Harrowing Of Hell
June 23, 2024

God in the Chaos

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

To watch the sermon click here.

Why is there pain in the world? Why is there suffering? Why do bad people harm good people? Why am I suffering? O Lord, what did I do to deserve this?

We’ve all asked ourselves these questions, haven’t we? Maybe more than once, and we aren’t the first. These questions are as old as humankind. In fact, we hear our spiritual ancestor, Job, asking these very questions this morning. And he’s asking them to God. Well, we don’t actually hear him asking these questions, but take my word for it, he’s been asking them over about the last 35 chapters or so. Job was a good man, a righteous man, a man who loved God, or at least said he did. A man who certainly worked very hard to obey all the commandments. Yet he’s lost everything, his herds, his house, his fields, even his family. He’s been reduced to sitting on a dung heap, scratching his sores and crying out to God for justice. For mercy. At the very least, crying out for an explanation. Why, O Lord, why me?

Now, an explanation, as we’ll see in just a minute, is not what Job gets. But before we get into God’s response, let’s pause for a minute to talk about “why” questions. We ask them all the time. And often when we’re asking “why” questions in connection with our spiritual or emotional life, we’re looking for answers about suffering or about injustice of some kind, like the title of that great book by Rabbi Kushner, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. We’re asking the fundamental question, “If God is good, why is there evil in the world”? These are all good questions, important questions, questions for which there are some interesting—and sometimes not so interesting—responses. I’ve been asked those questions many times, and I know Doyt and Pam and many of you have too. I’d be happy to share my thoughts about those questions in a Forum sometime, but I want to focus on something a little different here for the next few minutes. Because as satisfying intellectually as it may be to have answers to “why” questions, in my experience, these sorts of answers don’t ultimately satisfy the heart.

Many years ago as a much younger person, I was meeting with a therapist for whom I had all kinds of “why” questions, most of which were really about why I was suffering. You know, what was the cause of my suffering? Eventually she suggested we put aside the “why” questions, set aside my concerns about “cause,” and begin to explore what was underneath those questions. This turned out to be far more interesting territory. Going deeply into the sadness I was experiencing, opening to the sadness and allowing the sadness to wash over me, experiencing the sadness without trying to push it away, became revelatory. It turns out that the “why” questions were really a way of defending against the sadness. I eventually found that experiencing the sadness, being vulnerable to the sadness, became the way through the sadness. This wise therapist would often say, “Do you want to explain or explore?” It became clear to me that exploration of these deep underlying feelings and experiences, when faced with a little courage, was far more transformative than any intellectual explanation. Living completely in my head, I was missing out on what my heart wanted to tell me.

So let’s return to out friend, Job. He’s sure been asking a lot of “why” questions. Looking for explanations from God about why he’s in this predicament. But instead of giving him the explanations he thinks he wants, God puts Job in his place.

‘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?
Job 38:1-4

You see, Job doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Instead of imagining that he’s due an accounting from God, Job is about to learn the limits of human knowledge. Now, God goes on like this for a few more chapters, painting a picture for Job about the vastness of Creation and about Creation’s underlying chaos, chaos which God and God alone holds in check. Where were you indeed, Job? And so at last, Job declares: 

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you;
 therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’
Job 42:5-6

You see, it’s not heady explanations that Job needed to hear, it was the experience of the awesomeness and power of God’s presence. It was his vulnerability and humility in the face of God’s presence that finally mattered to Job. Job needed this personal experience of God’s presence to weather the storm. God “shows up” and Job was saved.

This morning we also find God “showing up” on another occasion to some other confused and frightened people who find themselves in the midst of an unexpected and fearsome storm, which is to say, who find themselves in the midst of chaos. Jesus and a few of his disciples have gotten into a small boat and are crossing the Sea of Galilee. Now, the Sea of Galilee is shallow and when storms arise, as they often do, the lake can become very rough very quickly. And so it goes here. A storm has arisen seemingly out of nowhere, and the frightened disciples fear they are drowning. And then they find to their astonishment and consternation, Jesus isn’t handling the situation. No, he’s taking a nap! What? A nap? “Teacher, do you not care that we are drowning? Wake up!” As he awakes from what we can imagine was a very pleasant little catnap, can’t you just see Jesus cocking an eyebrow at his panicked friends before turning to the chaos and commanding, “Peace, be still.” The chaos immediately recedes, we’re told, and there was “dead calm.”

Another revelatory experience! Like God in Job’s life, Jesus also shows up—by waking up! In Jesus’s presence, the chaos is stilled and his friends are saved.  To get the full import of this story, we need to put ourselves in the place of the audience for whom Mark is writing. This earliest of the gospels was written in about the year 70 at just the time when Rome had had enough of Jewish resistance to its rule in Palestine and had laid waste to the city and to the Jerusalem Temple. This was an unparalleled disaster. Not only was the Temple the center of Jewish religious and sacramental life, but it was also at the heart of Israel’s national identity. Imagine the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and the National Cathedral all being destroyed in one fell swoop by a foreign occupying power and you can begin to imagine the trauma—the chaos—Mark’s audience was in the midst of. If Mark’s story was to be “good news” for his community, it would have to bring a message of hope in the midst of the storms through which they were living—and many were dying.  And that is indeed the message they get. Remember they are hearing this story in the light of the Resurrection, for some even, an event that happened in their living memory. For them, this was a story of the Resurrection event itself. The disciples and Jesus are in a boat. Now , we should know that the boat is an ancient symbol of the church which is still alive today. Lots of churches including the one we’re in right now have ceilings that look like the bottom of a boat. And lots of churches including the one we’re sitting in now, call the main section of the church building the nave. See the maritime context? The detail that Jesus is asleep is also telling because in that culture, “sleep” was often a metaphor for death. And then he is awakened. He comes to life. Life and death are at stake in the storm and Jesus holds the key to both. This story shines a light of hope on the nighttime of Mark’s church and ours too. Yes, the day of Christ is coming but still in the nighttime when the long and frightening journey through the chaos is still underway, the crucified and Risen Christ is with us, present with us in the storm. God is here and we are not alone.

We sang one of my favorite hymns a moment ago. Eternal Father Strong to Save. It’s also known as the Navy Hymn for reasons you can certainly guess. I decided not to sing it myself this time but instead to listen to you sing it. I found that to be very moving. The words and your voices deeply resonated with the story of Job who at last, after all his infernal “why” questioning, finds true peace in the presence of God in the midst of the chaos. And it’s the presence of Jesus, which is to say, the presence of God, who calms the fears of the disciples in the midst of the raging waters, in the midst of the chaos. Jesus doesn’t wave from the shore offering empty encouragement. You know, “thoughts and prayers.” No, Jesus is in the boat right along side them, rowing with them, guiding them towards that farther shore. Guiding them towards home.

Let me encourage you to find a quiet time to take the words of this hymn into your prayers. Whenever you feel overwhelmed by “the chaos dark and rude”, whenever you feel overwhelmed by the “raging waters” and “the foaming deep,” whenever you feel overwhelmed by the “angry tumult” of the present age, as we all are from time to time, fall back on these words. Take them into your heart. My dear friends, when you feel yourself in peril, cry out to God. Don’t be afraid to say, “Wake up, God. I’m perishing! Wake up!”