Is there anyone else there? A sermon for 14 October 2012 by Iain Todd

Old High St Stephen’s Church of Scotland

14 October 2012: Sermon

IS THERE ANYONE ELSE THERE ?: Iain Todd

Text: Job 23:1-9, 16-17

 Anthony De Mello, a thought provoking theologian and writer once told the story of the man who was walking close to the edge of a cliff when he lost his footing, slipped and fell. Fortunately for him his fall was broken when he became ensnared in a tree. He hung there for some time shouting for help before calling out ‘God help me’. He then heard this voice saying ‘Let go – I will catch you.’ Repeat – The man thought about it for a moment and then called out again – ‘Is there anyone else up there?’

This morning I am thinking of trust – the trust we have in God . We speak about it – we sing about it lustily

‘All my hope on God is founded he doth still my trust renew. Me through change and chance he guideth, only good and only true.’

Some words these – they make us feel … what do they make us feel ? Safe, secure, loved, close to God ?

But I am sure when being totally honest with ourselves there are times when our faith is tested – when our trust in God wobbles and we wonder where God is in our life – particularly when we are suffering.

The lectionary reading for today takes us into the Book of Job in the OT and if you haven’t read it for a while it is well worth another look for it is all about suffering – and the huge issue of apparent innocent suffering which , for thousands or millions of people, is the greatest single obstacle to faith.

This is a huge theological issue and I am not a huge theologian but I would like to say a few words which I hope may help us , make us think , for when we boil it down , trust in God , faith in God, is at our core . It is why we are here this morning like thousands before us for over a hundred years – we come to this place which is special to us – these stones have listened to our prayers of thanksgiving , of concern ,of adoration and the roof has reverberated to our hymns of praise and lament – because we have a trust in this mystery that is God – and that trust and faith we cling onto when things happen we don’t understand – when bad things happen to good people – that is the title of a book I shall return to later.

Job suffered. His name is synonymous with suffering. He asked God ‘Why?’ ‘Why me? And he put his questions to God- persistently, passionately and eloquently. He refused to take silence as an answer. He refused to take cliché answers from his friends for an answer. He refused to let God off the hook.

It is not only because Job suffered that he is important to us. It is because he suffered in the same ways that we suffer – in the vital areas of family, personal health and material things.

In this morning’s reading we join the story where Job is wondering where God has gone to – he has been searching everywhere for him.

Most Christians can tell you the basic story of Job and most people are familiar with Job’s famed ‘patience’ and his infamous comforters. It is one of the classics of the OT. It begins with an idyllic description of the life of this hero. He was a successful man in every respect – just like the rich man who approached Jesus many years later –he was surrounded not only by the material trappings of prosperity but also an affectionate family group. He was exceedingly upright and religious- just like the rich man who approached Jesus. His lifestyle and disposition show him as a paradigm of virtue.

But then things change. God depicted here as the president of a heavenly court, receives a formal request from the prosecutor, Satan, who suggests that Job is righteous only because he finds that it pays handsome dividends. And so the prosecutor is given permission to put him to the test to ascertain the value of his faith. One calamity after another comes upon Job and his family, until he is reduced to misery and poverty.
To digress, the book of Job is held to be part of what is called the Wisdom literature of the OT. Although this book was thought to have been written 1,800 to 2,000 years before Christ the same question was being asked then as now – a simple and well known problem – If God rules the world, why do good people suffer so much ? Wisdom teachers from Babylon to Egypt and beyond had wrestled with this problem long before Job.
But in Israel 2 things really focused the minds – Israel believed God was active in controlling the life of this world and secondly Israel believed God acted in accordance with strict concepts of morality.

The standard answer was found in the book of Proverbs and other books of Wisdom literature – the bottom line was this – those who prosper must be good and those who suffered must be evil. But it is often difficult to reconcile that with the facts, especially in the case of Job whom God describes as ‘there is no one on earth as faithful and good as he.’

We still come across folk today how hold this view – when they have a run of awful things happening, they will say ‘this is some kind of punishment for the way I have lived my life.’
It is not suffering that as such that troubles us .It is underserved suffering. Almost all of us in our years of growing up would disobey our parents from time to time and we would expect to be punished .When that discipline was connected with wrongdoing, it had a certain sense of justice to it.

One of the surprises as we get older however is that we come to see that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience.

An even larger surprise is that very often there is something quite the opposite. We do what we think is right and we get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing and just as we are reaching out for our reward we are hit from the blind side and sent reeling.

This is the suffering which bewilders us and then outrages us and this is the kind of suffering that Job was exposed to.

Job gives voice to his sufferings so well, so accurately and honestly that anyone who has ever suffered- and that means all of us – can recognize his or her pain in the voice of Job. He shouts out to God what many of us would only mutter behind our sleeves.
One thing he does not do is curse God – that was his wife’s advice – curse God and get rid of God. But Job does not explain suffering for us – if we are looking for the definitive answer, we read in vain.

But what we do read is that suffering is a mystery – just as faith is a mystery – the mystery of God eclipses our darkness – God is in our darkness – and we are required to cling onto that trust.

In our reading Job could not find God to answers his questions –

‘I have searched in the east, but God is not there: I have not found him when I searched in the west.’

But Job never abandoned his trust in God, his certainty that though God may be hidden for a time, he is still there –

‘God has been at work in the north and the south but still I have not seen him.’

It is not easy – these are big issues – just as the rich young man, whom Jesus loved, discovered. Hard for us to have that trust – hard for us to follow Jesus – but that is what God wants from us for his will to be done. Especially in times of really hard testing – Rabbi Kushner produced this book called ‘When bad things happen to good people.’ He and his wife were only blessed with one son. Soon after he was born he was diagnosed with a premature ageing condition which meant he would not live beyond his teens and that proved to be accurate. Having been a rabbi for years counseling people through grief he realized that, like Job’s comforters who came out with clichéd comments as they tried to help and explain away his suffering, he was in fact falling into the same trap.The question to God in all this pain was not ‘Why me ?’ but instead ‘God – this disaster has occurred – please help us get through this !’

That requires a faith to have that level of trust and sadly but obviously it will not be everyone’s experience of pain and suffering.

I wonder about our daily lives, whom do we trust ? Our politicians; our bankers; the BBC.
At a personal level we tend to build up trust through getting to know folk until a bond of friendship is secured; but when push comes to shove ‘you know who your friends are’, we say.

Friendship can develop into love and that is the relationship that God seeks from us – except his kind of love is beyond our imagining – we cannot take it in – it is an unconditional love to which we are called to respond by trusting Him – as Job says to his wife when she said to him-

You are still as faithful as ever, aren’t you ?Why don’t you curse God and die ? Job answered, ‘You are talking nonsense ! When God sends us something good, we welcome it. How can we complain when he sends us trouble?’ Job 1:9-10.

God is beside us in the good and bad and that is where the trust comes in. After all, Jesus asked us to become like little children – how often have you told your child ‘Jump and I will catch you!’ or as a child jumped fearlessly into the waiting arms of your parents?

Amen. Thanks be to God.