Sermon Seeds: With Questions
Sunday, October 17, 2021
21st Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Job 38:1–7 (34–41) and Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c
Isaiah 53:4–12 and Psalm 91:9–16
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Confronting Adversity (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
Who, what, when, why, and how. These were the words that many of us learned early on were the start of a question. The answers to those questions would illuminate the parties involved, the nature of a thing, the timing of it, the reason behind it, and the means of it. My favorite question has always been why–when that gets answered for me, I am satisfied. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting whatever situation I’m confronting to “make it make sense.”
That’s the struggle that happens in the book of Job. Calamity doesn’t make sense. Hardship doesn’t make sense. Suffering doesn’t make sense. Too often, our attempts to provide a neat and tidy logical explanation leads to a theology of condemnation and guilt. We adopt the sensibility of karma (we get what we deserve) when our faith is built upon grace manifested in flesh.
We don’t get what we deserve–good or bad. Suffering isn’t punishment for bad deeds or an unrighteous life. And while we can be subject to the consequences to our individual and collective behavior, forest fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes don’t distinguish between those who live carbon neutral lives and those who practically bathe in fossil fuel and styrofoam.
Job, like many of us, wants it to make sense. Perhaps, that impulse toward understanding comes as a hope that understanding will lead to overcoming. If we know the reason why, we can change the nature of our situation. Maybe if we can get a handle on the cause, we can wrestle control of the outcome and our destiny. Seeking an answer to the question “why” uncovers our desire to control and our discomfort with uncertainty.
Beyond that, when our why queries explore the motivation of others, they inform and chart our relationship. Going to God with our why explores the mystery inherent in the divine. It also reflects the mutuality of the relationship. Approaching the Holy One with questions is an act of faith and trust…regardless of the answers.
Here we witness God respond to Job with questions of God’s own. How frustrating it must have been for Job, when God deigns to reply to his pleas…by answering questions…with questions.
It is important to note that God responds at all. We may take for granted how extraordinary that is. While much of the book includes Job’s lament and conversations with other people in his life, the dominating character is the Sovereign One. That God does not remain aloof and isolated among the heavenly council. That God does not remotely observe Job as a spectator watching a performance for entertainment purposes. That God enters into the story and into the conversation….with questions that in turn invite further dialogue with Job. The questions aren’t a rebuke but a reminder. In these words, we hear echoes of the words that Job uttered in response to his Wife, and perhaps, God responds in a similar reminder that the One who gives has the power, authority, and right to take away.
Job had feared that God would “trample me in a storm and multiply my wounds without warrant. He would not let me catch my breath, but would sate me with bitterness” (9,17-18). But God does not do this. He gives Job the hearing that Job longed for and demanded, and twice pauses to let Job have his say. He does not threaten to kill Job, though death is something that Job had (sometimes) longed for (see chapter 3). If a challenge to debate is “trampling” or if a series of rhetorical questions and a description of a well-maintained universe truly “multiplies” wounds, then Job is frailer than he appears in the Dialogue, in which he called on God to show himself to state his case and imagined himself speaking truth to power. In the Theophany, God speaks in the tone of a wise teacher, who scolds the pupil for his ignorance but does not rage, shout, or threaten.Michael V. Fox
Perhaps, the reason that we so often project anger onto these biblical narratives (Job’s response to Job’s Wife and God’s response to Job) is that we are so more likely to encounter condemnation than grace, anger than compassion, and superficial dialogue than holy conversations. One reality of reading Job as an allegory is that it relies upon the reader to fill in significant blanks from their own experience and perspective on God:
What people find in Job depends less on what the book says than on what they already believe about the nature of God, about the existence ٠٢ non-existence of Justice in the world, and about the nature of humanity. The book of Job is one of the great masterpieces of world literature, and like other great works, it refuses to accept a single, simple interpretation. It is an accurate reflection ٠۴ real life, and real life is always ambiguous. There is always more than one way to interpret human experience, our interpretations depend on who we are and what we believe, and that means what we learn from studying such a work of art is not so much “what it says” as who we are.Donald E. Gowan
The book of Job does more than consider why do good people suffer or how do we faithfully respond to suffering. It also challenges us to consider–faithfully and critically–the role that we believe that God plays in human suffering specifically and in our lives in general.
I have a number of what I call “honorary” nieces and nephews. Several years ago, I was having dinner with family friends and one of my nieces started asking me a series of questions. Some of those questions were difficult to answer and complex to consider. Yet, I kept responding, even when the answer was “I don’t know.” We were both enjoying ourselves, but one of her family members was annoyed by it and told her to stop “bothering me” with all those questions. Surprised, I blurted out, “she can ask me.” Now, as an adult, my “niece” has come to share that because I never rejected her questions, she trusted me in so many other ways that I will not name here. Suffice it to say, it made a profound difference in our relationship and her life in ways I’ve only recently learned.
When I hear people say, “You can’t question God,” I hear Her say, “they can ask me.” When we read this passage, we can assume that God is annoyed, or we can assume that God is responding in a way that leads Job to consider an important but difficult truth. We aren’t God and that means something. We don’t get the whole story laid out before us. We don’t understand all the mysteries. We don’t write the totality of our stories, and we especially aren’t able to construct the arc of our narratives. That doesn’t make us puppets who are operated with string, it means that we are participants who enjoy an audience with the writer, actors who consult with the director, and performers who appeal to the editor.
For example, the first rhetorical question …Where were you when I established the earth?” 38:4 is better understood as emphasizing God’s existential and experiential superiority over Job, not as rebuking or rejecting him. That Job does not “know understanding” also distinguishes God epistemologically from Job. Undoubtedly, the first speech … draws a sharp contrast between God and Job, but Job’s experiential ignorance and impotence serve to call the reader’s attention to God’s wisdom and power. The ontological, epistemological, and existential superiority of [the Holy One] might help bring comfort to Job by introducing, reminding, and expanding Job’s understanding of who precisely is speaking out of the whirlwind. Job had feared that such a powerful God would crush him …. It is not without irony that, when Job receives an answer, God speaks from the whirlwind. But in the end, Job experiences “the immediacy and directness of divine presence,” and not wrath.T. C. Ham
We may not have all the answers, but, thanks be to God, we can have and hold all the questions. And, even when the Author and Finisher of our Faith answers our questions with questions, it’s a reminder and renewed invitation to engage in the dialogue. God doesn’t need our permission but does receive our input. God honors us by not offering us silence or platitudes but truth–even hard and uncomfortable truth–when we seek greater understanding and explanation. We may be encouraged to trust and hope in God, but here we observe the hope and trust that God places in us. The relationship is unequal, but it is mutual. The divine image stamped on our spiritual DNA allows us into a dialogue with the Creator.
That is a gift, but one that expects a level of maturity on our part. God does not promise us ease as a part of the covenant; God commits to presence. Job’s story is a testimony to God’s presence–sometimes observing, sometimes commending, sometimes responding, sometimes redeeming–in the face of struggle, hardship, and devastation.
Like Job, we do not live easy lives. We encounter our own measure of tragedy, individually and collectively. We may rail against fate or cry out in pain to God. We have our own search for answers and our own set of questions. Many of those queries begin with “why,” but in our faith, the central question always comes back to “who.”
We can ask the One who has the answers. We can seek the One who can carry our burdens. We can trust the One who will never leave us. And, we can hope in the One who responds to our needs, our concerns, our very beings, and all our questions.
For further reflection:
“We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have all the answers.” ― Abraham Joshua Heschel
“My faith is a wounded faith, but my life is not without faith. I didn’t divorce God, but I’m quarrelling and arguing and questioning, it’s a wounded faith.” ― Elie Wiesel
“But without doubts, without a standpoint reached through questionings, human beings can’t acquire knowledge.” ― Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection:
Invite the congregation to share the questions they have for God in small groups or in comments and chat on social media and livestreams.
Fox, Michael V. “Job 38 and God’s Rhetoric.” Semeia 19 (1981): 53–61.
Gowan, Donald E. “God’s Answer to Job: How Is It an Answer?” Horizons in Biblical Theology 8, no. 2
(December 1986): 85–102
Ham, T C. “The Gentle Voice of God in Job 38.” Journal of Biblical Literature 132, no. 3 (2013): 527–41.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Job 38:1–7 (34–41) and Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c
Isaiah 53:4–12 and Psalm 91:9–16
Job 38:1–7 (34–41)
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
3 Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
38 when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?
39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
40 when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
41 Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?
Psalm 104:1–9, 24, 35c
1 Bless the LORD, O my soul.
O LORD my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
2 wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
3 you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
4 you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
5 You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
6 You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
8 They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
9 You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
24 O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
Praise the LORD!
4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out himself to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
9 Because you have made the LORD your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
10 no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
12 On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
5 Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness; 3 and because of this he must offer sacrifice for his own sins as well as for those of the people. 4 And one does not presume to take this honor, but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was.
5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,
“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;
6 as he says also in another place,
“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”
7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9 and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10 having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” b