Pentecost 18 St Francis' Day Job 1:1, 2:1-10 Mark 10:2-16
Suffering and injustice – life is bound up in suffering somewhere all too close. It is a truism to state – ‘it comes to us all.’ It might be you or it might be me, someone we know, something we read, see or hear about - it might be long and drawn out or short and desperate. Whatever its origin, suffering is part of being human, alive and sentient. We suffer because we love and care, because we are deeply attached to something or someone, because we hurt.
The ancients believed in a God who smote their enemies and rescued them from their oppressors, a God who rewarded the good and punished the bad. The book of Proverbs is full of maxims about how to live and not to live so that we reap the rewards of a good life. Our reading from the book of Job today debunks the myth that we get what we deserve.
Job is an obedient pious guy – honest, faithful to God, prosperous and upright. God brings him down on a whim, because of the goading and the wager with a member of his heavenly court, Satan.
Job has already lost all his possessions and his family, and in our reading today is now further afflicted with repulsive itchy suppurating boils that cover his body. Job is left with only his tortured craven and diseased body, and a wife who tells him to curse God even if it means he will die. He tells her off and philosophically states that we must take the good with the bad – how can we expect to have one without the other. He maintains his integrity with God.
How can we expect to have one without the other? Good and bad. We mitigate against the bad by being careful and aware, and we try to be as kind and ethical as possible. But then something happens, an accident maybe, a frightening prognosis, a close personal tragedy, and we too are lost in a place of grief and pain. We are filled with why’s and what ifs’ – and knowing inside that it is all useless, that the deed is done and that our pain will mark us always. We wonder what sort of God allows things like this to happen, we ask ourselves what is the point of it all, we rail against the injustice of it, we struggle with prayer in our wordless agony.
And we wonder where God is in all this. It is the perennial theological question. And it is a hard question to which no one answer will ever do. If we believe in an interventionist God who acts directly in our world, then why does God allow the dreadful horror and suffering that crushes life and destroys goodness and beauty. It is easy to understand why the notion of heaven is so desirable. There must be a place, somewhere, where all this misery and pain is transformed and reconciled to the love that causes our searing loss. Our yearnings too mark us.
The question ‘does God play dice’ has a familiar ring to it. We cannot believe in a capricious God who acts only sometimes - on a whim maybe. And yet we pray for God to act, we intercede for others, and we pray and long for miracles. We pray for love and life and justice to triumph over death and destruction.
The book of Job is a text that is believed to have come from a very ancient ‘once upon a time’ folk tale. In turn this brilliant philosophical poem is based upon the most profound of questions - why God lets good people suffer. The book does not give specific answers. It gives voice to an angry and indignant Job who swears oaths to his innocence and calls upon his accuser, God, to provide the evidence against him. He challenges God, and God answers him out of the whirlwind. God does not respond to Job’s demands for evidence but overwhelms him with his vast and raging might and power, citing the creation of the world and all that dwells in it. Job is silenced. It appears that experiencing God is enough.
Job gives voice to an experiential reality and a conundrum we all confront if we believe in God. And we continue to ask where God is when we suffer. Is it the same place as when we rejoice, the same place as when we are dallying away time with a friend? Is it all about faith in good times and in bad?
There are so many different takes on these questions as you can imagine - and I am sure that even here at St Matthews today there is a huge variety in the understandings of God and the locale or nature of the presence of God in our lives. And this too alters as we change and grow, just as it did for Job in his suffering. The story goes that Job saw things differently through his suffering and experienced God intensely in response to his demand. This does not solve the question and I doubt that it will ever be solved.
Suffering and its counterpart pleasure are existential realities - they are part of what it means to be human. There has never been a time when all was perfect and blissful forever.
When we were children many of us believed in a remote and fearful male deity/God on high who judged and by whom we were measured for our worth. He was, in good Old Testament style, forbidding and to be feared. For some reason I recall Julie Andrews singing “and somewhere in my wicked miserable past I MUST have done something good” or something similar - indicating her innate sense of being bad (or maybe naughty in her case) and her amazement when something good happens to her. This is representative of some pretty awful theology that many of us grew up with and is to be condemned. It echoes the good behaviour brings reward, bad behaviour brings punishment scenario with nothing in between and depicts a punitive subjective God that is part of the cultural background to the book of Job and most of the ancient world.
Most of us play about quite a lot in the ‘in between.’ And that’s where I believe God is.
In the ‘in between’ you and me, and in all that happens to us in our lives. To believe in an object God, a personality who somehow resides out there in the heavenlies someplace, who throws thunderbolts and raptures people to heavenly kingdoms, which is again out there somewhere, is limited and hard to embrace when we see deep space through the Hubble telescope and search for traces of life on other planets. This does not negate or refute the notion or the reality of the experience of God and the numinous – rather it moves to a more intrinsic and cosmic reality within ourselves and all creation, and it reinforces the deep mystery that is life and the preciousness of our every experience – even our suffering if we can rise to that, however difficult. It takes, as we read in the book of Job, suffering and torment to drive a self-satisfied wealthy devout believer like Job to truly experience God. When we are brought home to the moving reality of our beautiful aching and painful frailty, our broken and scarred vulnerabilities, our smashed lives and hopes – then we too can learn in our depths what it means to enter truly into our God.