Tenth Sunday after Trinity
St Mary Magdalene, Evensong, King James Bible
Job 39 1-40.4
Hebrews 12 1-17
May what we think and feel and say, be acceptable to you Oh Lord.
Last week the people of Aleppo in Syria were helplessly waiting for the certainty of a war in their own town. An undeserved suffering. On Friday a family in Croydon learned that their missing 12 year old had been murdered, apparently in the house where she was staying and should have been safe. Another undeserved suffering. An overlay of what all of us would call evil in both situations.
And so amongst the courage, optimism and joy of the Olympics there has been some seriously bad news .
One of the most questions I have been asked most frequently by non-Christians in my workplace is, why does God let this –or that-terrible thing happen? Why does God let suffering occur? No matter where we try and hide from it, I would say it is the most frequently asked question some of us will and do face in the secular world . You may, like me, have asked the question too!
Job is a book for all of us facing that question, or asking that question, and tonight’s readings help us to frame the possible answers.
So how do we reconcile undeserved suffering with an Almighty and Just God?
Quite early on in the book of Job he is literally sitting in the dirt, facing a whole raft of earthly personal calamities, whilst well meaning friends take their turn to offer well meaning but ultimately poor advice. Sounds familiar?
Fast track forward a few thousand years. If you try to live a life that is faithful to God, and bad things happen to you , do people shake their heads and wonder why on earth you continue to believe in God?
Last week we learned that a couple who train street pastors, and who trained our Team Rector Robert and I, lost their 16year old son/stepson, he was stabbed to death . It would seem tasteless to us perhaps but I wonder how many of their neighbours shook their head and said quietly to each other, …..’to think that can happen to them, where is their God now, they train other people to help as Street Pastors on the streets but they could not save their own ?’
Bad things happen to good people. As earthly beings we often try to control other human beings, we try to protect our young from obvious harm- we try to control their friendships and exposure to the media. But we learn the hard way that we are not in control .
So when the dynamic of human relationships in our very earthly existence does not fully meet our needs, do we give up or do we turn elsewhere?
Our reading tonight comes after Job has listened to his earthly friends trying to dispense wisdom to him. Job doesn’t give up his faith as calamity after calamity rains down on him, instead Job now turns to God, Yawhe….and listens.
Job listens as God reminds him that he, Job, hasn’t been around all that long, it is God that has. Not everything revolves around us!
This is also a reminder that we cannot possibly understand everything ; we live in a particular time and place whereas God knows it all already. God tells Job the story of creation. Our view is limited. Our understanding is limited. Learning the ways of God turns things upside down .
If we are prepared to listen to God, we can start to see the limitations of our human understanding. We need to try to attune to God. Having some stillness. Thinking about the scriptures and how they enable us to learn more about God.
Then the third dynamic is two way communication, from human to divine, from individual to God. Prayer.
So in our reading tonight God addresses Job….and then Job answers God
‘I Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth’. ….
Job goes on after our reading to submit to God , to turn away from any self absorption and to wonder at the Glory of God.
The beautiful literary Wisdom book that is Job teaches us to persevere with our faith and to submit in obedience to God, whatever happens. Opening a channel of communication to God is part of the journey. Job’s proverbial patience is rewarded.
But we cannot end there.
If we look back to one of the examples of current suffering – the imagined musings of neighbours and friends, -‘where is Your God now, you try and teach others to be Street Pastors but cannot help your own– we hear a familiar ring .
Jesus. Jesus tempted in the desert –‘If thou be the Son of God cast thyself down, for it is written He shall give his angels charge over thee and in their hands they will bear thee’
Or the scorn of passers by during his agony on the cross;
‘Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself….come down from the Cross’
His cry to God His father from the Cross in agony, ‘My God My God, why hast thou forsaken me’?
The desolation of Job led to his learning and listening to God. The human desolation of Jesus was shown not as the end but as the prelude to a New beginning.
God ‘s love so great that His beloved was sent to suffer and die a terrible death to give mankind Hope. Jesus’ faith in God so great that He was able to point beyond his suffering ;
‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’.
The Wisdom book that is Job is a prelude to Jesus the Christ. In our New Testament reading tonight from Hebrews, a letter written to a group of early followers of Jesus who faced great persecution and opposition, the writer appeals to his readers to remain faithful, to fix their eyes on Jesus and endure whatever suffering may come to them.
So the next time we are asked how do we reconcile undeserved suffering with a Just and Almighty God what might we say? The truth is there is no easy explanation, no intellectual option but some signposts in our limited understanding.
Firstly, God works through Human suffering, including our own .
Secondly through the resurrection of Jesus, believers can obtain the gift of the Holy Spirit , known in our tradition as The Comforter. Going beyond the purely human relationships and practical worries we have, seeking to listen to God and learning how to pray, we can be strengthened for the challenges we face, including those that will involve great personal suffering. We can show the face of God in our lives in how we deal with our suffering. Jesus has gone before us, in our place, to release us .That is our enormous comfort.
Thirdly, Jesus died for everyone, God seeks to reach and encounter each and every human being, so to learn the art of forgiveness , from Jesus on the Cross, enables us to fulfil those words in Hebrews tonight that are as relevant as we bring the Olympics to a close, as they are to the innocent victims of suffering ;
‘Let us run with patience the race that is set before us’.
Tenth Sunday after Trinity