A sermon on Job 23:1-9,26-17; Psalm 22: 1-15; and Hebrews 4:12-16 by Jan Coates, 11 October 2009
Very early in my journey, I read the book of Job, and ended up being quite bewildered by it. Yes, I now comprehended where the old saying ‘the patience of Job’ came from. I learnt that questioning God is not unique to me, but is something that has existed for ages. I realized that wondering why is not a rejection of God, or even a questioning of my faith. But overall, I just didn’t get it. Apparently, I’m not alone in this, either. One day, I shall get around to reading one of the many books that have been written about this part of the Bible. I have since read Job several times over and I have started to get, not so much an understanding of it, but a feeling, an interpretation if you like of what it was trying to say.
The fact that God allows Job be treated so badly made me quite angry. Why would God allow such things to happen to a decent, law-abiding person? Job doesn’t appear to have done anything to deserve what he gets, other than try to obey God in everything he does. It doesn’t seem fair, and Job certainly lets his feelings on the matter be known. Why does God let bad things happen? Okay, so life, as Malcolm Fraser once said, wasn’t meant to be easy. There endeth the lesson. Well, not quite.
I doubt there is a single person over 18 who, even though they believe, at some stage of their life hasn’t questioned the existence of God. Major catastrophes and personal disasters occur, and we scream ‘why?’ at the God who is supposed to love and care for us. Sermons are written about the disasters of the world – natural or otherwise – but have you noticed that the main thrust of every one of them is ‘God can cope with our questioning, with our screaming of “Why?”’? We are told God’s shoulders are big enough to carry our doubts, criticisms, anger, bewilderment and frustration. But never is there an explanation. We are left in doubt and confusion. We are subjected to questions from ourselves, and from other people that we simply cannot answer.
This reading from Job strikes a big chord with a lot of people. ‘If only I could front up to God, and let him have it – make him explain why these things happen. Give him my side of the story, protest my innocence and then see what answers he can come up with’ says Job. Don’t we all wish that we could front up to God and ask for an explanation of the pain we are in, the grief, fear, illness or loss we are suffering? The Psalmist follows on the same theme. God saved our predecessors, but seemingly just lets us suffer without reason. Why has God turned his back on us? We call, but get no answer, but we will keep on calling, and we won’t stop until we do get an answer. In both readings, the big question is – where is God in all this? Is this all part of the big lesson called life; that if we want the good, we also have to take the bad? That the suffering is somehow good for us – character building, I think it used to be called. In last week’s reading, Job tells his wife as much – reminds her that we can’t spit the dummy every time something happens that we don’t like: getting all worked up and fretting about the unfairness of it all doesn’t detract one iota from the fact that there is a problem to be resolved. It might make us momentarily happy – we’ve offloaded some of our angst, but what have we achieved? So I’d like to re-phrase the question, change the stress from where is God in my story, to where are we in God’s story?
Our world is less than perfect, and so are we. God is perfect, he wants us to learn to be perfect, and he sent Christ to show us the way. Some may say ‘Fair enough, so these are the lessons we have to learn to be acceptable to God.’ No, that’s not what I mean. While we need to learn from our mistakes, it is not so that we can be acceptable. God just wants us to be the best we can. He wants us to be part of his story – following Christ and being an example to the world of what love, forgiveness and grace can provide. Every day of our lives, we live out the story of God. The reading from Hebrews reminds us that the word of God is no dead letter. It applies as much today as when these words were first written: as much to us as to the Hebrews, and maybe even to Job. It is as true to today’s living as to the life of the Psalmist. The letter to the Hebrews further warns us: if we open ourselves to the word, we are making ourselves vulnerable to the hurt that comes from discovering our less-than-perfect selves, the selves that are already visible to God no matter how hard we try to hide. The ‘real’ us we need to accept, understand, and then use as a starting point to the ‘more real’ us we can become. We should not be giving meaning to our suffering, but let the suffering add meaning to our lives. If we have never suffered, how can we empathise with others who suffer? If we never fail, how do we lift up those who do? How do we learn to work together, without knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses so that we can combine into a team to make the task easiest for all? If everyone were perfect at everything, then there would be no reason to live. Our differences are what make life exciting – our search for ways to overcome our failings what gives us purpose. Our suffering adds meaning to our lives. Our pain adds to our love for others who also suffer, as we suffer, as Christ suffered.
So, where are we in God’s story? I don’t know, and I’m not sure I even care that much, as long as we are actually characters in the book. I’m learning to regard problems as learning experiences and obstacles as opportunities to expand my thinking. I don’t know why bad things happen. I wish they didn’t. I don’t know how to stop them, or avoid them. I feel vulnerable; because I can’t protect those I love most from the hurts of this world, no matter how hard I try. I grieve for the world as it is. But there is one sustaining truth to which I cling: this is all the more reason to stand firm in the faith I have put my hand up to, as the letter to the Hebrews says. It is a strong reason to pray for the coming kingdom, and keep on calling to God to improve the situation around us, to ask him to grant us the strength to keep on trying in the face of adversity. To constantly ask God for his help to become more patient, more tolerant, more accepting, more understanding, more perfect, more like what he wants us to be. To, every day, thank him for the good things, and seek the resilience to endure the bad. To live, not in the shadow of fear and hopelessness, but in the bright light of God’s love. To support each other in our quest to become what we are destined to become: Disciples of Christ. To live the life we are given, not in cowardly acceptance, but in faithful defiance of the world.
Perhaps one day, God will answer our questions of ‘Why?’ Perhaps we are just impatient, wanting to know the answers before we are ready to understand or accept them. As Sylvia often says to me ‘let it rest a while’ and maybe we will understand anyway.
While we wait for God’s response, let us hold on to and confess the faith of our church, as we do now to, and with, each other and to the wider society we live in.