Sermon - 21st June 2015
It is enough
Scripture - Job 38:1-11; 40:1-6; 42:1-6
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Before we listen to the first of our three short readings from the end of book of Job, here is a brief overview.
The Book of Job is in the Old Testament, which itself is divided into roughly four sections: pre-history and the Jewish law (also called the Torah), the history of Israel from the time after Moses to the Babylonian exile, a set of poetic writings and the prophets.
The Book of Job is the first in the poetic writings. Even though the book itself makes no reference to any historical happening, it is clearly part of Hebrew scripture in its theology and references to God.
It is unusual in that it personifies Satan or the Devil (called in Hebrew Ha-Satan, also translated as “The Adversary”). The only other book to personify Satan is Genesis, where the snake tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden.
As our readings come from the end of the Book of Job, here is a summary of what happens in the first 37 chapters.
The book’s hero, Job, is subjected to a series of tests, instigated by Satan, to see whether Job’s commitment to God is dependent on God’s blessing. *In the first two chapters, Job loses all his wealth (his animals, for he was a farmer), all his children and his house. Furthermore, he is afflicted with a terrible skin disease which brings him out boils.
He is left with just his wife, sat in the ruins of his house, scraping his boils with a piece of broken pot.Job’s wife’s response to the disaster that had befallen them was to say to her husband “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) which Job dismisses as foolish talk.
They are visited by three friends – Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Firstly, they sit with Job for a whole week in silence, and then enter into a long discourse with Job about the nature of suffering and God. A fourth friend, Elihu, finishes the debate, which is interrupted by an appearance from God!
The Book of Job is not an easy one to read: for many, the level of disaster which befalls Job is beyond what many of us can imagine, or could even comprehend; nevertheless, to lose everything, including one’s health, is something which happens all too often.
For some, in our church, there are those of you, who because of your sexual orientation have had to leave all you had, including your families, in your country of birth and flee,and you have found your way to our United Kingdom. Because of your sexual orientation, some of you have been the victims of torture at the hands of state authorities, and your physical and mental health have suffered as a result.
And there are those of us, even those of us native to the UK, who for reasons of gender or sexual identity have been rejected and alienated from family, driven out of jobs and careers they have loved causing financial difficulty and compromised health, with perhaps self-destructive behaviours and addiction.
Let us call it: “hitting rock bottom”.
If we read through what Job’s three friends say, and we look at the Old Testament as a whole, there is a recurring theme to link calamity or misfortune with sin. Sadly, that is something which some LGBT people have experience. The queer theologian Ken Stone, writing about the Book of Job said: “Our experiences in relation to AIDS/HIV have taught us only too well that affliction will often be wrongly interpreted by others as divine retribution.”
For some, reading Job is difficult because it does not feel relevant to them. For others, Job’s situation is a painful reminder of their own circumstances, like when a doctor pokes the injured part and says, “Does that hurt?” For still others, reading Job is a too painful reminder of when they “hit rock bottom”.
Theodicy is smallish word with a big meaning – it means to attempt to answer the question why a good God permits the manifestation of evil and suffering in the world, and it is a question which humankind has sought to answer, the expression of which can be found in the Bible, other religious writings, fiction and film. The 19th Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s final work “The Brothers Karamazov” is on one hand a superb murder mystery, but also one of the greatest works on theodicy of all time.
In the first reading, we heard the start of God’s reply to Job. God does not seek to explain Divine ways, nor in any way offer to Job an explanation for the loss of his family, his health and his wealth. God’s first words to Job are a rebuke: “Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant, empty words?”
The remainder of the reading is a succession of rhetorical questions about the creation of the universe, creation on a scale beyond our comprehension, and even today, with our vast scientific knowledge, we would struggle to answer.
For the remainder of Job Chapter 38, God asks a series of rhetorical questions about the world and the stars; in Chapter 39, the questions change and focus on various animals and God’s care for them.
After the barrage of questions, God demands an answer from Job.
Job realised he was out of his depth. Since the writing of Job some 3000 years ago, are we any closer to answering the question of theodicy?
Some of you may have read or have seen Douglas Adams’ “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy”. *In the fourth book, “So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish”, God’s final message to creation is written in thirty-foot high letters on the side of a mountain: “We apologise for the inconvenience.” However flippant that may sound, taking the opening chapter of Job, where Satan asks God for permission to test Job’s faith, that glib statement could be an answer to theodicy in Job’s situation.
More recently, on Irish television, the author, actor and broadcaster Stephen Fry gave his answer to theodicy.
[Video - RTE]
Here’s another answer to the theodicy question. Kevin Smith is an American Catholic film maker from New Jersey. In 1999, he made a film called Dogma. Here’s a scene from the end, where the film’s heroine, Bethany, gets to ask God – portrayed as female by Alanis Morrissette.
[Video - Dogma]
God’s rhetorical questions about how the world is ordered continue for the rest of Chapters 40 and 41, and then after God’s considerable rhetorical questioning, Job replied:
As humans, we can try to answer the question of suffering in the world, but no one answer will satisfy.
As humans, we learn to trust and depend on each other. Sometimes, we misplace our trust, and we are hurt or let down. But for the most part, we trust the doctor to make us well; we trust the solicitor to do their best for the asylum claim; we trust the bus-driver to bring us safely to our destination. We might not understand why the medicine heals, or why a certain document will improve the case, or how the engine of the bus works.
And so, as we trust in these and many other earthly things, we cannot know the answer to everything. Despite losing everything, Job remained faithful to God, and he was reminded by God through those many questions, that Job is a human, a created being, and that our Creator’s ways, are in Job’s words, “too great for me to know.”
Later in Scripture, in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God says of Himself:
“As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways and thoughts above yours.”
Job was reminded of his place in the created order. The European theologian, Daniel Simundson, wrote: “While we may dislike our inability to penetrate the mysteries of God, at some point we are better off if we accept the reality of our human limitations.”
But Job was not looking for an intellectual answer. Job’s deeper need was to know that God had not abandoned him, that God still cared for him.
So does that mean we should just know our place and shut up and put up with suffering?
No, for there is one final point to be made. Someone that Job did not know. Someone that Stephen Fry did not mention.
The theologian Simundson wrote: “What most sufferers need is a visit from God.”
And that is exactly what we have in Jesus and His Cross. More than that, Jesus became human in every aspect of our humanity, including our suffering.
We see Jesus, and, in seeing Him, it is enough. He is enough.