Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Our first reading was taken from the Book of Job. Just in case you’re not very familiar with it, it’s the story of an absolutely righteous man who undergoes terrible suffering, inflicted on him by Satan but with God’s permission.
I remember a sermon being preached in this church a long time ago on this same passage. I won’t say who the preacher was. He – or she – was rather scathing about it, on the lines that the words put into the mouth of God were hardly an adequate response to the depth of suffering that human beings have to put up with.
God seems to be suggesting that who are we human beings – puny, limited creatures that we are – to question him, the omnipotent creator. We’ve just got to accept whatever comes our way. What, he implies, do we really know about anything?
And you can see what that preacher meant. From a certain perspective God does come across as arrogant and dismissive in these words – stirring and wonderful though they are in other ways.
The core problem is that there are no words in any language that can explain, let alone justify, why – if God is loving – there is so much suffering in the world. Words – and theology – just don’t seem up to the task. They can seem plausible but trite.
And that’s one reason why many people find it difficult to believe in God. And I dare say it’s something that troubles every believer as well, which is exactly what it should do.
I said just now that Satan inflicts great suffering on Job with God’s permission. That seems to me a plain indication that we are in the presence here of didactic fiction.
There could well have been a historical person called Job – who knows – but, if there was, the narrative as we have it is fairly obviously a fictional embellishment.
And that means that the words put into the mouth of God are the author’s attempt to justify God. They are not God himself speaking.
Now, I have some sympathy with the view expressed by my anonymous preacher but I also have sympathy with the words put into God’s mouth. It’s one of those strange quirks of the human mind that it’s possible to have sympathy with two apparently opposing views.
What I think the author is trying to convey is that there is a great gulf between God and us. We can only peer partially – very partially – into the mind of God. God is boundless. We are limited, intellectually as well as physically.
Sometimes people talk as if creating a universe – from nothing, mark you – is mere child’s play. You know the sort of thing: if I were creating a universe, frankly, I’d have made a better job of it. There’d no suffering, everyone would be wonderfully happy and everything would be beautiful.
What could be easier?
The problem is, we have no idea what is involved in creating a universe and neither do we know why the universe was created.
It’s all way beyond our pay grade. Human beings are amazing creatures but we are absurdly limited compared with God himself.
In the last analysis we have two alternatives. We can simply give up on the idea of God. Life is a vale of tears, interspersed with the odd lighter moment, and we don’t know why, it’s just the way it is, God’s a fiction, so let’s sit in front of the TV and enjoy the World Cup – or whatever.
Or we can say to ourselves: OK, I don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world but I’m prepared to trust God that there must be a good reason for it.
And this attitude is undergirded by one particular conviction: we may not be able to plumb the depths of God’s mind but we are able – by the grace of God and through prayer and whatever else may come to hand – to form a real personal relationship with the divine. And so we can come to trust God.
St Augustine says that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is infinitely distant and at the very same time infinitely near.
That’s why we can form a relationship with God and why we can never fully know the mind of God.
Let me turn briefly to our New Testament reading. Jesus stills the storm. You could just say that it’s a random story but there’s more to it than that.
To the Hebrew mind the sea represents the forces of chaos and death, as in the passage from Job. Or, to put it another way, the sea represents the suffering that we inevitably encounter in ourselves and witness in others.
Jesus therefore is that divine presence that can help us to transcend chaos, suffering and death because he is literally in the same boat as we are and yet still at one with God.
Jesus demonstrates the solidarity of the divine with the human.
We are all sailing on the sea of being. We don’t have a choice. Our boat may seem fragile. The power of the wind and the waters may seem immense. Our need – our lifeline – is to recognise the presence of Christ with us in the boat.
He is both reality and symbol – reality because he actually is there, symbol because he shows us that God really is nearer to us than we are to ourselves and that he really is – infinitely and eternally – on our side.