At this point I was still in my first year of preaching but I had finished my training and had been licensed as a Reader. My confidence in my ability to tackle diverse subjects was growing, hence, this sermon on suffering – always a tricky topic to tackle. I had also discovered by this time that it was almost impossible for me to to write a sermon in a short space of time. I have always been in awe of those that can crack out a homily the night before. For me it’s a long, slow process of research, reading, cogitating, praying, listening, drafting and editing. And that’s just writing the thing. Once it’s committed to paper then begins the process of rehearsing the delivery.
Job 38:1-11; 42:1-6
At 10.35am local time, that’s 7.35am GMT, on a Friday morning in August 1998, a car bomb exploded in Nairobi, Kenya, ripping through the US embassy. The blast toppled the four-story Ufundi Co-Operative building on top of the US embassy. Windows 10 blocks away were shattered. Several people on two passing buses were killed by shrapnel. The blast sparked panic across the city as US marines and local police tried to maintain order. A few minutes later, in Dar es Salam, Tanzania, another bomb exploded outside the US embassy there, killing six people and injuring at least 60 more. The entrance to the embassy was destroyed and cars were set on fire. One witness described the compound of the embassy as being turned into a war zone. In all, two-thirds of the embassy was destroyed. The death toll for these acts of violence numbers 141 dead, with over 4,000 people injured. But the friends and families of the innocent victims of these tragedies all are probably asking the same question. Why? Why must suffering and pain be inflicted upon them? What have they done to deserve it? What kind of God allows these things to happen?
Our Old Testament reading, taken from the book of Job, appropriately, in the light of recent events, draws our attention towards innocent suffering which all of us have to encounter, and that bitter question: Why?
Let me be clear that we aren’t talking about the kind of suffering that comes as a result of mistakes or wrongdoing on our part. For example, if I drive a car into a wall at 100 miles an hour, then I’ll experience the consequences of my own stupidity, if I’m still alive to experience them, that is! Rather, we’re talking the kind of overwhelming suffering that is beyond our control, though in some cases we may see the hand of sinful men and women, and perhaps blame them for the innocent suffering they have caused. In others we can see only the hand of God. Do we then blame him?
A church notice-board carried the announcement, “Christ is the answer.” Someone had written next to it, “Yes, but what is the question?” And what if looking for answers is not always appropriate?
Much of our modern world is concerned with finding answers. Our technological mentality sees the world as something we can understand and control. We tend to see life in terms of questions which need answering, in terms of problems which need solving; in terms of causes and effects. The truth is that it’s often important not to answer the question. Sometimes God allows that we walk in the valley of the shadow. It may be that through his providence he calls on us to be his servants through our pains and frailties for wider purposes in heaven than we on earth can discern. And this seems to be the point of the book of Job and the reading that we’ve heard tonight.
In a sense we’ve jumped straight in at the end with this reading and we really need to go back to the beginning in order to get a clearer picture and gain a greater understanding. It’s not my intention to give an exegesis on the book of Job, or to explore in great detail the theology and doctrines in it, that would take too long. But a quick look in the time available will help us to begin to gain a deeper sensitivity to our human situation.
The book of Job belongs to what is often called Wisdom literature, along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and other parts of the Bible such as the Song of Songs and some of the Psalms. Now the term “Wisdom” is interesting because its concept includes what we’d call expertise, skill, good advice and so on. It has implications not only of intellectual understanding but of grasping the right way to live. Bob Fyall, in his book on Job says that, “Wisdom is the art of living well in harmony with the principles on which God has made the universe.” True wisdom, however, belongs to God alone. So says Job in chapter 12.
So, who is this Job bloke anyway? Well, it seems that he lives in the land of Uz. Where that is no one’s quite sure. It’s certainly outside of Israel, possibly in the Arabian desert. He has no family tree, at least none that we’re told about. The point being that Job is presented as a representative of humanity as a whole, not specifically as an Israelite. We are told a fair bit about his character. He’s “blameless, a word used of clean animals offered for sacrifice. He’s also “upright”, a word which suggests that he is a person who is utterly honest and open, and a person who is generous and kind. He also “feared God”, a quality that’s described in Proverbs as “the beginning of wisdom.” He must have been middle-aged with a grown family, seven sons and three daughters. A rich man internationally known as a person of substance.
The impression that we’re given is not that he was sinless or that he was perfect, but that he was genuinely good. In no way is he a hypocrite, or is his goodness superficial. He is genuinely good, caring and compassionate. He has all the qualities of wisdom. Yet disaster and tragedy overtake him. He suffers intolerably and seemingly endlessly. In the first chapter not one but four catastrophes are inflicted on him, any one of which would be enough to do most people in. And what’s his reaction to all this? “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” A little later on he says, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble.” His meaning being that whatever happens we must continue to love God, trust him and keep on walking with him. Here is a man of great integrity, who walks with God, and who fears God. Despite this he is overwhelmed by a series of disasters. Then added to all the other trials that he’s facing, Job is afflicted with sickness. Loathsome sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. In his agony of pain he trundles off to where the lepers go and scrapes at his sores with a piece of broken pottery. He who was rich now becomes poor.
By this time, as the reader, we are aware of a third dimension in the tale of Job’s woes. That of God and Satan’s conversation in the heavenly realms. We’re reminded that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in many philosophies. There is another place where God holds council with his heavenly court. Somewhere that actions are taken which affect people on earth. Poor old Job is unaware of this. In fact it’s important to the story that he is completely unaware of this whole dimension to his predicament. All he knows is the suffering that results. For us it is important to see this other dimension, a picture of the heavenly court where events on earth are orchestrated and where situations that emerge in this world have their origin. The reason being that this helps to suggest at least the beginnings of a solution to the basic problem of the book of Job, mainly this: God is good, Job is innocent, and yet the calamities which befall Job come from the hand of God himself. The presence of the heavenly court emphasises the presence and activity of other powers in the universe. So we can say that God is supreme, God is in control of what happens, but nevertheless there are powers in the universe who influence events.
The author of the book of Job tells us that Satan taunts God with the accusation, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” In other words is Job’s integrity simply a fair-weather faith. Does he simply believe God when his cupboard is full and all is well. This is a question that we too often face. Do we only believe in God only when things are going well for us? Is belief in God dependent on plenty of money, flourishing relationships, a good career and strong health? Probably all of us have had the kind of experience where the problem is not that we don’t believe God to be in control, but that we secretly don’t trust God to work out a solution that we’ll like. We don’t doubt that God is in control, nor even that he has our best interests at heart. What we do doubt is that he knows as well as we do what our best interests are.
As the story of Job’s plight unfolds and he searches for some meaning to it all, we the onlookers, see that his attitude changes. His faith, initially so strong, takes a hammering. The nature of his distress is such that his mind and his emotions are utterly dominated by the thought of death. Indeed this is the most dominant theme in the whole book. He sees death as a dark power overshadowing the whole of existence. He sees it as a place of blackness and shadow. And he also thinks of death as a hostile presence, an evil spirit dominating his horizon. But it’s not only death that is on his mind. He’s also suffering from a kind of severe skepticism. Everything that is familiar to him has dissolved around him. There’s no longer any meaning and purpose. He questions the very basis of existence. What is the point of it all? Most of us have faced that question at some time in our lives: What is the point of going on? Sadly, Job has lost his zest for living. He has plunged into despair.
The reasons for his feelings of despair are mainly the utter silence of his friends. Job’s comforters, as they are sometimes referred to, come to see him, but far from comforting him, they treat him as if he were already dead. They carry out the rituals of mourning, sitting in silence by him for seven days. That’s really going to cheer him up! Already crushed and broken, his friends now treat him as someone without a future, without hope and without anything to look forward to. Instead of helping they add to his distress.
A second reason is the activity of Satan himself. He’s at work filling Job’s mind with images of darkness and chaos. This is a dimension of supernatural evil that we should take seriously. Job is experiencing what Paul speaks of in Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Job’s whole personality has become a battleground.
A further reason is that Job feels that God has turned against him. He’s lost his confidence in God and in God’s good purposes for his life. This is a very real problem for us today. Sometimes the presence of God seems close. But then sometimes he appears to withdraw, and even to turn against us. C.S. Lewis describes it as “the door slammed in your face. There are no lights in the windows; it might be an empty house. Was there ever anyone in it?”
So, what’s the solution, and what can we learn from all of this? Job’s feelings about God change through the course of the book, but the reality of what God is does not change. And that reality remains unchanged when we ourselves run up against those dreary black times when God appears to have abandoned us, when the powers of darkness are having a field day and when our friends seem at best indifferent and at worst hostile. Then we have to cling to the unshakeable certainties that God loves us, that Christ died, that Christ is risen, and that Christ will come again. If these are true, then it doesn’t really matter whether we feel good about them.
Job’s example also shows us that we need to be honest. It’s our honesty that allows God to be honest with us. Not that he is ever dishonest with us, but sometimes we don’t allow for his honesty. We set up all kinds of evasions and subterfuges. We try to avoid the truth and so to avoid him. The question that we always seem to ask, “Why”, is the wrong question. We always ask the wrong questions, like for instance if your car gets stuck in a snow drift and your trying to dig it out, someone’s bound to ask, “Are you stuck?” One feels like answering, “No, my car died, and I want to give it a decent burial.” Or, wet, disgusted, irritated, with a flat tire on a rainy night beside a busy road, why is one asked, “Have you got a flat tire?” “Oh, no,” you may feel like replying, “of course not, I always rotate my tires at night on a busy road when it’s raining!”
In the final chapters of the book of Job we see that God does answer Job’s questions but not in the way that he expects. Throughout the course of his story, Job had refused to be brow-beaten by his so called friends into making a confession of guilt which he did not feel, naming sins which he knew he had not committed. His faith was in ruins after all the disasters that he had suffered, but he had held onto the one thing of which he was certain. Yet he still hadn’t arrived at a true understanding of religion. Of his innocence he was sure. It was the justice of God that he doubted. He holds onto the theology that the wicked are punished and the righteous are rewarded. Therefore God’s treatment of him was unjust. Only after God appeared to Job in all his majestic power and showed to Job that he knew nothing of the workings of the mysterious universe which he had created, does Job come to the realisation that no one, not even the best of men, not even the man whom God himself declared blameless and upright, could stride into God’s presence and claim his rights. It was the wonders of nature that God paraded before Job which he couldn’t understand. It’s before these mysteries that Job is humbled.
But as we charge headlong towards the millennium, we know. We know all mysteries and all knowledge – or almost all. To remove mountains we don’t need faith anymore, only our earth moving equipment! The insight that Job has gained is that while there is a master plan of creation, its content is known only to God. He knows the origin and purpose of the world. Job realises that he can’t know that plan, far less control it. Job doesn’t reduce God to human standards, neither does he exalt human beings to divine standards. It has been granted to Job to see this and we must see it through Job’s eyes and words.
I’ll leave the final word to Karen Blixen, whose story was told in the film Out of Africa. She said this: “It is a good thing to have a great sorrow. Or should human beings allow Christ to have died on the cross for the sake of their toothaches?”