PENTECOST 19B – 7th October, 2012 – St Matthew’s, Guildford
A few weeks ago, at the Confessions Workshop we clergy attended, two of the speakers were a married clergy couple Charles and Peta Sherlock. Thirty years or so ago, Charles was my lecturer in theology and Peta lectured in New Testament Greek. Peta. who wasn’t in holy orders when we were in college because her gender prevented it, was ordained priest in the first Melbourne group in 1992. Her last appointment, before retiring early this year was as Dean of the Bendigo Cathedral for about six years.
In the talk she gave at the Confessions Workshop, Peta summed up her preaching and teaching in those cathedral years as “Stuff happens, but God is in charge.”
We’ve all, of course, seen tee-shirts with the message “Stuff happens”, only it doesn’t usually say “stuff”.
In today’s readings from the Book of Job and the Letter to the Hebrews, stuff happens to Job and to Jesus; and to the casual observer, there is little logic or fairness in it.
When some suffering occurs, there are obvious reasons and it is not unusual that the “victim” is in some way at fault – the smoker with lung cancer; the drunk driver who hits a tree and ends up quadriplegic; or the swimmer who ignores the flags and gets caught in a rip.
Other suffering occurs as a direct result of someone else’s malice or neglect – for example, the suffering of victims and families of those murdered, assaulted or abused.
But a great deal of suffering occurs without tangible or visible rhyme or reason – MS, MND, children’s leukaemia and brain tumours, and a lot of other “stuff”.
And we can’t help wondering “Why?” over and over. In the time of Jesus, we know that misfortune, illness and disability were frequently regarded as being the fault of the victim or caused by someone else. Remember the disciples’ asking Jesus about the man who was born blind? “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus’ response, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”, is not particularly helpful, as it almost seems to suggest God made the blindness happen, so that Jesus could perform a miracle, Not good theology, my lecturers would tell me!
So, let’s look at poor old Job. Our reading this morning was only the first verse of chapter one and a chunk of chapter two. I think we need to hear the first chapter to get the whole story, so please bear with me as I read it:
“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt-offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did.
One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ The Lord said to Satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’
Then Satan answered the Lord, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.’
The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!’ So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, a messenger came to Job and said, ‘The oxen were ploughing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.’ While he was still speaking, another came and said, ‘Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.’
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’
In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.”
Then comes what we read earlier, when the Satan is allowed to take away even Job’s health, but not his life. And still Job remains loyal to God. God boasts about Job’s goodness; the Satan “calls his bluff” several times and God allows a great deal of suffering, leaving Job only with boils and a nagging wife. What’s that legendary curse along the lines of “May all your teeth fall out except one, so you can still get toothache”?
Job loses everything and trusts God. In the whole story of Job, from which we’ll be reading for the next few stories, Job never turns his back on God. But he does question, “Why is this happening to me?” He has several “friends” who take him to task while he sits on the rubbish tip scraping his boils with a shard of pottery. And he refutes their arguments, relying on his knowledge that he is a righteous man – just as we know God has told the Satan. I won’t spoil the story by telling you the ending, but feel free to read ahead
God never deserts Job; and God never deserts us.
The reading from the Letter to the Hebrews points us to another who suffered the loss of everything and ended up naked on a cross and hastily placed in a borrowed tomb. “[W]e see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
Chapter 2 of Hebrews concludes: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Suffering, we know from experience, is an inevitable and often random part of the human experience. The loss of health, possessions, a job or a loved one will hit us often when we are not the least prepared. I am not convinced that “these things are sent to try us”, as they say. Rather, I want to repeat Peta Sherlock’s words of wisdom, “Stuff happens, but God is in charge.” St Paul puts it another way when he says, “God works everything together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose”.
Jesus has walked the journey before us, as one of us, fully human, not just fully divine.
Stuff happened to Jesus; God was always in charge; and God brought him through death to resurrection. Stuff will continue to happen to us; and God will always be in charge and bring us through to resurrection and newness of life.
The Lord be with you!