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.

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