A Sermon by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould

The Book of Job is the story of the mystery of evil. It poses the universal question, “What is the meaning of innocent suffering?”. It is also the story of fundamentals of conversion – an  outline of how you can “fall into the hands of he living God’ (Heb. 10:31).

One of the unique aspects of Christianity is that we believe in a God who knows what it is to suffer. Without this, the Book of Job would make no sense  at all.

Talking of Job, Richard Rohr a well- known American Franciscan author writes:

“Job is the suffering man who should not be suffering like Jesus, the dying man who should not be dying.”

Job is portrayed as the innocent man, who is successively traumatised by his aging, his grave illnesses and the profound grief over the loss of those dear to him. He is in anguish, confusion and near despair, terrified that he will lose his relationship with God.

Job has three well- meaning friends who come to counsel him. They represent Christians even today, who find it hard to accept the idea of a God that suffers, or that innocent people may suffer.

They are religious people offering their typical, somewhat intelligent, but never-the -less inadequate solutions to Job’s dilemma. “You are suffering – You must have sinned”. It sounds right, but this logic simply doesn’t work when they come up against the clearly unjust situation of innocent suffering. Job keeps proclaiming “Life is not fair.”

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are good man but they constantly talk about God, whereas Job talks to God. The problem is that the friends are intent on hanging on to their theological perspective, whereas Job is desperate to preserve his relationship with God.

In fact Job is so upset with God and so desperate to have his relationship with God reaffirmed, that he is ready to confront God head on. He has nothing to lose.

Tonight’s reading from Job comes at the end of the three painful cycles of speeches by Job’s friends and Job’s firm rebuttals. Job shows that he has not given up his faith in God.

Here the dialogue pauses for the beautiful hymn to incomprehensible wisdom.

“O where shall wisdom be found, and where is the place of understanding?”

In this hymn Job recognises that wisdom is simply inaccessible. God alone knows.

The voice of wisdom is hidden from the eyes of the living.

With all the achievements humans have acquired, we are ignorant of true wisdom. Neither knowledge nor wealth can make us masters of that.

So where does wisdom come from?

God alone knows the way to it. God alone gives it.

The fear (reverence) of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to depart from evil- that is understanding. It is in relationships that truth and wisdom are found. God cannot be fully known, but God can be related to. We know God by loving God and knowing the love of God. And that is what Job is striving for.

Following this stunning hymn Ch. 28 Job goes on with his complaints and justifications, alongside his acclamations of faith in God. Then enters Elihu who speaks as the great defender of God. He is not much help to Job laying shame and guilt upon him, which is never effective.

Finally, by Ch. 37 God seems to have had enough of Elihu’s flattery and arrogance and cuts him off, and with that, in the midst of the turmoil, God at last speaks quite sternly and with a degree of sarcasm to Job, with an answer.

But it is not the answer we are all waiting for concerning the problem of innocent suffering.

38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“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.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
10 and prescribed bounds for it,
    and set bars and doors,
11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? (NRSV)

In other words Hey Job! Where were you when the world was created? Oh…….. thinks Job!

Job is taken aback. You can imagine the stunned silence. Then God goes on to invite Job into a warm and personal encounter with himself. And Job is content. He has no answer to questions about his innocent suffering, and yet he has something even more important. He is converted! He repents because he realises that he has been asking the wrong question. He doesn’t need answers anymore because now he is assured that God loves him, and that’s all that matters.

There are many situations which leave us wondering how can a loving God allow terrible things to happen. Sometimes, like Job, there are traumas that touch us personally, and daily and relentlessly there are tragic situations in the world involving unthinkable human suffering that challenge the existence and involvement of a loving God.

Like God’s response to Job, the scriptures don’t give us the answer that we might want to hear.

Rather than an intellectually satisfying response, the scriptures point us to Jesus, who through his life death and resurrection gives us the promise of himself as our companion.

In the well – loved late 19th Century hymn “I heard the voice of Jesus say” we sing:

“I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad,
I found in him a resting place, and he has made me glad”

Jesus suffers with us though out “the changes and chances of this fleeting world” and in doing so assures us of his undying love for us. Jesus weeps when he looks upon the anguish in the world. He doesn’t interfere. He watches and waits for hearts of stone to become hearts of flesh and then the Spirit can bring about healing and restoration.

When we are young we expect our parents and teachers to have ready answers to all our questions. When we are young in the faith we expect the church to have ready answers to all our spiritual questions. It is always more comfortable for the one feeling challenged to come up with an answer no matter how useful that answer is, than to say “I don’t know”.

When someone is grieving it is very tempting to come up with platitudes which sound right but may best be left unsaid. I have heard people say to young grieving parents – “Oh well, you are young enough to have another baby”, or to someone who has lost an aged parent, “Well they have live a good life,” or to someone who has lost someone in midlife “only the good die young”. Some of those statements have an element of truth but in the midst of grief the really important thing you can give someone is your presence and your prayers. Just being there in silence may be uncomfortable at first, but it is there you allow the mystery of suffering to become the mystery of God’s healing presence.

The Book of Job teaches us that we need to be wary of coming up too quickly with intellectual or theological answers, when what the suffering person is really searching for is encouragement in their relationship with God. When our relationship with God is secure we can endure all the painful struggles that life throws our way- and emerge from them a new creation.

Where, where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?

The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding.