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If Only

A Homily from Job 23:1-17

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

First United Church of Christ, Brookford, NC

October 12, 2003 (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Our reading from the Hebrew Bible today comes from Job, which is – in and of itself – an excellent argument for preaching from the Gospel lesson. We do not know how many different people contributed to the writing of the book of Job, nor do we know over how many centuries it was edited before reaching its final form. As a matter of fact, we can only guess at what it looked like in its original incarnation, although versions of the story persisted in Jewish oral culture for centuries after the time of Christ.

Even taking the book as it is, Job’s reflections on his life are filled with contradictions, linguistic ambiguities, and even heresies. Some of the time, we’re not even sure of what he’s saying or even what point he’s trying to make; and often when we do understand him we don’t like what he says. This is not, in other words, the kind of text you turn to for easy answers or a quick dose of cheerfulness.

It is, however, part of our canon of Scripture; even if we cannot claim to fully understand it. The particular slice of Job’s story that is today’s lection comes after God has allowed everything Job valued – including his health – to be taken away. Job has been sitting for some time in the ashes of his prosperity while his so-called friends lecture him about how he should respond.

Today’s chapter follows after the third and final run of advice by Job’s friend Eliphaz. Eliphaz has refused to believe Job’s protestations of innocence. He is certain that such horrible things could only happen to a horrible person, and so he encourages Job to repent of his sins so that God can forgive him and Job can prosper again.

The problem is that Job has been telling the truth. From the very beginning of the story, God has proclaimed that Job is “blameless and upright” and that “no one is like him on earth” [1:7] Job has done nothing wrong; yet his children are dead, his wealth is gone, and his body is ravaged with disease.

Job, whom even God has described as the most pious man alive, asks a perfectly sensible question: Where is God? This is a particularly reasonable question within the Jewish context of a covenant relationship. Over and over again we read in the Hebrew Bible that, the children of Israel belong to God and God to them [Gen 17:7-8, Ex 29:45, Lev 26:45]. They have a covenant together, and part of that covenant is that God blesses the righteous [Psalm 5:12]. Yet Job, the most righteous and faithful among all humanity, is cursed beyond imagining.

Where is God? It’s a fair question, but one we’re rarely encouraged to ask in church. If we made it into this building, then we’re supposed to know where God is. God is here among us and within us. Where is God? God is here.

But it doesn’t always seem that way, and Job’s soliloquy forces us to be honest with that fact. As one commentator points out [Janzen], in chapter 23 Job ceases to talk with his friends or even with God. He turns his gaze inward, and allows us to share in his musings about what it means to be cursed by the God to whom you have dedicated your life.

“If only” Job says. “If only I knew where I could find God. If I could find where God lives, I could march in and plead my case.” He then stumbles into a pleasant daydream of what would happen.

He would stand in the presence of God like a plaintiff before a sympathetic judge. For those of you who prefer masculine images of God, think of kindly old Judge Wapner from the “People’s Court.” If you prefer feminine images, think perhaps of the title character from “Judging Amy;” or even Judge Judy if you like your divine judges a little more feisty.

However you picture God, Job wants us to see a benevolent, fair, and powerful judge; one who is simply waiting to do the right thing. Job imagines laying out all of his arguments. He would describe his faithfulness, his kindness, his charity, his piety. He would show the goodness of his heart.

Then he would listen while God would make sense of it. Finally, Job would be able to understand the reason why so many bad things have happened to him. He is certain that there has to be a reason. If only he could find God, he could learn what the reason would be. If only.

Would God treat him as an equal? No, and Job doesn’t expect that. But he does expect God to be fair, a benevolent monarch who will at least listen to what a faithful vassal has to say.

That seems like the very least that God could do, particularly since we know from reading the first chapter that God things Job is the most blameless human being alive. What Job asks is no more than what we ask of God. We want God to be fair to us, to listen to us, to take our needs seriously, to help us make sense of it all.

One problem. Job can’t find God. He says, “I look in front of me, I look behind me; God’s not there. I look to my left, and God is hidden, I look to my right and still I can’t see God.” In Hebrew writing, saying “front and back, left and right” was the literary equivalent of saying “north and south, east and west” in our contemporary speech; but I think the metaphor has particular significance in Job’s case.

When we find ourselves searching for God, we only have one starting frame of reference: ourselves. If we are struggling with grief or loss, we cannot start by looking for a God of joy. If we are hungry and impoverished, a God of wealth seems impossibly distant. Like Job, we look around where we are, and sometimes God seems hidden.

Yet Job is a man of faith. He is certain that, should God test him, he will come out of the test as pure gold. Perhaps Job has forgotten the Proverb [17:3] that the only way to test for gold is in a furnace; and that the suffering that he is enduring might very well be the very proof for which he is praying.

In the end, though, Job realizes it doesn’t matter. “God,” he says, “stands alone. God is one. God is unique. Nothing I say will change the will of God; and what God has started for me God will finish.”

He’s more right than he knows, because – not only is he right where God wants him – he’s there because of the very things that he thought would exempt him from misery. Job is suffering because he is pious, because he is good, because he is faithful.

Isn’t that a kick in the pants? Job used the wrong “If only…” It’s not “If only God knew how righteous I am…” God knew. It’s, “If only I weren’t so righteous.”

Job apparently got a glimpse of that, because his confidence turns to fear. In verse 15 Job says, “I am terrified of the presence of God; when I think about it, I dread God.” Now remember, just a moment ago Job was ready to go knocking on doors until he found where God lived; and when he got there he was going to barge in and demand justice.

The more he thinks about it though, the less it seems like a good idea. It starts to sink in with Job that not only is God greater than us, God is not like us. God sees the world from an entirely different perspective. God’s needs and plans are totally different from ours, and when we are most willing to be subject to God’s will is when we are most likely to end up doing something we don’t want to do.

Job realized this, and he was afraid. As the Psalmist says (and Job will later realize [Job 28:28]) “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom…” [Psalm 111:10]. That’s not a new theme in our Scriptures. Go to an Internet-searchable Bible and do a search for the phrase “fear of the LORD.” You’ll come up with over seventy passages in the Hebrew Bible.

Our ancestors knew that the wise fear God. Why? Because God could squish us like little bugs? Not really. Because God is angry and capricious, and might smite us at any time? No. We should fear God for the same reason that Job suddenly stopped wanting his trial before God: because God is not like us.

We humans value all sorts of things that are worthless to God. Comfort, wealth, prestige, health; God knows they are all meaningless. It is absolutely impossible for us, as mortals, to see things the way God does; to set our priorities completely according to God’s standard.

So, if we are sincere in our faith; if we genuinely wish to follow the path God asks of us, we should be afraid. We might not get what we want. We might lose everything we have. We might lose everything we’ve earned, even the accomplishments that we thought would never be taken away. We might end up with nothing at all, empty shells like Job – faithful children who are right where God wants us; and in the last place on Earth we ever wanted to be.

For Job, the soliloquy ends in darkness. He simply wishes that he could disappear, and not have to face his fears or his grief any longer. He won’t get that option. In fact, he will go on to tie the injustices he has faced with those of the whole world. Like victims everywhere, he will cry out at the top of his lungs “This is not fair!”

There are times when we stand in the darkness with Job, and his cry is our own. It is tempting to think in those times, when we are lost in the darkness of our fears, when we are certain that we cannot find God, when we know that bad things are happening to us for no good reason; it is tempting to think in those times that we are somehow bad Christians. We start to believe that real Christians are always happy, that they never doubt and never question. We start to think “If only. If only my faith were stronger. If I only I prayed more or read the Bible more. Then this would all make sense. Then I would be O.K.”

Yet God spoke for Job and said that Job was the very best humanity had to offer. There was no more faithful believer than Job; and even he had moments of darkness and fear when God was nowhere to be found and justice seemed impossible.

Sometimes we do stand with Job, but we stand on the other side of the cross. There is a companion in our darkness, one who – like Job - screamed out into the night, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark 15:33].

That tormented voice in the shadows does not belong to just anyone, it belongs to Jesus the Messiah; God in the flesh. If it weren’t already clear that the otherness of God is greater than we can begin to imagine; this should drive home the point as sharply as a hammer against a nail.

We are not the only ones who search in the darkness for a reason, for a comforting presence. Job, the most pious of faithful believers is not the only one there either. God stands in the darkness as well, battered by a mortal world of pestilence and betrayal, pain and death.

It turns out that Job was looking in the wrong place. God is not sitting on the Judge’s bench. God is sitting at the defendant’s table right beside us. Quite frankly, I don’t fully understand what that means; but I’d rather have a God who suffers beside me than one whom I could not find.

I can’t claim to have the presumptuous over-confidence of Job’s friends. Nor can I claim Job’s earlier belief that ultimately justice prevails, and goodness is blessed. I’ve lived too long and seen too much to believe that.

Like Job, I’ve come to realize that I don’t understand why the world is the way it is, and that scares me; and it scares me even more when I realize that even God is not exempt from the doubts and pain that Job faced.

The Psalmist says that is the beginning of wisdom, and if I only knew what God knew, I’m sure I would understand that too. I don’t. We don’t. Like Job, we leave more puzzled, less sure of ourselves, than we were when we got started. Yet even Job finds in the end that God was listening; and we do not leave alone. We leave in the company of the Savior who redeemed us, and we ourselves have become part of his living presence in the world, the very Body of Christ.