“Who is this who darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?” (Job 38:2)
That line jumped off the page for me this week, after two months of not having to preach, and now having to stand here and have something to say.
I heard the verse as a caution, that speaking, that saying things here needs to get at the truth about God at work in our lives and in our world—not that I’ve got to have God figured out, which I doubt is even possible, but that what I say, what it means to preach, is to be a stumbling towards the truth, words that guide us, that direct us, to God, to God’s life with us.
“Words without knowledge.” We’re all too familiar with that. We’re used to speaking without knowing what we’re talking about—sometimes because we’re given to lie, the temptation to deceive someone for our own benefit, to protect ourselves perhaps, or to attack a rival.
There are also innocent words without knowledge. Twenty years ago I was traveling around Europe, and I remember reading in one of those Rick Steves’ guidebooks about a city I was in—I can’t remember which city, maybe London, but I can’t remember for sure—the travel book warned tourists like me against asking locals for directions because, even if someone didn’t know what they were talking about, they’d provide detailed directions, just because they didn’t want to let the person down. They would give directions, wrong ones, because they didn’t want to disappoint you—because they cared too much, they just wanted to be helpful, so they offer directions without knowledge.
That’s the temptation of the preacher—the temptation for all of us, actually: To say things about God even though we know full well that we barely know anything about what we’re saying, but we say those things because we have to say something, we don’t want to let each other down. We want to be helpful, to offer some direction, some guidance, some clarity, even if the truth is that we ourselves are totally lost, completely disoriented. So we offer words without knowledge, like the person who gives directions that only serve to get the tourist all the more lost.
In our passage for today, Job is kind of like that tourist—someone who’s completely lost, totally disoriented, because of all that he has suffered. His world has crumbled, he lives in the rubble of a life in collapse.
We’re in Job 38, the conclusion of the book, so let me give you a quick summary of what’s happened to him, a rundown of his story. The book starts with Job losing everything. Family, possessions, his health, everything is taken from him in a series of a disasters—marauding enemies kill off his livestock, a tornado destroys the house where his children were feasting, and a disease consumes his body with boils.
All of that happens in the first couple of chapters. The rest of the book—over thirty chapters—is a conversation about God, about what God has to do with the tragedy of Job’s life. Friends talk with Job about God, and Job talks to himself about God, and then, finally towards the end of the book, Job talks to God about God. And God is silent the whole time…
Until our passage here in chapter 38, when God shows up in another tornado-like phenomenon, a whirlwind—as if Job’s life wasn’t already a whirlwind, as if he wasn’t already inside of a whirlwind.
I’m sure that this detail about the whirlwind, that God shows up in the same kind of phenomenon that took away Job’s children, has something to say about trauma, about how the past is never quite past, about how losses haunt us, about how we spend our lives trying to deal with the past’s lingering effects on us—and how God arrives in those memories, that God is with us as we remember.
In the whirlwind, God confronts Job with how little he actually knows about this world, a series of questions that exposes Job’s lack of knowledge:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (38:4).
“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (38:19).
“Do you know the heavens, and can you establish their rule on the earth?” (38:33).
“Who can number the clouds?” (38:37).
We know so little of this world, so little of this God, so little of our lives and the lives of the people we are called to love. We know so little.
And we figure out how to make a life for ourselves based on what we can piece together—of this world that God has provided, with these lives that God has given us.
This pandemic has been kind of like a whirlwind. So much has been taken, so much has collapsed—in our society and in our lives. I feel like I’ve lost a year. I confuse my months as I try to think about what happened when. Time has become a maze for my mind.
There’s a lostness that has happened this year, we’ve become lost to one another. It has become hard to keep track of our own lives, let alone our friends, people we care about.
My hope is that, as a church, we can be a community where we provide each of us what we need to start to pick up the pieces of our lives, to figure out what we’ve lost and what we still have, and to see what kind of life we can make for ourselves again together—for us to be a people where we offer each other God’s words of hope, the help we need to gather up the fragments and make something new.
I’m sure this will mean that we’ll be speaking lots of words without knowledge—because it will take some time to get to know one another again, to learn what we’ve missed, to listen for how we can be there for each other. We’ll have to be patient, I’m sure, and generous, especially as we mess up, as we offer mistaken words, as we reach for words about God to pass along, to bring truths about God into our lives, as guidance—to reach for words that might not be the right ones, even if we offer them with the best intentions.
To go back to my story about being in London twenty years ago—we should recognize that we’re locals and tourists at the same time, all of us are lost tourists and well-meaning locals at the same time. We’re lost people trying to offer directions to lost people.
All we have are words without knowledge, words that attempt to know, words that we use as we try to offer care, even if we’re not quite sure where we are, yet we offer the best of ourselves we can, because we want to be helpful, because we want to rebuild a common life, to find ourselves together again in God’s care, our lives held by God’s love.
The good news in this story about Job is that, despite all of their words without knowledge, Job and his friends flailing around with their words—despite their lostness and their theological misunderstandings, God hears them and shows up. In the end, God can’t help but be drawn into the conversation.
Yes, God offers a word of judgement, of correction, but that correction is an offer of mercy, of restoration—because God wants to be part of Job’s life, God wants to share life with Job, to join the fellowship of words, because there’s a longing at the heart of God, a longing for communion.
The calling of church life is this: That when I ask you for directions, instead of drawing a map and wishing me luck as I go on my way, you offer to come with me and show me where to go—to join me, even if that means we might get lost together. Because the good news is that wherever two or more are gathered, God is there, even if all of this feels like a whirlwind.