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Sermon – 23rd June

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    Readings: Job 38: 1-11 and 2 Corinthians 6: 1-13

    “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” There’s an important word missing in the sentence that appears on the readings sheet. In the actual text, the sentence starts off … “THEN the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” You might think that the missing ‘Then’ isn’t a big deal. But in the context of the whole book of Job, chapter 38 marks a significant turning point.

    We don’t too often hear from the book of Job on a Sunday, but it is certainly a book that should speak to us. Job, you’ll remember, is beset by tragedy after tragedy, losing his family, friends, home and livestock to a series of freak accidents, and then is afflicted by boils. Why, he asks, has this happened to him – an upright, God-fearing man? He challenges, almost goads God throughout the book. His three friends who come to comfort him take up the argument, insisting that suffering and misfortune only follows sin – the orthodox view of the time, and a view many hold today. ‘Karma?’ Job rejects their argument and appeals to God, who has been keeping his silence for 37 chapters. So there is quite a build-up to the beginning of chapter 38, when God very powerfully reveals himself. “THEN the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” He responds in a majestic display, and an appeal to the greater power and wisdom displayed in Creation.  “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its measurements – surely you know!” Of course, Job does know, but he had argued with himself that he knew better. He had waited for this moment, but had also feared it: who would not be ambivalent about meeting God face to face?

    Nevertheless, God doesn’t reprimand Job for complaining and asking the questions; he does castigate Job’s three friends for giving trite answers, and not risking the kind of prayer in which their views might be challenged. The book of Job does not answer many awkward questions about suffering and injustices in life, but it does give us permission to ask them, and maybe an important lesson to take away is that when we are alongside people in their sufferings and miseries, our presence can be more valuable than our words.

    Not for the first time in the bible, nor the last, God is revealed in the forces of the Creation he made. Whirlwind, earthquake, fire, storm. These are some of the natural phenomena that reveal the thrilling, even mad, power of God. While I was preparing this, the name ‘High Force’ came into my mind. High Force is a dramatic waterfall in the Pennines National Park, which I visited on a school geography field-trip rather long ago than I care to remember. Not for nothing is it called ‘Force’ because the water cascades 21 metres with great power into a plunge pool.  No doubt you can think of places, or sights, or events where you have realised that ‘man’ is not in control. Even in a spectacular thunderstorm we can get unnerved, wondering exactly what is going to happen next.

    In the pre-scientific era, Bible times, for instance, these phenomena would have been even more frightening. God asks Job ‘Who shut in the sea with its doors when it burst out from the womb … and set bars and doors, and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther?’ John Pridmore writes that there is ‘visceral dread’ in nearly every reference to the sea in the bible. The bible story starts with a sea battle – the Almighty bringing dry land out of the hostile waters, in the opening chapter of Genesis. Then later God brings his people deliverance from servitude through the waters of the Red Sea. Even in the New Testament we have the promise in the book of Revelation that in the ‘New Jerusalem’ there will be ‘no more sea’ – the sea being a symbol of danger and separation. Throughout the scriptures, then, God speaks through the awesome power of the elements. Even today we hear the semi-legal phrase about damage being caused by an ‘Act of God’, though many people now would dismiss such an idea. The actual definition of ‘Act of God’ is a severe, unanticipated, natural event for which no human is responsible. Whether there is a religious element there or not, maybe the Church has colluded with modern thinking by stressing the ‘niceness’ of God, in its attempts to bring more people to faith. The danger with that is that we can too easily portray God as being ineffectual and undemanding.

    I’m often reminded of the words of Archbishop William Temple, who wrote that ‘we had better know what we are about’ when we pray ‘Come, Holy Spirit.’ Temple wrote: “He will not carry us to easy triumphs and gratifying successes; more probably he will set us some task in full intention that we shall fail, so that others – learning wisdom by our failure –may carry the good cause forward. If we invoke him, we must be ready for the glorious pain of being caught out of the petty orbit into the eternal purposes of the Almighty.’

    St. Paul certainly knew all about the raw power of God changing life, following his conversion on the road to Damascus. It led him to an intense ministry, a roller-coaster ride both of successes, but also of failures, and life in all its complexity. In the letter to the Corinthians we heard today, he catalogues some of the experiences he and his companions had gone through: afflictions; hardships, calamities, labours, sleepless nights, and all the rest of it. They lived with honour and dishonour; in ill repute and good repute. They were punished, but not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, yet possessing everything.” And all this happened through the grace of God. St. Paul is urging the Corinthians not to accept the grace of God in vain. They wanted to hear clever philosophical arguments from Paul to firm-up their faith, but St. Paul was clear that he wasn’t offering that. That wasn’t what discipleship was all about, but an active living out of the faith through life in all its ups and downs, relying on the power of God to carry us through: the God who has control of his world and knows best.

    Job took it upon himself to question God, and got more than he bargained for when the Lord spoke to him out of the whirlwind. And at the end of the book, Job replies “I had no idea; I had only heard about you before, but now I’ve seen you, I know I can only throw myself on your mercy.” This is a lesson Paul had learned, too, having seen the power of God in all the ups and downs of his ministry. So do we open our hearts to God’s power, or are we content just to stay with the theory?

    Cardinal Newman agonized with all this in his ministry, but he came to this conclusion. “Therefore I will trust him. Wherever, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. God does nothing in vain; he knows what he is about.”

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