Sermon – 11 October 2009 – Job

Here is this morning’s sermon. There is a short hiatus near the beginning whilst microphones were sorted out. Fortunately one member of the congregation decided that she did want to hear me preach rather than just see me preach and waved her arms until it was sorted out. Many thanks Peggy.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Let me begin by making sure that you know what polyphony is? This is a congregation where quite a lot of people probably do know what polyphony is. It is usually used as a musical term. It is used to describe different musical parts being sung together. Polyphony is where different parts are sung at the same time and sound lovely together.

At least that is the idea. Most choirs know of the experience of trying to sing different parts together and it not sounding lovely. Musical directors sometimes use different words to describe that experience – sometimes many descriptive words.

However, I want you to hold in your head the idea of polyphony whilst I’m talking this morning. I’ll come back to it, I promise, by the end.

I want to preach about Job this morning. Actually, I want to begin with the whole point of Job.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

That little question is one which lies at the heart of the book of Job. A book which we seldom read in church, though it repays a read through, if you are looking for something spiritual to read at the moment.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Let me first of all puncture any hope that you may have that I am going to give you a definitive answer this morning, an answer that will settle every argument and sort the question out for good. Chance would be a fine thing.

But that does not stop that question being asked. It is asked repeatedly. It is asked often. It is asked by people who come to church. And it is asked of us by those who don’t.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

For lots of thinking people, that question has been a niggle that won’t go away, and itch that refuses to die down when scratched, a sore bit that won’t heal.

It is a question that some people associate with their own faith journey very strongly. Sometimes people simply cannot cope with anything religious because they become fixated on that question:

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Having already said that I won’t give you the answer, let me attempt to do so.

For maybe attempting to answer the question is more to the point than finding the answer.

The portion of Job that we listened to today is the complaint of a bitter man. Though he is sometimes portrayed as patient Job, here he seems far from it. His experience is that everything is against him. Cosmic forces seem to be arrayed against him. He has lost his family and lost his health. And not he does not seem able to feel the presence of God.

If I go forward, he says, I cannot see God;
or backward, I cannot see God
On the left God hides.
I turn to the right, but God I cannot see.

I feel a sense of absolute compassion for Job when he says those things. For I have known exactly that emotion. I, think that is a part of the human condition. But there are plenty of people who find that harsh and too hard to accept.

Amongst them are Job’s friends, who, if you read the book through, you will find are all ready to blame Job for his misfortune.

Ah, they say, you must have done something wrong that has landed you in this mess. Repent and you’ll be fine again.

Their voices do not prevail. Job has done nothing wrong.

Yet still, these terrible things have happened to him.

Let me lay out some options.

Firstly, there are those who take the view of Job’s friends – when bad things happen, it must be because of your sins. Must be because you did something wrong. Must be because you were wicked. This view is strongly held in the Bible. It is the view of Job’s friends, who have no hesitation in telling him so. Maybe you agree with them. In that world view, suffering is God punishing you for your badness.

Secondly, and alternatively, there is a view that is related to that which is probably the most popular way of dealing with this question. This is the Eastern idea of Karma. Now, had I been preaching about Job here in Glasgow 50 years ago, hardly anyone who have known what karma was. Now, you are very likely to know what good karma or bad karma is. Ah, people say, what goes around, comes around.

God is not really present in this notion. You make your own luck, we hear people say. What you do comes back to you one day.

It is a highly prevalent notion. It would not surprise me if there were people here who take that view.

Thirdly, there are those who take as their starting point in this conversation the idea that life in itself involves suffering. And the acceptance of that is the beginning of a religious awakening. Some people think that is more of a Buddhist view than a Christian one. Whether it is or not, it is a view that I tend to hold quite strongly myself and almost always preach about on Good Friday.

These three views will all be present here. Other answers to the question of why bad things happen to good people will be floating around. Which is right?

Well, the answer to that question which I want to suggest to you this morning comes back to that idea of polyphony.

The book of Job is the classic book where the question is raised. Scholars argue about it – they even argue about where it came from and how old it is. It seems to me to come from way back in the biblical tradition – referring to ideas that came very early on.

And it seems that this early attempt to answer the question was a polyphonic work. For there are different voices through the book of Job which say different things. And yet there is beauty as they discuss and argue amongst themselves. There is Job, there is a satan figure, the accuser, there is Job’s friends, there is Job’s wife and there is a passage which claims to be God speaking, which we will hear a bit of next week.

The point I want to make today is that early on in our tradition, there was the idea that different people, different personalities, different characters would come to different views about big questions of salvation, redemption, suffering and evil.

And in the book of Job they are presented as different voices arguing together, across one another, debating with one another, living with one another. And they are described as friend.

We have reached a time when many Christians seem unable to cope with that kind of religious sensibility, that kind of religious questioning, that kind of religious debate, that kind of religious polyphony.

Job asked in our reading this morning, where God was to be found.

My answer this morning to that question is to pose another question for you to think about and mull over.

Do you find God best expressed in dogmatic certainty? Or do you find that God can be found in places where diverse voices listen to one another and contribute to a holy conversation that began long, long ago?

Let us think on these things.

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