Thursday, 2 July 2020

Choose Life

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a time of Isolation
The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
5th July 2020

Job 41.1-8; 42.1-17

Listen to the sermon here:

I’d like to start our engagement with the final chapters of Job, by posing a question:
            Do you think that the ending of this story ruins it?

If you do, you’re not alone!
Many people find the ending of Job problematic.
            After all the suffering he’s has been through,
                        suddenly his fortune is restored,
                                    he is reconciled to his family,
                        he has lots and lots of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys,
                                    and ten further children
                                    including three daughters with amazing names.

Frankly, this could easily be read as a sell-out,
            both theologically and narratively.

After all, for the first forty-one chapters,
            the book has been doing logical and theological battle
                        with the view of God that sees material success
                        as a divine reward for righteousness;
            and yet here, right at the end,
                        the most righteous man of all gets his reward
                        of family, friends, and an enormous quantity of livestock.

It would be a bit like discovering Shakespeare originally planned little extra scenes
            for his great tragedies of Romeo and Juliet or King Lear,
            where everyone comes back to life and does a little dance.
Except, the thing is… that is how they were originally played,
            as anyone who’s been to the Globe Theatre knows well.

The thing is, we’re all suckers for a happy ending,
            and maybe for the book of Job to function as a successful story
            it simply needs its happy ending?
Maybe it would have been too bleak
            if Job had just lived in righteous misery unto death?

But what are we to make of this?
            How do we reconcile Job’s happy ending
            with the theology of the rest of the book?

Well, let’s take a step back into our first reading,
            and pick up the narrative with God’s final speech to Job.

Here we find God once again using the language and imagery of nature
            to show Job that there is a far wider perspective on life
            than the one he is currently, subjectively, experiencing.

I think that how you hear God’s words to Job
            really rather depends on the tone with which you choose to read them.

It could be read that God is simply beating Job over the head with creation,
            telling him that he knows nothing so he should just shut up with his complaining.

But I think this is to do an injustice to what is going on here,
            which is that God is offering Job an invitation
            to a wider way of understanding existence.

The thing is, and I’m sure many of us can relate to this,
            when we experience trauma in our lives
            the natural reaction is for us to ‘turn in’ on ourselves.

We, sometimes quite literally, ‘hunch over’ our own pain,
            whether it is physical or psychological,
            and we find it hard to focus on anything other than our suffering.

And initially, this is of course entirely appropriate;
            it is a survival strategy, that we prioritise ourselves and our immediate needs,
            and the rest of the world can go hang for a while.

We know this is true in our experiences of bereavement, or sudden illness,
            and it is something we all do.

But if we are to live again, we cannot stay in such a place.
            If we spend the rest of our lives blaming or questioning ourselves,
                        or living in anger at how our world has changed,
            then we are no longer really living.

And so, after forty chapters of focussing on his suffering,
            questioning the ‘whys and wherefores’ of his pain,
Job is challenged by God to open his eyes to a wider perspective,
            to see through his pain to a world that is bigger, more beautiful,
            and more mysterious than he had previously realised.

God’s invitation to Job is to reorientate his worldview,
            to learn that despite how it feels for him,
            he is not the centre of the universe.

The temptation for all of us is, like Job, to view the world subjectively,
            to judge the world according to our own pain, or our own joy,
            to measure the universe by our own failure, or our own success.
And as Job discovers, this is ultimately pointless,
            because the world doesn’t make sense from subjective point of view.

If all that matters is my suffering, my righteousness, and my justice,
            then the world is an untenable place to live;
            because the world is not, ultimately, interested in me.

And God’s invitation to Job is to realise that his place in the universe
            is not predicated on his own suffocating experiences;
and that lifting his head, looking around him,
            and realising that there is so much more to the world,
is an invitation to live, and to breathe again.

An inwardly-focussed existence
            is ultimately counter productive
            to our own continued existence.
But a glimpse of the wider perspective of creation in all its mystery and majesty,
            opens the door for a new way through the pain and suffering of life.

Let me tell you a story, from my family.
            I’ve told it before, and I’m sure I’ll tell it again.

My grandma was married for only six weeks,
            before her childhood sweetheart was killed in action.
Then she realised she was pregnant with their child, who is my mother.

So I think of Grandma, with all her hopes of family life dashed,
            living in poverty, a single mother in wartime,
            reliant on extended family for childcare.

In time, she found a way through her grief and loss,
            and married again, to the man I knew as my grandfather,
            they had further children, and grandchildren, and were very happy.

But my grandmother had to live with the memory of her grief and suffering,
            even through the years of happiness and plenty that followed.
And she had to choose to re-marry,
            even though she knew the pain of losing a husband.

And she discovered what Job too would have had to learn,
            which is that even when a life of suffering opens out, in time,
                        to a life of happiness,
            the insights gained during the years of suffering are not lost.
            And the vulnerability to further loss and grief is always there.

And whilst it is certainly true that some people suffer unto death;
            many more suffer for a while and then have a choice to make.

God’s invitation to Job is to choose life,
            to open himself to the possibility of new life beyond death.

And this, of course, is the hope that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.
            It is the hope of resurrection.

It is the hope that death does not get the last word on life;
            that whether it is the final experience of death
                        that we must all one day face;
            or one of the many smaller deaths:
                        of love, relationship, health, and independence,
                        that blight our days on this earth;
            it is the hope that whenever and however we experience loss of life,
                        God is always inviting us to a new experience of life,
                        challenging us to raise our eyes and gain a new perspective.
In the 1980s, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff
            received a telephone call on a sunny Sunday afternoon
            that told of his 25-year-old son Eric's death in a mountain-climbing accident.

He wrote the beautiful book, ‘Lament for a Son’
            to express his grief which is at once both unique and universal.

I’d like to read a short excerpt from the book now:

WHY DON’T YOU just scrap this God business,
            says one of my bitter suffering friends.
It’s a rotten world, you and I have been shafted, and that’s that.
            I’m pinned down.
When I survey this gigantic intricate world,
            I cannot believe that it just came about.
I do not mean that I have some good arguments for its being made
            and that I believe in the arguments.
I mean that this conviction wells up irresistibly within me
            when I contemplate the world.
The experiment of trying to abolish it does not work.

When looking at the heavens,
            I cannot manage to believe that they do not declare the glory of God.
When looking at the earth,
            I cannot bring off the attempt to believe
            that it does not display his handiwork.
And when I read the New Testament and look into the material surrounding it,
            I am convinced that the man Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead.

In that, I see the sign that he was more than a prophet.
            He was the Son of God.

Faith is a footbridge that you don’t know will hold you up over the chasm
            until you’re forced to walk out onto it.
I’m standing there now, over the chasm.
            I inspect the bridge.
Am I deluded in believing that in God
            the question shouted out by the wounds of the world has its answer?
Am I deluded in believing that someday I will know the answer?
Am I deluded in believing that once I know the answer,
            I will see that love has conquered?
I cannot dispel the sense of conducting my inspection
            in the presence of the Creating/ Resurrecting One.

(Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Lament for a Son (p. 76). Eerdmans.)

Or, as Job put it, from the depths of his suffering:

Job 19.25-26
 For I know that my Redeemer lives,
            and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
            then in my flesh I shall see God.

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