Sermon for Sunday 11th October.
At the end of our celebration today, we will have the opportunity to donate some money towards the ABM appeal for the relief of tsunami, flood and earthquake victims. These disasters may seem far away, but no one is immune from pain and death. All humans worry and wonder about these things. We need to make sense of our birth, our relationships, the things that happen to us during our life, and eventually, our death. Human beings are made like this, they can’t help thinking about things and believing in something.
Some beliefs can be helpful, and enable us to live our lives in a positive and useful way, or they may be harmful, and lead us to despair and an early death, but we all believe something, and religion is our human attempt to make sense of our world.
For the children of Israel, and Job in particular, the events of the Exodus are basic beliefs. The covenant that God made with his people at Sinai - I shall be your God, and you shall be my people - this is the background to which Job interprets his life. The gracious promises of God that faithfulness will bring blessings from God, prosperity, wealth, children, peace - this has given Job his understanding of his world. This same belief supports the Israelites today and gives shape to their life as a people and a nation.
The whole book of Job is an exploration of what happens when that belief is challenged - when Job, a man noted for his faithfulness to God, is suddenly reduced to poverty. All the things which he thought were the rewards of his faithfulness to God are taken away. How does he make sense of this disaster? How does the agony of his life fit in with his beliefs about God?
There are two things he can do. Firstly, he can reject his faith and decide that he has been deluded, tricked into a false belief. His world has fallen apart, so his faith collapses. In the words of scripture, he could curse God and die. But Job’s faith is stronger that that. Job believes in God so firmly that he takes the second path - he must find God in his situation. Job has friends who try to comfort him, but he turns away from these so-called comforters, as he begins a new search for God in space and time. Could he find where God is, he might find a hearing, but he finds only terrifying darkness. Were God to appoint times of judgement, the cry of the oppressed would be redressed; but God hears nothing. Today that is as far as we go with the story of Job - the challenge to his faith brings him to terror and darkness. But it is not the terror of unbelief, nor the darkness of no belief - it is God who terrifies, and God who is hidden in the darkness.
Psalm 22 reminds us of another darkness, the darkness of the crucifixion, when Jesus was brought to the same point of terror. Jesus’ faith was far greater than Job’s and yet even he cannot find God at this point. God has tested him to destruction and all his faithfulness seems to bring nothing but death. Jesus is tempted to reject God and die, but by calling out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? He actually affirms his belief in God. In his questioning, in his challenge to God; by naming God Jesus still believes in Him. At the point of ultimate testing, Jesus recalls how God saved his people - “In you our ancestors trusted, and you delivered them, to you they cried, and they were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.” - why, then, do you not save me?
God’s answer to Jesus was the resurrection - an answer far beyond anything anyone could have expected - and an answer on which we rely to this day. As Christians, we still look back to the Exodus event, but first of all we recall Christ’s death and Resurrection and this becomes, for us, the basis of our faith - this becomes the background against which we see our birth, our live and our death.
But that does not settle the matter, we have our testings too, there are times when the resurrection seems unreal and God seems to have forgotten his promises, times when we challenge God to be present and find nothing. And our temptation is more subtle now - perhaps the devil has learned some new tricks - we are not tempted to despair and death - we are tempted instead to explain God away. A few words from a scientist, an article from a psychiatrist, a doctor’s diagnosis and we say that God does not exist. God has gone so far from us that he is no longer part of our lives. We are not prepared to bear the pain like Job or Christ - it is easier to transfer our faith and belief to something human, which, after all, we can always change if we don’t like it.
But the reading from Hebrews and the Gospel remind us that the pain, the struggle, the difficult decisions are not unfortunate accidents - they are the very stuff of belief. Job and Jesus call on God at the very point when God seems faithless - that’s what God is for. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Our faith works best when it is challenged, questioned and tested. Fair weather faith is like a fair weather friend - it is easy to trust someone or something when there is no trouble about.
The story of the rich man who wanted to follow Jesus is a story about riches and our attitude towards them; it is also about the cost of discipleship and what we must give up to follow Jesus, but today we hear it as a story about the test of faith and what it is we believe in. The rich man was a good man, he had always done what was right, treating his neighbours well, and loving God. But when it came to the test, when he was asked to declare what he really believed in as the background of his life, he failed. For he believed in wealth, he had many possessions - he was shocked and stricken with grief - and in that moment of pain, chose his riches rather than God.
Today we are asked the same question. We are not asked, perhaps, to part with all our worldly goods - although that may be part of God’s challenge to us - but we are asked to decide what it is that we believe - what is it that gives meaning to our lives, our birth, our relationships, our troubles and our death. This is important, for we see about us others who have declared their belief by filling their lives with material possessions, or filling their time with video games, or gambling, or dulling their senses with drugs because there is nothing else they believe in.
By coming to church we declare ourselves as Christians. By our baptism and our sharing the Eucharist we declare our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So far, so good. But are we prepared to test everything in our lives against that standard? At the beginning of the service we prayed to God to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden. We asked God to cleanse the thoughts of our heart by breathing into us his Holy Spirit. We declared our desire to love God perfectly and to declare God’s glory in our lives. As we remember the testings and challenges that we have been through and which lie ahead, let us pray that our faith may be strong enough to search for God even when God seems nowhere to be found.