Sermon: 20th Sunday after Pentecost 11th October 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping  8am and 10am

Readings:  Job 23:1-9,16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

“WHY ME, GOD?” – The Message of Job – The Reverend  Paul Weaver

Over the past four or five years I have got to know Daniel and George pretty well. Daniel is a diabetic with kidney failure, and a few years ago we worked together through the issues involved when it became clear that Daniel would have to go into dialysis, spending three long half days each week at the hospital, having his blood treated so that he could stay alive. The treatment kept this man in his 60’s going, but it didn’t prevent his condition worsening. Daniel had to have one leg amputated, and then this year he lost the other leg, which made it necessary to live in a Nursing Home. Following that operation, the new stump gave him continual severe pain, and the medical staff had great difficulty getting it under control. Daniel’s pain had got to the point where he was thinking of giving up dialysis, knowing that by doing that he would soon die.

Thankfully, some new medication has been found which seems to be controlling the pain, much to the relief of George as well as Daniel. George has been his partner for the past 41 years. Daniel feels more hopeful about life now, but he wonders what is around the next corner.

A couple of days ago George asked me to sit down and talk with him. We had an hour or so together, exploring where God fits in to all this. Daniel and George are people of Christian faith, although as gay people, their relationship with the church over the years has had its ups and downs. George wanted to explore a question which so many people ask: Why is there so much suffering in the world? If God is all-powerful and God is wise and God is loving, why does he allow people to suffer such things as Daniel has been going through? Of course, people ask this question out of a wide range of painful and difficult situations.

I did a lot of listening. We did some exploring of the issues. We saw that maintaining your faith could be a struggle in tough times. I could not take away the pain, or solve the problem, as I would love to be able to do. We finished up acknowledging that there was no neat answer to the question, and we prayed for God’s help. And I think George felt that our time together had been helpful and encouraging.

No doubt many of us in pain or difficult circumstances have cried out “Why God? Why me God?” If God is really there, why is the world the way it is? Why is there pain as well as pleasure, tears as well as smiles? Why is there darkness as well as light, death as well as life?

The scriptures give us insights into these questions, without providing neat and tidy answers. These issues provide the setting for the Book of Job, a small part of which we are reading this month as our Old Testament readings.

The book begins with Job, a good and godly man, who is assailed with one misfortune after another: his children are killed, his wealth is destroyed, and he is hit with a dreadful disease which leaves him cast out of society, sitting on the rubbish dump in terrible physical and emotional pain. In fact, we are told that God has given Satan permission to afflict Job in this terrible way, because God is convinced that even in such dreadful circumstances, Job will remain faithful to him. And Job does maintain his faith, even when his wife tells him that he would be better off cursing God, and dying.

Now this doesn’t provide an answer to the problem of suffering, but it points us to some important ideas. It tells us that there is a spiritual dimension to suffering, as indeed the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3 also indicates. It insists that even when bad things happen, God is still there, and is even then forwarding his own purposes. But the explanation in these opening chapters raises many questions, as well as providing some insights.

Three friends come to comfort Job. They sit with him in silence, acknowledging his pain and suffering, sitting in solidarity with him. Job finally opens his mouth to bewail the terrible suffering he is going through, and then his friends make their dreadful mistake. They open their big mouths. Their silence had been golden: their words were ignorant and hurtful.

Why? They knew God’s promises to his people that he would bless them if they obeyed him. They knew the warnings that God would punish those who arrogantly disobeyed him. And they jumped to the conclusion that God must be punishing Job for some hidden but grievous sin.

It was actually not logical: but it was the conventional wisdom of the time. If you are suffering, it must be because God is punishing you. I suspect that there would be church people today who might want to use that explanation against Daniel and George for their homosexuality!

Job’s friends, three of them and then a fourth who comes in towards the end of the book, warn him and instruct him and plead with him and harangue him, trying to get him to confess the grievous sins he has clearly committed and to repent and turn back to God. If he does that, God will forgive him, and all will be well.

The problem is that Job does not believe that he is guilty in the way his friends insist, and he believes that he has no need to repent. And for 35 chapters the debate goes on with no yielding of ground. The friends become more and more frustrated with Job’s obstinacy, which only convinces them how hard-hearted Job is in his sinfulness.

Job becomes more and more frustrated with his friends. He turns from them to God, seeking and begging and demanding and arguing with the Creator about what he is going through. We heard something of that in this morning’s reading. For Job will also have assumed that bad things should happen to bad people, and good things should happen to good people. His experience is not only terrible: it makes no sense at all. Job pleads that God explain himself, and that God declare him not guilty.

And in Chapter 38 God finally appears. As we will hear in next week’s reading, God takes Job on a Cook’s Tour of creation – the elements, and a variety of creatures: wondrous, strange, terrifying. God challenges Job about whether he could do a better job than God of running the world. But he never answers Job’s questions about why all this has happened to him. Perhaps it is better that Job doesn’t know!

At the end of the book, Job acknowledges his ignorance, and even his arrogance before God: but he does not confess his non-existent sins. God tells the three friends that they are wrong, and Job is in the right. And the story ends happily, with Job restored to full health and wealth, and a new family to boot!

The Book of Job is a long book, and many of the ideas it includes are wrong and misguided: that is a deliberate aspect of the book. It has people holding on to misguided ideas, and thrashing about searching for the truth. It doesn’t really give a direct answer to the big question about suffering, but it is rewarding in its own way, for as we battle with the question, we see from this book that we are not alone. Others – even in the scriptures – struggle with the question: it is a real question. But Job makes clear that there may not be an answer when we ask our question. The question is a significant one, as we try to make sense of life and its pains: but a direct answer may not be accessible to us.

What we often need in our pain is the assurance that God is still there; that even when life is really tough, God is there is the dark place; that he has not given up on us or abandoned us. And when there is someone we know who is in pain, we need the wisdom to see that it is better for us just to be there with them, listening, understanding, accepting, rather than trying to give too many answers and too much advice.

When life is painful, it is natural to ask “Why God? Why this, God? Why me, God?” But we will probably not get a neat answer to the question. And there is a more important question: “How do I handle this? How do I respond? What do I need to do?”

Psalm 22 tells of a person going through dreadful suffering. But when we hear its words, we are reminded on the words of Jesus on the cross: “My God, why have you abandoned me?” In Jesus, we find God himself sharing personally in the sufferings of this world, and in the worst that people can do. God does not abandon us in our suffering: he shares with us in the world’s pain. As Hebrews reminds us, we have in Jesus a great High Priest who knows what suffering and testing is all about.

No, we do not have all the answers. And we don’t have to provide people with the answers: we need to show them and assure them of God’s love and his presence through our compassion and understanding.

And when it comes to us, we too can pour out our pains to God who hears and understands, even when he doesn’t give us the immediate answers we long for. But in our prayers we can be real and honest and open as Job, and remember the assurance that God is there, even in the dark places. As the writer to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace in prayer with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”