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The impossible question

October 7, 2018

Job 1.1-12, 22; 2.1-10


The news this week from Indonesia, was huge and tragic.  Such sudden and massive suffering is sometimes called biblical, because of the size of what has happened.  People of faith in Indonesia will be asking questions.  Why has this happened?  How could a good God allow it to happen?  And maybe most pressing: why do the innocent suffer?


The book of Job in the bible is an attempt by an ancient Hebrew writer to answer these questions.  It is about a man who has everything and then loses everything. 


The person who wrote the book had good reason to ask that question.  He lived in the time when his own world was falling apart, in the 6th century before Jesus.  Israel had been invaded by a foreign power.  The temple in Jerusalem, the holy place of Israel’s God, had been destroyed; Israel’s king and people had been taken captive and marched off to Babylon, leaving behind the very land their God had promised would be theirs for ever.  


Can we imagine that - being taken captive to a foreign country, and losing government, land, and place of worship - all gone.  The pillars of their faith - all gone.  It’s like what is happening to many peoples today, especially in countries of the Middle East and Africa.  It has led to mass migrations of peoples, and affects us as refugees and asylum seekers come to Australia.


Why?  That must have been the hottest question in the 6th century BC.  Why had Israel lost everything?  Some said God had punished them because of all their past disobedience.  Others said maybe Israel’s God was not that powerful after all - maybe he was not powerful enough to prevent what had happened.  Still others said maybe there is no God at all.  A faithful few said wait, maybe Israel’s God still had plans for them.


Then there is the writer of the book of Job.  He was prepared to question everything people thought they had known about God.  He didn’t accept any of the old answers about why the innocent suffer.  A re-hash of all our old thinking about God can be forced on us when our world is turned upside down - our faith is shaken, we’re not sure what we believe, so we question everything again.


The writer proposes a test case to see if the old sayings about God are still true.  He invents a person named Job.  What if this person Job was perfectly good.  What if he had been blessed greatly with children, herds of animals, and acres of land.  In those days they believed if you were favoured by God, you would be rewarded with riches and honour.  It worked the other way if you were poor: God didn’t think very much of you.  


So Job was rich.  He believed he had never done anything wrong.  Yet he still wound up losing everything.  How could that possibly be explained?  Something was going wrong and needed an answer. 


Job was a believer in his religious tradition.  He took no chances - he liked to cover all the religious bases in his life.  He had 10 children.  And his children liked to party.  Whenever one of them had a birthday, they really lived it up.  After each party, Job would be afraid one of his children might have sinned the night before.  So Job would offer sacrifices for all 10 of them, just in case.  He would offer 10 whole burnt offerings to God, one for each child, just in case.  In Job’s understanding, God was literally a hungry God.  If people weren’t careful, God might throw a tantrum and send down a thunderbolt or two and punish them for the slightest offence.


Have you ever thought God might be after you for the slightest screw up?  When my marriage broke down, I thought that was the end of my relationship with God.  I thought I had committed the one big, terrible sin.  I had done what I thought was unforgivable. 


I can tell you now that it was actually quite good for me, because I learned something very important about God.  I learned that my salvation has absolutely nothing to do with how good I have been or how bad I have been.  Even if I had been perfectly good, I could not have made God love me.   God’s love was far greater than I thought it was. 


Back to Job’s story.  He thought all of his animal sacrifices on behalf of himself and his children were scoring points with God. But his huge attempts to be faithful in the conventional ways were actually doing him no good at all.  


The next scene is the royal court of heaven, with God and his angels all around him.  This scene shows that Job's fate was not determined by Job.  


Along comes the tempter, Satan.  This Satan is not the one with the horns.  This Satan in the story is more like a special agent who goes around looking for problems to fix.  Satan suggests to God that Job is loyal to God only because God has let him be rich and successful.  It is a common error we make: it is easy to say God is love as long as everything is going according to our plans. Take away what Job has, says Satan, and he will curse God.  God gives Satan permission to do that.  Job loses everything, first his herds of animals, then all his children, and finally his health.  But Job never curses God.


Job and his community had imagined that God is temperamental and fussy.  They thought God had to be pacified with sacrifices.  They thought God tests people and sends them challenges to see how they hold up.  They thought God is always ready to send down a lightening bolt or two if we screw up.  The book of Job was written to question and challenge these old ideas about God. 


These old ideas are not always so old.  We can still try today to be perfectly god, or we can try to touch all our religious bases, to get on God’ good side.  Sadly these ideas just presume a very small-minded God.  They assume that God’s love blows hot and cold just like our love.  But the heart of God in Jesus is big, huge even.  His love is wide, and high, and deep.  And he searches for his children to love.  


When God’s amazing love touches us, we discover a new desire to please him.  Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water."John 7:38  Our love for God becomes genuine as we are touched by the Holy Spirit, and living waters of love flow out of us.  


Why is there human suffering, especially for the innocent?There is no simple answer, apart from ‘we often don’t know why.’  When the old explanations about suffering no longer satisfy, it is time to surrender ourselves again to what is a mystery, a mystery of love that has been revealed in the suffering of Christ, once and for all, for all time and peoples.  As St Paul writes, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, including unexplained tragedies and loss.

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