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Sunday, 11 October 2009

Looking for God

Our two readings today are both about people who can’t find God. Firstly Job, and then the man who we call “The rich young ruler”.

So, Job. It's a funny old story, isn't it, this story of Job. Do you know, nobody knows anything about it - what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story - most probably the latter!

I did read that they think the first two chapters are incredibly ancient. That figures, actually, since the picture of God that we see in it is also very old - the sort of super-King holding court among the angels, and Satan not even being the Devil yet, just one of the many beings who had the right to God's ear. Rather like the earthly kings of the time, no doubt.

The source I was reading seemed to think that the poetry chapters were more recent, but even still, nobody knows who wrote them, or when. Even still, "more recent" is a relative term! The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

I think one of the oddest things is that picture of God as almost an earthly King, with his court around him. And Satan as one of the heavenly beings belonging to that court.

The story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy type - whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him - just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you! (Wealth was considered to be a sign of God's blessing).

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty - painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!

And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says "Curse God, and die!" In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.

Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him - we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God! And that’s where we came in. Job feels he can’t find God to get the answers from!

“If only I knew where I could find God,
I’d pound on the door and demand a hearing.
God would have to listen to me state my case
and argue my innocence.
Let’s see what God would have to say to that!
Then I could get God’s answer clear in my head.

Would God simply pull rank and rule me out of order?
I don’t think so. Surely God would listen.
Surely if an honest bloke like me gets a fair hearing,
God would judge in my favour
and clear my name once and for all.

But I can’t find God anywhere.
I look up, down, forwards, backwards – nothing.
I think I catch a glimpse to the left, but no;
I rush to the right, but God vanishes like a mirage.”

We know what happens in the end, of course – God does eventually answer Job, and, in some of the loveliest poetry ever written, tells him that he’s all wrong. He’s looking in the wrong place. He’s looking at all his problems and trying to find a reason for them, but where he should be looking is at God, at his Creator:

“Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?
Do you make it leap like the locust? Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily; it goes out to meet the weapons.
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; it does not turn back from the sword.
Upon it rattle the quiver, the flashing spear, and the javelin.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says "Aha!" From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.
Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings towards the south?
Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?
It lives on the rock and makes its home in the fastness of the rocky crag.
From there it spies the prey; its eyes see it from far away.
Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.”

Wonderful stuff, and it goes on for about three chapters, talking of the natural world and its wonders, and how God is the author of them all. If you ever want to rejoice in creation, read Job chapters 38, 39 and 40. And at the end, Job repents "in dust and ashes", we are told, and then his riches are restored to him. Job was looking at his problems, not at his Creator.

And so we turn to the Gospel reading, the story of the rich young ruler. Well, All three gospels tell us that the person who came was a rich man, but Matthew tells us that he was young and Luke tells us that he was a ruler. He was probably a ruler in the synagogue. So we call him the rich young ruler.

Anyway, he comes running to Jesus just as he – Jesus – is about to leave town. (Running? They didn't run in those days once they were grown up!) I wonder why he left it so late? Perhaps he really didn’t want to ask. If he was a ruler in the synagogue, he probably thought he ought to know better than this travelling preacher who has come to town. Or perhaps he was held up by looking after business – people with a lot of money do seem to have to spend an awful lot of time looking after it. But whatever, he comes racing up, falls at Jesus’ feet, and addresses him as “Good Teacher!”

Jesus fends him off by saying “No one deserves to be called ‘good’ except God”. But he sees that the young man is in earnest – he really does want to know how to gain eternal life. He is looking for God.

So Jesus answers, “Well, you’ve been brought up in the synagogue, you’re a good Jew, you know the Commandments, don’t you?” And he quotes: “‘Don’t murder; Be faithful in marriage; Don’t steal; Don’t tell lies about anyone; Don’t cheat anyone; Treat your parents with respect.’ ”

The man replied, “Teacher, I’ve kept all these rules, ever since I was a youngster.”
Jesus looked him straight in the eye and, filled with love for him, he said, “You still haven’t found what you’re looking for though, have you? Come and follow me and you’ll find it. First though, go and flog off everything you own, give the proceeds to charity, and then, with all your investments in heaven, you’ll be free to find it.”

And we are told that the man went away, very sad, because he was very rich. Even though he saw his riches as a blessing from God, the rich young ruler was looking at his money, his property, his business, not at his Creator.

Both Job and the rich young ruler were looking for God. Job couldn’t find God because he was looking at his problems. The rich young ruler couldn’t find God because he was looking at his money.

What are you looking at that comes between you and God? What, if anything, is stopping you from finding God?