Welcoming ‘Job’ into our congregations. A sermon for Adel Parish Church, 18th Sunday after Trinity, 2021.
Job 1:1, 2: 1- 10
“Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.”
When I went to university, I joined the chapel choir and the Christian Union with my friend Sian and we were keen members of both. The first time I stayed with Sian, her mother told us no one should talk about faith until they’ve known suffering in their own life.
At 18, I felt a bit crushed – after all, I couldn’t help having a happy childhood, and I didn’t remember Jesus saying that. Now I’m much older, and perhaps a little wiser.
I don’t agree we have to wait for suffering before we find faith…but I see what she was getting at – our faith has to acknowledge the suffering around us. This week that’s meant writing my sermon accompanied by Job…sitting in ashes, scraping his diseased skin with a broken pot.
It’s meant imagining Job here, listening.
The book of Job is amazing. In the Old Testament, faith is often a sort of bargain…when God’s people follow Him they’re rewarded, when they go their own way, things go badly. We may find the stories challenging – but we get the logic. Into this neat picture comes Job…’blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil’.
‘Ah’…says a voice…’of course he’s good – he’s got everything he could want…take it away…take away his health…then he’ll curse God, then he’ll lose his faith’
So we get an almost comical list of disasters befalling Job – and find him…family dead, possessions gone, covered in sores and sitting in ashes.
I don’t think it’s a true story – but the writer of Job poses a question that goes to the heart of faith. What does it mean to trust in God when innocent people suffer? What can faith say in the face of evil?
Much of the book concerns Job’s so-called friends who come to ‘help’. Unfortunately, his misfortune challenges their faith…they need to reconcile a good and loving God with the horrors that have befallen Job. And they assume he needs to hear their ideas…
…God is just, so you must’ve done something wrong…in fact looking at what’s happened to you – it must’ve been pretty bad…
…God loves you – this suffering must be a lesson, to help you grow closer to God – you should welcome it…
…we can’t see what God sees…you might think you’re innocent, but he sees into your heart…just say sorry, God will bless you again…
The book of Job doesn’t analyse these theories…it just shows how useless such words are in the face of suffering. For the Jobs in our midst, explanations are probably irrelevant. They need a community offering practical responses to suffering and evil…a community that helps us hold on to faith in difficult times.
At first, it looks as though Job’s friends get this. They come and sit with him on the ground for 7 days and nights…and no one says a word. Sometimes there are no words…but it’s ok just to share silence. We have a model in Christ himself…Jesus suffered on the cross for 6 hours…he’s recorded as uttering 7 sentences…
…sometimes there are no words. But by sharing the silence we say…this community of faith can bear that silence…it’s ok to have nothing left.
Job’s friends start to struggle when he moves from silence to anger…starts shouting at God. Perhaps they’re embarrassed? Perhaps it threatens their faith? So they try to silence him with explanations. But lament, as I’ve said before, is part of our faith. The psalms are filled with it…
…‘How long, oh Lord, how long?’; ‘Why Lord do you stand far off?’; ‘My friends avoid me because of my wounds’; and some of Jesus few words from the cross, ’My God, My God why have you abandoned me? We have this language; we should be ready to use it. When we say, it’s ok to share anger or desperation with God, we give faith a place in the midst of suffering.
Our prayers of intercession do this when they reflect national and world events. It’s important that we name suffering and evil; bring the people of Afghanistan, Haiti, Hong Kong…the names of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard, before God in the midst of our worship…trusting he hears even if all we have is a cry of ‘How long?’
Silence…lament…and what Christianity offers uniquely to a suffering world, Christ crucified. Job’s friends pictured a just, powerful, remote God – and could only make sense of suffering by blaming the victim. But in the cross we’re shown how God deals with suffering and evil in this world.
God doesn’t strike from above at evildoers…but has pierced the very centre of evil itself. God didn’t stay aloof from violence and suffering, he absorbed and defeated them in his body on the cross.
A community that makes space for silence and lament, the trust that Christ shares our suffering…these we can offer to Job in his distress.
And when he’s ready…though there’ll always be unanswered questions…we can offer faith that in the resurrection, hurt can somehow, mysteriously, be transformed into hope.
Although we often find it hard, it does this by holding out the possibility of forgiveness and redemption.
It’s human nature to seek revenge; look for someone to blame for accidents; demand evildoers suffer as their victims did. But it draws us into evil…when we take satisfaction in bringing about suffering, we’re drawn into the hatred shown by the offender.
We never have the right to say someone else should forgive a terrible wrong. But if we can become a community practicing forgiveness; working for justice not revenge; trusting that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness…then we become a place where healing is possible…where suffering and evil might one day be transformed into hope.
Sharing silence, lamenting together, living the story of God with us, God who forgives us, the God of the cross…it still might not help Job…but it’s surely better than just offering explanations.