St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Building Bridges with Dr. Ibrahim Abu Mohammed

On Sunday September 4th Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, the Grand Mufti of Australia, will be visiting St. John’s to speak about – and answer your questions about – Islam in Australia and in the modern world. This event is free, but bookings are essential as we are limited by physical space and anticipate considerable interest. So please book online, or contact Chris (minister@stjohnswahroonga.org) if you need help to register.

The limits of chaos

Job 38:1-11
Listen!

The book of Job, as we’ve seen in the previous couple of weeks, is a lot more about asking questions than it is about giving answers. Questions of good and evil, of providence and suffering, of hope and despair, of life and death and life beyond.

Job and his friends have argued themselves in circles, until finally Job cries out his questions to God: asking – no, demanding – that God hear his complaint, and give him an answer. That God explain why it is that Job, a good, upright, honourable man – not perfect, no, but no worse than anyone and better than most – has had to suffer in this way.

Now if you remember, the actual reason given in the book for Job’s suffering is that God was trying to prove to Satan that Job would remain faithful, however much he suffered. But for some reason, God doesn’t choose to give that explanation to Job. To be honest, if I had been God, I’d have been a bit embarrassed to admit that Job’s sufferings had no meaning other than a supernatural bragging contest.

But of course, as we’ve recognised before, the book really isn’t a biographical account, but an enacted parable, a morality play, an exploration of ideas.

So it’s in that sort of light that we need to hear God’s response to Job’s demand for an explanation. And finally, here in Chapter 38 (90% of the way through the book), God finally responds with a monologue that can be boiled down, for any Game of Thrones fans out there, to “you know nothing”.

God speaks to Job – and his friends – out of the whirlwind. That image itself is quite striking; an image of power, but a power which is chaotic, destructive, uncontrollable.

It’s wild power that characterises this image of the manifestation of God; Aslan is not a tame lion.

And God’s opening words to Job and his friends are a cutting accusation of their ignorance – or rather, not so much their ignorance, but their willingness to speak as if they were wise, or profound, despite their ignorance. To “darken counsel by words without knowledge”.

And actually, that’s a pretty important distinction.

God doesn’t criticise Job and his friends for being ignorant; for there is, of course, nothing wrong with ignorance, no shame in simply not knowing.

And God doesn’t criticise them for wondering, or for asking, either. In fact, come the final chapter of the book of Job, God will praise Job for, by contrast with his friends, “speaking the truth about God”.

God’s criticism, dripping with sarcasm as it is, is not that they don’t know, but for their pretence of wisdom; their speaking and acting and arguing as if they understood all that there was to know about God, about the world, about good and evil, suffering and providence.

It’s a challenging critique, especially for those who would dare stand up and speak about God before others…

“You know nothing” is not the condemnation. It’s “you talk as if you knew everything. You make profound declarations with such confidence, as if you actually understood what you were talking about”. The ignorance of Job and his friends is understandable. It’s their arrogance that drives God to confront them.

I don’t know if you saw much of the Republican convention this last week, but I couldn’t help seeing it as the most dramatic example of arrogance despite ignorance, that one could imagine.

But it’s a characteristic, sadly, all too visible on all sides of the political spectrum; neither left nor right are immune from speaking as if they understood all our problems and knew all the answers, and if people would just listen to them, and to their simple solutions, all our problems could be solved.

Nor, let me just add, lest I just play into the cynicism about our political system that seems to beset us the moment, are either left or right lacking people of honestly, humility and good will: people who may often disagree with one another, but still manage to respect the other. And since, I’m sometimes, with some justification, accused of leaning to the left in the pulpit, let me just mention that the politician I was most inspired by this week was Barnaby Joyce. Not often I say that.

But it seems to me that this phenomenon, of leaders, or those who would lead, standing up and offering us absolute confidence in a particular view of the world is actually exactly what is going on in the book of Job. Each of Job’s friends believes that he understands precisely what the problem is, and exactly how it can be solved.

And that’s a really attractive message, especially when the world seems like a unpredictable, unsafe, ever changing place. When we are threatened – whether by too rapid cultural change, or the threat of violence, or the fear of catastrophic climate change – we reach out for solid certainties.

And this section of the story of Job seems to me to have two incredibly important things to say to us as we find ourselves in that place.
Firstly; that God declares that God is in charge. That it is God who laid the foundations, God and only God, who actually understands what is going on.

It is God who “shut in the sea with doors… and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther””. The sea, for the people of ancient Israel, represented chaos, unpredictability, destruction. In the story of creation, it was when the sea of chaotic disorder was bound that land and life appeared. In this passage of Job God declares “I draw the line for chaos. I declare ‘that’s enough. No more. No further.’”.

We need to hear that. We need to hear that in all the uncertainty of our world, we are still in the hands of the creator God. We do not need to give in to fear or despair.

And at the same time, we need to hear that God spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. Isaiah heard God speak in the still small voice the followed the destructive storm: but Job heard God’s voice out the chaos itself. If we truly wish to hear God speak, if we wish to understand our times, to find God’s way, we may need to listen to the chaos outside of our comfort zone. We may need to hear the voice outside of our bubble – whether our bubble be that of lefty environmentalists, or of social conservatives, we may need to listen outside. To the stranger. To those we disagree with. To those we fear.

We may need to put aside our arrogance, our assumption that we know how the world works, what the real dangers are, what needs to be done. To stop “darkening counsel with our words of ignorance”, and listen to the whirlwind.

For God answered Job out of the whirlwind. And spoke to him of creation. Spoke to him of the power of God. Spoke to him of the limits of chaos.
Words we probably want to hear.

Amen

Building Bridges Together

During Ramadan this year Sureka and I were delighted to be invited by Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammed, the Grand Mufti of Australia, to an Iftar dinner (the traditional breaking of the fast at sunset during Ramadan).

This invitation came as part of the “Building Bridges Together” initiative, to increase mutual understanding between Australian Moslems and Christians. I’m delighted that as another step in that process, on Sunday September 4th, Dr. Ibrahim will be coming to St. John’s. After morning tea he (and hopefully another guest) will speak briefly, and then taken any questions that anyone wants to ask.

So whether your attitude to Islam in Australia is of curiosity, concern, suspicion or confusion, come along to hear and to be heard!

Although this event is free, numbers are limited, so please book online now!

Update – I’m delighted to announce that Dr. Ibrahim will be joined by Naval Captain Mona Shindy. Capt. Shindy is the Chief of Navy’s Strategic Adviser on Islamic Cultural Affairs, Telstra Business Woman of the year 2015, and was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in the Australia Day honours list 2015.

Commissioning of Elders and Councillors

Following the congregational meeting in June, at which we elected our Elders and Church Councillors, on Sunday July 31st, as part of our morning service, we will be commissioning them to their roles. Please be there if you can, and please pray for these men and women who have offered themselves to serve the Kingdom of God in Wahroonga in this way.

Job’s Hope

Listen!
Job 14:7-15 | John 12:24
The opening chapters of Job, as we explored (in very small part) last week, are an argument; an argument about suffering, about sin and guilt, and most of all, about the goodness of God.

Not an argument about whether or not God is good: that much was assumed by all involved. No, the argument is about what God’s goodness means. Whether the goodness of God was ultimately the goodness of purity or, well, something else, something that those arguing did not even have a name for.

But it’s an argument that, as I suggested last week, is far from dead. In fact, I fear it is undergoing something of a resurgence. For the logic of purity is this: something is made pure by destroying or driving out or removing everything else; and it is kept pure by preventing anything dirty or impure from coming in.

It’s only a very small step from there to the theology of exclusion and purification: to the Church pastor who preached just a couple of weeks ago that the only tragedy in the Orlando nightclub shooting was that there weren’t more fatalities – for killing openly gay young adults becomes part of the purication of society; or to the killing by radical Islamist terrorist groups of anyone – Christian, Jew, Moslem, whatever – anyone who does not conform to their particular view of the purity of Islam.

The logic of purity is that of us and them; in and out; pure and impure. And it doesn’t seem to me, to put it mildly, to match up to the nature of God revealed in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

This is not to say that God’s goodness is not, as Eliphaz’s name had it “pure gold”. But if our understanding of the purity of God’s goodness leads us to a place so clearly contrary to the life of Jesus, then that’s got to be a pretty strong hint that we’ve misread something about God.

Today’s reading is placed much later in the argument, and revolves around questions of despair and hope.

Job has confidence in both the justice and the goodness of God, and he has begun to wonder what that justice and goodness might look like in the real world in which good people suffer and evil often prospers. And like many who know true, inexplicable suffering, he is skirting the boundary between hope and despair, grasping for anything that might enable him to hold on to hope, to avoid sliding into the despair of giving up. His friends, with their one dimensional, simplistic answers, have been no help.

But he finds a hint in the nature of God’s creation.

‘For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth,
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant

I reckon Job would have really appreciated the Australian Bush. I can just imagine him looking out over the desolation of the aftermath of a bushfire, seeing those tiny green shoots of new life, and repeating his mediation – “there is hope for a tree”.

“But mortals die, and are laid low;
humans expire, and where are they?”

There is hope for a tree, Job complains? reflects? wonders?, there is hope for a tree, even when it is destroyed by the axe, by drought, by fire; there is hope for a tree – why not for a mortal like me?

The book of Job is an old story, and reflects a relatively early stage in the development of Hebrew theology. In particular, as this reading makes very clear, there was no sense, no expectation, of resurrection, of life beyond death. In contrast to the tree “…mortals lie down and do not rise again” is Job’s summary of the lot of humanity.

If only, Job cries, if only it were not so.

O that you would hide me in Sheol
that you would conceal me until your wrath is past,
that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!

Sheol – the place of the dead – is, in early Hebrew theology, the resting place of all mortals, regardless of whether they lived righteous lives or not. From Sheol, there is no return. Reunion, perhaps, with your ancestors, but not one of joy, just of empty silence; the Hades of Greek mythology or Arula of the Babylonians.

And perhaps Job’s author knows of those pagan myths, of Odysseus travelling into Hades seeking in vain to bring back his beloved Eurydice. Perhaps it is as simple as looking at the trees. Or perhaps something else has spurred his imagination to say “if only”. If only God would kill me: but appoint a time, and then remember me.

In the depths of despair, Job cannot voice hope for his future life; his future has been torn away from him. But the hope he can voice, the hope he can imagine, in that perhaps there is something further, something beyond.

Perhaps God might remember him.

Could there be hope beyond what meets the eye?

And just as last week, the question raised by the author of the book of Job is not one for which he has an answer. A hope, but not an answer. And just as last week, it is a theme, a question, a hope, picked up in the life and ministry of Jesus.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus’ response to the despair of those who face death, who face insurmountable opposition, who face the collapse of their dreams, who face the crumbling of the things that they held dear, is not an answer. At least not in the sense of an explanation that makes sense, clearly and unambiguously resolves the philosophical issue at hand.

It’s not an answer – but it is a statement of hope and of faith.

Job looked at the way trees could regrow, and imagined that it might be possible for there to be something else beyond tragedy; another life, like for like.

But the image Jesus offers is far more extravagant even than that. Forget regrowing as you were before; the seed that dies does not just produce a single grain. It reproduces manyfold.

The best Job could hope for was that he might get back a life like the one he had before. But in the sequel that is the New Testament, and the invitation that is the Kingdom of God, the hope is not that of restoration, but of multiplication.

That is the hope we celebrate today, as we remember, in this shared meal of thanksgiving, the one who died and was not forgotten, who went before us, and made real this future that Job could only begin to imagine.

Amen.

Sydney Welsh Choir

Put the date in your diary! On Sunday October 30th, the Sydney Welsh Choir will be returning to St. John’s for a concert of popular songs, Welsh songs and hymns, sacred music & items from opera and stage musicals.

All funds raised will be going to support three wonderful schools – St Lucy’s and St Edmund’s here in Wahroonga, and The School of St Jude in Tanzania.

Many thanks to Wahroonga Rotary for organising this wonderful event!

Online bookings now available

Introducing Job

Listen!
Job 3:1-10, 4:1-9
Because the narrative lectionary, that we’ve been following this year, was developed in the northern hemisphere, we’re currently in the sort of ‘summer holiday’ season in which, instead of following the broad sweep of the Old Testament (as we will in our spring) or a gospel (as we did in our autumn), we get a number of short themed series, often exploring parts of the Bible that aren’t found in the more traditional revised common lectionary. So in the past couple of months we’ve read chunks from Paul’s letters to the Church in Corinth; and this week, we begin a series of five weeks looking at the book of Job. A book which manages to be, at the same time, both well known, and rarely read – and perhaps even more rarely preached upon.

And honestly, I really get that. Partly because the themes in the book are quite difficult, and the answers offered are incomplete and often unsatisfying, but mostly because the book is primarily made up of a lot of long and complicated speeches. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard a sermon preached on a passage from Job, and certainly never heard a series taking on the book as a whole.

But lest anyone suggest that I’m not up for a challenge, here we are. And we will see what we find.

The book begins, the opening two chapters that come before what we’ve read today, with the collapse of Job’s life. He was a wealthy man, married with children, houses and flocks of livestock; and an upright man; respected, honourable, pillar of society. And, above all, a righteous man – living according to the Torah, the way of God.

Until one day, God and Satan meet, and Satan claims that Job is only righteous because he’s been blessed with so much. “Let me take it all away, and you’ll see, he’ll show his true colours”.

And of course God, always up for a social science experiment with real people as the guinea pigs, says “sure, go for it. We’ll see”.

Which really ought to give us our first hint of something really, really important about the book of Job, and that is this: it’s not a true story. It’s not meant to be. Everything about the way the book is written points towards it as an enacted parable, an ancient forerunner of the medieval morality plays, if you like. It’s “As long ago as for ever, as far away as Selidor”, or “Long ago in a galaxy far far away”, or just “Once upon a time”.

Which is just as well, because I for one am not totally sold on the image of God allowing a man’s sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, to be slaughtered, and the man himself beset with sores and sickness, just to try to win an argument with an adversary (which, I note in passing, is what “Satan” means – it’s probably not intended as a proper name, just “An adversary”).

It’s not here to tell us about a particular man named Job. It’s a playing out of ideas, and in particular, ideas about suffering, hardship, and the nature of evil.

In a culture in which the dominant narrative was “live a good righteous life and God will prosper you; but live a sinful life and you will suffer for it”, the book of Job stands out as a challenge; a “really? is it as simple as that?”

The book of Job is an exploration, then, of the problem of evil – “why do bad things happen to good people”. But in fact, it’s more subtle – and more useful than that. Because at its heart, at least, the first half of the book, is actually an exploration of “stupid things that people say when other people are suffering”.

At the end of chapter two we read that Job has three remaining friends. And it’s worth noticing (since we’re going to be quite critical of them) that their first response is everything you might hope. When they hear of his troubles, the three leave their homes, and travel to console and comfort Job. And on arrival, they say nothing – they sit with him for seven days and seven nights in silence. They wait for Job to speak.

And when he does finally speak, Job’s words are of despair. He’s lost all his possessions, and all his family, except for his wife, but even she has just told him that he would be better off dead. He, in response, refuses her invitation to curse God and be struck down; but, in the opening words we heard read today, he curses instead the day of his birth; wishing that he had never been born.

And at this invitation, Eliphaz the Temanite finally speaks.

Now names are often important in the Hebrew scriptures, they aren’t just there to make the passages harder to read, so who is Eliphaz the Temanite? Eliphaz roughly translates as “God is pure gold”; a devout name, and one which places emphasis on the purity of God. And the other thing to notice is that he is a Temanite – a descendant of Abraham and Isaac, but through the line of Esau, not of Jacob. An Arab, in our modern view, not an Israeli. A devout man, but a foreigner. This is not, we are being told even by his name, the view of Israel…

So Eliphaz brings his wisdom. “Job,” he begins, “you have helped so many people in their suffering with your support and your wisdom, but now you are suffering and it seems your patience and wisdom have deserted you.”

“Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? … But those who plough iniquity and sow trouble reap the same”

Here is the heart of Eliphaz’s response. In the light of God’s purity and justice, he will declare with confidence that those who are innocent do not perish, but those who sow trouble will reap it.

Search your heart, he will continue, seek deep within yourself, within your concience. For you are suffering, and in the justice of God that must mean that you are in the wrong.
Over the coming chapters Job and Eliphaz will debate this interpretation of events back and forth; with another of the friends, Bildad joining in on Eliphaz’s side “God will not reject a blameless person, nor take the hand of evildoers”.

And then, in chapter 9, Job will give his – and the Hebrew – final compelling argument.

“You are right: but how can any mortal be just before God?”

The argument of Eliphaz and Bildad was simple: if you are in good standing with God, you will prosper; if you are not, you will suffer – for this is surely what it means that God is just.

And Job’s response is simple and unanswerable: “How can anyone be in good standing with God? If what you say is true – if it is the whole truth – then unremmitting suffering ought to be the lot of every mortal ever born.”

That’s not the case. So there has to be more to God’s justice than that.

This simplistic sense of justice, brought by Eliphaz the Temanite, is appealing for it’s simplicity; and sadly, it is still, all too often, used as a weapon in the popular game of victim blaming. We wouldn’t, as a rule, say it to the face of a friend; but we still hear too many voices describing natural disasters as God’s judgement on society, AIDS as judgement on homosexuals. Fringe voices, but there are more mainstream versions of the same logic: blaming victims of domestic violence for provoking their attacker; blaming victims of rape for their ‘immoral’ choice of clothing; blaming the poor for their situation; blaming refugees fleeing from wars that were not of their making.

But perhaps more common, closer to home, and ultimately more destructuve, is the way we say it to ourselves.

Perhaps, when troubles come, we ask “what did I do to deserve this?”

Or perhaps, worst of all, is the other side of the coin; when we look at all the good things that we enjoy in our lives and believe that we prosper because we are in good standing with God.

The refrain of the opening chapters of Job is simply this “surely it’s not that simple?”. Job’s question is not answered in the book of Job; it is left as a challenge to simplistic models of morality and providence.

But that unanswered question “how can any mortal be just before God?” will be picked up powerfully in the New Testament, and especially in the book of Romans – “There is no difference. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by God’s grace given as a gift.”.

Rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, black or white, immigrant or native, pious or ungodly, religious or secular. “There is no difference. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by God’s grace given as a gift.”

I think Job would have appreciated the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I wonder if we appreciate just how astonishing it really is?

Amen