Sunday, June 2, 2024

Sermon: “Mastery of All Creation; Master of None”, Job 38:1-38 (June 2, 2024)

When we talk about biblical creation stories, our minds usually jump straight to Genesis, don’t they? The first two chapters of Genesis offer two separate accounts of creation with two different objectives: the Adam and Eve creation story teaches us about humanity’s relationship with God and with one another, but before that, Genesis 1 tells us about God’s relationship with ALL of creation. As far as OUR relationship with creation, the first chapter of Genesis covers that, too – in verse 28, God tells humanity to “Fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Most of us have gone our whole lives assuming that this is the sum total of biblical creation accounts.

But you may be surprised to discover that there are more than just the two creation stories in scripture. Today’s reading is (a portion of) one such account. The book of Job is better known as an exploration of theodicy, or the question of how a just God can allow bad things to happen, but four of its chapters are devoted to God’s own description of creation. It may not be immediately apparent as a creation account, since it takes the form of a monologue instead of a narrative, but God’s speech from the whirlwind has just as much to teach us about creation as its more familiar counterparts.

In the same way that each of the creation accounts in Genesis has a unique purpose and tone, Job 38 paints its own picture of God for its own reasons: this time, not as a joyful artist or a disappointed parent, but as a frustrated deity who’s had it up to *here* with the self-absorption of humanity. “Where were YOU when I laid the earth’s foundations?” God demands. “In your lifetime, have YOU commanded the morning, informed the dawn of its place…? Do YOU know heaven’s laws, or can you impose its rule on earth?” The accusations are pointed and even sarcastic at times. With each poetic description of creation, both original and ongoing, God seems to get more and more exasperated with Job.

We may wonder why, until we consider this book as a whole from God’s perspective. More than anything else, Job is an excellent example of humanity’s penchant for self-centeredness. Here are these humans, whining and complaining and carrying on for more than 30 chapters about THEMSELVES. From the beginning, Job’s friends insist (incorrectly) that Job’s misfortune could have only been caused by something that he, personally, had done, and they’re obsessed with figuring out how he, personally, could fix it. At no point do they ever consider that there could be more going on – to them, all that counts is human action. For his part, Job quickly begins cursing the day he was born and blaming God. Up until the moment that God speaks up, everything is ALL. ABOUT. JOB.

Now, let me be clear: lamentation is not bad in and of itself; in fact, there’s an entire book of the Bible devoted to it. Grief is real and powerful, and it doesn’t have a set timeline. The problem begins when it turns into a fixation – when the ONLY thing that matters to you, the only thing you can think or care about, is your own circumstances. At that point, it transforms from a healthy, normal human reaction to loss into an egocentric worldview that can do real damage. THAT is what God is responding to here. God is reminding Job and his friends of their place in the bigger picture: they certainly matter (God IS speaking directly to them, after all!) but they are NOT the center of the universe.

Now, why does this matter, beyond keeping us humble? Well, as I just mentioned, an egoistic worldview can do real damage – and not just psychologically speaking. Let’s look at Genesis 1:28 one more time: “Fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” Historically, human beings have taken an anthropocentric approach to this verse. We get to do what we want with creation, because everything has been put here for OUR benefit. Consequently, we understand the verb “master” to mean “conquer, control, or subdue.” This has led to ecological devastation – over-hunting and -fishing, deforestation, pollution, habitat destruction, global warming, soil degradation…because, from this perspective, the Bible says that it’s literally our God-given right to be masters over creation.

But that’s not the ONLY possible reading of Genesis 1:28. When we reorient our perspective of humanity as a PART of creation, rather than its apex – when we remember the lesson of Job 38’s creation account – then this verse begins to hit differently. We no longer interpret “mastering the earth” as being about power or control, and we begin to understand our call to mastery the same way one might “master” an art or an area of academic study – by cultivating knowledge out of deep sense of love and respect and subsequently using that knowledge in service to the greater good. When we, like Job, stop obsessing about what WE want and what WE deserve, we begin to view the rest of creation as something worthy of partnership instead of possession. We begin to seek mastery of all creation (in this new sense) while at the same time being master over none of it.

Although Job 38 seems to point towards this interpretation, we still have a hard time getting on board with it. We seem to have forgotten how interconnected God has created the world to be – or at least, we’ve intentionally unlearned our part in all of it. We can appreciate the importance of the environment and the complexity of ecosystems, right up until it interferes with our ability to travel from one place to another quickly, or until it causes us more inconvenience than we’re willing to tolerate (this is my biggest struggle, personally), or until – heaven forbid – it makes us feel guilty about anything. That’s when our old habits of trying to be “master over the world” reassert themselves. Instead of figuring out how to work WITH creation, we just bulldoze over it (both literally and metaphorically), and this rarely has good results in the long term.

Believe it or not…it’s not just climate change deniers and the apathetic who contribute to this problem. Even those with the best of intentions have difficulty letting go of the control that we mistakenly believe we need to exercise over creation. Like those of us who would rather invent robotic bees to fertilize plants than stop using the pesticides that are killing bees in the first place.[1] Or those of us who would rather develop carbon capture technologies[2] than just reduce our carbon emissions overall. Or those who would rather set up entire industries around recycling instead of just producing less waste.[3] Because we can’t let go of the idea that we have to DO something to save the world.

But friends, God doesn’t need us to DO anything to keep the world running. Is it you who imposes a limit on the sea? In your lifetime, have you commanded the morning? Can you guide the stars at their proper times? Of course not. That’s not the kind of mastery that we’ve been given – no matter how much we might want it to be. As human beings from the time of Job until today seem to have forgotten, God created all things and called them all good long before humanity arrived on the scene. We’ve never been any more essential to the world’s functioning than any other part of creation – and we need to check our egos accordingly, or we wind up being the problem ourselves.

This is why God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind in chapter 38 – he needed an ego check. We’ve had our own moments of humility in more modern times, too. Remember just a few years ago, when the COVID pandemic forced us all to stay inside? What happened? Did the world stop turning? No; in fact, by several measures, the world healed as a result of our diminished interference: air, water, and noise pollution all decreased dramatically, while wild animals were able to spread out into spaces formerly monopolized by humans. Humanity stopped in place, but the rest of creation kept on going without us.

Of course, we continued to do damage to the environment in other ways, and in our (understandable) concern for our physical health, few of us were able to really understand the impact of our absence. Once the lockdown was over, we all largely returned to our old patterns of behavior, undoing virtually all of the progress creation had made recovering from its human “masters”. God had spoken to us out of quarantine, but it appears we hadn’t been listening closely enough. And God only knows how many more chances we’ll have to listen before it’s too late.

We need to understand and accept that we are NOT, as we have believed for so long, co-masters of creation alongside God. The creation account in Job can be difficult to hear because it seems like far more of a personal indictment than the other two accounts we’re used to reading are…but maybe that’s exactly what we need at this point in our story. It’s no longer enough to simply agree that human beings aren’t the literal or metaphorical center of the universe. It’s not enough to merely acknowledge how our interpretation of human mastery has done irreparable damage to God’s beloved creation in the past. It’s time for us to repent and change how we interact with the world around us for good. For once, we need to step back and learn what we can about creation for its own sake, not for ours. We need to work alongside creation instead of acting as its self-appointed rulers. Because we know there’s only ONE Master of all creation – and as Job found out, it’s definitely not us.

It’s not too late to take responsibility for the harm humanity has done and to try to reverse it. We can still renounce the false mastery that we’ve taken upon ourselves and replace it with a version based on understanding and appreciation. This is the best way for us to honor who God actually created us to be: not above and beyond creation, but the part of it best equipped to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the rest of it.

It turns out we aren’t in charge after all, but isn’t that actually a relief? We don’t HAVE to have all the answers – we just have to figure out how to let go and get out of the way. Amen.



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