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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Monday, 12 October 2009

sermon for 11th October at Lindsell

Yesterday's sermon from Lindsell; the readings were Job 23, 1-17 and Mark 10, 17-31.

Last week we met Job for the first time, and the scene was set for his trials and tribulations. This week we meet him at his lowest ebb.There is a strong tone of judgement in today's lessons, balanced by an equally strong tone of empathetic care for the suffering or oppressed.

”With friends like these, who needs enemies?”Much of the Book of Job contains a dialogue between Job and his so-called 'comforters' who in effect add to his suffering by tempting him to question God, and question his own integrity. Their questions include 'Can a mortal be of use to God?' (22.2) and the accusation that Job must have sinned for his sufferings to happen: 'Is not your wickedness great?' they ask (22.5).Job's reply is a lament that in his suffering God appears to be absent. In fact, behind this lies a desire for justice and the opportunity to be judged by a human law. He wants to find God in order to lay his case before him. His hope is for a just judge with whom an upright person could reason, and then he might be vindicated.But of course the very point is that the problem of innocent suffering remains.

I hope we know that when we watch TV or read the papers about Samoa, Sumatra or the Gaza strip, that these circumstances of suffering are not a case of someone receiving their just deserts. God does not answer this kind of question because he is not inflicting the punishment. He only appears to be absent, and will not reply here to the charges, which Job puts.Job claims that he wants to listen to God, saying 'I would learn what he would answer me' but in fact all Job wants is the opportunity to put his case, which he believes, will be self-evident. Mistakenly, Job thinks that God will not simply brush him aside in a demonstration of power, but that is something to be seen later in his story. Now there is only absence, and this makes Job's suffering appear to be meaningless. Here he feels the pain of the injustice of it all, that God will not even reveal the reason why Job suffers so greatly.

He says, in a strange inverse echo of psalm 139, 'If I go to the east, he is not there, if I go to the west, he is not there' (23.8) and there is a feeling that God does not even care sufficiently to notice what is going on.Briefly, Job wonders whether all this is just part of a test, for people commonly saw suffering as being a trial by ordeal imposed by God, from which the pure gold of righteousness might emerge (23.10) Indeed this idea is quite prevalent today as well. I myself have sought comfort from that verse in times of trial, not realising that Job’s got the wrong idea; this is not a test, this is just life. Nevertheless, we can learn from Job’s fortitude and faithfulness here; it almost seems as if he has been reading the psalms in verses 8 to 12, so familiar his words seem to us.

In the end though, with the mood he’s in, God's refusal to appear plunges Job into a renewed despair, filled with dread before the Creator. Now, rather than daring to seek God, he wishes only to be hidden. Hidden, yes, but still standing, not silenced by the darkness. This kind of resilience will stand in good stead anyone who faces a tough time in life.I was most impressed to read this week of a number of Christians who have been involved in Anthony Gormley’s fourth plinth project in Trafalgar square recently. These plinthers have done a variety of things, from prayer and worship and mediation to preaching. Some faced opposition, including one Roman Catholic priest, who was asked, “Where was your God in Auschwitz or the Tsunami?” He replied simply “Dying, and drowning”.

The rich man of Mark 10 is devout and interested in inheriting eternal life. He has kept the commandments since his youth. However, he is shocked when Jesus, looking at him and loving him, nonetheless asks him to sell what he owns to give to the poor, thus storing up treasure in heaven; so he goes away grieving. This is an interesting encounter for two main reasons.

First, it is important to note that Jesus in asking him to sell his possessions and give to the poor is not asking him to do something in addition to keeping the commandments; rather Jesus is asking him to keep the commandments through engaging in this radical action.Remember Jesus' declaration that to love God with all the heart and to love neighbour as oneself is to keep all the commandments. This is all that Jesus has asked him to do, as a means of confronting the limited extent to which he has been keeping the commandments thus far.

Second, it is important to note the rich man's response: like Job, faced with an apparently impossible task, he goes away grieving. He is not angry, or appalled, or affronted, but saddened. He appears to recognise the validity of Jesus' radical demand but finds it impossible to follow because he is so attached to his possessions. This is surely a case of the word of God, as mentioned in Hebrews, being sharper than a two-edged sword in judging the heart. Both Job and the Rich young man teach us that going the way of the cross is costly.The disciples ask Jesus, “who then can be saved?” because they are thinking that salvation is something we do to ourselves through our actions; Jesus’ reply stresses the primary action of God – Humanly this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible. The riches that Jesus describes the end of chapter 10 are not the kind of thing that people today – perhaps even us – would describe as riches. We tend to think of material possessions first and people afterwards; Jesus as usual inverts the table so that the first is last and the last first.

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