Vicar's Sermon - 6th November 2016
Outside the holocaust memorial in Jerusalem known as Yad Vashem, positioned just as you go in through the main door there is a statue of Job. Our reading from the Old Testament this morning came from the story of Job. I gather that the statue is controversial. In fact, as other statues and works of art have been introduced to this most important of sites in Israel Job’s statue has seemed, by some to have been pushed into a corner…so much so that it is easily overlooked by visitors to the Memorial.
But not so back in 1986 when I visited Israel. The figure of Job from that visit has stuck in my mind as one of the most powerful works of art I have ever seen. Of course, it gains some of its power from its context – standing at the entrance to The Place which memorialises the 6 million victims of the holocaust, the place which seeks to give those victims a voice and to hold them in remembrance. But maybe that is simply part of the genius of the artist, Nathan Rapoport in fulfilling his commission. Rapoport’s Job is portrayed as a victim of the holocaust: he has a number tattooed on his arm 14527. He is clearly Jewish: he wears a prayer shawl which is wrapped around him. His eyes are lifted up to heaven. His hands are clasped together. …some interpret his position as suggesting that he is at prayer, others see this Job as anguishing over the suffering of his people. And there is one other feature to mention: the statue is 5’ tall but you cannot see Job’s feet for they are embedded firmly into the clay – this Job is also Adam, a man of earth, he struggles to understand the ways of heaven. And, in this way, through his work of art our sculptor has managed to encapsulate for us the essence of the Book of Job.
The book of Job can’t be many people’s idea of bed time reading but it is a remarkable piece of literature, let alone a remarkable book of scripture. In it we have the story of a good man – more than this, a ‘wholly blameless man’ – who suffers multiple disasters, awful bereavement and loss and then acute physical pain as God holds him up to the court of heaven as an example of faith. Most of the book is a philosophical discussion between Job and his famous three ‘comforters’ about why suffering has come his way. My guess is that very few of us have read the Book of Job from beginning to end – it’s not at all easy- but it is at heart a discussion of what we now call theodicy: ‘how is it possible to believe in a good and loving God in the face of suffering and pain’? This is a most modern question. It is, needless to say, presented to post holocaust theologians with a renewed power. How can a good God permit, or allow, 6 million people to go to the gas chambers and not act to save them? …particularly when those people are in some sense ‘His’ people? What sort of God is this? …is He worth the worship people of faith offer? But the problem of suffering does not need to be expanded to almost inconceivable limits to hold power over our thoughts and prayers. What do we make of the hurricane in Haiti…or the earthquake just the other week in Italy? How do we make sense of disease across Africa…Ebola..or Malaria?
Or closer to home, what do we do when the doctor leans forward across his desk and says the results show that mum has cancer…or when the police arrive on the doorstep to say there has been an accident and our children have been involved? The Book of Job is about all this and more.
Job’s comforters usually get short shrift. For those of you who don’t know the book, Job’s closest friends gather around him and they talk…and allow him to talk. His children have been killed. He has lost his home. He is riddled with some wasting disease and (if I remember rightly) the conversation takes place with him sitting in sackcloth and covered in ashes. For some time the friends do the right thing…they simply sit with him in his grief, they offer no easy platitudes, just being there is enough.
But remember, this is a book of philosophy rather than a ‘true story’ so eventually the debate must begin. And the friends lay before Job their tried and tested ‘answers’ to his problem, this problem of suffering and whether God is good or not.
There are three main answers and they all carry some truth…and they all leave us with more questions:
Firstly, Job’s friends hold as strongly as they can to a belief that our actions have consequences. That which we do that is good will bear good fruit…but when we fall from ‘righteousness’ then the consequences will be bad. What Job’s friends want to hold on to is a sense that God is just. That the good will be rewarded and evil will be punished. But, as we well know, it is not at all clear that ‘Goodness is stronger than evil’ (to quote Archbishop Tutu). The people of Old Testament times, just like us, had to cope with the evidence before them that actually ‘the wicked’ seem to prosper and the good are trampled upon. There’s also a flip side to this argument which is by no means attractive...and it drives Job to distraction. Because, whilst it may or may not be observably true that a refusal to live according to God’s law brings disaster (imagine a society without the Ten Commandments), if we work backwards from the fact of our personal suffering, it is all too easy to end up thinking that God is punishing me for something I may have done wrong. This thought too, is rather awkwardly found in our scriptures – a sense that we have deserved any pain that has come our way…a desperation in the psalms that shows us faithful people trying to confess their ‘secret sins’ to escape from under God’s punishment. This is not at all attractive, it is less than Christian, and is not an answer for Job or us…thank God.
Job’s comforters offer him another line of thought: perhaps, they say, our suffering is God’s way of teaching us. He uses the lessons we learn through hardship to our benefit. No pain, no gian. Now, there is much in both the Old and the New Testament that would suggest that this may well be the case. Remember the apostle Paul’s words: he says ‘we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint is because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.’ But the difficulty with this argument for Job is twofold: firstly, to what end does he have all this pain? Not all Jews believed in what we would call an afterlife and all Job knows is suffering – so what purpose does it serve in him? Secondly, it may well be true that suffering can be turned to some good purpose, but Job wants to know where this suffering comes from – has Job’s suffering come from God to teach him a lesson, or does God, in His goodness take the pain of the world and redeem it by bending it to His good purpose? Does God send the suffering…or does he redeem it?
The last argument set before Job is this: that suffering provides the person of faith with the opportunity to renew their hope in God…to wait on Him. There may well be no end to the pain or torment in sight, in this life, but when faced with difficulty we are asked to make a choice – will we choose faith in God…or not? Again, this is an idea that finds a lot of support in both Testaments: patient, hopeful endurance, the refusal to let go of faith even when all seems lost. ‘We are’ says Paul quoting the psalms ‘like sheep for the slaughter, killed all day long’ but ‘nothing…absolutely nothing, (not hardship or distress, nakedness, persecution, famine peril or the sword) can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.
This seems to be where that statue of Job outside Yad Vashem rests: a refusal to let go of faith in a good and just God, a patient trust in this goodness even against the odds, even through the tears, even when any attempt to ‘understand’ has eluded us. And it seems to be where the character Job is left in the book that bears his name for in the end God speaks to Job only to highlight the fact that Job knows so little of God’s ways.
So there is, in the Book of Job, no ‘answer’ to the problem of evil. In the end, he is reduced to silence before the majesty of God, there is nothing to be said…but maybe when faced with the awful brokenness of the world (or our lives for that matter), the wrong thing to be looking for is ‘an answer’. Asking the question is OK but what we need not an ‘answer’ to a philosophical debate but some clue as to how we might respond, how we might live with the questions. Here, Job leads the way. Whatever comes his way ‘he will not let God go’, he will shout and rail and argue and weep and try to understand …and he will hold on with every ounce of energy that he has because if a world of suffering with God is difficult then the one thing that might be worse is a world of suffering without God for then there would be no hope, no chance of consolation. Somewhere, in the heart of God there is someone who will bring hope to Job in the depths of his despair: I know, he says, that my Redeemer lives…
And Christian people can give that Redeemer a name: Jesus Christ.