Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sermon: "Mining for Wisdom", Job 28 (July 30, 2023)

You may be surprised that today’s reading is from Job. We don’t usually associate this book with Wisdom. Most of what we remember is its uncomfortable premise: Job, a completely blameless and virtuous man, has his property, his family, and ultimately even his own health ripped away from him as the result of a divine wager. A member of God’s heavenly court (referred to as “ha satan” or “the adversary”) bets God that Job is only righteous because of the many blessings he’s received. God accepts this challenge and gives Satan permission to essentially torture Job in order to find out.

Raise your hand if this premise makes you uncomfortable…You’re not alone. None of us signed up to worship a capricious God who’s willing to mess with humanity for the sake of a bet; if we wanted that, we’d have stuck with the Greek Pantheon. And this would be a legitimate concern…IF this were meant to be a historical narrative. But this book has never been considered a historical document. Job belongs, of course, to the genre of Wisdom Literature. It isn’t INTENDED to be taken literally; it’s supposed to teach us deeper truths about ourselves and about God, which we, in turn, are supposed to use to inform how we live our lives.

When we approach Job as a fable or a thought experiment[1] instead of a historical account, it’s easier to look past its details and consider the implications of the bigger picture. The divine wager isn’t intended to ANSWER the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (The answer offered by the text, “because God gets bored sometimes”, is so absurdly inadequate that this should be obvious.) Instead, this story provides a hypothetical context that allows us to ASK the question, “How do we react to the realization that our understanding of God is wrong or incomplete?” We might prefer the knowledge of the former, but this book instead offers us the wisdom of the latter.

Every character in Job represents a different potential response to this (hypothetical) question. Early on, Job’s wife encourages him to “Curse God and die.”[2] A little intense, but this is nevertheless an important option to consider. It’s certainly an understandable reaction. Job did everything right, and God let him down. If you were betrayed by someone you trusted in any other context – a friend, colleague, partner, or family member – you’d certainly be tempted to give up on your relationship with them, to cut ties completely, wouldn’t you? So would Job’s wife.

Of course, being a man of faith, Job rejects his wife’s extreme suggestion, but that doesn’t mean that he takes his circumstances lying down. No, Job gets ANGRY. He doesn’t go so far as to curse God, but he’s not afraid to voice his frustration, confusion, and despair LOUDLY. Early on, he curses the day he was born[3] and belligerently accuses God of unfairness. He’s not afraid to call God all sorts of names over the course of the book’s 42 chapters. He may not be ready to disown God completely, but he definitely feels the sting of betrayal and responds emotionally. This is, in all honesty, probably the healthiest response out of all those depicted – fitting for an honest man of “absolute integrity.”

The most important responses to the hypothetical question posed by this text, however, come from Job’s friends. They spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy trying to explain the unexplainable: how a just and righteous God could allow such terrible things to happen to Job. The assumption underlying each of their lengthy speeches is that THEY understand God perfectly, and therefore everything that’s happened must somehow be Job’s fault. Eliphaz patronizes his friend: “Think! What innocent person has ever perished? When have those who do the right thing been destroyed?”[4] Bildad God-splains him: “Does God pervert justice? Or does the Almighty pervert the right?”[5] They completely discount Job’s own lived experience, brushing off his claims of innocence and spending page after page justifying Job’s suffering to make it fit with what they think they know.

Thanks to dramatic irony, though, we know that this ISN’T, in fact, the case. Job ISN’T being punished for something that he or his ancestors or his children had done wrong; God IS perverting justice. In this thought experiment, Job was being harmed for no other reason than to prove a divine point. And so, for all their (presumably) good intentions, the friends’ responses aren’t helpful because, no matter how orthodox they might be, THEY’RE. NOT. RIGHT. Clinging to their own meager understanding of God in spite of all evidence to the contrary is actually the worst thing they could do because it destroys any possibility of them coming anywhere near the ACTUAL truth.

Outside of the hypothetical, contrary to what Job’s friends imply, innocent people DO perish. Righteous people ARE destroyed. We see it every day. And if we, like them, believe in a just and omnipotent God, it’s hard to explain why these things are allowed to happen. But when we try to rationalize the disconnects between our theology and the realities of life rather than allowing them to exist in tension, we don’t leave room in our faith for a God that’s bigger than our understanding. And that’s a big problem.

When God responds to Job out of the whirlwind, God’s greatest outrage is reserved for the presumption that any human could claim to understand God’s ways. “Who is this darkening counsel with words lacking knowledge?” God demands.[6] The Lord specifically calls out Eliphaz, saying, “I’m angry at you and your two friends because you haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job.”[7] God’s problem isn’t primarily with Job; it’s with those unwilling to admit that they don’t actually “get it”.

And this brings us to today’s reading – a section of scripture that seems out of place in the midst of the book’s dialogues. Chapter 28 serves as the “moral” of this fable, dropped right in the middle of one of Job’s speeches. And as Wisdom literature so often does, this chapter uses poetic metaphor to communicate its lesson: in this case, a mining metaphor. Human beings are willing to go to great lengths for items that we perceive to be of value, digging into the farthest depths, miles away from civilization, hanging tenuously as we slowly descend into the earth for the sake of iron or copper. We will literally take mountains apart, piece by piece, cut straight through boulders, and manipulate the most powerful forces of nature in order to attain precious gemstones.

But these things have little value compared to Wisdom, scripture argues. And she can’t be found anywhere that humans already know about, even those deepest and darkest places. She’s somewhere else entirely – somewhere only God has access to, somewhere beyond our understanding. If we seek Wisdom, we need to be willing to let go of our own understanding and trust God completely, because we have no idea where we’re going, and we can’t find our way on our own. Are we willing to give up our certainty for a chance to encounter something even more valuable?

To take some liberties with Socrates’ words, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing (about God).” Job’s friends are willing to go to great lengths to perpetuate their own understanding of God, but they aren’t willing to venture into the territory of the unknown and unexplained for a chance to encounter divine Wisdom. They spend thousands of words mining the depths of their own understanding, bending over backwards all to avoid the most terrifying three words known to humankind: “I don’t know.” We, too, will willingly excavate what we already know, no matter how difficult or dangerous it gets (for ourselves or for others), but as soon as we’re asked to dig in unfamiliar territory – even knowing that we’re following God – we balk.

We know, of course, that God would never actually subject anyone to the sort of trials presented in Job, but we also know that there will be times in our lives – many, many times – that we don’t understand what God is doing. We won’t get through these times by trying to come up with explanations that fit our existing paradigm; that will only serve to close us off further from Wisdom. We have to be willing to mine the unknown, humbly letting God guide the way, and we have to recognize that even then, we might never figure it out completely. It’s this paradox – seeking understanding by acknowledging that we may never understand – that is the beginning of Wisdom.

NONE of us, not a single one, is anywhere near understanding God completely. We may think we’ve done all the mining possible – worshiping weekly, studying the Bible, praying daily, attending seminary – but even the most engaged among us have only begun to skim the surface. We must be willing to dig into the depths of our own souls and be honest about what we find there; only then can we realize the extent of our own ignorance and our reliance on God. Only then can we admit these things without fear. Only then can we begin the task of mining for divine Wisdom.

As a thought-experiment-slash-fable, this book could have just ended with God rebuking Job and his friends. It would have served its purpose. But instead, it concludes with God repaying Job double what he’d lost and telling us that Job ultimately died at 140, “old and satisfied.” Don’t mistake this as a reward for Job’s faithfulness or as proof that his friends were right after all. It’s evidence that even an entirely hypothetical thought experiment cannot deny the extravagance God’s goodness and love. For all that we don’t understand God, these are the things that we can stake our lives on. So as we embrace our own ignorance, as we begin to let go of our worldview and take our first few steps into the unknown, know this: God is with you. You may never discover the full understanding that you’re mining for, but you can be certain that with every shovel that you dig, with every assumption you release, with every certainty you surrender, you are doing the most faithful thing possible – you are letting God be God and letting that be enough. Amen.


[1] Carol A. Newsom, “Job”, Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd ed., p. 209
[2] Job 2:9.
[3] Job 3:1.
[4] Job 4:7.
[5] Job 8:3.
[6] Job 38:2.
[7] Job 42:7.

Bonus quote from the cutting room floor:

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Liturgy: 9th Sunday after Pentecost, Job 28 (July 30, 2023)

*You are welcome to use or adapt any of my resources for free, but I ask that you provide proper citation AND comment on this post to let me know.*

*Call to Worship (based on Job 28:12, 28)

Leader: Where can Wisdom be found?
People: Reverence for the Lord is Wisdom.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Sermon: "Word & Wisdom", Proverbs 8:12-31 (July 23, 2023)

Human beings seem to have a near-universal desire to share wisdom with each other. Every major life event is marked with an avalanche of advice, from high school graduation to a new job to marriage to buying a house to retirement. Such wisdom-sharing can be informal, offered as an off-handed comment over coffee or an axiom accompanied by a knowing glance, or it can take a more ritualistic form, as a party game at a wedding shower or a formalized Ethical Will. These insights might not always be received gratefully, but nevertheless, we insist on offering them at every opportunity.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

LIturgy: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost - Proverbs 8:12-31 (July 23, 2023)

*You are welcome to use or adapt any of my resources for free, but I ask that you provide proper citation AND comment on this post to let me know.*

*Call to Worship (based on John 1 & Proverbs 8)

Leader: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
People: Wisdom was with God at the beginning of God’s way, before God’s deeds long in the past.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Sermon: "The Menace", 2 Peter 2:1-2, 10b-22 (July 9, 2023)

Today’s reading is unusually long, but after establishing 2 Peter’s tone last week, I really wanted to give you a sense of why Pretend Peter has the reputation he does. Also, to be completely honest, I couldn’t pick anything to cut. There’s just so much in here, and it’s all FASCINATING. Name calling! Hypocrisy! Unruly parties! A talking donkey! Pretend Peter pulls out all the stops to make a lasting impression on his readers. Let’s take some time up front to really take it all in.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Liturgy: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost - 2 Peter 2 (July 7, 2023)

*You are welcome to use or adapt any of my resources for free, but I ask that you provide proper citation AND comment on this post to let me know.*

*Call to Worship (based on Matthew 22:36-40)

Leader: What is the greatest commandment?
People: We must love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Sermon: "The Impression That I Get", 2 Peter 1:1-11 (July 2, 2023)

Now that we’ve finished with Isaiah, the next mini sermon series that the Narrative lectionary suggests for the summer is on 2 Peter. It’s an unusual choice – preachers tend to avoid this epistle, for reasons that we may uncover shortly. 2 Peter isn’t the shortest book of the Bible, but it’s definitely a quick read at just three chapters long. Like many other biblical texts, the authorship of 2 Peter is uncertain – scholars believe that neither 1 not 2 Peter were actually written by the Apostle. In fact, evidence suggests that they were written by two different individuals at least a generation after Peter’s death.