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July 16, 2006

Sunday thoughts ....

The past few weeks have been quite demanding, not least because I have, with others, had to deal with a number of difficult and thorny situations. It is never easy and lets face it, life can be downright difficult at times, especially when you are having to deal with some of the more unpleasant human attributes. Tonight I am the preacher for Evensong, and so I looked up the Lectionary for the service last week - and found myself having to deal with readings from Job and from Romans - neither providing a natural sermon topic!

Taken with the events in the Middle East, and whichever side of that tragedy one stands, there is plenty to pray over there, I have had a rough passage trying to find a topic to explore in a sermon that isn't a political statement or a collection of platitudes. The G8 Summit doesn't help and neither does the current obsession with "green" issues.

So I have opted to explore the underlying message of Job, which is about our view of God and of faith.

It could have been worse - ever tried finding a children's sermon in readings that cover the beheading of John the Baptist? Well, for the record, the Lord Abbot managed to do a pretty good job with that one this morning.

Grace, mercy and peace be with you.

Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? Let Him who accuses God answer Him.

The Book of Job falls into the group of Books known as Wisdom literature; but it is more than that because it is a wonderful piece of poetic writing, some authorities calling it a masterpiece. It can be a difficult book for the reader, because, on the surface, it suggests in its opening passages, that God is willing to strip the righteous and just of their all – just to put them to some sort of loyalty test. Now, for myself, I will happily admit that my faith would probably be at least as shaken as Job’s is in places – I would certainly rail against God over some of the things described here – the death of his children, the leprosy and the infliction of ‘friends’ who are more doom sayers than helpers among them.

That said, the real purpose of the book is to explore the readers perception of God. Job’s well meaning and irritating comforters have a very narrow view – one still heard today – and Job himself is in part guilty of too limited a vision of the God he claims to follow. In our reading tonight we heard a part of Eliphaz the Temanite’s opening argument – his view of why Job is suffering. This reflects the view held in the early period of the Jewish Kingdom – and still reflected in many believers thoughts today – that God rewarded the good in this life with riches and prosperity, and inflicted pain, disease and poverty on those who weren’t so good. Therefore, in Eliphaz’ reasoning – Job must have been up to something bad for God to do this to him. In fact this is nothing more than an exposition of the thinking that prevailed then that there was no hope of life beyond this – that in fact if you didn’t get any rewards in this one there was no hope of anything better in the next, because there wasn’t one!

In many ways our present society is reflected in this mirror of the past since many of the people we deal with on a day to day basis, some even within the fold of Christianity, have a vision which stops short of any hope of a life beyond this one except in the vaguest terms. Most will say they do believe in a life beyond the grave, but when challenged, fall back on concepts more akin to Buddhism than Christianity and some even less formulated than that. There is a persistent view in today's world that wealth and possessions are associated with somehow having lived a “good” life and enjoyed its rewards. There is in fact a drift away from any understanding of God. The vision has shrunk.

In our pursuit of a “personal” God or a “personal relationship” with God, we tend to make the same mistake as Job – we have too small a view of God. As Job discovers, God is not some celestial Judge to whom we can “put our case” and expect justice, He is the creator of all things and cannot be bought or swayed. He is just and He is good, it is we who need to learn understanding and patience.

The writer to the Romans says “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of Christ.” And there is a key to what we miss if take the road advocated by Job’s comforters. To them, God could be appeased by the performance of certain rituals, by the following of a set of rules – rules which bind mankind, but not God. “Justification” and “good works” do not bring the reward of heaven, faith and trust in God does – and that means relying on God and accepting whatever befalls us with equal joy. Thus the writer to the Romans can say with equanimity that he has prayed for relief from an affliction and accepts God’s refusal.

Now some among us may feel that this statement was a little boastful, and perhaps it is a case of “look at me; I have a personal dialogue with God and He said NO!” and perhaps it is another way of countering the charge of “Physician heal yourself” from one who is recorded as having performed miraculous healing on others, yet is himself afflicted. I don’t think it really matters which it is, the fact is that the writer has sufficient trust in God to be able to say that he accepts this situation.

It is clear from many references in the Gospels and in the early letters that the concept of God rewarding someone who obeyed “the Rules” with health, wealth and ship loads of “happily ever after” was still a prevalent view even in Christ’s day. People expected to be rewarded for their being good worshippers, and trotted off to the next temple when their expectations weren’t met. Job’s strength of faith is what redeems him in our poem. He isn’t in it for the money – even his ranting at the injustice is aimed at seeking an explanation, not redress, and it speaks volumes for the faith we need to encourage among all those who seek to build a relationship with God.

Like Job’s comforters we can hold to narrow a view of God – it is all too easy to do so, especially when hemmed in by all the conflicting ideas and ideals of our modern world. But equally easy is to make God much to big for our understanding and our comfort. If we envisage a God so vast He becomes so remote and impersonal that we shut ourselves off from him. The balance lies somewhere in the middle where we neither promote ourselves to equality with God, nor anthropomorphise him to equality with us.

Christ came to give us the Gospel – the message that God loves and cares for us, that there is a life beyond this, one in which there are no more tears and no more pain – all we have to do is accept that in due time God will reveal Himself to us and give us a share in that rich harvest of love.

This is what Job discovered when God finally has had enough of his comforters and their narrow mindedness and of Job’s complaints and demands for justice. Yes, Job remained faithful despite all that happened to him, but he did it with, at times, such ill grace that eventually he is made to confront the realities of creation – the full meaning of the breadth and scope of God’s glorious love. Can he catch the crocodile with a fish hook? Can he tame the crocodile? Can he make the lion, the lamb or a single bird? No, and neither can we – despite our efforts to clone sheep, dogs and even human embryos!

The book of Job has an important message for us in our age, just as it did for the age it was written in. We need to look carefully at our relationship with God. In Jesus Christ we have a different perspective to that held by Job’s comforters, we have the promise of Christ that there is a life beyond the grave, that rewards are not necessarily given in this life, but that in the next all will be made plain, that all will be made good and that we have only to trust and have unshakeable faith that God is just and will keep His promise.

In the last Chapter of the Book of Job we find our hero confronted by God – and having seen God he is forced to change his view of God. I suggest to you that we too have seen God, but did we recognise Him? He is here with us, and He is everywhere with us, but do we ‘see’ Him? Do we hear Him when He speaks to us? Job’s comforters do not seem to have heard, seen or understood, having, according to the end of the book, seriously annoyed God. I hope we have not done so, I pray that we are not among those described in John 1 v 10

He was in the world and though the world was made through him; the world did not recognise him.

God works in, through and around us, our perspective of Him needs to be able to see that and to recognise that, though we may not understand or even see fully what is happening, we are asked only to hold to faith and all will, in God’s due season, be given to us.

We have one great advantage over the group described in the Book of Job and it is simply this; we do have the belief and promise through our Lord Jesus Christ that, though we may suffer much in this life, we can look forward to a life hereafter in Christ. Perhaps that is what was revealed finally to Job.


Posted by The Gray Monk at July 16, 2006 01:55 PM

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"...so I think we can expect our society to continue its downward slide into oblivion."

Cheese-wiz. It's really true what they say about Brits. I shall take cyanide now, thank you very much. Wurra wurra wurra. Buck up, Sparky! Helps a comin'.

Posted by: Timothy W. Hashaw at August 3, 2006 06:39 PM

Although I think our particular brand of governance - democracy if you like - is likely to suffer a serious decline it is not entirely hopeless. Hopefully something better will eventually emerge, but the present problems of over burden of legislation, bureaucracy and the breakdown of authority and discipline - particularly self discipline - will contribute to a period of decidedly unstable human relations. But, take the cyanide? Nope, I want to see what emerges in due course - and I wouldn't want to miss out on the chance to decorate London Bridge with a few of the heads removed from some of the idiots responsible for the decline of this nation!

Posted by: The Gray Monk at August 4, 2006 09:03 AM