Let me take you on a short journey in time.
It’s millennium year and I’m curved around my cello, part of an orchestra drawn together for a community production of Noye’s Fludde, with my children all having solo roles. It has been a wonderful week but we’ve reached the last night, and the final chorus
We sang it as our opening hymn
The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky and spangled heavens, a shining frame, their great Original proclaim
The words present that popular idea of the music of the spheres as if the whole galaxy is an orchestra, and I exchange glances and smiles with our conductor as I reflect “as above, so below”
If you’ve spent much of your time researching 17th century literature, that kind of thing is bound to happen...but for that moment as the music swells around me, it almost seems true. Everything makes sense. Divine order holds the universe in being. I have my place in the orchestra of creation, just as I do in the Britten performance. It all makes sense.
Except, of course, that life rarely presents itself in harmonious order and while we all indeed have our place – our vocation – a song that only we can sing, it’s often very hard to see the overarching patterns around us.
It has been a problem since the dawn of time.
Enter Job, who has had a long long wait for God to answer his appeal to make sense of things.
The famously upright man who had rejoiced in all the gifts that he’d seen as a reward for his virtuous life has found himself, overnight, blighted by the full weight of what seemed to be divine disfavour. (It’s small consolation for us, as the readers, to know that the whole thing is part of a divine experiment, dreamed up by Satan to determine whether faith in God can survive random misfortune...an experiment that God consents to. What, we may ask in outrage, is THAT all about?)
Job maintains a dogged stoicism – The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord – until the end of chapter 2 – but things keep on happening and it is altogether too much to bear so he begins to answer back.
He looks around him and sees injustice and suffering wherever he looks.
He is angry with God – no, furious!
Having listened to the apologetics offered by his three friends, the men known as “Job’s Comforters”, he is anything but comforted.
Let that be a lesson to any of us who find ourselves sitting beside those who are suffering.
There is no point in offering pious platitudes, in a desperate effort to make the unbearable somehow bearable. We can NOT claim that everything happens for a reason – or that God never gives anyone more than they are able to bear. The facts quite simply do not bear that out.
Last Sunday as we gathered for our annual Baby Loss service, what mattered was not to try and find tidy answers but to be real about the pain and sadness each family was carrying.
They didn’t need sticking plasters – which would never cover the gaping wounds of their loss.
Rather, they needed an assurance that they do not travel alone.
That’s probably true for everyone whom we encounter, who are staggering under a burden of grief.
We CANT fix it and we are unlikely to make things better by resorting to easy words.
Pain is pain and while it can be hard to watch with those who suffer, that’s
pretty much the best we can hope to offer. The ministry of human presence a reminder that God never leaves us alone in the dark, whether we feel God or not.
Back to Job. His friends haven’t helped at all, and the poor man is convinced that everything he had believed about God’s righteousness was based on error, that God is simply capricious …It’s centuries before Shakespeare has King Lear proclaim
As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport – but that’s very much where Job is heading. He begs for answers, rails against God, laments that there is NO order, that nothing makes sense any more and God – well, God is silent
That’s possibly a situation that feels quite familiar to you…especially if you are bruised and battered by the loss and loneliness that have besieged many during covid-tide. We have, individually and collectively, faced so much that feels unfair, as we have grieved for loved ones sick and dying alone, have wondered what price humanity in a society that, in establishing priorities in a uniquely challenging landscape, seems to have placed economic survival above human suffering.
Much theology is already emerging from the experience of the pandemic, and I’m sure there will be more….because we so badly need to find meaning for our pain. Just like Job.
Despite what some parts of the Christian world might assert, there’s no guarantee that loving God and seeking to serve him will result in a charmed life and often in the immediacy of pain and loss it can be hard to feel the reality of God’s love. This is the absolute opposite of what the disciples hope for when they ask Jesus if they can be his right hand men. They imagine that closeness to their Lord will lead them to vicarious glory – while God has something very different in mind, in the upside down economy of the Kingdom where those aspiring to greatness must become servants and God’s empty Godself of all power except the power of love.
We aren’t wired for that
We find it hard.
We prefer a different world view, in which virtue is rewarded and God’s plan is clear for all to see, written across creation.
And, as God answers Job, it seems that this is what God expects us to do.
To look up, look around, and SEE.
The Jesuit writer Gerard Hughes writes early in his book “God, where are you”
We can only meet God as the God who is immanent. It is through our encounter with God, immanent in all things, that we catch a glimpse of God who is transcendant”
In other words, creation is a series of sign-posts toward the God who is both present in and far beyond everything that God has made.
The God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind
I love that.
While Elijah in his cave discovered that God was NOT in the whirlwind but in the still small voice of calm, Job is buffeted about by his own experience of grief and loss. His life, his emotions, are one big whirlwind – but God’s voice is louder still…
And, in the end, he advocates for Job...and against those friends who had sought to diminish the enormity of the situation by tidy, religious answers. Instead, taking me back to the music of Noye’s Fludde, God offers what amounts to a poem reflecting the unanswerable beauty of God’s creation.
Life, God suggests, is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be recognised and entered into.
This is a mystery. It is not explained or defended; God merely asserts it. The world, full of beauty and creativity and danger, was not made merely for human consumption.
The story is bigger than us, and none of us are the main characters (see Job 38:12-39:30). God does not so much answer Job’s questions as re-frame them and offer Job a new way to see the world in which his grief and his experiences are not the end or the entirety of the story.
Of course, the divine speeches do not answer Job’s questions—nor ours, I imagine. But they give us a glimpse of the deepest and richest of all of God’s storehouses of knowledge. Lest we imagine that the divine speeches exist to stop us from asking any more questions, God seems intent on engaging Job in an actual dialogue, and draws him back to the conversation again and again.
There’s absolutely NO problem from God’s perspective our ranting at him...in sharing our confusion, our pain, our grief.
Being real, as Job was real, is a keystone of our relationships with one another and with God, so please, I beg you, keep talking...to God and to each other about order, justice, and the structure of creation itself. And keep on looking around you.
Th ere’s so much to marvel at, so many traces of God’s beauty in the beauty around us, even in the rhythms of loss and decay and death. All things in their season.
To end, here’s Gerard Hughes again
Now I know that you are always greater than anything I can think or imagine...I am glad that I cannot locate you, define you, describe you.
Now I can thank you for the mystery of my being
You are the God of every situation. God in our darkness drawing us to light. God who is for us, even when we are against ourselves…