Sunday 11 April 2010

The patience of Job

An address given on Low Sunday 11the April 2010 at Templederry, Nenagh and Puckane. The Puckane Roman Catholic parish has with great generosity allowed us to use their beautiful church while Killodiernan is being renovated.

Do you have the patience of Job? I certainly don’t!
Because of a silly accident to my eye, I’ve had to make a couple of visits to Limerick Regional hospital in the last few days, so I’ve spent my fair share of sitting around waiting anxiously. I’m rather bad at waiting anxiously – I start to give out, to whoever is in reach including my darling wife, though I know I shouldn’t. But I must say all the hospital staff I’ve met have been simply wonderful and cared for me magnificently.

Job’s patience is proverbial, but I’m not quite sure why – when he suffered a whole succession of frightful disasters he gave out to all and sundry, including God.

It seems that we are all beset with disasters at the moment. Most of us feel like giving out about them – it doesn’t much matter to whom. The economic crash we are living through is causing hardship to so many; the great institutions of our society – business, political and religious – seem to be teetering on the brink; we stare into an environmental abyss because of reckless over use of the earth’s resources, which no one seems able or willing to halt; and the media daily bring us horrific reports of earthquakes and floods, as well as stories of intimate private disasters.

If you are anything like me – or like Job, for that matter – you feel compelled to cry out ‘Why?’ I’ve done nothing wrong, ‘Why me?’ Ordinary, decent people are suffering, ‘How can God let bad things happen to innocent people?’

In today’s OT reading (Job 42:1-6), Job finally comes to some conclusions after agonising about these questions. But to understand what his conclusions are, we need to look at the whole story.

Do you know the story of Job? Here is the simplified version of it.
Job is a good man. He has also been blessed with all a man could desire, ‘seven sons and three daughters’, ‘seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants’.

However Satan – which means The Accuser in Hebrew – comes to God and says that Job is only good because Job has been blessed with family, money, and good health. And so a heavenly bet is made that if these things were taken away from Job, he would curse God. And so, Satan takes away Job's wealth and his children, but Job does not curse God. He says,‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’ – words we still echo at funerals. Then Satan inflicts Job with terrible sores all over his body. His wife tells him, ‘Curse God, and die’ - but Job will not curse God.

Worse still, Job's friends come to console him. You must have done something wrong, they say, or else why would God punish you? But Job protests against their suggestions. He proclaims he is innocent, because he knows he is innocent. To this, they reply, "See, ... you are too proud to admit it. Your pride is a sign of your sin." Friends like that aren’t a lot of help, are they?

Job does not curse God, but Job argues with God. He eloquently makes the case for his innocence and calls on God to hear him. ‘Let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity’, he says (Job 31:6). In fact Job puts God on trial for allowing bad things to happen to him, an innocent man.

God answers Job - out of the whirlwind, we are told. ‘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’, he says. And over 3 chapters of beautiful poetry, God responds to Job’s challenge by reminding him of all that God has done and continues to do in the universe he has created and sustains. ‘Were you there when I created the universe? Were you there when I made life upon the earth? Do you give the animals their food, and give them children?’

God does not explain to Job why disaster has befallen him. Instead God redirects Job’s attention away from his own questions, his own struggles, his own pain, towards the glory of God.

And Job responds in humility to God’s self-revelation, in the words of today’s OT reading.

Job says, ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.’ At last Job gets it - he recognises his own insignificance in comparison to God. This is a message we all need to hear again and again, surely – nothing is about us, it is all about God.

You ask me, God, Job says, ‘“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.’ The Hebrew word translated here as counsel means intentions or plans. Job acknowledges that it is futile to question God’s plans and intentions. They are far too wonderful to comprehend for mere human beings, for human beings like Job, and for human beings like you and me.

You tell me, God, Job says, ‘“Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.” I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ Through his honest struggle with the meaning of his distress, Job now sees that he has learned something new about the nature of God. Scholars have argued long and hard about the last phrase, about repenting in dust and ashes: does it simply emphasise Job’s humiliation, or does it suggest that Job is finding healing, moving on from his grief? I rather prefer the latter - dust and ashes are symbols of mourning which Job must leave behind to find healing. Whatever it means, though, Job is changed. God has lifted Job’s consciousness beyond his own pain. He repents - his whole attitude is changed - and Job can leave the pain behind.

And at last, but only when Job is able to pray for his friends, God restores Job’s fortunes.
He gives Job twice as much as he had before, we are told: fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys! He has another seven sons and three daughters, and his daughters are the most beautiful in the land. And he lives another 140 years, he sees his grandchildren, and he dies old and full of days.

In a time when we are inclined to wallow in our own distress, this too is a lesson we should remember – our pain will pass. There will be a future – it may not be the future that we expected, but it will be the future God has planned for us.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!

In a few minutes, just after the Rector consecrates the bread and wine, we will all join in this great acclamation, which is sometimes called the mystery of faith. On this joyful Easter Day, surely it is appropriate to reflect on these words.

The 1st reading we heard (Acts 10:34-43) is just a part of the story of the baptism of Cornelius - it’s worth summarising the whole of it.

Cornelius, a Centurion in the Roman army and a gentile, is a devout man who fears God – today we might describe him as a God seeker. He is prompted in a vision to send for Peter to visit him, and Peter too is prompted in a dream to go to Cornelius.

When Peter reaches Cornelius’s house he gives the speech that is our 1st reading. In it he tells Cornelius and his family the good news about Jesus – about his life, death, resurrection, and by implication his second coming as judge and forgiver of sins. In fact Peter is proclaiming the mystery of our faith - Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!

And Cornelius and his whole family respond to it immediately. The Holy Spirit falls on them, we’re told - they begin to praise God and speak in tongues, just as the disciples did at Pentecost. Peter then arranges for their baptism - they are actually the very first gentiles to be baptised.

What a suitable reading it is for today - because today is not just Easter Day, it is a joyful day of baptism for Molly Sara Shelly and her family!

No human eyes saw Jesus rise from the tomb on that first Easter day.

None of the Gospels suggest any such thing. But they do describe incidents that day in which several different disciples encountered Jesus after he had done so. Let’s remind ourselves of them.

We are told in today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John 20:1-18) how Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb early in the morning. She sees the stone which sealed it has been moved. She rushes to tell Peter and another disciple that the tomb has been robbed – tradition says the other disciple is John. Peter and John find it hard to believe, so they race to the tomb to see for themselves.

Mary also goes back to the tomb a little later, more sedately perhaps. She sees two angels, as if in a vision, and then a man she takes for the gardener. She does not recognise him at first, until he speaks her name. ‘Mary!’, he says, and immediately she recognises him to be Jesus and answers ‘Rabbouni!’, which means teacher. She goes to embrace him, but he forbids her – why is that I wonder? Instead he says, ‘go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

Mary is the first to see the risen Christ.

Let’s go back to Peter and John running to the tomb - John gets there first. From outside he sees the winding sheets lying there, but he does not go in. Peter, brave Peter, goes in first, followed by John. They confirm with their own eyes that the body is gone. But they do not see Jesus, nor do they yet understand that he has risen from the dead.

Peter must have seen the risen Christ later in the day, though, because Luke’s Gospel tells us so. When Cleopas and his friend, the two men who went to Emmaus, return late at night, the disciples in the upper room tell them, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon’ Peter.

Cleopas (Luke 24: 13-35) then recounts the story of their journey to Emmaus, and the stranger who walked with them. When the stranger spoke their hearts burned within them. They persuaded him to stay and eat with them. And it was only when ‘he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them’ – as he had done three nights before at the Last Supper - that they recognised the risen Christ.

Later still that night - as the disciples talk about these amazing events, trying to make sense of them - Jesus suddenly appears again to a large group of them, gathered behind closed doors in the upper room.

Throughout that first Easter Day, God gradually opens the minds of Jesus’s disciples to understand that Christ is risen.

What are we to make of these appearances of the risen Christ on the first Easter Day?

On the evidence of the Gospels the risen Christ is rather different to the man Jesus. His close friends do not recognise him by sight, but by such things as a tone of voice or a characteristic action like blessing bread. He appears and disappears, unlike any human being.

For the disciples who knew Jesus before his death, meeting the risen Christ seems as much a spiritual as a physical experience. But whatever the nature of their experience, it changed them completely – it drove them to go out and preach the good news, even at the cost of their lives.

They described it as Jesus risen from the dead, and we might as well call it the same thing.

Christians ever since continue to meet the risen Christ, as a spiritual if not a physical reality.

It is a dynamic process that goes like this, I think:

  • God prompts those who seek him to investigate the good news about Jesus;
  • they come to faith, accepting Jesus as Christ their saviour, through the witness of his disciples - that's you and me;
  • God responds to their faith with the gift of his Spirit;
  • and the Spirit leads them to understand that Christ is risen, and what this means for them.
In other words: We come to believe in the resurrection because we first believe in Christ – rather than the other way about. We do not come to believe in Christ because we first believe in the resurrection.

This process is displayed in the story of Cornelius. And Christian disciples still seem to be made by this process today. So I believe it must also be true for Mary Magdalene, for Peter & John, for Cleopas and the other disciples too - though their faith came not from the witness of disciples but from personal knowledge of Jesus.

Before his death Jesus promised his disciples that he would come again (John 14:3)

He tells them that he is going away to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house, but that he will come again and take them there to be with him.

Christians sometimes imagine the second coming as Christ returning in glory at the end of time, in a last great judgement of the living and the dead to usher in God’s kingdom. But I think the end of time is better seen as a metaphor for any & every time - a typical time if you will. I prefer to imagine that Christ will come again to each one of us, at just the time that is right for each one of us personally.

In our hearts we will hear his voice. He will speak our name. And we will reply as Mary did,
‘Rabbouni – my teacher.
Now I understand -

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!
Let me be your disciple now and always.’