Well, winter still seems to be very much with us, doesn’t it?
The temperatures back below zero, the snow today, the ice.
We gather to worship and hear Isaiah speak of the God who gives strength to the weary and the Book of Job telling of the God who makes the snow fall for correction or for love.
And we wonder: what kind of God for this kind of time?
My study looks out on the students and faculty and all manner of people who walk by as they deal with the snow and the ice and the slush and the cold. Like those described in the Christmas carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” their “forms are bended low” as they walk “with painful steps and slow.” They’ve been bundled up this year—from the fur-lined hoods pulled over their heads to the fleece-lined boots that provide some warmth to their feet. Yes, even in the last couple of weeks I would occasionally see some guy walking around wearing shorts but for the most part the weather has been a challenge and they have taken it on.
Last week, however, I started to sense a little weariness in all of this. The people were dressed the same, but there was a kind of glazed look on their faces—as though they’d had enough, as though they were just trying to get through it all, as though they wanted something else. Even last Thursday when the temperature briefly rose into the forties only to plummet some forty degrees down to zero and then slowly work its way back to some kind of 20-25 degree average of the two—even last Thursday didn’t really seem to come as a break to people. The warm weather simply added the challenges of walking around frigid puddles of water, dodging falling icicles, and knowing that the warm weather wasn’t going to last.
If you don’t like the weather in Iowa—well, we’re finding out that waiting ten minutes will not result in it changing.
It’s the time of year when our hearts can be wintry and weary. We seek the strength to get through yet another round of snow—and would be glad to mount up with wings like eagles. The two scripture lessons that we heard this morning help us with all of this, I think—but no in the ways that I originally thought they might.
Whenever the snow falls and I’m drawn to those words from the Book of Job that we heard this morning: “To the snow God says, ‘Fall on the earth’…By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast…Whether for correction, or for God’s land, or for love, God causes it to happen.” Occasionally during winter months I will use those words as a call to worship.
They invite us to ponder the weather, to look in wonder at the frozen river and the snowy fields for some signs of God’s providence and love.
The cold comes and the animals go into their lairs and remain in their dens. And verse seven could be translated, “God shuts in every person so that all people may know God’s work.” The cold storm wind comes out of its chamber and we close the doors of our homes and shut ourselves inside with a new season of Victoria.
The Book of Job places all of this directly in the hands of God—“whether for correction or for the land or for love—for any number of reasons—God causes this to happen.
I guess the skiers might think that it is out of God’s love that we have this much snow—while others of us are led to ponder what we have done wrong that we need this much correction. Both thoughts are only fleeting and humorous, mostly, since we realize that the Book of Job was written from a pre-scientific worldview that knew nothing of contemporary meteorology and the cold reality that snow comes with no motive—for neither correction, nor the land, nor for love.
What we need to keep in mind as we read all of this is how mistaken it all is. These are the words of one of Elihu, one of Job’s so-called “friends” who have come to “comfort” him. And Elihu, along with the others who speak with Job in his suffering and despair, doesn’t always get it right. He misunderstands God and God’s ways in the world.
Indeed, after Elihu finishes talking about the weather, God will speak. But even God’s majestic and mysterious speech from the whirlwind is not as adamant in its insistence on God’s control of nature for moral purposes as Elihu’s affirmation that God manipulates the weather for correction and love.
There is little talk anymore of God controlling the weather and using it for God’s ends—pretty much no one talks like this in the polite liberal Christian circles we inhabit. Yes, time and again an evangelical leader will speak of a hurricane or an earthquake as God’s judgment on a certain region or nation. Still even we can see that there is a judgment of sorts in the weather—the increasing droughts that bring devastating wildfires, the torrential rains that bring previously unseen flooding are in some sense a judgment upon our treatment of the earth and its climate.
But we know how nature in general and the weather in particular work and we have changed our ideas about how God relates to this world. We cannot and would not want to speak like Elihu of God sending frost and snow and wind.
So why bring all of this up on this latest of several snowy Sunday mornings?
Because it leads us to a much wider and generous understanding of this world, of ourselves, and even of God.
The Old Testament scholar, Carol Newsom, says: Elihu has an impoverished sense of the moral—for him, the justice of God can only be understood in terms of intentional acts of reward and punishment. The role of nature—including the snow and ice and frost and wind—is simply to communicate those judgments.
While we would rightly say that such understandings are misguided and false, perhaps we can begin to see new ways of looking at the relationship between the natural order and the moral order.
Newsome has helped me a great deal in all of this, so I want to share with you her thinking that “What gives value to a being and so makes it a proper object of moral concern is the status of that being as God’s creation. The goodness of a thing—the earth, the seas, the plants, the animals, and human beings—is established not by means of a utilitarian calculation of worth, but absolutely by virtue of being a creature of God.”
This intrinsic value of each thing and of everything requires our respect. We need to honor and love creation because it has value simply because it is. “The moral obligation to do justice is indeed a part of the structure of creation.”
This brings us around once more to what has become a general theme in my preaching as we’ve been thinking about climate change on these wintry Sundays: the reality that we are part of the vast network of creation and the need for us to love that creation, to desire and seek its well-being because our fate as creatures is tied to the fate of all creation.
So again the question surfaces: What kind of God for this kind of world?
Though the story of Job has as long history in other parts of the Ancient Near East, this book seems to have come into its current form around the time of the exile, after Jerusalem was destroyed and its people taken off to Babylon. This political disaster resulted in a crisis of faith. The God of Israel could no longer be seen as the One who meted out rewards and punishments to one particular nation.
Against such a limited understanding, the prophet we now call Second Isaiah asks: “Have you not known? Have you no heard?” The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. The God on whom the people wait—that is, the One in whom they trust is the God of the cosmos, of all that is, not just a national deity.
This God does not discount the weariness and exhaustion of the people. This God does not simply tell them to “shake it off.” Instead, through the prophet they are reminded in this very weariness and exhaustion that “weakness and powerlessness are never roadblocks to God’s grace.”
In this same exile time, a psalmist wrote of God’s mercy and forgiveness, God’s parental compassion. This is the God who, remembering our status as creatures, remembering that we are dust, lifts us up, even on the same eagle’s wings that Isaiah envisioned.
What kind of God for this kind of world—this kind of world with it’s cold, wintry days that can feel punishing at times; this kind of world in which our nation is so divided and the will to seek the good and to do justice often seems absent; this kind of world with a changing climate and the challenges it brings even as it wears us down with worry, with grief?
The scriptures that seek new meaning for life even as they wrestle with the great changes and challenges of their own time give us some clues.
A God who is not what we expected, not what we are used to.
A God who does not behave as we might want God to behave.
But a God who is the Creator, still loving the creation and calling us to do the same.
A God who gives new strength when we are certain there is no strength.
A God who calls us to use that strength for the well-being of the world.
A God who enters this world and shares our lot.