Trinity 20 – Job rages at the absence of God

Sunday 14 October 2018

Trinity 20

Job 23:1-9, 16-17  Mark 10:17-31

May I speak this morning In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I still, sometimes, get asked how do I choose which bible verses to preach on each week?   Some churches, such as Baptists and free evangelicals, will generally let their preachers choose their own readings.  As a preacher this initially seems quite attractive, because it allows you to choose the bits of the bible you like and avoid all the difficult bits.  But it soon becomes clear that if you do that you will end up simply seeking to follow your own goals and, probably, run out of ideas in six months.

The Anglican and Catholic Churches are quite different because we follow a thing called the lectionary which tells us what reading to have not only every Sunday, but for every day of the week.  Now the lectionary is not perfect, because it does not cover the whole bible even in its three year cycle, and it sometimes makes our reading feel too disjointed, but I am pleased that we do follow the lectionary because it forces us to go to places in the bible which we would otherwise avoid in our preaching.

All of that is perhaps a slightly long-winded way of saying that, left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to preach on the 23rd chapter of Job this morning, because it is a difficult place. But I am quite glad to have been forced there because it directly confronts issues in our lives and our relationship with God which are tempting to ignore, but, in the long run, it is probably more healthy to address head on.

Job, the man rather than the book, is in a tough place.  He was once wealthy and successful and had a big family.  He also had a strong relationship with God – he was blameless and upright and, in chapter 1, God himself says that no one on Earth was like Job.

But this begs the question – is Job only blameless and upright before God because he is also wealthy and successful?  It is easy to be thankful to God when you seem to have it all.  How easy it is for us to praise God when all is right with the world for us.

Job’s worldly success and his devoutness prompt a cosmic contest between God and Satan.  I should add at this point that, for these purposes it really does not matter whether you take this story literally or merely as a dramatic parable, the point is the theological and human issues that it tackles.  Satan essentially says to God that if everything which makes Job a worldly success is taken away from him, then his devoutness and uprightness before God will swiftly fall too.

In quick succession Job loses first his livestock, then he loses his sons and daughters and then he loses his health, becoming covered in horrible sores.

By the end of chapter 2 his wife urges, or perhaps tempts,  Job to curse God and die, perhaps being a bit of an echo of Adam and Eve,  but Job responds sagely: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”.  At this point the patience of Job is untroubled.

But the story moves on a great deal between chapter 2 and today’s chapter 23.  By this point Job is angry with God, he is shaking his fist at God and Job wants to have his day in court before God arguing his case like a lawyer before a judge and to demand justice in the face of injustice.

But Job has a further problem.  Although he wants to argue his case before God he cannot do so because he cannot find him:

But if I go to the East, he is not there;

if I go to the West, I do not find him.

When he is at work in the North I do not see him;

When he turns to the South I catch no glimpse of him.”

Now, my favourite psalm Is 139.  All Vicars are required to have a favourite psalm – when you get ordained you have chose one, and it goes on your personnel file and can never be changed.  Not really, although it sometimes feels like it.

Anyway, one of the things I love about psalm 139, is its sense of the all-pervasive presence of God:

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
if I rise on the wings of the dawn,

If I settle on the far side of the sea,

Even there your hand will guide me,

Your right hand will hold me fast.”

 It will be clear that these words represent a mirror image of the language used by Job – in one God is never to be found and in the other he is everywhere.

But, and this is the really important bit, although these words about God and experiences of God are diametrically opposed they are both fully biblical.

Let me just unpack that a bit.

As Christians we are generally very good at talking about and dealing with happiness.  And that is great – one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is joy and we believe that God wants us to live life abundantly, and, ultimately we believe that God has the final victory in both the resurrection and return of Jesus.  So we are pretty good at the Good News.

But time and time again I encounter Christians who may be feeling less than fully joyful and abundant and who may feel the absence of God more than his presence.  And our theology is often sadly lacking when it comes to dealing with the bad stuff.  Some churches teach that it is un-Christian to be depressed and many Christians certainly feel that if they don’t feel in touch with God, or if they feel angry with God, that they have somehow failed as people of faith and have even set themselves outside the community of faith.

Let me tell you loud and clear – there is nothing negative you can think about God, say about God or even shout about God that is not in the Bible.  Here we have the example of Job wishing to accuse an absent God but I could equally point you to a good number of the psalms which lament the suffering of God’s people in captivity, the book of Lamentations, which has its origins in the destruction of Jerusalem, the book of Ecclesiastes, which spends most of its time dwelling in existential angst, and many other places.  A substantial portion of the biblical experience and witness about God involves dealing with situations when God seems absent.

So if you are in a hard place or if God seems more absent to you than he does present then you should never feel alone in that place and never feel that you are the first or only person who has felt that way – all of that experience in the bible.

Can anyone think of another biblical example of someone going through a hard time and crying out about the absence of God?

Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

 I have already mentioned the psalms a couple of times this morning, but I have not actually mentioned the psalm set for today, which is psalm 22.  Guess how that starts:

“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”

We know that Jesus was steeped in scripture and it is unlikely that these words came from his mouth by mere co-incidence.  To read the whole of psalm 22 through the lens of Jesus hanging on the cross is to know that there is no suffering and no separation from God that we can feel that Jesus has not felt before us.  You are not alone, Jesus has been there before you and is with you now.

Because there is hope.  There is love.  There is redemption and there is resurrection.  Although psalm 22 starts with despair it ends with the victory of God, although chapter 23 of Job has him angry at the absence of God by the end of chapter 42 he is reconciled to God and he dies an old man and full of years and the darkness of Good Friday does lead to the joy of Easter Sunday.

But I’m not going to simply announce the happy ending and assume that everything is alright.  That would be merely to reinforce the type of Christianity which cannot cope with the tough times.  The reality is that some of us have not yet reached our happy ending, our reconciliation with God, some of us are still raging with Job or hanging on the cross and cannot feel any sense of where God is in that situation.

If that is you then just know this.  You are truly not alone, you are not abandoned, you are not outside the biblical experience or the community of faith, indeed you are squarely within both.  If you want someone to walk with you, to talk with you, to rage with you or to help you wrestle with God in whatever situation you find yourself you know how to find me.