This sermon was preached at Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 10 October, 2021. (Pentecost 20B)
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Hebrews 4:12 – 16
Mark 10:17 – 31
Click here to view the readings in full at the Vanderbilt Common Lectionary
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22:1
I’ve often nodded my head in agreement when someone has said, “You don’t feel close to God? Well, guess who’s moved!” There are people whose big problem is that they don’t feel close to God. So this seems very good advice for them. However, today’s reading from Job and the Psalm portion that follows give a rather different picture. “God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me”, Job cries out in his dire suffering. “on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him”.
Last Sunday morning we read the beginning of the book of Job and heard how the Accuser, Satan, had challenged God about Job’s goodness — and God had accepted the challenge, and allowed Satan to inflict not only enormous physical losses, but acute physical degradation and suffering as well. It is within the context of this awful suffering that Job’s argument with his so-called “Comforters” proceeds — and we have one very small part of that debate in today’s reading, and there will be two further ones over the next weeks. Job’s four friends come to console with him in his suffering, and after sitting helpfully in silence with him for a week, they then listened to Job’s first lament over his anguish. However, they could not restrain themselves — they just had to try to explain what was happening. In chapter after chapter they ring the changes on “You must have done something very bad to be suffering in this way.” Job insists on his integrity, and then goes on to challenge God in different ways to show him to be right. He has no reluctance about blaming God for the suffering, and for God’s hiding himself from Job.
The Psalmist in Psalm 22 continues this: “why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” I’m sure that for many of you the words of that lament will have brought to mind the ceremony of stripping the altars on Maundy Thursday evening — and of course the opening words bring back in the story of Christ’s dying, as he cries with the psalmist, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani” “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” in his cry of desolation from the cross.
Words such as these may come back to us in our suffering, and many people have questioned God, though perhaps not so blatantly to God’s face, as they ask, “How can I believe in a God of love when this comes upon me or my loved ones: what have we done to deserve this?” I remember the story of Saint Teresa undergoing considerable inconvenience in the course of her travels, and she prayed, “Well Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
We have to wait to see how God answers Job’s questioning, but the writer of the letter to the Hebrews asks us to think in this way: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are:” This author doesn’t seek to explain our suffering, our “testings”, but rather he points us to Jesus, as Jesus accompanies us in our suffering.
Job, however, has no hesitation about blaming God — “We receive good at the hands of God,” he reminds his friends, “and shall we not receive evil?” We, I think, are usually comfortable ascribing to God the blessings that we receive: we regularly pray that God will do good things for us and for those for whom we are concerned — but what about the bad, the hard, the threatening things — do we see them coming from God?
If we reflect on the Gospel reading, and Jesus’ response to the young man and his question about eternal life, that word of Jesus is certainly a hard word: “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”. Jesus’ word to the rich, to us in our comfort, is just as uncompromising, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom.” Even his reassurance to the disciples who want to trade on their willingness to leave everything to follow Jesus has its sting of hurt — “you will receive …houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children and fields with persecutions”. Clearly God uses the “tests” that come upon us, so that we may prove our mettle, rise to the challenges, but do these “persecutions” come from God?
In the passage from the letter of James that we read a few weeks ago, the author is quite clear about this: he says, “No one when tempted, should say ‘I am being tempted by God’, for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire…”
Are we seeing here a movement away from Job’s idea that God causes everything, both good and bad, and and that God must be harangued about how unfair is his treatment of us — away from that idea to the idea that God only does what we experience as “good”, “helpful”, “loving”, “fulfilling”. Are we seeing a movement from Job to James which has reached its logical conclusion in our approach which sees that “life happens” and that God is constantly at work behind the scenes trying to bring good results from the awful things that happen to us? Is my reluctance to blame God for any little sufferings that I undergo based in logic, in good theology, or in a lack of faith in a God who is over all, and is the One, the only Power in my life?
Now I know that “hard cases make bad laws”, but if, for example, I am faced with ministering to a family whose child has died, I cannot say, as some of the prophets could “God is punishing your sin”, or even, God help me, to say something like “God must have wanted her more than you did”. The most I can say is “I believe that God will enable you to get through this terrible situation.” I may even say to myself “Perhaps in time they will find that their new life is good”. For the God who brought Jesus through death to resurrection, still works in the same way in our lives.
Perhaps the picture of the good parent offers some help in resolving this tension: the good parent may provide situations for her child that will not be easy for the child, but will help the child to grow in resilience, self-sufficiency, and growth in life-skills. These provisions could be considered to be “testing” the child. But there will be other occasions when the child suffers and all the good parent can do is to minister to the child in such a way that they are able to get through the experience and grow from it. Is this the way God works in our lives?
“Shall we receive good at the hands of God and not the evil?” “Let no one say ‘I am being tempted by God’”. Which of these is nearer to our faith in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?
And wherever we are on this spectrum of beliefs, remember that Jesus “looking at [the young man] loved him” — and take heart that this is his attitude to us, as well.