23 Then Job answered: 2 “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. 3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! 4 I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. 6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. 7 There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. 8 “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; 9 on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. 10 But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
The question is “Why?” The answer is… “I don’t know.” Are you disappointed in me? I admit to some disappointment in myself. I thought that was what seminary was for. In my mind, it was called Answer School. After all, if I was going to be a pastor of a church full of parishioners who had these questions about God and life and suffering … then I wanted to have the answers. If I didn’t then what good would I be? If you visit the doctor and she tells you, “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” what do you do? You go somewhere else. So, when faced with life’s biggest question – which is certainly the “Why?” question, I wanted to have the answer. I wanted to turn to the answer key in the back of the book and say, “Of course. Got it. Here you go. This is why your child has cancer. This is why you lost your job after forty years. This is why your husband stepped out on your marriage. This is why the Holocaust went down. Boom. Another satisfied customer…?” Do you know what I found? Pat answers to life’s biggest tragedies and mysteries are not satisfying in the least. Life’s biggest “Why’s?” are weightier than that. I wonder “Why?” a lot. Maybe you do too. And I’ve started a little heavy today… if the Holocaust makes the first paragraph of the sermon, you know it’s serious. But I do wonder why about more casual matters too.
I saw on the news this picture of a woman in a Chinese rail station.
“Why?” “What is she doing?” you ask? She is riding through the security x-ray conveyor belt because she didn’t want to let go of her handbag. Why would she do that? I don’t know but I’ve done some research and this is certainly not recommended. A couple of days ago, the Doubletree Hotel close to the church was evacuated in the middle of the night due to smoke that had filled one floor of the building. The radio DJ I was listening to that morning said there was a man who rushed out of the building to escape the smoke and was seen standing out front of the hotel in his underwear. That’s understandable. When you’re concerned for your life, you don’t always have time to get dressed or think about grabbing important things on your way out of the building. But this guy did make sure he got out of the building with one item… so precious he didn’t even have to think about grabbing it in time of crisis. It was his automatic instinct. Not clothes, not his ID or necessary valuables; not even his wife and kids. There he stood out front of the hotel, safely and in his underwear, arm around his… wait for it… golf clubs. I ask “Why?” and some of you are thinking, “I totally understand,” and you’re ready to give him some kind of award. I get that some of our “Why?” questions are not the same. But the “Why, God?” question when it comes to suffering seems to be a question we all wonder about.
Stephen Fry, English comedian and actor known for his voice-over work in particular – reading all seven of the Harry Potter novels for audio books is a self-declared atheist. He was once asked by an interviewer, “Suppose [all of this God business] is true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say?” Fry responded: “Bone cancer in children; what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world where there is such misery that’s not our fault?” He then added a second question: “Why should I respect a God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” There was intense passion, if not pain, in his response. That little segment of the interview was posted on YouTube and within days it was viewed over 5,000,000 times. It’s now been viewed nearly 8,000,000 times. The posted comments ranged from admiration to anger… some called him “spiritually blind.” Fry later apologized for any offense but explained that he was merely saying things that many better thinkers than he had said over the centuries. And he’s right… and maybe more people have walked away from faith because the answers to such questions could not satisfy. “Why?” is the oldest question of all time.
Many date the book of Job as the earliest written book that we find in our Holy Scriptures. And “Why?” is certainly the question of Job. Whether you are Christian or Jewish or Muslim – all faiths who hold Job in high esteem and in their holy books – or you’ve never been much for religion of any kind, you’ve likely heard of Job. His story, while extreme in many ways, is every story any human has ever lived. It’s your story – maybe minus 14,000 sheep and some horrific tragedies but maybe not. You’ve been through some stuff. Your life is not a stranger to suffering or tragedy or the unthinkable. Everybody is struggling with something. Everybody is at some level unmanageable. I’m inspired every week when you show up again, not always put together, not always polished and shiny, but bruised, battered, bullied by life and yet here again wondering about grace and hope and resurrection. Though it is not necessarily my place to say so, please allow me to say, “I’m proud of you.” You all inspire me to get after it again and mine the mysteries of God for another week to see if we can’t find strength in each other’s persevering faith. As we are in our fourth Sunday of wonderland, we’re turning to Job, another companion of faith who’s been through some stuff.
While we launch into the 23rd chapter, let me give you a very brief recap of the story of Job to that point. God and Satan – literally the word for Adversary – have this debate about Job. God says Job is an honest man with the utmost integrity – totally devoted to God; hates evil. The kind of guy you want to be your kid’s teacher, your company’s CEO or and elder in your church. Satan snaps back, “Eh, he’s not so great – surely he’s not as good as you say. Nobody’s motives are pure like that. He’ll crack when life gets tough.” And so the story moves into this season when life does in fact get tough for Job… more than tough… downright horrific. His farm, his sheep and camels and donkeys, his business – wiped out. He loses everything. But he doesn’t curse God. He’s still got his family. Until… Boom. Another tragedy – tornado wipes out his home taking all his kids in the destruction. His soul is distraught but… he doesn’t curse God. Then his health goes to pot. Oozing ulcers from head to toe. He scrapes the sores with a broken piece of pottery while sitting on the garbage can in what used to be his driveway, looking over the smoking ash pile of his former life. His wife, equally suffering from such loss, suggests they just “Curse God and be done with it.” Job won’t curse God but he certainly cries out cursing his circumstance: “Obliterate the day I was born. Blank out the night I was conceived! Let it be a black hole in space. May God above forget it ever happened. Erase it from the books! Rip the date off the calendar, delete it from the almanac!” and he was just getting started. Who could blame him? I don’t. What’s worse, his friends then show up and say all of the cliché things that people say when they’re not going through what you are. They say the equivalents of “Everything happens for a reason,” and “God must have needed your children in heaven” (and, apparently, six thousand camels too). Worse yet, they blame Job for what’s happened. He caused it. His sin surely resulted in such a punishment. And they start in with the “What you shoulda dones…”.
This happens more often than we’d like to admit. We find ourselves going through something – sick in the hospital, grieving the death of a friend, lost a job or a relationship, depressed or in a funk – people start showing up telling us exactly what is wrong with us and the remedy for fixing it. Eugene Peterson says, “Sufferers attract fixers the way roadkill attracts vultures.” And at first, we may be impressed that they bother with us at all and think, “Wow, they have an answer for everything.” But how did they become such great experts on life? They’ve got the spiritual diagnosis and prescription to boot. It all sounds so hopeful but then we wonder why, after all their apparent compassion, we feel worse instead of better after they’ve said their piece to us? Consider leaving the clichés and platitudes at home. Peterson also adds this: “Maybe instead of avoiding suffering, we should enter the suffering, participating insofar as we are able – entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words,” he says, “we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them, and – if they will let us – join them in protest and prayer. Pity can be nearsighted and condescending; shared suffering can be dignifying and life-changing.” In this way, we don’t reduce life to a series of simple answers, we become an arm, locked at the elbow with another who is suffering, willing to hold them without any answers at all. Author John Pavlovitz in his work, “A Bigger Table,” said it this way: “Imagine what it would look like… if we had no other agenda than walking alongside people sharing the view of God from where we stand, not needing them to see what we see, or believe what we believe, but to encounter Jesus in our very flesh.”
Even losing his livelihood, his children, his health, and his friends, Job does not curse God but he’d sure like a reckoning with him. This is where we encounter chapter 23 which is subtitled, “I’m completely in the Dark.” You can say that again. Been there? The darkness can be so overwhelming. And Job goes looking for God in the dark. “I’ve driven all over this town,” he says – “East, west, north, south… nothing.” Job believes if he could just get an audience with God, God would hear him out, understand his plight, and find him not-guilty of any wrongdoing thus restoring his life to the fullness he once believed it to be. He really just wants some answers. And even when you read the whole book of Job, you’ll find that while God does eventually respond to Job, God never answers Job’s “Why?” question.
What do we do about the God who doesn’t answer? Oh, that’s a big wonder, isn’t it? That’s the wonder that has led many to say forget about it. We come to faith thinking we’ll find a big electric blanket and instead we find a cross and a Savior who says, “I’ve picked up mine, won’t you join me by carrying yours?” This is where our spiritual character is truly formed – much less so because of any achievement or even any of our conscious choices. Our spiritual character is formed most by what we endure and what is taken from us as painful as those experiences are. We don’t seek them out… we don’t pray for them to find us… we don’t seek pain unnecessarily… but the suffering of Christ gives meaning and purpose to our own sufferings as well. I wonder if it is the task of the church to proclaim a word of grace that neither denies nor fixes the suffering of others but redeems it and offers it as hope to the world. By these scars we are healed. That is hard to affirm and yet somehow has been my experience more and more in my life.
The German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who was writing so much at the turn of the 20th century said:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  In some ways, this was true for Job. While some pain will never go away, most of it lessens in time and what is left is what we have learned about ourselves, our family, our friends, and our God… in the process.
Job never gets the mystery fully uncovered. In fact, God says to him at one point, “Where were you, Job, at the foundations of the earth?” It was God’s way of saying, to paraphrase my friend Kevin Howe, “You’re on a need to know basis, Job, and some of this stuff you don’t need to know.” Job says later in the book as he’s finding some new understanding about his life, “I admit it,” he says to God. “I was the one babbling on about things far beyond me. I made small talk about wonders way over my head. You told me to listen and I didn’t listen.” But… and here’s the key to the whole thing… “I admit,” he says, “that I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand.” What does this mean? Job never got all of the answers to his “Why’s?” but what he did get was a relationship with God. And yes, there was the return to his life of children and livelihood which was awesome. And… the return of animals – 1,000 donkeys, 6,000 camels, 14,000 sheep to be exact which, to me, sounds like a complete and total nightmare but Job was into it so good for him. But what’s most? Job’s newfound perspective. He was willing to trust God and live amid life’s questions and mysteries. It was like a man that a pastor had been counseling over the years through lots of difficult circumstances. There would often be some progress in dealing with the problems but then always a setback of some kind. He just seemed overwhelmed by his life most of the time. But one day, the man was different. He had a smile on his face and a little bounce in his step and he said, “Pastor,” with this great sense of contentment, “I’ve been wanting to tell you some truly wonderful news.” “Please do,” the pastor said. The man says, “I’ve just resigned as General Manager of the universe and it’s amazing how fast my resignation was accepted!” Maybe we need to resign from similar positions ourselves.
Jesus doesn’t explain the why’s of suffering and pain and sickness and death. Instead – he brings healing and hope. He doesn’t, as N.T. Wright says, “allow the problem of evil to be the subject of a seminar. Jesus allows evil to do its worst to him. He exhausts it, drains its power and emerges with new life.” You can emerge from whatever pain you know right now. I don’t know when or how or what that will look like exactly but I trust it. I’ve seen it too often to say it can’t be done, transformed, repurposed in a beautiful way.
My family found our way to Chick-Fil-A one night. Which night? You can take your pick. I’ll just say we’ve been there more than once. We don’t typically end up at this particular location, however, as there is one closer to our house. But there we were and the place looked nice – a different set-up than ours but that was cool. What struck me was this big, long, tall table that did not look a thing like all the rest of the seats, tables and booths in the place. It truly stuck out. Could fit multiple families. It was that big! It was beautiful too. It seemed to go without question that our family would gather at that table with our little nugget meals and extra Chick-Fil-A sauce. We laughed and shared about our days and ate and enjoyed and communed and played “Would-you-rather” which is most always initiated by our youngest son, Hayes. It was lovely. And I just kept thinking how much I loved that table – it just felt extra special to me. When we got up to leave, I walked around the end of this huge table and discovered a small nameplate that had this inscription on it:
“This table was built by artisans from A Better Way Ministries. The materials used were salvaged from unwanted and abandoned homes. The hands that built it belong to a person who also once felt unwanted and abandoned. Love, compassion and grace are powerful tools.” I’ll be darned. The whole time we were there… I had no clue. The redemption, the sturdy ability to hold even my weight, the beauty of suffering and rejection redeemed… right there; holding my food, my family, our laughter, our wonder, supporting my very being. I don’t have all of the answers. “I don’t know” is often the best answer I’ve got. But… I have no doubt – that was the Lord’s Table. And being at the Lord’s Table has held me together more than the certainty of any answer I’ve ever known.
 Selby, Jenn. “Stephen Fry responds to Christian backlash after confronting God with ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?'” The Independent, February 6, 2015, independent.co.uk. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-suvkwNYSQo
 Scripture references used, like this one, come from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. When Peterson is referenced, the source is the same from the Introduction to the Book of Job.
 A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. John Pavlovitz. Westminster Press. 2017.
 Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet (reissued in Norton paperback, 2004).
 –N. T. Wright, Simply Good News (SPCK, 2015).