. Not you and me. Only God. God only knows. To Job and the rest of us, on the other hand, God asks this in the passage: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:2). Words without knowledge. That’s what we have to offer as we look at our world.
Words without knowledge. That’s what we hear from James and John in our passage from Mark’s Gospel. Words without knowledge. They ask Jesus to let them sit beside him in the coming kingdom. And Jesus says, “You do not know what you are asking” (Mark 10:38). Despite Jesus telling them that they are clueless, despite Jesus saying that they have no idea what they’re asking for, that they have no idea what they will be getting themselves into—despite the warning, the two disciples respond the confidence of ignorance: “We are able,” they say (10:39). Words without knowledge.
But maybe that’s all we have. “Words without knowledge.” We know so little of this world, so little of this God, so little of our lives and the lives of the people we are called to love. We know so little. “Tell me,” God says to Job, “if you have understanding” (Job 38:4). “Declare, if you know all this” (38:18).
We do not know all of this. We only know in part. “For we know only in part… We see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:9, 12). We know so little, only flickers of knowing awash with a night of ignorance.
But we do know this—that Job waits. The book of Job is chapter after chapter of Job waiting, waiting for God. The story of Job is a story of patience, of patience with this world that he can’t control, patience with his life that isn’t the one he wants, patience with the God who doesn’t do what Job wants.
None of this is to say that Job sits back quietly. His patience is not passive. His waiting is not resignation.
Instead, we read chapter after chapter of him with his friends, arguing about what they know about God and what they know about their own lives—“words without knowledge,” perhaps, but words nonetheless, words as offering the only thing we have: the communion of words, shared words, making a life with one another, a fellowship reaching from one to the other, flashes of connection, of being together, a shared life, even if only in fragments, fragments of broken lives, gathered after the whirlwind, gathered in the midst of whirlwind after whirlwind, but shared life nonetheless.
I’ve been listening to two old songs—one’s called “Job, Job,” and the other is “Job’s Gone to Heaven.” They were written by enslaved peoples here in the South. Plantation songs. Black spirituals. And they’re all about patience. They sing the story of Job as a life of patience: “Job had patience, Job had patience, Job had patience”—that line is sung over and over again in one of the songs. “Job had patience.”
I can’t imagine that kind of patience—Job’s patience, and the patience of slaves, waiting for their freedom. What’s clear from the songs is that there’s comfort in singing those words together, singing about Job, telling the story what it means to wait with one another, to wait for what seems impossible. There’s hope in those songs—not because of the words themselves, not in the story itself, but hope in the singing, in the communion of a song.
That’s what Job has—hope found in a communion of words. That’s what we have. We don’t know much, but we do know we have this.
And we know one thing more. We know that, in the end, God wants this to—this communion of words, because God does finally speak with Job. After chapter after chapter of Job and his friends talking about God, we discover that God can’t help but be drawn into the conversation. God can’t help but want to be part of Job’s life, can’t help but share life with Job, to share in the fellowship of words, because there’s a longing at the heart of God, a longing for communion with Job, a longing for communion with us.
I’m always guessing at what God’s voice might sounds like. I’m always wondering if there might be an echo of God’s voice in this word or that song—God’s response to me, to my thoughts, to my prayers. The Psalmist has a lovely line about all of this, about how to listen to God, how to wait for God: “You make the winds your messengers,” the Psalmist says to God. “The fire and flame are your ministers” (Psalm 104:4).
God feels like the wind, sometimes a gentle breeze we don’t notice, and sometimes a gust we can’t hide from. God flickers into our lives like a flame, burning in us the same fire that is at the heart of God, a longing for a shared life, the comfort and joy found with one another, in the whirlwinds, in the fragments held together by God—God’s love for this world, God’s love for you.
“You make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.”