A sermon on Job 23:1-9,16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16 & Mark 10:17-31 by Nathan Nettleton, 15 October 2006
The impossible love and grace of God invite us to participate in the life of God despite our circumstances, but we often get stuck in trying to find meaning in the circumstances.
One of the challenges that is often thrown at people of faith is the so-called "problem of suffering". If God is loving and good, how come there is so much suffering in the world? For the majority of people though, believing or non-believing, it is not the philosophical question that bothers them. It is the practical experience question. It is the why-is-this-happening-to-me question. Or perhaps to us, or to those around us, or even to our world. But it is not the abstract riddles that give us much grief. What we find ourselves asking is why is this happening, and what does it mean, and how am I going to cope, and what can I do about it. Most of all, it is why? why? why? When the question does turn to God, as it often does, it is still not usually the abstract theological puzzles. Rather it is the desire to encounter God and to have an explanation from God.
Our first reading and the psalm that followed it are good illustrations of this. Job cries,
"Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me."
And the psalmist cries,
"God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest."
Many of us, in our various individual circumstances, have found ourselves similarly crying out, "God, why? Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? And why can't I find you to get an explanation?" And all around our country at the present time, especially in rural areas like the north west of our state, people are crying out, "God, why is there still no rain? Why is this happening to us? Why does this drought go on year after year, and every time it looks like it might be breaking, it just comes back worse than ever? Australian farmers are now in such despair that they are killing themselves at the rate of one every four days, and still the drought goes on and we start to wonder whether the climate change is not permanent. Why all this suffering? Why, God. why?"
We keep pounding our fists on the gates of heaven demanding an answer, and still no answer comes. Still we find God elusive and the answers out of reach. Job's words echo our own experience:
Oh, that I knew where I might find him ... ,
but if I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him."
The psalmist too concludes that God is staying far away, even though danger is near at hand. Why, God, why?
I wonder though, whether part of our problem here is that we are asking God for something which we don't need, and which not only don't we need, but which God has never promised to give us and perhaps simply can't give us. It is rather commonly said that God gives meaning to our lives, but I wonder whether that is perhaps not really true in the ways we have often expected it to be true. Where has God promised to give us meaning? I can find passages of scripture where it speaks of God calling us, of God giving us direction and purpose, and perhaps we could even describe these as adding up to God giving us meaningful tasks, but is that the same thing? Because when we are suffering, our cries more often seem to be for meaning in the sense of explanations. We want to believe that our suffering means something. We want to know how it can be explained. We expect that either our suffering has some greater purpose in achieving something of great value, or that at least the suffering was deserved, was a just punishment for something we've done, so that we can cop it, move on, and avoid whatever sin brought it on in future. For as unpleasant as that might be, at least it will make some kind of sense and give us something we can do about it.
In Kansas, USA, there is a particularly unpleasant church congregation who unfortunately call themselves Baptists, who are buying into this sort of expectation with very nasty results. They are so sure that every instance of suffering must be explainable in terms of divine punishment, that they have taken it upon themselves to provide the explanation in the most callous and heartless of ways. They have been picketing funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq, to announce that the reason God is having US soldiers killed overseas is that the USA has gone soft on homosexuality. And when those Amish girls were horrifically killed in the recent school shooting, they were planning to turn up in Pennsylvania to picket those funerals too to promote their same hate-filled message. What a bizarre contrast to the Amish community themselves, who turned up to the funeral of the gunman to pray for him and his family and make clear their desire to extend forgiveness and reconciliation.
Now, fortunately, most of us do not resort to such obscene gestures in our search for meaning in times of suffering. Most of us are not arrogant enough to presume to know what God is thinking, and we are more likely to turn on ourselves than to savage others, but our expectation that there must be answers and explanations is still much the same. We seem unable or unwilling to contemplate that there might not be an explanation or a meaning, that things might just happen in an unplanned and meaningless and basically chaotic fashion. And yet, we do not find God meeting our demands for explanations of human suffering. By the end of the story, Job is satisfied, but he hasn't received an answer to his questions. The reader is given the glimpse into the dispute between God and the satan and how Job's suffering is related to that, but Job is never given that explanation, and there is no suggestion that it is typical. Even if it explained Job's circumstances, ours may still have no such explanation or meaning. Merryl's recent broken arm and forthcoming major back surgery may not have any explanation that we are going to know about, and perhaps no real meaning at all.
What is promised us is not explanations, but solidarity. As our reading from the letter to the Hebrews said, Jesus is a high priest who is able to sympathise with what we go through, because he has been through such sufferings himself. Therefore, it says, we can approach God boldly, knowing that we will receive grace to help us in our time of need. It does not says that we will receive explanations. It does not say that we will find meaning in our suffering. And when it says we will receive grace to help in time of need, it does not say that the suffering will end.
Strangely, even the rich man in our gospel reading is hurting and looking for answers. Not only is he wealthy, but he has diligently complied with the requirements of his religion and he is regarded as a righteous man. But he is fearful and uncertain. He feels that he is not making the grade and is still cut off from God by something he can't yet understand. He wants answers. He needs to know. And though we are told that Jesus loved him, and in Mark's gospel he is the only person we are specifically told that Jesus loves, and that Jesus invites him to become one of his followers, the man walks away, sad and still unfulfilled. And when you look at it, it seems that the man didn't become sad at this point, because of what Jesus said, but that he was already sad, which was why he came, and that he now realised even more deeply how stuck in his sadness he was. He came looking for answers, and instead he was invited into a relationship of love and discipleship, and he walked away. What was offered seemed impossible. And although Jesus agreed that it looked impossible, he doesn't say that the rich man can't be saved or won't be saved. He said it may look impossible, but that nothing is impossible for God.
Job was content with such an "answer". There was no explanation, but when he stopped demanding answers, and was able to recognise that God was with him and that God cared, he no longer needed answers. I know that experience, and I'm sure others of you do too. When my first marriage broke up, I was angry and traumatised and demanding explanations from God. I never got them. I hurled abuse and demands heavenward, but to no avail. But when my tantrums ran out of steam, and I just slumped in resignation and despair, I had a vision of Jesus walking in to the room, sitting next to me, putting his arm around my shoulders, and crying with me. No explanation was offered, just solidarity. Just a sharing of the pain. And suddenly I didn't need an explanation anymore. Suddenly all that mattered was being loved by Jesus and being invited to be with him in the pain that belonged to both of us. From that place, I could begin to live again.
At some level, the question of meaning in suffering is up to us. Meaning needs to be created; it is not simply found, already existing. Suffering has no real meaning or purpose, in and of itself. It simply happens, sometimes because of things we can explain, and sometimes in ways which are random and thoroughly unjust. God has not said that the world is a just place and that the things that happen in life are fair. And often our demands for meaning and explanation are based on the assumption that things are supposed to be just and fair. And as long as we are demanding something that does not exist, we will be frustrated and unable to find the God for whom we seek. Even the suffering and death of Jesus was not automatically meaningful in itself. It was just one more brutal lynching of an innocent victim, one of hundreds of thousands through history. It became meaningful because the victim wrought meaning out of it. He entered into his suffering as an act of solidarity with the suffering of all the world, and in that solidarity he offered up his suffering for the salvation of the world.
Our call is not necessarily even to give meaning to our suffering, but to live meaningfully in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, including suffering. Endeavours to make the circumstances meaningful may actually prevent us from getting on with living life with meaning. Meaning will be created, not by either the resolution or the explanation of our suffering, but by opening ourselves to the Christ who looks at us and loves us and says, Let go of what you cling to, good or bad, and come, follow me." Meaning will be created and experienced on the road in that journey, in that dynamic relationship, in that love and solidarity. Like Paul's "thorn in the flesh", the suffering may continue unabated, but we will find ourselves becoming more human despite it, and our lives becoming more meaningful and satisfying despite it. Ultimate meaning and purpose are created only in union with God, in offering ourselves in and for the purposes of God. God promises salvation and healing, but there is no promise that salvation and healing will mean the immediate end of suffering. Indeed, the paradox is that sometimes a quick end to our sickness may slow or compromise our healing, not because the sickness is meaningful, but because our full healing requires us to experience and know the meaninglessness of suffering. Impossible? Nothing is impossible for God.
We are about to spend some time praying for healing, specifically for Merryl who faces major and potentially dangerous surgery on her back sometime in the next few weeks, but also more generally for all who suffer sickness, pain, and brokenness. We pray in confidence that God is working to heal and save Merryl, and indeed all the world. But we do not pray in any kind of arrogant presumption that we can either explain this suffering, or that we know what the healing will look like. We pray in trust because we have a great high priest who knows our pain and who has suffered as we suffer, and who has opened a path for us to walk boldly up to the throne of grace where there is mercy and meaning and the generous provision of life. Impossible? Nothing is impossible for God.