A Sermon preached at the Mint Methodist Church,
Exeter, by the Minister,
Hymns: “Living God, your word has called us” (NHAWS
“O Love that wilt not let me go” (HAP 685)
“Thou hidden source of calm repose (HAP 275)
“Bread is blessed and broken”
(NHAWS 33, Iona)
“Love Divine” (HAP 267)
gives and the Lord takes away.
May the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21)
Charles Carl Roberts enters an
and driven by his own inner demons kills five young girls.
How do you make sense of that?
How and why does an almighty loving God allow such things to happen??
And when we have reflected on the five children in the
let us then also remember that every day of every year
literally thousands of children die in the developing world,
unnoticed by the media, yet just as much loved and mourned by the families –
the victims not of a gunman but of
poverty, malnutrition, AIDS and water borne disease.
How do we make sense of that?
Our NT Gospel today says that Jesus
bids the little children come to him to be blessed.
What sort of blessing does God offer the children of our world?
The question of suffering is a key question for every
and it is the question the book of Job tackles head on.
When Job was written
(we are not sure when and where – maybe 500 BCE in Jerusalem,
but reflecting a much older story from the oral tradition)
the received wisdom was that if you suffered
you must have done something wrong,
and you were getting your just deserts.
It is an approach to suffering still deep in our communal
How often have we heard someone at a grave side or a hospital bedside cry out
“What did we do to deserve this?”
The Book of Job begins with the assumption
that that we do and what happens to us are linked in a just and fair way:
Job is a good and pious man. Job is rich and happy. QED.
But then this scenario is challenged
Huge calamities are heaped on Job –
His wealth is destroyed, his children are killed, he is covered in boils.
That is chapter 1. The remaining 41 chapters try to deal with the issue.
Job’s plight and his story have universal significance.
In the words of Liberation Theologian
“Job’s sufferings take concrete form in the suffering of the poor of the world”
Or moving across the globe,
several commentators on 9/11 have referred to Job -
like the USA pre 9/11, Job thought that he was safe and secure –
but suddenly he finds that his defences are breached.
How should he respond?
So how does the Book of Job deal with the problem of suffering?
Well Job is blessed (or perhaps cursed)
with a trio of friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar,
the actual original “Job’s comforters” –
who have become a byword for the sort of comfort you could do without.
Frankly if I was Job, I’d have seen my friends
as more a part of the problem than the solution –
But they do open up the issues.
They tell Job that among other things he must have done
for all this to have happened to him. Maybe the suffering is all for the good.
Maybe God is trying to tell him something…..
And so on….
So – How do we respond to suffering – our own or that of others???
All the word religions have
struggled with this for 5000 years,
so we are not going to get the definitive answer in the next 5 or 10 minutes.
But here are a few pointers from the Gospel.
1. As a human race, we bring much suffering on ourselves and others
by our communal and individual selfishness and sin.
There are many links between sin and suffering.
You don’t need a headline about mass murder to know that.
manifestly, the suffering of our world
is not dished out
on the basis of good or bad people have been.
My daughter always used to
grumble to me when she was little –
“Dad. It isn’t fair” – to which there were many answers according to context,
but sometimes the answer had to be “I know – but life just isn’t fair”.
There is no huge Home Office computer in the sky
logging and encrypting our vices and virtues onto our celestial ID card
so that when a disaster arrives we receive appropriate protection or otherwise.
Life just isn’t like that.
3. Suffering can be creative, redemptive and
One link between holiness and suffering
is not that holy people don’t suffer,
but that holy people learn to offer their suffering to God to be used by him.
This is the witness of so many saints –
we’ve just sung a hymn by George Mattheson
(Alan was telling me about visiting his Church in Scotland) -
Mattheson lost his sight and yet still was able to sing
of seeing the dawn and tracing the rainbow
There are parts of Amish theology that most of
would have great difficulty with –
now is I guess not the time for that –
but there are also parts of their faith
which have shone like a beacon through this week.
Miller is the grandfather of Mary Liz and Lena Miller, ages 8 and 7.
They are two of the Amish schoolgirls murdered by Charles Carl Roberts.
Enos Miller was asked by reporters:
'Is there anger toward the gunman's family?"
"No," he said.
"Have you forgiven?" he was asked.
"In my heart, yes."
"How is that possible?"
"Through God's help."
As the reporter commented
in his piece –
“Here was this monster who committed this horrible act of barbarity.
And amid all the grief and the tears,
shining like a rainbow over unspeakable pain,
was this forgiveness….”
George Mattheson’s rainbow again.
There is a response to suffering which is to do with
identifying with Christ on the cross,
& using our suffering as a force for love which
like Noah’s rainbow cuts through the storm clouds of grief.
Yesterday was Desmond Tutu’s
(it was Joyce’s too and John’s today – but I promised not to mention that)
and I think of the amazing witness in post apartheid SA
through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission –
Transforming the suffering of his people into the work of love and peace….
And so we are called to use our suffering on behalf of
So that (in Brian Duckworth’s words)
we may help people hear as music what others only perceive as pain.
still leaves questions unanswered.
What answer do we have for the embittered family of a murdered child –
or the hardened and despairing survivor of the Holocaust?
Job, Eliphaz Bildad and Zophar argue the issue
for 36 chapters
but still Job still hasn’t got a final answer –
Then finally in ch38 God speaks from the whirlwind.
Some have said it is no answer at all –
God simply reminds Job that he God created the world,
Job, where were you when I
laid the earth’s foundations?
Can you control the beasts of the deep?
Do you think you can really talk to me about this?
Just trust me.
Which might seem as a real let down after 38 chapters.
But actually it says something very important.
It is the ultimate answer to the sorrowing soul
who cannot see rhyme or reason in the heartache or suffering of a loved one –
who can neither accept or offer back the suffering,
and can see nothing but a brick wall of bitterness and grief –
“Trust me” says God – I made this world, you didn’t,
and I will see you are OK
For I am the Lord of Earth and Heaven –
I am loving
and almighty –
not in the simplistic sense of stopping all suffering at source
(and incidentally destroying all possibility of human freedom in the process) –
but in the sense of so ordering the Universe
that ultimately there is no evil out of which good cannot come.
And you just have to trust me
that what is unfinished business by the grave side
is completed in heaven above.
When we stand by a grave we know that innocent or guilty,
holy or godless,
we all ultimately suffer death.
And if that were the end, then well might we rail at God with Job – this is not fair.
And “we of all people are most to be pitied”.
But hear God’s Word –
“Here is eternal life –
And whether you are an innocent child or a mass murderer
I am almighty – and I choose to use that might for love and grace -
and so, out of your earthly existence, whatever it may have been,
I will bring life and life eternal.”
So with Job
may we say with confidence –
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away –
may the name of the Lord be praised”