There is a story about a monastery in Europe perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed. With trembling voice, he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.”
One of the most unhelpful ideas about Christianity, indeed about faith in general, is that doubt is the opposite of faith. It is not. Certainty is the opposite of faith. Doubt is an intrinsic part of faith, for by definition faith is about making a commitment and a decision about matters that cannot be proven in measurable ways. Certainty can only live when things can be proven beyond any doubt. Certainty is much than a balance of probability, much more than beyond reasonable doubt. Certainty can only be when things can be proved. Certainty is the opposite of faith, and doubt is an integral part of faith, not something challenging or competing with faith.
Certainty is not what you’ll find in our reading from Job, this is filled with questions. In fact, it’s nothing less than a barrage of questions from God to Job. God is asking Job if he was present at the start of creation? Where was |ob when God laid the foundations of the earth? Does Job understand how and why God made the earth?
Why is God asking these questions of Job? Job’s story begins with Job as a good man, for whom life was going well. He had plenty of money, a thriving business, and a good family. Job is faithful in his religion. The perfect follower of God. Then things go wrong. His children die. The animals that are his business are stolen. He becomes ill himself. Unsurprisingly, as many of us would, he keeps asking the question, “why me?”. Job is then visited by his three friends, Job’s comforters, who tell him everything’s his own fault. Job rejects his friends and stands by God, but still asking questions.
That was thirty-seven chapters I’ve summarised for you. God responds to Job with what we heard read from chapter thirty-eight, by asking if Job was present when the world was created? Where was Job when the foundations of the world were laid? Where was Job when the earth was built, when the stars were set in the sky, when the sea first flowed? The purpose of these questions was the way that God said to Job that he would be unable to understand everything in this world because he was only able to look from a human perspective, and you need to be able to see from God’s perspective in order to understand everything.
So, a passage of questions is telling us that the underlying message from God is that we cannot understand unless and until we can see things from God’s perspective, so certainly not this side of eternity. We are clearly in the realm of faith and doubt, and definitely not certainty.
What, then, of our gospel reading? Jesus calms the storm. Like our reading from Job, we need to know the background context to make proper sense of this. In the Hebrew Bible, which was the Bible in the time of Jesus, the sea stood both for chaos in general and for all the disasters that can befall us. So, Jesus is not just saving the disciples in a storm, there is a much greater significance of Jesus commanding order over chaos. He is clearly not just someone who can calm a storm, but someone who can bring order out of chaos in the whole of creation. Not just a clever person, but God himself.
There are, of course a great many other questions about this passage. The fishermen would be well used to the lake. What kind of storm would it need to be that even they were frightened of it? And if it was such a storm that they really were so terrified, then how did Jesus stay asleep? Above all these questions, of course, is the overarching question of the disciples, “who is this man that the wind and waves obey him?”
So, we are left with questions. Both passages leave unanswered the ultimate questions, putting us in the realm of faith and doubt, not in certainty. There is a beautiful symmetry in both of today’s readings. In response to Job, God asks the question: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’, and at the end of the Gospel reading, the disciples echo the Lord’s phrase, ‘Who is this,’ they say, ‘that even the wind and wave obey him?’
Neither God’s question to Job, nor the disciples’ question, requires an answer. It is enough that the question is asked. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Do you not care that we are perishing? Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
Perhaps it’s unfortunate that as we grow up we leave behind the infant’s capacity for asking endless questions. Modern educational experts all stress the importance of asking questions, and although, in previous generations, some parts of the church have not been keen on questions, to be true to ourselves and to God we need to affirm that asking is questions should always be positively encouraged in church.
Questions, though, can be unsettling. A cartoon I once saw has someone asking, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it”.
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’m afraid God might ask me the same question”.
Questions might be very unsettling, but they are good things that need to be affirmed and encouraged. Scripture teaches us that there are a great many questions, many ultimate questions about life, and that we cannot know the answers, at least not this side of eternity.
But it doesn’t stop there. The message is not simply we have to live with questions. God does not leave us alone. Like the disciples in the boat, we have the living Christ with us to re-assure us, support us, encourage us, heal us, and save us; through the presence of his Holy Spirit, living and working in us, and in this and all of God’s church, and all of God’s world. One reminder of this is in our Holy Communion: as we break bread and share it together, as we share wine together, Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, turning this into a celebration meal of a living presence. We are not alone.
There are many ultimate questions, to which, in this life, we can never know the answers. But we are not alone, because Christ is with us through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Christ himself enters into our questions alongside us. There is a South American theologian, Leonardo Boff, who said that, “God does not answer our questions, but, in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions”. God does not answer our questions, but, in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions.