Big Questions

November 10, 2019

Helen Jacobi

Ordinary Sunday 32     Job 19:23-27a     Psalm 17     2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17     Luke 20:27-38

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Many moons ago when I was first studying theology, one of the papers that was compulsory was Philosophy of Religion. I hated it. I found it so abstract and hard to get a handle on. Philosophical proofs for the existence of God did not excite me. And grappling with the theories of the existence of evil and suffering; religious language and proofs for life after death were tough going. I found biblical studies and church history much more fun!

 

But in the few years after I was ordained I said many times that I should have done more philosophy of religion. The questions I was always grappling with at funerals and bedsides and in people’s lounges was – why is my child suffering; and is there life after death? And don’t worry even though I was young and inexperienced I didn’t take people through the theories I had learnt, but knowing and being able to say that the greatest minds of our world have not come up with satisfactory answers was a help, and I hope stopped me from uttering platitudes.

 

The Book of Job, from which we heard a short extract this morning, is a lament. A lament about suffering which tackles the big question head on: why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there suffering in our world? If God is all powerful and all good then how come there is disease and tornadoes and earthquakes? Job is a good and righteous man and in the tale God allows Satan to “test” him to see if he will stay loyal to God. Calamity after calamity is visited upon Job. His initial response is “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (1:21). As time goes on Job debates with three friends why he is suffering when he is a good man; in OT times there was a clear correlation between obedience to God and well being. Job must have offended God. But Job maintains his innocence and at the same time remains steadfast in his faith that God is just. So he demands to know from God what God’s charges against him are – he seeks to know for what he is being punished. Eventually God does speak “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and goes on to describe the wonders of creation and the natural world, putting Job in his place as one tiny part of the whole. (ch38) “have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place …. have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?”

 

God goes on like this for a few chapters, does not say why this has happened to Job, and in the end “restores the fortunes of Job” (42:10) who is blessed once again with fortune and family. Job dies, we are told “old and full of days.” (42:17)

 

The story of Job is not considered historical, it is a tale to help us grapple with the true reality of suffering which is real and not to be understated or swept away. It can give us words to lament and rail against God when we need them. It does not in the end give an answer to the question – why? Brueggeman says “The dramatic power of the book of Job attests to the reality that faith, beyond easy convictions, is a demanding way to live that thrives on candor and requires immense courage. Faith of this kind ….is no enterprise for wimps or sissies.” [1] Like the Beatitudes from last week we are called to name and face the realities of what we see in our world, and hunger for what is good and right; in that hungering we find God. Job did not give up.

 

In the same way in our gospel reading Jesus directs his audience to seek life. Some religious leaders try to trap Jesus with what they see as a complicated theological question. The Sadducees were a group who did not believe in life after death. The Pharisees did teach that there was life after death.

 

So the Sadducees set Jesus up with a question based in the practice in Jesus day that a woman who dies childless (and so therefore with no son to protect her) would then marry her husband’s brother. In the Sadducees’ example the woman is passed like a chattel along the 7 brothers. The religious elite use the suffering of the powerless and marginalized to score points against Jesus. “Human suffering, abstracted for the sake of argument, debate and theological comeuppance.” [2]

 

But Jesus has none of it. A week later “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Lk24:5) will be the question the angels ask Mary Magdalene at the tomb; and Jesus makes the same claim “God is the God not of the dead but of the living.” Like Job Jesus calls us forward to embrace life with all its paradoxes and confusion, with all our unanswered questions.

 

After our 10am service today we are beginning a conversation around “disability.” We are wanting to listen to parishioners who have disabilities (or as some might put it, are differently abled) to check in and see if there are barriers that need removing for full inclusion in the life of our parish. There are practical things to attend to – doors and ramps, microphones and lighting. But the much more challenging conversation (if we are willing to enter into it), is to listen to the story of faith of those with disabilities. Those who have every right like Job to rail against God and say why me? and how long, O God, how long? Those who may feel uncomfortable when they hear biblical verses which paint a picture of redemption like this from Isaiah: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
   and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
   and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
(Isaiah 35:5)

 

Those who are blind, or deaf, or lame, or unable to speak, can feel that the Bible paints them as imperfect or not whole. They would want to say they are whole and loved by God as they are, and do not need fixing or healing as some churches might teach.

 

Nancy Mairs who has multiple sclerosis asks the question “If a cure were found, would I take it?” All the same, if a cure were found would I take it? In a minute. I may be a cripple, but I’m only occasionally a loony and never a saint. Anyway, in my brand of theology God doesn’t give bonus points for a limp. I’d take a cure; I just don’t need one. A friend who also has MS startled me once by asking, ‘do you ever say to yourself, “Why me, Lord?”’ ‘No, Michael, I don’t,’ I told him, ‘because whenever I try, the only response I can think of is “Why not?”’ If I could make a cosmic deal, who would I put in my place? What in my life would I give up in exchange for sound limbs and a thrilling rush of energy? No one. Nothing. I might as well do the job myself. Now that I am getting the hang of it. [3]

 

How do we understand wholeness and healing? What do we do with our faith when the bad times roll around? Where is God when these things happen? These are the questions the poet who wrote the book of Job wanted to grapple with. These are also the reasons Jesus came among us as a living, breathing, and yes suffering human being.

 

As I learned after my Philosophy of Religion class the answers are not to be found in the books and the theories but in living the life of faith. As Debie Thomas puts it “The life of faith is not a spectator sport – to know it we have to live it …. We have to enter into the joy, the loss, the sacrifice, the wonder, the mystery, the grief and the challenge of life in Christ. Resurrection knowing is a lived knowing.” [4]

 

 

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament; the Canon and Christian Imagination, Walter Bruggemann and Tod Linafelt, 2012, p336

 

[2] Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2440

 

[3] in Oh Light ed Anna Gilkinson 2008 www.dsfnetwork.org

 

[4] Debie Thomas https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2440

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