“Where Were You?” at Imago Dei Community, Portland

by Glenn on September 27, 2018

This summer (18 July 2018) we visited Imago Dei Community here in Portland. I feel lucky that we happened to be in the service that particular Sunday because the message was particularly good. It was titled, “Where Were You?” from a series called Questions God Asks Us. It was a meditation on the book of Job. “Where Were You?” is the question God asks Job near the end of the story. The speaker was Michelle Jones, the Associate Pastor for Spiritual Formation.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as the right kind of preaching (or preacher, for that matter). I know of some who are convinced that a sermon must (heavy emphasis on must) be expository, by which they mean you must go verse by verse through the Bible. There are times when that approach is appropriate and rewarding. But it seems to me that to teach the Bible you need both a microscopic (e.g. verse by verse) and a macroscopic (e.g. thematic) approach. In other words, we study both the forest and the trees.

More important than form in speaking is substance. Does the speaker have anything to say? But it’s more than just knowledge. Who we are and how we say it factors in. In the case of preaching, is the speaker able to provide adequate interpretation between a thousands-of-years-old text and the now lives of Church members and attenders. This is no easy task. As a sometime preacher, I have become only too aware of the fact that the farther down the road I get, the more I see the road is longer than I thought.

“Where Were You?” was a great sermon. Not because it followed some sort of preaching success formula, but because the preacher was both fully present and not in the way. Michelle Jones has lived with the text for a lot of years. She said as much, but more importantly, it seemed self-evident in the way she spoke about it.

The message opened with a lovely poem. She described it as the first poem she had written in 30 years, since she was eight-years-old. When she read it to a friend, the comment came back, “Have you considered my servant, Michelle?” The implication was that Jones was living in Job-like circumstances. Jones acknowledged the truth that “nobody wants to live like Job.” The pursuit of suffering doesn’t seem to be something that the healthy among us aspire to do even as I acknowledge that Peter and Paul seemed to have a blithe approach to it, both as an idea and as their own personal (and one imagines, painful) experience.

Jones referenced some moments in her life when things weren’t going well and a particular moment when she was angry with God. Jones heard God tell her that she was angry because she thought He owed her and that her life should be more satisfactory. She agreed, “He was right.” She explained how “Where were you?” is normally the question we ask God in difficult times. It’s not an unreasonable question to ask a God who is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. She takes it further: “Should he not also be omni-accounted for?” and “agreeable” for “doing what I need him to do?”

“Where were you?” is a variation on the question, “Why did you let that happen?” And yet the text has God asking Job, “Where were you?”

Jones gave a recap of the story of Job. Job is a great man, both in moral terms and earthly accomplishments and accumulations. Essentially, a world of hurt comes down on Job because God and Satan have this strange conversation. God says, “Have you considered my servant, Job?” and Satan counters, “He’s only good because you protect him.” Eventually, God gives Satan permission to do anything to Job except kill him. Meanwhile, Job is not party to any of this conversation in heaven. He is a kind of lab rat in an experiment to see if he will continue to fear God even when things go bad for him. He does. Job has some friends who each tell him in different ways that he must have done something wrong. He’s either being punished or warned. Job seems accepting of his new situation (“The LORD gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” Job 1:21).

At this point, Jones brings the story into the present. This idea of easy acceptance is how we tell others they need to go through suffering. Jones insists that when we do this, “we tell an incomplete truth about Job.” The rest of her message consisted of four lessons about suffering we learn from Job. And these lessons are important because by the time we get to the question God asks of Job, “Where were you …” (Job 38:4), the question “centers us rather than points a finger at us.”

The four lessons are these:

1 | Shock and confusion makes sense.
Job genuinely wishes he had never been born. He wishes he could just die. “Please, someone (Someone?), put me out of my misery.” As Job experiences horrible tragedy, we learn something about him. He had everything, but was also afraid: “What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me.” (Job 3:25)

2 | Job has a legitimate complaint and states it.
Job cries out to a silent God. “Tell me what charges you have against me!,” he demands. Jones used an expression I had never heard before—she said we “weaponize” scripture and use it to club people who are struggling (“Count it all joy …” “You’ve just got to praise Him.”). She says that transparency before God is a proof of a relationship with God. We should encourage honesty before God. When we come to God, even in our weakness full of complaints, it means we live out Hebrews 11:6, which ends with “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

3 | Declare your desire.
Job wanted to have his say that God would tell him what he did. Jones said how we like to quote Job 13:15 (true in my case), “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” The problem is that’s only half of the verse. The second half says, “I will surely defend my ways to his face.” Perhaps the most insightful moment of the sermon came with this observation about the people in the story of Job (with a lesson for us): “Everybody wants to talk about God, but only Job wants to talk to God.” Jones’ conclusion: When we suffer, we need to talk to God.

4 | Anger is an acceptable response to suffering. Jones told a difficult story about a USC football player she knew. The point was that God can hear you say, “This hurts.”

And this brings us to the end of the story and the question that begins four chapters of questions (Job 38–41) God asks of Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” Jones says that the point of Job 38-41 is not to humiliate Job. She quoted Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Jones asks, Why would God have an attitude about someone he boasts about?” God is telling Job, “He doesn’t have all the information.”

The most challenging point of the sermon for me came here at the end when Jones told us that it is a “misconception that God is transactional.” In so many ways Satan says it, Job says it, Job’s friends say it. This is the point of the message that I could have used more teasing out. On the one hand, I agree that the book of Job does refute the idea of a transactional God. On the other hand, so much of the Bible seems to be exactly transactional, where God says, “If you … then I …”

Over the years I’ve thought about a couple of ways to look at the story of Job. The first is a similar approach to what Jones has done. It’s to see the story of Job as a counter-balance to the rest of scripture. The Bible divides the world up in two: there are the righteous and the wicked. Psalm 1 gives us a picture of what happens to the righteous (they are “like a tree planted by streams of water, … whatever they do prospers … for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous”) and the wicked (who “are like chaff that the wind blows away” and “will not stand in the judgment” … for the way of the wicked leads to destruction.”). The story of Job plays with this understanding.

A second way to look at the story is as a bracing reminder of what we can expect in this life. If a blameless person experiences suffering, then the rest of us (the “all” in “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) are certain to experience as much, if not more, and deservedly. At the same time, we can’t be too certain about the reason for our circumstances. Jesus says that our Father in heaven “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) All at once, the Bible seems to teach that our circumstances are a reflection of how we’ve lived our lives and we shouldn’t conclude too much about our lives based on our circumstances.

Lately, I’ve been wondering about a third way to read this story: Job as a story for Jesus the Messiah. A way to see the story of Job is that a decision in heaven means a perfect (or, at least blameless) man will suffer on earth. What would it be like for a young Messiah, God in the flesh, trying to understand the purpose of his life and searching the scriptures for answers? Would the story of Job have taught him what he could expect as a perfect servant of God?

Jones finished her message with a focus on the word servant in God’s statement, “Have you considered my servant Job?” She wanted us to see that Job had a servant’s heart. We tend to focus on the outward circumstances, but God wanted Job’s heart to be known.

This was a beautiful message.

Ethnicity and gender are tough issues in the contemporary world. The church is no exception. Sunday mornings are mostly segregated and the Church as a whole doesn’t have a common understanding of the role of women in the life of the Church. I say this because I couldn’t help noticing that Michelle Jones is an African-American woman. The great joy that Sunday morning was the fact that neither of those identifiers were relevant to the fact that she stood up in front of a group of people and with words effectively communicated the Word.