Friday, 19 June 2020

God in the dock

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
28th June 2020

Job 31.35-37; 38.1-11, 25-27

I suspect that that many of us, during the last few months of lockdown,
            have watched more TV than normal….

One of the most popular types of series are known as courtroom dramas,
            where the action plays out before a judge,
            with the prosecution and defence mounting their cases.

And one of the ways of thinking about the book of Job
            is to read it as a courtroom drama,
with various witnesses offering their perspectives,
            inviting judgment on the central question
            of who is to blame for Job’s suffering.

In our first reading for this morning, from Job chapter 31,
            we find ourselves in the middle of Job’s final speech in the book.
This is his ‘summing up’ of his defence.
            But what is not entirely clear, however, is who is ‘in the dock’?

Ostensibly, within the world of the narrative, it is Job who is on trial.
            He has been mounting his defence against a slew of accusations
                        that he has in some way acted to bring about his own downfall:
                        either through some sin, or unfaithfulness, or by angering God.
            And he protests his innocence on all charges.

But, and here’s the turn: if Job is innocent,
            then maybe it’s actually God who is guilty?
If humans cannot ultimately be held to account for their own suffering,
            maybe they should instead blame God?
This is the wider concern that the book of Job addresses.

In his final speech, if we had time to read it all,
            we would see that Job talks through is past life,
                        and how good it was (ch. 29),
            and then goes on to outline what has happened
                        to him in his downfall (ch.30).

As we join him in chapter 31,
            we find him taking a long oath proclaiming his integrity and his innocence,
and in the verses we read this morning
            we heard him calling on God to answer him.

Then we get to hear God’s answer a few chapters later,
            when God shows up in a voice heard from the howling of the wind.

God’s response is to take Job on a ‘whirlwind’ tour of creation,
            with the point being that nature has
                        an integrity, a majesty, an awesomeness all of its own,
            quite apart from any characteristics that humanity might ascribe to it.

In essence, God is here warning Job
            against what we might call the tendency to anthropomorphism.

If you don’t know this word,
            it comes from the bringing together of two ancient Greek words:
                        ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos) meaning ‘man’ or ‘human being’;
                        and μορφή (morphḗ) meaning ‘form’ or ‘shape,
and it describes the process of attributing human characteristics
            to something non-human.

At an everyday level, many of us do this.
            From the child who treats their teddy bear as if it had feelings,
            to the person who finds more meaning
                        in their pet’s behaviour than is logically sustainable,
            to the person who describes the tsunami or earthquake or virus as ‘evil’.

And the book of Job invites us to consider
            whether an anthropomorphic explanation of suffering is adequate.
Is it legitimate to say that a person’s experience of pain or loss
            is objectively a bad thing?

Clearly, from the perspective of the sufferer, it is.
            But Job questions whether a personal perspective
            is a sufficient basis for passing judgment on the universe.

The reality, of course, as Job comes to realise,
            is that sometimes stuff just happens.
Death and suffering are as much a part of nature
            as life and pleasure.

Maybe there is no explaining it all?

But there is another aspect to anthropomorphism
            that the Job story raises for its readers,
and that is the process of attributing human characteristics to God.

The point of the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible
            is the assertion that humans are made in God’s image,
and the corollary of this
            is that humans therefore do not get to make God in their image.

 And this is where we begin to get our answer
            to the question of who is really on trial
            in the courtroom drama of the book of Job.

Sure, Job may be innocent on all charges,
            but does that necessarily mean
            that someone or something else is correspondingly guilty?

If we cannot blame Job for his suffering,
            can we blame God instead?

Many have tried, and many do;
            but God’s response to Job gives the lie to this approach.

It is no more meaningful to put God in the dock for human suffering,
            than it is to try and declare nature itself guilty.

God is not like us,
            and to treat God as if God were a culpable human
is to commit both the error of anthropomorphism,
            and the sin or idolatry,
because it is making God in our image.

A few years ago I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company
            perform their show, ‘The Complete Word of God: Abridged’,
            which covers the entire Bible in an evening.

When they came to the Book of Job,
            they summed up God’s response to Job
            using a paraphrased quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
‘There are more things in heaven and earth, O Job,
            than are dreamt of in your philosophy. So shut up!’

In other words,
            ‘Look, you know nothing, I made everything,
            so stop your moaning and take it like a man.’

And here, in a nutshell, is the problem.

If we judge God by our criteria,
            if we ascribe to God characteristics that are human in origin,
                        if we make God in our image,
            then we can only conclude that God is cruel and capricious,
                        toying with us like a child torturing an insect.

Famously, the great eighteenth century revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards
            used exactly this perspective on God to try and terrify people into repentance,
            in his notorious sermon, ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’.

An anthropomorphised God becomes an all-powerful control freak,
            who throws tantrums when he doesn’t get his own way.

And so the Book of Job, once again, invites us
            to reject a false perspective on God.

We, like Job, are invited
            to take a step outside of our own situations.

For so much of our lives, our realities are defined
            by our own experiences of suffering or joy, pain or pleasure;
and if that is all there is,
            then life is ultimately random and meaningless.

However, God’s speech to Job, if read from the perspective
            of humans being made in the image of God,
                        rather than of God in the image of humans,
            offers a re-framing of life.

God’s words can be heard
            as offering an understanding of life defined not by suffering,
            but rather by the expansive care that God has for the whole of creation.

Job, and we too, are invited to realise that the only perspective
            from which we can ask our questions of the meaning or futility of life,
is one grounded and founded
            on God’s prior mercy and care for all that exists.

To put it simply, if we take a breath to complain against God,
            we can only do so because God has already gifted us the air to breathe.

It’s an invitation to an alternative perspective on life and suffering,
            but it is not an answer to the question of who is to blame for them.

Job never gets to find out who is to blame,
            because that is the wrong question to have been asking.

Instead, he is gifted the presence of God
            in the midst of his suffering,
and in that experience of God-with-him,
            he finds the strength to live on.

And so we find ourselves once again at the cross of Christ,
            the ultimate moment of God-with-us in suffering.

The cross does not answer the question of who is to blame for human anguish;
            it simply and powerfully witnesses to God-with-us in the midst of it.

So when, in our lives, we like Job experience trauma and grief, sickness and loss;
            and when we cast around for who to blame,
the book of Job subverts any attempt to blame ourselves,
            and denies any attempt to blame God.

Rather, it invites us to listen for God’s voice
            in the tumult of the whirlwind;
and to hear God speaking to us of a different perspective on life,
            founded not on guilt and blame,
            but on loving embrace,
as God enters into our world, our lives,
            to participate in our suffering;
and to draw us through to the newness of life
            that forever beckons us onward.

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