Job 38:1-7, 34-41
If life in the digital age has taught me anything, it is that I don’t need to know everything. And that’s OK, because there is always someone else who knows whatever I think I need to know. The place where I learned that lesson is on the “Frequently Asked Questions” pages of websites. Whether it is figuring how to reset the clock in my car twice a year or how to recover a lost password, or any problem that I think I might be the first person in the world to have experienced, the surest and fastest route to a solution is the FAQ page of a website. Because no matter how unique I think my question is, there is always someone who has asked it before me.
When it comes to existential questions about life, a someone who asked them long before I did, is named Job. Job is a man who made history for having experienced the worst case of Murphy’s Law that anyone could imagine. Anything that could possibly go wrong in Job’s life does. Not little by little – but all at once. In a single day he loses his lands and possessions, his family and his health.
Job has some friends, who come by, as good friends will do, to comfort him in his misery. One way that they try to make Job feel better is to make some sense out of his misfortunes by offering explanations about why God let these tragedies happen to Job. But I have a hunch that they needed to make sense out of what was happening to Job in order to make themselves feel better, too. Because, even though Job’s friends thought they had all the answers to why things like these happen, Job’s experience didn’t fit with their nice, neat answers about how God operated. The funny thing is – before all this happened to him – Job would have agreed with his friends. He and they shared a religious perspective that had an explanation and an answer for everything.
That’s something that we have in common with Job and his friends at times. The desire for a religion that leaves no question unanswered and no tragedy unexplained. When faced with something really awful, we grope for neat, simple explanations that will keep our faith intact. People say well-meaning but unhelpful things like: “It must have been God’s will,” or, “God needed another angel in heaven” or, “Those people must be getting what they deserve.” Faith that rests on clichés and one-dimensional solutions to life’s problems only serve to shrink our ideas of God down to human size and keeps us from encountering God in ways that can bring genuine comfort. Or at least, acceptance. This time, Job finds himself on the other side of those easy answers. But Job knows what his friends refuse to believe. That his former ways of understanding life and comprehending God don’t hold up under the weight of the reality he is experiencing.
Job also has a bone to pick with God. He wants a direct explanation from God for all this tragedy that has been dumped on him. Our reading this morning picks up the story with God responding to Job. God responds to Job’s question with a question for Job. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? And quicker than you can say Google God answers Job’s questions like a search engine loading up a marathon list of FAQ’s that God lays before Job.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Or who stretched the line upon it? Who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”
Four full chapters of the Book of Job are filled with questions like these! None of them are questions for which Job could possibly have an answer. Any more than you or I could. They are all questions that no one except God can answer. This barrage of questions is intended to open Job’s eyes to see that there is more to God and God’s ways than human knowledge can encompass. They prove that what’s on trial here is not God’s judgment of Job, but Job’s and his friends’ (and by the way – our) assumptions about God. All at once, the presuppositions and explanations about God that Job and his friends have always lived by, are placed in a different perspective. And what they had presumed about God turns out to be inadequate for knowing God as fully as they could.
In the Old Testament, there are dozens of different Hebrew names for God. Elohim, El, El Shaddai, and Eloah to name just a few. What these names all have in common is that they are given to God by human beings. They mean things like: God Almighty, God All Sufficient, Lord of Hosts or Creator God. So, they are really more like titles, than names. They communicate expectations about how God behaves in certain specific circumstances.
But what about the times when none of the titles for God fit your particular circumstances or needs? What happens when God Almighty doesn’t seem to be mighty enough to protect you or your family from harm? How do you explain the times when God All Sufficient doesn’t prevent your job from being outsourced or allows your home to be foreclosed on? What name do you use to address God in times like those? With what name do you call out to God, if you are someone like Job, who has literally lost everything?
So, in the Hebrew language you have many titles that give us snapshots of what God does, but not the big picture of who God is. But there is one name that describes WHO GOD IS, instead of What God Does. That name is YAHWEH. YAHWEH is God’s self-chosen name. In the Book of Exodus, when Moses asked God, “Who should I say has sent me, when I speak to the people on your behalf?” God told Moses to say, “Tell them YAWEH has sent you.” The literal translation of that name is “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.” It is a name then, that defies human efforts to place limits on God. In Judaism, the name is considered so holy, that it came to be that it was not to be spoken, except by the High Priests on special religious occasions.
The reason I bring this up is that all through twenty-nine chapters of debate between Job and his friends about God, and answers to the questions surrounding Job’s problems, they use those secondary titles for God. El, Elohim, El Shaddai, Eloah. It is not until we get to the part of the story where God speaks directly to Job, that God’s personal name—YAHWEH—appears. It’s as if the writer of this story intended to draw a clear line between the perceptions people have of God, and who God actually is. Job was indignant that his friends had misjudged him, and Job accused God of judging him unfairly, but the biggest misjudgments of all are the wrong judgments people make about God. We imagine that it is God who must justify Himself for us, instead of the other way around. We push back against letting God be who God is.
Not that it’s wrong to express doubts, or to have our own long lists of Frequently Asked Questions regarding God. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has said― “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have all the answers.”
God is not afraid of the questions we raise, even if we frequently ask the same questions again and again from one age to another. Because it is better to accept on faith the mystery of God that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, than to answer our questions about God with human guesses and assumptions that get in the way of our knowing the true God: Who Is Who He Is and Who Will Always Be Who He Will Be. There are some things that, in our finiteness we cannot know about God. If there weren’t, God wouldn’t be God. God would be an invention of our own intellects and emotions. An idol, not a deity.
When things happen to us that make us feel like God is absent, maybe it’s not that God isn’t there; maybe it’s that God is there in ways that draw us ever deeper into the holy mystery of God. Where we can find comfort in knowing that while we may not possess the answers to all our frequently asked questions about life, the one who does have the answers, is the One who proved at the Cross that His love for us is beyond question.
© 2021 Raymond Medeiros
Preached FCCW, October 17, 2021