Monday, 27 July 2020

It’s Not Fair

Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 August 2020

2 Corinthians 8.1-15

Listen to this sermon here: 

I wonder, do you think life is fair? 

In fact, I’ll put that a bit more strongly: 
do you think life should be fair? 

I can remember that when I was a child I once complained to my Dad, 
shouting, ‘It’s not fair!’, 
and he replied, 
‘No one ever said life was going to be fair, Simon’. 

And of course he was right, no one had ever made me that promise. 
I just had some innate expectation that it would be, 
and like all of us, I had to learn the painful lesson 
that if we expect fairness in life, 
we are in for a disappointment. 
Sometimes bad and lazy people prosper, 
while good and industrious people don’t. 
That’s life.

But, I ask again, should it be this way? 
That’s the million dollar question.

In our passage for this morning,
Paul makes a link between the universal human ideal of fairness
and the theological concept of grace,
and he does so as part of an intensely practical discussion
about money.

One of the great things about Paul’s letters
is that they are always grounded in the real world.

Sometimes, theologians can be accused of going off on flights of fancy,
arguing about the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin,
or some other such abstract and obtuse subject.

Well, not with Paul.
His theology is always grounded in reality,
and is being worked out ‘on-the-hoof’ to address the problems and difficulties
of those in the churches he was responsible for.

The background to the chapter we are looking at today
lay in a famine that had affected the nation of Israel in the mid-to-late 40s.
The situation facing the Christian believers in Jerusalem
was already financially precarious before this,
with them having broken with Judaism, 
making them particularly vulnerable to the double whammy 
of Jewish and Roman taxation, 
and an already precarious economy;
but then the famine was catastrophic for them.

Paul and Barnabas had already made an initial famine-relief visit to Jerusalem in 46CE
to deliver a gift of money from the church at Antioch (Acts 11:29-30),
and Paul spent much of the next decade 
trying to persuade people in the churches he planted in Asia Minor 
to send ongoing financial support to the Jerusalem church.

And this is what we meet in 2 Corinthians, written in 55CE,
where he is trying once again to persuade the Corinthians
to be generous with their money.

And it is in this context that Paul inter-twines 
the concepts of grace and fairness.

The word ‘grace’, which in Greek is the word ‘charis’
appears five times in the first few verses of chapter 8,
although different Bible versions variously translate it as 
‘grace’, ‘blessing’, ‘generosity’, ‘thanksgiving’, and ‘favour’.

It’s clearly a word with what translators would call,
‘a wide semantic range’.

So what does Paul mean, when he speaks of:
  • the grace of God (v.1)
  • or, the grace of taking part in the relief of the saints (v.4)
  • or, this act of grace (vv.6, 7)
  • or, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (v.9)?
Well, on the one hand, he is portraying
grace is something spiritual that originates with God 
and is made known through Jesus; 
but on the other hand 
it is something practical that humans can and should participate in, 
such as contributing generously to an appeal for money.

And for Paul, these two aspects of grace, 
the divine and the human, the spiritual and the practical, 
are inextricably linked. 
You can’t have one without the other.

And yet, for many Christians, grace has lost its practical side,
and has become instead a solely theological concept.

When Liz and I were children at our respective Sunday Schools,
we were both, independently, taught a backronym definition of Grace:

God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense

Or, to spell it out slightly more fully,
Grace is the mechanism 
whereby the sacrifice of Christ on the cross
opens the path for sinful humans to receive the riches of God.

And, widespread though this kind of theology is,
I have something of a problem with it.

Because grace is not a mechanism;
and neither is it a transactional process,
where Christ pays the price for our sin so we don’t have to.

A transactional and mechanistic understanding of grace
is built on a transactional and mechanistic understanding of the cross;
and this is problematic, 
because it makes grace something that God does,
rather than something for humans to participate in;
and it makes the cross the focus of God’s legalistic anger
rather than an expression of God’s gracious love.

In Paul’s theology, the notion of grace 
is consistently opposed to the language of the law,
with Paul arguing that the gospel of grace that has been revealed in Christ
has fulfilled the law that was revealed through Moses.

And yet, for many of us, our understanding of fairness 
is still built on a mechanistic or legalistic framework.

We believe that if this happens, then that should follow,
or that if we do this, then we deserve that,
and so on.

And when we don’t get the outcome we believe we deserve,
we end up either echoing our childhood cries of, ‘It’s not fair, Daddy!’,
or descending into cynicism and resignation.

Much of the language of rights 
is built on a mechanistic understanding of fairness,
with certain ‘inalienable rights’ being inherent to humanity
with any violation of these a crime against that humanity.

However, the history of human rights 
has shown that such so-called ‘inalienable rights’
are always, in the end, culturally determined and open for debate.

I’m reminded of something Dawn said in a sermon at Bloomsbury a while back,
when she asserted that instead of speaking of our rights,
we should start talking about our responsibilities.

I guess it all begins with the ten commandments,
at least for the Judeo-Christian tradition 
that has dominated the Western world for the last two millennia.

And we might think that these are pretty straightforward,
until it comes to actually applying them.

After all, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ seems fairly definite,
until you start discussing just war theory.

‘Honour thy father and mother’ is fine,
until you have an abusive of inadequate parent.

Of course, the Jews of the first century and before knew this perfectly well,
and the Jewish tradition of midrash emerged 
to help people interpret the law for their own context and situation.

So when Paul, trained as a Jewish Pharisee, pits law against grace,
he knows that he is taking the axe to the root 
of everything that seems fair and right for many of his readers.

From a human perspective,
fairness is the fair application of the law,
it is the just outworking of a person’s rights,
it is the protection of the individual by the community.

But Paul is offering a different perspective,
one built on the life and example of Jesus,
rather than on the law of Moses.

And Paul calls this perspective ‘grace’,
originating through God’s revelation in Jesus
and finding its outworking in the lives of those whom it touches.

An example of this from the teachings of Jesus
is found in what are known as his ‘antithesis teachings’.
You know the ones,
where Jesus says, ‘You have heard it was said, this, but I say to you, that’.

In Matthew chapter 5 we find several of these, including:
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (Matthew 5.38-39)

Here Jesus is quoting from the books of the Jewish Law, 
specifically Leviticus 24.19-20, which reads:
Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return:
fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; 
the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.

From a legal perspective, if you want to extract revenge,
you have the right to inflict back the injury sustained,
but no more.
This is an injunction against overkill,
preventing a vendetta in exchange for a slight.

But Jesus makes is clear that whilst this may be your legal right,
it is not the gracious response.

Grace forgives, and endures, and meets hatred with love,
grace undermines law, and does so outrageously.

I’ve been watching the American House of Cards recently on Netflix,
and no spoilers please because I’m only half way through.

But in it, the American President makes a speech
in which he is arguing for a ‘back to work’ programme for America,
and he says the following:

We have been crippled by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, 
by welfare, by entitlements. 
And that is the root of the problem; entitlements.  
Let me be clear: you are entitled to nothing. 
You are entitled to nothing.

And strangely, I think Paul would agree with this conclusion,
but for completely the opposite reason.

Any language of entitlement, or fairness, 
that is predicated on a legalistic framework,
is only ever going to be, at best, a partial answer.

Because life isn’t fair, 
we have no inalienable rights,
and we are entitled to nothing.

But this is, for Paul, merely the bad news
that paves the way for the good news of the gospel of Christ.

Because where law has failed,
grace can triumph.

So to return to the question of the collection 
for the suffering Christians in Jerusalem.

A legalistic approach to financial redistribution in favour of the poor
would look like a series of transactions 
whereby people give because they must,
or in such a way as to retain control over how the money is used.

We are well used to systems like this:
we pay our taxes, 
and the welfare state provides housing for those in poverty;
we make donations to charities or food banks,
and they offer food or other support to those in need on our behalf.

But this is not the basis of Paul’s appeal for money.
He is casting it as a system of grace,
where money is given freely and with generosity.
As we have graciously received the riches of God’s grace,
so we should grace-fully share those blessings with others.

The grace we receive from God, it seems,
only has meaning when we pass it on.

And this is because grace is never individual,
it is always communal.
It is never transactional, it is always relational.

And so what about us?
What are we to take from this in terms of our own lives,
our own discipleship?

Well, let’s start with money.
Not all, but many of those listening to this sermon today,
are people with, at least in global terms, a significant level of wealth.

Firstly, I want to say that this is nothing to be ashamed of.
For too long, Christians have focussed on guilt-inducing theologies of wealth,
which have simply paralysed us into inaction.
So, hear this: if you, like me, have some financial stability and a roof over your head,
thank God for it and be grateful.

But, secondly, we also need to hear that what we have 
is not ours to do with as we will,
and no legalistic or mechanistic system of giving can get us off the hook.

We are called to generosity, to faithfulness in giving,
and to joining with Christ in the calling to grace-filled living.

And part of this, I believe, is to explore ways of giving
that allow us to surrender our control over that which we have given.

And this takes us back to Paul’s prioritising of community, 
and away from the temptations to individualism.

So, for example, when we give to the work of God through our local church,
we are consciously surrendering the decisions on how that money will be spent
to those with whom we are in fellowship in Christ.

We don’t decide to withdraw our giving 
if we disagree with some of the decisions that the community takes.
Because it’s about trust, and love, and forgiveness, and grace;
and such as these will free us from our addiction to legalism,
and our enslavement to individualism.

Grace calls us to reciprocity,
to realising that however much we may have, 
we always have needs that others can meet,
just as others have needs that we can meet in turn.

Grace calls us to action 
in the cause of those whose lives are intertwined with ours.

Grace calls us to play our part in bringing the kingdom of God to reality
in our world, and our time.

Next week we’ll be beginning a new short series 
looking at issues of justice that affect our lives: 
economic justice, welcoming the stranger, 
climate justice, and homelessness. 

Paul’s theology of fairness and grace,
that we have been exploring today,
is the foundation for our practical engagement in the world,
as we become those through whom the grace of God is made known
to those who are currently living with inequality, injustice, and exclusion.

And what we will discover,
is that as we are agents of God’s grace to others,
we become, in turn, recipients of God’s grace to us from them.

This is the fairness of God’s grace.

Friday, 17 July 2020

It’s the cracks that let the light shine through

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
26th July 2020

2 Corinthians 4.1-18

Listen to this sermon here: 

Last week a friend of mine posted a comment on Facebook which has stayed with me, and I think is relevant to helping us with our passage for this morning from Paul’s letter to Corinth. She said:

A wind instrument can only make music because of the holes in it.
Perhaps the wind of the Spirit too makes music through the holes in our lives.
Our wound is our gift.[1]

I think my friend here is echoing the insight of Paul when he said, in one of the most well-known passages from 2 Corinthians, ‘we have this treasure in clay jars’.

There is a paradox, is there not, which we all experience in one way and another, between the sublime glimpses we are granted of the glory of God, and our own mortality and fallibility. It seems that we cannot contain the mysteries of eternity, because the truth is that we are finite and fractured. The treasure of heaven is in jars of clay.

In offering us this metaphor, Paul is freely acknowledging his own flaws and failings, which he knows full-well he shares with everyone else, whether they acknowledge them or not. We are, he is saying, all human; and each of us is, in our own way, deeply flawed, and deeply vulnerable.

But the glory of Paul’s proclamation of human frailty in the light of God’s glory, is that our brokenness is the very aspect of our being, through which God’s glory is made known in the world. God is at work not in perfection but in imperfection.

Have you ever come across the Japanese practice of Kintsugi? This is the art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The story of Kintsugi is said to have begun in the 15th century, when a Japanese military commander broke one of his beloved Chinese tea bowls and, disappointed with a shoddy repair job, urged Japanese craftsmen to come up with a more pleasing method of repair.[2] It is a powerful metaphor for life, where brokenness is transformed into beauty.

Of, if you want a slightly more contemporary example, there’s a wonderful lyric by the late great Canadian-Jewish singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, in which he said

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

There is great wisdom here, which is that God chooses to bring the message of life to light through deeply flawed human beings. That is, all of us. God works in and through people, bringing them to faith and service, not waiting for all the flaws to be fixed, but working through the failings in order to bring life to others.

Let me tell you about my Mum’s terracotta bowl. This was a present that Liz and I had bought for her birthday, and we’d carefully wrapped it. As we gave it to her, it slipped from our hands and fell to the floor, and the sound of it breaking was unmistakeable. I begged her not to open it, but rather to put it in the bin still wrapped, and we would get her something else, but she insisted on seeing it. Sure enough, it was shattered. She put it to one side, and graciously thanked us for the lovely thought. Well, the next time we went to their house, the bowl was there on display in the lounge. She had carefully taken each piece and glued it back together. It certainly isn’t a professional restoration job - you don’t have to look very closely to see the cracks, or the bits of extra glue. But from a distance it looks like the bowl it was always supposed to be. In some ways, for those of us who know the story of its breaking, that history of brokenness adds to the value we put on it. Would it still be on display if it hadn’t been broken? Maybe not, maybe by now a perfect bowl would have gone to a new home, or a new use somewhere else. But the bowl that has been cracked and broken and patched back together now speaks of relationship, and love, and care, and memories… and so it still sits there on display.

we have this treasure in clay jars

And I wonder about you. Are your cracks visible or invisible? Do you appear strong or weak, whole or broken? Paul knows that we all carry the scars of our vulnerability, whether we let them show or not, and his insight is profound. It is the cracks that make us more beautiful in God’s sight. Because of our cracks, and our history of brokenness, we are more able to make known the love of God, than we would ever have been able to without.

The gospel of Christ, which is the overwhelming and absolute love of God, is most clearly revealed in weakness. The cracks are how the light gets in. In our brokenness we relinquish the goal of perfection, and we trust ourselves to the one who fully embraced and embodied the human experience of brokenness. Or, as Paul might put it, we are united with the brokenness of Christ on the cross. We always carrying in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh (2 Cor. 4.9-10).

It is only through God’s power that we can live out our calling to be faithful followers. Those who attend groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous know that the first two steps towards finding new life through brokenness are 1) an admission of our own powerlessness to fix ourselves; and 2) belief that one who is beyond us, the ‘higher power’ known through faith, can do with our lives what we cannot do for ourselves.

Or, as Paul might put it, we are saved through faith and not by works. But whose faith? If it is our faith, then it circles back to us and our ability to have faith… No, the faith on which we depend is the faithfulness of Christ.

Any faith we have, and any action that arises from it, comes not from our own strength but from the faithfulness of Christ in the face of human brokenness. In other words, we are saved and redeemed because of the cross of Christ. It is as we participate in the self-giving love of Christ, who gave himself up to be handed over for crucifixion, that we discover the new life that comes through brokenness.

And the thing is, there is great strength to be found here. The Kintsugi golden join in a broken Japanese pot is stronger than the pot was originally. Without the cracks the light can’t shine through. Without weakness the power of God is not made known. As any student of sci-fi films will tell you, the empire is only defeated by the rebel alliance when all seems surely lost. The significance of our lives can only be judged from beyond ourselves, and that which we experience as defeat, weakness, and failure, may in the end be the moment of greatest revelation of God’s love and power at work in us.

So do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (4.16-18).

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Consolation in Affliction

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a time of Isolation
The online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12th July 2020

2 Corinthians 1.1-11

Listen to this sermon here: 

After five weeks preaching through the book of Job,
            you could be forgiven for thinking that it might be time
            to move on from subjects such as suffering and affliction.

After all, surely we’ve served our time staring down disease and disorder,
            and now it’s time to move on, to a happier message?

Let’s leave Job in the Old Testament where he belongs,
            and set our sights on the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Let’s get back to business as usual
            and put the time of difficulty behind us.

Except, of course, it’s never that easy.
            The human condition even at its most joyful
                        is still tinged with both the memory and expectation of tears.
            While some celebrate, others mourn.

I’m sorry, let me start this sermon again.

After sixteen weeks of lockdown,
            you could be forgiven for thinking that it might be time
            to move on from subjects such as the virus and death-rates.

After all, surely we have served our time staring down disease and disorder,
            and now it’s time to move on, to a happier message?

Let’s leave COVID in the past where it belongs,
            and set our sights on the good news of the new normal.
Let’s get back to business as usual
            and put the time of difficulty behind us.

Except, of course, it’s never that easy.
            Even Saturday night in Soho at its most joyful
                        is still tinged with both the memory and expectation of tears.
            While some celebrate, others mourn.

And so we come to Paul’s fourth letter to the Corinthians,
            where he offers a Christ-centred message of consolation
                        to those living with affliction.

But before we get into that,
            you may have noticed that I just called this Paul’s fourth letter to the Corinthians;
                        and those who have been coming
                        to my Monday evening Biblical Studies Masterclasses will know why.

The fact is that we don’t have the whole of Paul’s correspondence
            with the church in Corinth.

The letter we call ‘1 Corinthians’
            makes mention of a previous letter, which is now lost (1 Cor. 5.9),
            and this makes 1 Corinthians the second letter Paul sent to Corinth.

Then when we get to 2 Corinthians,
            we find a reference to it being a follow-up
                        to a previous letter that was written with,
                        ‘much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears’ (2 Cor. 2.4),
            which certainly doesn’t sound like 1 Corinthians.

So we think there is another lost letter
            between what we call 1 Corinthians (which is actually the second letter)
            and 2 Corinthians (which is therefore the fourth letter).

I’m afraid it’s even more complicated than this,
            because scholars also think that 2 Corinthians is a combination
                        of Paul’s fourth and fifth letters,
            with the break coming between chapters 9 and 10,
                        but we don’t need to worry about that at the moment.

Anyway, back to chapter 1,
            where Paul begins his letter in fine pastoral form
by offering the Corinthians a message of consolation
            in their experience of affliction.

If you know anything about the Corinthian church,
            you will know that it was a far-from-straightforward congregation,
as it tried to bring together
            both gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity.

It seems that despite Paul’s various visits and previous letters,
            the church was still afflicted with fractured relationships,
not only between themselves
            but also between themselves and Paul.

And Paul’s purpose in writing to them again
            is to try and overcome the shattering of their relationships.
He sets out to achieve this with a piece of slightly convoluted theological logic,
            which runs something like this:

Firstly, Jesus was crucified as a result of human conflict,
            and the cross speaks powerfully of conflict leading to broken relationships,
            leading in turn to violence and death.

Secondly, the cross is not the end of the story,
            because God is a God of new life;
and the resurrection of Jesus offers a vision
            of God refusing to let human conflict write the terms of the future.

Therefore, the gospel of resurrection stands over and against
            all the damage that human beings do to each other
                        in their lives of conflict and violence,
            and continually calls us to a better way of being human together.

So, by this logic, Christ’s death on the cross,
            his ‘affliction’ at the hands of violent humans,
becomes a source of good news for anyone
            who finds themselves caught in spirals of conflict;
because the resurrection of Jesus
            opens a new way of relating together,
where it is life and not death that gets the final word.

This, then is the consolation in affliction that Paul speaks of:
            the good news that there is a future open to us in Christ
            that is not dominated by conflict and death.

So, for the Corinthians
            whose experience of life was seemingly one of perpetual conflict,
Paul is here opening a door
            to a path of peace and reconciliation.

He is showing them that in their arguments and difficulties,
            they are actually united with Christ in his suffering on the cross;
and that just as Christ shares their experience of brokenness,
            so too they can share in the reconciliation
            that is made possible through his resurrection.

So far, so good:
            We are united with Christ in affliction,
            and we will be united with him in consolation.

But Paul doesn’t leave it there:
            The good news of the possibility of new life,
                        in place of conflict and death,
            is not the end of the good news of the cross.

Paul goes on to say that the consolation in affliction
            that is on offer to the Corinthians
            is only the start of the good news.

The next stage is that all who are afflicted with conflict
            and consoled in Christ
            are called to pass on that consolation to others.

In other words, it’s not just
            that Christians are called to stop fighting each other,
but they are called to be a force for peace and reconciliation in the world too.

The Jewish scholar Jon Levenson captures this
            in his little phrase that, ‘the chosen are called to serve’.

And this roots Paul’s argument right back
            into the Jewish understanding of itself as the chosen people of God.

The children of Abraham are the heirs of the covenant
            that God struck with Abraham:
                        that they would be God’s people,
                        and God would be their God.

But the purpose of the covenant was never intended to stop there:
            the blessings experienced by the people of God
            were always intended to be a blessing for all the nations of the earth.

And this is Paul’s great conviction:
            that the people of God,
                        whether understood as the Jewish people of the second temple period,
                        or the new communities that he founded
                                    where Jews and Gentiles are joined together in Christ,
            the people of God
                        are not to keep the blessings of God to themselves.

If they have any consolation in Christ,
            it is only theirs so they can share it more widely.
If they are united with God through Christ’s death and resurrection,
            and released from lives of conflict and violence against themselves or others,
            it is only so that they can see others similarly reconciled.

And so we come to the church of Christ in our time.
            We aren’t Corinth, but we are Bloomsbury.
We don’t have the same issues that beset Corinth,
            but we do have our own.

And Paul’s challenge is as every bit as relevant to us
            as it was two thousand years ago.

We too need to hear that God is a God of resurrection,
            and that Christ meets us in the depths of our brokenness
to open a door for us to a life lived in reconciliation and forgiveness,
            rather than one dominated by guilt and sin and conflict.

Christ is our consolation in our affliction.

But we too have to hear the next part of Paul’s logic,
            which is that this is only the start of the story.

We have a calling to bring that message of consolation,
            that encouragement of reconciliation,
to those who are not yet and probably never will be
            part of our worshipping congregation.

And the key to this for us will be the same as it was for the Corinthians:
            we are called to set aside any hint of partisanship,
                        to give up our dreams of moral or spiritual supremacy,
            to distance ourselves from fantasies of the Christian country.

And instead to discover the healing depths of genuine relationship
            with people who may start from very different places to us.

From broad based partnerships such as London Citizens,
            to localised community groups in our neighbourhoods,
our peaceful reconciling presence
            can be deeply transformative of lives and communities.

And what we will discover, I am quite sure,
            is that God is already at work out there
                        in a world that is hurting, and grieving, and fractured, and broken,
            drawing people to reconciliation and new life.

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.