Monday, 4 July 2022

Job Reflection 6

Today, we return to the story of Job and his sufferings. It's quite some time since we considered these pages of scripture. It’s scripture that was written thousands of years ago in an attempt to deal with what we now know as ‘the problem of suffering', or ‘the problem of evil.’ Why do bad things happen to good people if as we claim our God is a God of justice and mercy? However, we do get a glimpse of the mind of God through the teachings of Jesus who said that we should love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us. He effectively said that through this practice of unconditional love that we too would be acting in a god-like way:


For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. (Matt 6:46).


This is the standard of required Christian behaviour.


For you are to be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect, (6:48)


And so, we see through these words that Jesus revealed an aspect of God we don’t often think about and that is God's apparent impartiality, or more accurately is his unconditional love.  What does he do?  He sends the rain and the sunlight to both the just and the unjust, to the righteous and the unrighteous.  It makes me think of a kind person who is generally loved because they are always to be kind to others whoever they are. And then we have the other sort of person who has a ‘reputation’ and is known to be rude and insulting.  Sometimes we might say of that person, he doesn't discriminate - he's rude to everyone! Not that I'm talking about God in the same breath, as these two very human examples. I'm just saying that the blessings of God, on this earth are visited upon everyone. We all have the privilege of life and as surely as we are all different in our own ways, we all experience life as individuals and as individuals we will surely be judged.


Admittedly, some people are born into enormous privilege while even today some people are born into slavery.  Yes, terrible things do happen to all kinds of people, even to the rich and powerful.  The sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and we wonder where God’s justice actually is.  But Jesus said:


'If you are kind only to your friends, how much different are you from anyone else?'  Even pagans do that but you are to be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (5:47-48) 


So here Jesus is pointing to a level of holiness, a standard of perfection that we will all find difficult to achieve, but difficult also to understand. We know that at a common-sense level that negative behaviour should not be rewarded.  For example, we can’t expect the judge in the law courts to sentence Burglar Bill to a two week all paid expenses holiday in Majorca!


We know that we live in a world of cause and effect.  Night follows day, the tide comes in and goes out.  We know that the universe is subject to certain unwavering rules.  And when we look at the world and creation, we can either believe that that in itself proves that there must exists a creator God or perversely we may conclude that there is no God.  Either way, we are left with the same problem – if God does exist, why do we suffer? Or, God cannot exist because we do suffer. 


Having made that little detour, let’s get back to Job and his sufferings.  You will remember that not only did Job lose all his worldly wealth, including his servants, but also his seven sons and three daughters who were also killed.  And you’ll remember also that Satan had him covered from head to foot with boils.   Memorably, his wife had said ‘Curse God and die’, and that his three friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, sat on the ground with him for seven days and nights, so great was his suffering that no one spoke to him. 


In my last sermon on Job, I covered this last point of how Job’s friends who saw how much he was suffering, sat with him in a silent vigil for seven days and seven nights. With this in my mind, my last sermon on Job was in part a celebration of friendship pointing out how important friendship is to each one of us.  But as I also said, that I think it’s important to understand the limitations of friendship, and that’s how I left it.  But it’s worth considering those words of Professor Edward Musgrave Blakelock, who in spite of the negative connotations traditionally ascribed to Job’s friends, that is ‘Job’s comforters’, reminded us that,


“They wept and took their places by Job’s side and sat for seven days in silent sympathy, struggling with their thoughts.  Here surely was fellowship, more real than some friends gave.


I have to say, that is undoubtedly true. However, what I’d like to do now is to draw your attention to a key verse almost right at the beginning of the story of Job. In fact, having thought about it, it is essential to our understanding of the whole story and in that key verse Job’s character profile was laid out for us when God said:


Have you noticed my servant Job?  He is the finest man in all the earth.  He is blameless – a man of complete integrity, he fears God and stays away from evil. (1:8) 


What did God say of Job? Again, what did God say of Job? He said, ‘He is the finest man in all the earth’ – God didn’t say, ‘He is one of the finest men in all the earth.’  He said Job ‘is the finest man in all the earth.’  And he said this to Satan, who in this story (Job 1:6) is Satan the Accuser.  Satan the fault finder.  Remember that Satan is a fallen angel who always opposes God and always seeks to replace good for evil.  We see his work in the world today. How evil gets a grip, how rational and how reasonable evil can appear to be, how innocent it can appear to be. How easy life could be if only you would bow down and worship me, says Satan. And in the face of all his suffering how easy it would have been for Job to have done just that. To give in to despair and to give up on God.


Satan, when confronted with the example of Job, reminds me of certain men. Men, who when shown an example of a successful man, a man worthy of admiration, of emulation even - will simply dismiss him as a fool.  And that conveniently ends the argument, doesn’t it!  Because such men are evil and they cannot bear to be shown that another man is in fact an altogether better man than they are.  And when it’s pointed out to them, how others who live closer to God live better lives than they do, they see it as an affront.  How galling then must it have been for God to say to Satan ‘Have you seen my servant Job – he is the finest man in all the earth’.  And so, bearing this in mind I have to conclude that God had a very definite purpose in saying that to Satan. For reminding that fallen angel, Satan, of the virtues of integrity and holiness.  And so, Satan affronted, acted predictably in a like negative manner, really wishing to destroy Job because for him it was easier to curse than to bless.


Turning to Job’s friends, we now consider Eliphaz (in chapter four) who was the first to speak because it’s thought that he was the most senior and the most learned of the three.  So, in effect, I suppose that what Eliphaz had to say was the best shot that this threesome were going to have at finding a rationale, a cause, a reason that might lie at the root of Job’s suffering.  Like Job, none of his friends were privy to the deliberations of the heavenly court, and the exchange between God and Satan, but once again I remind you of Job’s approval in the eyes of God, who said of Job that he is the finest man in all the earth.  And I really want to emphasise this point, because if God said so, then Job at the time was the saintliest man on earth. Again, on the authority of God’s word, in the context of this story Job was indeed the world’s number one spiritual superstar.  Even so, he was still not perfect and he had certainly been brought low by the curses that Satan has heaped upon him. 


Now Eliphaz, as I have said, the most senior of his friends, had been placed in a privileged position through his friendship with Job, and really, his role was to comfort Job and to counsel him. But, as the story unfolds, Eliphaz proved he was not up to the task.  Right from the start we can see that Eliphaz carried away by his own egotism, totally misreading the situation. Eliphaz was unaware, that Job even in the depths of his misery and new found poverty in every respect was still by far superior to him. But Eliphaz was so buoyed up by a newly found sense of his own importance that he rudely broke into Job’s monologue saying “Will you be patient and let me say a word?  For who could keep from speaking out?” 


The Bible tells us that that Eliphaz the Temanite replied to Job. He certainly did reply to Job! But the overriding tone that his words convey was a tone of irritability and a barely concealed irritability at that.  I would say that if there was any sympathy with Job’s plight that may have been existent in the silent vigil of the past seven days and nights, then that sympathy was not evident in these opening words “Will you be patient and let me say a word?”  And that is certainly confirmed in the next three verses:


Then Eliphaz the Temanite replied to Job:

“Will you be patient and let me say a word? For who could keep from speaking out?

In the past you have encouraged many people; you have strengthened those who were weak. Your words have supported those who were falling; you encouraged those with shaky knees. But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart. (4:3-5)


In these words, there is an assumed superiority, a great man has been brought low and Eliphaz we can be sure on the evidence of such language spoke to Job with such disdain. He didn’t even treat him as an equal. I’m sure Eliphaz seeing Job reduced to such a wretched state whilst he himself remained untouched, must have thought that his day had come, that he was the one now justified before God, believing without a doubt that Job must definitely have committed a sin for all those disasters to have fallen upon him.


The real question at the heart of the story of Job, is ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ and that question wasn’t even a consideration by Eliphaz because he thought he knew all the answers. In short Eliphaz’s dogmatic pronouncements can be seen for what they were; a mixture of complacency, arrogance and pride.  But what is the most hurtful in the initial utterances of Eliphaz is his blind ruthlessness in feeling that he was justified in accusing Job of practicing double standards. Basically, saying to Job, you were pretty good at handing out advice to others in their distress when things were going all right for you, but when it happens to you can’t handle it:


But now when trouble strikes, you lose heart. (4:5)


In another age, the words of Oliver Cromwell with much justification could have been directed at Eliphaz:


I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.


I believe that Max Ehrmann brought us all a lesson in personal humility when he wrote these words:


If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.


Such wisdom applicable to Eliphaz, we too should take to heart.

We don’t know it all and neither did Eliphaz.


Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Job Reflection 5


Last week as we continued with the Book of Job, we focussed on a theme, and that theme, highly relevant to the story of Job, was the theme of friendship. How friendship is one of the great blessings of life and where indeed would we be without friends? Someone in the course of a recent conversation brought up that old saying: ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.’ Having good friends really counts in life, because having friends can make a big difference to the quality of our lives. By your friends ye shall be known, so goes the old saying and in the book of Proverbs (27:17) we can read:

As iron sharpens iron so a friend sharpens a friend.

In other words, who we associate with makes a difference, friends can either make or break us, polish us up or grind us down, so it’s important to recognise that we should really seek to have friends who can make a positive difference to our lives. Iron sharpens iron so a friend sharpens a friend, this is so relevant within the fellowship of a church, that mutual sharpening of iron upon iron, supporting each other, helping each other to remain vigilant, strong and sharp in a world in which any one of us can easily go astray. Friends who can help us and guide us, encourage us and even on occasion, have the courage to point out where we might be going wrong.

You will recall that last week, we looked at a very famous group of friends, those friends of Job. And Job, as we know, suffered so much affliction, that these friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar sat with him for seven days and nights and during that time, not one of them spoke a word, for they saw that his suffering was too great for words. Yes, so in solidarity in the time-honoured Hebrew tradition, they wailed loudly, they tore their clothes and they poured dust over their heads as a symbol of mourning. When one is in deep despair, or when we’ve been hurt or unfairly treated, let’s face it there’s nothing quite like a shoulder to cry on. And does it matter that we may be partly or even totally responsible for the despair which we may have even brought upon ourselves; even if we are the architect of our own downfall? Does that really matter at all compared to the soothing presence of a partner or a friend, somebody who can empathise and feel your pain? Some people under such duress turn to professional counsellors for relief, to get it off their chest and to unburden themselves.

One of the greatest skills in these situations, as a supporting friend, is not so much to try be the counsellor or the person that can come up with a ‘quick fix’, but rather, merely to be a good listener is often all that may be required. This in fact is what I’ve come to understand what personal counselling is all about. You may recall that last week I made a joke about this continuing series of sermons on the Book of Job and now we are in the fifth week of this series. Even my wife, Sue has not escaped my growing enthusiasm and interest in the story of Job’s, so much so that a couple of Sunday’s she even mentioned this ongoing preoccupation of mine to a Methodist minister. The minister replied that the kind of wordless empathy as portrayed in the initial actions of Job’s friends, is often held up as a model of chaplaincy within the Church. On the same theme of comfort and solidarity that we can all give; I think we can also take inspiration from those words in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12) where he says:

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

But as we move into the third chapter of Job’s story and all his troubles, we begin to see that Job’s original stoicism, his silence and his presence of mind eventually give way to grief expressed in a deluge of words and emotion. For anyone, under the impact of shocking events, the perception of time can often become distorted and one’s situation can appear to lack reality; where nothing seems real and the whole thing is actually quite mind numbing. Oddly enough in the initial throes of trauma, one can become quite objective, as Job was even in the face of the deaths of his seven sons and three daughters, the deaths of his servants, the loss of all his wealth and the accompanying loss of status, in the face of all this he said:

   “I came naked from my mother’s wom

        and I will be naked when I leave.

    The Lord gave me what I had,

        and the Lord has taken it away.

    Praise the name of the Lord!”

 Even following the development of a terrible skin disease, Satan’s covering of him from head to foot with boils, to add further to his misery, Job still held firm, castigating his wife as ‘a foolish women’ when she said that he should. ‘Curse God and die’

But it was the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates who is reputed to have said that ‘No human condition remains permanent’, which in relation to Job’s sufferings reminds me of that 1980s film, called Stir Crazy, which no doubt many of you will have seen. The film depicts a story in which Skip Donahue (Gene Wilder) and Harry Monroe (Richard Pryor) are wrongly sentenced to 135 years in prison for a bank robbery they did not commit. Once inside the maximum-security prison, the enormity of the situation eventually dawns on Skip impelling him to cry out; ‘We’re in prison’ to which his friend, Harry, replies, ‘Damn man, welcome to the real world and not a minute to soon, I might add!

Pain, both physical and psychological can be like that, the delayed reaction, like being hit by a fist enclosed in a boxing glove, the initial dull thud and then the time delay until the blow with all of its painful consequences spreads out further and further to eventually encompass the whole of one’s being, or as Harry would have it, that pain welcoming us to the real world. And so, after seven days of silence in the presence of friends we have Job bitterly crying out that he wished he’d never been born or wishing at least that he’d been still born. Job waking up to the prison of his own suffering he wailed:

    What I always feared has happened to me.

    What I dreaded has come true. (3:25)

This morning we began from where we left off last week, extolling the virtues or value of friendship as one of the great blessings in life, but there are limits to friendship and since other people are autonomous human beings, they will at least on some points always think differently than we might. - And there’s a song Bob Dylan wrote, that tells us that the perfect friend does not, actually, exist; you might know the song It Ain’t Me Babe, it goes something like this:


You say you're looking for someone

Who's never weak but always strong

To protect you and defend you

Whether you are right or wrong

Someone to open each and every door.

It ain’t me babe…

Now bereavement and loss are experienced and dealt with by different people in different ways. For many, as in Job’s case, following the initial mind-numbing shock, and the recognition of a new and awful reality can come the outpouring, of sorrow, grief, and a constant verbal litany of injustice, or regret. At times even the kindest of friends can be ‘worn thin’ after too much exposure to a constant monologue of misery. Perhaps Eliphaz’s patience with Job had already come close to breaking point when he eventually broke his silence and said to Job:

Will you be patient and let me say a word?

For who could keep from speaking out?

And indeed, after the restraint of seven days and seven nights of silent commiseration and sympathy, who when all’s said and done could restrain themselves? Yes, there are limitations even to friendship. But there are blessings to be found both within the boundaries and outside the boundaries of friendship. Iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend. Indeed, without his friends we would not have the story of Job and definitely the world would have been a poorer place for that.