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Suffering and the Silence of God.

Pentecost 19, Common Lectionary Year B


©2015 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Begin with choir (seated) singing MV 73 v.1.

I don’t believe there is a more horrifying tale
in all of literature than this one.
To begin with,
it is a tale of unmitigated human tragedy.
We didn’t scratch the surface, but Job includes
-the senseless death of children
-the loss of every vestige of physical
and emotional and mental health,
-loss of all the means of livelihood,
home, hope,
-undeserved, unalleviated suffering.

But while all this is ugly, disastrous,
enough to call it tragedy,
what makes it horrifying
is that all of this undeserved suffering occurs
because of a divine wager!
God and the Adversary playing dice with innocence,
just to prove a theological point!
No wonder so many despise religion!

Those of you who are of similar age to me may know the song
“Spanish Train” by Chris De Burgh,
a fable/song which is a riff on this tale of Job.

God and the Devil play poker,
and the stakes are high:
the souls of the dead.
In the song,
the Devil,
who has no qualms about cheating,
while the singer cries out in desperation to God:
“Look out, Lord, he’s going to win!
The sun is down, the night is riding in;
that train is dead on time,
many souls are on the line…
Oh Lord, don’t let him win!” [1]

So, what, you may rightly ask,
am I doing, playing with such a nuclear, toxic text?
What is to be gained from staring so bleakly
into the ugly, horrifying face of suffering?

Well, first, we need to remember
what the Bible is and is not,
and what this book, Job, is, and is not.
First the Bible is not all rules, and goodness,
but rather a complicated,
millennia-long human testimony to the quest
for God, the quest for sense and meaning
particularly in the most senseless, ugliest,
terrifying circumstances.
If we don’t read these texts,
we are impoverished in our own quest for God, healing, sense.

And with Job especially,
we also need to remind ourselves
we are not reading
fact or history, but a fable.

A horrific one, which goes to the worst places imaginable:
war, terror, senseless violence, unrequited suffering, despair.
to pose some of those un-askable questions
we’ve probably all had to utter at some point
in the depth of our depression, failure, sickness,
or horror at the capricious wickedness of a world that merely shrugs at another mass shooting, another devastating hurricane,
more civilian deaths compounding the tragedy
that is Afghanistan,
at millions, 50 million, displaced by war, disaster.

As a fable, Job, and the Adversary, and God, are cast in extremis
in order to drive the plot:
Job, is not us, he is a fabrication,
he is too good to be true.
-nobody is that much of a saint!
The Adversary is evil, capriciousness, and chaos satanically personified.
And God, in Job,
is stunning with God’s ultimate silence,
and ineffable, unreachable mystery.
And at the centre of the three is the Divine Wager:
Good and Evil locked in combat
over the fate of creation,
and the question at the heart of it all:
Who wins?
Who wins indeed??

The trouble with this book called Job,
is that it won’t answer the question.
Yet for over thirty chapters
– the ones we won’t be reading,
Job’s three comforters, and his wife, try;
they ask the unspeakably ugly question
that too many sufferers have heard:
“Maybe you did something to deserve, or cause it?”
Or they pose the equally imponderably useless question:
“Maybe God has a reason….?”

The book, Job, serves to remind us that no tragedy
can be reduced to logic, fact or explanation.
For close on three thousand years now,
we’ve been poring over the book of Job,
shovelling this massive question
of Goodness, Chaos, suffering,
into boxes never meant to contain it.

Even when God breaks silence
at the end of the book,
God speaks, not with answers
but with more questions!
Every one pointing ever deeper into the mystery of
a creation both blessed and bane,
both gentle and fierce,
leaving the question of Good and Evil intact, unanswered.
As I read this text, yet again,
and yet again, with the news in the background,
with all too normal events of a pastoral week,
of grief, of pain, illness, families in trouble,
the death of a father too young to die,
of newscasts of horrors I shrink from,
I am struck by the absence in our experience,
not of God, but of answers.

This is the sermon I’ve most dreaded to preach,
if Job won’t answer, if God won’t answer,
then neither dare I.
But I dread leaving us with only our questions, and our shared pain,
our horror at suffering,
left gaping, exposed, and raw…

Except, did you notice in the reading
the three, who, faced with Job’s suffering,
sat with him in silence for seven days
and seven nights?

Perhaps that’s the best we can come up with
as a Caring Community shaped by God’s mysterious word.
Not to rush to feeble answers,
but to sit, together
in silent vigil with the world’s suffering,
hoping that the silence itself is God,
sitting in the ashes with us….
Let’s sing… (V.2-5)


[1] Chris de Burgh, Spanish Train,  1975.

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