'There was once a man...'
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
I wonder how you feel about existential questions. To put it most simply, existential questions are questions about existence. Of course, there is nothing simple about them. They’re about the foundations of our lives. You may be really into that kind of thing. You may think they’re a waste of your time and energy. We’re going to be talking about them and having a chance to sit with them quite a bit over the coming weeks of summer. The thing about existential questions is, they don’t care if you care about them or not. They’re there and they are answered by how we live, even if we never think about them.
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. The story of Job invites us to consider the most meaningful questions of our lives. So happy summer! Seriously though why should we think that considering the deepest questions of our lives should be a source for unhappiness?
Apart from the fact that the circumstance of our lives can at times be very trying, to say the least. If you know anything at all about the book of Job, you know what’s coming. If you know anything at all about life, you know what’s coming. This is the thing about the wisdom books of the Bible. I’m looking at my NRSV version and the section that starts at Job and continues on through Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon is called Poetical and Wisdom books.
The thing about these books is, you really don’t need to know anything else about the Bible or the story of God for them to resonate. They speak to human experience in a way that transcends time and place, culture, and race. The story of Job in particular speaks of suffering and questions are asked about God and suffering.
The thing is with these questions, they’re not so much asked by us but of us. We’re going to have a chance to sit with these questions and consider these questions over the coming weeks. I’m thankful for this – not everyone has the will/inclination/opportunity to do this kind of thing you know – sit with such questions at length. Spend time with them in the presence of and with the guidance of our Lord. Let’s come before God in prayer as we start.
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. Much around this book is uncertain. Where exactly was Uz? When was this story written? Was it written all at once or over a period of time? Is it about a historical person? How historically accurate is an account in which people speak in poetry (this was never really a thing at any known point in human history, Shakespeare’s works notwithstanding). Does any of this really matter when we consider the message or the purpose of this story?
Speaking of questions we don’t have an answer to, let me say off the top that this book does not answer the perennial question “Why do the innocent suffer?” It speaks to suffering and answers questions about suffering that we will look at over these weeks. I suppose this is the thing that is difficult to think about, difficult to sit with. If you asked me to consider the question then I’m going to start by thinking about innocent suffering. Maybe I should simply say suffering because who am I really to judge anyone’s guilt or innocence or what is rightly deserved or not. At this point, I’m thinking about suffering. I’m thinking about a mother and three children killed in Brampton when their car is t-boned at an intersection. I’m thinking about a 27-year-old in Atlanta who falls asleep in his car in a drive-through and is dead before the night is over. I start to think about how death affects countless lives. “How can God let this happen?” “What was this for?” “How do we find meaning in this?” “How can we go on?” “How are we going to live?” I think of hearing about a child of 10 dying of leukemia in Sick Kids and the father having a conversation with my brother saying “I have a lot of questions to ask God.” I think of a dear friend who loses their father to a stroke and on the same weekend finds out their mother has an inoperable brain tumour. Why?
These are questions about our existence. The “Why do the innocent suffer?” question is not answered and should not be answered and if anyone tells you that they have a good answer, then do not believe them.
There’s a deeper question though here for the one who would follow God or the one who is considering what it means to follow God no matter where you are on your following. We’re all going to suffer. I’ve said here before that if you don’t know what acute grief is like you will one day. I skated through life for 34 years before finding out what acute grief is like. We will all of us go through circumstances which cause us grief. The deeper question is – “Where is wisdom to be found?” Put another way, “Is God worthy of worship no matter what our circumstances?” What does it mean that we are made of dust and at the same time we are made in the divine image?
The thing about existential questions – questions that speak to the deepest part of our existence – is that it’s not like we are given the answer to them. They are not questions that are posed because we lack information and then we get the information and then we say “Oh right thanks for that!” I said not long ago that I heard someone say that there are two existential questions that we start to ask when we turn 12 or 13 or so. The first is “Who am I?” The second is “Will they like me?” Dallas Willard writes about four existential questions that are somewhat similar “What is real or what can you rely on? Who ‘has it made’? Who is a good person? How do you become a good person?” Even if we are not consciously thinking of these questions, we answer them in the way we live. We are living answers.
We are living answers to the question “Where is wisdom to be found?” or “Is God worthy of our worship no matter what our circumstances are?”
The really wild thing here in our story is that God and the heavenly council are involved in the question. The really wild thing is that God involves us in the answer. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves. There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. His name meant “Where is the Divine Father” speaking of questions. His name also means “hated one” so make of that what you will. He is blameless and upright. Wholeness and fair treatment of others. He feared God and turned away from evil. He’s this kind of larger than life figure. His life is perfect. Seven sons, three daughters. Even the number of kids he has is perfect – seven and three. He’s a larger than life figure.
But he is also one that enfleshes the questions that are being asked here. This is not merely a philosophic exercise for those hanging out in student halls and salons. These questions are worked out in our lives. We’re given a look at Job’s interior life and he’s just like us. He worries about his kids. He wants what’s best for them. When they’re having parties together (and what great scenes of family togetherness) he gets up early in the morning to offer sacrifices just in case they sinned and cursed God. He worries about possibilities. Is this not something with which every parent can identify? I remember Barack Obama talking about peace and reconciliation in the Middle East saying “Don’t we all love our children?” There’s a common bond here. Let us feel for Job here the same way we feel at the end of Ol Yeller or Beaches or whatever movie makes you cry.
Just as Job’s family gets together, the heavenly beings get together. It seems like it was the Accuser’s job to go around on the earth looking for virtue. It seems to have made the Accuser cynical. Sure Job is pious but how could he not be – looks what’s in it for him! Stretch your hand out now and touch all that he has and he will curse you to your face!
Which do we choose? Blessings or curses? And why? Do we choose blessings because of what’s in it for us or because God is intrinsically worthy of our worship?
Let our lives give an answer. Is God worthy of worship in any circumstance?
Job receives some bad news. Have you ever received some news where the person said to “Are you sitting down?” It’s devastating. The equivalent of “Are you sitting down?” here is “I alone have escaped to tell you.” There was a Sabean raid. They stole your oxen and donkeys and killed your servants. Lightning fell and burned up your sheep and servants. A Chaldean raiding party in three columns have stolen your camels and killed your servants. Finally, a great wind from the desert collapsed the house where your children were, and they are dead.
I alone have escaped to tell you.
Where is wisdom to be found? Why are the righteous pious? Job lives into the answer. He got up, tore his robe, shaved his head. There are things we do when we’re confronted by grief. Rituals. In my background, you put the kettle on. Formal rituals that help us. Emily Dickinson wrote a poem called After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes. We pick out a suit or a dress. We get dressed up. Job tears his robe. Shaves his head. He worships God. Naked I came from my mothers’ womb, and naked shall I return there, the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
We’re going to be going along with Job on this journey over these coming weeks. I want to end today though with this. The 2nd chapter contains another challenge from the Accuser – “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” No one is quite sure what skin for skin means. It reminds us though that we inhabit flesh and blood. We are embodied and our bodies matter. We are promised one day the renewal of our bodies, because of the man who was God enfleshed. Veiled in flesh th’ incarnate see, hail the matchless deity.
In Christ, you see, we have an answer to the Accuser’s challenge. All that people have they will give to save their lives! This was the assertion. In Christ, we have someone who gave everything he had to save our lives. In Christ, we have someone who also asked existential questions. They’re not questions that we have to go and search out answers for. We are to live out the answers in the power and presence of the Spirit of God. Questions like:
Who do you say that I am?
Do you believe I can do this?
When the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?
Do you want to be well?
Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?
May our gathering around the bread of life and the cup of blessing be our answer this day to the deepest questions of our lives. May this be true for each and every one of us friends.