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Friday, 22 June 2012

God's In Charge


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! Apparently, 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.

Just to remind you, 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!

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. And Job still remains faithful to God: “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.”

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!

Which, in the end, he gets. But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry. We just had the first of the three chapters this morning, but Job chapters 38, 39 and 40 are the most glorious celebration of God's creation that there is! My father, indeed, says that when he dies, he wants Job chapter 39 to be read at his funeral, and I don't blame him, it really is lovely! Sit down and read them sometime, when you want to be cheered up!

But, of course, God's creation can be a frightening and terrible place sometimes – there are earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and storms.... and in our second reading, there was a storm.

I've never been to the Holy Land, but some years ago now a minister in this circuit did go, and he said that while he was there, just such a storm blew up on the Sea of Galilee! He said he really understood this particular story for the first time ever.

The disciples were with Jesus, of course, but Jesus was asleep. He'd been teaching all day, and may well have been very tired. Or perhaps he felt a bit seasick, who knows? Whatever, there he is, curled up in the stern, head on a pillow, snoring. Well, we aren't actually told he was snoring, but people do very often snore if they fall asleep in uncomfortable positions – you should hear my grandson when he falls asleep in his pushchair! So Jesus might well have snored. Whatever, there he is, fast asleep....

And a storm blows up.

I don't know why the disciples were so scared; after all, Peter and Andrew and James and John were all fishermen, and knew all about Lake Galilee, so you would have thought they would have been able to cope. Perhaps the non-fishermen among them were frightened and hampering the fishermen in their work. Perhaps it was a smaller boat than they were used to, and the Bible does say that it was beginning to fill with water. Anyway, whatever, they are terrified. So they do the most sensible thing they can; they go to Jesus and wake him up, asking for help. And Jesus tells the winds and waves to be still. And they are still. The storm stops. The wind drops. The sun comes out. And Jesus says, “What were you so afraid of? Where is your faith?”

Now, that seems a nasty thing to say. After all, the disciples had seriously thought they were all going to drown, including Jesus. But the point was, he had been with them. They could have trusted him, in spite of appearances.

When it comes to God's creation, we are not in control. The disciples weren't in control of the weather conditions on the lake. And God reminds us in the book of Job that we aren't, either:
‘Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, “Here we are”?'

But God is in control. God is always in charge, even when we are not. That's sometimes a comforting thought when things happen that are beyond our control. God is still in charge.

The Bible promises, in Romans chapter 8, that God works all things for good to those who love him.

Mind you, sometimes – frequently – it doesn't feel like that. When bad things happen, when someone gets a really nasty illness or dies out of time, when a relationship ends, when they close down your church, sometimes it feels as though God has kicked you in the face. But I've found, over the years, that most of the time that is not what has happened, only what it feels like. If I've gone on trusting God, and gone on trying to be his person in spite of everything – and right now this is being horrendously difficult for me – then I've usually found that in the very end God has worked things out. As I'm sure will happen this time, although I do wish he'd hurry up! God is never surprised by what is happening; God can always work things out, and will always work things out for good.

Now, some people have said that because God is always in control, and because he always does work things out, we should praise him and thank him even for the bad things. I don't see how we can do that – I mean, we know that God's heart breaks when a child is killed on the roads, or when an earthquake devastates a country. How are we supposed to give thanks for things that make God Himself weep?

I don't think it means that. I think it's more about having a thankful heart. About acknowledging God's good gifts to us. About – okay, if you like, about counting our blessings. We can't, and I don't think we should, thank God for the dreadful things – but we can be aware that God is there, in the midst of the dreadful things, and we can certainly thank him for that. We can be aware that in all things God does work for good for those who love him. And I think, too, we may ask to be shown exactly how God is working whatever dreadful situation it is for good.

The book of Job is an attempt to show why bad things happen to good people. And the only answer it can really come up with is that God is in control, and we are not.

It isn't always easy to let God be in control. Even our dear Lord struggled with it in the Garden of Gethsemane. But in the end he came to the place where he could say “Do it your way. Your will, not mine, be done!” and the result was that all the things we mean by the Atonement were able to happen.

It isn't easy. But when we have a God who controls even the winds and the waves, when we can trust him, when we can say “Your will, not mine, be done!”, then, I am sure, that in the words of Julian of Norwich, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. Amen.