A sermon preached for Preston High Street UCA on 16/6/21 on Job 38:1-11 and Mark 4:35-41 for Proper 7 (12), Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Two passages tonight. One, a short story about Jesus and who Jesus is. The other is a tiny moment from a much longer narrative. Both of them, of course, sea themed. But both also concerned with a larger question: where is God in the midst of suffering?
We live in a world rocked by suffering. A couple of years ago, if someone had told me that the world was about to be shaken to its foundations by something as old-fashioned as a cold virus, I would have been sceptical. Surely we have gotten to a point in history where plagues are something to read about in history books, rather than something which locks us up in our houses for weeks and months on end and puts whole populations in quarantine?
Surely we have more control over our lives, more control over the environment, than that? Isn’t that the promise of modernity – to finally take control over the dangers of world, to take our fate into our own hands? Better ships to avoid sinking in literal storms, better vaccines to protect us from plagues?
But, quite unexpectedly, these ancient themes seem particularly timely today.
Let’s start off with Job’s story.
We humans have always had a strong sense that the universe should make moral sense. We think that good behaviour should be rewarded, and that bad behaviour punished. We think that not only in how we organise our society, but we think that the whole universe is organised that way.
Or, rather, we don’t think it: we feel it, at a deep, pre-theoretical level of our consciousness. Things ought to make moral sense. That’s one of the things going on in the story of the Garden of Eden: it’s a story of how things broke, where a catastrophic gap opened up between how we think things ought to be, and how they actually are.
But the question isn’t so easily answered. We really don’t want to believe that good people suffer: we want the universe to make moral sense.
We see it in the New Testament, when the disciples asked: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And we see it in the classic story of Job in the Old Testament.
Job was a good man, Scripture tells us. He was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” But terrible things befall him. He loses his wealth and his children and then finally his health, and he is reduced to sitting on a dustheap, scratching at his sores with a potsherd. He remains patient – he refuses to say that he had done anything wrong to merit his suffering, but he also refuses to “curse God, and die.”
The rest of the book turns on this question: What will Job do? Will God respond? And if so, how?
To put the question in modern terms: What does suffering mean?
We can think of meaningful suffering. We admire people who stand up to a tyrannical regime, like Nelson Mandela. His suffering was serious, but we can see how it was redeemed by the outcome of his generous, transformative leadership of South Africa.
And when suffering happens to someone bad, we find it not only meaningful, but salutary. I’m sure I can’t be the only person who has taken a great deal of pleasure in the recent news about the criminal network who were using an encrypted communication system which turned out to be operated by the FBI, leading to hundreds of arrests. And, to make it all the sweeter, the criminals were paying for the privilege.
But the problem of Job – of the person who really does not deserve what is happening to them – haunts us.
Sometimes we are tempted to fall back on our ancient assumption that something must have caused it. When Anne and I were embroiled in our infertility journey, we were frequently given helpful advice to the effect that our stress about the situation was causing the problem.
What lies behind that desire to provide advice – to “solve” the problem? Part of it, I am sure, is well intentioned. People did not like to see us suffering, and so were trying to help. But part of it, I am also sure, was also a pre-rational desire for the universe to make sense.
Deeper even than that, I think, was fear. If horrible things can happen to people for no reason at all, then it could happen to me. How am I to remain safe if that is the case? If my good behaviour does not guarantee me a safe and happy life, then what?
A common move in our culture is to deny the existence of a God who is both powerful and loving. These things just happen, we say, and there is no use looking for meaning in it.
A friend of mine recently copied a social media post to me which summed up this perspective well. It was a reflection on a beautiful blue egg which had been blown out of its nest by a storm. The writer of the post was musing over whether to return the egg to the nest or not, which led her reflect on the irrational nature of life. “This chance-event is the product of the same impartial forces… that resulted in the chance event of my own particular consciousness.” The post concluded that “to call one expression of chance good and another bad is mere human hubris – the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of WHY, singing only IS.”
At one level, there is something here. The universe does seem very random. All sorts of things happen, which we humans define as good or bad, but the universe itself does not seem to care at all. It just carries on, oblivious to everything, marching to its own eventual ending.
This solution does seem to free us from the complexity of trying to find meaning in events. It frees us from worrying about whether God is punishing us. It frees us from hoping that God might save us.
In fact, as far as I can tell, it frees us from having to take responsibility for anything. If the universe is just impartial, and if we are just leaves fluttering in the breeze, then why should I do one thing rather than another? The writer was musing about returning an egg to its nest, but would she want to extend it to other issues? Is she was driving along the street and a child ran out in front of her car, she would no doubt instantaneously forget all that guff about the impartiality and randomness of the universe and slam on the brakes.
I do not think it is possible to live in in a way which denies meaning to human action. And when I say “not possible” I mean it in the most literal way: I simply do not think it can be done. It simply is not how humans are wired.
So, rather than a helpful notion, it takes one problem “I’m suffering” and in return gives me another one “your suffering is completely insignificant and without any chance of redemption.” And then it gives me back my suffering. Two problems, rather than one.
And, while I am on the topic, it isn’t a particularly compelling philosophical position. How on earth could we possibly be confident that the universe is not meaningful? It is entirely possible to look at this beautiful universe which produces morally developed, self-aware, meaning-seeking creatures like us as being profoundly meaningful. One feels more plausible in our culture – but that does not mean it’s true.
Just because the universe is big and we are small doesn’t mean that we aren’t significant.
So, it seems, we are left with a problem. On the one hand, a universe where God directly punishes bad people and rewards good people does not seem very plausible. On the other hand, we cannot actually live in a meaningless world.
Job is sitting on his dustheap, scraping his sores. The disciples are sailing into the storm brewing on the horizon.
When the storm broke, Jesus was sound asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. The disciples woke him up in a panic. Don’t you care that the boat is sinking? We are all going to drown!
Job sat on his ash heap, and his friends came up to him. They, too, sat on the ground for a week with him, and did not speak, because they saw his suffering was very great.
When they did finally speak, it wasn’t terrifically helpful. They all essentially play some variation on the theme of “surely you must have done something to deserve this?”
Job steadfastly refuses to pretend to be to blame for his misfortunes. It might make his friends feel uncomfortable, but that’s really not his concern.
Then, finally, God does speak.
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.’”
It is a puzzling answer. Like a lot of people, I used to read it as God essentially saying, “you are very small and I am very large so shut up,” which does not seem like a very adequate answer.
But now I see there is something going on. What the author of Job is trying to do is to give us an experience of God. He is trying to convey through words something that is beyond words.
It is not an answer exactly – I’m not sure there is an “answer” to the problem of suffering. But it is a vision of what is really going on. Beyond all the superficial appearances of the world, God is at work.
But the fuller answer is revealed much later than Job, when Jesus calms the storm. The power of God, which is on display in God’s answer to Job, is focussed in Jesus. Seeing him calm the storm, the disciples ask the question: Who is this Jesus person?
Well, who do you know who can calm the waves and still the storm? The Job reading is a pointer to who the Gospel writers think Jesus actually is.
But stilling storms is just the start. Jesus expresses what is fundamentally true of God, which is that God is not defined primarily by power, but by love. Jesus is just as much God when he is washing the disciples’ feet as he is when he is calming the storm.
That is what we mean when we say that Jesus is the revelation of God. He expresses what it is to be God when transposed into the human key.
One of my favourite spiritual sayings is by a contemporary Catholic spiritual writer named Ron Rolheiser. He says: God is in the facts, and so the facts are kind.
This can sound trite – even obviously stupid. Often the facts are very far from kind. But Rolheiser knows this, just as much as we do. It is paradoxical. It means we have to look a deeper. To get beyond “what’s happening” down to “what’s really going on.”
I do not have an “answer for suffering” – I am not sure I would be able to comprehend it, even if God were to explain it to me.
But I think I have a sense of the paradoxical opportunity it provides.
Suffering can open us up to what is really going on. It can break us out of our self-preoccupation, give us eyes to see.
This is, I think, the story of Job. It is a vision of the intensely meaningful universe, a universe in which our lives and deaths matter profoundly. A universe which is not just an “impartial” sequence of random events, “one damn thing after another”, but something more like a work of art, like an incredibly tense drama: something in which we have a part to play.
When we transpose this vision of the Divine to the full revelation of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we can see even more clearly what is going on.
The purpose of human life reflects the nature of the Divine life. Which is to say that the purpose of human life is to give and receive love.
Suffering gives us an opportunity to love, and be loved by, other people. To make morally significant choices which would otherwise not be possible.
Far from impartial, our universe is shaped by and for love, a meaningful place where our moral decisions hold real weight. God holds us in the palm of God’s hand, and it matters a great deal what we do with our lives.
The purpose of our lives is not to get by without suffering, to present as small a target as possible to a hostile world. Rather, the purpose of our lives is to be transformed into people who are capable of giving and receiving love like Jesus did. Loving God as Jesus did, and then bearing that love out into the world.
And, in living like that, we are participating in the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; between the creator of all things and the redeemer of all things and the sanctifier of all things. We are invited to join the dance which lies at the centre of the universe.
 John 9:2
 Job 1:1
 Job 38:2-4
Image: Backhuysen, Ludolf, ca. 1630-1708. Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54955 [retrieved June 18, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Backhuysen,_Ludolf_-_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee_-_1695.jpg.